Claire stands at the end of the narrow bar, staring idly into the dimly lit cavernous pub. Vintage lamps dot the walls and tables without adding any actual light. Work is particularly slow and painful tonight.
Nina calls out from the other end of the bar, “Seriously, come check this out.”
Claire wanders over and looks where her friend is pointing.
“Would you look at what those douche bags are doing,” Nina mutters, hands on her hips.
The guys by the pool table are deeply invested in some obnoxious game where they shut their eyes and try to pinch one another’s nipples through their hockey shirts. From what Claire can tell, it’s a stupid, drunken-frat-boy version of pin the tail on the donkey. If someone hits the mark, they yell “Nipple cripple!” and drink.
And it’s only Monday.
Claire sighs. “See, I need to record this or something.” She leans against the bar and crosses her arms. “Then every time my mum says I should go to university full-time, I can show her this as an example of why I shouldn’t. This is the kind of company I’d keep.” She shakes her head as one of them scores a hit. “Our old dog had more brain cells.”
“That’s not too hard.”
“Why do we work here again?” Claire wipes down a bottle she’s already wiped twice tonight.
“Better hours. No evil boss breathing down our necks. No getting sexually harassed on the job. Free knock-off drinks,” Nina recites, still staring at the game as she fixes her hair into a high ponytail. “And we wanted to work in a place where we’d never hang out, remember?”
It was Nina’s idea that they should find a bar somewhere around the university, near Nina’s flat. Just a regular bar with no deafening house music or pretentious idiots in their poorly chosen, all-money-no-taste suits and ties. A place where they could stay safely tucked behind the bar making drinks. A place where they might get the pick-up lines but not the grabby hands.
“Now, instead, we have all this.” Claire flicks her cloth in the direction of the idiots.
Nina nods grudgingly.
The problem, Claire quickly discovered, is that it doesn’t matter if a place doesn’t have house music or suits. There are plenty of annoyances to replace them. In fact, this bar offers up a veritable Pick ’n’ Mix of stupidity—particularly on the quieter weeknights. There are the nipple-crippling, dimwit jock types. The usual hipsters come in, too, looking for the cool, no-frills ambience of this place. They go gaga over the “real authentic jukebox” one minute and complain about the music selection the next. There are the cynical and needy hospitality workers who come here for after-work drinks. Some nights, there are even a few crusty, overly earnest hippies, drawn in by the sign saying they have vegan beer on tap. Claire doesn’t get that one. Since when is there animal in beer anyway?
The pub is a motley place, and Claire is pretty sure she doesn’t like it any better than the last job. When it’s not weird, it’s boring. Especially on quiet nights like tonight. Aside from Team Douche, there are about six other people in the place, and she and Nina have been pretending to clean for hours in case the owner, Andrew, comes downstairs. But there are only so many times she can clean a bar that’s already as clean as it’s ever going to be, which, as it turns out, isn’t very clean. This place has the ingrained grot that comes from years of drinking embedded in it, the kind that won’t be lifted with a wet cloth and sanitiser spray.
But at least she won’t run into any of her old high school friends here. That’s one bonus.
“I’m thinking of finding a few shifts somewhere else too, though.” Nina checks the state of her eye makeup in the mirror behind the shelves. “Somewhere more exciting.”
“What?” Claire pulls a rack of clean glasses out of the washer. “Don’t leave me here. What is it with you? I’ve known you for three months, and you have had four different jobs already.”
Nina grabs a towel and picks up a glass to dry. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I should stick around for the pay raise. Besides, I need fodder for my memoir. That’s what’s going to make me rich one day.”
“A book about your crappy jobs?” Claire raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like a real best seller.”
“It will be. And you know what it is going to be called?”
“What?” Claire isn’t sure she wants to know.
“From Behind Bars,” she announces proudly.
“Oh wow. I see what you did there. Hilarious.”
“No, Claire.” Nina flicks the rag at her. “It’s genius.”
“Genius like that game.” Claire tips her head in the direction of the douche brigade and their nipple crippling.
Nina smiles as if it washes right over her.
And Claire can’t help smiling too. Nina is such a damn optimist. One of the things Claire likes most about her, though, is she doesn’t care what she does. Nina doesn’t care about university or getting a high-paying job. Nina just wants to live. She doesn’t quietly judge Claire or constantly remind her about what Claire should be doing. There aren’t any little comments like she gets from her high school friends or her parents. For Nina, Claire is what she is, taken as a fact and not a lack of promise.
“You staying at ours tonight?”
Claire nods. “Is that okay? Mum is on leave this week. Yesterday she left an ad for a temping agency on my bed. Can you believe that is the height of her aspirations for me right now? That is how low I have set the bar,” she says wearily.
Nina laughs. “Sure, our couch is your couch. You know that.”
They polish glasses in silence for a while, idly staring at the television on the shelf above the door. Just as they finish, the door swings open for the first time in an hour, and a couple of people walk in. They drag some of the chilly night air with them. They wander to the far end of the bar and pull up two bar stools, all while laughing quietly. Once seated, they take books, notepads, and pens out of their bags. Claire puts the glass on the shelf and frowns and then picks up another. She can never understand why anyone would want to study in a bar.
“I’ll go.” Nina trots off to their end of the bar and starts chatting with them in that guileless, affable way she has with the customers. That’s what earns her all the tips, while Claire is lucky to get any. Claire knows she could make more if she were nicer. And if she had to pay rent like Nina, she might consider it. But while she can still call her parents’ house home, she can’t be bothered.
When she is done with the glasses, Claire drops her polishing cloth, carries the empty tray to the end of the bar, and slides it back in the rack.
“We totally deserve a beer, right? After that shift?” A guy with dirty-blond curls and shaved sides nudges the girl next to him.
She nods, head down, as she digs through her bag.
Nina leans on the bar, smiling. “Which beer?”
“What have you got?”
“Ah, we’ve got—”
“Really?” Claire interrupts, her eyebrows raised in disdain. “You’re going to make her list all the beers in the place?” She can’t help herself. It’s her pet hate.
He purses his lips, tips his head to the side, and looks at Claire thoughtfully. “You’re kind of rude,” he muses, as if it’s more noteworthy than objectionable. “But you do make a good point. Who am I kidding?” He turns to Nina. “We’ll have two pints of the cheapest drinkable beer you have, please.”
Nina nods and goes to the taps.
“Classy,” Claire mutters as she wipes down a shelf, revenge for the “rude” comment.
“Rich coming from someone working in this high-end establishment.” He puts his pen in his mouth, chews the end, and looks her up and down. He has dark-brown eyes, which contrast weirdly with his blond curls and pale skin.
“Rich coming from someone doing his homework at the pub.”
“Actually, we’re not studying,” he tells her cheerfully. “We’re working on our definitive ranking of nineties-era heartthrobs.”
Claire raises her eyebrows again, but before she can fashion a suitable comeback to that particular piece of insanity, the girl pipes up.
“Uh, your definitive ranking.” She slips on a pair of glasses and waves her book at him. “I’m actually trying to study.”
They’re the first words she’s spoken in front of Claire. In fact, it’s the first time her gaze has parted ways from her bag or her book. Claire notices what an odd couple they are. He is kind of a rocker, with his shaved sides and band T-shirt with the sleeves hacked off. She is dressed simply in a blue top and jeans. Her only adornment is a chain around her neck with a long, delicate, silver pendant hanging from it. Where he is short, she is long and skinny. Not in the underfed, needs-a-cheeseburger way but in a naturally slender way. A curly mess of dark hair falls behind her shoulders. The only similarity is their dark-brown eyes. Except his are wide and hers are slightly sleepy and catlike. But it’s enough to make Claire wonder if they’re related.
The boy scoffs at her response and taps her hand with his pen. “What do you mean, Mia? Your input has been invaluable. I mean, if it wasn’t for you…” He taps the pen harder to get her attention.
She complies, a patient, amused expression on her face as if she’s completely used to his shtick.
With her attention won, he continues, “If it wasn’t for you, dear friend, I would have forgotten Christian Slater actually straddled the eighties and nineties, which would have thrown everything off. And, your statistical know-how has been fundamental to this endeavour.”
Mia says nothing. She shakes her head at him, pats his arm placatingly, and returns to her book. He grins and delivers a smacking kiss to the side of her head.
He turns back to Claire. “So that is what I am actually doing.”
“The fact that you’re making that list and not studying doesn’t make you any less weird,” Claire tells him as she wipes a spot on the bar near his elbow. She returns his faux-sweet smile with one of her own.
“We’re absolutely fine with that.” He nudges Mia with his elbow. “Aren’t we?”
Mia shrugs and flips over a page in her book. Then she leans her chin on her hand and gives him a slow smile. “Well, I admit I wonder what would happen if you used your considerable brainpower for good, instead of for crazy.”
He just smiles at her.
Nina returns with the beer, takes their money, and makes the change. She takes Claire by the arm and drags her to the other end of the bar. “Please, don’t insult them,” she mutters. “If you haven’t already.”
Nina knows her too well. “Why not?” Claire narrows her eyes. “He’s a smart-ass.”
“They work at Leona’s.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“The café I was telling you about before,” Nina whispers. “It’s amazing, and I plan to take you there. So behave.”
Claire can’t even remember talking about this café. Nina talks so fast and so much that, even when she’s trying, Claire can only absorb about a third of what she says. “All right then.” Claire throws her hands in the air, more to shut Nina up than anything else.
“And he’s kind of hot.”
“Who’s hot?” Claire asks, trying to catch up.
“The one you were fighting with.” Nina tosses a stray coin into the tip jar.
Claire looks back toward the other end of the bar. The boy is waving his skinny arms around as he chats animatedly to his friend. She listens with a half-dubious, half-amused look on her face, her hand holding a place in her book. “Dude, he’s a runt. Not to mention gay.”
Nina looks up, wide-eyed. “Noooo.” She stares at them.
Nina’s shoulders fall into a dramatic slump. “How do I never, ever get that?”
Claire laughs. “In this particular case, I honestly do not know.” She shakes her head and pats Nina’s shoulder.
* * *
Later, Claire returns to their end of the bar, as far from the nipple-cripple douches as she can get. She leans against the counter and gives up all pretence of cleaning. She wants the night to be over so she can take off her shoes, lie down, watch TV, and eat pizza in Nina’s living room far away from the idiots next to the pool table. In the last hour, the boys have taken turns hitting on her each time they order beer. They throw out idiotic pick-up lines at random. It’s gross and depressing. In response, she simply stares, her face frozen in a perfectly composed, blank expression until the douche of the moment gives up and walks away.
Now they’re teasing Nina, who has gone to collect some of the empty glasses from their table. Claire wonders if she should go help but decides Nina can take it. She can be surprisingly feisty when she wants to be. That’s another reason Claire likes her.
One of the guys finds the jukebox. He slaps the side of the machine, flicks through the choices, and drops in some coins. Claire cringes in anticipation. Yup, next thing she knows, some stupid cock-rock anthem starts, and they whoop it up, playing air guitar with the pool cues, and singing. They all join in on the chorus, fists flung in the air. She sucks in a deep breath and releases it in a disgusted sigh.
She looks up. It’s the girl, Mia, sitting by herself. She pushes her glasses closer to her face and watches the idiots. Looking back at Claire, she shakes her head with a sympathetic smile that stretches all the way up to her almond-shaped eyes. “Real mental giants.”
Claire nods slowly and gives her a this-is-what-I-put-up-with-all-the-time look. Mia smiles wryly and tucks a curl behind her ear as she flips to the next page. Surprised by Mia’s unexpected friendliness, Claire wanders away.
Later, when Claire goes back to the pair to collect their empty glasses, they’re both watching the action near the pool table. The music seems to have reignited the douches’ passion for the game, and the boys are deep in another round of nipple crippling.
The boy rubs his hands together. “They should really up the ante now, go for below the belt.”
“Then at least there’d be a risk of accidental injury. Or even sterilisation,” Mia says. “And it’s got to be a plus for the rest of humanity if they can’t procreate.”
Claire snickers. She can’t help it. Mia looks over at her and catches her eye. She smiles at Claire before she turns away again.
The boy suddenly leans forward and slaps his hands on the bar. He stares at Claire, eyes wide. “Ooh, that was nearly laughter! It has a sense of humour. Who’d have thought?”
Claire turns to him. “It also accidentally spills beer in laps sometimes.” She hangs air quotes around “accidentally.”
Mia looks between the two of them, highly amused, before going back to her book.
“Wow, you are such a bitch.” He shakes his head. He sounds more admiring than anything, though. “And the best part is you don’t even care.” He leans on his elbow, staring at her as if in awe.
Claire smiles sweetly. It seems she’s met her match.
“I guess it’s lucky you look like you do.”
As he says it, Mia looks Claire over quickly, a blank expression on her face. Then she goes straight back to her book.
Claire walks away and wonders why she is more insulted by Mia’s casual dismissal than by anything the smart-ass boy has said all night.