Page 11 of The Protege

I know. The Swan.

I didn’t know what it was called when Laszlo put on a recording of The Carnival of the Animals when I first came to live with him. I listened to all the unfamiliar tracks, liking Royal March of the Lion and Fossils the best, but then The Swan started and I sat bolt upright, exclaiming, “My mother used to play this. My mother was going to teach me this but then…” And I broke off before I could say it, but Laszlo knew. She was going to teach me this but then she died. He’s since taught me to play the piece, accompanying me on the piano and now I know it by heart. We play it together sometimes just because.

I put the bow to the strings and begin, the notes plaintive and slow like the composer asks for on the sheet music. Normally when I play this piece I imagine a beautiful white swan gliding on a lake, but this time I see someone with a cello.

Halfway through a huge well of emotion opens up inside me and I burst into tears, my bow arm dropping to my side.

Laszlo kneels down before me. “Isabeau, what’s wrong?

“I can see my mother,” I manage in a thick whisper, tears dropping into my lap.

Laszlo gets up and sits beside me on the bed, hugging me to him, not saying anything. I close my eyes and lean into him, holding onto the memory of my mother playing this piece on this cello. There are so many feelings in music and I’m starting to notice them more and more. A piece isn’t just pretty or interesting or a challenge anymore. I can feel anger in the music, or happiness, or love. The Swan has so much love in it, but so much loss, too. It feels like my mother but she’s very far away where I can’t reach her.

When the tears stop I wipe my face and reach for my bow, determined to play the whole thing, but Laszlo touches my arm.

“Do you want to see your father?”

I twist the bow in my hands, not looking at him. He asks me this about twice every year, usually around my birthday and then again at Christmas. I feel so conflicted because when I remember my father I remember two men. How he was before my mother died and he had the accident, and how he was after. The man he was after frightened me and I don’t think I want to see that man. Last year Laszlo explained to me why he was different. That he was in a lot of pain that would never go away and he was using very strong medicine to help with it. When I asked him why dad’s medicine would be brought round to the house by people that scared me he looked furious for a moment and then took a deep breath and told me that sometimes people prescribe themselves medicine when they feel like they can’t cope.

“Not yet, Laszlo. Thank you.”

“All right, sweetheart. Happy birthday.”

He listens to me play for a minute and then heads for the stairs, but before he disappears he stops in the doorway and says, “Oh, I forgot—your real birthday present is in the music room.”

My real present? I follow him out of the room and see that there’s a large box sitting on the piano done up in ribbon the same color as the ribbon that was tied around my cello. When he gets it down and passes it to me I see the name Lou Lou on the box in gold embossing. Lou Lou is a boutique in town that sells very fancy dresses. We walk past it on the way to the Mayhew and I always look and see what’s in the front window. I open the box and hunt through the tissue paper to find a pale pink satin dress. The neckline and straps have ruffles and the skirt is very long and very full. I hold it up against myself, marveling at how pretty it is.

Laszlo watches me thoughtfully. “The shop assistant said that the dusky pink color would go with your hair. I wasn’t sure at first, a redhead in a pink dress. But I think she was right. It’s a lovely color for you.”

I stroke the heavy pink satin, loving how it spills like water over my hands but feeling perplexed at the same time. “It’s so beautiful, thank you. But…”

He raises his eyebrows. “But what?”

“But where am I going to wear it? I only go to school and cello lessons.”

Laszlo strokes a thumb and forefinger over his chin. “Hmm. That is a good question. It’s such a lovely dress that a lot of people should see you in it, and on a special occasion. A very special occasion. Maybe…your professional debut?”