A few days later, Jenny was sitting in her office typing a report that a regular client had recorded and sent through to her, when her mobile rang.
‘Hello, Jenny speaking.’
‘Hi Jen, it’s Amber. How are you hun?’
‘I’m good, Ams. What are you doing ringing at,’ Jenny looked at her watch, ‘midday on a Friday? Everything okay?’
Amber worked as a Human Resources Manager in a large corporate firm, just outside of Hamilton. She worked long hours and did a fair amount of travelling around the country, which meant that calls from Amber during work hours were few and far between. In fact, Jenny had asked Amber on numerous occasions how she could put up with having such a reclusive best friend, when she had such a busy working and social life herself. Amber had replied something along the lines of Jenny being the most honest, generous and funny person she knew – and she wasn’t about to let their friendship finish just because of a few ‘personality quirks’.
‘I’ve got a few minutes to spare, nothing major. But,’ there was a hesitant pause, ‘I do have a proposition for you.’
Jenny felt her hands go clammy. ’A proposition? What kind of proposition?’
‘Well, a month from today, the Bank Bar is hosting a Speed Dating evening.’
‘Oh, great – good for you Ams. It’s been a while since you did something like that. You work too hard, it’s probably about time you found someone. Someone better than that last jerk anyway. So, what’s this proposition then? Do you need me to do some brochures or something?’
‘Er, well,’ Amber hesitated, ‘I thought this time that you might like to come with me. You know, try it yourself?’
Jenny was silent on the other end of the phone and Amber, who took this as an indication that she was thinking about it, started to ramble off the details. ‘It’s in four weeks from today, starts at 7.30pm. Its only twenty dollars to take part, or something like that, and it’s for over thirties, corporate types. Anyway, it should be fun…’ Amber’s voice trailed off.
‘Ams,’ Jenny found her voice, ‘have you forgotten who you’re talking to? Is this some parallel universe or something? Why on Earth would I want to go speed dating, where I have to change chairs every five minutes and tell strangers how weird I am?’
‘Actually Jen, I checked already, and the girls get to sit in the same chair. It’s the guys who swap seats. So, you know, you could just sit in one place. We could easily head down early to scope out the seating and toilet situation for you. And, well, you don’t have to tell strangers how weird you are. Anyway, you’re not weird. You’re adorably quirky. You could just tell them how you can do the splits, or something.’
Jenny laughed, despite herself. ’Ams, I appreciate the effort you’ve gone to, finding out the details for me, but I just don’t think I could do that. And by that, I mean speed dating and the splits. And anyway, I’m not exactly a corporate type, am I?’
‘Yes, you are – you run your own successful virtual business. You just don’t work in an office is all. Can you just tell me you’ll think about it? Pleeeease? I promise I won’t keep bothering you, if you just think about it.’
‘Okay, okay. I’ll think about it. Can we stop talking about it now though, it’s making me feel a bit sick. I might have even done a little spew in my mouth. What are you up to tonight?’
‘I’ve got a date actually, with a guy I met online.’
‘Ams! You met him online? For God’s sake, he could be an axe murderer, or anything. Are you going to meet him somewhere public? You’d better give me his details, and tell me where you’re going – I can ring you later to check that you got home okay.’
‘Jen,’ Amber sighed loudly, ‘I love you darling, but you have got to start living in the real world. Everyone meets people online these days, especially if you’re in your thirties. But, if it’ll ease your worry, his name is Jack Keane. He’s in finance and he’s Irish, so I guess his favourite colour is green, and his star sign is…’
‘Stop teasing me!’ Jenny laughed. ‘I just want you to be safe. Can you ring me tomorrow and let me know how it went?’
‘Of course I will. Are you up to anything this weekend? Aside from attending another one of those awful Sunday family dinners.’ Amber suddenly sucked in her breath. ‘Oh my God, I forgot to ring you on Tuesday to find out how your last support group meeting went. Sorry darling! How was it?’
Jenny was just about to answer, when Amber interrupted her. ‘I’m so sorry Jen, I really have to go. Someone’s just sent me an email accusing their manager of sexual harassment, saying he’s going to go to the police if I don’t deal with it straight away. I’d better give him a call.’
’Did you say he? As in, a guy has been sexually harassed by his manager?’ Jenny asked in surprise.
‘I know, right? But, honestly,’ Amber lowered her voice to barely a whisper, ’he is delicious. If I was his manager, I’d probably try and give him a little rub myself. Don’t you dare repeat that!’
Amber and Jenny both laughed, and Amber hung up the phone after promising to call back later to find out how Jenny’s last support group meeting went. Jenny put her mobile down on her desk. Speed dating, me? She shook her head. That girl has definitely been working too hard.
Stretching and yawning loudly, Jenny heard her mobile beep and saw a new WhatsApp message on her screen. It was from Ellen.
I have just taken your advice and joined a gym – Anytime Fitness, in Te Rapa.
Phil, are you still keen to join up? Jackson, the Gym Manager, was very accommodating, and I am sure I can convince him to offer you a very good discount...
I have to say that I am missing work, and finding the days are quite dull. I thought I had plenty of female friends to call on, but it turns out I lost them all along the way.
I hope you are all having a good week. Ellen.
Jenny read it twice, and pondered whether she would send Ellen a reply. Before she had a chance to decide, another message appeared.
I actually used to belong to that gym Ellen! Unfortunately I was asked to leave.
If I recall correctly, I think that’s the only gym in Hamilton that has a unisex sauna and spa? None of my business, but I’m just wondering if that might be a little unhelpful for you…
Jenny grinned to herself, and watched the screen of her mobile, willing Ellen to reply. She didn’t have to wait long.
You might be right, I should probably avoid the sauna and spa.
Why were you asked to leave the gym?
A few things kept disappearing from people’s lockers – and then reappearing. There was a big to-do when someone’s can of deodorant disappeared, and after a session with my psychiatrist I ended up confessing.
Why would you steal a can of deodorant?
I honestly don’t know. Same reason you have sex with strangers?
Okay, maybe not. Anyway, must go – I’ve got an open home on one of my listings in an hour. Bye.
The flurry of messages stopped, and Jenny suddenly found herself feeling slightly bereft. Having had no circle of close friends or social life previously, being part of this sort of conversation, albeit on the sidelines, was a new experience for her. Maybe one of these days I’ll even add my own reply. Actually, stuff it, I’m going to send something now.
Jenny picked up her mobile with shaking hands, debating what she would write. After writing and re-writing her message several times, pressing the buttons extra carefully as she was terrified her fingers would write something she didn’t want to say, she pushed send.
Ellen, I work from home. Maybe, if you’re bored, you could come over for a coffee or something one day? But, no pressure. Just if you want to.
Reading her message, Jenny waited nervously for a response. After ten minutes, she was starting to regret her decision, imagining all the excuses Ellen was probably thinking of to avoid coming around to the weird cleaning girl’s house. She paced around her apartment, wishing she hadn’t been so hasty. What was I thinking? Inviting a sex addict into my house. Who knows what kind of diseases she might have. What if she tries to have sex with me? What if she doesn’t? What if I came on to her? Why would she want to come around here anyway? Oh my God, I’m going to have to tell her not to come, that I didn’t mean it.
When her mobile beeped again, she nearly fell over in her haste to grab it off her desk. There was a new message from Ellen.
Jenny, that sounds fantastic. I would love some company. Maybe Monday or Tuesday next week? What suits you?
Jenny breathed a sigh of relief, but then almost immediately sucked it back in. Oh dear. When should I say? What does she mean by ‘love some company’?
Um, how about 10am Monday? I live in the big apartment block on Verel Street, not that far from the Fairside Hall. Number 12. Just ring the bell at the security gate and I’ll buzz you up.
Wonderful, looking forward to it. See you then. Have a good weekend.
Jenny walked into her kitchen and leaned against the fridge. Wow, did I really just invite someone over to my apartment? Well done me. She looked around her spotless colour-coordinated ultra-organised apartment, and suddenly felt a rush of nausea. Oh shit, I just invited someone over to my apartment! A stranger. A SEX ADDICT stranger. What will she think of it? What will she think of ME?
The only regular visitors to Jenny’s apartment were Amber and Bridgette. Her mother had dropped in half a dozen times since Jenny had moved in, but probably only once in the past year. Jenny was aware that her mother felt uncomfortable, and possibly out of her depth, when confronted with the extent of Jenny’s cleanliness and tidiness. The orderly rows of hooks on walls, the perfectly plumped up and arranged cushions on the couch, the alphabetically arranged books, the sparkling windows, the small group of ornaments arranged ‘just so’ and without a speck of dust – all part of the reason Jenny loved her apartment so much, they were unfortunately also part of the reason her mother didn’t visit often. And, truth be told, Jenny wasn’t entirely unhappy with that situation. Her mother was a ‘toucher’, one of those people who liked to put their hands on everything. It took Jenny hours to wipe and disinfect everything after her mother left.
Having Amber or Bridgette over was no big deal – they knew the routine: shoes on the rack at the door, bags hung on hooks, splash of disinfectant on their hands and they were good to go. But a stranger, someone totally new, coming to her apartment? Jenny wished for the hundredth time that she could recall her message.
Checking her watch, 4.45pm, Jenny opened the fridge and considered the contents. An array of fresh fruit and vegetables, coconut yoghurt, goat’s cheese, eggs and almond milk stood under her considering eye. Aside from the goat’s cheese, Bridgette had often declared that Jenny’s fridge made her so sad she wanted to throw herself out the nearest window. And on those occasions, Jenny had thought that that perhaps wouldn’t be the worst thing. Moving the almond milk aside to check whether she had any smoothies left, Jenny suddenly found herself wishing she had a bottle of wine for the evening. But the only alcohol she had in the house came in the disinfectant bottles that she used to spray her hands. Apart from the odd red wine forced onto her at her parents or the very occasional home-made cocktail with Amber on a Saturday, Jenny didn’t really drink – which made this sudden desire for a bottle of wine even more surprising.
I could walk down to the nearest liquor shop, she thought to herself. I’m pretty sure there’s one just down the road. Nah, I couldn’t do that. Yuk. Or could I? All the bottles are sealed, presumably. No, I couldn’t. Well, maybe I could. Oh stuff it, I’m going to do it. It’s Friday. Normal people have a drink on Friday. Everyone else is drinking tonight. I want a drink too.
Taking a deep breath to steel her resolve, Jenny put on her coat and shoes, grabbed her handbag and walked out of her apartment. Shutting her door, she sprayed her hands with disinfectant, and marched down the exterior staircase to the security gate which led to the street outside. Reaching the street, she looked around almost in confusion. She wasn’t a walker, not an outside in-the-real-world walker anyway. The only walking she did was on a treadmill in the comfort of her own home. You can do this, just one foot in front of the other. Jenny turned towards the nearest group of shops and began to plod down the road.
A few minutes later, she was standing outside Cheep Liquor, watching a steady stream of people walking in and out of the front doors. Deciding that this was all a big mistake, she was about to turn around and leave when a scruffy old man walked up to her. He smelt like petrol, and dog poo. Jenny took a step backwards.
‘Scuse me, darling. Got a smoke?’ He coughed a few times, and Jenny thought uncomfortably that the last thing in the world he needed right now was a smoke. A bath in bleach, and a decent meal maybe.
Unsure what to say, Jenny continued to stare at him, terrified that he was going to touch her - or worse, cough on her. And he stood there, silently, waiting.
‘Oh my God,’ she squeaked. Blinking a few times, she pulled herself together. ‘Uh, sorry, I don’t smoke.’ Realising she would have to go past him to head back to her apartment, and petrified that he might follow her, she made a split second decision and ran inside the liquor shop.
Just inside the front door, she stopped and looked around. Cheep Liquor was deceptively big, and there were rows upon rows of bottles. She didn’t even know where to start. A bored-looking twenty-something glanced at her. ‘Ya need help?’ he asked.
‘Er, yes please,’ Jenny replied, trying not to stare at the open sore on his neck. Infected pimple maybe? Boil? Staf infection. She gagged slightly. ‘I need wine.’ And you need some antibiotics.
‘Okay,’ he said, and waited for further information. When none was forthcoming, he absently scratched the skin around the sore on his neck. Jenny swallowed down a mouthful of bile, and tried not to scream. He raised his eyebrows. ‘So, what do ya want? Red or white?’
She averted her eyes from the angry red skin he was scratching. ‘WHITE! Er, definitely white. Please.’
He raised a hand and pointed over to a large section of wine bottles. ‘Over there.’
‘Right, thanks.’ Jenny walked slowly over to the section of bottles, and read the signs: Chardonnay; Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Gris; Riesling; Sparkling. Shit, what should I buy? Turning her head, Jenny looked out the front window of the shop and saw the scruffy old man was still out there, picking something up off the street and dusting it off before putting it in his pocket. Ugh. She glanced the other way, and saw that scabby-neck-guy was watching her with interest. Okay, I’m here now. I’ve got to choose something. I’m starting to cause a scene. Eeny, meeny, miny, mo… Jenny grabbed the nearest bottle. “Stables”, the label read. Riesling. $14.99. Okay, sounds okay. She tried not to think about how many other hands had touched the same bottle already, and soothed herself with the thought that she would scrub her hands with Dettol and a wire brush when she got home. And maybe her arms. She looked at the ground below her shoes. Better scrub my legs too. Just in case. And maybe I’ll burn my clothes, just to be sure.
Walking to the front counter, she put the bottle beside the cash register. A big burly older man with a huge beard was serving. ‘Hi love, anything else?’
Jenny glanced out the front window of the shop again, at the scruffy man. He had just approached a group of young men, and they were laughing unkindly at him. Jenny frowned. ‘Um, can I have a packet of cigarettes as well please?’
‘Sure thing,’ the beardy man replied, raising his eyebrows. ‘What kind?’
Jenny wracked her brain, trying desperately to think of a brand name. She remembered her sister hiding a packet of Rothmans in her school bag when they were at school. No-one would ever think to check the weird OCD girl’s bag for prohibited goods. ‘Rothmans?’ she asked tentatively.
‘Sure. Twenties or twenty fives?’
‘Oh, no - just one packet please,’ Jenny replied.
The man laughed. ‘No, darling – do you want a pack of twenty ciggies, or twenty five?’
Jenny’s face flamed scarlet. ‘Right, of course. Um, twenty please.’
The man, still chuckling to himself, slapped a packet of Rothmans on the counter and rung up the sale. Holding out his hand for the money, Jenny tried not to touch his fingers as she dropped a wad of notes in his palm.
Gingerly picking up her wine and cigarettes, Jenny turned to walk away.
‘Here love, you forgot your change.’ Jenny looked at the handful of coins the man was holding out in his grimy hand, and shook her head violently.
‘Keep it,’ she said as she walked briskly away.
Walking out of the shop, the scruffy old man saw her and started to walk towards her.
‘Here,’ she said, holding out the cigarettes. As he came within smelling distance, Jenny caught another whiff of petrol and poo. He reached out a hand. Panicking, she threw the packet on the ground in front of him. ‘Sorry, sorry about that. Those are for you.’
He looked at her for a long moment, and then bent down slowly to pick up the packet. Jenny used the distraction to make her getaway, and ran past him up the street.
‘Thanks missus,’ he called to her retreating back.
Arriving back at her apartment, Jenny stopped before her front door and put the bottle of wine down on the doorstep. Taking a bottle of disinfectant out of her bag, she liberally sprayed the bottle, her hands, the straps of her bag, the tops and bottoms of her sneakers, and then another couple of sprays on the bottle, the edges of her jacket and a few sprays into the air around her, just to be sure. Then she opened her door and walked inside. Phew, she thought with relief.
Three days later, Jenny was standing in her apartment fretting. It was 9.30am, and Ellen was due in half an hour. She had spent an hour messing a few things up first thing that morning, so that Ellen wouldn’t freak out when she arrived – but the sight of the upturned cushions, the magazines on the coffee table and the cup on the bench had unnerved her. Plus she decided it would look fake anyway. So she then spent the next hour tidying everything up again. By the time the buzzer rang to say that Ellen had arrived, Jenny was beside herself.
Jenny pushed the intercom button. ‘Hello?’
‘Hi Jenny, it’s me, Ellen.’
Jenny briefly considered telling her to go away. ‘Hi Ellen,’ Jenny pushed the button to unlock the security door downstairs, ‘come on up.’
By the time Ellen had walked up the stairs to her apartment and rung the front doorbell, Jenny’s heart was pounding inside her ribcage and her mouth felt almost dusty it was so dry. She cleared her throat, and opened the door.
‘Hi,’ she said, aware that her voice sounded like a rusty old gate creaking.
Ellen must have noticed the look of terror on Jenny’s face, because she smiled gently. ‘Hi Jenny. Thanks for inviting me over.’
‘My, er, pleasure,’ Jenny said, as she stepped aside to let Ellen into her apartment. She motioned to the hooks on the wall. ‘Um, you can leave your stuff there if you like?’
Ellen nodded, and hung up her bag and coat. Jenny let out a loud breath of relief when Ellen bent down to remove her shoes, and Ellen looked up at her questioningly.
‘Sorry, sorry Ellen. I’m not really used to having someone over. I don’t really know how to, you know, host… I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to ask you to take off your shoes. But then, I wasn’t sure that I even wanted you to take off your shoes. I mean, what if your socks were…’
Jenny fell silent, as Ellen stood back up and reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder. Feeling Jenny’s body twitch involuntarily, she quickly put her hand back by her side. ‘Jenny, honestly, it’s okay. I’m not usually a guest, not for just a platonic visit, if you know what I mean. So it’s kind of new territory for me too. I had a nightmare deciding what to wear.’
Jenny laughed, ‘me too!’
‘Is there anything you need me to do, or something to, to make you more comfortable? Like, do I need to put on gloves or something?’
Jenny’s eyes widened. Gloves, now why didn’t I think of that? Note to self – buy rubber gloves. ‘Gloves? No, no it’s fine. Of course not. I’m not that crazy. Not quite. Well, actually, I wish I did have some gloves. But, um, if you wouldn’t mind putting a bit of this on your hands?’ Jenny held up a bottle of disinfectant.
‘Of course,’ Ellen said, taking the bottle from Jenny and giving her hands a liberal spray.
‘Well, come on in.’ Jenny turned and walked back towards her kitchen. ‘Do you want a coffee?’ she called over her shoulder.
‘Definitely.’ Ellen followed Jenny through to her kitchen. ‘I’d sell myself for a caffeine fix right now.’
Jenny looked at her sharply, and Ellen laughed. ‘Just a figure of speech. I promise.’ Ellen went to sit down on one of the two bar stools at the breakfast bar, and Jenny winced. Noticing the movement, Ellen turned to her. ‘Ah, do you want me to sit on the other one?’
‘I’m so sorry. It’s just, um…’ Jenny’s voice trailed off, and her face flamed scarlet.
‘Jenny, honestly, it’s okay. Seriously. You just let me know if something makes you uncomfortable. Alright?’
Jenny nodded gratefully, and got on with making the coffee. With steaming hot mugs in front of them, the conversation began to flow. Ellen was just telling Jenny a funny story about a court case she had been involved in, when Jenny’s apartment buzzer went off. Ellen stopped talking, and Jenny looked over at the buzzer in surprise.
Ellen watched her. ‘Are you expecting anyone?’
‘No, I’m not actually. I don’t have many visitors. Sorry, I’ll just check who it is. Could be a salesperson or something.’ Jenny walked through to her front door, and pushed the intercom button. ‘Hello?’
‘Mon, it’s me. Let me in. It’s bloody freezing out here.’ Jenny groaned inwardly. Maybe I can just tell her to go away? Say I’m sick or something? No, she’d never believe me. Typical nurse, she thinks everyone else is a hypochondriac. Shit.
Her buzzer went off a second time. She chewed her lip, and pushed the intercom button again. ‘What do you want Bridge?’
‘I want to come in, obviously. Come on Mon, it is seriously cold out here and I’m freezing my tits off.’
‘Okay, okay, the door’s open. Come on up.’ Jenny turned back to face Ellen in the kitchen. ‘I’m so sorry in advance.’
‘Sorry? Why? Who is it – the mafia or something?’ Ellen asked.
‘Close. It’s my twin sister, Bridgette.’
‘I didn’t know you had a twin,’ Ellen said. Jenny was about to reply, when there was a loud knock at the door. Jenny opened it, and Bridgette burst through.
Throwing her coat on one of the hooks, and flicking her boots off beside the shoe rack, Bridgette absently grabbed the disinfectant bottle from Jenny’s outstretched hand. Giving herself a couple of sprays, she handed the bottle back. Pulling off her beanie and giving her long silky hair a few shakes, she put her hands on her hips and glared at Jenny.
‘What’s the big fucking idea leaving me in the cold like that Mon?’ Not waiting for an answer she turned her back on Jenny, and started to walk to the kitchen. Halfway across the tiles, she noticed Ellen sitting at the breakfast bar watching her.
‘Oh, hello,’ Bridgette said to Ellen, before turning back to Jenny, ‘who the hell is this?’
Jenny was about to stammer a reply, when Ellen smoothly answered for her. ‘Hi, I’m Ellen. A friend of Jenny’s.’
‘Sorry, say what now?’ Bridgette asked bluntly. ‘Jenny doesn’t have any friends. Aside from that ball buster Amber. Who are you really? What are you selling?’
Jenny’s face felt so hot she thought her cheeks were going to burst into flames. Ellen, on the other hand, remained calm and gave Bridgette a long and appraising look. ’Jenny and I are very close actually, she’s a very special friend of mine. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you though. You must be Jenny’s twin sister?’
Bridgette’s eyes narrowed, and she looked visibly uncomfortable. ‘Yes, I am. Bridgette. You’ve obviously heard about me, but I can’t say I’ve heard about you before. What do you do Ellen?’
‘I’m a criminal lawyer.’
Bridgette let this tick over in her mind for all of a second. She whistled, and looked at Jenny. ‘Holy shit Mon, you’ve gone and done it again haven’t you? Have you been arrested again?’ Bridgette smirked. ‘Oh my God, mum is going to just die.’
‘Actually Bridgette, Jenny isn’t a client of mine.’ Ellen looked at Jenny with raised eyebrows, as if to ask whether she should say how they met. Jenny gave a small shrug. ‘We met in a support group.’
Comprehension dawned, and Bridgette nodded her head at Ellen. ‘Right, you’re a clean freak too.’
‘Something like that,’ Ellen replied, taking a sip of coffee.
Bridgette turned back to Jenny, who was still standing behind her. ‘Well, you could have said that you had company Mon. I don’t want to get in the way of your germ-a-phobia session. I was only popping in quickly anyway, so I’ll leave you to it.’
Jenny’s eyes widened in surprise, and Ellen winked at her over Bridgette’s shoulder. ‘Oh, okay Bridge, you sure you don’t want to stay for a coffee?’
Bridgette shook her head. ‘No, I’ll get going. See you on Sunday?’
‘Sure. If you make it this time. Bridge, Mum was gutted you didn’t make the last dinner.’ Bridgette ignored the comment. ‘Right, okay then, see you in a week.’
Bridgette put her beanie, coat and boots back on, and was about to walk out the door, when Ellen called out to her. ‘Bye Bridgette, nice to meet you.’
‘Oh, you too Ellen.’ And then she was gone.
Jenny closed the door after her sister, and took a deep breath as she turned and walked back towards Ellen, who was still sitting in the kitchen.
‘Sorry about that,’ she started, apologetically.
‘About what? The fact that your sister’s a rude bitch?’
Jenny gulped, but not before she noticed the wicked smile on Ellen’s face. She couldn’t help but smile in return, and felt the side of her mouth start to twitch. Ellen’s mouth did the same, and soon the two of them were laughing so hard there were tears running down their faces.
‘She is such a bitch… hahaha… never seen her leave so fast before… hahaha… the look on her face when she left…’
When their laughter subsided, the two of them sat silently for a minute.
‘How come Bridgette calls you Mon?’ Ellen asked.
‘Oh, it’s a long story. But, basically, her and a couple of other girls at school decided my nickname should be Monica – as in, Monica off the TV show, Friends? You know, she’s the one that likes to clean. The name just sort of stuck, I guess.’
‘Oh, okay. Hey, thanks for inviting me over.’
‘Thanks for coming.’
For the first time in a very long time and just for that brief moment in time, Jenny thought that she might not be so crazy after all.