‘Hi mum, it’s me.’
There was silence on the other end of the line, and for a brief second Jenny wondered if her mother was going to hang up.
‘Mum, are you there?’
There was a loud woosh of expelled air on the other end of the line. ‘Jennifer! Is that you?’
‘Yes mum, it’s me.’
‘Trevor! Trevor!’ Ona yelled on the other end of the line. ‘Jennifer’s on the phone! Oh my darling, it’s so good to hear your voice. Hang on a minute, your father’s here, I’ll put you on speaker phone.’
‘Oh, er, okay…’ Jenny gritted her teeth. This was new.
‘Mon… it’s great…’ Trevor was midsentence when Ona cut him off with a hiss.
‘It’s Jennifer, Trevor, NOT Monica.’
Jenny blinked. ‘Oh. Um, thanks Mum.’
‘Oh my God, I’m sorry darling.’ Trevor’s voice boomed down the phone. Jenny grinned to herself, imagining her father’s mortified face on the other end of the line. ‘Of course I meant Jennifer. How are you?’
’Yes, Jennifer, how are you? It’s been months. Literally months.’
Jenny winced, and felt her cheeks redden. She had left it a long time to talk to her parents. She made a split second decision.
‘I’m good. Listen, I know it’s been ages, but I was thinking that maybe I’d come around this Sunday, for dinner. Would that be okay?’
’Oh, darling, we’d love that.’ The relief in Ona’s voice was undeniable. ‘Of course it would be okay. Better than okay. We’ve missed you.’
‘Your mother’s right, Jennifer. It’s been, er, different without you.’
Ona lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Your father’s had enough of Bridgette’s dating stories. And, quite frankly, I’ve missed your help in the kitchen. If you hadn’t rung or answered any of my calls this week, I was planning on coming around to your apartment.’
‘Really? You were going to come to my place?’ Jenny was shocked. Her absence really had been noticed.
‘Your mother had a bag packed with antiseptic wipes and rubber gloves, ready to go,’ Trevor chuckled in the background.
‘Wow. Well, you could still come over Mum. Maybe in a few weeks, after we’ve had dinner at your place on Sunday. And, um, you too Dad. I actually would like you both to come round. Well, sort of…’
‘Right, oh, okay, great,’ there was a panicky edge to Trevor’s voice. He had never been in Jenny’s apartment before. It had simply been out of the question.
‘That sounds lovely darling,’ Ona seemed to recover on behalf of both of them. ‘We can talk about it on Sunday.’
‘Okay.’ Jenny thought about her recent personal revelations, about the effect she had most likely had on her family’s life. ‘And, I’ve got some other stuff to talk about too.’
‘Right, well, we’ll look forward to seeing you on Sunday. I’ll do a roast.’
‘Bye Mum. Bye Dad.’
Hanging up, Jenny took a deep breath and looked out her kitchen window at the street below. Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Not really. And I’m going to their house on Sunday. This Sunday. Oh no, I’m going to their house on Sunday. Why did I suggest that? That wasn’t the plan. Shit, what if… Jenny’s imagination was about to take her for a ride through crazy town, when she noticed a hunched-over figure shuffling along the pavement. Hang on, that looks like Neil. She noticed the white trainers that she had given him, incongruous against the rest of his tatty clothing. It IS Neil. I wonder where he’s headed. I wish there was some way I could help him. Without, like, touching him or anything. Jenny thought of her father, and the numerous bags of clothing her mother gave to charity on a regular basis. Perhaps there is.
The rest of Jenny’s week flew by, and before she knew it she was getting in her car to drive round to her parent’s place. Ellen, Petra and Suze had all sent messages of support that morning, and Amber had stopped by her apartment at lunchtime to give her a pep talk, but despite their best intentions she was still fretting about the night ahead. As she pulled out onto the road, Jenny could feel her skin starting to crawl. For fuck’s sake Jenny, pull yourself together. There is no need to have a panic attack. It’s just a family dinner. Just an evening sitting in that germ-hole, being judged for being me, or being ignored for being inferior to my sister. That’s all. Nothing to worry about…
Jenny put her foot on the brake and swerved to the side of the road. A car behind her beeped their horn, and she saw the passenger flip her the bird. Jenny lowered her eyes, mortified, and turned her head away from the road. Looking at the building on her left, she realised she was parked outside the liquor shop.
Shrugging, she turned off her car and got out of the driver’s side. May as well get some wine, seeing as I’m here. Jenny briefly scanned the carpark, looking for Neil. There was no sign of him.
Walking into the shop, Jenny nearly jumped out of her skin, when the big beardy man behind the counter saw her and boomed a greeting.
‘Jenny! Been a while love. Watcha looking for?’
Jenny turned and smiled at him. ‘Hi! Just after, um… a bottle of wine.’ She thought about the evening ahead. ‘Or maybe two.’
‘Got something special planned?’ He put down the magazine he had been reading.
‘That depends,’ Jenny grimaced, ‘does an evening of being cross-examined and judged by my family count as something special?’
Big beardy man chuckled, and then pointed to the far corner of the shop. ‘There’s a special on Giesen’s Sav. Two bottles of that will shut those fuckers up.’
Jenny grinned. ‘Right, thanks.’ After locating the bottles, Jenny looked at the price. Thirty dollars a bottle? Bit steep isn’t it? She sneaked a glance over at big beardy guy, whose nose was back inside his magazine. Is he trying to rip me off? Jenny looked back at the rows of wine, and then grabbed two bottles of Giesen’s. He hasn’t set me wrong yet, may as well take his advice.
Putting her bottles on the counter, Jenny was about to ask whether big beardy guy had seen Neil lately, when he bet her to it.
’Spose you heard ‘bout that homeless guy…er, Neil?’
‘No, I didn’t.’ Jenny felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. ‘What’s happened?’
Big beardy guy was shaking his head. ‘Got beat up, real bad. Couple of days ago.’
Jenny gasped. ‘Oh my God! Is he okay?’
‘Not too sure.’ Big beardy guy rung up the bottles of wine on the till. ‘He’s been in hospital the past two days, that’s all I know.’
‘But what happened? Who did it?’
‘Gang of kids, I think. Story goes they wanted his shoes, and he wouldn’t give them up. Little punks. Happened just down the road from here.’
Jenny felt sick, and shook her head. ‘I hope he’s okay. If you, um, see him, can you say I said, well, actually… I hope you see him.’
Big beardy guy nodded, and Jenny placed three twenty dollar notes on the counter.
Walking out of the shop with her wine, Jenny thought about the last time she had seen Neil. Surely it had only been a couple of days ago? Taking a deep breath, she got in her car and drove the rest of the way to her parents’ house, panic attack completely forgotten.
Arriving, she was so lost in thought about Neil, that she didn’t notice her sister’s car was already there. She didn’t even notice it was parked neatly off to one side of the driveway, leaving plenty of space for her own car beside it. Getting out of her car, and shaking her head slightly, Jenny braced herself and walked up to the front door.
Before she had a chance to knock, the door swung open and both of her parents stood in the doorway to greet her, with Bridgette standing closely behind them.
‘Jennifer! My darling. Come in, come in.’ Ona ushered her in the door, while Trevor smiled broadly at her. Jenny looked over their shoulders at Bridgette, who was rolling her eyes and held an imaginary gun to her own head, pulling the trigger. Jenny grinned at her.
‘Come on through Jennifer, love, we’re nearly ready for dinner.’ Trevor motioned towards the dining room. Jenny held out the the wine she had bought, and her father took it out of her hand, careful not to let his fingers touch hers. He peered inside. ‘Giesen’s? Never heard of it. I’ll take it through.’
‘You’re a bit late sis, these two crazies have been going mental thinking you weren’t coming.’
‘Bridgette!’ Jenny’s mother practically shouted at her. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. And don’t use those words. Go into the kitchen and make yourself useful. We need some wine glasses in the dining room. Your father and I want to have a little chat with Jennifer.’
Jenny looked at Bridgette, expecting some sort of swift verbal assault. She unconsciously took a step towards her mother, as if to shield her from Bridgette’s response. Bridgette, to Jenny’s surprise, shrugged and walked off to the kitchen. Shortly after came the sound of cupboard doors being opened and shut. Jenny turned to her mother. ‘Where’s my REAL sister?’
Ona chuckled and reached out a hand, before realising what she was doing and letting her hand drop to her side. Jenny felt a sense of sadness for her mother, for all these years that she hadn’t even been able to touch her child.
Without even thinking about it, Jenny reached out her own hand and squeezed the material covering her mother’s arm gently. ‘It’s okay Mum. Come on then, Dad’s waiting.’
Jenny didn’t see the look on her mother’s face, as she walked off to the dining room. If she had, she probably would have broken down.
Walking into the dining room, Jenny felt her parents’ eyes on her as she took a packet of antiseptic wipes from her bag and started cleaning her usual seat. Jenny looked up to see her mother and father exchanging glances as they sat down opposite her. Gritting her teeth, she sat down and waited for them to ask her when she was finally going to get over this germaphobia.
‘Jennifer…’ Ona paused, and Jenny steeled herself for the onslaught. ‘We’re very sorry.’ Jenny blinked in surprise.
‘I’m ashamed of the way I’ve behaved, truly. You’re my daughter, and I love you. Very much.’
Trevor nodded, and cleared his throat. ‘You mean the world to us poppet.’
Jenny took a deep breath and looked at her parents. They seemed smaller, sadder. Before she could reply, Bridgette bustled in with the glasses.
‘Here Jen, you can wash your own before I pour the wine.’ She handed Jenny a wine glass, and then started pouring wine into glasses for their parents and herself.
Jenny looked at the glass, and mumbled her thanks to Bridgette as she took another handful of wipes out of the packet.
‘Bridgette, is there something you wanted to say to Jenny?’ Jenny looked up in surprise at her father’s voice, and glanced over at Bridgette who was rolling her eyes dramatically.
‘Bridgette!’ Ona snapped, making it clear that Bridgette would be saying something whether she wanted to or not.
‘Sheesh, take a chill pill mother dear.’ Bridgette reached over the table with the bottle of wine, raising her eyebrows questioningly. Jenny nodded, and Bridgette filled her glass.
‘So, Jenny, I too am a bit sorry for the way I’ve behaved for the past few months, well years, actually more like decades I guess. I mean, we know the weird shit you do isn’t your fault. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do a lot of the stuff that you do. Anyway, I’ve been acting like a bitch. And I’m sorry too.’
Jenny felt her cheeks flaming, and looked down at her hands.
‘Jennifer?’ Trevor said her name so earnestly, that Jenny almost couldn’t bring herself to look at him. When she finally raised her eyes, his face was a mask of concern. ‘Can you forgive us darling?’
Jenny shook her head, and heard her mother gasp.
‘No, I can’t forgive you.’ She looked at each of them in turn. ‘I can’t forgive any of you.’
‘Jeez Jen, are you…’ Bridgette stopped talking as Jenny held up a hand to silence her.
’I’m not finished Bridge. The thing is, I can’t forgive you – because I’ve realised that there’s nothing to forgive. It’s me who should be asking you for forgiveness. I’m the one who’s sorry.’
Her parents and Bridgette looked at each other, confused. Apparently, this was a night for surprises.
‘Mum, Dad – my behaviour at dinner that night. It was despicable. But it’s not just what I said that I’m sorry about. It’s kind of everything. I don’t know how you’ve coped all these years with me, well, with me the way I am.’
‘Jennifer, my girl, we should have appreciated you exactly the way you are, and I’m ashamed that we didn’t. There’s no doubt you have your…issues, but you are kind, and caring, and helpful,’ Ona paused and looked briefly at Bridgette. ‘I know you have a wonderful sense of humour, and I’m sure it’s our fault that we haven’t given you much to laugh about.’
‘Thanks Mum, that means a lot, but I honestly think I am the one who needs to apologise. I really mean it. Someone I know, a dear friend actually, made me realise that I’ve never really thought about how my actions and habits have been affecting you, all of you, and how hard this has been on you. I can’t even imagine what you’ve had to give up, what you’ve had to miss out on.’
‘Poppet, what we’ve given up or missed out on over the years has been a drop in the ocean compared to you.’ Trevor paused, and Jenny watched as her mother grabbed his hand in her own. ‘You don’t need to ever apologise for who you are. Ever.’
Jenny saw tears in both her parents’ eyes, and there was a moment of awkwardness. Bridgette broke the silence.
‘Alright you muppets, that’s enough blubbering. Let’s make a toast and drink some of this wine before I die of thirst.’
Jenny giggled and held up her glass as everyone else did the same.
‘To Jenny, who is as crazy as batshit, but we love her just the way she is. And her name,’ Bridgette paused for effect, ignoring her mother’s mortified glance ‘is DEFINITELY NOT MONICA.’
Jenny snorted with laughter, almost choking as she took a big sip of wine.
‘Gosh, that’s lovely wine Jenny,’ Ona reached over to look at the bottle. ‘Have you been taking a secret wine course that we don’t know about?’
‘Um, sort of. I have a teacher - of sorts.’
‘Really? Who’s is it?’
‘Er, no-one you know.’
The next two hours passed quickly, and Jenny was surprised to see the time when she glanced at her watch. Ten thirty already? If I didn’t know better I’d swear I’ve been having fun.
‘Right parents, and sister. I’m off home.’
‘Me too, I’ll walk out with you Jen.’
Jenny suddenly remembered what she had wanted to ask her father. ‘Dad, you’re probably a pretty standard size medium right?’
Trevor looked at her in surprise. Ona smiled, ‘Well, he might have been a size medium a few lifetimes ago. More like a generous size large now…’
Jenny looked at her father and considered. ‘I think you’re about the right size. Have you got any old clothes you want to give away?’
‘You want some of my old clothes? Whatever for?’
Jenny told them Neil’s story, and watched as three sets of eyes grew rounder and rounder when she explained what she had been giving him, and where she had been seeing him. She finally got to the part about him being beaten up and in hospital.
‘Oh my God Jen, that’s awful!’ Bridgette was shaking her head.
‘I know, I feel so awful for him. And it kind of feels like it’s my fault that those kids beat him up.’ Jenny sighed. ‘If it hadn’t been for me giving him those shoes, they probably never would have bothered him.’
Now, Jennifer,’ Ona was stern, ‘that is absolutely not the case. If you hadn’t given him those shoes, or the poncho, or the umbrella, or the food for heaven’s sakes, he might have ended up in hospital anyway – or more likely dying of hypothermia! You have shown him kindness, and you must never feel guilty for that. Now, wait here and I’ll go bundle up some clothes for him.’
Ona bustled off, and Bridgette turned to Jenny. ‘So, he’s at Waikato hospital?’ Jenny nodded. ‘Right, and you’re actually going to go inside a hospital to deliver this bag of clothes? A real hospital. With sick people and germs and body fluids and all that stuff?’
Jenny felt bile rise in her throat, and shook her head. ‘Er, no. Definitely not. I was kind of hoping you could deliver them for me?’
Bridgette considered this. ‘Do you know what ward he’s in?’ Jenny shook her head. ‘Okay, what’s his last name?’ Jenny shrugged helplessly.
Ona came back down the hallway with a large bag of clothes, and held it out for Jenny. Jenny kept her hands firmly by her sides as she imagined all the dust mites and crumbs and fluff that was possibly lurking in their dusty pockets.
‘For fucks’ sake,’ Bridgette impatiently grabbed the bag off their mother. ‘I’ll take them and find him. But you owe me sister.’