A Story of Now: Chapter 32

Mia pokes Claire in the side with her foot. “That’s all you are getting.”

Claire pushes away the foot “And this, Mia, is all I require.”

She undermines her aloof response with an involuntary giggle. She can’t help it; the photo is stupidly cute.

They lie end to end on the bed again, with Mia up against the pillows and Claire with her head at the other end. Her socked feet rest on the wall above the bed. Even though it’s getting dark and Mia has turned on the lamps, they’ve left the curtains open and the window raised. The balmy evening air washes in, bringing smells of grass and early dinners being cooked in neighbouring apartments. Every now and then, a passing headlight lays bright tracks along the wall, and as she studies, Claire can hear the sounds of footsteps and doors slamming as people come home from work.

They are on a break. Together they have plotted out the perfect study system, one hour of intense, silent study time, and then twenty minutes to relax and talk, make a snack, or take Blue outside. It works well.

It’s Claire’s third night at the apartment, and they have worked steadily together every night after Claire gets back from the hospital and Mia returns from the library. Tomorrow Claire’s parents will return from Canberra, and she will go home.

She knows she’s going to miss it here. It’s cosy and lively, with neighbours coming and going, and friends dropping around for tea. It’s a world away from Claire’s house.

And an added bonus is studying with Mia, who’s completely and utterly focused on her work, means that Claire’s probably as prepared for the exams as she would’ve been if Cam hadn’t been hurt. In fact, the harder they study, the calmer Claire feels about these coming exams. Now she’s back on track, she’s sure she can manage whatever will be thrown at her.

Mia, however, seems to be the opposite. The more she studies, the tenser she becomes. It’s not overt. She still acts like regular Mia, but Claire can see the fear winding tighter inside her in the ways her brow tightens when she talks about the tests, or in the way Claire catches her staring off into the distance between bouts of note taking, with a lip-chewing look of consternation on her face. And she knows, Mia is terrified of these exams. And she looks so damn miserable in those moments that during these breaks, Claire tries to distract her from thinking about them. She tells pointless stories or talks about nonsense topics, all to make Mia laugh. It seems to work, mostly.

And this is her latest means of distraction, spurred by genuine curiosity. She lays her head back against the pillow and holds the picture above her face.

It’s so unmistakeably Mia, even if she’s dressed in the girliest clothes Claire has ever seen her in. She wears a knee-length, floral, party dress with matching ribbons in her hair. Her hair is wrapped in a wreath of plaits around her head, and stray strands fall around her face and neck, exactly the same way they do now. She’s laughing in the photo, her mouth open and her arms akimbo as though she were completely in motion when the shot was snapped.

Claire holds the picture a little closer. “How old were you?”

“Maybe six or seven, I think.”

It was taken here in this flat. Claire recognises the living room. She almost doesn’t recognise Mia’s father, though, young and beardless. He is sporting a moustache, though. She must remember to pay him out about that one day.

“Who’s that with your dad?” She looks at the small, slender woman with long, honeyed-blonde hair standing next to him. It’s definitely not Tasya. Whoever she is, she’s laughing with her arm around Mia’s neck as if holding her in place. “And why is she strangling you?”

“Who’s strangling who?” asks Tasya.

Claire jumps. Tasya leans on the door frame. Claire immediately takes her feet from where they are on the wall. She doesn’t want to look too at home.

“Claire wanted to see a photo of me when I was little. I’m showing her that one of Lila and Dad.”

“Ah.” Tasya nods as though she knows the photograph well. She enters slowly and sits down on Mia’s desk chair with a sigh. She leans over to stroke Blue, who is stretched out on the floor as usual. “Then she was probably holding Mia still. You always had to do that for photos. Most of the pictures we have of her under the age of ten, she’s being held in a headlock by someone trying to keep her in the frame.”

Claire laughs. “A bit hyper, Mia?”

She grins. “I hated being in photos.”

“And you hated standing still even more,” Tasya adds. She reaches for the photo. “May I?”

Claire passes it to her and watches as Tasya stares at it, a shadow of a frown on her face.

“You were going to turn seven that year,” she tells Mia. “It was your dad’s thirty-seventh birthday.” She smiles at the photo. “I always forget how beautiful Lila was.”

“Who’s Lila?” Claire turns over on her side, resting her head on her hand.

“John’s sister.” Tasya takes one last long look at the picture and passes it back to Claire. “She died of cancer two years later.”

“Oh.” Claire stares at the woman in the photo. She can’t be older than thirty. And she is lovely.

“She was Mia’s only aunt.”

“I’m so sorry. That’s so sad.” She wonders how well Mia remembers her.

“This was hers.” Mia holds up the silver chain she always wears around her neck.

Claire nods. She wondered why Mia always wears the same necklace.

Tasya smiles and sits back in the chair. “I remember taking that photo. I was trying to get a picture of the three of them to send to Rosa, John’s mother. And Lila was trying, as usual, to get Mia to stay still. But of course, she wasn’t having any of it. I was taking too long to work the new camera, and all she wanted to do was go to the park because Lila had promised to take her.”

“Where are your shoes, Mee?” Claire asks as she notices that, despite the fancy party dress and hair, Mia’s feet are bare and grubby.

Mia laughs and looks over at her mother as if she knows what’s about to come.

Tasya chuckles. “That, Claire, is a question that has been asked often in this house. As a child, Mia had this uncanny ability to divest herself of shoes within minutes of putting them on, even when she was a baby. We’d get in the car to go shopping, and she’d be wearing them. By the time we’d get into the supermarket, they’d be gone. The child could barely crawl, but she could lose a pair of shoes in minutes. I remember once when she was five, some friends found her pair of little white shoes under the bridal table the day after a wedding in Shepparton. We had to leave the wedding with her in bare feet because we couldn’t find them anywhere. They had to post them back to us.”

Mia laughs. “I hated those shoes. They were ugly.”

“And then sometimes she’d simply come home without them.” Tasya shakes her head. “I don’t know how many times I had to call the school or other parents to figure out where you left them.”

“How do you not notice you have no shoes on?” Claire asks, baffled.

Mia raises her hands. “I don’t know. I don’t lose them anymore.”

Tasya laughs. “I wish I’d known the answer to that question when she was a child, though, Claire. I would be a richer woman for it. Some never appeared again. And some turned up in the oddest places. Like on the kitchen windowsill, once.” She shakes her head. “The outside kitchen windowsill. Of a second-story apartment.”

“Mr. Hatsis once found a pair in his yard that I’d dropped on the way home, remember?” Mia’s still a little pink but smiles as though she’s committed to her embarrassment now.

“Oh yes, that’s right. Do you remember that letter you wrote to them? About their yard?”

Mia nods. “Yes. My stroke of genius.”

“It really was.” Tasya turns to Claire. “When Mia was eight, we would never let her go around to her friend Kristen’s unless one of us walked her there. And of course, being an only child, she always wanted to go there and play.

“She lived on the street behind us,” Mia explains. “But it was kind of a long block to get around.”

“And there was a busy main road on the way,” Tasya adds. “So we didn’t like her going by herself.”

Claire nods. She pushes her book away and rolls onto her side, thoroughly entertained by this nostalgic indulgence. It’s way more entertaining than reflexive verbs.

Tasya continues, “Of course, we weren’t always able to walk there with her when she wanted to go, not straight away. Which drove her crazy.”

Mia laughs. “I would get so impatient. I remember you’d tell me that you’d take me in fifteen minutes, and I’d just sit there and watch the clock and wait for it to move. It felt like an eternity.”

Claire smiles. She remembers that feeling when she was a kid. A minute took a day, and an hour took a year, especially when she really, really wanted something to happen.

“And with John it actually would be an eternity,” Tasya says. “He’d tell her fifteen minutes and then get completely absorbed in what he was working on and forget.”

“Yeah, and he thought he could get away with it, that I couldn’t tell time on his study clock yet.” Mia shakes her head. “He forgot he taught me how the numbers worked when I was five.”

“So what was the letter about?” Claire asks.

“Well, after getting tired of constantly waiting for us to walk her around to Kristen’s house or begging us to let her walk alone, which we told her she couldn’t until she was ten, Mia masterminded her own solution.”

Claire turns to Mia, curious. “What did you do?”

“I finally figured out that if I went over the back way, I actually only had to go through one backyard to get to Kristen’s house—their next-door neighbours’, the Hatsises. So I wrote them a letter explaining who I was and asking for permission to cross through their yard. And then I got Kristen to put it in their mailbox for me. I even put a stamped self-addressed envelope in it.” She laughs, shaking her head. “I don’t even know how I knew to do that.”

Claire giggles, impressed. “That is kind of genius.”

Tasya nods. “It was. Mia had it completely worked out. She even suggested an exchange for manual labour, offering to work in their garden or wash their car in return for safe passage,” Tasya adds. “And then they wrote this very nice note back to John and I saying Mia was welcome to use their yard as a thoroughfare and saying what a polite little girl she was. We, of course, had no idea what they were talking about.”

Mia shrugs. “I figured I’d wait and see what they said first, before I pitched it to Mum and Dad. I thought they’d be more likely to say yes then.”

“And how could we not?” Tasya says to Claire. “We were so impressed at our child’s astonishing initiative. And highly amused, of course.”

“And it meant you didn’t have to spend all your time listening to me beg for you to walk me around the block,” Mia adds.

“What would you have done if they still didn’t let you?” Claire asks, because her mother probably still would have said no just on the basis that she didn’t think of the idea.

Tasya chuckles. “Probably created some sort of PowerPoint presentation explaining the pros and cons of letting her go on her own. With interactive maps. She wouldn’t have given up. Anyway,” Tasya slaps her hands on her knees and gets up, “enough of my distractions. What did I come up here for, anyway? I swear it wasn’t just to share embarrassing stories about my daughter—although I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she adds. She leans on the desk and taps her fingers on her lip, thinking. “Oh, that’s right. Mia, I spoke to your grandmother Rosa today, and she wants you to call her before your exams start.”

Mia nods and grits her teeth. “Exams.” She sighs.

Claire watches as she immediately begins to frown, just that one word setting her off again.

Tasya wearily shakes her head as if she’s used to this level of anxiety from Mia. “You’ll be fine. You’ve worked hard.”

Mia doesn’t even respond. She is too busy backsliding into her quiet panic. After watching her shift in and out of this escalating terror for the last few days, Claire sees what Pete meant when he mentioned Mia and her attack of crazy, because her pre-exam nerves are kind of extreme.

Tasya turns to Claire, her brow furrowed. “Do you get this anxious over your exams, Claire?” She tips her head toward Mia, who is now chewing her lip, brows knitted. She stares into the middle distance and ignores them.

Claire shakes her head. “I get nervous, but nothing like this. Yes, your daughter is nuts.”

Tasya laughs, but Mia doesn’t even register. “She’ll do well. She always does,” Tasya says. “But it doesn’t stop her jitters.” She takes one more affectionate look at Mia and trudges slowly out the room, one hand on her hip. “I’ll see you two later for dinner.”

“Okay. Thank you, Tasya,” Claire says. She turns her attention back to Mia.

Mia chews at her lip, trapped somewhere in the mire of her inner high-achiever panic.

“Hey, Mia,” Claire calls out to her, louder than she needs to.

Mia jumps a little. “What?”

Claire taps her pen on her leg. “Breathe,” she tells her. “Don’t. Forget. To. Breathe.”

Mia looks at her, her blank stare slowly shifting into a rueful smile.

“It going to be okay,” Claire assures her.

Mia frowns. “How come you’re allowed to say that and I’m not?”

“Because,” Claire says airily. “Just because. So breathe.”

Obediently Mia takes in a deep breath, sighs it out, and returns to the page in front of her.


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