Serial fiction. Updated at 6.00am UTC on Monday and Friday.

21: Issa

Spoon in hand, Issa poked at the Pasticciotto Leccese in front of him. Looking up from his pastry, he saw the usual range of food that Justin had bought, which, unusually, lay relatively untouched, apart from the panini Justin was coming close to finishing.

Another unfamiliar thing was the quiet between them: even Justin wasn’t as talkative as he normally was. When Issa had first arrived, Justin had welcomed him with his usual set of questions but, though he had first transitioned into his normal semi-monologue, Justin had slowly lapsed into silence, a silence made more stark by the chatter all around.

When he next raised his glance from his plate, Issa saw that Justin was looking at him with concern.

‘Is everything alright Issa? You don’t seem your usual self today.’

Issa considered this. He wasn’t his usual self, that was true, and he hadn’t been since a few days ago. He thought back to last Saturday when he had read The Crucible without stopping. He thought about the clarity he had gained, about how he would perform John Proctor’s confession with Oscar, and how he had pored over the text since then, learning and remembering and burning the words into his mind. He thought about the tears that had roiled out of him, about the place he had gone to inside himself and his drift into exhausted sleep afterwards, with the curtains still open and the dark flooding in. He thought about how that darkness was still with him, even though he had seen the light of a future performing with Oscar, and how he had barely slept since.

‘I am… fine.’

Though Justin was plainly trying to be sympathetic, he couldn’t hide his scepticism.

‘Really, Issa? You’ve hardly touched your food.’

He then appeared to make a decision, and his voice softened.

‘Is it the memories? Are they troubling you again?’

Issa felt his eyes mist. He had spent so much energy in the last few days holding himself away from them, from those shards of the past that he had worked so hard to bury, that Justin’s gentle questions almost overwhelmed him. He could not go back there. He could not.

‘Please, Justin. I am fine.’

Justin gestured at Issa’s Pasticciotto Leccese.

‘Perhaps you could eat something, then?’

Issa took his spoon, broke off a piece of his pastry and, with a flourish, popped it into his mouth. They both laughed.

With the tension broken, Justin brightened.

‘So, what’s this play you want me to copy a part of? Let’s see.’

After taking another mouthful, Issa handed over his precious copy of The Crucible.

‘Ah, Miller! So, how did you get into this? Is it something you’re doing at the theatre group?’

‘Errr… sort of.’

‘Well, I’m glad to see you’re really getting into it. Which pages do you need again?’

As they discussed the copies he would need, part of Issa was turning inward. What had just happened? The amusement he and Justin had shared had lifted him, but there was something more.

A heretical new thought was forming in him. He had come through the last few days, through the shadow that had laid on him ever since he wept for John Proctor, wept for the part of himself he saw in John Proctor, to a new realisation: though he had always known he could not go back, he saw now that he had been unable to go forward either. He had been unable approach the past, but, through his avoidance, he was burying himself in it. To begin to live, to look forward, he had to truly look back, look directly at the years before that he did so much to try to forget. As Justin continued to talk, Issa pondered. With the swamping fear he felt, had no idea how he would do that.

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