Issa looked at the girl he had been paired with, Isobel. He was wondering how to start when she smiled at him.
‘Do you have any ideas of what you’d like us to do, Issa, or d’you want me to come up with something?’
He looked around and saw that most of the other pairs had already started; Oscar seemed to be pleading with the boy paired with him, who appeared dismissive. Carol was walking around between them all, occasionally pausing, listening and sometimes offering advice. Still not sure, he turned back to Isobel.
‘Could you, please?’
He sat back as she outlined her idea: they were to be a pair of people who had met on a train, who only had a short time together to get to know each other. What could they learn about each other in a short time? She laughed.
‘I know it’s not very original, but I watched Before Sunrise last Sunday and I’ve been kind of obsessed ever since.’
Issa hadn’t heard of Before Sunrise. Whatever it was, he didn’t have any of his own ideas about what they should improvise.
‘That sounds… OK.’
‘Great! I’ll start.’
As Isobel started talking, her manner changed. She sat regally upright on her chair, and regarded him from the corner of her eyes, and offered her hand as if expecting him to kiss it.
‘You may call me Janet.’
This was interesting. Soon, a silence from her told him he was expected to respond.
‘Hello, Janet. I am…’
Who was he?
‘Delighted, Thomas, delighted! So, what brings you here, to this carriage, speeding towards Vienna?’
A good question.
‘I am going to start a new job.’
It would be good to have a job.
‘Really? Enchanting. You must tell me more…’
Their improvisation continued, and at one point Issa became aware of Carol standing by them, watching. He looked up at her and she smiled, waving him to carry on.
Eventually, he heard Carol clapping as she strode towards the tables under the skylight.
‘Right, everyone, please finish what you’re doing and bring your chairs around.’
At this, Isobel resumed her usual posture and tone of voice.
‘That was so good, Issa! I can’t believe that was your first time improvising.’
Issa wasn’t sure she was being sincere, but it was pleasant to hear.
Once the group had drawn their chairs together, Carol addressed them.
‘Well done everyone. There was some really lovely work there. Harry P. and Ruby, I loved your glimpse into 1920s Berlin. Very Isherwood. Special mention also to some of our newer ones: Lily, Jake and Issa. You’re really getting into the spirit of it.’
There was a brief round of applause. As some of the group turned to look at him, Issa felt the flush of heat he always felt when noticed.
‘So, for the last hour today we’re going to see where you are with the pieces you’ve been working on. Newer people, please just observe. Look at what the ones performing do and how they’re doing it. What choices are they making in how they deliver? Maybe start to think of pieces you’d like to show us. OK? Good. Right, who’s first? What about you, Hannah? Tracey’s monologue from Chewing Gum Dreams, wasn’t it? OK, off you go.’
Issa was fascinated by the final hour of the class. As Carol had asked, he tried his best to study each performance, though he couldn’t help also looking at the others as they watched. Most of them seemed as interested as him, though some were fidgeting; Oscar, however, was serenely indifferent. He spent most of the hour draped over the one of the girls, occasionally leaning up and whispering into her ear, making her giggle.
It was getting to the end of the session, and Issa was starting to think Oscar might not perform. Carol, standing as she had done for the last hour, threaded between the chairs to stand in front of the tables.
‘Thank you everybody. Some real progression there. Of course, we have one person left, our resident closer. Up you come, Oscar. I hope you’re going to show more animation than you have for the last hour.’
With an exaggerated shrug, Oscar got up from where he had been reclining, to applause mixed with groans. Feigning shock, he grinned as he went to stand in front of the tables. Then, in a spark, his body shifted and his gaze narrowed.
‘The raven himself is hoarse…’
As Oscar began stalking around the tables, Issa felt himself sitting up in his seat. He was as entranced as he was when he first saw Oscar, but now he was closer, close enough to feel the heat of the winter arcing out of Oscar when, for one brief moment, they locked eyes.
When Oscar moved away, Issa felt something open inside him, some possibility that he had never before felt. Watching Oscar, Issa saw that the boy’s ability to draw others in was a strange alchemy, an alchemy that was part his vital, fissile essence and part a surrender of his lithe body to who he chose to be. He saw this power and knew then that it was something he had to find, had to possess because of the places he couldn’t reach inside himself.
Oscar finished, and as he was returning to his seat Issa didn’t hear the cheers and whoops of the other members of the group. He was turned inward, hearing only his own certainty: to change, to free himself, he, Issa, mere Issa, had to know, had to discover how to transform, and to do that he had to get closer to Oscar.