A week later, Jenny was driving to her next support group meeting, deep in thought. After the revelation at Ellen’s house, Petra had told Suzanne about their plan to get Troy back. Suzanne had listened intently, nodding, and then declared that they absolutely HAD to go through with it. They had all agreed he was a scumbag of the highest calibre and needed sorting out, and then all eyes had turned on Jenny. Because it was Jenny, and only Jenny, who had to be the linchpin of their plan.
Jenny had come up with every reason she could think of as to why the plan wouldn’t work with her playing the lead role, and each time her arguments were met with stronger counter-arguments.
“But he won’t want to meet me again!” was met with a derisive snort from Petra, “Of course he will, look how gorgeous you are. He’s not blind.”
“But, I literally can’t touch him, how will I get him nude?” was answered by Ellen, “Just leave the logistics to me. I’ll teach you a few things.”
“But, I can’t go into a gym. I mean, I cannot walk into one of those germ-infested sweatshops. I think I’d pass out.” Ellen had looked thoughtful at this, “No problem, you can drive straight into the carpark and meet Troy in the basement. You don’t even need to set foot in the actual gym.”
“But, but, but I don’t have anything to wear to the gym. I don’t go to gyms..” didn’t even garner an answer from the others. Suzanne just raised one eyebrow and stared her down.
In the end, Jenny had sighed deeply and agreed that she would do it. In terms of timing, they had decided that they would put the plan into place the week following their next support group meeting. The others would come around to Jenny’s house on Thursday evening, and she would call Troy to arrange a meeting for the following morning.
But for the past week, Jenny had been wracked with nerves - though she had to admit this was tempered with a little frizzle of excitement. She was dying to call Bridgette, to tell her about the plan. This type of covert operation was right up Bridgette’s alley. But they still weren’t speaking, and Bridgette had a big gob - she would likely tell their parents and Jenny couldn’t handle any more of their particular brand of disappointment directed her way.
Arriving at the Fairside Community Hall, Jenny parked her car across the road and took a few deep breaths to steady her racing heart. Even just thinking about this retribution business is crazy bad for my heart, Jenny thought as she looked at her reflection in her rear vision mirror, the sooner it’s over the better. Getting out of her car, she saw Petra and Suzanne walking towards the doors of the hall together. They looked over and waved at her. Jenny smiled and waved in return, locking her car and crossing the road to catch up with them. She glanced at her watch as she followed them into the hall, and was surprised to see that once again she was a couple of minutes late. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of being late and having to clean her chair in front of the others would have given her even worse heart palpitations than the thought of meeting Troy in an empty basement. Now, a few months along, she knew that none of them even noticed her cleaning rituals - and even if they did, they definitely weren’t judging her for it.
The rest of the group were already sitting down chatting, including Maddison, who looked over at the three women as they walked in and smiled warmly.
‘Hello ladies, great to see you. Come and sit down.’
Jenny walked to her chair and took out her wipes and disinfectant to clean it, while Petra and Suzanne sat down in their own chairs. When she had sat down herself, and said hello to the rest of the group, Jenny couldn’t help but stare at the empty chair beside Suzanne. Jonty still wasn’t here. She turned to Maddison questioningly.
‘You may have noticed,’ Maddison began, giving Jenny a small smile and then addressing the whole group, ‘that Jonty isn’t here.’
‘Is he okay?’ Anthony asked, his voice full of the same concern that everyone else was feeling. Jonty may be quiet and gently spoken, which made him border on invisible amongst the other stronger personalities in the group, but he was still a part of their oddball collection and there was a general feeling of protectiveness that had been developing between them all.
‘Unfortunately, I have been advised that Jonty had a significant relapse a few weeks ago. I’m told he had an accident – a fall.’
There was a collective intake of breath, and Jenny found herself gasping out loud.
‘Jaysus!’ Grayson exclaimed, running a hand through his red hair. ‘What happened? Is he, um…Did he…’
Maddison answered quickly, keen to calm their fears before they escalated. ‘I’m not sure of the exact details, but I do know that Jonty had a significant bang to his head, and was kept in hospital overnight for observation.’
‘Holy shit,’ Petra was shaking her head. ‘So, where is he now?’
‘He’s currently in rehab,’ Maddison checked her clipboard. ‘And due to get out in a week.’
‘Will he be back?’ Jenny asked. ‘To our support group, I mean.’
Maddison looked thoughtful. ‘I hope so, Jenny. I’ll be in touch with the staff at the rehab centre, and with Jonty’s AA sponsor, to see if there is any additional support we can provide Jonty to get him back up on his feet. He isn’t allowed visitors at the centre, but I’m sure when he gets out that he would appreciate hearing from you all.’
Everyone nodded solemnly, and Jenny and Ellen noticed Petra staring into space. They both turned to her in concern. ‘Are you okay?’ Jenny asked.
Petra nodded at them, and lowered her voice. ‘Yeah, but just thinking how easily it could have been me that hurt myself. It wasn’t that long ago that I was driving around, high as a fucking kite.’ She shook her head and clenched her jaw. ‘Thank God I didn’t have my kids in the car with me! And thank God I had the meeting here that night, and that Maddison sent me home in a fucking taxi.’
Ellen laid a hand on Petra’s shoulder, and the three women turned back to Maddison who had started to address the group again.
‘I know it’s a shock, but we’ll just have to carry on this week, and hope that we have Jonty back at our next meeting.’
Maddison looked at her clipboard, and then at Anthony. ‘Anthony, you were meeting your daughter and her fiancé last week I believe?’
Anthony gritted his teeth, and nodded. ‘Uh, yes. Yes, I did.’
Jenny and the rest of the group shifted in their chairs to face Anthony. Grayson was the first to speak.
‘So, how’d it go? You nick a bunch of stuff or wha?’
’Did your psychiatrist go with you in the end?’ Petra added with a coy smile.
Anthony’s cheeks reddened slightly, and he rubbed the stubble on his chin. Jenny watched his hand and tried to concentrate on what he was saying, rather than the number of germs currently jumping from his hand to his facial hair, and vice versa. Anthony rubbed his fingertip across his lower lip and she had to look away. Ellen, not surprisingly, remained focussed on his lips. Jenny rolled her eyes and Ellen, who noticed the action, shrugged in response, before leaning over to whisper in Jenny’s ear. ‘He’s smokin’ hot Jen, who can blame me?’
Jenny giggled, and looked over at Maddison who gave her the briefest warning shake of her head. Jenny’s own cheeks reddened and she turned to look back at Anthony.
‘So, um, we turned up at Chloe’s house, that’s my daughter, and she introduced me to Hamish, her fiancé. And then we had dinner, and then we left.’
Anthony fell silent, and everyone else in the circle exchanged curious glances. There was definitely more to this story than Anthony was letting on. Maddison was about to move the conversation on, when Anthony suddenly cleared his throat.
‘That’s not really all that happened. It’s just, er, a bit embarrassing.’
Maddison gave him an encouraging smile. ‘Anthony, everything you say in this group is completely confidential. We’ll listen, without judgement, to whatever you want to say.’
Phil suddenly chuckled across the other side of the circle. ‘Ant, mate, I fell off the back of a treadmill last week and put a hole in the wall of the gym,’ Phil shook his head at the memory and smiled at the rest of the group who were looking at him with open mouths, ‘so I am definitely not in a position to judge.’
Jenny couldn’t help but smile over at Phil, who had lightened the mood of the group in his usual self-deprecating way. Typical Phil, Jenny thought absently, making fun of himself to make someone else feel better. But, putting a hole in the wall? She unconsciously found herself looking at Phil’s stomach thoughtfully, which was smaller than it used to be but still a considerable size. Phil caught her glance and immediately sat up straighter, attempting to suck some of his waistline in. Jenny cringed inwardly, and looked back at Anthony who was starting to speak again.
’Okay, long story short. I may, and I stress may, have taken a box of tampons from my daughter’s bathroom cabinet, and er, when we were going to leave, they may have dropped out of my pocket. The box was open on one end and the tampons may have rolled out across the floor. In slow motion. While we all stood there and watched. No-one said anything. Even Frankie was shocked into silence, and she always has something to say. As in, always.’
‘Who’s Frankie?’ Suzanne asked.
‘She’s my girlf, er, my psychiatrist.’
Jenny couldn’t help but look over at Maddison, who had taken a deep breath and was currently sitting with her eyes closed. Opening them again, Maddison addressed Anthony. ‘Anthony, I can see how embarrassing this would have been for you, and how hard it would have been to share this with the group. How did your daughter, Chloe, react?’
Anthony looked down at his hands, which were gripping his knees. ‘She started crying, saying how I’m so weird, and crazy, and embarrassing…’ Anthony paused, and raised his eyes to the group. ‘She said she doesn’t even know if I can be at her wedding, let alone walk her down the aisle.’
Everyone in the group looked at Anthony with sympathy, and Grayson reached over to put a hand on Anthony’s shoulder. Jenny wished she could give him a hug, or even just pat Anthony’s hand, but she had to settle with making a few sympathetic clucking sounds. Anthony smiled at the group. ‘Thanks guys. I really really didn’t want to tell that story, but I guess I feel better now I’ve said it. The night wasn’t all bad. Hamish is a lovely bloke, and I can tell he really loves my Chloe. When we left, after all the crying stopped and, um, Frankie had picked up the tampons, Hamish shook my hand and said he’d work on Chloe. That she really did want me at the wedding, and he did too. Just that maybe we’d have to work out a plan ahead of time, so I didn’t try and steal the rings or anything.’ Anthony smiled to himself. ‘I thanked him for being so understanding, and you know what he said?’
Everyone shook their heads, waiting.
’He said he had an uncle who was bi-polar, so he “knows all about mentals”.’ Anthony looked at the frowns on the faces around him, and laughed. ‘It’s fine, I’m fine. He’s right, I am a bit mental. Honestly, I feel so much better for having shared that mortifying story.’
Maddison nodded at Anthony, her eyes shining with what Jenny suspected was something pretty close to pride. ‘Well done Anthony, it’s extremely brave to share your experience like this with the group. And extremely brave to have gone to the dinner in the first place.’
Maddison glanced at her watch, and then looked at Petra. ‘How would you feel about telling your story this week Petra?’
Petra bit her lip, and then shrugged. ‘Yeah, I’m ready. Ready as I’ll ever be.’
‘Thank you, that’s great. You can go ahead, in your own time.’
Petra looked around the group, at the now familiar faces. Jenny watched as Phil smiled encouragingly at Petra, giving her a thumbs up, and Petra smiled gratefully back at him. If it was anyone else giving her a thumbs up, I bet Petra would’ve told them to f off. But, he’s just so genuine, and friendly. I think it’s those dimples… Jenny was so busy examining Phil’s dimples that it took her a moment to realise that Phil was staring back at her.
Jenny got such a fright she knocked her bag off the back of her chair and onto the floor. ‘SHIT!’ Gingerly picking her bag up off the floor and using a handful of antibacterial wipes to clean it, Jenny glanced at the circle and saw that everyone was looking at her. She glanced at Phil again, and he was smiling. Stupid bloody dimples.
‘Are you okay Jenny?’ Maddison asked with concern.
‘Having some of those weird thoughts maybe?’ Anthony asked, from the chair on her left.
Why the bloody hell did I tell them I have weird thoughts!!?
Jenny glanced to her right, and saw Ellen was smirking. She leaned in towards Jenny, and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Not weird thoughts, sexy ones right?’ She then motioned her head in Phil’s direction.
Jenny could feel her face burning, and was tempted to reach into her bag for her bottle of water, to empty the contents over her head and put out the fire. Instead she lifted her face to look at Maddison. Okay, say something. Everyone’s staring. Just. Say. Something.
‘Um, I’ve got my period. Annnnd, it’s really heavy.’
Even Maddison, who wasn’t easily ruffled, looked a bit taken aback. ‘Okay, right. Er, well, let’s carry on shall we?’
Jenny didn’t have to look around the circle to know the men would be grimacing, and she’d have to be deaf not to hear Ellen sniggering beside her and Suze whispering “ugh, TMI” under her breath. She looked at the floor. Damn it! WHY did I say that? It was that frickin’ story of Anthony’s, about the tampons.
‘Anything else to tell the group before I carry on, Jen?’ Petra asked, smiling wickedly. Jenny shook her head, and Petra turned back to face the group, her face serious once more. ’So, let me tell you my sad fucking story.
‘You know the basics already. I’m forty five, I’ve got three daughters and I’m married to a Fucking Bastard. I’m addicted,’ Petra paused for a second mulling this statement over, ’yes, I am addicted to prescription painkillers, and a few other nasty pills if I’m honest. Well, I was addicted, I’m recovering. But, as you all know, my last relapse wasn’t that fucking long ago. So does that mean I’m addicted or in recovery?’ Petra didn’t wait for Maddison to respond and, Jenny assumed, Maddison was keen not to interrupt.
‘Anyway, as you know, I’m a physiotherapist at the hospital. So I’ve got easy access to pretty much anything. Whatever drugs I want. Right there, locked up but easily accessed. Just sitting there, waiting in their little bottles for me to come and rescue them and put them down my throat, and they’d make me feel so damn good and I’d just forget everything that was…’ Petra suddenly coughed, trying to regain her previous train of thought. ’Er, yeah, so… I think how I ended up addicted to the pills is probably one of the oldest stories in the book. I hurt my shoulder, quite a few years ago now. And I needed some pain relief. Back then, I’d never taken anything before, except paracetamol. Beggars belief when I look at my life now. So I took a few pills, felt great, and then took a few more. Problem was, when I didn’t need to take them any more, I actually did need to take them. If you know what I mean?’ The rest of the group nodded solemnly.
‘At first, it didn’t really affect my life. Not my personal life, or even my work life. I could function. I kept telling myself I’d stop taking them soon, that I’d just get to the end of that week, or month, or year. And then I’d stop. No problem. Except, when it got to the end of that week, or that month, or that year, I kind of pushed out the timeline. Maybe just a little bit longer. And then I started to need to take a few more, to get the same good feeling. And that’s when stuff really started to go wrong.’
Jenny glanced around the group, managing to avoid looking at Phil. Everyone was silent, listening, absorbed.
‘I started forgetting things. At first it was little things. You know, forgot to put the washing on. Or to take the meat out of the freezer for dinner. Just small stuff that I could easily cover up. You know, I’d just say how tired I was at work or how I wanted to have takeaways tonight anyway. But then I started forgetting some big stuff…’
Petra took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. ’I forgot to pick up my kids from school one day. Literally. I just had no clue. I was at home too, it was my day off. I was in a bit of a fog, happily watching tv or reading or something like that. Probably staring into space. My husband came home from work, and he walked straight in and looked for our girls. He was like, “where are the kids?” And I just looked at him, and then I looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly six pm. I jumped off the couch, and grabbed my mobile. It had been on silent. There were twenty two missed calls, all from the school.
‘So, I sort of went to grab my coat and rush out. And my husband just looked at me, really looked at me, and told me to go to bed and sleep it off.’
Petra slumped slightly in her chair. ’He’s a doctor, my husband. He deals with drug addictions and stuff like that all the time. He knows the signs. He’d been reading the signs for a while, but he told me later he had refused to believe it. Until then. Until I forgot our kids. That day was a bit of a turning point. He knew, and I knew he knew. Our girls weren’t any the wiser, not back then. But they’re not stupid. After Daddy insisted on driving them everywhere from then on, and Mummy was sometimes in bed all day, they knew something serious was up.
‘It’s just such a fucking mess. And it got worse and worse. I tried to pretend I was fine, but we both knew I wasn’t. I still kept my job, somehow, but I think that’s more from my husband’s influence than anything.’
‘Petra?’ Ellen’s voice was gentle. ‘Why do you call him the Fucking Bastard?’ Ellen looked pointedly at the scar on Petra’s eyebrow. ‘Does he, um, treat you badly? Was he physically abusive?’
Petra looked at Ellen in shock, and glances were exchanged amongst the group. This had clearly been on everyone’s mind. Jenny had been thinking the same thing only moments ago. So far the Fucking Bastard seems like a devoted Dad, just trying to cope. So why does Petra hate him so much?
It took Petra a few seconds to recover. ’Are you fucking crazy? Abuse me?’’ She looked at Ellen with wide eyes, and then around circle. ‘Seriously, can you imagine a man trying to physically abuse me?’
Petra was small, and thin, but there was something terrifying about her at the same time. Jenny found herself shaking her head, along with the rest of the group.
Petra suddenly let out a bark of laughter, which was shocking in the silence. ‘No, my husband did not physically abuse me. This,’ she pointed to the scar on her eyebrow, ‘was caused by someone much more sinister. Myself.’
Jenny looked at her in confusion. What does that mean? Is she cutting herself? She didn’t have to wait long to find out, as Petra abruptly stopped chuckling and began to tell them The Story Behind The Scar.
‘About, um, nine months ago or something like that, when I was at my worst, we had a birthday party for my eldest daughter. A pool party. With a BBQ, and a DJ, lots of friends and neighbours. My daughter was having a great time, everyone was having a great time. Except for me. I felt kind of depressed, or dissatisfied. Something like that. In any case, I couldn’t enjoy the party, I couldn’t feel happy. I needed a hit. I’d promised Alec I’d be on my best behaviour.’
‘Who’s Alec?’ Jenny asked. It was a name she couldn’t remember hearing.
‘Ah, well, that’s the Fucking Bastard’s name.’ Petra looked at her hands briefly, which were clasped in her lap. ’So, I’d promised Alec I wouldn’t be high, and I wasn’t. Not at first. But everyone else was having so much fun, and I just couldn’t feel, um, happy. So I slunk out to the garage, where I kept an emergency stash of pills. Alec saw me walk off, and he followed me to make sure I wasn’t doing exactly what I was doing. I heard him coming, so I quickly chucked back a double dose and then grabbed a bottle of wine out of the spare fridge in the garage. “Just getting more wine” I said to him, when he walked in. But he knew, I’m sure he knew. He gave me this look,’ Petra stared into space for a moment, ‘it’s hard to describe. But he knew.’
‘We walked back out to the party, and twenty minutes later I was having the time of my life. I thought I was the life of the party, but I heard later I was the death of it. Anyway, I was dancing around the pool and I fell over. Smacked my forehead on the concrete, got a great big gash right here,’ Petra rubbed her eyebrow thoughtfully, ‘and then I fell into the pool. There was so much blood, my youngest told me later that it looked like I’d been attacked by a shark. Apparently it took a few seconds for anyone to register what had just happened as they were all so shocked. There were kids in the pool, screaming because of all the blood. Alec jumped in, fully clothed, and pulled me out. Yelled for someone to call an ambulance. And then I passed out.’
Petra stopped talking, and slumped further in her chair.
‘Jaysus,’ Grayson exclaimed, ‘feck’s sake. What happened then, like?’
‘Petra,’ Maddison prompted her gently, ‘would you like to go on, or perhaps leave it there for today?’
Petra looked up at her, and then straightened her back. ‘May as well finish it, there’s not that much more to tell. Alec started to monitor my calls, follow me into the toilet, went through all our drawers and cupboards to make sure there were no more stashes left around the place. He hired a nanny, to take our girls to and from school, and a cleaner to come in once a week. He spoke to the medical board at the hospital, and found me a counsellor. He did everything he could, I guess. But I still kept fucking things up, I still couldn’t stop. And he stuck by me, you know, pretty much until I joined this group. That’s when he gave me the ultimatum, clean myself up or lose him and the kids forever. Made me find my own place, so I’d be responsible for myself. For getting myself better. And so, that’s why I’m here, and that’s what I’m trying to do.’
There was a contemplative silence, and Petra’s eyes widened for a moment. She took a deep steadying breath. ‘So, um, it’s not Alec who’s the Fucking Bastard in this story.’ She looked around the circle of faces, all eyes trained on her. ‘It’s me.’
Driving home that night, Jenny couldn’t get Petra’s words out of her head. It’s not Alec who’s the fucking bastard. It’s me… Disturbingly, Petra’s revelation made her think for the first time how her own addiction had most likely affected her parents, not to mention her sister, for the past fifteen years or so. All this time, Jenny had suffered their scathing frustration with her peculiar ways, but she hadn’t ever stopped to think about how her actions might have affected them. Not really. Not when she was too busy being angry at them for not understanding. Jenny’s parents had been extremely sociable when she was young, she remembered lots of parties at their house in her early years, and her mother had been the organising force behind a ladies-only Mah-jong club for years. But, Jenny realised with a jolt, they had suddenly seemed to stop playing host. At the time, Jenny remembered being so relieved when the parties and the Mah-jong stopped - no more family friends patting her head or squeezing her cheeks, no more dirty hands all over the furniture and the crockery, no more shared bowls of food, no more cigarettes passed from mouth to mouth. No more dirt. No more germs. Just her, Bridgette and their parents - who were dirty and germ-laden enough without the additional complication of their friends. Come to think of it, Bridgette used to have a lot of friends around too. She always had more friends than Jenny, and swarms of male admirers.
Jenny looked at her reflection in her rear vision mirror. When did Bridgette stop bringing friends home? When did Mum and Dad stop having people over? Was it around the same time? Was it… because of me?
A beep from the car behind her startled Jenny and she realised she was stopped at a green light. Waving an apology, she shook her head and started driving again. I am NOT the bastard. I’m not. It’s them. Jenny took a deep breath, and exhaled shakily. I’m sure it’s them.