Page 6 of The Protege

Mr. Laurent finds what he was looking for, his cigarettes, and sits down heavily at the kitchen table. There are the remains of someone’s breakfast. Isabeau’s presumably. Toast crusts and marmite. There’s a chair in front of the toaster, so that a child might reach up onto the high counter.

I examine Mr. Laurent in the light from the window. He’s not much older than I am but his face has been lined with pain. Or at least I think it’s pain. He starts to cough, and what begins harmlessly enough turns into his thin frame being wracked with wheezing and spluttering.

Going to the cupboard I find a clean mug and fill it with water. As I do my eyes fall on a half-open drawer and I see a battered spoon with scorch marks on the underside. A couple of hypodermics. A tourniquet made from a leather handbag strap. A small plastic bag partly filled with a white substance. It takes me a moment to understand what I’m looking at.

Heroin. In the same house as a child. As Isabeau.

Mr. Laurent has stopped coughing and has noticed what I’m staring at. He looks at me with pathetic neediness in his eyes. “I’m in pain. They stopped my meds.”

My empathy is at war with my revulsion. The chronic pain of spinal damage must be a terrible thing. He was probably prescribed painkillers at first but then they were taken away, leaving him with an addiction.

“Don’t call the cops. I’ll go to jail.”

Anger rises in my chest. Not I’ll lose Isabeau but I’ll go to jail. He’ll be cut off from his supply. He should be thinking how this is affecting her, not himself.

I’ve never been a patient man. I’ve never liked waiting for what I want, or for what I think is right. I start speaking in a low voice without even knowing what I intend to say. “I’m not interested in you or what you do. I’m here about Isabeau. She displays a talent for playing the cello that is rare for one so young. Rare for anyone. She needs proper training.” I look around at the squalor, remember her averted eyes when she asked about her father. I meant to offer to pay for her tutelage but that’s not going to be enough. If she stays here I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to her.

“She needs to get out of this place. I’m leaving, and I’m taking Isabeau with me.”

I have no right to do any such thing. Removing her from her father’s care is not only immoral, it’s illegal, but when I think of the care she’s not getting and the way she held her cello tightly as if someone might take it from her I know I can’t leave her here. She’s so slight, so defenseless. I feel a surge of protectiveness for the girl. How long until she gets hurt by someone? How long until he sells her cello for drug money? When you love music more than anything else in the world losing your instrument is not the same as losing a possession. It’s like having part of your soul ripped away.

Mr. Laurent is so blindsided by my words that his cigarette is burning away to ash, unsmoked. “No you’re fucking not.”

“Yes, I am. I can give her what she needs.”

“You’re a fucking pervert.”

“If I was a pervert I wouldn’t have brought her back here. I would have just taken her. She was out there alone, unprotected, and I brought her home.” I look at the needles in the drawer and my lip curls. “To this. But I’m not going to leave her here. She’s coming to live with me and I’m going to give her the training she needs to become one of the best cellists in the world.”

Mr. Laurent is still looking at me as if he doesn’t understand what I’m doing here or what I’m saying, but cellist seems to stir something in him. “Her mum was good. Said Isabeau was good and all.”

“She’s more than good. She’s a natural, and perhaps she’ll even be famous one day. But more important than being famous, she’s going to be happy and safe, two things she isn’t while she lives here.”

We watch each other in silence, my gaze angry and his filled with guilt and suspicion. I pull out a chair and sit down.

“This is how it’s going to work, Mr. Laurent. I think you’ll find you want to agree to my terms.”

Chapter Four

Isabeau

Then

I half-listen to Laszlo talking to Dad downstairs. I can’t hear the words, only the rise and fall of their voices. Mostly it’s Laszlo talking.

He wants to teach me to play the cello. No one’s taught me since Mum died a year ago in the car accident. Since then no one’s even wanted to listen to me play. Dad doesn’t like music in the house so I don’t play inside very often. When I do I make sure it’s after he’s taken the medicine for his back. It makes him so sleepy that he doesn’t hear the notes.

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