Before she knows it, Claire parks down the street from the café. Before she can stop herself, she climbs out of the car. And before she can decide whether or not it’s a dumb idea, she heads straight for the door.
She sees Mia the minute she walks inside, busy at the coffee machine. An immediate conflicting trill of fear and happiness swirls in Claire’s stomach, a sensation so sharp that she knows she has to do this no matter what response she gets.
She orders from the girl at the register and then hangs back with the other customers and watches Mia work. Her face is a study of concentration as she works busily and occasionally swaps a joke or a word with the guy by her side. Her hair is pulled up into a loose knot on the top of her head, and stray strands hang around her neck. She looks hot and tired but still so freaking damn cute.
Claire stares so embarrassingly hard she witnesses the very moment Mia sees her name on the order and then glances up as if she wonders if it’s her. When she spots Claire, she looks taken aback for a second, but then she gives her a timid smile. And it’s the very existence of the smile that gives Claire the courage to move forward until she’s leaning on the counter in front of the machine.
“Hey.” She clenches her jaw, surprised by just how nervous she feels.
“Hey.” Mia frowns at the milk jug. “How are you?” She reads a ticket and calls out a name.
“Fine.” Not wanting to be the only thing standing between “Richard” and his latte, Claire ducks out of the way. “You?”
“Good.” Mia puts another two cups on the counter. “Meg!” She gives the customer a smile and turns back to Claire. “Yours is next.”
Claire nods and bites her lip. She doesn’t care about the coffee one little bit. The only thing she cares about is how weird it is to be making this level of clumsy small talk with the person who, only a week ago, she was naked in a bed with, getting to know every part of her body. Claire blushes. Not just at the thought of naked Mia but at the whole damn impossible awkwardness of this encounter. So, to save face and fear, she cuts to the chase and steps back up to the counter.
“So, um, what time do you finish work today?” She clings to the edge of the counter as she asks.
Mia concentrates on whatever she’s doing and doesn’t answer right away. Then she looks up and hands the coffee to Claire. “At seven.”
“Uh, do you think…could…can I come and meet you then?” She takes her drink and clutches it tightly. Too tightly. The waxed cardboard starts to give under her fingers, and she relaxes her grip before she loses her drink or burns her hand. “If you don’t have plans already.”
Mia looks slightly flummoxed for a moment. Claire honestly can’t tell if it’s because she’s also shy or because she’s trying to think of a way out of it. Then suddenly, she nods. “Sure. Maybe at, like, quarter past, if that’s okay?”
“Of course.” Claire nods, earnest. “I’ll…I’ll see you later.”
“Okay. See you then.” Mia gives her a quick smile and goes straight back to work.
Claire marches out of the café as fast as she can. The heat of her embarrassment drains away, and the cool respite of relief quickly takes its place. She hurries back to her car, places the unwanted coffee on the passenger seat, and rests her head back against the seat. At least that part is over. And the radio silence at Mia’s end is over too.
The silence is what made her put herself right in front of Mia and to demand her attention. Well, it paid off. Maybe. She’ll know tonight. She still has no idea what’s going on in Mia’s brain, but at least now she’s got an opportunity to find out.
* * *
Mia’s waiting for her outside the café, leaning against the window with her bag on her shoulder. Claire pulls over and peers up at Mia through the open window, and another sickening clench of nerves stirs in her stomach.
Mia steps over, smiling, but she looks kind of apprehensive too.
“You want to go some place south side?” Claire leans toward the window. “It might be cooler by the water.”
“Sure.” Mia climbs into the car. She pulls the door closed and then turns and smiles at Claire. “Maybe nowhere too fancy, though. I’m not really dressed for it.”
Claire looks over. Mia changed into a new, non-work T-shirt and brushed her hair out, and it hangs around her shoulders. She’s made some effort. What does that mean?
She pulls onto the road and shakes her head. “Don’t worry. I don’t do fancy unless I have to.”
* * *
They sit in the busy front terrace of an old, crumbling pub across from the water. A light breeze comes off the bay, butting gently at the hot, still air of the day.
“How was work?” Claire nervously contemplates the menu but more for somewhere to fix her gaze than anything. She’s too edgy to be hungry.
“Hot,” is all Mia says and sips her beer.
“Is your grandmother okay?”
“Not really.” Mia rests her chin on her hands. “She had a stroke.”
Claire leans forward, mouth open. “What?”
“A minor one,” Mia adds. Her gaze meets Claire’s for a moment before she looks the other way. “She’s okay. But now, of course, the doctors say there’s the risk she’ll have another one. A major one.”
“Yeah.” Mia nods, staring at the menu. Then she sits back in her seat and shakes her head helplessly. “Can you pick something? I can’t think.”
“Sure, of course.” Claire looks down at the menu for a moment but then decides she’ll just wing it at the counter. She goes inside and ends up ordering them both fish and chips. It makes some sort of sense because they’re at the beach. Well, across the road from it. When she returns with a handful of cutlery, Mia is chewing on a nail and staring out at the wide stretch of water.
“I’m really sorry, Mia,” Claire tells her.
Mia gives her a small smile and returns her gaze to the view. And Claire can’t think of anything else to say, so they sit in silence as the tables fill up around them.
“It was just so weird to see her in hospital, you know,” Mia suddenly says. “It’s so not like her. She’s never sick.”
“Really?” Claire thinks of her own grandparents who always seemed to be suffering from something in the years before they died.
“No, she’s crazy tough.” Mia smiles. “And not very grandmotherly.”
“What do you mean?” Claire leans her elbow on the table, glad that Mia finally decided to talk.
“I just mean she isn’t all doting and sweet like most people’s grandmothers. I stayed with her nearly every school holidays—my parents had this thing about getting me out of the city as often as possible—and she’d put me to work as soon as I got there. And she always spoke to me like I was a grown up. She’s kind of a botanist. Well, she wrote books about flowers. I grew up knowing all the Latin names for them instead of the usual ones.” She smiles. “It was kind of confusing. I’d be saying narcissus and hedera when other people were saying daffodils and ivy.”
“Kind of perfect for you, really.” Claire takes a sip of her drink and gives her a sly grin. “Geek speak.”
Mia concedes a smile at Claire’s tease. “It was the same with Dad. He says he grew up being able to name any flower seed just by looking at it.”
“Wow.” Claire shakes her head. Her own grandmother taught her how to blanket stitch and to play ‘Frère Jacques’ on the piano, neither skill she ever used again.
“You know, she doesn’t even let me call her nana or grandma.”
“What do you call her?”
Mia smiles. “Her name. Only ever her name. Rosa.”
“And your grandfather?”
“I never knew him. He died when Dad was seventeen. In a car accident.”
“It was for Dad.” Mia leans forward and plays with the pepper shaker. “He lost his sister and his father already. And now he’s scared he’s going to lose Rosa.”
“Of course he is.” Claire stares at Mia. And Mia’s scared too. She can tell. She reaches out and places her hand on Mia’s arm. Mia starts at the sudden touch.
“I’m really sorry, about your…about Rosa.” Claire quickly removes her hand and blushes, not sure if she just gave Mia a fright or if Mia doesn’t want Claire to touch her. Either way, she can’t help but feel as if she’s done something wrong.
“Thanks.” Mia reaches over and squeezes Claire’s wrist briefly. And Claire knows it’s to make up for whatever just happened.
The waiter strides over and slings their plates on the table with a cursory smile.
Mia sits back without touching hers. “You know, it’s just hard to watch her stuck in a bed when she’s so used to looking after herself, tramping around her incredible garden with the dogs, wearing her big garden boots, and working all day to scare off snakes with a shovel.” Mia grins and shakes her head. “She doesn’t spend a minute of daylight inside. Then she just comes in at night to write.”
“She sounds pretty cool.” Claire takes a chip from her plate, an effort at the charade of eating.
“She is.” Mia nods and picks out a piece of tomato from her salad. Then she puts it straight back down.
“I hope she’ll be okay.”
Mia stares at her food. “Me too.”
“And you too,” Claire adds. “I mean, that you’ll be okay too,” she clarifies, blushing.
“I am.” Mia sighs. “It’s just sad realising she’s getting old. It’s like I didn’t notice or something. And now I have.”
Claire nods. “Both my grandpas died before I was twelve.”
“Yeah.” Claire stirs her straw in her drink. “My mum’s dad from cancer when I was seven, and my dad’s dad of a heart attack when I was eleven. I remember my mother saying to my father something about they arrived early to ‘that age’ where their parents are starting to die. Can you ever imagine getting to that age?”
“No.” Mia shakes her head, eyes wide. “I really can’t.”