Isabel quietly held Brandon’s hand as they approached the Hawks Well Theatre. He looked down at her, felt her stiffening by his side.
There, in a spare room, the auditions were being held for the music concert. It was an annual concert, kind of a platform for the local children. He had performed there in the past, so had Mark, Ben, and Kyle.
It was the last week of auditions. Isabel had made up her mind just in time.
“Are you okay?” he asked gently, squeezing her hand. She shook her head. He held her close, put an arm around her shoulders.
“We’re there,” he whispered encouragingly. “Myself and Mark. You aren’t alone.”
“I’ll be alone in that room, though,” she spoke in a small voice.
“We’ll be right outside, watching you.” He held her hand again, felt how cold it was even though she had the gloves on. “Will you be okay?”
He was not sure of it. Isabel had not sung in ages. She did not have anything to do with music anymore. All the tragedies in her life had suppressed her voice. Music required emotion. She no longer showed any of it.
It was only because of their insistence that she had finally agreed to sing.
“I’m afraid.” She looked up at him. The black cardigan made her skin paler, the breeze blowing her hair all over the place. “I don’t know anybody there.”
“You don’t have to. Just sing. That’s all.” He hugged her tight, stroked her upper arms through the wool. “You can do it.”
“I’m not sure…” She bit her lip.
“I am. You’ll do great.” He tugged at her hand. “Come on. You’re the first one today.”
Brandon asked some people there when the auditions for the day would begin. They were asked to wait awhile. Mark had been hanging around with some friends, and came up to them. Brandon laughed with him, tried to get Isabel to relax. But she remained slumped in the seat, not looking up, not talking to anyone.
When she was called in, Brandon started to feel his own nerves. They hugged her, wished her the best, and saw her till the door. He wanted to be there with her inside, but he would not be allowed.
So he and Mark waited outside, watching through the small gap in the door.
Isabel walked in slowly, barely looking anywhere. The room was not unfamiliar to Brandon. He’d hung out there more times than he cared to count, auditioned there for many concerts and musicals. But to her, it was unfamiliar ground. Her body language screamed it aloud.
“So, Miss Standish, what are you singing for us today?” One of the three selectors, whose name Brandon just could not remember at the moment, asked her. Isabel looked up, glanced at the three strange people in turn.
“Amazing Grace,” she replied, her gloved hands in fists by her side. Brandon shoved his hands inside his pockets, trying to warm them up.
“Okay, so are you ready?” The other selector, a woman, asked. She nodded rather reluctantly.
“Please begin,” she was given the green signal by the three people in front of her. Isabel shifted uncomfortably on her feet, her body stiffening. Her scared eyes moved around the room, lips bitten, and fingers fidgeting uneasily.
“Please begin, Miss Standish.” She was prodded again by the selectors. Brandon and Mark exchanged glances, watched Isabel start to tremble. His heart ached at the sight. She looked nothing like the classically trained mezzo-soprano that she was.
“Oh no. Brandy, she’s a mess,” Mark whispered to him. Brandon pressed his hand to his mouth, overcome with the urge to step inside and bring her out of the room. He’d just taken a step forward when Isabel turned and came running out, with the selectors calling after her.
“Izzi!” He and Mark called out in unison. “Wait! Izzi!”
They ran after her, but she was too fast. She was already out on the road, still running, when they saw her.
“Izzi!” Mark called out. Brandon held his arm.
“I’ll take her home,” he told him. “I’ll handle her.”
“Sure?” Mark chewed his lip, worried. Brandon nodded, beginning to run down the trail Isabel had just taken.
She had sat down on the steps of a house when Brandon finally caught up with her. He stopped to catch his breath, then slowly went over to her side.
“Hey.” He put a hand on her knee. She did not look up. Brandon moved her hair back, lifted her face to see what he had not seen in months: tears.
His mouth fell open as he stared into her overflowing eyes, her lips quivering, hands trembling. When he held her in his arms, he felt her entire body shaking in his embrace. He did not know the right reaction. On the one hand, he was relieved to find her showing emotions again. But on the other, it broke his heart to see her cry.
He stroked her head, cradled her in his arms, tried to stop the trembling. Passersby looked at them, a few of them even stopped to ask if everything was alright. He managed to get her to her feet, then walked her home. Isabel only cried silently and trembled in his arms all the way.
Sneaking her in through the back door of his house, he took her to his room. Isabel was still shedding tears; months of suppressed emotions finally finding an outlet. She sat on his bed, trembling. Neither of them had spoken a word yet.
Brandon enfolded her again, marvelling at the way she almost melted against his body. He buried his face in her hair, smelled the fading shampoo. When she looked up, her face was drenched, her eyes red and puffy, lips still quivering.
“There was a concert in school,” she spoke brokenly, her head low, eyes wide and scared. “I asked for £40, the participation fee.” There was horror in her eyes when she tugged the sleeves of her cardigan to reveal a deep, reddish-black scar on her right arm. Brandon flinched, his breath catching.
“I got this that night,” she murmured, her eyes dropping close, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks. He crushed her to his chest, kissing her face, trying to comfort her. Isabel was open with him. But there were still parts of her she hid from everyone. And that included her body. She was particularly guarding of her upper body, where the nastiest scars hid. He’d seen most of her other scars— on her legs, her neck, parts of her face.
But every time he saw another scar, his horror only intensified. He wondered if no part of her body was unscathed.
“Don’t…” He kissed the top of her head, his voice choking. “Don’t remember those times, please.”
“They don’t leave me.” She clutched his arms, lips trembling helplessly. “Every time I close my eyes, I can see their faces, feel the pain… I can still feel the wounds.”
She looked down at the scar on her arm. “I can tell you the story behind each of these scars,” she mumbled. Brandon shook his head.
“Please don’t do this to yourself,” he whispered.
“They did this to me!” She cried, pushing him away. “My parents! They did this to me. They ruined me. What was my fault?”
“Izzi—” He reached for her, but she pulled back.
“I don’t want to live, can’t you see?” She screeched, rising from the bed. “I have nothing to live for. I have no one. Nobody likes me. Everyone looks at me like I’m the one at fault. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.”
Brandon rose from the bed and pulled her close. She crumbled when he held her, her voice dropping.
“I’m not happy,” she sobbed against his chest. “I don’t want to live.”
“Shh. Don’t say that.” He stroked her head, wondering if he should have locked the door of the room, in case she wanted to run again. But he realised he need not when she put her arms around him, weeping bitterly.
“They asked me for descriptions,” she croaked. Brandon figured the ‘they’ here meant either the court or the police, or both. “What did they want me to describe? How I’d be seized by the hair and wrenched up in the air, kicked in the stomach, and thrown against the wall? How I’d curl up in a ball under the bed trying to protect myself, crying and begging to be left alone? How I had difficulty keeping clothes on because the wounds hurt everywhere? Or—”
“Izzi.” He could not hear anymore. Her scars spoke loud enough. He did not need the back-story. Did not want her to keep reliving her past.
He took her back to bed and soothed her until the trembles had begun to fade. Then he moved her hair out of her face and wiped off the tears with his hands.
His phone rang. It was Mark. Brandon told him that he had brought her to his house and that she was alright. Isabel moved slightly away from him and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her cardigan, before coughing. After a sip of water, she finally relaxed and remained still and silent. Brandon sat beside her, holding her hand, giving her space.
“I’m sorry I could not do it.” When she finally spoke, her voice was broken. “I shouldn’t have agreed to go in the first place.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not. I made a fool of myself.”
“You were just unprepared. My mistake. You needed more practice.”
“It wouldn’t have helped.” She shrugged, turning her face away. “I don’t have that thing in me.”
She looked at him, her eyes big and round. “X factor.”
Brandon gawked at her, and then unable to help it, he burst out laughing. Isabel frowned, but when he finally managed to calm the fit of laughter, he found her smiling. For the first time in months.
Oh god. His heart threatened to burst out of his chest. There were too many things happening at once.
“Feeling better?” He asked. The frozen figurine that they had known for the last six months had finally, finally come back to life.
Isabel shrugged. “Would you care if I’d died?” she asked. Brandon frowned, his smile fading.
“What kind of question is that?” he said. “I just asked you to not say such things.”
“Just wondering,” she calmly answered. “Would anybody care if I’d died?”
“You’d wanted to die. So why wonder if anybody would care?”
She did not reply, only played with the tips of her gloves. Brandon put a finger under her chin, turned her face towards him.
“Because you hadn’t wanted to die,” he said slowly. “You’d only wanted an escape from all this.”
Bowing her head, she bit her lip, fresh tears sprouting in her eyes. “I never know what to do,” she croaked, reached up to wipe off the tears. “I feel so helpless, so…” she made a vague gesture with her hands, searching for the right word. “…stifled,” she said. “I want to feel better. I want to be normal, but…”
She swallowed audibly, sniffed back the tears. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You don’t have to do anything.” Brandon hugged her, let her hide her face in his chest. “Just be good to yourself. And don’t look back.”
“There’s nothing to look forward to either,” she mumbled.
“There is. Your future. Our future.”
She looked at his face, surprised.
“You really aren’t dating someone else?” she asked quietly. Brandon smiled.
“You think I’ll ever find anyone better than you?”
“You will, if you look around.”
“I don’t want to. I can barely take my eyes off you.”
Isabel smiled, biting her lower lip. Then she closed her eyes, looking tired. Even without asking, he knew she had spent the other night worrying about the audition.
“Izzi, I love you,” he sighed. “I know we have a long way to go, but I see my future with you. I…” He tenderly brushed a finger across her cheek, smiling. “I want to spend my life with you. No matter where I go or what I become in life, you’ll always be the girl I want. And Louis is great at making up garbage about everyone, so think twice before believing something you read about us.”
He shook his head, his face saddening. “I’m sorry, this is going to be hard for you.” He held her hands in his. “But I’m always with you. I’ll keep you safe, protect you always. I’ll never let any harm come to you.”
“When you can do so much for me, I can also do this much for you. I’m proud of you.”
“And you’re my pride, baby,” he said. “And to answer your question, neither I nor Ben would be in the band today had anything happened to you. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I care about you infinitely. If you’d only seen us while you were battling for life, you wouldn’t have to wonder if we care.” He leaned back in bed, took her along with him. “I’d never seen Emily cry. I wonder if anybody ever had, she’s always so strong. But while you were in hospital, she never made any attempt to hide her tears.”
He looked down at her face, brushed her nose with a finger. “And you still doubt we care?” he raised his eyebrows.
Isabel sat up, gathered her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry I put all of you through this,” she said. “I just… didn’t know how to get out of the bottomless pit I seemed to be in.”
“We know. You don’t have to explain.” He quickly kissed her forehead. “Now, we go downstairs and eat something, then we’re back to business. Okay?”
She shook her head. “I can’t do this.”
“Izzi, you just need some more preparation, that’s all,” he tried to make her understand. “Don’t give up on yourself, please. I’ll help you.”
“Just watching me sing isn’t called helping.” She crossed her arms. “I require your active participation.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
She smiled quietly, crept closer, and kissed his lips. “I love you,” she whispered. “Now come on, I’m hungry.”
“Stop bouncing, Brandy. Dammit!” Nathan exclaimed exasperatedly. “I can’t fix your collar if you don’t stand still.”
“I can’t wait to see her,” Brandon kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his hands crumpling the necktie. “Can you imagine the town will hear her sing for the first time today? I bet she’ll be beautiful.”
He turned on his toe, heading towards the ladies’ dressing room. Nathan grabbed the end of his coat.
“This is a concert, for god’s sake,” he reminded him, snatching the tie out of his hands and beginning to fasten it around his neck. “It’s not your wedding day.”
Brandon rolled his eyes, standing still for a moment as Nathan checked his hair and his suit. Then he was bouncing like a rubber ball again.
“Hey lads!” Mark barged into the room. “Guess who I saw in the audience?”
Brandon and Nathan looked at him.
“Gillian,” he said, nudging Nathan in the ribs.
“What?” he stared with wide eyes. “She’s here?”
“I saw her beside your mam,” Mark explained, “They’re chatting.”
“Holy shit!” Nathan laughed, and had just proceeded to head out when he noticed Brandon’s absence. “Where’s Brandy?”
Mark looked around, found no one, because Brandon had already headed out of the dressing room, eyes still impatient to catch a glimpse of his love. The penultimate performance was on at the moment. Isabel was the closing act. It had been crazy to get her accommodated at the show after how she’d fared that first time, but they had accomplished it. They were the finest ambassadors for Sligo, after all.
Loud cheering filled the hall when the ongoing performance ended. The stage went dark for some time and then the spotlight came on, the emcee walking to the front of the stage.
They had it all planned. Mark and Nathan came out of the dressing room to see if things were going all right. Brandon had finally stopped bouncing and was fidgeting with his necktie.
“There. All done.” Mairead appeared beside him with a pleased smile. “She looks gorgeous!”
“Wh—where’s she?” Brandon looked around him. His sister pulled a face at him.
“She’s right where she has to be,” she explained. “You look nice, by the way.”
“You remember what you have to do, right?” Mark whispered to him. “You’re supposed to walk on to stage singing and take your place beside her. Oh.” He disappeared, returned with a microphone. “Here,” he handed it to him.
“Presenting the final performance of the night!” the emcee said, drawing loud applause from the audience. “We know you’ve been waiting for this,” he quipped, leaving the stage as it went dark again.
Brandon’s heart was in his mouth. He just hoped she would not bungle up again. Closing his eyes, he said a silent prayer.
And then, there it was. The opening notes of the piano, expertly delivered by Ben. Followed by the guitar, deftly performed by Kyle. And then the flute.
With each note of the music, the lights started coming alive, bathing the stage in a soft halo.
And then the voice.
“Come over the hills, my bonny Irish lad,
Come over the hills to your darling
You choose the road, love, and I’ll make the vow…
And I’ll be your true love forever…”
Brandon stared with his mouth agape as the rich, mellifluous voice cloaked the theatre. He saw Emily wipe tears, his own mother looking on without realizing she was crying. Beside him, Mairead was trying to stifle a sob by pressing her hands to her mouth.
Unbeknownst to him, Brandon’s eyes welled up. They had not heard that voice in so long and the sentiments were understandable. But Nathan’s mother, who was seeing Isabel for the first time, was also in tears.
“Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows,
Fair is the lily of the valley…
Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne,
But my love is fairer than any…”
Mairead had started to cry. There were smiles on every face and tears in every eye by the time Brandon pulled himself together and made his way to the stage. Isabel looked at him and smiled quietly. He struggled to catch his breath.
She looked radiant in that blue dress that she’d bought with the prize money from the writing contest, her gloved hands holding the microphone with the practised skill of a trained singer. Mairead had put some makeup on her to hide the dark circles and highlight her pretty puckers. And she had no jewellery except the charm necklace he had gifted her. She was yet to take it off.
“It was down by Killarney’s green woods that we strayed,
The moon and the stars they were shining…
The moon shone its rays on her locks of golden hair,
And she swore she’d be my love forever…”
He could not help stare at her like a fool while he sang his part. He’d always wanted to sing a duet with her, but never thought it would come true like that, with almost half of the town at the theatre that evening. It meant more to him than any gig he’d ever do in his entire life.
His hand crept towards hers and their fingers entwined as they sang the chorus together. Isabel looked at him, smiled again with tears in her eyes.
“Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne…”
They held each other’s gaze, love flowing between them like electricity.
“But my love is fairer than any…”
The hall erupted in a standing ovation, including the people who had so far only called her names. There were the three selectors of the concert, stunned that a girl so broken could also be so talented. Behind them, Ben and Kyle had risen, clapping. Brandon led her to the front of the stage and they took a bow together. And then, with the applause refusing to die, he pulled her close and kissed her. Felt tears against his face, not sure whose they were.
She seemed like a different person. Not the Isabel who was impassive till a few days ago. It was like a new beginning.
The lights dimmed, but the applause continued. Brandon looked at her face, tears washing her mascara away. And then she laughed, putting her arms around him.
“Thank you,” she whispered into his ears as he lifted her up in a hug. “This is the best day of my life.”
Brandon failed to form words. He only held her tight, wishing he could freeze that moment forever.
The familiar voice shook him out of his reverie. He turned to find his love standing behind him with surprise on her beautiful face, her six-month pregnant body draped in a silk dress.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, without giving him a chance to speak. “The party’s about to begin. Everyone’s looking for you.”
“I was lost. Sorry,” he smiled, walking up to her, and drew her close to him. “You look gorgeous.”
“Oh, please,” she rolled her eyes. “I look like a penguin. But I appreciate the kind words.” She laughed, dropping her head back, her dark hair falling across her shoulders.
Isabel. His wife. Soon-to-be mother of their first child. His rock through the ten years that had made the band the most successful pop act of the UK and the five of them the ninth richest celebrities of Ireland. Less than three months ago they had celebrated the band’s tenth anniversary with a massive show at Croke Park stadium, and were raring to go for another ten years.
“Izzi!” Kyle called out from the vast living room of Mark’s Galway home. Then he peeked at them.
“Jesus.” He smirked, leaning against the door. “You guys can never keep your hands off each other, can you?”
Brandon laughed, so did Isabel. She was Hy-Life’s chief sound engineer, besides being a music teacher for blind children and a writer. But most importantly, she was their anchor, keeping them grounded with her wisdom, humility, and warmth.
“We’ll be there,” Brandon said to him. “Get lost now, will ya?”
“Going, going…” he grumbled, laughing, as he went back to the party. It was Mark’s birthday, and his boyfriend Kevin had planned a surprise party for him. Not that it had remained a surprise for too long, since the entire clan was invited. Mark’s family was there, his future in-laws were also there. Every other friend or family member he’d ever had was present.
He put a hand around Isabel’s waist as they headed back to the party, where everybody was talking at the same time. Brandon’s eyes passed over his parents and siblings, stopping over Nathan, his wife Gillian, their year-old twins Max and Jay, then moving over to Ben and his girlfriend Susan. Mark and Kevin were chatting to Kyle and his fiancée Rose, just a few months short of becoming husband and wife. There were Thomas and Emily, still shuttling between London and Ireland.
Everyone they loved was there. But Brandon had eyes for only one person.
“What?” Isabel asked when she saw him staring at her. He shook his head and kissed her. As their lips met, he found himself going a decade back, remembered the shy, socially-awkward girl he’d fallen in love with. His love for her had just deepened over the years. Only she was not sixteen, or shy, or socially awkward anymore.
“Let’s go,” he whispered to her, reaching over to hold her hand. Felt her warm, soft fingers pressing against his skin. “Mark’s looking for you.”
He watched Isabel go over to the handsome birthday boy, share a laugh with him, and then ask Kevin to bring on the cake. Brandon watched her through tears that he was not even aware of. Fourteen number ones, eight world tours, and a Guinness World Record were their achievements so far. But for him, everything paled in comparison to the love of his life. Because, despite all his successes, Isabel would always be his biggest dream come true.
Isabel quietly held Brandon’s hand as they approached the Hawks Well Theatre. He looked down at her, felt her stiffening by his side.