PART TWO: THE BREAK IN THE CHAIN

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(Author's note: please read my content note regarding this part. it's the "A NOTE ABOUT THIS STORY" section posted above part one.)

Most of Stephen’s life at Eton was spent running, often physically. The days started with a 7:30 breakfast, then chapel, then a sequence of divs—the Eton way of saying classes—then lunch, then sport, then more divs, then study. Very little time was provided to get from place to place, and the school sprawled for two miles, so he ran. Everyone ran. It was like a constant relay. You left your books between railings in town, in pigeonholes, on steps, and as you raced past, you picked up one set and dropped another. The entire town was littered with stacks of them. Maths to Latin to German to Divinity to Geography to French to History…

If you were late (and you couldn’t help but be late sometimes), there was always a price to pay. The beaks always had something ready to go. Maybe a hundred lines of Milton to copy. Maybe a problem set or a translation. There was a brutal heartbeat about the place, a constant sense of movement and pressure. There was a reason the exams were called Trials.

One Thursday in March, Stephen was moving swiftly between Latin and Geography divs when a prefect caught up with him and told him to go back to his house, immediately. He’d never been called back to his house before, and such a callback never meant anything good. It meant you’d done something seriously wrong, or something seriously wrong had happened somewhere in the world outside and the news would be dropped on you from a great height. Stephen had done nothing seriously wrong that he could think of, so something had to have happened. He went through every possibility he could think of as he ran.

The news could never have been predicted, and yet, somewhere in his mind he already knew it had to do with her. The universe would never be so kind as to spare her, the only one of them that was worth anything.

The Master was kind enough. Stephen was taken into the family living room and sat on the floral sofa, and the news was said gently, but with an unequivocal tone—“your sister . . . overdose, it seems . . . nothing could be done . . .”

Overdose, it seems.

For the first minute, those words echoed in his head. What killed Gina? Overdose, it seems. It seems that way, as if it might have been something else, like malaria or bad vapours or dragons, but it was an overdose, it seems. There was a roaring in his ears that obliterated all other noise. He spoke to his parents briefly on the phone, right there, in the sitting room. His mother sounded to be crying. His father was not. If anything, he sounded angry. Stephen was given the option of going home for a bit, which he decided not to take. There was no point in going home now. After that, he was permitted to return to his room or speak to someone at the San. He went outside instead and walked up and down the High Street. He had no thoughts—nothing he could remember later. His mind was a void. All he could do was walk. One of the prefects came to find him and bring him back.

Life continued, which was strange. Aside from the funeral, which took a half-day, Stephen didn’t leave Eton. His parents must have been relieved, as this gave them the opportunity to work out their grief at a resort in Switzerland. Other people generally took it easy on him and the beaks were kind enough. Death, after all, was not a taboo subject at Eton—as long as it didn’t get too personal. Every Etonian was constantly reminded that most people who had attended the school were, in fact, dead. When your school is almost six hundred years old, this is inevitable. The dead were all over the place—in statues and in the hundreds of portraits that bore down their gazes from every wall. Their names were etched into every possible surface.

So for the first few weeks, there were politesses. The beaks tended to let it slip if he was a minute or two late. The Master and the Dame looked in on him, and he was always encouraged to go the counsellor, and he always said he would think about it. One night he accidentally heard the Master say “how well Dene was getting on, after, you know, that terrible business with his sister. Terrible for the family, but there’s always one, isn’t there? Luckily they have him”.

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