Page 74 of The Protege

I stand dry-eyed outside the church shaking hands with the dozen or so mourners who enter for the service. They look like people from Dad’s neighborhood. I try not to judge when I see track marks on some of their arms. I don’t know their stories. Maybe they were in pain like Dad was.

I’ve been in freefall ever since I left Bangkok. I can’t seem to stop falling and I don’t think I want to. Because it’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the landing.

I’m about to go inside when I see a car draw up, and Laszlo gets out. He’s wearing a somber black suit and tie and his hair is neatly combed back. I haven’t spoken to him since I left Bangkok. I know he arrived back in London not long after my father passed away, and he’s called me dozens of times but I didn’t have the strength to pick up. Finally I texted him to let him know what had happened, but of course he knew already. He was Dad’s emergency contact, not me.

As he walks up the path of the church toward me, his hazel eyes on my face, I finally stop falling. He catches me in his arms as I hit the ground at terminal velocity and I sob, my face buried against his chest. “I forgot that he called me Issy.”

Laszlo holds me tightly and strokes my hair. “It’s all right, sweetheart. I’ve got you.”

But it’s not all right. I shake my head and pull away from him. “I’ve done a bad thing, and I think I might regret it for the rest of my life. I could have fixed it so easily and now it’s too late.”

Laszlo looks at me, his hands on my shoulders, not understanding what I mean. It’s all I’ve been able to think about since Dad died. What if I’d tried harder to know my father? What if I’d reached out to him? What if we’d sat down and talked about my mother, even once? What if he’d tried, too?

I can see Laszlo desperately wants to take this pain away but he can’t. He glances to the front of the church and I think the service is about to start. “I know you want to play but you don’t have to. I’ll tell the priest you’re not feeling up to it.”

He moves to go inside but I stop him. “No. I want to.” I push my hands through my hair and wipe my face. I can do this one thing.

We go in and sit down on a pew, and I take gulping breaths, trying to compose myself. I can get through the next hour and later I can fall apart. Hayley’s promised to be at home waiting for me. I’ve been staying with her and she’s helped with everything. The best thing she’s done is not ask too many questions. When I’m strong enough I’ll tell her what happened between Laszlo and I. Again. She’s too good a friend to say I told you so.

“Are you ready, sweetheart?”

I look up at Laszlo and realize it’s time. I stand up on shaky legs and walk to the front. My cello is already set up there, to one side, along with a chair. I take my seat and arrange my instrument between my knees. Then I take a long, slow look around the church, at the mourners who don’t know me and don’t know what I’m doing. Laszlo taught me this. That a soloist should take her time. That the audience waits on her.

I know hardly anything about my parents, but The Swan meant something to both of them. At least I have this.

I take a deep breath and put the bow to the strings and close my eyes. I’ve played this piece at the most significant moments of my life. My first professional solo piece. My graduation piece. It’s only right I play it at my father’s funeral. He never got to hear me play it but I know he remembers how it sounded when my mother played Saint-Saëns.

The long, keening notes pour through me, beautiful and sad, a dirge in the gray chill of the church. There’s only silence after.

I go quickly back to my seat, my head down. Laszlo reaches for my hand but I pull away.

After the service people come up to me and tell me how beautiful my playing was, how they didn’t know that Piers had a daughter, that he must have been so proud of me. I can’t find any words so I just nod, my eyes fixed somewhere over their shoulders.

The church empties out, and we leave. It’s a gusty day and Laszlo and I walk quietly side by side through a nearby park. Finally he stops and turns to me.

His tone is even but his face is uncertain. “I’ve got some news for you, Isabeau. I’ve been offered an opportunity for my career. A very good one.”

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