‘Whenever you’re ready,’ Maddison said, giving Jenny an encouraging smile.
‘Um, so, just talk about whatever?’ Jenny felt her face grow hot. What shall I say? Shall I tell them about the incident? What if I’m so nervous I fart? Or worse. Oh no, I think I might pee my pants. Aaaaaagh…
‘Maybe just start at the beginning?’ Ellen whispered from the chair next to her.
Jenny cleared her throat and looked at Phil, hoping for a bit of moral support. He was looking at the floor.
‘Well, I’m here, as you know, because I can’t stop cleaning. I mean, that’s me. Always cleaning. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. I’m obsessively neat and tidy, phobic about germs, and neurotic about cleanliness and hygiene.’
‘Mysophobia,’ Jonty said from across the circle, barely loud enough for everyone to hear.
‘Say what now?’ Grayson turned to him.
‘Mysophobia,’ Jonty repeated, ‘is a fear of germs.’
‘Man, how do you know all this stuff?’ Grayson asked him.
Jonty shrugged. ‘Google, I guess. I did a bit of research about everyone. Well, about your, um, problems – not yourselves specifically.’
Jenny shifted uncomfortably in her chair, as did a few of the others. Presumably, they felt similarly exposed. Should I continue? She looked at Maddison, who nodded that she should carry on.
‘I don’t know when it all started, not really. I have this picture on the fridge in my apartment, of me and my twin sister. We’re hugging, really close. You know, cheek to cheek. And we look really happy. I kind of think of that time as being the last period in my life when I was normal. The last time in my life when I could hug someone without being afraid of what I might catch. That was a long time ago. I haven’t hugged my parents, or anyone actually, for as long as I can remember.’ Jenny felt a lump in her throat, and paused momentarily to take a few deep breaths. When she looked across the circle, she noticed that Phil was looking at her for the first time that evening. She caught his eye, and he smiled his encouragement.
‘I’ve often been told I’ve got OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Which is true. At least, when I googled it all the signs and symptoms seem to fit. I get really anxious if something is dirty or I think it might have germs on it. Which is pretty much anything and everything. Sometimes I try and ignore it. You know, try to close a door without disinfecting my hands afterwards. But then, I can’t stop thinking about cleaning my hands, and I get kind of nervous and uneasy, and it builds up until I have to clean my hands. And when I do, I get this sense of relief. It’s like an itch, and I feel compelled to scratch it. Does that make sense?’
Jenny noticed a few of the others in the group were nodding. Of course, I’m preaching to the choir!
‘I do realise my behaviour’s not normal, not rational. But I’m, um…’ Jenny paused, unsure how to describe herself.
‘Powerless?’ Ellen suggested.
‘Yes,’ Jenny smiled at her gratefully. ‘I feel powerless to stop. But then this makes me even more anxious. Aside from this group, and my best friend, I haven’t had any kind of social life or social contact in years. I’ve still got all my compulsions to clean, but I’m feeling a bit, well, lighter these days. Like life is a bit easier,’ she looked around the circle and smiled fondly, ‘with you crazies in it.’
Maddison smiled and looked around the group. ‘Does anyone have any comments or questions at this point?’
Suzanne cleared her throat. ‘I do.’ Everyone looked at her in surprise, and she shrugged slightly. ’You mentioned an incident in our first meeting. Something happened. You were forced to join this group. I was just wondering what happened.’
Jenny couldn’t hide her surprise – she had been hoping the group might have forgotten that. She bit her lip as the rest of the group leaned in closer to her, ensuring they didn’t miss a word. ‘Only if you’re comfortable?’ Maddison asked from across the circle.
I may as well tell them, Jenny thought, making a split second decision. She looked at Suzanne. ’Yes, there was an incident. I don’t really talk about it, it’s so mortifying. My family almost disowned me, and it was just all so humiliating.’
Every eye was watching her every move, every ear perked up to catch every word. Jenny was sure she’d never had such a captive audience in her entire life.
‘Right, well, have you heard about hoarders? I mean, people who hoard stuff? Everything and anything. They throw out nothing, and they live in a complete dump surrounded by all this junk and crap and dirt.’
A few people nodded. ‘I’ve seen that hoarding show on TV,’ Ellen grimaced, ’even I can’t bare the state of their houses. Please do not tell me that used to be you?”
‘No, of course not.’ Jenny smiled. ‘A hoarder is like, well, like my arch nemesis I suppose.’ The rest of the group laughed. ‘I don’t go out much, and I don’t see people, aside from my family, so I’ve never met a hoarder. I can’t even watch that hoarding show on TV, it makes me want to scratch my eyes out and wash the empty sockets with a bucket of Janola.’ Everyone laughed again.
‘So, one day, my twin sister Bridgette comes over. And she’s going on and on about the latest guy she’s seeing, and how he’s so perfect apart from his mum, who’s this disgusting hoarder. And then she goes on and on about the state of his mum’s house, and the rubbish and the dirt and the crap piled up everywhere. I mean, she just wouldn’t stop going on about it.’ Jenny paused. ’I suppose she was telling me the story to freak me out. Which it did. So she goes home, and I lay in bed that night and I just can’t sleep thinking about it. All the germs, and the muck, and the diseases lurking in every corner. I literally stayed up all night thinking about it. And then, um, it started.’
‘What?’ Petra asked, a few chairs down. ‘What started?’
’My obsession. With this disgusting, dirty, filthy, crap-filled house. I just felt like I had to know where it was, like I had to find it and clean it. So, a few days later I called Bridgette, and I asked her what her boyfriend’s last name was. She was suspicious, but I made up some story or other. And then I looked through the phone book. His last name was Shiner. There were only a couple of them in the book. I filled my car with cleaning stuff. And I drove around Hamilton until I found the right house. It was obvious which one it was.’ Jenny shuddered. ‘It was like a derelict’s house. Crap everywhere, grass as high as my waist, windows boarded up. I sat there for a while, and I stared at it.’
Jenny looked around the circle. ‘My plan, if you can call it that, was to break into this complete stranger’s house. To clean it. I mean, I think I knew it was a crazy idea. When I say it out loud now, I can’t even believe I considered it. At the time though, I couldn’t fight the compulsion. I just knew I had to clean that house. I wore a balaclava. And an apron. And rubber gloves. And plastic bags covering my feet. And I had a huge bag of bleach and sponges.’
‘Oh my God,’ Ellen giggled, ‘imagine if someone saw you? Imagine what they’d think you were doing!’
‘I know, right?’ Jenny shook her head. She still couldn’t believe what had happened. ‘So, I get out of the car, wearing all this stuff and carrying all my cleaning things. And I walk around the house looking for a way in. The back door was open, thankfully. Or not. It would have been better if I didn’t get in at all I suppose. So I just walked straight in. The door banged shut behind me, and something fell down from a cupboard in front of it and the door handle fell off the door. And I suddenly realised I couldn’t get out. And then I actually took a look around. It was like a living nightmare. My absolute worst nightmare. There was shit, actual shit, on the floor right in front of me. I mean, real shit. That’s not just a euphemism for a mess. It was a great big poo. Right there, on the floor.’
Jenny paused to take a few deep breaths, and screwed up her nose as a memory of the putrid smell came to her. ‘The smell was like nothing on this earth. I mean, it was like dead bodies mixed with shit mixed with vomit mixed with rotten fish – every bad smell you could think of, all wafting around to create this unholy stench. And I’m standing there, stuck, smelling this smell and looking at this poo on the floor, and I just start screaming. I mean, screaming like I was being murdered. There are the sound of footsteps on the stairs above me, and I heard a voice, shouting that she was calling the police. And I just couldn’t stop screaming. And then this head appears around the corner. This dirty, messy head, and the smell gets worse…’
Jenny fell silent, and the group sat, fixated, waiting.
‘What did you do?’ Jonty asked, his golden eyes looking at Jenny with concern.
‘I passed out.’ Jenny shrugged. ‘When I woke up, the police were there and I was questioned, and eventually I was charged with breaking and entering.’
‘What the fuck?’ Suzanne’s voice was incredulous. ‘You were charged with breaking and entering, even though you only did it to clean the place?’
’I guess in the eyes of the law, it didn’t matter why I broke in. The fact of the matter was, I broke in to a stranger’s house. I was charged, and sentenced, and here I am today.’
There was a moment of silence in the circle, as everyone digested Jenny’s story, before they all started talking at once.
After a few minutes, Maddison looked at her watch. ‘Okay, okay, I know we’ve got a lot to talk about, but we’ve almost run over time. Jenny, did you want to add anything else? How are you getting on with your own personal goal to, er…’ Maddison looked at her notes, Jenny was sure she saw her hiding a smile, ‘to get a boyfriend?’
‘Oh, um, well… I suppose I’m making progress.’ Jenny noticed Phil glance at her and then fix his stare directly on the floor in front of him. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment.
‘I mean, I haven’t actually met anyone, but I’ve done the banana in the trolley thing at the supermarket, which was humiliating, and I’ve been speed dating, which was a disaster. And, recently, I joined Tinder. Which has been a lesson in, um…’
‘Cocks and balls?’ Ellen suggested with a smirk. Everyone looked at her in surprise, and Jenny laughed.
‘Yeah, so, apparently anyone I swipe as a match seems to want to send me a picture of their bits and pieces,’ Jenny informed the group. ‘I don’t think Tinder’s going to be the best way for a clean-freak like me to meet someone. And, also, I’ve been set up on a blind date. Actually, a double date. This Saturday.’
Phil looked up from the floor when Jenny mentioned the date, and she gave him a small smile. See, I really AM busy that night, I wasn’t just blowing you off for no reason. He didn’t smile back.
‘Wow, that’s fantastic!’ Petra said, smiling at Jenny. ‘You’re fucking amazing.’
‘I don’t know about that. My best friend’s set it up, and we still need to decide on a restaurant - somewhere clean, obviously, and I’ll need to get there early so I can clean my chair and cutlery and everything before he gets there. And maybe a BYO, so I can bring my own wine in a bottle I’ve disinfected. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to eat anything off the menu. And God knows what I’ll do if I need to use the toilet.’ Jenny pulled a face, and shook her head. ‘Seriously, I don’t even know why I’m bothering, as soon as he realises what I’m actually like he’ll run for cover.’
‘That’s ridic!’ Suzanne said, from across the circle. ‘You’re actually quite hot Jen. What are you going to wear?’
Jenny looked at her in surprise. ‘Hot? I doubt it. I haven’t really thought about what I’m going to wear.’ Oh my God. What. Am. I. Going. To. Wear?
‘You want me to take you shopping for something?’ Suzanne glanced over at Maddison, who was looking concerned. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not shopping for me. So it doesn’t count, right? So, Jen, you up for it?’
‘Oh,’ Jenny racked her brain for a foolproof excuse but couldn’t think of one, ‘sure, okay. When?’
‘Friday afternoon? I’ll meet you at Cene at 3pm?’
‘Right, yes, okay. 3pm at Cene. Sure. Um, thanks.’
Suzanne smiled and shrugged. ‘You’re kind of helping me out in a way. I haven’t shopped for myself in over three days, and I’m feeling the withdrawals!’
Maddison looked surprised at Suzanne’s comment. ‘Suzanne! That’s fantastic!’ The others murmured their support in a non-committal way. The general consensus from the rest of the group appeared to be that an addiction to shopping was hard to take seriously. Unlike sex, stealing and breaking into people’s houses to clean them.
‘Now, we’re really going to have to leave it there.’ Maddison started shuffling the papers on her lap, and snapped them into her clipboard before looking around the circle. ‘Can I just say a big thank you to Jenny, for being so candid with the group. I’m sure I don’t need to remind any of you that anything you hear in these sessions is to remain confidential. I hope you all have a good week, and I’ll see you in a fortnight.’
Jenny said her goodbyes to the group around her, and walked over to Petra who was pulling her jacket on. Ellen came and stood beside her, and they both looked at Petra with concern.
‘What? Haven’t you seen anyone put on a fucking jacket before?’ Petra asked, a snappy tone in her voice.
‘Petra,’ Ellen laid a hand on her arm, ‘are you okay?’
Petra sighed heavily, and turned to watch as the others in the group filed out of the hall. She looked back at Jenny and Ellen. ‘It’s tough, you know, not seeing my kids. I think last week might have been my rock bottom. As in, I wish I was dead, that kind of rock bottom.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do?’ Jenny asked.
‘No, I don’t think so. But thanks, for being concerned.’
‘Actually,’ Ellen said, briefly looking at Jenny before she spoke, ‘we were wondering if you wanted to join us at my house one day, for dinner maybe?’
Petra looked at Ellen, and then at Jenny. ‘Oh, okay, I guess.’
‘Great, I’ll send you both a message to confirm the night. And another thing, Petra, I’ve been going to AA meetings with Jonty every second Thursday. How about you come with us some time?’
Petra and Ellen started talking about the AA meetings and what they involved, and Jenny took the opportunity to excuse herself and head out of the hall into the cold night air. She took a deep breath on the step outside and rolled her neck a few times. Telling her story to the group was nerve-wracking, and draining - but it had felt a tiny bit liberating as well. She would almost go as far as saying she felt exhilarated, if it hadn’t been for Phil’s reaction. I guess I’ve really mucked up that friendship, Jenny thought to herself, as she headed to her car. The beep of her mobile interrupted her thoughts and she looked at the screen.
There was a Scott, located somewhere nearby. Looking for love. His picture looked okay, he looked clean and tidy. He said he’s looking for love, not sex. To hell with it. Jenny swiped his picture to the right.
Almost immediately a message popped up from Scott.
Hey chick. Want to meet up? I’m just round the corner.
Jenny looked at the message, and then up and down the street. I wonder where he is. Maybe he lives around here? She typed out a reply.
Hi Scott. Where are you?
It didn’t take long before her mobile registered another message.
Public toilet, behind the service station on Andrew Road. I’m HORNY. Come meet me. Let’s fuck.
Jenny looked at the message, and shook her head in disgust. She was about to hit delete, when her mobile beeped again. Scott had sent her a picture.
Of his cock and balls.