Read Astory of now Online

Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 4)

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It’s another quiet weeknight in the bar, and Andrew is upstairs watching TV, so they’re free to work as little as possible, knowing that he won’t pop out of his office at any moment. He’ll turn up at the end of the shift, bleary-eyed and cheerful to count the till and lock up.

To stave off complete boredom, she polishes a rack of wine glasses as she surreptitiously watches this guy and girl try to make conversation. They turned up forty-five minutes ago, ordered a bottle of red wine, and sat down in the booth. And for forty-five minutes, Claire has watched, enthralled, as they struggle to find something to say. Maybe, if it wasn’t dead tonight, and if the skinny boy wasn’t hogging Nina, this date wouldn’t be quite as fascinating. For now, however, it’s like one of those awful reality shows on late-night TV. Inevitably, she tunes in about halfway through an episode and finds herself idly captured until the end—mostly because she wastes that much time trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

It took her a little while to figure out this was a first date. The bottle of wine threw her off initially. Claire would never make the mistake of ordering a bottle on a first date. She thought everyone knew to always choose a drink that can be disposed of quickly. That way she can get out fast if she needs to. The bottle had to be the girl’s idea, too, because he’s pawing the glass as if he’s never held anything smaller than a pint glass. Totally classy. The girl fills in the many silences by checking her phone and playing with her hair, while he stares longingly at the group of students drinking beer and watching some sport crap on the TV. Yep, their first mistake was coming here.

And now Claire is trying to figure out which of them is going to make a break for it first. When Claire went by before, she took her time to wipe down the table next to theirs, and he was talking in this kind of stupefied drawl as though he’s been hit in the head one too many times. Probably a footy player. The girl was politely pretending to be interested, clearly much more socially generous than Claire would ever be. Everything about their interaction, even from this far away, suggests that this date is dead in the water.

She shakes her head and picks up another glass. She would never let it get this far. If she’s learned one thing, it’s when to cut and leave. Just a few weeks ago, she went out with one of Michelle’s friends. The guy was so congenitally boring that she feigned cramps and left nothing but a Claire-shaped dent in her seat before an hour was up. No point wasting time dancing around the edge of something that she’s already decided is never going to happen in a million years.

This girl should take a leaf from Claire’s dating book. At least that’s what she’s thinking when the curveball comes. Suddenly, he leans in and says something to the girl. The girl tucks her hair behind her ear, smiles, and nods back at him. Next thing she knows, they pick up their drinks, throw down the last of them, and reach for their belongings. He takes up the half-empty bottle and holds it down low at his side, out of sight. He checks to see if anyone is watching.

Claire quickly glances away. If they are about to do what she thinks they’re about to do, suggested by the mutual head-nodding, smiling, and drink-downing, she figures they’re going to need as much alcohol as they can get. Who is she to get in their way?Good freaking luck, she thinks as the pub door closes behind them.

She shakes her head. She didn’t see that one coming. Not one bit.

Now that her entertainment has departed for the night, she wanders to the other end of the bar. Nina is still with the skinny boy, who now seems to be taking photos of her shoulder pressed up against the mirror fixed to the wall.

“Don’t worry, Neen, all the glasses are clean. I took care of it.” She shoots her friend a dirty look.

“Oh sorry, babe.” Nina faces her, contrite, her shoulder still pressed to the mirror. “I’ll take out the bins, later, I promise.”

“You better.” Claire leans against the wall and checks her watch. There’s an hour left until they can start to pack up.

The boy takes shots of Nina’s shoulder from above. He notices Claire watching them and nods a greeting at her.

“Why are you so weird?” Claire asks him.

“Why are you so judge-y?” He grins; his eyes never leave the viewfinder.

“Because you’re so weird.” Claire folds her arms.Obviously. “So, what are you doing, anyway? Do you purposely come in here for your insanity projects? Or is your whole life like this?”

“Actually, this time I am doing homework,” he mutters, staring at his camera’s screen. “I’m making the familiar strange.”

“Tell me now, am I destined to never know what you are talking about?”

“Probably.” He moves around to the entrance of the bar to take a different shot. “But that won’t be my fault.” He grins again as he captures the silhouette of Nina’s shoulder and neck.

“Yes it will.”

He ignores her and turns to Nina. “Can you lift up your arm and hold it until I tell you to put it down?”

Nina obediently complies. Claire leaves them to serve a customer and then returns to the scene of the crazy. Nina is still holding up her arm, wincing a little but remaining stoic. He takes a few more shots and then sets the camera on the bar.

“You can put your arm down now. Thank you so much, honey.”

Nina lets her arm drop. “That kind of hurt. But it’s all in the name of art, right?”

“Art?” Claire is doubtful.

The boy ignores her and sits on his stool. “It’s for class, actually. We have to take photos that make parts of the body unrecognisable. Totally conceptual,” he says in a faux-wanky art voice. “You probably wouldn’t get it.” He gives Claire a look that says he’s fully aware she probably does get it, but he can’t stop digging at her.

“I gotta do some work.” Nina rubs her shoulder and wanders away.

“Yes.” Claire glares at her. “You do.”

“I’m Robbie, by the way.”

Claire nods.

“I think you’re supposed to tell me your name. Just a suggestion. Social niceties and all.”

“You don’t seem to be into them, that’s all.”

He chuckles. “Fair enough.”

She caves. “I’m Claire.” She can’t help it. She kind of likes this guy even if he is a smart-ass.

“Claire,” he says, contemplative, as though he’s considering whether he’ll accept it as a suitable name for her. Not as if he doesn’t believe her, more that he’s trying to figure out if it sounds right. Then he nods and shrugs slightly as if he finally, silently, accepts it as her name.

“Where’s your friend?” She empties a few of the glasses that Nina has stacked on the bar in front of her and puts them in the rack. “The geeky one who reads in bars?”

“I don’t know.” He sips his beer. “Probably at home studying because she’s way more well behaved than me.”

“Yes, she did seem very well behaved.”

“Don’t judge her, missy.” He holds up his glass, a silent request for another beer. “She is one of my favourite people in the whole world.”

“Yeah, but she’s not mine, so I can.” Claire takes his glass and pours him another. “Besides,” she says over her shoulder. “Anyone would seem well behaved sitting next to you.”

“Except you maybe.”

Claire smiles. He’s probably right.

“So what do you do, anyway?” Claire asks as she returns with his beer.

He holds up his camera. “I do this. I study photography.”

“You’re going to do it for a living?”

“I hope so.” He scrapes his blond hair back with his fingers. “Though I’ll probably have to work a crappy commercial job to support it, you know?”

Claire nods, although she doesn’t really know anything about photography. “What do you take photos of? Body parts?”

“No, that was for class. We’re working on form. I like taking pictures of people.” He sips his beer. “Whole people. What about you? What are you going to do?”

Claire tips her head back and sighs. “I just spent the day with my mother, and that was the subjectdu jour. Please don’t ask me that. Something easier,” she begs.

“Okay.” He laughs. “Let’s start small then. Star sign?”

CHAPTER 6

Bored, Claire fades out of the conversation. Instead, she stares out the window of the university café and watches the world shuffle by. She stifles a yawn and hopes this will be over soon. The catch-up lunches Michelle organises are becoming less and less fun.

Claire already knows she needs a life plan. As a matter of urgency. Now she is also starting to think she might need some new friends too.

“Hel-lo? Claire?”

“What?” She’s yanked back to the table and to her three friends staring at her.

“Where did you go?” Michelle asks.

“We were asking why you quit working at that bar in the city?” Kate checks her teeth with her phone’s camera.

“I don’t know.” Claire shrugs. “Mostly because the boss was evil, among other things.”

“Oh.” Kerry frowns. “Pity. Now we can’t get on the door list anymore.”

Claire shoots her a look. “So I should stay in a crappy job just so you can get discounted drinks, should I?” She throws her napkin onto her empty plate.

Kerry, suitably contrite, shakes her head and looks down at her plate. “Of course not, I just—”

“Hey, how great was that place where Tara had her drinks the other night?” Michelle cuts in with a change of subject, always the one to defuse any tension. “I loved it.”

“Me too.” Kerry’s eyes brighten. “I loved…”

Claire stops listening again as Kerry pipes up. Why should she listen? She wasn’t even there. She was at work. As usual. She pushes her plate away and looks around the room, bored again.

This is exactly why she hardly ever bothers to meet them anymore even though they continue to invite her. All they talk about is what they did last night or about their mutual friends. And Claire was fine with that in high school, when she actually did the same things as them, but now…

If she wasn’t so bored with the idea of going to clubs with them, she’d probably feel left out. The other three are doing the same course in business and majoring in tourism—mostly because Kate and Kerry are such freaking sheep they wouldn’t know what they wanted without Michelle. Even now, in their second year, they still take nearly all the same courses.

She watches them talk but can’t bring herself to tune back in. She won’t know who or what they’re talking about anyway. They have less in common all the time. The fact that Claire studies something else is just one more wedge between them. Last year, when Brendan still came home on the weekends and Claire didn’t work as much, they all saw each other more, clinging to old high school social formations. Now, with the list of things they have in common shrinking by the moment, there’s not much left. They stubbornly hold on to each other for the sake of a shared history, but one that is undermined by a growing, mutual disinterest.

Claire knows she shouldn’t be surprised. Not if she really thinks about it. Their friendship in high school was created around their shared schedules and similar social rankings. Of all them, Claire only genuinely likes Michelle. Their friendship consolidated in the last years of high school when they started going out with Brendan and Jack who are best friends. Michelle is nice and smart and funny, and sometimes, when they’re together in a small group, Michelle actually has something to say.

But Kate and Kerry? They just came with the Michelle package, and Claire put up with them—puts up with them—because she has no choice. It kills her that those two twits look down on her and her degree. Even with their brain cells pooled, Claire could outsmart them in a second. Still, they seem to think what they’re doing is better than what she’s doing. Maybe it’s because there’s the certainty of a job after graduation. It doesn’t matter if they barely make it through their studies or if the job is in a partitioned cubicle inside a shiny building somewhere. Just because they can scrape a pass in Fundamentals of Finance doesn’t make them better than her.

She looks at their outfits as they talk and shakes her head slightly. At least they give her plenty of fodder to make fun of them. Recently, they dress as though they work in an office already. They put on fitted skirts and jackets for class, trying desperately to look the part. Kate, of course, takes it too far as usual. She bypasses corporate wear and lurches directly to borderline business slutty with her partially unbuttoned shirt and porn-length skirt. And Kerry, who barely breaks the five-foot barrier, looks more like a kid playing dress up.

“Claire, what are you up to this weekend?” Michelle tries once again to drag her back into the conversation.

“Working. And catching up with Cam. He’s back from that training thing.”

In truth, she probably won’t be hanging out with her brother because he’s back to work after the week’s holiday, on night shift. She just wants to mention him as payback to Kerry, who has harboured a mammoth crush on him for the last three years. Squat, blonde, and bland, Claire knows Cam wouldn’t look twice at Kerry, and that’s if he actually registers her existence at all. Kerry is too sane for Cam.

But she also tells them that because she has too much pride to admit she’ll probably do nothing.

“Well, if you’re around on Friday, come to Steph Habic’s party with us.” Michelle scoops up another forkful of her pasta.

“Maybe.” Claire barely remembers Steph from school.

“I can’t stay too late, though, because I have to hit the road early in the morning,” Michelle says as she puts down her fork. Then she flinches and sneaks a look at Claire. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Claire frowns. “You can say you’re going up to see Jack. I’m okay.”

Certain she’s blushing, Claire looks down at her hands in her lap because she doesn’t want to meet anyone’s gaze. Pity about why she broke up with Brendan actually feels worse than the actual breakup.

“I know, but still…” Michelle falters.

“It’s been months.” Claire raises her hands to stop Michelle. “I’m over it,” she tells them, unsure if it’s the truth or not.

“Really? You were going out for, like, over two years.” Kerry raises an eyebrow.

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