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

3: Issa

Issa was early, but he knew that didn’t matter, as Justin would be there before him. He always was.

As he walked towards Caffè Tucci, Issa wondered how long Justin had been in his life. These ‘catch-ups’, as Justin called them, had been going on for a while now; it was only the meeting place that had changed. While they now used the boisterous little Italian café Issa was approaching, in the past they had usually met in a side room at The Harbour. They had spent so many hours together in there, Justin filling the air with all of his thoughts and ideas and ways to help. But before then? Sensing something ensnaring him, Issa wrested his mind away before he went too far back. He concentrated on the now, on knowing that Justin was here, and had been here, like no-one else had.

Blinking back to the present, Issa found that he was again on Surrey Street. Since the café was only a few doors down from the Montgomery he had known he would have to return, but he was unprepared for the feelings stirred in him by coming back so soon. That room downstairs at The Montgomery, with Oscar and Carol and all of the others, the words and the passion and the light. He felt its pull, and was surprised to find himself disappointed that there would be no-one there today.

As he reached the café, Issa found himself smiling. Sitting at the tables outside was the usual bewildering collection of people, laughing and arguing over half-drunk espressos. A couple of them nodded to him before returning to whatever they were discussing and, as with every time he came here, Issa wished he knew Italian so he could understand what they were saying, could learn how they found it so easy to let the world hear them.

Inside, at the counter by the door, he was greeted by one of the owners.

‘Sir! You are here. Welcome. Your friend is already with us. See, at the back there. Prego, your food is waiting.’

As Issa went to where Justin was seated, he looked about him at the familiar décor of the café, the framed SSC Napoli shirts and the pictures of Neapolitan singers and actors. Thinking of the owners, the staff and the people out front, he realised: these were people from another land that had found their place here, who fitted in but had no doubt about who they were.

‘Issa! Come and sit down.’

Justin gestured to a seat at his table, and then at the panini and pastries, and lattes and glasses of Sanpellegrino Aranciata in front of him.

‘It’s so good to see you. Please, tuck in.’

Issa, hungry as always, was happy to comply.

‘So, I’m all ears. How did it go on Saturday? Did you enjoy it? I had a quick word with Carol, but would love to hear what it was like for you.’

As he savoured the taste of provolone, porchetta and truffle oil, Issa found it easy to think of his morning at the theatre group, as those three hours had occupied his mind ever since. The unaffected joy of the others there, the way they made space for him, the fascinating practice exercises and then the rush of the last hour, when group members started performing what they had rehearsed: he was still struggling to define what it meant to him. He was sure of one thing, however:

‘It was… good.’

‘Splendid, splendid! I was hoping you’d like it. Carol’s such a great teacher and dramatist, and a lovely person. So, the question is: will you go again, do you think?’

As welcoming as she was, Issa wasn’t thinking about Carol, but about someone else. As so often over the last few days, his thoughts turned to Oscar. If what the theatre group meant to him was difficult to place, then defining Oscar was impossible. It’s not that Issa was unfamiliar with confident, privileged middle-class boys – he’d known enough of them at school – but Oscar, somehow, wasn’t that. There was something behind his glittering charm that lent him weight; he seemed at once both brighter and darker than those around him. Whatever it was, it meant people paid attention, especially when Oscar performed. Issa needed to know more: if the eyes of others could turn to him, not with the pity they usually did but in *that* way, then perhaps the distance between his heart and the world wouldn’t seem quite so vast.

‘Yes. Yes, I will.’

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