Sync or swim

John Brennan

Part 36 of our serial

John Brennan |

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Before heading off to the kitchen to make more tea, Mum introduced their visitor with a smile her son couldn't quite fathom. "Ethan, this is Mr Chan. This is the man who has been paying for your scholarship all these years."

Ethan nodded a greeting, even though Chan was already terrifyingly familiar to him. Ethan's grandfather, unwilling to give in to this man's threats and coercion, had used shamefacebook's profits to thwart Chan's property development project.

When Chan then discovered he had been unwittingly sponsoring Ethan through school, he immediately ended his payments. Fortunately, Ethan's mother knew nothing of this.

"What are you doing here?" the panic-stricken student hissed once they were alone, hoping against hope that there was some innocent explanation.

"Just having a little chat about you, Ethan," Chan replied. "Your mother seems very concerned that you focus only on your studies. But there's something that's been puzzling me ... isn't it a little strange therefore that she knows nothing of your huge success with shamefacebook?"

"Please," Ethan pleaded. "Please, don't say anything. She's not been well and ...

Chan put up his hands in mock sympathy. "It's OK, it's OK. I can imagine the possible tragic consequences of her finding out the truth." He smiled. "So why don't we see if we can't find a way to avoid that unhappy eventuality."

It was with a leaden heart that Ethan went to see his grandad at his shop that evening. He found him busy sorting his stocks of paper offerings.

But before Ethan could even reluctantly broach the purpose of his own visit, the elderly man started in on his own news. "You know what that journalist wanted to talk to me about, Sui-man?"

"Uh-huh," the teenager responded apprehensively. In truth, he'd forgotten the "journalist". But surely he was somehow linked to Chan and his visit to their home?

"I don't know about you, but I was worried he'd found out about your website," Grandad confided.

"Really?" Ethan answered disingenuously.

"But the thing is, he's actually writing a series of articles about traditional local shops, and ... he wants to write about mine."

A wave of relief flooded through Ethan.

"He says, this ..." Grandad continued, looking proudly about him, "... is a piece of living history." "What?" Sam demanded in horror, when Ethan arrived at his and Jenny's house that evening.

"Yep," Ethan replied ashen-faced. "If Grandad doesn't agree to sell his shop to him by next Wednesday, Chan says he's going to tell Mum about shamefacebook."

"What did your grandad say when you told him," Sam asked.

Ethan slumped down into a chair. "I couldn't tell him. If you'd seen his face when he found out his shop was going to be in the papers ..."

As Ethan shook his head in dismay, Jenny looked on, outraged.

"Come on Ethan, Chan's probably bluffing," Sam said, striving to be optimistic. "Especially now he's seen how ill your mum still is."

Jenny looked at her brother in disbelief. "Remember the intimidation campaign he ran to get the other residents out of the building? He didn't care whether they were old or sick." She thought for a moment. "But ... we could flood the internet with loads and loads of stories claiming shamefacebook is owned by all sorts of different people. Then the world would laugh off the possibility it could really be little old Ethan and his chums."

Ethan looked at her for a moment, grateful for her and Sam's efforts. "The thing is, if Mum asked me directly then ... I couldn't lie."

Ethan was no nearer to a solution to his dilemma by the time Tuesday, and his date with Maya, came around. Because they'd been so close, the fact they hadn't really spoken since she'd discovered her family were moving back to Britain, had been agonising for Ethan. But he knew it was unfair to subject her to yet more of his angst. He texted to say he couldn't meet up.

With his mother watching TV, Ethan was still brooding when there was a knock on the door. To his amazement, it was Maya.

"What do you mean, 'I can't meet up'," she demanded, holding up her phone.

Maya had been so distraught at the thought of leaving Hong Kong and Ethan behind, that for weeks she'd hidden herself, and her vulnerability, away. But faced with this latest snub, her old belligerent self had resurfaced.

"There's a lot going on in my life right now," he explained, stepping out and pulling the door closed behind him.

"Ethan, you've always had a 'lot going on' in your life. But it was your idea to meet up."

He looked at her in astonishment. "Mine? You were the one who wanted to see me."

"What do you mean, I wanted ..."

The realisation of who had really instigated their meeting began to dawn on them.

"Sam!" Ethan exclaimed, as Maya nodded.

"So you didn't want to see me?" she asked.

"Of course I did. Do."

And then, as they fell into each other's arms and hugged, Ethan explained how Chan's blackmail threat gave him the choice between breaking his Grandad's heart or potentially giving his mother another heart attack.

"OK," she said, easing away from him. "Two things. First, you can't go on taking the weight of the world on your shoulders. And secondly, never, ever, trust a blackmailer."

Ethan looked at her, sadness in his eyes. The fact she was beautiful was one thing. But what he was really going to miss when she left Hong Kong was the selfish truth that he was a braver, better person when she was around.

When Ethan returned, Grandad was still hard at work ensuring his shop would look its best for the journalist's visit. Ethan's revelation of Chan's blackmail threat, however, met with an unexpected response.

"Why didn't you say?" his grandad demanded. "Yes, I am proud of my shop. But for a little while I've had the chance to own the place I worked in for so many years. That's enough. Family comes before anything, and my neighbour, Mr Wong, will understand. Chan can have this place and your mother need never find out the truth."

Ethan shook his head. "You know we can't trust Chan not to go back on his deal. We have to tell her."

Despite his certainty that this was the right course of action, it was with a terrible sense of dread that Ethan turned the key in the door.

He and Grandad entered to find Mum sitting in her favourite armchair.

"There's something we've been meaning to tell you," Ethan began.

She looked at her son and her father with an unwavering gaze, which they were unwilling to meet.

"Really?" she inquired. "Because I've been waiting for this moment."

To be continued next week