Once inside, Issa was underwhelmed, finding only a gloomy entrance hall. He had clearly waited longer than he had thought, though, as the couple that had come in before him were already gone, with the only sign of their passing being the footsteps that echoed in the hall as they went up – no, down – the stairs to another floor.
Since there appeared to be no-one else about, he decided to follow them. After a few paces he heard sound coming from below and, reaching the stairwell, he saw a scuffed paper sign saying ‘Abbeydale Youth Theatre’ with an arrow pointing down.
At the bottom of the stairwell there was more light. It was coming through a pair of double doors, one of which was propped open, which led to a bright, sound-filled room. He had arrived.
There, outside it all, Issa paused for the last time. He could feel the energy coming out of the room, and wondered whether it was too much for him. He had never found it easy to be in large groups, but in school he had usually found a way to avoid attention. He doubted that old way of coping would be possible here: inside, it seemed too stark.
Hearing more footsteps behind him, he turned to see a boy, some years younger than him, rushing down the stairs. The boy, obviously excited, grinned as he went by and Issa, doing his best to push down his doubts, followed him in.
The room was larger than he expected. There were teenagers of various ages spread around it; some were talking in pairs, while others were doing vocal exercises or reciting whatever was written on the reams of paper they clutched. Around the side of the room was an assortment of chairs, while at the back there were a couple of tables, under which were some battered old wooden crates with the name of the group stencilled on them. In the centre of the room, the sun was lancing in through a large skylight.
A group under it held his gaze. They were older than the others, looking to be around his age, and were sitting clustered around a table. On it, cross legged, was a slim boy with shining blond hair, longer at the front than at the back, one side of which was tucked behind his ear. As he talked and gestured, Issa could see the others looking up at him. Some were concentrating, some were laughing, and some were writing on notepads. Issa was entranced: there it was, that thing he both envied and feared. How was it possible to not only draw people’s attention like that, but to be so comfortable in it, to see it as your own?
‘Hello. Is it Issa?’
Issa turned to find a woman smiling at him. Looking at her, he felt more at ease: she reminded him of the kind teachers he occasionally had at school, the ones who had seen that his silence meant something.
‘Well, I’m Carol. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you: Justin has told me so much about you. Why don’t we go and find you a chair so you can sit and take it all in before we start?’
As he moved forward to join her, Issa looked again at the boy on the table. Now he was standing on it and, leaning down, seemed focused on one of the people seated around him, a girl. He was pointing at her and speaking into the stillness that had grown around him. The languid ease he had thrown out earlier was gone, replaced by a coursing, sinuous intensity. Issa, mesmerised, felt his pulse quicken.
‘Oh, that’s Oscar. He’s one of our seniors, and our star, or at least that’s what he tells everyone. I know he looks a bit much, but you’ll get used to him. We’re going to miss him when he goes to university.’ With that she took Issa’s arm, and he found that he was happy for her to do so. He glanced again at the scene under the skylight, then allowed her to lead him across the room.