This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real names, places and events is purely coincidental.
Wilhelm pulled out one last string of melodies from the grand piano before standing and bowing to his wide audience. There, in his black coat and tails, standing in the middle of the stage of Brownstone Theater, he felt like he was on top of the world. The audience cheered him and threw roses at his feet as papery white confetti shaped like snowflakes drifted from the beams above. He knew he had done a marvelous job by the way the Symphony Nine orchestra grinned up at him.
It was his first solo ever since joining Symphony Nine, a well-known orchestra that travelled and played in different parts of the globe, including the elegant Brownstone Theater. The place was a regular stop in their shows, and tickets usually sold for up to a hundred bucks a head. This Christmas season, despite the soaring price of a single performance, many had already reserved for their seats. And many came during that snow-chilled night to watch one of the main performers - Wilhelm Cringle to play Snowy Christmas Evening in solo.
It was an enchanting music, a medley of different Christmas songs interspersed with original compositions by Symphony Nine serving as interludes. And by the time Wilhelm had finished his first performance on his second night, he was beaming with pride. His audience liked it and nothing made him happier.
"Wilhelm!" Mister Gates, the orchestra conductor, greeted him as he entered the backstage through the side curtains. He smiled at his superior and coach as he brushed the confetti that clung to his sleeves. "Good job, boy. Guess what. I have someone here who wants to meet you!" Mister Gates tugged at his arm and led him down the tight hallway.
Wilhelm smiled at the sophisticated-looking gentleman that followed Mister Gates into the dressing room. "Cringle," Gates said, "this is Mister Henri Larch, conductor, composer and choreographer of the Grand International Music-makers."
"He-Henri Larch? The Henri Larch?!" Wilhelm stuttered, eyes bulging at the sound of the name. Larch was part of the GIM, one of the most elite orchestra in the world! They had world tours that cost a thousand a head. They've played for royalty and Hollywood and billionaires. "Pleased to meet your acquaintance," he said after recovering from shock.
"Weren't you the boy who played at Summers Hotel?" Larch poked his glasses up a bit and peered at the man before him. He then extended his arm for a handshake, which the young pianist took willingly.
"Yes, Sir. I'm surprised that you remembered." Wilhelm grinned foolishly, happy that the man had remembered their triple performance at the hotel just a week before.
"Who wouldn't? You have good hands kid… and pure talent. We could use a boy of your caliber."
Wilhelm went red, embarrassed as much as proud that Larch thought him a talented, passionate boy… despite his being already twenty-seven years old. "Will you be staying a while to hear my second performance Sir?" he asked, aware that Gates was mouthing invite him under a scraggly white beard. Larch nodded and winked at Gates, who beamed with pride at having part of his little plan succeed.
Gates then directed Mister Larch to Viola White, one of the violinists, before returning to Wilhelm. He sat across the pianist, facing the foldable coffee table. "Well, Wilhelm, you've got one shot at this."
"What do you mean?" the young man asked after sipping part of his coffee.
"Did it ever occur to you why Henri Larch came to Brownstone tonight?"
"Because he wants new faces for GIM. And since he's got good ears, he came to listen to you, boy!"
Larch? Listen to him? Round him up for GIM? "But, that's impossible, Mister Gates. Surely he doesn't want me. I'm still new to playing international. And what would happen if I got out of S-9?"
"Nonesense! Symphnoy Nine's always proud to produce handsome talents for the top players. You'll be the star of GIM, kid. I can feel it. Just go up on that stage later on tonight and don't screw up your performance. Before you know it, you'll be playing for the big boys and floating in a sea of cash!"
Wilhelm took pained efforts to comb his hair back the way Gates said. The stiffening gel was agony, but it was necessary to make him look more handsome. He looked in the mirror at his brushed-back hair, except for a stray lock that dangled above his left eye. He looked at his square jaw, thin lips and pointed-up nose, never having seen a handsomer pianist. Then he spotted the only thing that marred his face - a sole dimple to the right of his lip.
It was not exactly a flaw. Actually, it was what most of the elite girls found most attractive in him. It actually made him look unbearably gorgeous when paired with his pearly white smile. But that dimple reminded him of a pain, a loss that until now he had never relieved himself from. He sighed, turning his head from his reflection, knowing that within one hour he'd have to go up on that stage again and play the same piece for the fourth time in two days. Just as he opened the door to go out into the hall, a man in security uniform blocked his exit.
"Excuse me Sir Cringle," the man said, "but I have someone here to see you."
"Can this wait until after the show?" he asked in an irritated tone.
"Sorry Sir," the guard apologized, "she had a pass."
"She?" Wilhelm followed the guard outside through the back door, where he saw standing in the waiting room behind the theatre a woman with her back turned to him. At first he thought it was she… but when the woman turned it was someone else.
"Miss Rafter?" he asked, recognizing the old lady who had at one time been his close friend. "What are you doing here?"
"Will?" she asked, a crinkled smile on her face lighting up her eyes. "You look amazing, Will. We've missed you so much!" She dashed to him despite her old limbs and hugged him around the neck, though she could barely reach him since he was tall. "And Adela misses you as well."
Wilhelm had never been happier to see Miss Rafter's face. But at the mention of Adela, he stiffened and backed away. "Is that so? I never thought I'd see the day-"
"Will, you have to come back," Miss Rafter said.
"I'm sorry, Miss Rafter. That part of my life is over, including Adela. She cares no more for me than I do for her." he said with false conviction. Wilhelm sank into the lounger in the middle of the room and rubbed his temple. "Besides, if she really misses me, she knows where to find me. And since she never called me, I'm assuming she doesn't miss me at all."
"You'll be surprised," she replied, "Sometimes things happen and it's hard to make amends. But sooner or later, we have to try. Otherwise, we don't get another chance and regret sinks in."
Wilhelm sank his face into his hands and breathed out, remembering what had happened so long ago, when he was still twenty and finding somewhere to work so that he could feed himself. He stumbled upon an ad for housekeeping and decided to try that. And he had ended up on the doorstep of the biggest house in town. It was the mansion that belonged to Mistress Maria Adela Belize Thomson, the sixteen-year-old, well-to-do orphan who had the inheritance of her late parents and the audacity to hire a male worker. He had not forgotten the first time he saw her open the door to him - like an angel, dressed in white and her luxurious straw-blond hair in ringlets around her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were the bluest he had ever seen and her cheeks the rosiest.
He worked for her along with the other house-servants, including Miss Rafter. And it was a month after his employment that Adela accidentally discovered his hidden talent. She had woken up in the night, hearing him play at the grand piano after finishing with mopping the tile floors. He had claimed that he wasn't able to sleep. Wilhelm thought that the girl would have sent him away for touching things that weren't his. Instead, she sat next to him and coaxed him to play some more. He was sure then that he'd never been more in love with another woman as he was with his employer.
For the next three months he worked and played music for her, and eventually she had a certain Miss Beverly look into his music. This Miss Beverly took him up as part of a Sunday choir in the next town, where yet another musician took him up as an apprentice. Soon he was playing in hotels and restaurants, and that's where Mister Gates found him.
He felt that his life was starting to take shape. And after seven years, he was on the next move - he was determined to be part of Grand International. He could feel it in his bones. And he could feel another thing - Miss Rafter sitting beside him and taking his hands off his face.
"I remember how she used to poke that little line beside your lips."
"Don't you? She always poked you while you were playing that Minuet piece, trying to force you to make a mistake."
"Miss Rafter…" he intruded more forcibly.
"And I used to see you pretending to catch her finger with your teeth, pretending to try to bite it off. And then you'd laugh and start leaning on each other's shoulder-"
"Miss Rafter!" he said exasperated, "That was seven years ago. The three months seven years ago."
"And do you deny that you were in love with her in those three months?"
"I see the way you looked at her. Although you didn't tell it, it was obvious you were falling for her. And she was heartbroken when you left for the apprenticeship."
Wilhelm looked straight into Miss Rafter's eyes unbelievingly. Adela's heart was broken? By him? It wasn't possible! "If she knew her heart would be broken, why didn't she stop me? Why didn't she tell me how she felt?"
"Because," Miss Rafter took his hand in hers, "every time she looked at you she saw your passion for music. It broke her heart to see that you weren't able to perform under the 'golden domes' as you used to call places like these. She wanted you to reach your dream so much that she gave up tying you to the ground and instead helped you move up the ladder. Remember your first concert at the Sunday? The kids that turned up were all the neighbor's children."
"I didn't notice that."
"And she was paying that Master Musician a handsome price to buy you those tuxedos you wore to the restaurant."
"What? That was all her doing?"
"Yes," Miss Rafter grinned, "and Mister Gates wouldn't have walked into that restaurant had it not been for the traffic jam that Adela ordered her chauffeur to cause."
"Good grief! That white limo that crashed into the tree in the next corner was her doing?" Wilhelm ran a hand down his face, unbelieving that all throughout his career, the one woman he had viewed as that selfish brat who couldn't come to his real live performances was the one that arranged them all. "But Miss Rafter, what happened after that? Why didn't she come to me? Two years ago, I mailed a concert ticket in hopes that she'd arrive. But she didn't. I set up flowers and dinner and everything. She didn't come!"
Miss Rafter's face fell. "Did you know she had an amputation?"
"What?!" Wilhelm stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. "What happened?"
"She was to go to an important conference that night as a representative of the company she was working for at the time. She changed her mind after receiving your letter and took the last flight out of London to catch up for your concert. And then the plane crashed."
"WHAT?!!!" he paced back and forth, "She was in that plane?! Why didn't I know about this?"
"She didn't want you to know. She didn't want you to miss your performance. That's how much she loved you."
"And all that time I thought she hadn't cared…" Wilhelm stared at the tinsel and ribbons that hung over the doorway and at the Christmas wreath taped to the front of the reception desk. He settled his eyes on the vase of gold and red plastic poinsettias at the corner and then at the bells and snowflake cutouts dangling from the ceiling. "Miss Rafter, how's Adela doing now?" he asked when he finally mustered his courage.
"Without two legs, fine. Without company, terrible."
"Without two legs?"
"You don't expect coming out in one piece after a steel panel sandwiches you to the ground, do you?" she choked back her reply, trying to keep in the tears that were forming on her face. Then she could contain the sobbing no more and wept openly. Wilhelm sank back into the couch, taking her in his arms and letting his own tears flow freely. He couldn't imagine how it was like for Adela, having to be alone for the holidays confined to a wheelchair. He knew she rewarded the servants with a day off during Christmas Eve. How lonely the day would be for her! She was all alone in the world, probably sitting in front of a fire, while he was here, trying to fish the biggest opportunity to fame.
"Excuse me Sir Cringle?" an awaiting production assistant tapped him on the shoulder. "Five minutes, Sir."
"What?" he asked confused.
"Five minutes. You have to get backstage now."
Wilhelm nodded and dismissed the man, turning his attention to Miss Rafter. He looked into the old woman's eyes, noticing the sadness that welled up inside of her, feeling his own sadness overcome him. In these conditions, he could not play well. His mind would be on something else, something different. Screw GIM and Mister Larch. They could always find a new face to choke up with money. He needed to get home! "Miss Rafter? Think a cab will make it fast enough to the airport tonight?"
Adela looked out of the fireplace window, lazily counting the children that were passing by the house. Some came trotting along the walk between their parents. Others were tugging sleds or shouldering ices skates while their dogs followed them close behind. Others marched in groups, little kiddies excitedly going caroling. She gazed into the fire in the hearth, dismissing the Christmas lights that blinked outside on the street.
Just then she heard a door opening and closing. There was a stomping of shoes in the hallway and a light switch clicking on. The shoes shuffled through the hall, over the red and green carpet that fit the mood of Christmas. It was a mood that she wasn't feeling at the moment, being all alone inside her big house. She'd never felt as alone as this before. She thought that after her accident two years ago, she'd get used to the silence. But she never had, instead going deeper and deeper into depression.
"Don't bother lighting the tree Miss Rafter," she called in her soft voice. With only her inside the house, there was no reason to light the tree, no reason to celebrate. When her parents died when she was at twelve, she'd never assembled that tree until four years later, when Will had begged her to put it up.
"Oh Will," she whispered, "if only you knew…" her voice trailed as she heard the shoes shuffle into the lounge instead of into the kitchen, where Miss Rafter usually made a hot cup of cocoa after walking in the winter. Wait! Wasn't Miss Rafter supposed to be on vacation in some foreign country right now? Then who in Santa's name was in her house?! She heard the grand piano being opened and a slight sound as if someone had taken a seat on the chair.
"What the-" she wheeled herself into the hall and froze in the doorway when she saw the figure of a man, his coat and tails elegantly displayed and his fingers drawing out the notes to A Perfect Christmas. For a moment she couldn't believe her eyes. He's here! He's really here! "Will?" she asked.
"Merry Christmas, darling." He turned around, his handsome face enhanced by the gentle light that came from the decorated tree in the middle of the lounge. Will had never seen a more beautiful sight in seven years. She looked exactly the same, albeit the parts of her legs below her knees missing. On her wheelchair, she looked every bit an angel, her locks still curled in ringlets, her eyes bluer than ever. He stood up and came towards her, then knelt in front of her and wiped away her tears.
"I thought you'd never come back," she sobbed, putting her hands around his neck and clinging to him, burying her face in the side of his neck and breathing in the scent that she'd missed for seven years.
"I'd never disappoint my number one fan!" he chuckled, leaning in and taking her in his arms. He carried his precious Adela to the seat and wrapped his arms around her, determined to make her feel that she'd never be alone in the world again. "I've missed you, my angel." He kissed her on the cheek. "And I'm never going away ever again. That's how much love you."
"But-but your Christmas concert is tonight. And what about Symphony Nine?"
"Symphony Nine could do on its own. Besides, it's getting a bit crowded there, anyway. What say you to a few rounds of Snowy Christmas Evening? Then we could make cups of cocoa and snuggle in front of the fireplace?" he started off with Jingle Bells quickly.
"That would be nice," she replied, leaning her head on his shoulder.
"And no poking this time!" he grinned.
"Oh Will. You've never changed." She smiled up at him.
"And I never will," he murmured seconds before pressing his lips blithely to hers. Then he switched to Winter Wonderland, Adela's favorite. This was going to be his best performance yet.