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

22: Issa

Issa had been distracted all morning, so much so that even George, who Issa had been working with that morning, had noticed. After suggesting they go over their scene again for the third time without reply, the boy had paused and peered at him.

‘Why are you being so weird? You’re the older one, so Carol’ll blame me if we’re not doing anything when she comes around.’

Issa mumbled an apology, and tried to focus on pretending that they were long-lost brothers who had met for the first time in thirty years. It was difficult, however, as his mind was thrown forward to the last part of today’s session, when he would ask Oscar to perform with him. He looked down once again to his copy of The Crucible, propped against the leg of his chair with the pages Justin had copied folded inside it. It was there; it was safe.

As George rattled on, Issa was again churning through exactly how it might work. He knew he would find it very difficult to put his hand up, and that others performing first might distract him from his anxiety – he genuinely loved watching them acting and showing their creativity – but had realised the risk in waiting: most of the others wanted to work with Oscar, so any delay meant that the boy he needed as his partner might be taken by someone else. Issa knew that he had share The Crucible with Oscar today: he couldn’t stand a week like the one he had just had, with the tension and anticipation inexorably tightening around his chest as the days then the hours then the minutes passed.

Issa was so lost in himself that he didn’t notice George’s continued frustration, nor Carol striding to the centre of the room. She clapped.

‘Right, everyone, that’s some great work. You know the drill: all around the tables under the skylight in as close to a circle as you can manage. Come on, quickly!’

Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. It was happening. It was time. As Issa stood and moved his chair along with the others, his heart surging, he felt that time was both too slow and too fast, that he wasn’t ready, that he would never be ready.

‘OK, who’s first? Who’s got something wonderful to show us today?’

A number of hands were up before she had finished speaking.

For the briefest of moments, Issa thought of the Winter Gardens, and his favourite bench there. He thought of how peaceful it would be if he was there and how he wouldn’t have to talk, he wouldn’t have to try to find the right words to say in front of all these eager, pitiless faces. He could just be still, and silent, and unknown, and nothing would change.

He raised his hand.

Carol had just been about to speak, when she saw him.

‘Well, Issa! Putting yourself forward. Love it! Come on then, let’s see what you’ve got. Do you need anyone else?’

Issa stood, in the process nearly dropping his book. He fumbled to open it and take out the sheets.

‘Yes. I need Oscar.’

This provoked a murmur around the room. Oscar, now alert, stood from where he had been lounging. He came over, and Issa was suddenly aware of the reality of him, of his presence that somehow seemed to draw everything else in, of his heat and light. Issa handed Oscar the sheets he had prepared; Oscar looked at them, then straight up at Issa, his eyes widening. This was the first time Issa had seen him anything other than languidly confident.

‘Oscar, please read the part of Danforth.’

‘Sure.’

From his tone, Oscar’s usual affectations had dropped away.

Issa turned to Carol and handed her another copy of the sheets.

‘Please, could you be Parris, Hale and Rebecca.’

Carol could barely suppress her excitement.

‘Of course!’

Smiling for the first time in a week, Issa faced Oscar.

During the subsequent minutes, it was almost as if Issa wasn’t there. He was gone, away in something else, a marionette with no control over his voice, or his movements. Later, the best way he could describe it to himself was that, from somewhere, John Proctor was speaking through him.

When he came to from his fugue state, Issa became aware that they had finished. Neither he, nor Oscar, nor Carol were speaking. Nor was anyone else. For the first time since he had started coming to the theatre group the room, that loud, hectic room, was silent, and still.

After a while, he thought he heard some tittering, perhaps from Oscar’s circle. Oscar himself, though, was silent. He had not moved or spoken since his last line, and was staring at Issa, staring as if searching, as if he had lost something, or found it. Even Carol was wordless. The silence stretched on.

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