Jenny woke Friday morning, and stretched contentedly. Her room seemed unusually light for so early in the morning, and she reached for her mobile to check the time. She blinked in surprise. Somehow, unless her mobile was suddenly and inexplicably broken, she had slept in until 8.30am. Screwing her eyes shut and rubbing her eyelids with her thumbs, Jenny counted to five and then checked her mobile again. Yep, 8.30am. Unbelievable!
She noticed she had a missed call, and several new WhatsApp messages from her group. Dialling voicemail, she listened to a message from Amber.
“Hi Jen, it’s just me. Wondering how you are – and how your last group meeting went. We haven’t spoken much lately, I miss you. Hope everything’s okay? Give me a call when you get a chance.”
Jenny smiled to herself as she dialled Amber’s number. Amber picked up after the first ring.
‘Jennifer Sullivan! I was beginning to think you’d finally overdone the Janola fumes and killed yourself!’
Jenny laughed. ‘I’m sure my time will come. Sorry I’ve been so slack Ams. How are you?’
‘Up to my neck in staff shit. I’ve been here since 6.30am, trying to sort out the latest catastrophe. Just the usual.’
’I don’t know how you deal with your job Ams, I honestly don’t. Just the stress of it would kill me, never-mind the whole, er, office thing. Did you know, desktop surfaces, computer keyboards and phone handles are more contaminated by bacteria and viruses than a public toilet?
’Yes, Jen, I’m pretty sure you may have told me that fact on more than one occasion… Anyway, forget my office and all the disgusting bugs lurking on every surface. How are you? How was your very last meeting?’
‘Hmm, it was sort of great. Everyone talked about their progress and setbacks, and what the future holds. That sort of thing. Everyone’s had their own little breakthroughs, or lessons, along the way. It was kind of inspiring.’
‘So, were you sad when it finished? Or delighted that it’s all over now?’
‘Um, both, in a way.’ A pair of golden eyes flashed through Jenny’s head. ‘More sad, I think.’
‘Sad you won’t be seeing a certain blonde man I’m guessing?’
Jenny laughed. It really had been a while since they had spoken. ‘Seriously Ams, there’s nothing going on with me and Phil, and there never will be.’
‘Never ever EVER.’
‘Right, okay.’ Amber didn’t sound convinced, but changed the subject anyway. ‘I seem to recall some time ago you said that you might bravely face your fears and visit my house? How about this weekend? You can try and convince me there’s nothing going on between you and a certain blonde man, and I can watch your face for clues.’
Jenny laughed. ‘Um, okay, sure. I can’t tonight though – I’m going out for dinner.’
‘Wow, really? Who with and where?’
‘My whole group is going out together, to the Waterfront. It’s the first time we’ve ever been out in public together.’
‘Let me get this straight - a group of addicts are out on the town together? That should do nicely for some juicy stories when you visit. How about lunch tomorrow, and I’ll invite Jack? Not that I really need to invite him, he’ll already be at my place anyway.’
Jenny couldn’t help but notice the soft way Amber even said Jack’s name - there was no doubt her best friend was completely head over heels. For a brief moment Jenny wondered if she’d ever feel like that. ’Okay – but can I come after lunch? No food necessary. Actually, please don’t do food. The dogs will be enough.’
Amber chuckled. ‘Of course hun. I’m so excited you’re coming, I can’t….’ there was the sound of a hand being placed over the receiver and muffled voices on the other end, before Amber came back on the line, her voice strained. ‘Jen, I’ve got to go. More staff shit. Good luck tonight!’
‘Bye Ams, love ya.’
Jenny sat in her bed and tried to remember Amber’s house, but all she could think of were the dogs – sniffing, licking, jumping, spreading their doggy smells and hair everywhere. Ugh. Just the thought of them slobbering all over her made Jenny want to shower, and she jumped out of bed. It wasn’t until she was dressed and had switched on the jug to make herself a coffee that she remembered there were unanswered messages on her mobile from the group. She went and got her mobile and began to scroll through them.
Hi team. Everyone set for dinner tonight? Have to say, I’m nervous.
Worried you’ll take the cutlery lad?
Ah, yes I am. I don’t know how I’ll keep my hands to myself.
Sit on them?
Cuff them? I’ve got some I could lend you ;)
Sit beside me Ant, I’ll make sure you don’t steal anything.
Ok, thanks. Should I be scared?
Yes – but only if you try and nick a fucking salt shaker.
Be afraid lad, be very afraid…
Jenny chuckled to herself. If anyone was going to keep Anthony from stealing the silverware, it’d be Petra.
I’m a little bit afraid I’ll have sex with one of the waiters. Please don’t let me go to the toilets on my own.
Ellen, you can sit on my other side. I’ll scare the waiters off.
Jenny paused, frowning. She was so used to sitting between Ellen and Anthony at their meetings, that she had just assumed she’d be sitting between them at dinner too – now that Petra had taken her spot, she wondered who she’d end up beside. Please don’t let me freak out, Jenny offered a silent prayer to the Universe. Please don’t let me do anything weird, or shout anything weird. Please don’t let me do anything crazy. I couldn’t possibly do anything crazier than the rest of the group. Could I? God, I bet I could. I’m going to, I’m going to do something awful I just know it.
Jenny shook her head, and kept reading.
Well, Iv nevr eaten in front of u guys. I’m kinda nervus 2 – that u all be watchin me eat, seeing wht a pig I make of myslf…
Phil, you can sit opposite me. I won’t even look in your direction.
Honestly, does anyone else need me to hold their fucking hand?
There were no other replies yet – and Petra’s last message had come through while Jenny was reading. She quickly tapped out her own reply.
Hold my hand? No thanks! Don’t even get me started on the amount of bacteria that lurks between your fingers and under your fingernails… But if you could distract the staff and everyone else in the restaurant while I disinfect my chair, that’d be super
It only took a minute for Petra to respond.
Done . Buuuut, since everyone else has to face their issues tonight, I reckon there should be a compulsory hand-hold for you tonight. What do you reckon?
For real? I think I did a little vomit in my mouth at the thought.
I’d offer my hand Jen, but I’m guessing you’ll want to make sure I don’t visit the toilets with any waiters first…;)
Okay, so I’m scaring the waiters off Ellen, keeping Anthony’s hands where I can see them, not looking at Phil, and distracting everyone in the restaurant while Jenny scours the shit out of her table seating. Looks like I’ll be fucking busy. Grayson, Suze and Jonty – you guys better take fucking care of yourselves.
Not sure if I can get there guys – bit of a problem with transport at the moment… I could take the bus, but public transport in Hamilton’s the pits.
Before Jenny knew what she was doing, her fingers had tapped out and sent a response.
YUCK - riding a public bus is pretty much up there with using a port-a-loo. Do NOT even consider it. I’ll pick you up Jonty. Where do you live?
She re-read it, and shook her head. Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. WHAT are you playing at?
Seriously? You’ll take me in your car? Are you sure???
She was about to reply that yes, she could handle it if he promised to have a thirty minute scalding hot shower before she picked him up (only joking – sort of), when Ellen beat her to it.
Don’t you live in Chartwell Jonty? I’m pretty sure you’re not far from me. I’ll come get you.
Ellen and Jonty, alone in a car. Jenny couldn’t help the dart of jealousy that ran through her and she had to fight the urge to insist that she would pick him up. Chartwell wasn’t exactly in the right direction though, more like the opposite direction. So it made perfect sense for Ellen to pick him up. But still…
Thanks Ellen, that would be great. I’ll pm you my address.
And thanks, Jenny – I really appreciate the offer. I know that would have been hard for you, even harder than holding someone’s hand I suspect!
Looks like we’re all set? Thanks everyone – for (hopefully) helping me reach my do-not-steal-the-cutlery goal… And if not, thank you in advance for bailing me out of prison…
Jenny was still laughing to herself as switched on her laptop and started typing up some reports that a client had asked her to send through by the end of the day. She checked her watch, and was shocked at how late in the morning it was. Time to get cracking or she wouldn’t be able to get to the dinner herself.
Fresh from the shower that evening, Jenny stood in front of her wardrobe wrapped in a towel. What to wear? What to wear? What to wear?
Since her shopping expeditions with Amber and then Suze, she had several options – but she still couldn’t decide. She really wanted to put on the beautiful plum shift dress, but she remembered the way Phil had looked at her in it and she didn’t want him to think she was wearing it specially. She considered the blind date outfit – the red pencil skirt with the white shirt – and immediately crossed it off the list too. It wasn’t that she was overly superstitious, it’s just that that was the outfit that she had been wearing when she met the disgusting Troy, and it was all too fresh in her mind.
She pulled her one and only Little Black Dress from the wardrobe, and considered it. ‘Looks like you’re making your debut,’ Jenny said to the dress, hanging it on the door handle of her wardrobe.
An hour later, with her hair freshly blow-dried, make-up applied (even mascara, which she had bought brand new and had already thrown in the bin after one use – can’t be too careful), some jewellery and a splash of perfume, Jenny surveyed the results in her mirror.
‘Suze, you’re a bloody genius,’ Jenny said to her own reflection. The dress, which had seemed plain on the hanger, felt as soft as a peach and fit her perfectly – in fact, she hadn’t tried it on since the shopping expedition, and she had forgotten the way the extra folds of material added curves to her body in all the right places.
But is it showing off too much? Oh no, I’ve gone too far. I’m trying too hard. Too much jewellery? It’s the mascara, I shouldn’t have put on the mascara. Damn it! While only minutes before she had felt like some sort of sexy vamp, Jenny now felt over-dressed, over-primped, over-done… just over-everything. What would her group think, they were so used to seeing her in jeans and hoodies.
I need to call Suze. Jenny dialled her number before she lost her nerve.
‘Hey, this is Suze.’
‘Suze, it’s me – Jen. I’m, er… having something of a dress dilemma. An over-dressed dilemma actually.’
Before Jenny could elaborate, Suze had immediately jumped to action and demanded an itemised account of everything Jen was wearing and what she thought the issue was. Then there was silence, presumably while Suze thought it over.
‘Jen, I think you’re great – but it’s time to get a grip. You’re a beautiful woman, start showing it off.’
‘Oh. Thanks, but that’s hardly true. So, you don’t think I’ll be overdressed?’
‘Jen,’ Suze scoffed, ‘it IS true, and you couldn’t overdress if you tried. I’m wearing polka dot velvet shorts tonight. Polka dot velvet shorts, for god’s sake, with heels as high as I can manage. Probably canary yellow. I promise you that you won’t be the most overdressed there. Besides, the Waterfront is kind of an exclusive venue, and you need to dress up a bit. I’m surprised our bunch of nutters could get a table.’
Jenny laughed, feeling remarkably better.
‘Thanks. Somehow I knew you’d be the right person to call.’
‘Anytime. See ya on the crazy train.’
Arriving at the restaurant, Jenny parked her car and turned off the engine. Taking a deep breath, she had to fight the urge to put the key back in the ignition and drive away.
She had spent half an hour researching the Waterfront online, examining the gallery of photos on their website, and pouring over the dinner menu – she had even checked TripAdvisor and had happily found a picture of the restaurant bathrooms, which had obtained a raving review from that particular traveller. She was sure her group wouldn’t give a flying toss about her getting out her wipes and cleaning anything her fingers or mouth would come into contact with. They had seen her do it enough times now. And her outfit was, well, perfect really. So everything boded well.
In fact, compared to speed dating in a packed pub, or instigating that excruciatingly awful episode in the gym carpark, or even just grasping the disgusting germ-laden handles of a supermarket trolley, compared to all of that – an evening with her group, with no expectations for her to be anyone but herself, should have been an exciting prospect.
She looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. ‘Jenny, what IS the problem? WHY are you dreading this?’ Her stomach was in knots. ‘You can do this. It’s just a weird group of friends, meeting for dinner… trying not to steal the cutlery, or get off with the staff, or make a pig of themselves..’ Jenny laughed, despite herself, and opened her car door resolutely. You can do this!
Walking into the restaurant, an extremely handsome waiter greeted Jenny, and she immediately wondered if Ellen had arrived yet.
‘Good evening, may I help you?’ In fact, he was so handsome it was obscene. Jenny tried not to stare.
‘Er, yes. We have a group booking. I’m actually not sure who’s name it’s under. There are eight of us.’
Obscenely handsome guy had impeccable manners, but Jenny still noticed the almost imperceptible but appreciative glance at the folds of her dress, and she squirmed uncomfortably. I really hope you’re not the waiter who greets Ellen, or she is done for.
‘Ah yes, the party of eight.’ He looked down at the clipboard in his arms, and Jenny was fairly certain he was trying not to laugh. ‘The booking was made under Mr, er, Gambler. If you follow me I’ll take you to the table.’
Jenny stood back to let him get past, taking an extra step back to ensure that he didn’t brush up against her. Aside from whole food/cutlery/table/bathroom situation in restaurants, being so dangerously close to strangers and all their germs was agony.
Jenny was led through the restaurant, to a large candlelit alcove at the back, with two sliding doors that could close the area off from the rest of the restaurant. The area was obviously reserved for private parties, and Jenny sighed with relief – before smiling at Petra, who was the only person already sitting at the long wooden table.
‘Can I get you anything to drink?’ the waiter asked.
‘Oh, um, I’m not sure…’
‘Let me order Jen, I’ll get something for everyone.’ Petra said from her seat. ‘Can you bring us two bottles of champagne please, unopened, and eight glasses? We’ll pour the wine ourselves.’
‘What about Jonty?’
‘Right – can you fill one of the glasses with soda water? But leave the rest unfilled and the bottles unopened.’
If the handsome guy thought the request was strange, he didn’t show it. ‘Of course. I won’t be long.’
Watching as he walked away, Petra waited until he was out of earshot and then turned and smirked at Jenny. ‘I really don’t fucking like Ellen’s chances. If she doesn’t get off with him in the toilets, I’d be tempted to myself!’
‘I was thinking the exact same thing!’ Jenny laughed, and then corrected herself. ’Er, not about going to the toilets myself, obviously, but I don’t like Ellen’s chances either.’
‘Come and sit down, tell me about your day. You look fucking fantastic, by the way.’
‘Oh, thanks. I was a bit unsure about what to wear actually, so I rang Suze for advice.’ Jenny looked at the rows of chairs, happily noting the leather seats. ‘Um, where should I sit?’
‘Not here, or here or here.’ Petra pointed to either side of her, and across the table, smiling at Jenny. ‘Gotta keep an eye on these fuckers.’
Jenny started cleaning the seat at the far end of the table, leaving a space between her and Petra for either Ellen or Anthony. While she was busy spraying and wiping, the waiter had returned and was laying down glasses and bottles. Jenny paused, embarrassed, waiting for him to finish.
‘Where would you like the glass of soda?’ he asked.
‘How about…’ Petra said.
Before she could finish, Jenny pointed to the seat opposite her. ‘There, you can put it there.’
Petra turned to Jenny and raised her eyebrows. Jenny shrugged, and started furiously wiping her seat again, trying to hide her flaming cheeks as the waiter placed the glass of soda on the table across from her. He glanced at her wiping briefly, but said nothing. Jenny guessed he’d seen a lot worse.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ He smiled at them both, and Jenny could feel a little catch in her throat. He really was breathtakingly gorgeous.
‘No, we’re good. Thanks.’ Petra shooed him away.
‘Perhaps we should sit Ellen between us?’ Jenny turned to Petra. ‘Shield her from all that smoking hot?’
‘Good idea. So, what’s up with the soda?’
‘What? What do you mean?’ Jenny was wiping the table now, head down.
‘Hmm,’ Petra eyed her suspiciously, ‘and the offer of a ride? Anything I should know about?’
Before Jenny could think of an answer, the waiter reappeared with Ellen, Jonty and Grayson following behind him. Jenny and Petra exchanged smiles as they noted the look on Ellen’s face, and waited until the waiter had walked away before greeting each other.
Ellen whistled as she watched his retreating back, ‘is this the Universe testing me or what?’
Jenny laughed. ‘Yep, I think so. Here,’ she pointed to the seat between her and Petra, ‘we thought this might be the safest spot.’
Ellen nodded and walked around the table.
Jonty and Grayson began to move towards the two seats across from Jenny.
‘The soda is for you Jonty,’ Petra said, ’the seat across from Jenny.’
Jenny, who had picked up one of the champagne glasses to clean it, looked over at Petra and rolled her eyes. Petra smirked at her, and winked.
‘Right, thanks,’ Jonty said, sitting down opposite Jenny. ‘Hi Jen.’
Jenny stopped cleaning her glass and looked into those golden eyes. Before she knew what was happening a big grin had spread like wildfire across her face. ‘Hi Jonty.’
Grayson whistled when he caught sight of her. ‘Jaysus Jen, you look gorgeous tonight.’
Jenny blushed and sat down, but not before she noticed Jonty nodding his agreement. And there it was again. That sick fluttery feeling in her stomach.
It didn’t take long before Suze, Phil and Anthony had arrived, and soon they were all sitting down, chatting.
Anthony put down the menu he was reading, and held his glass up. ‘Here’s to us – the oddest bunch of friends you could ever hope for.’
Everyone joined in the toast, and took a sip from their drinks. Jenny, who had already finished her first glass, poured herself another and offered the bottle around the table. Petra looked at the nearly empty contents.
‘I think we need to buy a few more of those, do we?’
Grayson nodded across at her. ‘Defo. I’ll get the waiter’s attention when I see him.’
‘Um, I’m happy to go and get him?’ Ellen suggested.
‘NO!’ the rest of the table roared back at her, before dissolving into laughter.
As if by magic, the waiter’s handsome face appeared at the end of the table. ‘Are you ready to order?’
‘Not yet lad,’ Grayson said, ‘but can we have another couple o’ these bottles?’ He looked over at Jenny, who was just finishing her second glass. ‘And can ye’ organise a couple of dial-a-dick drivers for us? If I was a gamblin’ man, which of course I’m not,’ he paused for effect and the others laughed, ‘I’d put a few bob on half of this group getting rat-arsed and not being able to drive home…’
‘Of course, sir.’ He nodded politely at Grayson. ‘I’ll make the arrangements. While you’re still considering the menus, would you like some breads to share for the table?’
‘Shit YES, I am STARVING!!’ Phil said. Realising everyone was looking at him, he corrected himself. ‘I mean, yeah, great, sounds good.’
Suzanne looked at Jenny, whose grimacing face was illustrating exactly what Jenny Sullivan thought about sharing a plate of breads with the group. The rest of the group followed Suzanne’s glance and laughed.
Suzanne looked at the waiter. ‘Better just make it seven portions, er…’
‘Scott,’ he winked at her, ‘my name is Scott.’
The rest of the group tried to contain their smirks. Ellen wasn’t allowed to “entertain” the staff, but there was no rule to say Suzanne couldn’t get her flirt on.
Two hours later, everyone was in a particularly happy mood.
Petra held up her glass to make another toast. ‘So far so fucking good guys. Anthony, correct me if I’m wrong, but your pockets are still empty right?’ Anthony nodded. ‘Great, Anthony is a win. Ellen, I believe you haven’t indulged in any dodgy relations since we arrived?’
Ellen laughed, and pointed at both Petra and Jenny in turn. ‘How could I? Even if I wanted to, I’ve got you two watching me like hawks, and Suze shadowing me every time I leave my seat.’
‘Okay,’ Petra continued, ‘that’s a resounding fucking yes and a win for Ellen. Gray, I don’t think we have to worry about you do we? There’s no pokies in this place. And there’s no shopping, so Suze is good – in fact, I think you two got away a bit too easily. And I can resolutely say that I have not even thought about getting high since we arrived.’ Petra paused. ‘Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve thought about it numerous times.’
‘And Jonty down the end there,’ Anthony continued, deflecting attention from Petra’s silence, ‘drinking his soda like a good man – absolute win mate.’
‘Especially since we’re all getting hammered around him,’ Suze added. Everyone nodded their agreement.
‘And Phil,’ Petra had recovered herself, ‘I’ve done my best not to watch you eat, but I don’t see what the fucking problem is. You don’t have manners like Jonty over there, but you haven’t thrown your face in your plate or anything, so I reckon that’s a win.’
While everyone was busy smiling at Phil, Jenny looked across the table at Jonty. Petra was right, his manners were lovely. Really lovely. Jenny was so busy watching his hands, and admiring his clean fingernails, that she didn’t hear Ellen at first.
‘Jen? Earth to Jen?’ Ellen was looking at her with concern. ‘Hey!’
‘Shit, sorry!’ Jenny shook her head to clear it. She really needed to stop drinking the champagne and switch to water. ‘What were you saying?’
‘Petra was just reminding us about those group messages this morning.’
‘What about them?’ Jenny wracked her brains, trying to remember what had been said that morning.
‘The compulsory hand-hold you agreed to!’ Grayson announced.
Jenny stared at him in horror, and looked around the group. ‘For real? You guys actually want me to do that for real? I mean, did I actually agree to it? I don’t think I did. And you do realise I can barely hold my own hand I’m so afraid of what I’ll catch from myself.’
‘It’s okay Jen,’ Ellen said softly beside her, ‘you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.’
Jenny glanced down at her hands. What’s the worst that can happen? Um, I could catch a deadly bacteria and die. Nope, I cannot do it. I won’t do it. I absolutely will not ever bloody well do it.
‘Okay, I’ll do it. But let’s make it quick, cos I’m probably going to need to vomit, and then rush home to pour boiling water on myself.’
Grayson laughed, ‘that’s the spirit Jen. Here,’ he held out his hand, ‘you can hold my hand.’
Jenny looked at his fingers, and the dirt under his thumbnail. ‘Um, not yours Gray. Sorry.’
‘Here, take mine.’ Petra held out her own hand. It looked clean enough, but there was the slightest glint of something sticky on her wrist. Could be champagne. Could be ebola. Jenny shook her head again.
She saw Phil out of the corner of her eye, about to offer his own hand across the table and she made a split-second decision.
‘Jonty, your hand looks the cleanest, so you’ll have to do. Can I?’
Jonty looked at her in surprise, and then grinned. ‘Sure,’ he said, laying his hand palm-up on the table in front of her.
Jenny took a deep breath, and counted back from ten. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… three quarters, one half, one third, one quarter, ummm, one eighth… Running out of fractions, she took another deep breath, gritted her teeth and quickly lowered her own hand onto Jonty’s so their palms were touching. She squeezed her eyes shut, and steeled herself for the wave of nausea that was about to hit. When it didn’t come, and all she could feel was Jonty’s warm and soft hand beneath hers, she opened her eyes. Everyone at the table was staring at her proudly.
‘Jen, that is a FUCKING WIN,’ Petra announced. ‘SCOTT??’ The waiter appeared at the far end of the table. ‘Another round of drinks. We’re celebrating.’
While everyone else had turned to look at Scott, Jenny and Jonty sat with their hands still touching, and looked at each other. Jenny felt Jonty’s fingers move, ever so slightly, until they were wrapped around her own, and he gave the smallest squeeze. It was the strangest feeling – and Jenny thought she might actually pass out. In a good way. A very good way.