A Story of Now: Chapter 13


The gallery is a mob scene with people spilling out onto the pavement. As she approaches, Claire shoves her hands into her jacket pockets and slows her pace. Nina is supposed to be here somewhere, but that doesn’t mean she will be. Nina is always late. And Claire is always painfully on time. She can’t help it. It was drilled into her. She wishes she were better at that casual, party’s-already-started arrival, because the fear of standing around on her own makes her nervous. Like now.

As she nears the mass of people already gathered—mostly students and a few proud-but-beleaguered parents—she knows she made the right choice about what to wear. Everyone, except the parents, firmly embraced the dressing down.

She stops at the fringes of the crowd and wonders how she’s going to get inside. She edges closer to the wide, glass doors and stands on her tiptoes to get a glimpse inside. All she can see is bodies. How does anyone even manage to see the art at these events? She steps to the edge of the pavement, out of the way of the steady stream of people weaving in and out the door.

She considers elbowing in so she can find someone she knows or at least get a drink. Either would alleviate the social anxiety that is taking firm hold of her. Before she decides, a hand clutches her arm. She spins around. It’s Nina.

“Hi!”

“Hey.”

Nina dyed her hair again, a darker blonde this time. Nina is always changing her look. It’s a constant work in progress. I like change, she tells Claire. Raised in a huge, vaguely hippie family, Nina learned to go with any kind of flow. It’s a source of envy for Claire. She’d like to be that free and easy but knows she’ll never find anywhere near that level of calm. Nina’s carefree behaviour can also be annoying, because it’s difficult to pin her down. Claire can never count on her to be where she’s supposed to be at any given time.

“I like your hair this week.”

“Thanks,” Nina says as she runs her hand over her head and smiles self-consciously. “I still like yours too. It’s awesome.”

“Yeah, better since I got it fixed.”

Nina doesn’t respond to her dig about the botched bleach job. Instead, she says, “Josh has gone in to find drinks.”

Claire nods, chewing her lip. She forgot Josh might be here. Awkward.

“Have you been inside?” Claire asks.

Nina shakes her head. “Too hard to get in.” She glances at the teeming crowd. “I’m going to wait a bit and then try. Let’s find somewhere to sit.”

They end up on the curb with their feet in the gutter. A lot of people do the same and line the edges of the street with drinks in their hands.

“Classy,” Claire grumbles as they sit.

Nina smiles, not bothered in the least by their position or by Claire’s complaint. Josh finds them eventually. He clutches a bottle of bubbly and a small pile of plastic cups. He pours them each a glass, hands one to Claire with barely an acknowledgement of her presence, and sits on the other side of Nina. At least he seems to have returned to his old grunty ways. She hopes he stays that way. She sits back and sips her—as promised—disgusting champagne. She watches the people around her, all dressed to appear as casual as possible, a look that probably took just as long as anything fancier would have.

She stares idly down the street, half listening to Josh talk about a sporty obstacle course he’s doing on the weekend, and spots a guy who looks kind of familiar. She runs through a list of ways she might know him, trying to figure out if he’s in one of her classes at school or maybe a customer at the bar. When he gets closer, she notices Mia walking next to him, dressed in jeans and a loose red top. That’s when Claire realises that the vaguely familiar guy is Mia’s coffee boy.

Mia’s clearly mid story, talking animatedly while he listens avidly. Claire smirks to herself and wonders if he’s gotten anywhere with her yet. As they get closer, Mia spies her and waves. She veers over to where they sit.

“Hi! You came.”

“Hey.” Claire smiles. “You know Nina, right? And that’s Josh.” She flaps a hand in his direction.

Josh nods at them and holds up the bottle and glasses.

“Nice to meet you.” Mia nods at the proffered bottle. “Thanks.”

“It’s disgusting,” Claire warns her.

“I’ll risk it.” She turns to her friend. “This is Pete.”

He says hello and wanders away to talk to some people on the other side of the street.

“Coffee Boy, hey?” Claire teases.

Mia is about to say something when Robbie appears. He folds Mia into a tight, one-armed hug, holding his drink aloft in his other hand.

“You’re here!” he sings. He looks great tonight, with his hair high. He’s in black skinny jeans and boots, and a bright-blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.

Claire wonders if he cuts the sleeves off everything the minute he buys it. She also wonders what he wears in winter.

“Of course I am.” Mia presses a hand to his cheek. “I just got here, though, so I haven’t been in.”

“Don’t bother.” He clutches her arm as if for protection. “It’s packed, and you can’t see anything anyway.” He steps gently on the tip of Claire’s boot. “Hey. You came too.”

She pulls a face at him and then smiles.

“Yeah, we’re waiting until we can actually get in the door. You’re popular.” Nina shades her eyes and looks up at him. “How is it going?”

“I’m freaking out a bit, actually.” Robbie leans against Mia. “Some of our teachers turned up, even though it’s not a school show. I was not expecting that. None of us were.”

“Do they like your stuff?” Mia immediately shakes her head and corrects herself. “Well, of course, they do, but did they say anything?”

Robbie gives her a bashful look. “I don’t know. I might have hidden from them.”

Mia sighs. “You’re an idiot.” She jabs his chest with her finger. “Shouldn’t you be trying to promote yourself?”

He stares at the ground. Mia shakes her head again and slides her arm around his narrow waist and holds him against her.

“What about you?” he asks her. “Get that anatomy thing done?”

She nods and kind of waves it away as though she’s done thinking about it.

Claire watches them, struck by how they are so worn into their intimacy, how much they seem like brother and sister. Their devotion to each other—even though they are so different—is cute.

“I better go back.” He sucks in a deep breath. “The owner said that someone might, might be interested in buying one of my pieces.”

“Really?” Mia turns to him immediately, eyes wide. “That’s amazing. Get back in there, then.” She pushes him away.

“Okay,” he whines. “I hate doing this stuff.”

“You want to live off your work?”

“Yes.” He sighs as though this is a conversation they’ve had many times before.

“Then go back in there.”

“Yes’m,” he mutters but leans in and kisses her forehead. “I’ll come find you guys when it’s quieter, okay?” He points at Claire. “I want to show you something.” Then he turns and strides away.

Claire frowns. It’s the same thing he said last time he saw her. She looks up at Mia. “What does he want me to see?”

“He’ll show you,” she says with a smile.

“Want to sit?” Claire slides closer to Nina. “It’s very comfortable, as you can probably imagine.”

“Sure.” Mia drops down next to Claire.

“How did you guys meet, anyway?”

“Me and Robbie?”

Claire nods.

“At work. Last summer. We both started working there around the same time and, being the new kids, they put us on the early shift together.” Mia shakes her head. “Nothing will make or break a friendship like a couple of months of 6am starts.”

Claire smiles. She can imagine. “Coffee Boy’s here.”

Mia nods. “Coffee Boy’s here.” She looks over at where he’s talking to two other guys.

“I thought nothing was going on with him.”

“That’s not what I said.” Mia turns the plastic cup between her hands, staring at it. “I just said I hung out with him sometimes.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.” Claire smirks. “And that you weren’t sleeping with him and yet he still brings you free beverages. So, did it pay off?”

“Nosey, aren’t you?” Mia gives her a look. She doesn’t seem too upset, though.

“Yeah, I am. Habit. It’s all the lawyers in the family. But I get it. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just…unconfirmed, you know?”

Claire nods. She does understand. Besides, it’s none of her business, and Mia clearly keeps these things to herself. Claire is used to Nina, who will talk about anything. In the few short months they have known each other, Claire has learned Nina’s entire history—family, romantic, and sexual. On the other hand, Claire is kind of private about her business, and Nina makes her seem like the most closed person in the world. She changes the subject. “Is it exciting being out on a Thursday, Mia?” She turns and flicks her eyebrows up and down at her. “Feeling dangerous?”

“Oh yeah.” Mia takes a sip of her drink and gasps. “Whoa. Confirmed, disgusting.”

“Told you. Besides, should you be drinking on a week night? Surely that’s not in the rules?”

“Exams are coming, and I am determined to enjoy everything while I can. Life will be hellish soon enough.”

Claire hasn’t given much thought to exams yet. Mia’s right, they’re not far away. “How many do you have?”

“Six.”

“Ouch. I only have two.”

“Lucky.” Mia wraps her arms around her legs again. “Do you worry about how you’ll do? Your grades?”

At first, Claire goes to act as if she doesn’t care, but she thinks Mia probably isn’t the kind of person to judge. “Yeah, I do,” she admits. “I was raised by perfectionists. Can’t help it. You?”

“I stress. Getting into the good postgrad courses is really competitive.”

“But you seem so chilled.”

Mia seems so relaxed and cheerful—and in a surprisingly un-annoying way. Claire thinks it would take a lot to ruffle her.

“Wait until exams,” Mia warns her.

“Oh God, are you talking about exams?” It’s Pete, Coffee Boy. He sits next to Mia and grins at Claire. “Don’t talk to her about exams.”

“Why?”

“Hush, you,” Mia tells him at the same time.

“Mia was a wreck last semester. And she nearly lost her mind when she had to do her GAMSAT.” He bumps his shoulder against hers.

“The medical entry exam,” Mia tells Claire as she elbows him back. “I wasn’t that bad.”

Claire detects the high note of defence in her voice and smiles. Pete’s probably right.

“You kind of were.” He turns to Claire and shakes his head. “You should have seen her. She was a mess.” Before Mia can respond, he adds, “And, of course it turned out you didn’t need to stress at all, did you?”

Mia doesn’t answer. She turns to Claire. “I thought I had a good reason to worry. I need really good results. Did you know only ten percent of biomed students get into postgrad med courses in Australia every year?”

“No, Mia, I did not,” Claire tells her, playing along, somewhere between sarcastic and serious. Why in hell would she know that?

“I read it on Wikipedia, so it might be true.”

Claire laughs.

Pete shakes his head. “I, on the other hand, did know that, because she’s told me about six hundred times.”

Mia throws him another look but doesn’t say a word.

They sit in the gutter and drink a second, awful bottle of champagne and trade stories. Claire tells them about how Cam and his partner were called in to arrest a woman for not returning a football after the neighbour’s kid had kicked it into her yard a thousand times. When she got fed up and refused to give it back, they had to come in and threaten arrest.

Mia’s eyes widen. “You’re kidding. They can do that?”

“Apparently it constitutes petty theft.”

“That’s nuts,” Pete scoffs.

“The law is a weird, weird thing.” Claire thinks of some of the courtroom tales her family has told her through the years.

Pete starts to tell them about his brush with the law when Robbie appears again.

“Hey, guys, the gallery has cleared a bit if you want to come and look.” He sounds as if he’s not sure he wants them to.

“Yes, please!” Nina jumps to her feet and brushes off the back of her skirt.

“How sad to leave our prime position,” Claire mutters.

Mia chuckles and stands. She holds out her hands to Claire. “Oh, come on.” She hauls Claire to her feet. “You’re sitting in a gutter, but admit it, you’re having fun.”

Claire ignores her. Mia already knows she’s right. Besides, Claire is having fun, more than she’s had all week.


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