Opening the door to the Fairside Community Hall two days later, Jenny checked her watch. 6.45pm. Only fifteen minutes until their meeting was due to start. Walking inside, she made a beeline for her usual seat and took her disinfectant and wipes out of her bag. Once again, Petra was already there, sitting quietly and staring into space.
‘Hi Petra,’ Jenny said, as she started to wipe the seat of her chair.
Petra looked over at her. ‘Hi, um… God, sorry.’
Jenny pointed down at her name badge. ‘Jenny, it’s Jenny.’
‘Sorry Jenny, I’ll get it right next week. My memory’s not the best these days.’ Jenny looked over at her, and Petra looked back defensively. ‘Not from fucking drugs, just a shitty memory is all.’
‘Of course, sure.’ Jenny lowered her eyes quickly, and finished cleaning her chair. Once she was satisfied, she sat down and looked over at Petra again. ‘How have you been?’
‘Oh, life’s a bitch. And then you fucking die.’
Jenny sucked in her cheeks and wondered what to say, when she noticed a twitch at the corner of Petra’s mouth. Petra broke into a smile, which immediately transformed her face into what could easily be described as beautiful. ‘Sorry, doll, it’s been a long week.’
Jenny grinned back at her. ‘That bad, huh?’
‘Try having a fucking husband who threatens to take your children away, and children that say you’re an embarrassment to them.’ Petra sighed heavily.
Jenny turned in her seat towards Petra. ‘Well, try having a bullying twin sister and parents who think you’re a freak show, not to mention all three of them accusing you of becoming a lesbian behind their backs.’
Petra’s eyes widened, and the two of them looked at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter. They were so busy laughing, that they didn’t notice Ellen had walked into the hall.
‘So, what’s all this laughter about then? Did I hear you say you’re a lesbian Jenny? Who’s the lucky girl then?’ Ellen’s eyes shone, as she looked at them both. Petra immediately stopped laughing, and her face became a mask of seriousness once more. Jenny, on the other hand, started giggling.
‘It’s YOU Ellen. You’re the lucky girl!’ Petra and Ellen both stared at her in surprise.
‘When did we become lesbians then?’ Ellen asked with a chuckle, but something in her glance made Jenny acutely aware that sometimes Ellen didn’t actually remember whether she had slept with someone or not. She took a few deep breaths, and swallowed back the last of her laughter.
‘You know how Bridgette came over when we were having coffee last week?’ Ellen nodded at her. ‘Well, at our family dinner on Sunday she announced to mum and dad that you’re my lesbian partner.’
‘She what?’ Ellen said with shock. ’What on Earth made her think that?”
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Jenny shrugged and giggled again, ’something about the way you said we were special friends I guess.’
Petra was looking at them both curiously, and Jenny smiled at her. ’We’re not special friends Petra, we’re just friends. We met for coffee last week. In fact, why don’t you meet us next time too?’ Jenny ignored the panicked expression on Ellen’s face.
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Petra answered.
The three were distracted from their conversation by the sound of the hall doors being swung open. Maddison entered first, trailed by the four men in the group – Phil, Anthony, Grayson and Jonty.
‘Hi ladies, good to see you,’ Maddison smiled at Jenny, Ellen and Petra in turn as she walked past their chairs to get to her own. The men all sat down on their own chairs, and a chorus of ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ rang around the circle. The mood was surprisingly upbeat, which was a drastic change from their first meeting a month ago when they’d all looked as if they had been dragged there at gunpoint. Jenny glanced at Petra, who was sitting on the other side of Ellen, and surreptitiously re-examined the scar on her eyebrow. No, surely not. It’s just a scar. It could mean anything. Literally anything. It doesn’t exactly mean her husband’s a gun wielding psycho. But… she does seem to hate him. Jenny looked over her shoulder nervously, as if Petra’s husband was going to burst through the doors at any second and gun them all down.
Across from Jenny, Maddison had wiggled her bottom into position in the old armchair and was checking her watch. Suzanne was, once again, the only one of the group running late. ‘I’m sure Suzanne will be here soon, so we may as well get started. An hour and a half goes quickly, and we don’t want to waste it. How has everyone been? Does anyone want to give us an update?’
There was silence around the circle, and Phil smiled good-naturedly.
‘I don’t mind giving an update. I’ve been out running, and I joined the gym this week.’ The group murmured their approval, and a couple of them gave him a few claps. ‘Not doing sooo great on the, er, feeding-my-face side of things, but the running is obviously working cos I’ve lost a couple of kegs off my butt.’
‘That’s great Phil,’ Ellen said. Looking around the group, she smiled. ‘I’ve been going to the gym too – though maybe not as successfully as Phil. The thing is, my personal trainer, Mario, well he’s extremely good looking.’ Ellen held up her hands, as if to show it wasn’t her fault. ‘I’m thinking of maybe setting a more achievable goal for myself.’
Maddison checked her notes, and looked thoughtful. ‘Your initial goal was to go for one week without having sex. What do you think is more achievable at this point in time Ellen?’
‘Oh, I was thinking, maybe five - no, four - days?’ Ellen looked at Maddison for approval, who nodded back at her. Maddison’s face showed no judgment whatsoever, and Jenny wondered what everyone else was thinking.
‘Anyway, aside from the gym, I went to Jenny’s for coffee last week.’ Everyone in the circle looked at Jenny, who ducked her eyes in embarrassment. ‘It’s the first time I’ve been over to a platonic friend’s house in, well, I don’t even remember the last time I did that. It was nice.’
Maddison looked over at Jenny. ‘That’s great! Jenny, was having someone in your house a first for you as well?’
‘Well, yes, I guess. I mean, my best friend Amber comes over sometimes, and my sister, but I don’t really invite anyone else to my apartment.’ She checked the faces of the group for boredom. Seeing none, she continued, ‘I work from home, so I don’t really meet anyone anyway. But I find it, kind of, stressful having people over. Anyway, Ellen came over and then my twin sister Bridgette arrived. So then a few days later Bridgette told my parents I was a lesbian.’ Oh my God, why did I just say that to the whole group? Did I have to tell them that? Jenny Sullivan - Do. Not. Say. The. C. Word.
Maddison was looking at Jenny and Ellen with concern, while the men in the group were looking more than a little interested. Jenny cringed, and looked at the floor.
‘We’re not having sex, for God’s sake, we just had a bloody coffee and Jenny’s sister got the wrong end of the stick,’ Ellen said to the group. Maddison looked relieved, while the men looked somewhat disappointed. Jenny smiled at Ellen gratefully.
‘Right, moving on,’ Maddison looked at the others in the group. ‘Does anyone else want to give an update on how the past fortnight has been for them?’
A few minutes later, Jonty had informed the group that he had been to see a recruitment company to get some assistance in finding a job but they weren’t very encouraging about his chances, Petra admitted to a trial separation from her husband to “sort myself out”, and Anthony updated the group on the fiasco at work. Anthony was just telling them that his boss had put him on six weeks performance management due to the lost commission of the Ruakiwi Road property, when Suzanne walked through the hall doors.
‘Hello Suzanne,’ Maddison looked at her watch pointedly, ‘it’s good of you to join us.’
Suzanne merely shrugged, and sat down in her chair. Jenny looked at Suzanne’s red knee-high leather boots. She found it hard to fathom how someone with such beautiful shoes could have such an incredibly ugly attitude.
‘Please make sure you get here on time next week, it’s very disruptive to the group having you arrive midway through our conversation.’
‘So sue me,’ Suzanne spat, crossing her arms angrily. The others in the group once again looked at Ellen, who put her hands up in surrender. ‘Sorry guys, as I told you last time, I’m a criminal lawyer. And, anyway, I’m not even allowed to work at the moment.’
Maddison ignored the exchange, and focused her attention on the rest of the group. ‘Does anyone want to put their hand up to tell their own story this week? Once again, we’ll use this as a platform to reflect on both the speaker, and on the group as a whole.’
Jenny looked at the ground. Don’t pick me, don’t pick me. Pleeease don’t pick me. I will be sick. All over the room. I will literally helicopter vomit if you pick me.
Grayson cleared his throat and put his hand up, snapping his fingers. ‘I’ll go next,’ he said. Jenny breathed a sigh of relief.
Maddison and the rest of the group smiled at him – except Suzanne, who had a face like thunder. ‘Thank you Grayson, you can start whenever you’re ready.’
‘Right, so. I’ll get straight to it then. I’ve loved the geegees, er, the horses that is, since I was a little lad. We were townies, but there was a bunch of settled tinkers lived nearby.’ Grayson saw the confusion around the circle. ‘Travellers,’ he explained. No-one was any the wiser. ‘For feck’s sake - gypsies?’ There were a few nods around the circle, Grayson sighed with relief. ’They had a couple of horses, they used to race ‘em late at night on people’s farms.’
Jenny watched in fascination as Grayson told his story, arms flailing about, legs twitching, words pouring out of his face quicker than her brain could compute what he was saying.
‘Me ma and da caught me once, sneaking off to watch them horses race, and I got a right feckin’ hiding. Didn’t stop me watching though, just made me get better at sneaking out. Later on, I got a school holiday job working at a bookies. Would’ve stayed there if me ma hadn’t forced me to go to college. I did accountancy. I know, right? I’m far too interesting to be an accountant.’
The group laughed, and even Suzanne managed a small smile.
‘My da used to work long hours at a steel mill, saving money to pay for my gaff while I was away at college. College fees are free in Ireland, except you have to pay for your own place to stay. Not like here in Noo Zeeland. Bloody extortionate what they charge for uni fees. I know because my Adelaida wants to go back to Uni, get a Diploma in Holistic Nutrition or some other shite. Anyway, one day, I told my da I didn’t need his money anymore, he could keep it, spend it on himself, like. Told him I had a part-time job and could pay my own way. He never asked what it was, and I never said. They probably knew I was gambling, but I had two younger sisters and they were happy to put aside money for them instead. Irish weddings are expensive, ya know?’
Everyone nodded, though no-one had the faintest idea how much an Irish wedding would cost.
‘Anyway, I got my degree and a bunch of winnings in the bank. Seems a few lads took offense to my success, and I got beat up real bad a couple of times.’ Grayson looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘The third or fourth time, I can’t remember which, I ended up in hospital. Some of those lads I won money off, got it in their head I was cheating them.’
Grayson noticed a few eyebrows raised, and anticipated their unspoken question. ‘Nah, I wasn’t cheating them. I was,’ he corrected himself quickly, ’am, real good at betting, reading people. Ya know? So, after the fourth time I got my face busted, me ma was in hysterics and da took me aside and said I should go travelling. Find my own way, like. I went to Australia first, but I’m not much use with all them creepy crawlies they got over there. And don’t get me started on the bleedin’ heat. So I ended up here, in New Zealand. Got myself a good accounting job, found myself a couple of legit betting syndicates, even put money into a racehorse with a couple of mates.’ He shook his head, as if to ward off a painful memory. ‘Bloody donkey that was.’
Jenny was enthralled, and a quick glance at the rest of the group confirmed that everyone else was just as spellbound.
‘So, then I met Adelaida. She’s South American, a beauty therapist. We got married before she ever really noticed my gambling habits. She just thought I had a lot of money, and spent a lot of money. Actually, that’s probably pretty accurate. It wasn’t a problem until Adelaida started going on about having a baby and needing financial security. And not financial security,’ he looked at each of them, ‘to look after the feckin’ baby, right? She wants to be able to afford a tummy tuck and a boob job once she’s finished pushing out sprogs. Seems that’s what they all do over there.’
Jenny blinked in surprise, and noticed Ellen beside her doing the same.
‘I dunno, I suppose it’s something to do with being South American. I want kids, to be sure. But enough to give up the odd bet? I mean, it’s not a problem, not really – we still have money, I’ve still got a job. I don’t really see why I should give it up?’
‘Grayson,’ Maddison was looking at him intently, ‘tell us a bit more about your addiction to gambling, how it affects your life and your relationships.’
’Firstly, I don’t know if I’d call it an addiction.’ He looked over at Maddison, and she raised her eyebrows. Clearly, she was more in the loop about his habits than he had given her credit for or even knew himself.
’Okay, so, I ‘spose the problem is that I think about horses and racing a lot. Maybe even all the time. I guess the first thing I think about in the morning is what races are on that day, the last thing I think about at night is how much money I’ve won or lost. I, um, I even think about racing during, you know, sex.’
‘And sometimes, if I’m honest, I can’t actually eat or sleep until I’ve put a bet on.’ Grayson was starting to talk faster and faster. Jenny was having a hard time trying to follow what he was saying, and a glance around the group confirmed everyone else was having the same difficulty.
‘Sometimes, just one bet isn’t enough. Ya know? I need to put down more money, more bets – it’s kind of like scratching an itch. And when I’m stressed at work, chucking a couple of bets on is the only way I can feckin’ calm down. That’s all it is, really. A stress outlet. If I lose a bit of money one day, I like to get to the bookies first thing the next morning so I can get even again. Those days, course, I have to tell Adelaida I’ve got an early meeting at work.’ Grayson suddenly fell silent and his eyebrows knotted together, as he appeared to think over what he had just said.
‘Ludomania,’ Jonty’s voice, barely above a whisper, cut through the silence. Everyone turned to look at him.
‘Say what?’ Grayson asked.
‘Ludomania,’ Jonty said, looking at the floor as his pale face flamed red, ‘is the urge to continuously gamble despite harmful consequences or, um, a desire to stop.’
Grayson looked at Maddison, who nodded back at him, before he looked around the rest of the group. ‘That’s probably not normal, is it?’
‘I think about eating every minute of every day,’ Phil suddenly declared. ‘Even though I know how bloody unhealthy I am, and all the risks of being this fat.’
Petra nodded at Phil. ‘And I can’t go ten fucking minutes without thinking about my… pain relief, even though I know I might lose my kids every time I take another pill.’
‘We all know what I think about most of the time,’ Ellen said, shrugging her shoulders, ‘and I know all the risks and dangers of sex with strangers.’
Jenny looked around the group, before clearing her throat nervously. ‘I just want to get up and spray all of your hands and bags and clothes with disinfectant. I suppose there aren’t really any negative consequences to doing that, aside from how weird you’d all think I am. Unless you’ve got cuts on your hands because then it might hurt a bit, but I still wish I didn’t have the urge.’
‘And I just want to walk around taking stuff,’ Anthony said, smiling. ‘Not even the good stuff, just useless stuff that I don’t even want. I constantly want to look in all your bags and wallets, and take all of your useless crap.’
Everyone in the group smiled back at Anthony, including Suzanne. Maddison nodded her encouragement, before focusing her attention back on Grayson.
’I think what the group is illustrating, Grayson, is that no-one is ‘normal’, whatever that may be. But when a compulsion starts to dictate your decisions, and threatens your wellbeing or the wellbeing of those around you, or it consumes every waking thought, then it probably is an addiction. And that’s why you’re here in this group.’ Maddison looked around the circle. ‘Perhaps we could all put some thought into alternative activities that Grayson could get involved in - activities that are inconsistent with gambling?’
Grayson suddenly sagged in his chair, as if the wind had been knocked out of him, and the rest of the group fell silent. Anthony put out a hand and clapped him on the shoulder. Man speak for “hang in there mate.”
Grayson smiled, and then quickly patted his jeans dramatically. ‘Phew, for a minute there Anthony lad, I thought you were trying to pick my pockets.’
Everyone laughed, and the tension in the room evaporated as quickly as it had come.