A Story of Now: Chapter 29


Claire puts her French textbook in her bag and looks over at her brother and smiles.

Today is nearly a good day. Last night Cam’s new doctor said if his scans are okay, they’ll move Cam to a regular ward tomorrow. That feels like a step closer to Cam being okay again. With that small but precious nugget of good news in her pocket, Claire is able to go home and relax a little.

Today she feels just a little bit human again. As she leaves his room she doesn’t say goodbye. Cam is already two-thirds of his way back to sleep, to the place where his body and brain spend most of their time, busy with the steady work of returning him to health.

As she’s making her way down the hall, her phone vibrates in her pocket. She sighs and pulls it out, expecting her mother for what will be the third time today.

It’s not. It’s Robbie. “Hey, where are you?” he asks the moment she picks up.

“At the hospital. Where else?”

“Good. I’m out the front, near emergency. Come out.”

And before she can ask what he’s doing there, he hangs up, and she heads for the front entrance.

As soon as she hits the outside air, she zips up her jacket all the way to the top. In the spirit of the tempestuous Melbourne springtime, the sun is out, but the wind is whippy and biting, a stark contrast to the caressing warmth of that dream weather when her friends came to visit.

Robbie sits on a bench near the entrance, his camera in one hand and his backpack next to him. An obviously handpicked—or hand-thieved—bunch of flowers hang out of the opening, drooping already. He grins when he sees her and stands.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“I’ve come to take you to lunch.” He loops his arm through hers. “It’s Sunday.”

“So?”

“So Sunday is the time for Sunday lunch, Claire. Get with the program.”

“Uh, okay then.” She figures it’s easier not to question it, not when Robbie is being so willfully cryptic. They walk off the hospital grounds and down the street. The late-morning traffic hums around them.

He pulls out his phone. “Actually, it’s a little early. Let’s get a coffee first.” He makes a quick turn for the crossing. “How’s your brother?”

“Better.”

“Hey, that’s really good.” He gives a little skip and squeezes her arm.

“It is. And they say he’s really lucky, that so far there doesn’t seem to be any real permanent damage, except he might have lifelong trouble with back pain and a slightly screwy kidney.”

He laughs. “That’s the medical term, right?” He leads her around a corner to a little café Claire never noticed before. He shoves open the door, and she follows him into the tiny, cosy space fragrant with coffee and baked bread. They find a table, order coffees, and sit.

“What have you been doing?” Claire asks him, so ready to hear anything about the world outside the hospital.

“Freaking out.”

“What about?”

“School. Everything. I have to write a stupid essay, and I am terrible at writing essays.” He rolls his eyes and sips tentatively at his coffee. “It’s, like, I know how I feel about certain ideas, certain art, and I am completely confident in my opinions, but I’m no good at organising it into words on a page in that way they want you to structure them. It just ends up being one big tangle, if you know what I mean.”

Claire nods. She doesn’t have that problem, though. Essays come easy for her. It’s just working to a formula. “You know, I’m actually okay at them. I could look at it for you, if you want?” She offers it shyly. She never imagined she could help Robbie with anything. “It might help.”

“No, it’s fine.” He shakes his head and waves the idea away. “You have enough to worry about.”

“No, seriously,” she insists. “I don’t know how much help I can be, but I kinda have a lot of time on my hands. I am actually starting to wish my brother would sleep less and talk to me. And, believe me, that’s not a feeling I’ve had often in my life.”

He cackles. “I might take you up on it.” He grabs her wrist and squeezes it. “Thank you,” he says, serious for a moment.

She gives him a sly smile. “But just so you know, Robbie, there’s only so much I can do to polish a turd.”

“Oh shut up. I’m not that bad!” He lets go of her wrist and slaps it instead.

“I know. I’m joking. What else can I help you with?”

“Can you prescribe anxiety medication?”

“You might need Mia for that. Why?”

“I’m just freaking out about the end-of-year show too,” he confesses. “And about the feedback, which is—”

“But everyone loved the last exhibition.”

“Oh, no, not that kind of feedback.” Robbie shakes his head. “That’d be okay. I mean the formal feedback we get from our professors. They examine our final project, the stuff we put in our show.”

“Oh, scary.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But your stuff is kind of amazing. They’ll love it.”

“Maybe. I’m scared about this bunch of photos. They are some I took the last time I went home, of my family, and they’re, I don’t know, they’re…” He trails off as if he never knew where that sentence was going in the first place.

Claire frowns. “Where is your family?” She realises she knows nothing about them. “In Melbourne?”

He shakes his head. “I grew up outside Geelong.”

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“One of each, but they’re ten and twelve years older than me.”

“Wow.” Claire raises her eyebrows. “How’d that happen?”

“I was kind of an accident. I don’t think my parents were too impressed, really, having another kid in their forties.” He smiles ruefully. “And they were especially not that impressed when he turned out to be gay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. They didn’t kick me out onto the streets or anything dramatic like that. But they do refuse to acknowledge it.”

“Like, they don’t mention it at all?”

He nods. “Just like that. They’re kind of religious. And they just don’t get it. Or me. And they don’t get the photography thing. Neither do my brother and sister. One works in a bank, and the other is a medical receptionist. They’re so completely uninterested in anything other than their kids and their jobs and their mortgages. So they ignore everything about me that they don’t get. Which is pretty much everything.” He shakes his head. “I never, ever want to be like that.”

“Me either.” She gives him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry your family is a bunch of jerks.”

He grins back at her. “Thanks. I’m luckier than some. You know, Eli said his ex-boyfriend’s parents actually kicked him out when he came out. I didn’t even know that still happened to people.”

“Wow.” Claire shakes her head. She’d have to do something pretty awful for her parents to kick her out.

Robbie sits up. “We better get going or we’ll be late.”

“For what?”

He doesn’t answer. He’s already halfway out the door.

They leave the café, continue up the road, and turn down another side street, a narrower, tree-lined strip of old apartment blocks.

“Where exactly are we going for lunch?” Claire asks. They seem to be walking further away from cafés and deeper into pure neighbourhood.

“Mia’s.” Robbie strides up to a red-brick apartment block.

“What, like, Mia’s house?” Claire asks, hurrying to catch up with him.

She hasn’t seen Mia today, but for the last few days since they all came to visit, she’s been coming to the hospital to keep Claire company when she can’t be with Cam. Sometimes they studied in the cafeteria or walked over to the park to sit in the sun. Sometimes they just sat in the waiting room and talked or not talked, and it’s felt like a reprieve. Mia made the days pass faster and Claire feel less lonely.

“Yup.” He leads her up a flight of steps. When they reach the top, he pulls the flowers out of his bag, a ragtag, but charming, bunch of clashing colours and wide green leaves. He raps loudly on a door. “Mia’s house.”

A tall brunette woman with her hair tied back in a neat bun opens the door. Claire immediately recognises Mia’s brown eyes and clear, not-quite-olive skin. The woman’s face is broader than Mia’s though, with a more handsome, stern brand of good looks.

“Hi!” Robbie steps up and gives the woman a kiss on the cheek. Her serious expression softens into a smile at his embrace. “I brought my camera and these.” He passes her the flowers. “And, as instructed, I brought Claire.” He turns to Claire. “Claire this is Mia’s mum.”

“Hello.” Claire is immediately shy and wonders why he’s been instructed to bring her here. She always gets timid around other people’s parents. They never seem to like her.

Mia’s mother smiles at her, clutching the flowers. “Hello, Claire.” She shakes Claire’s hand. “I’m Tasya. Welcome.”

“Uh, thank you.” Claire blushes and obediently follows Robbie into a large living room. It’s a lovely, alive kind of room, where furniture seems to be an afterthought, forced to work around the brimming bookshelves and leafy indoor plants. It’s such a contrast to the sterile beige wash that is Claire’s house, where it’s always difficult to feel completely comfortable. She likes it already.

Mia appears through a doorway in her jeans and work T-shirt with a dog at her heels. “Hey, perfect timing. I just got home from work.” She smiles at Claire and turns to Robbie. “You found her.”

“I did,” Robbie says. “I’ll admit it wasn’t too hard.”

Tasya walks toward a door on the other side of the room. “I think lunch is close to done. Come into the kitchen when you’re ready.”

Robbie follows her from the room.

“Okay,” Mia tells her and then turns back to Claire. “Sorry for the surprise invite. I told my mum and dad about Cam and how you were there by yourself, and they told me I had to invite you to lunch.” She shrugs as if she is slightly embarrassed but can’t help her parents.

“It’s okay,” Claire says. “It’s…nice.”

“Good. I’m going to get changed. I’ll be back in a minute.” Mia dashes up the stairs.

The dog wanders over to Claire and gazes up at her. It’s a stocky, friendly looking blue heeler, greying around the muzzle and eyes. One of its ears is standing at attention while the other flops lazily onto its head. She offers her hand for it to sniff before she pets the velvety failed ear.

“What happened to your ear?” she mumbles as she scratches his muzzle. “Do you need to be returned to the factory?” The dog licks her hand and leans against her leg. She pets him absently until Mia trots back down the stairs, changed into a light-green top, her hair loose.

“This is Blue.” Mia leans over her dog, clutching his snout affectionately between her hands.

“Is he yours?”

“He’s all of ours, I guess.” Mia rubs the fur across his back. “But he mostly hangs out with me. We got him when I was ten.”

“We got a dog when I was ten too. For Cam, though,” Claire tells her. “A Labrador. He was so stupid. Like, incredibly stupid. My dad took him to a trainer because we couldn’t get him to do anything. And even the trainer said he was dumb.”

Mia laughs. “Did he ever learn anything?”

“Only how to get out through the gate when we weren’t home. He got hit by a car and died by the time I was eleven.”

“Oh.” Mia frowns.

Claire sighs. “Mum said she was surprised he lived that long. We stuck to cats after that.”

Mia takes Claire into the kitchen and introduces her to her father, John, a tall, impossibly thin, bearded man in an apron and slacks. He paces busily between the stove and counter and chops salad on a board laid out next to a stack of dishes.

He stops momentarily and greets Claire. And immediately she sees the rest of Mia that isn’t made from Tasya, her slender, freckled features and her warm, open smile. They are her gifts from him.

They all sit at the table, waiting for John to finish what he’s doing. Claire doesn’t talk much but listens to the conversation as it flows around her. It’s a shock to be suddenly removed from the disinfected whiteness of the hospital and the silence of Cam’s room to the patchwork charm of this large, sunny flat. Jarring, but lovely. She wants to let it wash over her in soothing waves of comforting normality before she has to return to her current reality.

Finally, John places dish after dish on the table, fish and vegetables and a delicate, leafy green salad. “Sometimes we’re all too busy to get together much during the week.” He pours wine into his glass and sits down. “So we always try and eat one meal together on Sunday if we’re home.”

“Then we can remember what each other looks like,” Tasya adds.

“And I sometimes get lucky enough to be a recipient of such feasts.” Robbie grins as he spoons potatoes onto his plate.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Claire says.

“You’re so very welcome. I’m sure you need some time away from the hospital.” Tasya serves herself some salad. “And probably a break from the food.”

“True.” Claire takes beans from a dish and thinks of all the crappy stodge she’s been eating lately, all washed down with endless cans of Coke and terrible hospital coffee.

They ask her about Cam. And as Claire answers their questions, she can tell Mia’s parents are concerned and maybe even a little bit disturbed by the fact her parents aren’t even in town. And part of her agrees. But that other small, defensive part of her, that relentless Pearson pride—the loyalty that never will budge, no matter how much they drive her nuts sometimes—wants to defend their absence. She’s tempted to explain how the pressures of their jobs keep them away, but she doesn’t.

They each drink a glass of wine during the meal. John toasts to Cam’s newest reprieve. Feeling the warm glow brought on by the wine, Claire blushes at their generosity and at the easy compassion of these people she’s only just met. After lunch they stay seated at the table and talk. Once again, Claire is confronted with the contrast to her own family, who only stays at the table long enough to eat or finish an argument.

Later, when the dishes are stacked and they’ve drunk a pot of tea, Mia and her father walk Claire back to the hospital. Blue pads next to them on a leash he doesn’t seem to need. Mia and John are on their way to the university. John works in the physics department, a part of the university Claire has never visited. Mia is going to the library.

“Will you be okay?” Mia asks her at the entrance to the hospital.

Claire thrusts her hands in her pockets. “Of course. I’m fine.”

Mia smiles. “You do like to say that. How long can you stay today?”

“Just a couple of hours. They close visiting hours at four on Sundays.”

Mia nods. “Well, see you later. And call me if you need anything, okay?”

“Goodbye, Claire.” John leans in and gives her an unexpected kiss on the cheek. “Lovely to meet you. Let us know if you need anything, okay?”

“Sure. Thank you.” Claire blushes and ducks into the hospital.

* * *

After a couple hours of watching Cam sleep and preparing for her French exam, Claire leaves the hospital.

When she gets to the nurses’ station, she finds Mia.

Claire frowns. “What are you doing here again, weirdo?”

Mia gives her a bashful smile. “So, this is embarrassing, but Mum made me come down here and get you on my way home.”

Claire narrows her eyes. “Why?”

“She says you should stay at our place tonight. I think she’s freaked out by the idea of you being at home by yourself.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know you are, sort of, but Mum’s…” Mia sighs, as if she can’t explain it. “Besides, you know, it would be easier for you. It’s really close, and you can just stay with us and come back here tomorrow. And it will shut Mum up.”

Claire bites her lip. Part of her wants to accept, but she feels kind of dumb too. The thought of going home to the empty house for yet another silent night is pretty depressing, especially after the soothing lunch today in Mia’s lovely flat. She glances at Mia, chewing her lip.

Plus, she wants to hang out with Mia. She has this way of making Claire feel closer to normal, closer to okay. She takes in a breath and wonders how to say yes without feeling needy and clingy and dumb.

“We can study together.”

“Ooh, exciting,” Claire teases, thankful that Mia took the pressure off her in that easy, casual way of hers.

“Oh, what were you going to do? On a Sunday night? Go clubbing? Come on.”

“Um, okay, I guess.”

“Good, let’s go, then.” Mia turns and leads the way out of the hospital.


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