A few days later, Jenny was on her way to meet Suzanne at the local Westfield shopping mall. Jenny hadn’t heard of the shop ‘Cene’ before, and had rung Amber after the support group meeting to confirm where it was. Amber had been suitably impressed with the arranged shopping expedition, and the two of them had discussed the upcoming date on Saturday for a good forty-five minutes. After much debate, they had booked a table at The Riverside, on the assumption that one of the most expensive restaurants in town would also therefore be the cleanest. The plan was to meet half an hour early, to scope out the toilets and clean Jenny’s chair and cutlery before the men arrived.
What was I thinking, agreeing to this? Jenny asked herself, not for the first time, as she arrived at Westfield and walked towards the back of the mall, where Cene was located. I must be even crazier than I thought. How am I going to cope with all the people in this shop? How will I try on clothes that other people have been touching? What if I fall over in the changing room and head butt the mirror. Or worse, touch it with my hands. Oh yuck, yuck, yuck - those public mirrors are disgusting.
Jenny checked her watch as she arrived outside Cene. Five minutes past three, and no sign of Suzanne. Maybe she’s not coming? Maybe I should just go? I’ll give her a minute, no, thirty seconds, and then I’ll leave.
Before Jenny had a chance to escape, she heard her name being called from inside the shop.
‘Jenny, I’m in here!’
She looked into the shop’s brightly lit interior, and saw Suzanne standing outside the changing rooms. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Jenny smiled and waved, and started walking towards her. You can do this, you can do this. It’s just a normal shopping trip, I’m just a normal person. I will not trip and fall into a mirror. I am not going to catch a deadly disease from a coat hanger. Nothing to see here folks…
‘Hi Jen,’ Suzanne greeted her. Jenny briefly admired Suzanne’s pants suit, and wondered how she could walk so easily in her peacock-blue high heels. Glancing at the expression on the face of the sales assistant standing nearby, it seemed she was thinking something along the same lines.
‘Hi, Suzanne. Thanks for meeting me. I thought maybe you weren’t coming.’
‘As if,’ Suzanne scoffed, ‘I’m desperate to dress you.’
‘Oh,’ Jenny looked at the floor in embarrassment, ‘am I that bad?’
’Er, I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t be so sensitive. I just, it’s just, this…’ she waved an arm around the shop, ‘is what I love.’
Jenny smiled at her shyly, and then looked at the racks upon racks of clothing. ‘Where do we start?’
‘No need to look around, I’ve already picked out everything you need to try on.’ Suzanne pointed towards the changing room, and then lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘and I’ve asked for new pieces, from the store-room, for you to try on. You know, so they haven’t already been tried on by someone else. So, you jump in there and do your cleaning thing while I distract Gloria, and we’ll get started.’
Jenny looked at her with surprise, and smiled broadly with relief. ‘Thanks,’ she said, as she walked into the changing room. She sprayed her hands and the door, while she listened to Suzanne chatting to Gloria, the sales assistant.
‘You ready?’ Suzanne asked from outside the door, a few minutes later.
‘Yep, ready as I’ll ever be.’
‘Right,’ Suzanne barked, ‘first thing to try on is the red pencil skirt, and the white shirt. There’s a gold necklace hanging in there too. Put it on. Do NOT touch the red jacket. That’s for another outfit. And put on the black heels with the white toe.’
‘Um, okay,’ Jenny replied, obediently getting herself dressed whilst doing her best not to touch the changing room walls or mirror. She would never have tried on that skirt, let alone with that shirt, but she had to admit as she looked at herself in the mirror, the end result was stunning.
Jenny wobbled out in the high heels, and allowed herself to be critiqued. Gloria stood back in the shadows, offering only minimal input and suggestions, as Suzanne examined and directed, murmuring all the time.
Thirty minutes and several outfits later, Jenny was at the counter paying for a short black dress (Suzanne had been outraged when Jenny admitted she didn’t have an LBD in her wardrobe at home), a pair of dressy black cargo pants (‘I’ve had ENOUGH of your jeans!’ Suzanne had declared), and the red skirt outfit, which had been judged to be the best outfit for the blind date. Gingerly inserting her credit card into the eftpos machine at the counter, Jenny’s breath was ragged and she felt bile rise up in her throat as she pushed the relevant buttons. As soon as the transaction was completed she yanked her card out of the machine and sprayed it and her hands liberally with disinfectant. Only then did her breathing return to normal. Trying to ignore Gloria’s curious glance, Jenny thanked her and then walked out of the shop with Suzanne.
‘Thank you Suzanne. I really mean that. Not just for the outfit advice, but for coming with me.’ ’Don’t be silly, it’s me who should be saying thank you. That was great. All the buzz of shopping and none of the debt.’
Jenny smiled at her. ‘Well, I really appreciate it. After the plum dress, I should have known how awesome you’d be at putting an outfit together.’
Suzanne’s cheeks reddened, and Jenny glanced back at the shop to cover her embarrassment. ‘You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever used one of those eftpos machines.’
‘What? Seriously?’ Suzanne looked incredulous. ‘And, um, was it as bad as you thought it’d be?’
‘Actually, it was worse! I’m going to go home and scrub my arms with bleach!’
The two women laughed, and then fell silent.
‘Well, good on you Jen. I’d better get going. See you at the next meeting?’
‘Yes, definitely,’ Jenny smiled back and started walking in the opposite direction.
‘Oh, hey Jen?’ Jenny stopped walking and turned around. ‘Just call me Suze, okay?’
Jenny nodded, and smiled to herself as she walked away. Well, knock me over with a bloody feather.
Jenny immediately imagined a feather touching her skin, and shuddered.
The next afternoon, Jenny was sitting in her kitchen watching the heavy rain beat against her window. She had spent hours agonising over the evening ahead, wondering whether she could pull out of this blind/double date, imagining how humiliating it was likely to be, contemplating jumping out her window (bad idea: it’s not high enough to guarantee death, probable disfigurement or paralysis, but not death ). The only thing that drew her attention away from the possible debacle in store for her, was wondering how Neil was getting on in the awful weather. Being cold and homeless was one thing, being wet and cold and homeless was a misery she couldn’t begin to comprehend. She hoped he had proper shelter somewhere, and a raincoat. A loud beep interrupted her thoughts, and she turned away from her window to look at her mobile.
Hi Jen, are you all set for tonight?
Before she could reply, another two messages popped up in quick succession.
How did your shopping expedition go yesterday? What are you wearing?
Shez wearng RED. Smokin’ hot.
Jenny laughed out loud, and wondered what all the guys in the support group were making of these messages. She didn’t have to wonder long.
Yes, daaaarling, what ARE you wearing? Do tell… ;)
Ooh [squeals], you’re wearing red, you vixen. My fav colour!
Course it is Gray - thatz coz u r a Ginga Ninja.
Good choice Jen & Suzanne. Red is energising. It is supposed to excite the emotions, and motivates us to take action…
How do you even know that Jonty?
Guess I should donate all my red clothes to charity then… I don’t need my emotions ‘excited’ any more than they already are on a daily basis
Jenny was still laughing to herself as she typed out a reply.
Hi guys. I’m thrilled you’re all so interested in my outfit for tonight, but I’m NOT thrilled about the date itself. Any advice, tips or suggestions?
Um, maybe don’t tell him you break into people’s houses to clean them?
At least, not on the first date anyway…
I don’t think my advice applies - for example, make sure the latch is securely locked on the disabled toilet door if you decide to take your date in there to get to know him better.
Oh my God, Ellen. Please do not tell me you have sex in public toilets. Just. Do. Not. Tell. Me.
Just the thought of it reminds me that I’ve got to go have a shower. Wish me luck!
Er, good luck - hope you don’t get soap in your eyes…
Not good luck for her shower Irish - for her date! Good luck Jen! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…
Jenny laughed out loud, and then grimaced. I doubt there’s anything Ellen wouldn’t do.
Half an hour later, while drying her hair, it occurred to Jenny that the only member of the group missing from their WhatsApp conversation had been Phil.
‘Hi Ams,’ Jen said as she walked up to her friend, who was standing in the foyer of the restaurant waiting for her.
Amber looked at her and let out a long whistle. ‘Wow, Jen!’
Jenny’s cheeks flushed. ‘Um, thanks.’
‘Honestly, Jen, you look amazing.’ Amber gave her outfit a thorough examination. ‘I love love love those shoes. I reckon this outfit’s almost better than the plum dress. Whoever this Suzanne person is, she really knows her stuff.’
Jenny nodded her agreement. ‘She’s really good Ams. Brilliant even. She just seemed to know exactly what would suit me and what I’d like, without me having to say anything.’
‘Well, she definitely got it right.’ Amber looked thoughtful. ‘Do you think I could get her to dress me? You know, pay her to be my personal shopper?’
Jenny was silent, as she considered the implications of her best friend hiring an addict from her support group. ‘I don’t know, probably. In fact, I think she’d really love it. But,’ Jenny frowned at her friend, ‘why do you need help dressing yourself? You’ve got an amazing wardrobe.’
‘I know, I know, but I just don’t have time to shop for myself any more. I could really use someone that would just pick out everything that would suit me, and all I’d need to do is pay.’
‘Work’s really hectic at the moment?’
‘Ah, not so much work…’ Amber’s eyes softened, and her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I can’t wait for you to meet him.’
Jenny grinned at her friend’s mushy expression. ‘I hope I don’t muck it up for you. You know, being so weird and everything.’
‘Honestly, Jen - he knows everything, he understands. And he’s looking forward to meeting you too. Now, let’s head inside and sort out the table before they get here.’ Amber looked at her watch. ‘We’ve got twenty minutes.’
Amber had prepped the restaurant ahead of their arrival, so Jenny’s disinfecting of her table setting, chair and cutlery didn’t draw as much unwanted attention as she had been expecting. The restaurant staff had kindly seated them at the most intimate table, tucked away in a quiet corner, which had meant most of the other customers already seated hadn’t even noticed what Jenny was doing.
By the time the two men arrived, Jenny and Amber were already enjoying a glass of wine and laughing as Jenny once again retold the story of dropping the f bomb on her family.
‘Jen, they’re here,’ Amber interrupted her. Jenny swallowed a large gulp of wine, and turned in her chair to watch as they approached the table. ‘Jack’s got the dark hair,’ Amber whispered, indicating the man walking in the lead.
Jack, dark haired with eyes so brown they were almost black and a splattering of freckles across his pale skin, smiled broadly at Jenny. His smile was infectious, and she found herself grinning back at him.
‘You must be Jenny, I’m really pleased to meet you.’ He didn’t offer her a hand to shake, or lean in for a kiss on the cheek. Amber’s prepped him well, Jenny thought with relief.
‘Hi, Jack. It’s nice to meet you too.’ Jenny watched as Jack bent down to give Amber a kiss. As he took off his jacket, he indicated the man next to him.
’This is Troy. Troy, this is my special lady friend, Amber.’ Amber squirmed in delight, holding out a hand for Troy to shake. ‘And this is Jenny.’
Troy turned to face Jenny, and she looked at him properly for the first time. He was drop-dead 100% bonafide smoking hot, and for a second Jenny thought her heart had stopped. When she was sure she was still breathing, Jenny realised he looked familiar. Really familiar. In fact, she was sure she had met him before, but she just couldn’t quite put her finger on where or when.
‘Hello Jenny.’ Troy looked at her intently, raking his eyes appreciatively over her white shirt and the oh-so-slight glimpse of lacy bra Suzanne had advised her to show. He held out his hand for her to shake. Jenny looked at his hand with panic, and then over at Amber. Amber bit her lip, and Jenny watched her dig Jack in the ribs and raise her eyebrows.
‘Oh, um, I don’t…’
‘Troy, mate,’ Jack interrupted, ‘you sit over there beside Jenny.’ Jack was already sitting beside Amber, one arm draped possessively around her shoulders, so he was only stating the obvious. Jenny felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. Troy shrugged his shoulders, dropped his hand and walked around the table to sit beside her.
So far, so not good. Jenny thought, looking over at Amber with a pleading expression on her face. Can I just leave? Pleeeeease?
Amber seemed to read her thoughts, and blinked slowly as if to say, you got this, you can do it. It’ll get better.
And for two courses, the meal was actually quite pleasant - aside from Troy’s strange and constant analysis of everyone’s meal choices. Despite having to defend her selection of the deep-fried camembert for a starter and the crispy skinned salmon fillet for a main (both of which she had quietly requested to be overcooked and served on a piping hot plate), Jenny was enjoying herself. Jack was an engaging storyteller, (as the Irish usually are, Jenny had thought, comparing him to Grayson in her support group), and he kept them all entertained with stories and anecdotes.
After their main courses were finally cleared away, Jenny took a deep breath and a large gulp of wine to steady her nerves. For the first time all evening, she turned her body towards Troy and engaged him properly in conversation.
‘So, Troy, you mentioned a couple of times that you work in nutrition?’
‘I’m a fitness instructor at a gym in town,’ Troy replied. Of course you are, Jenny thought, staring at his blonder than blonde hair, his greener than green eyes, his too-muscly to be real physique. But where do I know you from?
‘Do you work out Jenny? You look like you do.’ Troy glimpsed down at Jenny’s lap.
Oh my fucking God, is he actually staring at my crotch? Jenny was silent.
‘Do you do weights? You probably should, you could get a lot more definition in your upper body. I could set you up with a personalised program.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ Jenny replied, glancing over at Amber who was studiously examining her cuticles, ‘but I don’t actually belong to a gym.’
Troy looked beyond shocked. ‘I work at Anytime Fitness, babe. I can get you a good membership deal.’
‘Oh, oh I don’t think so.’ Babe? I wonder if that’s the gym Ellen and Phil joined? I think it is. Maybe she told me about Troy, maybe that’s how I think I know him? Maybe she, Jenny coughed involuntarily, knows him well. ‘I have a friend that belongs to that gym, two friends actually. You might know them?’
‘Who are they, babe?’ Troy asked with interest.
‘One is Phil, Phil Sampson.’
Troy sniggered. ‘That fat dude right? Big blubbery whale with blonde hair?’
Jenny gritted her teeth, outraged on Phil’s behalf. ‘He is overweight Troy, but he’s trying really hard. Training, I mean. For the marathon.’
Troy laughed, actually laughed outright. ‘Doubtful, babe.’ He looked over at Jack and Amber. ‘This guy is seriously fatter than fat. We’re talking mega fat, of whale proportions. And he thinks he’s going to run a marathon.’ Jack laughed, but Amber’s chuckle died as soon as she looked at the furious expression on Jenny’s face. Troy turned back to look at Jenny. ‘And who’s the other one?’
‘Ellen. Ellen Stuart.’ Jenny watched as Troy’s face froze momentarily.
‘Oh, yeah, I think I remember her.’
For fuck’s sake, Jenny thought in disgust. He’s only bloody well slept with the sex addict in my support group. What are the chances!? Actually… Jenny caught herself, the chances are pretty high. She giggled out loud, and the others stared at her.
‘Sorry, just thought of something funny.’ She looked directly at Troy. ‘You seem really familiar, I’m sure we’ve actually met.’
‘I don’t think so, babe. I’d remember a hot piece of ass like you.’
Jenny heard Amber’s sharp intake of breath from across the table, and looked over to see her glaring angrily at Jack.
‘No, Troy, I’m almost positive we’ve met. I just can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m sure it’ll come to me.’
Before Jenny had a chance to connect the dots, dessert arrived. Amber and Jack were sharing a cheesecake, and Jenny had ordered the only hot dessert on the menu. Spiced apple crumble. Troy had looked disapproving when dessert orders were taken, and had himself only opted for a decaf black coffee.
Jenny dug her spoon into her dessert, and was just about to put it in her mouth when Troy’s voice interrupted her.
‘Hope that’s low in sugar, babe?’
Jenny looked at him with wide eyes, spoon halfway to her mouth. Where have I heard that before? I know I’ve heard those exact words.
‘Fucking hell!’ Jenny said out loud. Troy blinked in surprise, as did Amber and Jack across the table. ’I knew I had met you before.’
‘Babe, I really don’t think so,’ Troy said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
‘Ams,’ Jenny looked over at her, ‘do you remember how I went to, um, the supermarket that time. You know, with the bananas in my trolley?’
Jack and Troy were looking at her as if she was mental, but Amber nodded her head. ‘Yeah, I remember, what a disaster. There was that blonde guy you tried to approach, the one that looked like a model, and you had all that lube in your trolley, and he….’ Amber’s voice trailed off, and she looked from Jenny to Troy, and back to Jenny. ‘No. Fucking. Way?’
Jenny nodded, and tried not to laugh. Amber let out a giggle, and that was the end of it. The two of them started laughing so hard they had tears streaming down their faces.
Jack looked at Amber. ‘I don’t know what’s so funny, but I hope you’re going to tell me later?’
Amber nodded through her tears, and both she and Jenny looked at Troy. His mouth was a grim line, and it was obvious he realised their mirth was directed at him in some way. He just didn’t know why. He leaned over towards Jenny, almost touching her ear with his mouth. ‘Are you coming home with me babe, or what?’ he growled.
Jenny shuddered as she felt his breath on her shoulder, and she shook her head in disbelief. ’I don’t think so, babe.’
Troy looked at her with something bordering on disgust, or maybe disbelief, and stood up. ‘I’ve got to go Jack, early training session tomorrow. I’ll pay for my meal on my way out.’ With barely a nod at the two women, Troy was out of his chair and walking away.
Jenny and Amber both turned to Jack. Amber was first to speak. ’Jack, what were you thinking? That guy is such a dick!’
Jack looked sheepish as he shook his head. ’I am so sorry Jen, I don’t know what to say, like. I didn’t think he was that bad… He’s always been really into personal grooming, and I kinda thought he might be a good match.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Jenny smiled at him, before digging her spoon into her dessert. ’I’m going to enjoy the sugar content of this crumble a lot more without him staring at each mouthful and counting the calories.’
Amber laughed as she took a bite of her cheesecake. ‘Me too.’