Read Astory of now Online

Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 10)

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“Nice to meet you.” Mia nods at the proffered bottle. “Thanks.”

“It’s disgusting,” Claire warns her.

“I’ll risk it.” She turns to her friend. “This is Pete.”

He says hello and wanders away to talk to some people on the other side of the street.

“Coffee Boy, hey?” Claire teases.

Mia is about to say something when Robbie appears. He folds Mia into a tight, one-armed hug, holding his drink aloft in his other hand.

“You’re here!” he sings. He looks great tonight, with his hair high. He’s in black skinny jeans and boots, and a bright-blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.

Claire wonders if he cuts the sleeves off everything the minute he buys it. She also wonders what he wears in winter.

“Of course I am.” Mia presses a hand to his cheek. “I just got here, though, so I haven’t been in.”

“Don’t bother.” He clutches her arm as if for protection. “It’s packed, and you can’t see anything anyway.” He steps gently on the tip of Claire’s boot. “Hey. You came too.”

She pulls a face at him and then smiles.

“Yeah, we’re waiting until we can actually get in the door. You’re popular.” Nina shades her eyes and looks up at him. “How is it going?”

“I’m freaking out a bit, actually.” Robbie leans against Mia. “Some of our teachers turned up, even though it’s not a school show. I was not expecting that. None of us were.”

“Do they like your stuff?” Mia immediately shakes her head and corrects herself. “Well, of course, they do, but did they say anything?”

Robbie gives her a bashful look. “I don’t know. I might have hidden from them.”

Mia sighs. “You’re an idiot.” She jabs his chest with her finger. “Shouldn’t you be trying to promote yourself?”

He stares at the ground. Mia shakes her head again and slides her arm around his narrow waist and holds him against her.

“What about you?” he asks her. “Get that anatomy thing done?”

She nods and kind of waves it away as though she’s done thinking about it.

Claire watches them, struck by how they are so worn into their intimacy, how much they seem like brother and sister. Their devotion to each other—even though they are so different—is cute.

“I better go back.” He sucks in a deep breath. “The owner said that someone might,mightbe interested in buying one of my pieces.”

“Really?” Mia turns to him immediately, eyes wide. “That’s amazing. Get back in there, then.” She pushes him away.

“Okay,” he whines. “I hate doing this stuff.”

“You want to live off your work?”

“Yes.” He sighs as though this is a conversation they’ve had many times before.

“Then go back in there.”

“Yes’m,” he mutters but leans in and kisses her forehead. “I’ll come find you guys when it’s quieter, okay?” He points at Claire. “I want to show you something.” Then he turns and strides away.

Claire frowns. It’s the same thing he said last time he saw her. She looks up at Mia. “What does he want me to see?”

“He’ll show you,” she says with a smile.

“Want to sit?” Claire slides closer to Nina. “It’s very comfortable, as you can probably imagine.”

“Sure.” Mia drops down next to Claire.

“How did you guys meet, anyway?”

“Me and Robbie?”

Claire nods.

“At work. Last summer. We both started working there around the same time and, being the new kids, they put us on the early shift together.” Mia shakes her head. “Nothing will make or break a friendship like a couple of months of 6am starts.”

Claire smiles. She can imagine. “Coffee Boy’s here.”

Mia nods. “Coffee Boy’s here.” She looks over at where he’s talking to two other guys.

“I thought nothing was going on with him.”

“That’s not what I said.” Mia turns the plastic cup between her hands, staring at it. “I just said I hung out with him sometimes.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.” Claire smirks. “And that you weren’t sleeping with him and yet he still brings you free beverages. So, did it pay off?”

“Nosey, aren’t you?” Mia gives her a look. She doesn’t seem too upset, though.

“Yeah, I am. Habit. It’s all the lawyers in the family. But I get it. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just…unconfirmed, you know?”

Claire nods. She does understand. Besides, it’s none of her business, and Mia clearly keeps these things to herself. Claire is used to Nina, who will talk about anything. In the few short months they have known each other, Claire has learned Nina’s entire history—family, romantic,andsexual. On the other hand, Claire is kind of private about her business, and Nina makes her seem like the most closed person in the world. She changes the subject. “Is it exciting being out on a Thursday, Mia?” She turns and flicks her eyebrows up and down at her. “Feeling dangerous?”

“Oh yeah.” Mia takes a sip of her drink and gasps. “Whoa. Confirmed, disgusting.”

“Told you. Besides, should you be drinking on a week night? Surely that’s not in the rules?”

“Exams are coming, and I am determined to enjoy everything while I can. Life will be hellish soon enough.”

Claire hasn’t given much thought to exams yet. Mia’s right, they’re not far away. “How many do you have?”

“Six.”

“Ouch. I only have two.”

“Lucky.” Mia wraps her arms around her legs again. “Do you worry about how you’ll do? Your grades?”

At first, Claire goes to act as if she doesn’t care, but she thinks Mia probably isn’t the kind of person to judge. “Yeah, I do,” she admits. “I was raised by perfectionists. Can’t help it. You?”

“I stress. Getting into the good postgrad courses is really competitive.”

“But you seem so chilled.”

Mia seems so relaxed and cheerful—and in a surprisingly un-annoying way. Claire thinks it would take a lot to ruffle her.

“Wait until exams,” Mia warns her.

“Oh God, are you talking about exams?” It’s Pete, Coffee Boy. He sits next to Mia and grins at Claire. “Don’t talk to her about exams.”

“Why?”

“Hush, you,” Mia tells him at the same time.

“Mia was a wreck last semester. And she nearly lost her mind when she had to do her GAMSAT.” He bumps his shoulder against hers.

“The medical entry exam,” Mia tells Claire as she elbows him back. “I wasn’t that bad.”

Claire detects the high note of defence in her voice and smiles. Pete’s probably right.

“You kind of were.” He turns to Claire and shakes his head. “You should have seen her. She was a mess.” Before Mia can respond, he adds, “And, of course it turned out you didn’t need to stress at all, did you?”

Mia doesn’t answer. She turns to Claire. “I thought I had a good reason to worry. I need really good results. Did you know only ten percent of biomed students get into postgrad med courses in Australia every year?”

“No, Mia, I did not,” Claire tells her, playing along, somewhere between sarcastic and serious. Why in hell would she know that?

“I read it on Wikipedia, so it might be true.”

Claire laughs.

Pete shakes his head. “I, on the other hand, did know that, because she’s told me about six hundred times.”

Mia throws him another look but doesn’t say a word.

They sit in the gutter and drink a second, awful bottle of champagne and trade stories. Claire tells them about how Cam and his partner were called in to arrest a woman for not returning a football after the neighbour’s kid had kicked it into her yard a thousand times. When she got fed up and refused to give it back, they had to come in and threaten arrest.

Mia’s eyes widen. “You’re kidding. They can do that?”

“Apparently it constitutes petty theft.”

“That’s nuts,” Pete scoffs.

“The law is a weird, weird thing.” Claire thinks of some of the courtroom tales her family has told her through the years.

Pete starts to tell them about his brush with the law when Robbie appears again.

“Hey, guys, the gallery has cleared a bit if you want to come and look.” He sounds as if he’s not sure he wants them to.

“Yes, please!” Nina jumps to her feet and brushes off the back of her skirt.

“How sad to leave our prime position,” Claire mutters.

Mia chuckles and stands. She holds out her hands to Claire. “Oh, come on.” She hauls Claire to her feet. “You’re sitting in a gutter, but admit it, you’re having fun.”

Claire ignores her. Mia already knows she’s right. Besides, Claire is having fun, more than she’s had all week.

CHAPTER 14

Robbie leads them inside. The crowd has thinned, and Claire can actually see photographs on the walls. Large, moody landscape shots of a fog-bound airfield hang in the front room.

“So, where’s your stuff?” Nina asks.

“In that room.” Robbie points to a doorway. “And that one.” He points to another.

The others head for the first room. Claire goes to follow them, but Robbie catches her wrist and pulls her back. “Hey, come in here for a sec.”

He pulls her along behind him and leads her into the second room. As soon as he turns the corner, he releases her wrist and takes her by the shoulders to position her a short distance from a large photo that occupies a narrow section of wall on its own.

It’s a photo of her.

Robbie rests his hands on her shoulders as she takes it in. It’s a black and white shot of her working at the bar. Well, not working exactly. She’s standing at a distance from the camera, at the other end of the bar, in profile. Her arms are folded over her chest, and she’s staring intently at something beyond the frame. The neon sign above the door serves to backlight everything but her face. The effect darkens her features almost to the point of silhouette and creates a hazy halo of light around her upper body. Her hair is long in the photo, pulled into a knot at the base of her head. Loose strands hang around her face.

“I don’t even remember you taking that.” She cannot stop staring, incredulous. She’s unable to comprehend that there is a picture of her hanging in a gallery, even though she is standing right in front of it.

“I sneaked it that night I was taking photos of Nina. It was a lucky shot. I only took the one, but I love it. You don’t mind, do you?” He sounds slightly nervous.

Claire doesn’t say anything for a minute. She just keeps staring at it. And she doesn’t mind. Not at all. Even she can see the subtle beauty and mood of the photo beyond the confronting fact that she’s in it. There’s an atmosphere that has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the moment Robbie captured. There is something both pensive and transitory in the way she is standing. She’s so far away from the camera, surrounded, but not touched by the bar, her mind clearly elsewhere. The way her chin is slightly dropped and her arms are folded makes it slightly defiant too.Anywhere but here, it says. She feels a welling of something caught between pride and gratitude, a reminder of her potential to be someone who should be looked at.

Claire shakes her head. “No, I don’t mind. It’s a great photo. You know that,” she tells him quietly, still staring.

“Good. Because, look.” He points at the small red sticker stuck next to the photo. “I sold it.”

“Really?” Claire shakes herself out of the shock of the photo and turns and to him. “That’s awesome. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” He smiles dazedly, as if he’s amazed by the fact. In this moment, he’s more genuine and serious than she has ever seen him. She realises this is something he can’t be flip about. “I sold another one too.”

“That’s really great.” She feels a flash of envy because he has this thing that heknowshe wants to do—is compelled to do. And it’s something he’s good at. Why can’t she figure out that thing for herself?

The others trickle in and, suddenly wrought shy by the thought of them staring at a picture of her, Claire ducks out to the other room.

And all of his photos are great, of course. As he told her, they’re all portraits, but they all manage to be somehow more than the people featured in them. Now, after seeing these, Claire gets it. Even knowing nothing about photography, she understands that Robbie is talented.

She wanders around the other rooms, less interested in all the other people’s work but biding her time before she goes back into the room with her photo. When she does, they’re all standing in the middle of the room with a bunch of other people, presumably Robbie’s friends.

As she rejoins them, Mia turns to her. “Do you like it?”

Claire shrugs, still feeling shy. “It’s kind of weird, you know?”

“I can imagine.” Mia looks at the picture and then back to her. “But it’s really, really beautiful.”

“You already knew, didn’t you?” Claire blushes as she remembers how Mia brushed off her questions earlier. “You could have warned me.”

“I saw the smaller prints when he was choosing which photos to use in this show.”

“To Robbie!” someone calls out. Slowly, everyone catches on and raises their glasses.

“To Robbie!” the room responds.

Claire drains the last of her warm champagne.

“And to actually selling art,” a voice adds. A few people laugh.

“There’s going to be a picture of you in some stranger’s house.” Nina comes over to stand next to her. “That’s so weird.”

Claire freezes for a moment to contemplate this new, incredibly freaky thought. “Thanks, Neen, I hadn’t actually thought of that.” She wrinkles her nose. “And now I have.” And itisweird. But before she can mull it over any further Robbie comes over.

“Hey, a few of us are going to go to dinner and celebrate—just dumplings or something cheap. Will you guys come?”

Nina nods. “Of course.”

Claire nods too, secretly pleased to somehow, suddenly be considered part of this weird little group. These people are nothing like the people she’s always considered friends. But she also knows that maybe, just maybe, this is a good thing.

They make their way down the streets in a tight throng, headed for a Chinese restaurant. Robbie falls into step with her. “Thanks for coming tonight.” He hooks his elbow through hers.

“Thanks for inviting me.” She stares idly at the motley little crowd walking in front of them. There’s a girl in a hat who pretends the curb is a tightrope, with her arms out. Nina slaps someone on the arm and laughs. Pete rests his hand on the back of Mia’s neck as they walk. The mood is loose and happy and infectious, and Claire feels a sudden pang of longing for the summer.

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