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“I’m closing up in ten minutes, Mia,” Mrs Taylor, St. Kilda High’s librarian warned.
The end-of-day bell had rung fifteen minutes ago but Mia was waiting for the crowds to clear. She’d made it to the end of her first day without running into Julian again by spending lunch time and then her double free period in the library. Still, she couldn’t be home too late – her mother had no classes this afternoon but a late class tonight, so she’d be home now and want an early dinner. Mia packed up.
The fifteen minutes had been enough, the lockers and the tram stop were bully-free and she even got a seat on the ride home. Perhaps she should do that more often. As she reached the front door of her new flat, she saw her mother through the kitchen window, lifting a newspaper-wrapped plate from a box she’d perched over the sink. Mia sighed. Patricia was doing what she usually did – unpacking everything at once but not putting anything in the cupboards, just stacking it all onto what little bench space their always tiny kitchens had. Patricia’s reasoning was that everything needed to be washed of newsprint before it was put away but it was so much easier to unpack, wash and put away everything from one box at a time. Her mother’s way turned the whole kitchen into one of those puzzles with one piece missing; you had to shuffle everything around to get enough space to even reach the sink – let alone make a meal.
“Where have you been?” Patricia asked the moment Mia stepped through the door. “You should have been home fifteen minutes ago.”
“Sorry. I was in the library.” She headed past the kitchen, down the short hall to her bedroom and dropped her bag on the bed.
Her mother appeared in the doorway. “The library?”
“I was finishing one of the new English books. I’ve only got three left to read now.”
“You went to the library after school to read for fifteen minutes, instead of coming straight home?”
“No. I was in there already – I had a double free and I was almost finished the book so I-”
“Hang on,” her mother held up one hand. Mia stiffened but managed not to commit the sin of flinching. “You had a double free period and you spent it reading in the library instead of coming home to help unpack?”
Mia swallowed. She hadn’t thought of doing that. “I was reading the English books I have to catch up on.”
”Oh! Oh well that’s alright then! It’s not like I was here with an entire household to unpack!”
“But, it’s schoolwork-” Mia was genuinely confused. Now even her school hours weren’t her own?
“And it’s a library. You can bring the book home.”
“Actually, I can’t. You can’t take the assigned texts home. They’re reference only.”
Her mother’s left eye twitched. She folded her arms. “Why must you always lie?”
Fear swallowed the surge of anger the insult brought to Mia’s chest. “I’m not.”
“Novels are not reference books. Reference books are dictionaries and encyclopedias. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No. They just put the assigned texts in the reference section. They don’t have many and they don’t want people to leave them at home when everyone needs them.”
“Stop lying! You wanted to stay at school instead of helping me. At least admit that.”
Mia took a deep breath through her nose. I didn’t want to stay at school,” she said, fighting the desire to grit her teeth. “I just wanted to do my school work.”
“And I suppose I don’t have any schoolwork I could be doing instead of unpacking? I had a presentation this morning, which you haven’t even asked about yet – so I haven’t had a moment to work on my thesis for weeks! Do you think your high school reading list is more important than my Masters Degree? Honestly Mia. What goes through your head?”
There was a lot going through Mia’s head. Like: No I haven’t asked about your presentation – I started a new school today and you haven’t asked about that! and; Yes, I do think my final year of high school is more important than the Masters Degree you’ve been working on for 8 years, in 5 different disciplines because you keep sleeping with a classmate or a lecturer and when you break up suddenly your life time goal has always been to study Philosophy, not History like it was last year, or Literature the year before that…
What she said was, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
“No. You never do.” Patricia shook her head and left the doorway, still talking at Mia as she went up the hall. “You know, if you thought even a little about someone other than yourself once in a while, you might make friends more easily.”
Mia bit down on a response that would only get her in trouble.
“Not that you’re interested,” Patricia continued from her bedroom next door, her voice accompanied by the swish and zip of clothes being changed, “but my presentation went very well. So well that my young tutor has asked me to dinner after my lecture tonight.”
Mia closed her eyes and rolled them behind the safety of her lids.
“He can’t be much older than you. So don’t wait up.”
“While I’m out, I want you to finish the kitchen – wash everything before you put it away. We can’t even make dinner without some bench space.”
Her eyes still closed, Mia opened her mouth so wide her lips felt they’d split and pushed out a silent, skull-vibrating scream.
Tak plugged his phone into the TV speakers and set his music playing loud. He had a routine when his Mum started her night-shift rotations: music too loud, food too sweet, computer games too late. Just for the one night – it was too close to exams to screw around all 10 shifts but he was a strong believer in the philosophy of everything in moderation, including moderation.
He danced into the kitchen and swung the fridge door open. “Yes!” He fist-pumped the air. His Mum had left him ebi-katsu to fry up. They were his favourite Japanese food – patties of prawn and egg coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Hiroko had told him that in Japan ebi-katsu was strictly a New Year tradition but, like most traditions from her homeland, she seemed to take pleasure in flouting it.
He went to the cupboard under the sink and pulled out the deep fryer, lifting it to the bench and glancing out the window as he plugged it in. It was getting dark and the lights in the flats on the other side of the U made the sheer white curtains that came pre-installed disappear. Almost directly across from his window, Mia was at her kitchen sink, washing dishes and occasionally sighing heavily, making her white t-shirt tighten-
Tak slid the fryer around the corner of the bench so that he wouldn’t be tempted to spy. It didn’t work. He glanced across several times as he waited for the oil to heat, then again as he cooked each of the six burger-sized ovals until the panko was golden. Even after he’d shredded some cabbage and poured creamy sesame dressing on it to make what his mother called “lazy salad”, Mia was still washing dishes, drying them, putting them away and washing some more.
When was she going to eat? He was pretty sure she hadn’t had lunch – he and his mates’ spot was outside the library and he’d seen her duck inside at the beginning of lunch and hadn’t seen her leave and she wouldn’t have been able to eat inside.
He took his plate around the island that separated the kitchen from the living room and perched on one of the two stools. He cut into a crunchy golden croquette with the side of his fork and the scent of salty prawns made his mouth water before the forkful reached it. He wondered if Mia liked ebi-katsu.
“Jeez, Tak!” he said out loud. “Leave it alone!”
She was putting a kettle on now. Reaching into the cupboard above it and pulling out… a cup noodle. Sighing, deeply at the cup noodle.
Tak looked at his pile of golden treats, crisp, salty and juicy. Where was her mum?
He stood, flicked off the lights and stalked up to the kitchen window, peering down at the car space on the ground floor that belonged to Mia’s apartment. Empty. If she was eating alone, she wasn’t expecting her mother back soon…
Moments later, he was knocking at her door. She opened it slowly, suspiciously but when she saw him, her eyes sparkled and he felt himself blush.
“Hey. Do you like ebi-katsu?”
She frowned. “I have no idea what it is.”
“It’s my favourite Japanese food, prawns, deep fried, salt – not on the soccer coach’s list of approved foods. You want to come have some?”
“At your place?”
“I saw your mum’s car’s gone and my mum’s starting her night shift rotation at the hospital – she’s left me way too much.”
Her eyes flicked toward her kitchen – was she picturing the cup noodle? – then she glanced past him toward his door – she was considering it. But she shook her head.
“No. It’s really nice of you and the ebby…?”
“Ebi-katsu,” he said.
Her face lit up. “Oh! Ebi as in prawn and ‘katsu’ as in fried?”
“Hai!” he said, far too brightly for someone trying to impress a girl.
“It sounds really yummy,” she said, “but I’ve got so much to do here. I’ve been washing and putting things away all night and I still can’t see the bench.”
“Isn’t that exactly why you should take a break?” he asked.
She took a deep breath and met his eye properly for the first time. She smiled, biting her lower lip and then looked at her watch. Tak could see she wanted to come.
“Is your mum going to be home soon?” he asked.
“No,” she snapped, frowning. But then she softened and let out a sigh. “I mean, probably not but maybe. I just… She’s kind of strict, if I wasn’t here when- I just don’t want to risk it. Sorry.”
“No. No worries. It’s fine.”
“Thank you, though,” she said.
Tak should have left it at that but he was seized with a sense of injustice. Why shouldn’t she stop slaving away for a while and having something decent to eat?
Before she could shut the door completely he said, “Do you have any laundry to do?”
“In all that unpacking, there must be some clothes or towels to wash.”
“Ah. Yeah. There is. Why?”
“Well, you have to go past my door to get to and from the laundry room…” He caught her eye with a smirk and felt a rush as she held his gaze and allowed herself to smile as he outlined the idea. “Put the load on, bring the basket to my place and if we see her come back-”
She nodded, “then I’m just coming back from checking on the washing.”
“See you in ten minutes?” he asked.
She grinned. “I’ll try for five.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed home to wait for her.