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

23: Issa

Carol was the first to break the spell.

‘Wow! What about that, everyone? Let’s show Issa and Oscar what we think.’

She led the group in an intensifying round of applause, that ended with a few whoops and cheers.

Issa didn’t know what to do. He felt himself growing hot and, after managing to stutter out a thanks, returned to his seat. Though he was struggling with a strange set of emotions – was that happiness? – he was aware of Oscar returning to his own seat also. Oscar, who had said nothing since they had finished their piece. As he sat down, Issa saw that Oscar’s friends were paying the blond boy little attention: they were all, still, looking at Issa, whispering to each other as they did.

Carol was still talking.

‘Well, that’s really set the standard for today. Amazing! Did you all notice? Issa never looked at his playbook, not even once. He’d memorised it all. Doesn’t that show what I’ve been telling you, about how important it is to prepare? Thank you, Issa, nor only for what you brought but for showing how this isn’t just about what you do in the moment. Preparation, preparation, preparation.’

She paused, and grinned.

‘OK, then. Who’s going to be next?’

This time, there were fewer hands raised.

The rest of the session went by in a haze. Issa did his best to concentrate on the others as they performed, but felt his attention getting dragged away. He had done it. He had really done it. He had got up, in front of all these people, the people he had grown to know over the last few weeks, and said John Proctor’s words. He had said John Proctor’s words, and Oscar had been Danforth, and they had done it together, been together, existed together, word after word and beat after beat. During however long it was, they had shared something, been something.

He stole a glance at Oscar and, as with the previous times he had done so since their performance, saw Oscar looking straight back at him, expressionless. Issa ducked his head back down: pierced by the intensity of those ice-blue eyes.

The other group members kept getting up to perform, and Issa raised his head again. Oscar was still there, staring right back, with nothing to indicate what he was thinking or feeling.

Something cold coiled around Issa’s insides. Had he done something wrong? Perhaps he had blundered in some way, crossed some line that he didn’t know existed. Should he have chosen The Crucible? From what he had overheard, he thought that performing it was the best way to reach Oscar, but what if he had trespassed on some private place, some secret thing of Oscar’s that he wasn’t meant to know? Oscar had never talked to him about this; Issa had learned it from listening in on him and his friends. Eavesdropping, like some thief, some informer. From somewhere deep in his mind he remembered what his mother –oh, his mother, his poor mother – had said to him about people who spied on others, about how such devious souls were headed for nothing but sorrow. Sorrow. Perhaps it was what he deserved. Issa didn’t raise his eyes from the floor for the rest of the session. He spent it feeling smaller and smaller, and shrank into his chair; all of previous exhilaration was gone.

After everyone who wanted to perform had done so Carol, as usual, turned to Oscar.

‘Right, Oscar, time to round us off as always. When you’re ready?’

Issa looked up in time to see Oscar shake his head. Carol was nonplussed.

‘Well! I didn’t expect that. Are you sure?’

A nod from Oscar.

‘OK, then! Looks like we’ve finished, but still have ten minutes left.’

For a moment, she was at a loss. Then, she brightened.

‘I know! You all usually leave this place like a pigsty, so today we can really make sure it’s spick and span. Up you get, everyone. Time for a proper tidy.’

There were groans, but the group got up to do as she asked. Issa did also, but without much enthusiasm. He couldn’t wait to leave.

Eventually, Carol had mercy on them.

‘Right, that’s good enough. Off you go.’

She then had to raise her voice to be heard over the relieved chatter.

‘And don’t forget, we need to think about the centrepiece of our Showcase Weekend. What’s our big finale? Which play are you going to perform? I think we had a big clue today, but we need more suggestions!’

Issa found that, while sweeping, he had wandered to the opposite side of the room to the door. He laid his brush against a wall and went to pick up his copy of The Crucible from where he’d left it. It no longer seemed so precious; he thought of leaving the book there, but had spent too much money on it. Sighing, he picked it up and headed for the door as fast as he could without running.

As he was passing the tables under the skylight, he felt a hand on his arm.

‘Please, wait.’

It was Oscar. Oscar. Issa turned to see that he had not misheard. He hadn’t; it was Oscar. Oscar was there, pupils flaring, an uncertain half-smile playing over his lips, seeming, in that moment, more mesmeric than Issa had ever seen him.

Issa nodded, and they stayed like that until only Carol was left. She seemed about to say something, then changed her mind. She turned towards the door, and then turned back to them.

‘I’ve just remembered! I have to go and see the caretaker about something. Stay as long as you like.’

A moment later, they were alone, alone as the sun streamed in through the skylight, catching in Oscar’s hair.

‘Issa. I… errr…’

Oscar frowned. An inability to express himself was clearly unusual. His face cleared, and he tried again.

‘What you…. hmmm…’

Issa tried to help.

‘Yes?’

Oscar’s smile of gratitude was genuine.

‘Issa. What you did there… how you were as Proctor…. it’s the only real thing I’ve ever seen in here. It was… amazing.’

Oscar’s words, along with his openness and sincerity, something he hadn’t seen in this elegant, apparently cynical boy, swept into Issa and overwhelmed something inside him. He was speechless.

‘I spent the rest of the session thinking about what you did, and I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t work it out. Could you… could you show me how you got to that place?’ Issa’s eyes moistened: a part of him had been reached that he had long ago forgotten. He nodded to Oscar and, without saying a further word, they walked out of the room together.

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