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Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 3)

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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.

“Uh, yes.”

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.

“Uh-huh.”

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 alsoaccidentallyspills 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 aresucha 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.

CHAPTER 4

They eat chicken salad.

They always eat salad.

Claire’s mother likes to say she doesn’t believe in carbohydrates. It’s not true, but that’s what she does in public. And Claire plays the game when they eat lunch in one of these boring, ultra-modern little cafés. Her mother likes the style, all clean lines and surfaces—as if choosing no décor is better than choosing the wrong décor.

Claire goes along with it because it’s easier. For every battle she fights with her mother, there’s a handful she can’t take up. If she did, she’d never have time for anything else.

They’ve been shopping. This is one activity they usually get through without an eruption between them, so it’s how they spend most of their Christine-designated “quality” time.

Claire sighs as her mother slices neatly through the chicken breast perched on top of a rainbow of leaves. For as long as she can remember, they’ve been locked in this mutual charade of watching what they eat, ordering salads, and making conspicuously healthy choices. Claire would rather eat whatever the hell she wants and not think about food as a social statement.

On the other hand, Christine believes she really is that disciplined and health conscious. Claire remains complicit in the fantasy because time and experience has proved that it decreases the chance of her mother initiating another conversation about how Claire looks. There have been enough of those.

Her mother has this mysterious capacity to notice the slightest shift or flux in Claire’s weight—faster than Claire herself. She also instantly picks up on any small changes in her hair, the way she dresses, or how she applies her makeup. Even though Claire has always fallen on the slender side of average, any gain comes with a swift reminder that, if her mother can stay trim on the march toward fifty, Claire should be able to do so at her age.

The thing is Christine complains if she goes the other way too. Months ago, when everything went to hell with Brendan, Claire was so miserable she wasn’t even compelled to eat her feelings. She came out of those depressing weeks bored of her own misery and a few kilos lighter. Suddenly, instead of snide comments about weighing too much, Christine switched to snide comments about nobody liking women who are too skinny. That was confirmation of what Claire already knew—there’s no reason to try since she can’t do anything right in her mother’s eyes.

Claire forks a piece of cucumber drowned in dressing into her mouth and idly watches the waiter zip over and top off her mother’s water glass. Her mother gives the waiter a brief nod and takes an obedient sip.

“I am still not sure about that jacket,” Christine says as the waiter places a coffee in front of her. “It’s a bit tasteless, don’t you think?”

Claire sighs. Of course her mother doesn’t like the jacket because Claire loves it. It’s a snug, waist-length, black-leather jacket that will take her through the cool nights of spring. More importantly, it looks good. She loves the way it makes her feel both hot and armoured as if she’s protected somehow.

“It’s not tasteless, Mum. It’s just not your taste.” She picks up her fork again and frowns as she spears a piece of tomato. Claire doesn’t even like salad very much. It’s not that it doesn’t taste good. It’s just so exhausting. All that chewing for so little payoff. And then she has to eat all over again a couple of hours later.

“Well, anyway, it’s nice to finally spend some time with my daughter,” Christine says, casual, as she pulls the coffee toward her.

Claire doesn’t respond because she’s learned to ignore comments about her supposed neglect. This is one of the smaller battles she ignores.

As expected, her mother goes in again. “I just feel like I don’t get to see you much these days.”

“Well, I’m working a lot.” Claire scoops more leaves onto her fork. “Saving.”

A lie, of course. Luckily, her mother doesn’t know anything about the contents of her bank account—especially not after the jacket. She says “saving” because she knows her mother will approve.

“I do wish you’d find a nicer place to work, sweetheart.” Christine sighs as she takes the bread from the side of her plate and tosses it into the basket—a show of self-discipline. “That bar sounds positively seedy.”

“It’s not that bad, Mum. It’s just a regular old pub.” Claire folds her napkin and drops it on her plate. “Andrew, the boss, is nice.”

“Did you know he was arrested for drug possession a few years back?”

“How would I know that?” Claire frowns, irritated by her mother’s ability to turn every conversation into a well-planned interrogation, how she always drops in little bombs to shake things up. “And the more obvious question is how doyouknow that?” she snaps. She can’t help it. She’s pissed, and there goes the path of least resistance.

“I had him checked out.”

“Why did you do that?” Claire sits back against her chair and glares at Christine. “Jesus, Mum!” She really shouldn’t be surprised, though. Her mother would get a background check done on the postman if she were suspicious enough. The lawyer in her never rests, and her father’s old police friends are always ready to do a favour.

“I wanted to know what kind of establishment my daughter is working in. So I checked.” Christine sips her coffee calmly. “Concern is a natural part of being a mother, Claire. You’ll find out one day.”

“It’s part of being the mother of achild, Mum. Not someone who is nearly twenty.”

“Well, I don’t see an adult anywhere.” Christine gives her that exhausted look she favours whenever this conversation starts, as if she doesn’t know what to do with Claire anymore. “An adult would be planning her future, thinking about her career, not wasting time in a place like that.”

And, because this conversation is the backing track to her life, Claire gives it a nod and moves the hell on. “As ever, I do apologise sincerely for the unbearable wretchedness of my existence, Mum. So, what was it?”

“What was what?” Christine frowns and pushes her plate to the side.

“What was my boss caught possessing?” Claire picks up her coffee. “Something tells me it wasn’t meth.”

“It was marijuana.” Her reply is grudging. They both know that a little bit of pot is hardly indicative of a criminal life. Claire smirks into her coffee. Besides, it kind of explains Andrew’s general dopiness.

Christine moves on, clearly aware of the weakness of her last attack. “And will I ever meet this Nina girl? The one you stay with in town?”

Probably never, Claire thinks but doesn’t say. Instead, she shrugs and pretends to inspect a fingernail.

“I don’t like the thought of you spending so much time with strangers.”

“She’s not a stranger to me, Mum. And if she ever finds herself out in the deep burbs, I’m sure she’ll drop by.”

“What does she study again?”

“She doesn’t.” Claire sighs. Her mother knows the answer. This isn’t the first time she’s asked.

“Then what does she do?”

“She works in the bar.”

“But what does shewantto do?”

“I don’tknow.” She’s not going to tell her mother about Nina’s supposed memoir. Christine’s not likely to be assuaged by that prospect. Besides, Claire has never seen Nina write a word.

“Surely she doesn’t want to work in bars for the rest of her life?”

“I don’t know, Mum,” Claire repeats with a sigh. “I don’t ask. It’s none of my business.”

“By the way, speaking of your friends, Michelle called the house the other day. Why isn’t she calling your phone?”

Claire shrugs. She really should call her friend. It’s been a month. “Michelle’s not so bright,” she jokes. “Can we go now?”

“Now that’s not true.” Christine whisks her bag off the back of her chair and pulls out her purse. “At least she’s working toward her future. She’ll have a job when she finishes her degree.”

“Yes, she will, Mum.” Claire ignores the bill the waiter left on the table. Her mother can get it. Payment for pain and suffering. “And I bet she’ll have that job for, oh, roughly three years before she’s married and pushing out babies instead.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making the choice to leave work and raise a family, young lady.” Her mother slaps some notes on the bill tray. “Not everyone wants or can manage work and a family, you know.”

Claire hears the silent “like I did” at the end of that sentence and fights the urge to roll her eyes. Only her mother could make that defence of Michelle into an actual ego stroke for herself. Her mother is a master at making herself look good—in the eyes of her employees and clients. That’s how she has gotten so far. If Claire and Cam gave her performance reviews, maybe she wouldn’t do so well.

“Well, don’t worry, Mum,” Claire says cheerfully as they leave the sterile café behind. “I’m much tougher than Michelle. I’ll keep working in the bar right up until I give birth to Andrew’s crack baby, okay?”

CHAPTER 5

The skinny boy is back. And apparently he’s Nina’s new best friend.

Claire looks down the length of the bar, cloth in one hand, glass in the other. Nina, for some reason, is leaning over the end of the bar, her arm turned at some crazy angle and laid flat along the surface. He’s kneeling on a stool, taking snaps of her arm with his camera.

Claire has absolutely zero idea what they’re doing. And if she wasn’t so busy watching a couple on one of the most awkward dates ever, she’d probably go find out. For now, though, she has something slightly more entertaining to do.

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