Sync or swim

Sync or swim

Part 2

June 29, 2012
June 22, 2012
June 15, 2012
June 08, 2012
June 01, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 18, 2012
May 11, 2012
May 04, 2012

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Sync or swim_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen/SCMP
A hazy sun was rising as Sophie thanked, then closed the door on, yet another neighbour.

In the kitchen, her grandad and her brother, Ethan Tai Sui-man, sat glassy-eyed at the chipped formica table. Sophie held up the dish she'd just been given. "More food."

News travelled fast on the Ki Lung Public Housing Estate. Since they'd returned, exhausted, from the hospital two hours earlier, there had been a steady stream of callers bringing food or offers of help.

Grandad turned to Sophie. "Have you packed yet?"

"How can I go with Mum in intensive care?" she snapped.

"Getting on that plane and going to university is the only thing you can do to help."

"And who's going to support the family then?"

"I've got savings. And my shop can stay open a little longer."

While grandad would do anything for them, Ethan knew that financially that was not very much. "Gung gung ..."

However, he hadn't finished. "And if that's not enough, I'll sell the shop. That developer has been trying to get us all out for ages."

"But ..." Sophie began, before Ethan interrupted to protect the elderly man's pride.

"Come on, gung gung's right, you need to get ready."

"And it's time you went to school," grandad told him. "We'll all visit the hospital this afternoon on the way to the airport."

Ten minutes later, he stepped out of the lift to be greeted by an unwelcome voice. "Oih, Ethan!"

From the age of 11, Ethan had lived in a no-man's land. While he didn't fit in easily among the rich kids at St Jude's International School, to the gang on his estate he'd become an outsider.

He was used to being heckled, or worse, when in his uniform on the way home from school, but his tormentors were usually still in bed at this hour.

Without running he tried to pick up speed. However, the teenagers, in their black T-shirts and with their streaked hair, easily cut him off.

Their leader, Tam Wai-hung, thrust his hand into Ethan's chest, bringing him to a halt.

He turned to his gang. "Bad news - Ethan's mum's in hospital."

As his cronies aah-ed in mock sympathy, Ethan glared and tried, unsuccessfully, to push his way past.

"But good news - his sister's going away to study ... to be a doctor."

The gang ooh-ed on cue, nodding to each other, "impressed".

Today, Ethan wasn't scared, or even that angry. Wai-hung and co were just a speed bump to get over. "What do you want?" he asked.

"What do we want? We want to help. Because we're a little concerned, Ethan. About how you're going to get by, you know, financially."

"Well, I know I don't ever want to get by your way."

Wai-hung ignored this. "Whereas, those kids at your school have plenty of money. And they have to be looking for fun ways to spend it."

"Most of them have plenty of common sense, too."

"You think?" Wai-hung shrugged. "What I'm talking about won't take much work - and there'd be plenty of cash left for you."

"There's nothing to spend cash on in jail."

"You have to be stupid to end up in jail."

"And you're smart?"

Anger flared in Wai-hung's eyes for an instant, then he smiled and took his hand off Ethan's chest. "Think about it ..."

Around the lockers in St Jude's, a sea of students were busy checking their hair and grabbing books.

Amid the maelstrom, Maya stood, stunned. "A heart attack?"

Grim-faced, Sam nodded. "Yep. I only spoke to him for a minute but it sounds like she's in a bad way."

"And how's Ethan?"

"You, know..." Sam shrugged. "Oh, and he asked me to tell you, sorry, he won't be able to make it tomorrow night."

"He said 'sorry'?" Maya shook her head, incredulous.

Sitting at Mum's bedside, as she lay unconscious, attached to her monitors, drips and pumps, Ethan read the text he'd just received from Maya and forced a smile. He couldn't believe that yesterday he'd been so worried about asking her out on a date, or that he could get so caught up in the coding for his website.

Although he'd told his grandad he was going to school, once out of the flat he'd known he just had to spend some time alone with Mum. Even though his dad had died in a building site accident, Ethan had never thought of her as anything less than indestructible. And she had encouraged this view, always dismissing grandad's worries about the hours she was working in her various cleaning jobs.

But, however long she worked, she was never too tired to nag Ethan to do his homework. How he'd love to hear her nagging him now.

Ethan got up, having come to a decision. When she started to recover - and he refused to accept she wouldn't - she wasn't going to take up that same burden again.

He bent over, kissed her gently on the forehead and left.

That evening, on the bus to the airport, Sophie took her worried grandad's hand. Ethan hadn't turned up at the hospital, nor had he met them back at the flat.

"I'm sure Sui-man will be waiting at the check-in," she reassured him.

But, at that moment, Ethan was slumped, dripping with sweat, at the dai pai dong near their estate. After leaving the hospital, he'd visited every shop and office between Mong Kok and home, looking for a business that was willing to break the law and employ him. Unsurprisingly, he'd had no joy.

As he sipped his lai cha, it all seemed hopeless - how could he find a way of earning money that his grandad and, above all, his Mum, never found out about? But he had to.

At passport control, it was grandad's turn to reassure Sophie. "Don't worry, your mother is going to be ok."

She watched him scanning the crowds. "And so is Ethan."

Grandad nodded, then took out his mobile. "But just let me try him one last time."

However, in Ethan's pocket, the cracked screen on his ancient phone resolutely refused to come to life, its battery out of juice.

As he drained the last of his tea and prepared to haul himself to his feet, a shadow loomed over him.

"So?" It was Wai-hung. "Or are you going to collect cardboard to earn your money?"

Ethan looked up at his nemesis, too weary to argue.

When grandad got home, Ethan wasn't there. He waited up until after midnight and then went to bed. But he couldn't sleep. Ethan was never out this late.

It was almost four when grandad heard the door open.

In the dark of the kitchen, and unseen, Ethan stripped off his blood-stained clothes and shoved them into the washing machine.

To be continued next week

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