Just over a week later, Jenny was parking across the road from the Fairside Community Hall. Turning off her car, she shook her head in disbelief. How could this be their last meeting?
It felt as if she’d been going to these meetings – and getting to know these people – for years, not months. The thought of going back to her old life, without this crazy wonderful circle of friends, was thoroughly depressing.
Jenny was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn’t hear footsteps approaching her car, and when the owner of said feet rapped on her window, she just about jumped out of her skin. Looking out her window fearfully, half expecting an axe murderer – or worse, someone with dirty hands spreading their germs all over her car – she was pleasantly surprised to see a pair of apologetic golden eyes looking at her. Jonty.
Jenny felt the smile hit her face before she’d instructed her mouth to do anything, and then something hit her stomach – wind? Something fluttery and uncomfortable. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that maybe she was having those ‘butterflies’ that all the hopefuls on the Bachelor kept talking about. Perhaps she shouldn’t have eaten that egg salad for lunch.
Jonty waited alongside her car patiently while she got out, locked her door and sprayed sanitiser on her hands and the door handle. Feeling self-conscious, Jenny glanced over at Jonty. He didn’t seem phased. In fact, he was waving across the road at Ellen and Grayson, who were walking into the hall. Jenny waved too.
‘How are you Jen?’ Jonty asked as they crossed the road together.
Jenny tried not to stare at his mouth, but she was having a hard job looking away. He had indecently beautiful lips for a man. Had she noticed that before?
Realising she hadn’t yet answered, Jenny’s face flamed scarlet and she coughed to try and cover her discomfort. ‘Oh, um, I’m good. Thanks. You?’
Jonty turned to face her and smiled. Good God, and his teeth are so white. And perfect.
‘You know what, I wouldn’t say I’m back to normal Jen, whatever that is, but I’m feeling so much better.’
‘That’s great Jonty. Really great. Can you believe this is our last meeting?’
Jonty shook his head as he opened the door to the hall and motioned for her to go in ahead of him. “I really can’t. I’ve been to quite a few group meetings in my time, most of which I didn’t choose to attend in fairness, and I’ve sat through enough AA meetings to last ten lifetimes, but I haven’t felt quite the same about a group of… well, strangers I guess.’
‘A group of friends, definitely friends,’ Jenny said with conviction as she walked past him into the hall. And there it was again. His smell. It wafted up her nostrils, like soap and fresh air and clean. Jenny’s stomach did that weird fluttery thing again, and this time she knew it wasn’t the egg salad.
Walking to her chair, Jenny was so mortified with herself she could barely manage a mumbled hello to the rest of the group, who were almost all there except for Suze and Phil. Taking out her wipes and sanitiser Jenny began to wipe down her chair, all the while wondering what the hell was going on with her. Was she having those feelings for an alcoholic? And to what end, Jonty had never shown the slightest bit of interest in her.
‘You okay Jen?’ Ellen whispered from beside her.
Still focusing on her chair, Jenny kept her head down and forced a smile. ‘Yeah, sure.’
‘Only, you look a little peaky.’
Jenny looked up and noticed both Ellen and Petra were eyeing her with concern.
‘Jen,’ Petra’s big brown eyes flashed, ‘you had another fucking family dinner last week didn’t you? What the fuck have they said now?’
‘Guys, I’m fine.’ Before they could argue otherwise, Jenny held a finger to her lips and pointed in Maddison’s direction. Suze and Phil were just taking their seats, and Maddison was just starting to address the group.
‘Well, everyone, it’s our tenth and final meeting.’ There was a chorus of ‘no way’ and ‘unbelievable’ from the circle, as everyone expressed their surprise at how quickly time had passed since their very first meeting.
‘I know, I know,’ Maddison continued, ‘it doesn’t feel as if it could possibly have been twenty weeks ago that you all filed into this very hall.’
‘Lookin’ like we’d been dragged kickin’ and screamin’ no less,’ Grayson added with a laugh.
‘Ha, some of us anyway,’ Phil said, looking pointedly at Suze.
Suze mouthed ‘fuck off’ to Phil, but with more than a hint of a smile. And the rest of the group laughed.
‘Grayson is absolutely right, several of you were not given the option to come along to these meetings – the decision was made for you. And that’s why I believe it’s so important to look back over the past months, and talk about the changes you have all been through’ Maddison looked around the circle. ‘As I said at our last meeting, I’d like everyone to recap their own individual journey to date. I want you to look at the goals you set for yourself, whether these changed during the course of our sessions, and even whether you managed to achieve whatever it was you set for yourself. As well as any progress you’ve made along the way, it’s also important to acknowledge the setbacks, and think about what might lay ahead for you in the future.’
Everyone in the group was listening to Maddison intently, and nodding. Sharing had become such a natural part of this group, and Jenny got the feeling that everyone was looking forward to the discussions ahead. Even Jenny couldn’t wait to tell the group about her family dinner. She smiled to herself, and glanced up to see Phil watching her. He coughed self-consciously and looked at the floor, while Jenny quickly averted her eyes to spare him the embarrassment. She was going to have to say something to him, it was just getting too weird.
‘Phil – would you like to start?’ Phil looked at Maddison and nodded.
‘Hello everyone. I’m Phil Matson, the fat git.’
The group laughed, completely comfortable with Phil’s humour, and chorused back, ‘hello Phil.’
‘It has been at least three weeks since I ate a bucket of chicken. Actually, no…’ Phil consulted his watch dramatically, ‘make that three days, since I ate a bucket of chicken.’ Again, the group laughed. Maddison checked her watch pointedly, and Phil got the hint.
‘Right, so, seriously – I actually don’t know when I last ate a bucket of chicken. And I can honestly say that I hardly even consider food anymore. Well, I mean, not like I used to. Not like it’s the only thing I can think of.’ He looked down at the chair he was sitting on. ‘When we first started these meetings I stood up to talk, because I couldn’t fit my bum cheeks on these bloody seats. It’s not like I’ve suddenly turned into Slim Jim. I’m still Fat Phil. But, well, maybe I’m Fitter and Less Fat Phil. You know?’
Maddison nodded, and several voices in the group muttered their agreement. ‘You really have done extremely well Phil, with both your eating and your training – and it shows. And I don’t mean just physically. The physical side effects are an added bonus. Learning to control your impulses, and finding healthier alternatives than turning to food, are the main indicators of how remarkably well you have done.’
‘Thanks.’ Phil blushed. ’My goal when we first started was to run in the Auckland marathon. I saw your faces when I said it, I knew what you were all thinking. I bet the fat bastard can’t run to the end of his driveway. And, truth be told, if I was looking at me, I would have thought the exact same thing. But that’s been my goal from the start, and it’s still my goal.’ Phil paused. ‘The marathon’s in two weeks – and I’m literally crapping myself. But I’m going to do it. I might come last, in fact I probably will come last, and I’ll likely fall over numerous times, and I may even walk more than I run, but I’m still going to do it.’
‘Good on ya,’ Grayson muttered across the circle, and the rest of the group voiced their support.
‘That’s wonderful Phil.’ Maddison smiled at him. ‘Do you want to add anything about specific progress you’ve made, or setbacks along the way?’
‘Well, passing my fitness test at work was amazing. I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it, and I really don’t know what I would have done if I lost my job. Male stripper maybe?’ Phil paused while the group chuckled. ‘There have been a few setbacks for sure. Definitely a few knocks to my confidence along the way.’
Jenny glanced at the floor, as she knew Phil would be looking at her and she couldn’t bear to make eye contact. She knew that he would be considering her one of those knocks to his confidence, and she was mortified that she could have made him feel this way – but what was the alternative? Pretend to like someone just because they might be the only person on this planet who’s crazy enough to actually like me back? She shook her head and looked to the left of the circle, where Jonty caught her eye. He smiled and nodded – reassuringly? – glancing at Phil and then back to her. It’s almost as if he knows, Jenny thought. But how could he?
‘That’s great Phil, thank you for sharing. I’m sure the entire group would agree with me when I say that I am very proud of the progress you’ve made – and I can’t wait to hear how the marathon goes.’
‘Actually mate,’ Anthony interrupted, ‘we need to organise ourselves to get to this race. I don’t care if it takes all day, there’s no way I’m missing watching you cross that finish line.’ Everyone nodded their agreement, and Phil grinned.
‘Thanks guys. I’ll send out some info to the group, and I guess I’ll see you at the finish?’
Maddison turned to Petra, who was next in the circle.
‘Petra, would you like to give us an update – on your goal, progress, setbacks and so forth?’
Petra nodded, rubbing the scar on her forehead absentmindedly. ‘Well, I’ve had a lot of fucking setbacks wouldn’t you say?’ She looked apologetically at Maddison. ‘Obviously the worst was getting high and coming here, and then, well, I fucked up for a short while. But I’m back on track. I mean, I’m doing better than I ever imagined, and my girls – oh my girls.’ Petra stopped speaking for a minute, and sighed. ‘My girls are so beautiful and so grown up, and I’m finally allowed to see them on a regular basis. And you know what Hannah, my youngest, said to me the other weekend?’ Everyone shook their heads.
‘She said, “Mummy, I love you just the way you are.” I mean, she really fucking said that. About me. And I’ve disappointed her on so many fucking levels, so many times. I nearly tore my eyeballs out with the tears!’
Jenny felt a lump in her throat. She didn’t have to imagine how this would have made Petra feel. Her own parents had said something very similar just a few nights ago, and she had been blown away.
‘So, yeah, there have been some nasty setbacks, but right now everything is looking fucking excellent. I’m a drug addict, no doubt about it – and I’m going to have to overcome those urges for a long time yet, but I feel like there’s hope now. When I first came to these meetings, I had no hope. None. I was so fucking angry with how my life had turned out, and I, er…’ Petra looked ashamed, ‘I guess I felt angry at all of you. I don’t know why.’
Maddison smiled at Petra. ‘It’s only natural Petra. Sometimes we hate the things we see in other people that are the very same things that make us hate ourselves. You’ve been through an incredible amount of highs and lows, and your journey hasn’t been easy. You joined a group of people who have all had their highs and lows, who all face their own demons, who all have urges and impulses they have to fight to control.’
Petra nodded, and looked at the group. ‘She’s right. I’m fucking sorry guys.’
‘Can you remember your goal Petra?’
Petra nodded back at Maddison. ‘Ah yes, my goal. My goal was to get clean and to, er… tell The Fucking Bastard to go stick it.’ Petra was silent for a moment. ‘Well, I’m clean as a fucking whistle. And somewhere along the way I realised that I’m the fucking bastard, not Alec, and I guess in a way I told the old me to go stick it. So, er, job fucking done right?’
‘And your thoughts for the future?’
Again, Petra was silent for the moment. ‘I have hope. For a relationship with my kids. And, um, maybe one day – for a relationship with my husband.’
Jenny looked at her in surprise. Twenty weeks can be a game changer.
‘Ellen,’ Maddison said, ‘are you ready to give us an update?’
Ellen nodded and looked around the group. ‘I just can’t believe this is our last meeting! So much has happened since we first started, that it’s hard to know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with my goal. Initially, my goal was to go a week without having sex.’
Everyone nodded. Yep, they remembered.
‘And then I changed it to five days.’
Anthony cleared his throat. ‘I believe you changed it to four days?’
‘Right. Well, then I changed it again. It’s not sex I want to avoid, it’s meaningless sex. Which, um, hasn’t gone so well I guess.’
“I believe part of your intention,’ Maddison interrupted, ‘was to build meaningful relationships?’ Ellen nodded at her, and Maddison looked around the circle. ‘In which case, you’re doing better than you’ve given yourself credit for.’
Ellen smiled. ‘You’re right. I haven’t really made many friends over the past few years. I was too busy using sex to ruin every possible meaningful relationship. You lot,’ she looked at each of them in turn, ‘are the best friends I’ve had in years. Is that sad? I’m sad aren’t I?’
‘You’re not sad,’ Jenny looked at her friend and smiled.
‘Well, it’s a bit fucking sad,’ Petra barked from Ellen’s right. Then she smiled too. ‘You’re not alone Ellen. We know what you fucking mean.’ Jonty and Anthony were also nodding their agreement.
‘So, I’ve made some friends, and I’ve kind of realised what I want out of life now. Or what I don’t want. I feel more, um, grounded – or aware, something like that. I’m working again, I’ve had some really good conversations with my parents, and I feel….good. I’m not that keen to talk about the setbacks, if that’s okay?’ Ellen looked at Maddison for reassurance before continuing.
‘I feel more excited about the future than I have in a long time.’ Ellen turned to look at Jenny and smiled at her. ’I kind of want to say a special thanks to Jenny, for making the first move and facing her fears to invite me over. I mean, I can’t even imagine how scary it is for someone with a fear of germs to have a sex addict in their house. But she did invite me over, and I just really appreciate it.’
Jenny could feel her face burning, but she smiled back at her friend. ‘Just don’t try and hug me okay?’
Ellen laughed good naturedly. ‘Of course not. Anyway, that’s me.’
Maddison turned to Jenny to indicate that she was next.
‘At our first meeting,’ Jenny began, barely hesitating, ‘my greatest fear was that you’d all think I was boring.’ There were a few surprised mutters amongst the group. ‘Well, you know, Ellen has sex with strangers and Petra’s like this amazing angry swearing ninja, and you know… I clean stuff. But what I’ve loved the most about this group, is that even though we’re all different, it sort of feels like we’re all the same.’ Jenny looked around the circle and there were plenty of nods in her direction.
‘So, you may or may not remember my goal.’ She paused for a moment, to let the surge of excruciating embarrassment subside. ‘Um, so I wanted to get a boyfriend. And I tried stuff, horrendous and embarrassing stuff – putting bananas in my trolley, speed dating, internet dating, blind dating – stuff that I can hardly bear to think about, but I’m really proud of myself all the same for even trying in the first place. I’m not any closer to reaching my goal than I was at the start, in fact I’m probably further from it than I ever was, but I’m kind of okay with that. I feel like I’ve done more in the past twenty weeks than I’ve done in the past twenty years – I’ve left a cup on the sink without cleaning it, well, at least not cleaning it straight away. I’ve forgotten to wash my hands a couple of times. I’ve gone into shops and tried on clothes,’ Jenny smiled at Suze, ‘I’ve bought alcohol, I’ve told my family to fuck off. Actually, on that, I went back to my parents’ house last weekend and we made up – they apologised, I apologised. So I’ve done lots of stuff, stuff that a few months ago I wouldn’t have even considered.’
‘You’ve helped a homeless man, don’t forget Neil.’
Jenny looked over at Jonty in surprise. ‘You know about Neil?’
‘I’ve spent a long time trying to find work Jen, trying to find something useful to do with myself – so I started volunteering at a shelter. Neil was a regular. And he liked to have a chat – and lately the only person he wanted to talk about was this lovely angel with dark hair and an amazing smile called Jenny, who kept trying to help him. I put two and two together.’
Jenny contemplated this, and noticed all the interested looks from the rest of the group. ‘He was beaten up Jonty, did you hear? Do you know if he’s okay?’
Jonty smiled at her, and his golden eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘I did – and he is. He’s recovered well, and already strutting around in his new clothes.’
Jenny let out a sigh of relief, and smiled broadly as she looked at Maddison. ‘So, that’s something else I’ve been doing with my time.’
Maddison smiled back at her, and Jenny couldn’t stop thinking about it as Anthony, Grayson and Suze gave their recaps. She tried to concentrate on Anthony’s excitement about his daughter’s upcoming wedding and how he was now going to be walking her up the aisle, and Grayson’s happiness with his new girlfriend Belinda and their cycling lives together, and she really tried to focus when Suze talked about her new job and how well it was going, and the new clients she had made and how proud her parents were of her – but all she could think about was Neil, and how he was okay, and that he thought she was an angel. And golden eyes, she kept thinking about golden eyes.
And then it was golden eyes’ turn to speak, and she suddenly found her powers of concentration had returned to her.
‘I’ve had a lot of setbacks since this group started,’ Jonty began. ‘Obviously the worst wasn’t that long ago, and once again I found myself back in rehab. A place I really hoped I’d never need to go to again. And yet, there I was. Sitting on a single bed, in a pale green room, listening to the soft shoes of the healthcare assistants walking up and down the aisles. And do you know what I thought about?’
Glances were exchanged, shrugs were offered in Jonty’s direction.
Say it was me Jonty, say you were thinking about ME. The thought came out of nowhere and Jenny slapped a hand across her mouth to stop herself from blurting it out. She noticed Ellen and Phil both look at her, and Jonty smiled in her direction. Don’t say it out loud, don’t say it out loud.
‘I thought about you,’ Jonty said, and Jenny’s head snapped up as she looked at him in surprise. Until she realised he was looking at them all.
‘I thought about this group, and how I wanted to tell my story. And, suddenly..’ this time he really did look straight at Jenny, and she felt that weird tummy sensation again, like she was going to vomit all over the floor, in a good way, ‘and suddenly I just knew that I was never going back to rehab, and there was a life for me out there.’ Jonty’s voice had grown louder than usual, and he looked at the floor as his cheeks grew red. ‘I mean, I hope there’s a life out there for me. I’ve got work now, and prospects, and a group of friends…’
Jonty’s voice trailed off, and Maddison put a hand on his shoulder. ’I believe you’re absolutely right Jonty. There is a life out there for you, just waiting for you to take it.’ Maddison looked around the group, ‘I believe that’s the same for each and every one of you. I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the progress you have all made, the steps you have taken to forge ahead, the times you have fallen and just got straight back up and dusted yourselves off, ready to carry on. I think you can all be extremely proud, not least for your honesty during these sessions – both with the group and with yourselves. I will honestly miss you, and as I have said in previous sessions, any of you are welcome to join one of my future support groups if you feel it would be of benefit.’
Maddison continued talking about future group sessions, and the importance of keeping in touch, and remembering to honour the group rules of respect and confidentiality. She was drawing the last meeting to a close, when she asked if any of them had made plans to stay in touch, and whether they wanted to continue to meet on a casual basis (without herself there as a coordinator).
Jenny looked around the group uncertainly. ‘Um, we did talk about getting together for a group dinner. Does everyone want to still do that? I mean, it’s part of Anthony’s goal – you know, to go to a restaurant without stealing the cutlery…’
The others laughed, and expressed their agreement.
‘How bout tis Friday?’ Grayson asked the group. ‘I could make a booking?’
‘Sounds great Irish.’ Phil said. ‘No booze or heavy stuff for this fat git with the marathon coming up, but I’m defo keen.’
After several minutes of discussion, it was decided that the group would meet at 7.30pm on Friday, at the Waterfront. Jenny had heard of the Waterfront before, one of her clients had told her it was Hamilton’s most upmarket venue. She only hoped she didn’t have to use the toilet. And that ‘upmarket’ wasn’t code for one of those trendy raw food restaurants.
And just like that, their last meeting was over.