A Story of Now: Chapter 7


Exhausted, Claire and Nina march along the damp street, faces not yet entirely clear of last night’s makeup. A shared umbrella partially protects them from the relentless drifting rain. The sky is a sodden mass today. It sags around their ears like a ceiling of endless grey over the city. It’s not too cold, but it is miserable enough to match their moods.

Claire could really use a few more hours of sleep. And she shouldn’t be in the city either. She’s supposed to go home and get ready for a lunch at her aunt Lucy’s, but she can’t bring herself to go anywhere near her mother just yet. She knows sudden, un-caffeinated contact with Christine will not end well. So Nina, ever helpful, is finally taking her to the coffee place she’s been raving about to fortify Claire for her afternoon of family fun.

Last night at the pub was a late one. By the time they shut the doors, trudged back to Nina’s flat to watch some crappy TV, and then fall asleep, it was the early hours of morning. Then, just to make the situation worse, Claire woke up a couple of hours later when Nina’s boyfriend, Josh, barrelled into the apartment, drunk and raucous, some time just before dawn. He didn’t notice her ensconced on the couch at first and had turned on all the lights and the television. When he realised she was asleep there, he backed into the bedroom and apologised profusely. It was the most he’d said to her in ages.

Josh is always a bit weird with her. She’s not sure why, but he mostly ignores her. Or when he does talk, he barely says three words. Maybe he doesn’t like how often she stays. But Claire doesn’t worry too much because Nina tells her Josh has no say as he barely pays rent. He doesn’t get to care.

And anyway, Claire’s happy to ignore him. He’s an idiot who studies personal training, and he’s obnoxious and full of himself—one of those types who thinks he doesn’t need charm because he’s got a six-pack and a car. He doesn’t realise none of this negates the fact that he’s a giant tool.

And the weird thing is Nina seems to know he’s an idiot. At least she always calls him one but in a fond, long-suffering way. It’s as if she knows her boyfriend is less than desired, but she can’t be bothered to do anything about it. Claire isn’t sure if it’s because Nina likes to have a guy around or because she doesn’t expect better for herself. Either is kind of sad, really, especially considering she’s great. Claire’s pretty sure she could do a lot better than this human void.

“Here we are.” Nina yanks open the door of the café, and they hurry out of the rain. It seems everyone else had the same idea, because the place is packed. The café is a long, narrow, white space with high ceilings, crammed with bench tables and metal stools—every seat seems to be occupied by the damp crowds drinking coffee. The windows are completely steamed up, blocking the view of the street outside. It feels as if they’ve entered a loud, crowded cave.

“It’s kind of full.” Claire thrusts her hands in the pockets of her new jacket. “Should we go somewhere else?” Not that she really wants to go back out in this weather.

“It’s always like this.” Nina cranes her neck to scan the length of the room. “Let’s see if there’s room closer to the back.” She leads them through the room, squeezing between tables as she moves toward the counter.

“Hey!” It’s Robbie. He grins as he holds several coffees expertly in his hands. He looks as conservative as he probably gets, wearing clean black jeans and a black T-shirt with the café name on it in white letters. “Come for coffee? There are some seats by the machine.” He gestures to the area behind him and then holds up the coffees. “I’ll take these and be right back.”

They find seats at the end of the long counter and climb onto the stools. Claire presses her hands to the back of the machine, absorbing its warmth.

“How are you, honey?” Robbie is back, hands free, and wrapping his arm around Nina’s shoulder. “Glad you came.”

“I’ve been telling Claire how good the coffee is, so I brought her.” Nina leans her arms on the counter.

He turns to Claire and slowly raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t think you’d be able to go out in the daylight. I thought you’d turn into a little pile of ashes.” Then he grins and leans in to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Hilarious,” she mutters, simultaneously rendered shy and slightly flattered. She’s not used to people like Robbie, for whom affection seems to be second nature even with people he doesn’t know that well.

He turns to Nina. “I’m buying your coffee. Payment for modelling the other night.” He stands on his tiptoes and looks over the coffee machine. “Hey, Mia?” he calls. “You remember these two from the bar? You know, the place on Monteith Street?”

The girl who came into the pub with him last week sticks her head out from behind the machine. Her hair is tied back into a neat ponytail. “Yeah, I know the one. I don’t go to quite as many bars as you, remember?” She turns and smiles warmly at Claire and Nina, her eyes crinkling. “Hi there.”

“Yes, Mia,” he snarks with a grin. “You are better than me in every way possible. Anyway, I owe Nina, so don’t charge them, okay?”

Mia nods and ducks behind the machine.

“I better get back to work.” Robbie whips a pen from behind his ear. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll put your order in. The guy working your section is useless.” He rolls his eyes. “Beautiful, but useless.”

They order their coffees, and he leaves them to it and disappears into the mass of tables.

Nina is telling Claire about the trip she has planned to visit her giant hippie family in Northern New South Wales when Josh turns up. He slides his arms around Nina’s shoulders and kisses her loudly on the neck.

“Hey.” He growls in a voice he probably thinks is sexy. He nods at Claire.

She nods back and tries not to roll her eyes at his sudden, unwelcome appearance.

“Hi,” Nina croons as she wraps her arms around his waist. “You got my message. I thought you’d still be asleep.”

“Nah, I wanted to see you before I go to training.” He takes a hold of her ponytail and kisses her again.

Claire sighs. That’s it. Intelligent conversation over. She turns the other way. These two are huge fans of gross, prolonged PDAs, and she’s been a reluctant witness to enough of it to know what to expect. She sips her coffee, which is as good as Nina promised, and checks out the stickers and comics stuck to the back of the machine.

“Hey, mind if I sit?”

Claire looks up. It’s Mia. She stands next to the last available stool in the row by Claire with a tiny cup in her hand.

“Break,” she explains.

“Yes, please.” Claire rolls her eyes. “Save me from this grotesque display.” She tips her head toward Nina and Josh.

Mia unties her apron, puts her cup on the counter, and climbs onto the stool. Then she leans over and rests her chin on her folded arms.

“Over it?” Claire asks her. It can’t even be midday yet.

Mia nods without lifting her head. “You know what the worst part about this job is?”

“What?”

She turns to face Claire and frowns. Mia has a small smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. “Having to make hungover, tired, and needy people feel better when you are hungover, tired, and needy yourself.”

Claire smiles. She knows this game well—the hospitality whingefest. And she has plenty of ammo too by now. “Yeah, well, in my job, you watch people being all happy, getting drunk, and having a weekend when you want to be happy, get drunk, and have a weekend. That also sucks.”

Mia nods. “But at least they’re happy customers. Some days I see half of Melbourne before they’ve had their first coffee. And let me tell you, this city is moody in the morning.”

“Well, you know,” Claire counters, always happy to go for the one-up in the my-job-sucks game. She and Cam play it all the time. “Sometimes a person can get too happy, you know? I’ve seen someone so happy with the combination of margaritas and a Friday that she vomited in her own shoes.” Claire leans forward. “Not on, Mia. In.”

“Oh okay. Gross.” She sips her coffee. “This game of who’s got it worse could go on forever, but maybe we should just agree our lives of servitude mutually suck.”

“Or we could just agree that I won, because grumpy, coffee-deprived people have nothing on vomit in shoes.”

Mia grins at her.

And Claire grins right back. “Just saying.”

Mia nods slowly, conceding to Claire’s win. She tips her head back and drains the last of her coffee.

“I don’t want to get all up in your business, Mia, especially considering we just met.” Claire pulls a face and points at her cup. “But maybe if you are so exhausted, you should consider graduating to a big-kid coffee?”

Mia contemplates the teeny espresso cup as she spins it around on the counter. “Yeah, but if I had a bigger coffee, I wouldn’t be able to drink as many in a shift. I’m not sure what a caffeine overdose would be like, but I bet it’s not pretty.”

“Probably not.”

“So I’ll stick to small doses and lots of them, thanks.”

“Drip feed. Fair enough.” Claire is stirring, anyway, because this girl seems up for it. And Claire’s always up for it.

Claire’s just about to ask what Mia does when she’s not working when a tall guy with some seriously stupid facial hair comes around the counter. Claire can’t help staring at him. He must spend hours with his shaver. Seriously, where do some people get their ideas about what looks good?

“Uh, hey, Mia, I just wanted you to know that I adjusted the grind,” he says in this kind of worldly, hipper-than-thou monotone. “So you might notice, you know, that it’s pouring a touch slower, but I think you’ll find you’re getting more crema on the pour.”

“Okay, thanks.” Mia smiles politely at him. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

“No problem, take your time.” He disappears behind the machine.

“Should I have any idea what he was talking about?” Claire asks.

“He was just talking about the coffee.”

“So, you like, actually make the stuff? That’s like top of the café pecking order, right? What do they call you people again?”

“A barista—if you want to be a giant wanker.” Mia rolls her eyes. “And some people really are when it comes to coffee.”

“It is Melbourne. We are known for being a city of coffee snobs.”

“Yeah but some people,” Mia looks around as if she’s afraid hipster boy might hear, “act as though making a decent latte is the highest form of art. It’s not.” She rests her chin on her hand and frowns. “It’s just basic science, compensation between pressure, heat, and volume. That’s all.”

“Wow, Mia. Just…wow.” Claire giggles. “That was an awesomely nerdy way of asserting your superiority.”

Mia laughs and climbs off her stool. “I like to have both a heightened sense of superiority and inferiority at any given time. Keeps me balanced. I better get back to work.” But she just stands there as if she’s reluctant to leave her break just yet. “What are you doing today?”

Claire sighs. “I’m going to lunch at my aunt’s. Which basically means three hours, give or take, of watching her and my mother argue.”

“The whole time?”

“Yeah, pretty much, if you include the parts when they pretend they’re not arguing. We might get anywhere between ten minutes to half an hour of peace at the start, but then it will be game on for sure.”

“What do they fight about?”

“Anything. Everything.” Claire sighs. “Well, after much workshopping, my brother and I have decided it’s basically all part of one big meta-fight over who is the better daughter, sister, mother, and human in general.”

“Wow, that sounds—”

“So, how many names has she called you?” Robbie stops behind Mia and leans his chin on her shoulder.

“None, actually, that I can remember.” Mia frowns, reaches up, and pats his cheek. “Oh no, I lied—she called me a nerd. But it was kind of justified.”

“Shush. Don’t tell her she’s right,” Robbie says to Mia and winks at Claire. “I suspect it only feeds her.” He strides away.

“He’s so charming.”

“Yeah, no wonder you two get along so well.” Mia picks up Claire’s empty coffee cup and saucer.

“Excuse me?” Claire cocks an eyebrow at her.

“You two are kind of alike.”

“Shouldn’t you be going back to work?” Claire says pointedly.

“Yes, yes, I should. See you. Have fun at your aunt’s,” she tells her, a parting return shot.

“Oh, now that’s just mean.” Claire groans. She checks her phone. Yep, it’s time.


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