Two horrendous Sunday family dinners broken up by a frantically busy working week later, and it was time to go to another meeting. Jenny looked at the calendar hanging beside her fridge. Tuesday 9th August? How the heck did that happen? Since her support group meetings had started in June, time seemed to be flying past. Jenny suspected that having a group of ‘friends’ - albeit a bizarre mash of personalities plagued with addictions - plus some semblance of a social life, was fast forwarding time. Maybe this is how quick time passes for all the normal people? Her eyes flicked over the photo pinned to the front of her fridge. Herself and Bridgette, seven years old, their arms wrapped around each other. It was hard to tell who was who, back then. Peering closer, Jenny examined her own face in the photo. The big broad smile, her cheek crushed against her sisters - something she couldn’t ever imagine doing now. I suppose I was normal then. Sighing, Jenny walked to her bedroom to get dressed for the meeting.
An hour later, Jenny checked her watch as she pulled on her knee high boots. Shit, it’s nearly seven. I’m going to be late! Grabbing her bag, and cursing herself for her indecision over what to wear, she rushed out the door. Damn it, I’m never late. What do I care what I wear anyway, no-one else cares what I wear. Damn it.
Pulling up outside the hall, Jenny switched off her car and took several deep breaths. It was already five minutes past seven, and the rest of the group would be inside. She was never late. Never. This was new territory for her, and she was tempted to start her car back up and drive off.
Just as she put her key back in the ignition, another car pulled up behind her. She looked in her rear-vision mirror, and noticed Grayson getting out of the driver’s side. Gambler, can’t sit still, Irish, fanta pants - a checklist ran through Jenny’s head as she watched him. It was hard to miss his fiery red hair on a grey drizzly evening like this. There was someone sitting in the passenger seat, and Jenny watched with interest as they hopped out of the car. She could tell it was a woman, but couldn’t see her properly until she walked around the back of Grayson’s car to take the car keys from him. As she came into view Jenny gasped out loud and then coughed to cover the sound, unfortunately swallowing what could have been a piece of dust, or a small insect. Jenny wasn’t sure which was worse. Coughing violently, her cheeks were burning as she heard footsteps coming towards her car. Grayson peered in at her with concern.
‘You okay Jenny?’
Jenny tried to nod, which only made her cough again. Eyes streaming, she reached for the bottle of water she kept in her handbag and took a big swig. Getting herself under control, she looked up at Grayson.
He went to open her door for her, and then hesitated. ‘Is that okay?’
Jenny nodded mutely, scrambling out of her car into the wintery air and closing the door with her backside. ‘Um, thanks. Just got something caught in my throat.’
Grayson nodded, and then motioned to his female passenger, who was standing beside him looking warily at Jenny. ‘This is Adelaida, me moth.’
Jenny tried not to stare, but it was impossible not to. Adelaida was literally the most beautiful woman she had ever seen outside of a magazine. From her glossy mane of hair, to her full lips and her slim physique, she was breath-taking.
Adelaida put out her hand, rolling her eyes impatiently as she waited for Jenny to take it.
‘Ah, sorry, I…’ Jenny frowned apologetically, as her own hand stayed by her side. ‘I kind of can’t shake hands. But it’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. I mean, um, not really. Um…’
Adelaida’s eyes narrowed, and she dropped her outstretched hand. ’And I have heard nothing about you, nothing.’ Adelaida looked furious, and she fixed Grayson with an ‘I’ll-deal-with-you-later’ stare.
Jenny gulped, terrified, and Grayson quickly ushered Adelaida back to their car. ‘I’ll see you later honey.’
‘Nine pm, Gray, I’ll be waiting.’
Jenny looked at the pavement, unsure what to do or where to look. Grayson came to stand beside her, and they both waited as Adelaida gunned the engine and roared off. But not before she fixed Jenny with another suspicious glare, and then frowned angrily at her husband.
’Sorry ‘bout that,’ Grayson shrugged. ‘She’s got a fiery temper, that one. Gets a bit jealous, like.’
‘Right,’ Jenny muttered, unsure what else to say. Walking across the road and towards the hall together, Jenny felt shocked. Whatever she had been expecting Grayson’s wife to be like, nothing could have prepared her for the reality. He was so friendly, warm and funny - and she was just so… not.
Opening the door to the hall for Jenny, Grayson let her walk in ahead of him. Jenny smiled her thanks, and then looked ahead at the circle of chairs. Everyone else in the group was already seated, and there were some interested looks as the two of them walked in together.
‘So sorry we’re late,’ Jenny said to Maddison, and then nodded her hellos to everyone else. Noticing Phil’s raised eyebrow, she quickly added, ’sorry I’m late, not we. We just met outside, by accident, we didn’t come together. I came on my own. Grayson’s wife was dropping him off.’ Oh my God, why did I say that? No-one cares. Jenny looked at Phil. Well, maybe someone does.
The rest of the group looked bemused, and there were a couple of sniggers, while Petra suddenly laughed loudly. ‘Haha, you guys fucking doin’ it, are ya?’ Petra smirked, and looked at Maddison. ’Is that against the rules, boss?’
Maddison appeared not to have heard, or was choosing to ignore her.
‘So, you got a look at the infamous Adelaida,’ Anthony smirked at Jenny. ‘A goddess or what?’ He pointed at Grayson. ‘Don’t know how the ginger-ninja managed it.’
Jenny tried not to look at Grayson, who had already sat down on his chair as she was getting her disinfectant and wipes out of her bag. Wiping her own chair down, she glanced sideways at Anthony and mumbled, ‘yeah, something like that.’
‘Right, everyone,’ Maddison said, satisfied that everyone was there and all her chicks were safely in the nest, ‘let’s get started. It’s lovely to see you all again.’ Everyone nodded and smiled at her, excluding Suzanne who was wearing her usual snarl. Petra, strangely, was still chuckling to herself, and suddenly started clapping her hands enthusiastically.
‘Anthony has volunteered to speak this week, but before he starts I thought we could have a little chat about how we all are, and where we’re at with our goals. So, how is everyone?’ She looked at each of their faces in turn.
‘I’m great, so fucking great,’ Petra said, surprising the group, and everyone exchanged curious glances. ‘So fucking great. What a day. Bloody hell. Knackered, I’m knackered.’ She clapped her hands again, and sniffed a few times, before crossing and uncrossing both her arms and legs. She seemed to lurch to one side of her chair, and Jenny was afraid she was going to fall onto the floor.
Maddison cleared her throat. ‘Petra, would you mind if we had a quick chat out in the hallway?’
Petra looked surprised, but relieved to be able to stand up and move her legs. ‘Of course, sure, of course. Let’s go then. Let’s go.’ She stood from her chair and appeared to sway slightly, before putting her hand on Ellen’s shoulder to steady herself. ‘Don’t get any ideas laaaady,’ she laughed, looking down at Ellen, ‘betcha been thinking bout it, huh?’
Ellen shook her head, and smiled sympathetically at Petra. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Come on Petra,’ Maddison urged, standing by the door to the hallway.
Petra saluted the group before marching out of the main room and into the hallway. Maddison turned back to the circle of concerned faces briefly, before following her out into the hallway. ‘I won’t be long, please talk amongst yourselves.’
Everyone looked at each other, and Jonty was the first to break the silence.
‘She’s high,’ he told the group, his usual whisper even quieter than normal.
Jenny looked at him in shock, wondering if she had misheard. ‘Really? How do you know?’
‘I just know.’ Anthony, Grayson and even Suzanne were nodding their agreement.
‘So, what’s going to happen to her do you think?’ Phil directed his question at Jonty.
Jonty looked thoughtful. ‘She’ll be sent home I suppose. That’s usually what happens at our AA meetings.’
‘That’s not really fair, though, is it?’ Jenny murmured, more to herself than anyone.
‘Really?’ Ellen asked in surprise. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, it’s just that I can come along and clean my chair and not touch anyone and spray disinfectant everywhere.’ Jenny looked over at Phil. ‘Um, and you could bring a hot dog and sit there and eat it. And, well, we’re not going to get sent home are we? But we’re still acting on those impulses that we can’t control.’
‘Hmm, bloody good point, Jen,’ Anthony said, looking thoughtful. ’I guess the rules have to be different according to whatever your addiction is. Like, I’m obviously not allowed to steal anything, or at least, if I do I have to give it back before I leave the meeting. Ellen’s not allowed to go have a liaison in the toilets. Jonty’s not allowed to skull back a whiskey or turn up drunk.’
’Not sure ‘bout me,’ Grayson said. ‘Not many opportunities to gamble in here.’
Suzanne looked around the group. ‘And there’s definitely no opportunities for me to buy clothes.’ She rested her eyes briefly on Phil’s old jeans, ‘burn them maybe, but not buy them.’
The others laughed. Grayson turned to Suzanne, ‘why, I do believe you just cracked a wee joke.’
‘Whatevs,’ Suzanne replied, folding her arms. But she was still smiling, in a way.
Before she had a chance to close up completely, Jenny grasped the opportunity to thank her. ‘Hey, Suzanne?’
Suzanne looked over at her warily. ‘Yeah?’
‘Um, thanks. For your advice about the plum dress, I mean. I bought it. It was, is, amazing.’
‘Yep, it is,’ Phil added.
Suzanne’s eyes were shining, and she suddenly looked younger, softer. ‘I knew it would be awesome on you, the colour would really suit your complexion, and the style would add a few, er, curves.’
Jenny blushed. ‘Well, yes. Still not enough curves according to one of the guys I met. Anyway, thanks.’
‘Was that for the speed dating?’ Ellen asked. Jenny nodded. ’I never heard how it went. How was it?”
Jenny and Phil looked at each other across the circle of chairs, and shared a smile. ‘Awful,’ Jenny replied. ‘Absolutely awful.’
Jenny was about to elaborate, when there was a noise in the hallway and the group turned to stare as Maddison walked back into the room, holding Petra’s elbow. She led Petra straight past the group and out the front doors of the hall. There was the sound of talking outside, and then a car pulled up. A few minutes later Maddison came back into the room.
Sitting in her chair, she looked around the group. ‘Unfortunately, Petra has had a relapse, and I’ve had to call her a taxi to take her home.’ Maddison cleared her throat, and correctly interpreted the group’s collective unspoken question. ‘Petra will be welcome at our next meeting, provided she isn’t under the influence. I’ll be following up with Petra’s addiction support counsellor tomorrow.’
‘Can we contact her? Not now, but, like, tomorrow?’ Jenny asked.
‘Of course, you can try. She may not be in the mood for the next few days, but I am sure she would appreciate yours and the group’s support.’
Maddison looked at her watch. ‘We’ve lost a bit of time, we’re going to need to get back on track.’
‘Maddison?’ Ellen asked. ‘I went to one of Jonty’s AA meetings with him last week. I found it really useful. Do you think Petra might like to come along with us?’
Maddison looked thoughtful. ‘Attending together could be very useful Ellen, but it really depends on whether Petra will be open to the idea. We can broach the subject in our next meeting. So you found the AA meeting useful then?’
Ellen nodded enthusiastically, and smiled over at Jonty. ‘It was far more applicable than I thought it would be. In fact,’ she looked around the group, ‘I’m starting to recognise similarities between us that I never would have thought possible.’
The others nodded, except for Suzanne who grimaced. Ellen looked over at her, rolled her eyes dramatically, and then turned back to the rest of the group. ‘Not between what we do, obviously, but there seems to be a similarity in the impulse, the powerlessness we all feel. You know?’
Maddison smiled warmly, before glancing quickly at her watch again. ‘That is an excellent observation Ellen. We’re going to have to move on, but if we have time at the end of the session we can talk about this again. Anthony, would you like to start?’
Anthony nodded, and cleared his throat loudly before looking over at Ellen.
‘Well, I think you’re right Ellen. About the impulse bit, and the similarities between us. My psychiatrist says that I’ve got an impulse control disorder. You know, I can’t resist the urge to steal things. We also talked about the fact,’ Anthony turned to his left and looked at Grayson and Suzanne, ‘that my stealing is an obsessive compulsive disorder, like gambling and compulsive buying.’
Grayson nodded his agreement, and even Suzanne appeared to nod slightly. I think she really is starting to warm up to us. Either that or she’s putting on an act while she plots our violent deaths. Jenny smiled to herself at the thought, and was startled when she looked across the circle and saw Phil watching her. Phil looked away quickly, and Jenny stared at the floor, trying to concentrate on what Anthony was saying.
‘So, here goes. Like I said in our first meeting, I take things. I mean, I steal things. Any things.’
‘Kleptomania,’ Jonty whispered from Anthony’s left. Anthony looked over at him, and nodded.
’Right, kleptomania. That’s the technical term, I guess. I don’t even want the stuff I take, but I can’t seem to stop myself. It’s been going on for, maybe, two years or so I suppose. I don’t remember when it started, but it’s the main reason I’m divorced. And my kids don’t speak to me. They’re all embarrassed. Which is understandable. We used to go to dinner parties at our friend’s houses, but I kept coming home with things in my pockets. Laura, that’s my wife, my ex-wife, was disgusted. Couldn’t understand it. Kept telling me to stop. Said she couldn’t stay married to a thief.’
Anthony looked at his hands, and then around the faces in the circle. ‘I wanted to stop, but it was like the more I tried to stop, the more stuff I took.’
‘Kind of like trying not to stuff my gob,’ Phil said, ‘the more I’ve tried to stop, the more I find myself cramming my cake hole.’
‘And the more I try to stop having sex, the more I seem to seek it out,’ Ellen added.
Anthony smiled briefly. ‘Exactly. I get this, um, sense of pressure I guess, before I steal something. And then when I put something in my pocket, or bag, it’s like this huge sense of relief floods over me. Except then I get home and see what I took, and I’m so ashamed that I nearly need to go out and do it again straight away just to deal with the feelings.’
Anthony looked over at Maddison, who was writing a few notes on her clipboard. She paused to look at him, and smiled encouragingly.
‘So, my psychiatrist says that I’ve come to rely on stealing as a way of coping with stressful situations and distressing feelings. Apparently my lack of other coping strategies exacerbates my behaviour. Reinforces it.’
Jenny looked at the faces around the circle, all glued to Anthony as he told his story. Is it just me, or does he mention his psychiatrist an awful lot?
‘Eventually, things got so bad between Laura and me that she just left one day. Took the kids, who weren’t really kids anymore, and didn’t even leave a note. I just came home from work and everyone was gone. All their clothes, and bikes, and some of the furniture. Just gone. I didn’t hear from her for a month, and when I did it was through a lawyer.’
‘Sorry bud.’ Grayson, sitting on Anthony’s left in the circle, patted him on the back. Jenny, on his right, wished that she could reach out and do the same. Instead, she settled for smiling sympathetically.
‘Everything got worse after that, much worse. I’d always been able to keep it hidden before then, only took a couple of things here and there. But after Laura left, it was like I had no self-control whatsoever. Some of our local shops know me, and they’ve told me I’m not welcome. Which is fair enough. The cops were called, a few times. But I always got out of it for one reason or another. I doubt that would happen if they caught me again. I’m pretty sure I’m on my last warning with them. And now I’m on this performance management thing at work. I just have to get it sorted, I have to get it under control. My life is a mess.’
Jenny blinked a few times, surprised to feel tears forming. As the weeks went by and she got to know the group better, their personal stories seemed to hit harder and harder.
‘A while back, I went to work early. We had a sales meeting in the head office. I needed to read out some sales figures, which were printed out in my briefcase. So I put my briefcase up on the conference table, and was chatting away to the rest of the sales team as I opened it. Anyway, everyone suddenly stopped talking around me, and I was confused for a minute as I didn’t know why. And then I looked down at my briefcase.’
Jenny leaned towards Anthony, noticing the others were doing the same. Engrossed in his story, not wanting to miss a word.
‘Underwear,’ Anthony said, ‘my briefcase was full of underwear.’
There was a collective intake of breath around the circle, as everyone processed this information.
‘And the worst part was that I just stood there staring at this mountain of undies and I couldn’t even remember where it came from. My team just kept staring at me, and laughing, and my boss told me to step outside the meeting room. He knows that I have this problem, but I looked like such a creep, carrying around a briefcase full of underwear.’
‘So, er, where’d they come from?’ Phil asked.
‘We had an underwear shop on our books. The shop was up for sale, and I had been there the day before taking photographs for our website. Honestly,’ he put his hands up in the air, ‘I barely even remembered taking them. And that is precisely the moment I realised I was out of control and I needed professional help. So I organised to see a psychiatrist, and they encouraged me to join this group. I thought it would be a waste of time, actually.’ Anthony looked at Maddison apologetically.
‘And how do you feel about it now, Anthony?’ Maddison asked.
‘Well, it’s been really surprising. Like, pleasantly surprising. We’re all so different, with different problems, and yet it definitely feels like we’re all in the same crazy boat. It really helps to feel like I’m not alone. Does that make sense?’
Maddison nodded, as did the rest of the group. Jenny noticed that even Suzanne was nodding, and smiling slightly. Perhaps she’s not plotting our violent deaths after all.
‘So, that’s my story. I think that’s all, really.’
‘And can you remind us of your goal Anthony?’ Maddison asked.
Anthony smiled. ‘Er, so, my goal is to be able to go out for dinner, or anywhere really – to go out like a normal person and not take the cutlery. Or anything else, for that matter. I don’t think I’d be able to do that yet, but I’m hopeful one day…’.
‘Well, thank you Anthony, for being so honest and open with the group.’ Maddison looked at her watch, and then around the circle. ‘We’ve still got a few minutes. Does anyone want to use this as a springboard for further discussion?’
‘How about we go for a group dinner, after our final meeting?’ Phil asked. ‘You know, to help Anthony with his goal.’
‘Good idea,’ Ellen said, and then looked at Maddison. ’Is it a good idea?’
Maddison nodded. ‘I think offering continued group support and developing supportive friendships amongst yourselves is a very positive step.’
‘Right, okay,’ Anthony said, sounding nervous. ‘We’ll all go together then?’ He paused for a second. ‘Phil, when’s your marathon? You still training?’
Everyone looked at Phil, and Jenny watched his face with interest. She hadn’t asked about his training in a while, and she suddenly felt like she should have.
‘It’s on Sunday the second of November. About eleven weeks away.’ Phil swallowed nervously. ‘Training’s going okay. I’m running nearly ten k’s at a time now. Lost nearly twelve kilos too.’
Jenny gasped in surprise, as did a few of the others.
‘I’m still a fat git though, got a long way to go.’
‘That’s fantastic Phil,’ Ellen said. ‘Well done! I’d love to come and watch the marathon. Would that be okay?’
Phil nodded shyly.
‘Let’s all go,’ Grayson added. ‘We can car pool up to it.’
Shit! Jenny thought. How can I get out of that? Sitting in someone else’s car, breathing their air for an hour and a half. Ugh. No way, no can do.
Phil seemed to notice Jenny’s internal struggle. ‘That’d be great if you guys wanted to support me. You might want to watch at different points along the race, so if anyone wanted to drive up on their own they could do that too.’
Jenny looked over at him gratefully, and mouthed ‘thank you.’ Phil smiled in return.
‘I think this has been an exceptionally helpful and honest session,’ Maddison said, checking her watch again, ‘but we’re going to have to draw it to a close. I’ll look forward to our next session, which will hopefully be a little less eventful than tonight.’
After everyone said their goodbyes, Ellen and Jenny walked out of the hall into the cool night air together.
‘So, what have you got on this week?’ Ellen asked. ‘Any more dating plans?’
Jenny rolled her eyes. ‘Honestly, I don’t know if I can hack it. There’s no way I’ll be going speed dating again.’
‘What about online dating? Have you tried that?’ Jenny shook her head, and Ellen looked excited. ‘You know, it might be the perfect way for you to meet people. I mean, you can vet them online, check their profiles for unsuitable habits, even give them a bit of info about yourself so you both know what you’re in for?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t even know where to start.’
‘How about I help you set up an online profile? I could come over in the weekend?’
Jenny chewed her lip. Online dating. Isn’t that just for desperados? Like me. She shrugged. ‘I guess it might be okay.’
Ellen smiled. ‘Great, I’ll call you through the week and arrange a time to come over. See you then.’
Ellen waved as she walked off in one direction, while Jenny crossed the road to get to her own car. She was just opening her door when another car drove slowly past. Grayson was in the passenger seat and Adelaida, the terrifying beauty queen, was driving. Driving and staring. At Jenny. Jenny noticed Grayson shaking his head, presumably in embarrassment, and thought she saw Adelaida snarl at him before their car was gone.
Jenny touched the back of her neck to smooth down the hairs that were standing to attention.