The following few days passed slowly for Jenny, who couldn’t stop thinking about Troy and the possible plans for his payback. One minute she wasn’t so sure he deserved it, the next she was thinking about what he did to Ellen in the gym basement and how much she’d like to give him a taste of his own medicine. He’s definitely a toe-rag of a human, but does he deserve to be set up like that? The fact that she could even let herself consider it surprised her, when it seemed more like something her sister would do. Not her. Not sensible, weird Jenny who didn’t go out in public. After days of thinking about it, she still hadn’t come to a decision.
Exactly a week after dinner at Ellen’s house, Jenny was walking into the Fairside Community Hall for her next support group meeting. Taking her usual seat, she said hello to Anthony and Petra, who were already there and chatting quietly. It wasn’t long before the rest of the group filed in, and the volume of conversation grew louder as everyone exchanged greetings and pleasantries. Even Phil smiled and said hello to Jenny this week, which was a huge improvement on their last meeting. She smiled back at him, gratefully, and watched as he walked over to his chair. Has he lost a bit more weight? Jenny examined his profile from behind. She heard a chuckle from Ellen, sitting on her right, and looked at her in surprise.
‘It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was the one checking out Phil’s backside, and I don’t think you appreciated my interest back then,’ Ellen whispered with a smile, referring to their very first group meeting. Jenny blushed as she remembered how judgemental she had been, not just of Ellen oogling Phil’s butt crack, but of Phil’s weight in the first place.
‘That seems a lifetime ago,’ she murmured under her breath, looking over at Phil who had sat down and was smiling cheerfully at the group.
Maddison took her usual seat in the armchair on Phil’s right, and Jenny noticed that she was looking at Jonty’s empty chair in concern. He was the only member of the group who hadn’t yet arrived, and it wasn’t like Jonty to be late. Jenny caught the frown on Maddison’s face as she checked her watch.
‘Hi everyone,’ Maddison started and looked at her clipboard, ‘welcome to our… seventh meeting.’
Wow, is this only our seventh meeting? Jenny did a quick calculation in her head. The group had only been meeting for three months. It seems like so much longer. I think I’ve done more in the past three months, than I’ve done in the previous three years.
There were a few exclamations around the circle, as others expressed thoughts along similar lines.
‘Jonty isn’t here yet, so we’ll go around the circle and get a quick update from everyone while we wait for him to arrive.’ The group collectively turned their eyes towards Jonty’s empty chair, and Jenny felt a tiny shiver of foreboding.
‘Phil, do you mind going first?’
Phil smiled, and Jenny couldn’t pull her eyes away from his dimples. They were impossibly deep. Impossibly cute, she thought to herself, blushing and looking at the floor.
‘So, big news from me, folks.’ Everyone looked at Phil in anticipation. ‘I had my fitness test at work the other day.’
‘Of course,’ Gray interrupted, his knee bouncing up and down as he spoke. ’How’d it go? You ace it or wha?”
Phil smiled proudly, and then saluted the group. ‘I may be a fat git, but I am officially security-fit for work.’ There were claps and plenty of encouraging noises from around the circle. ‘I’m stoked with my good fat self. But now I just need to concentrate on the marathon. It doesn’t seem that far away.’
‘That’s really wonderful, Phil.’ Maddison smiled at him. ‘And what sort of knock-on effect is this having on your eating?’
Phil took a moment to consider this, and then looked over at Jenny briefly before answering. ‘I’ve had a few speed bumps, and by “speed bumps” I mean buckets of chicken.’ The others in the group laughed, except for Jenny who wondered if she was the cause of one of those speed bumps. ‘But, on the whole, exercising makes me feel good, which makes me think about food less, and the weight seems to be dropping off, which makes me feel even better, which makes me less inclined to eat a bucket of chicken.’ Jenny looked around the group, noticing plenty of contemplative nods.
Phil finished speaking, and the group looked at Petra, who was next in the circle. Petra stiffened slightly, almost unconsciously, and then her face seemed to soften. She smiled at the group.
‘I’ve got a bit of news, too. The fucking bastard rang in the weekend.’ There were confused looks on the faces of Gray, Phil and Anthony - obviously the men had forgotten who The Fucking Bastard was. The women in the group had not.
‘My husband,’ Petra clarified, and the guys exchanged a few looks between them. ‘Anyway, the fucking bastard rang, and we’ve arranged for me to visit my girls this weekend. I haven’t had any relapses since that, er, last one, and he said my girls have been asking about me.’
‘Petra, that’s fantastic!’ Jenny said, as she looked over at Petra’s smiling face. The rest of the group added their own words of encouragement.
‘Yeah, it’s great.’ Petra looked over at Maddison. ‘I’m determined not to stuff it up again. I’ve hit rock bottom, I mean, I’m still fucking there, so the only way is up, right?’ Maddison nodded, and then looked at Ellen expectantly.
Ellen cleared her throat, and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. ‘I wish I could follow those positive stories with one of my own. The truth is, I kind of fell off the wagon a bit this week.’
Jenny looked at her in surprise, and saw Petra doing the same. Jenny had assumed that the basement incident would have made Ellen extra cautious about her sexual activity.
‘What do you mean, a bit? Exactly in what way did you fall off the wagon’ Anthony asked, earnestly. Jenny and Petra turned their heads to glare at him. He held his hands up in surrender. ‘What? I didn’t mean what position or anything. I wouldn’t ask anything like that…’ Jenny saw Grayson nudge Anthony in the ribs, and the two men smirked. Maddison looked at them both sharply, and then motioned for Ellen to continue.
‘Just the usual. Meet stranger in bar. Follow stranger to dark alleyway. Have sex with stranger.’ Ellen looked down at her hands. ‘I don’t even know what his name was.’
Jenny tried not to let her feelings show on her face, but the thought of Ellen’s activities made her skin crawl. Not for the first time, she genuinely felt sorry for Ellen, having to suffer the kind of addiction that puts you at so much risk - not just of sexually transmitted diseases, but of real physical harm. Or worse. Aside from breaking into someone’s house, Jenny’s addiction had never put her in harm’s way. Unless you count washing my hands so raw that sometimes my skin peels?
‘Jenny?’ Maddison’s voice interrupted her thoughts. The others were all looking at her, waiting for her update.
‘Woops, sorry! Lost in thought there.’ Jenny looked at Ellen sympathetically, before continuing. ‘So, um, I’ve got a small achievement to share. Petra and I went for dinner at Ellen’s house last week.’
‘That’s great, Jenny.’ Maddison was smiling at her. ‘You’ve made amazing progress since our meetings began.’
Jenny felt her cheeks grow hot. ‘Oh, well, that wasn’t the achievement. But you’re right, I guess it is. And it was heaps easier than I thought it was going to be.’ Jenny smiled at Ellen, who winked back at her. ‘But the achievement was that night, on my way to Ellen’s. I locked my front door and left my house.’ The others looked at her, and then looked at each other. Even Maddison seemed unsure what had just been revealed. ’So, I just left. Without washing my hands! I mean, I never touch a door handle and then walk away without disinfecting myself. Even my own door handle. But I did that day.’
Jenny smiled broadly at the rest of the group, and when she caught Phil’s eye he gave her a thumbs up and mouthed ‘well done.’
‘And, um, can I change my goal?’ Jenny asked. Maddison nodded and motioned for her to continue. ‘I’ve done my dash with dating. I mean, I think I need to walk before I can run. Concentrate on friendships instead.’ Maddison made a note on her clipboard, and Jenny glanced at Phil. It was hard to read what he was thinking. Does he look disappointed or am I imagining it? But he smiled at her and she smiled back gratefully. ‘That’s all from me.’ Jenny looked to her left, at Anthony.
‘Me next? Right. I don’t have much in the way of news. Actually, a little bit. One of my daughters got engaged.’ Everyone in the group offered their congratulations. ‘It’s great news. But…’ Anthony shook his head, ‘I haven’t even met her fiancé yet. My daughter, Chloe, suggested I go around to their house to meet him.’
‘Are you going to go?’ Jenny asked.
Anthony nodded slowly. ‘Of course, how could I say no? I’m nervous though. My psychiatrist says that’s normal. My kids have been embarrassed of me for so long now, of me taking things, that I don’t even know how to act around them.’
‘Just a suggestion, lad,’ Grayson offered, ‘but could you invite them to your gaff instead? You know, there’d be less to steal at your own place, like? Might make you more comfortable?’
‘Does gaff mean my house?’ Anthony asked. Gray nodded. ‘Yeah, I considered it. But my psychiatrist said it would be a good opportunity for me to face my compulsions. Or, rather, to get some perspective on what my compulsions cost me. You know, my relationship with my kids.’ Anthony shifted in his chair. ‘Actually, my psychiatrist is coming with me.’
Maddison raised her eyebrows. ‘Your psychiatrist is accompanying you to dinner at your daughter’s?’
‘Wow, that’s some service,’ Petra exclaimed. ‘There’s no way my fucking counsellor would offer to do that. Not unless we were bonking…’ Petra trailed off, and everyone looked at Anthony. ‘Are you gay Ant?’
Anthony looked shocked. ’What? No! I’m not gay. I’m very not gay. I am so not gay.’ He glanced at Maddison. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. Nothing at all. I’m just not it. And anyway, my psychiatrist is a woman.’ Anthony squirmed uncomfortably. ‘And it’s nothing like that. Er, that’s all I’ve got.’
‘When is the dinner Anthony?’ Maddison asked.
‘Next week. Thursday night.’
Maddison made a note on her clipboard, and then looked at Grayson who was next in the circle of chairs. Grayson took a deep breath and rolled his neck a few times, then cracked the knuckles on each hand. He was wearing an Irish rugby jersey this week, with jeans and dirty runners. A complete contrast to his usual pants, loafers and crisp shirts - with the odd man-scarf thrown in for good measure. Adelaida must have been dressing him before, Jenny thought to herself, trying not to smile. She noticed a stain on his sleeve. Or at least washing his clothes.
‘Right, kay. Updates.’ He ran a hand through his short red hair and smiled at the group, his right leg jiggling up and down. Jenny looked away, once again feeling motion sick. ‘I’ve cut right back on the geegees, hardly any bets over the past couple of weeks. It’s strange actually, I’ve stopped thinking about them all the time. The horses, ya know?’
‘That’s fantastic,’ Maddison smiled at him, ‘do you have any ideas on what’s behind the change?’
Grayson’s neck flushed red, a similar hue to his hair, and he smiled shyly. ‘I met someone.’
Several pairs of eyes widened in Grayson’s direction, including Jenny’s as she tried to work out how long ago Grayson split from his terrifying Argentinian wife. Wasn’t that only a few weeks ago? At our last meeting maybe?
Grayson seemed to read the question in everyone’s minds. ‘Sure, sure, it’s early. I only broke up with me moth a couple of weeks ago. This other thing, it’s new. Don’t know what’ll happen. But, ah,’ Grayson’s neck reddened again, ‘she’s grand.’
‘Wow,’ Anthony shook his head in something approaching awe, ‘you’re a quick mover, I’ll give you that. If she’s anything like your wife, she’s bound to be a stunner. How did you manage to meet someone else so quickly?’
‘Ya know how I bought a mountain bike a while back? Well, I’ve started doing a few tracks. Even joined a local cycling club. Belinda, that’s the girl I met, is part of the club.’ Grayson paused, and smiled to himself. ’We’d already been on a few group rides together, before I broke up with Adelaida, and we’d talked a bit. I’d even told her about my problem with gambling. Told her more than I’d ever said to Adelaida, actually. So I went for a ride the Sunday after me and Adelaida broke up, with about six other cyclists, including Belinda. Anyway, Adelaida turned up, yelling blue murder ‘bout what a prick I was, and Belinda told her to piss off and stop embarrassing herself.’
Grayson fell silent, cracking his knuckles a second time, and the others in the group stared at him. It was like something out of Coronation Street, or Emmerdale. Two women fighting over the Irish gambling addict with the fiery red hair. I reckon this is too unbelievable, even for the soaps, Jenny thought to herself. In fact, most of the stories in this circle are. Except for mine. The boring clean freak who can’t even touch someone else’s hand. Jenny frowned to herself, and noticed Phil looking over at her questioningly. ‘You ok?’ he mouthed, eyebrows raised. Jenny nodded, and turned her head to look over at Suzanne, who had cleared her throat as if she was about to give the group her own update.
‘Well,’ Maddison interrupted, checking her watch and looking at Jonty’s empty chair, ‘it doesn’t look like Jonty will be joining us this evening. Suzanne, rather than just an update, would you like to tell us your individual story tonight?’
Jenny watched an array of emotions play out on Suzanne’s young face, and smiled at her encouragingly. Suzanne smiled tentatively back, before nodding slowly at Maddison. ‘May as well get it over with I guess.’
Suzanne smoothed her polka dot silk trousers, and reached down to adjust the strap of one of her white high heels. Jenny noticed with surprise that Suzanne’s hands were trembling. She’s really nervous! Maddison noticed too.
‘Suzanne, perhaps you would like to start with some background on your shopping problem? You can tell us whichever part of your story you feel comfortable telling.’ Maddison looked around the group, ‘I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone, anything said in this group is confidential - and we all must try our best to remain non-judgemental.’
Suzanne looked at Maddison gratefully, and then flicked a glance around the rest of the group.
’I ‘spose you guys think shopping isn’t a real addiction?’ The men in the group nodded in reply, but ceased moving when Maddison pursed her lips in disapproval at them. ‘I didn’t think it was, either. I mean, for fuck’s sake. That is, until I joined this group of goochers.’
‘Goochers?’ Anthony asked. Jenny was relieved someone had asked the question, she had no idea what a goocher was either.
‘Seriously?’ Suzanne raised her eyebrows at Anthony, and then sighed loudly. ‘You know, weirdos, freaks, creepers. You’re all cray cray.’
’Actually, I think you’ll find everyone in this circle is cray cray,’ Anthony corrected her, with a smile on his face as he used a sweeping arm to indicate that she was a part of the group too. The rest of the group laughed, and Suzanne smiled sheepishly.
’Uh yeah, I realise that now - I’m not so different to you lot. I came to these meetings ’cos my olds made me. They’re both lawyers, they both work a lot. And I mean, a lot. They don’t take much time off, not even for my high school grad, or any of my birthdays, or any sports games or whatever. Even when I was sick as a kid, they got a nanny to stay at home with me.’ Suzanne paused to look at her hands, her jaw clenched.
Jenny found herself imagining what life must have been like for Suzanne as a child, and compared it to her own upbringing. Mum and Dad are definitely assholes but, in fairness, they’ve never missed a birthday, and they were smiling away in the front row when I graduated. Maybe it’s time I give them a call? Jenny gritted her teeth. But then, me and Bridge celebrated everything together, so they had no choice but to be there for me. When they were probably only there for Bridge, and I was just the add-on. Jenny tried to refocus on Suzanne, who was beginning to speak again, but she couldn’t shake the little voice inside her head. That’s not true though, is it? There were plenty of days when I was home sick, or crying because of the bullies, and they were always there. The only reason they didn’t wrap their arms around me was because I wouldn’t let them. And I still don’t.
‘So, anyway, my olds were never around. And I just started to buy things. Clothes mostly. To make me feel better, less alone I suppose.’ Suzanne looked at Jonty’s empty chair, and then back at the group. ‘Oniomania. That’s the technical term for the compulsive desire to shop. I did a bit of research and I saw that term. I thought, you know, I’d beat Jonty to it when it was my turn to talk.’
The others in the group smiled at Suzanne, and Maddison indicated that she should continue.
’When I’ve listened to the rest of you talk, I’ve kind of had this feeling that maybe I am addicted. Like, I have some of the same thoughts as you do. Except for, er, your…’ Suzanne looked at Ellen, and the implication was clear. ‘Soz Ellen. No offence.’
‘None taken,’ Ellen replied with a shrug.
‘I get this amazing feeling when I buy something, but then I feel really guilty that I’ve bought it. Usually I don’t really need it. Sometimes I don’t even want to buy it, but I buy it anyway.’
Anthony nodded, and clicked his tongue in sympathy. ‘That’s how I feel about most of the things I take.’
’Er, right. Except I pay for stuff. So, before I came to these meetings, I didn’t think I even had a problem. But I’ve kind of realised a few things, about myself and my life.’ Suzanne fell silent.
‘Go on,’ Maddison prompted.
‘The thing is, when I can’t go shopping, I feel depressed. Really depressed. I keep asking myself, if I didn’t have shopping, what else would I do? I mean, shopping is the only exciting thing in my life. And I suppose I’m lonely, and shopping is filling some sort of gap or something. Do you know what I mean?’
The rest of the group nodded in reply, and Jenny smiled sympathetically.
’So, that’s not really normal, and that’s when I realised that maybe I do have a problem after all. Maybe my olds were actually right. They forced me to come, they said I have to sort out my shopping addiction or they won’t support me financially any more. Which is kind of ironic huh?’ Suzanne laughed bitterly. ‘I’m a trust fund baby, I’ve got no job, no degree, and absent parents. What else did they expect?’
‘This must have been going on for fucking ages,’ Petra commented, ‘so how come your parents suddenly forced you to come to this group?’
Suzanne got a faraway look in her eyes, and smiled to herself. ‘I bought a bus.’
Several pairs of eyes blinked in surprise. ‘Say what now?’ Phil asked, his blue eyes wide. They’re the same blue as the middle bit in a peacock feather, Jenny found herself thinking as she looked over at him. She quickly looked around the group, as if she expected someone might be reading her thoughts. Ellen glanced at her, and smiled knowingly. Jenny frowned, and turned her head to look back at Suzanne.
‘Yep, a bus. A house bus, actually. I bought it online, from Denver. In America.’
Grayson chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief. ’You bought a bus? Who buys a feckin’ bus anyway?’
’It was on sale!’ Suzanne said, looking at Gray and starting to laugh herself. ‘I shouldn’t laugh, it’s a real mess.’ Suzanne’s voice grew serious. ‘Obviously, my olds noticed two hundred grand going missing out of their account.’
Grayson stopped chuckling, and stared at Suzanne. ‘You spent TWO HUNDRED GRAND? On a FECKING BUS? Jaysus!’
Suzanne nodded. ‘Duh. Did you not hear me before? It. Was. On. Sale.’ Jenny found herself smiling, and noticed a number of similar smirks around the circle.
‘My olds actually thought they’d been robbed or something. When they found out I’d bought a bus, they got straight on to the seller to stop the sale. He said it was too late, so they threatened all sorts of legal action, so he told them to fuck off. They’re looking for a loophole at the moment, to get out of the purchase.’
Everyone, including Suzanne, turned their heads to look at Ellen questioningly. Ellen sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘Guys, I’m a criminal lawyer, I don’t deal with this sort of stuff.’
‘So, where’s the bus now?’ Petra asked.
‘Um, well, I’m not great at Geography, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere over the Atlantic ocean.’
There was silence among the group, as everyone processed this last piece of information. Jenny tried to keep her mouth in a straight line, but there was a bubble of laughter coming up her throat and it was impossible to ignore it. Trying desperately to hold the laughter in, she snorted loudly. A few of the others in the group looked at her, including Phil who was smirking himself, and then a number of them started to giggle. Pretty soon, the whole group was in fits of laughter, including Suzanne. Even Maddison was laughing, and it took a good five minutes for the laughter to stop.
‘Well, Suzanne,’ Maddison wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, ‘thank you for sharing your story with us tonight. I know I speak for the whole group when I say that we appreciate your honesty. From my own perspective, it’s fantastic to see your increased self-awareness. The first step to fixing a problem, is acknowledging you have one in the first place. Now, your original goal,’ Maddison flicked through a couple of pages on her clipboard, ‘was to get through these sessions and get your parents “off your back”. Would you like to, perhaps, tweak this a little?’
Suzanne smiled shyly. ‘I do want to change it, actually. I know my parents sent me here for the right reasons, well, I think they did. Anyway, I was thinking, it’s about time I got a job. A real paying job. Stood on my own two feet. Or, at least tried to.’
The group murmured words of encouragement, and Jenny felt her chest swell with affection and pride. ‘That’s awesome Suzanne, I feel really, er, proud of you.’
Suzanne looked over at Jenny and smiled. ‘Just Suze. Call me Suze.’ She looked around the rest of the group shyly. ‘Um, you can all call me Suze. You know, if you want.’
‘Hi Suze,’ the rest of the group chorused on cue, smiling broadly.
Jenny looked at Suzanne thoughtfully. ‘I was thinking, you know how you want to find a job? What about as a personal shopper? You were amazing when I needed advice on outfits, and I absolutely love the clothes you picked for me.’
Maddison frowned, considering this suggestion, and then shook her head. ‘Actually, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Jenny.’
‘Kinda like getting a gambler to work at the TAB,’ Grayson suggested.
‘Or a fat git to work in KFC,’ Phil said, smiling.
‘Or a sex addict to work in a brothel,’ Ellen added.
‘Or a prescription drug addict to work at a hospital,’ Petra said with a laugh, ‘oh, that’s right, I fucking do already.’
Suzanne smiled at the rest of the group as they shared a laugh, and then turned to Maddison. ‘I kind of think Jenny’s on to something, actually. When I met her in town, and picked out outfits for her, it was the first time I’d felt useful, proper useful, since forever. And I didn’t think about shopping for myself even once.’
Maddison clicked her tongue, and nodded ever so slightly. ‘Stranger things have happened.’