The following Friday afternoon, Jenny was sitting in front of her laptop working on a document for a new client. Her mobile beeped, and she stretched wearily before picking it up and checking the screen. It was a message from Phil.
Hey team, howz every1 doin? Any1 up 2 anythin interestin ths wknd?
Jenny thought about her lack of plans, aside from another family dinner on Sunday, and rubbed her neck thoughtfully. Maybe I should ask Amber around to watch a movie? Yes, I will. She had just started to dial Amber’s number, when she put her phone back down. Bugger, she’s away this weekend, on a mini break with that guy she met online. Jack Reed? No, Jack Keane. Well, that just leaves Bridgette, and I think I’d rather be by myself. Maybe I could ask Ellen over? She shook her head, dismissing the idea immediately. It was one thing to ask a sex addict over for morning tea, but quite another prospect to sit in the dark watching a movie together. What if she tried something? God, what am I thinking? She’s not going to try anything. But, still…
Sighing, she tapped out a message to Phil.
Hi Phil. I’m not up to much, just the usual torture of our family dinner on Sunday.
How have you done with your running this week?
Jenny didn’t have long to wait, before Phil replied.
I ran 5 km on Wedsday! Still a long way 2 go tho. Howz yr goal comin along? 2 get a boyf right?
Jenny’s cheeks flamed with embarrassment, as she wondered for the millionth time why the hell she had blurted that out at their first meeting. She ignored the little voice right at the back of her head whispering, because it IS your goal!
Um, not sure if that’s still my goal Phil. It’s a bit unrealistic – I can’t even touch someone’s hand without disinfecting it first, how could I have an actual relationship? Where would I even start?
And who would even want me? She thought to herself sadly. Her mobile beeped, and she looked at the screen, expecting to see a message from Phil. Instead, Petra – who hadn’t yet replied to any of the group’s WhatsApp messages – had responded.
Jenny, it’s not fucking unrealistic at all. Obviously I don’t know you well, but you’re very pretty and I can tell you’re kind and funny. This probably seems weird, but are you busy on Monday?
Jenny read Petra’s message and immediately panicked. Is she asking me out? Her mobile beeped again.
Hi Petra. R u asking Jenny on a d8?
Don’t be fucking ridiculous Phil. No, I am not asking Jenny on a date. Jenny – Monday evenings at the New World supermarket is known as ‘date night’. I just heard it on the radio. If you’re interested in finding a partner, you put a bunch of bananas in the top of your trolley. I thought we could go, I could come along as moral support maybe? There’s no pressure.
Jenny bit her lip nervously. She had been doing her supermarket shopping online for a number of years, to avoid all that people contact – all those dirty fingers (ugh) holding grimy trolley handles (ugh) reaching down to handle all those germ-laden fruit and vegetables (double ugh). Not to mention the whole banana in the trolley thing felt so contrived. So bizarre. While she thought of a response, Jenny’s mobile beeped a number of times and she scanned the new messages.
Wow, is that an actual thing? Can I come 2?
Yes, it sure is Phil. I have definitely heard of it. Can I come too? For moral support, of course…
I’ve actually heard of that as well. Sounds like an interesting outing, but I’m not really welcome at that supermarket anymore (or any local supermarkets - I have to do my shopping online), so I’ll have to wait for the update.
Phil and Ellen, it’s up to Jenny whether you can come – and she hasn’t even said yet whether she wants to come herself. Jenny?
Jenny considered the fact that she hadn’t been inside an actual supermarket for years, and then looked around her empty apartment. She gritted her teeth. Stuff it, I might as well.
Okay, I’ll go. And Phil and Ellen, I guess that’s ok if you come too. I suppose it might be kind of fun – in an ‘I wish I was dead’ kind of way. I haven’t actually been in a supermarket for years. Feel the fear and do it anyway huh?
Right then. I’ll see you all in the carpark of the New World in North Hamilton, this coming Monday at 6.30pm.
Shit, damn, crap it to hell. What the heck have I said yes to? Jenny looked at her watch, it was almost 5pm and she felt like a glass of wine. Taking only a minute to consider it, Jenny shut down her laptop and walked to her front door. Putting on her shoes and coat, and grabbing her bag, Jenny smiled to herself. I’m just like a normal person. She opened her front door, and locked it behind her, then took a bottle of disinfectant out of her bag to spray her hands and the door knob, and several sprays into the air around her. Okay, maybe not.
Walking down to the liquor shop, Jenny felt her breath quicken as she approached the front doors. Fortunately, this time, the raggedy old man who smelt like petrol and poo was nowhere to be seen. She sighed with relief. A bored looking twenty-something watched her walk in the door and Jenny wondered if it was the same young man as last time. He scratched his neck and she noticed the angry wound, which had apparently gotten worse in the weeks since her last visit. Yep, same guy. She managed what she hoped was a confident smile at him, and walked straight to the white wine aisle. Scanning the bottles briefly, she saw the same bottle of Stables Riesling and immediately grabbed it using as few fingers as possible, wincing as she imagined all the other hands that had touched it before hers.
Walking to the counter, where the same big beardy man as last time was waiting, she glanced outside and saw the old man was back. He seemed to be crouched beside the rubbish bin, scratching away in the dirt.
‘He’s looking for ciggies,’ beardy man at the counter said, interrupting her observations.
‘Oh, oh. Is he?’ Jenny tried not to show how disgusted she was, but she felt her stomach turn at the thought of putting her own hands in that dirt. Even worse, putting someone else’s cigarette butt in her mouth. She put her bottle of wine on the counter. ‘Just this please.’
As beardy man scanned the bottle, she looked outside and saw the old man had straightened up and was now looking inside the rubbish bin. She closed her eyes at the agony of it, and then took a deep breath to calm her nerves. ‘Can I have a packet of Rothmans, please?’ She saw beardy man’s eyebrows raise, and she anticipated his next question. ‘Twenties. And,’ she looked around the counter, ‘and, um, have you got anything, maybe, healthy to eat?’
He smiled, and looked to be suppressing a laugh. ‘Nah, just chips. And nuts.’
‘Oh, well, I’ll take a bag of those then,’ Jenny said, pointing to the nearest packet of chips.
‘Righto, love. That’ll be thirty four bucks.’
Jenny opened her purse, and counted out the correct amount in notes and change. ‘Here,’ she said, dropping it into his open palm, ‘thanks.’
‘Have a good day, darling,’ beardy man called to her back, as she walked towards the shop doors.
‘You too,’ she called back over her shoulder.
Outside, the old man seemed to have disappeared. Jenny scanned the empty car park, and considered whether to walk away when she heard a hacking cough coming from the side of the building. She stayed, rooted to the same spot, waiting for him to walk back around.
What’s he doing back there? A million different theories ran through her head. Dealing drugs? Sleeping? Looking for cigarette butts? Robbing the liquor shop?
He walked around the corner, doing up the zip on his filthy trousers. Jenny felt bile rise in her throat. The old man, seeing her face, looked embarrassed.
‘Just taking a whizz darling, aint got a toilet to use.’ He motioned towards the liquor shop, ‘they don’t let me use theirs.’
‘Oh, well I’m sorry about that. I, I bought you these.’ Jenny held out the cigarettes and the chips, and then lowered her hands to place them on the ground. ‘Sorry, sorry that I have to do that.’
Before he had a chance to reply, Jenny hurried off.
Three days later, she was on her way to the New World supermarket for “date night”, dreading the evening ahead. Parking her car she turned off the engine and sat for a minute, people watching. The stream of bodies coming and going was endless, and the thought of all the germs and bacteria streaming over their skin was excruciating. Jenny contemplated switching her engine back on and driving off, when a light tap on her windscreen startled her. It was Petra.
‘Hi Jenny.’ Petra said, as Jenny reluctantly hopped out of her car. ‘I thought that was you.’ Petra noticed how tight Jenny’s face was. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Yeah, sure. Hi, anyway. How are you?’
‘Good, well, you know. Okay. Not great. I hope you don’t mind, but this is a good distraction for me, actually. Phil and Ellen are already here, waiting at the entrance. Though, between you and me,’ Petra looked thoughtful, ’I’m not sure why Ellen’s here. I thought she was trying not to have sex.’
‘Moral support I guess.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Let’s go’
Jenny took a deep breath, and gritted her teeth. I’ve got this. It’s just a supermarket. All I have to do is wheel a trolley around. A disgusting grimy filthy germ-ridden trolley… ‘Okay, ready as I’ll ever be.’
Ellen and Phil both smiled as Jenny walked up to them. They said their hellos, and Ellen stepped forward as if to give Jenny a hug, before quickly reconsidering. Jenny smiled at her gratefully.
‘So, Jenny, are you ready to meet the man of your dreams?’ Phil asked her with a wink.
‘Phil, I wouldn’t even know what to do with him if I did.’
‘Never mind that,’ Ellen laughed, ‘I can help you out with a few ideas.’
Both Phil and Petra laughed, and Jenny thought again how attractive Petra was when she smiled. Which hadn’t happened often in the short time she had known her.
They each chose a trolley, and waited patiently while Jenny sprayed hers liberally with disinfectant. Willing herself to grab the handle, Jenny looked at the others. ‘Okay, who’s leading the way?’
‘I guess we should split up, or people might think we’re fucking swingers or something,’ Petra said, and the others laughed. ‘Remember to put bananas in the top section of your trolley, so people know you’re, um, eligible. I won’t put any in mine, it’d be just my luck to have my wanker of a husband arrive.’
The others exchanged glances, and Jenny couldn’t help but look at the ugly scar on Petra’s eyebrow again. I wonder if she’ll ever tell us how she got it.
‘I may as well go in first, shall I?’ Phil said to the others, who all nodded at him. ‘I’m actually a bit nervous. Can you tell?’
Jenny tried not to look at the sweat marks under his arms, but couldn’t help wincing inwardly. She shook her head. ‘No, not at all, you’re fine.’
‘Fine,’ Petra agreed, ‘if you keep your arms by your sides.’
Phil looked down at his armpits and grimaced. ‘Shit. Oh well, I’m a sweaty bastard. I may as well show them what they’re getting from the outset. Shall we meet back at the check-outs in half an hour or so?’
The others agreed, and they set off into the supermarket with Phil leading the way. The first section was fresh produce, and Phil grabbed a large bunch of bananas, throwing them into the top of his trolley before he looked back at the others and smiled. “Good luck” he mouthed, as he walked off.
Jenny watched Ellen grab her own bunch of bananas, and then swallowed hard as both Ellen and Petra slowly moved off and she was standing in front of the bananas herself. Here goes nothing, she thought as she placed a small bunch in her trolley and then quickly sprayed her hands. Walking down another aisle, Jenny surreptitiously examined the top section of each of trolley as it went past. No bananas, no bananas, no bananas, no…wait, bananas! Jenny looked up at the owner of the trolley - a woman in her fifties wearing a tight black dress, stilettos and bright red lipstick. Not quite what Jenny was looking for.
The woman noticed Jenny’s own trolley and was about to start a conversation, when Jenny ducked her head and shuffled off quickly. This was such a bad idea. SUCH a bad idea.
Jenny was just wondering what the others would say if she did a runner, when she turned a corner and found herself walking up an aisle of cleaning products. Her eyes widened as she took in shelf upon shelf of sprays, wipes, foams and powders. Ah, heaven! She thought blissfully. It was so much more impressive viewing the options in person, rather than looking at them online as she usually did. Jenny glanced up and down the aisle, seeing only a few harried looking mothers with kids and an elderly man. Actually, seeing as I’m here I may as well pick up a few things.
Scanning the shelves, Jenny smiled happily to herself. Industrial size bottle of Dettol – definitely. Supersize box of rubber gloves – got to have that. Colossal tub of cleaning wax – be rude not to. Before she knew it, her trolley was almost full. Looking at her watch, Jenny realised she had been in the same aisle for over twenty-five minutes, and the others might be waiting at the counter for her. Sighing, not unhappily, she looked at her trolley and decided that this hadn’t been an entirely unsuccessful trip at all. She was so busy admiring her stash as she walked, that she didn’t notice the other trolley until she bumped straight into it.
‘Oh my God, sorry,’ she said, looking up. Expecting another grumpy mother with a load of wailing toddlers, Jenny wasn’t prepared for the blonde Adonis looking back at her.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, looking over her shoulder.
Jenny noticed the bunch of bananas in the top of his trolley, and felt her heart jump out of her throat and slap her in the face. ‘Oh, right. Okay. Er, hi there,’ she squeaked.
He seemed to glance at her chest and then, as an afterthought, at her face. ‘Uh, hi.’
‘I, um, do you come here often?’ Jenny’s face flamed scarlet, as she saw him look at the contents of her trolley. Right on top of all the bottles and packets, was the giant box of rubber gloves and a large tube of lubricating wax.
‘Oh, it’s, um – I’ve got a squeaky door.’ He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘So, that’s why I’ve got all that lubricant.’
‘Right. That’s weird. Can I just get past you please?’
Jenny suddenly saw that she was blocking off his access, and pulled her trolley away quickly.
‘Honey, I’ve got the crackers,’ came a high-pitched voice behind Jenny.
Turning, Jenny saw a vision of a woman, the kind that only belongs in a magazine, walking towards the blonde Adonis.
‘Hope they’re low in sugar, babe,’ he replied, pushing past Jenny without a second glance.
Jenny wasn’t sure she had ever been as mortified in her entire life, not even by the incident, and that was saying something. She felt a lump in her throat, and quickly walked away.
Rounding the corner of the aisle, she stopped to gather her thoughts and smacked her forehead with her hand. That was unbelievable. Hideous. Don’t cry Jenny, don’t you dare cry. God, how will I ever face the others? I may as well drink the Dettol and end this torment.
‘You thinking of buying some? Seems a strange choice for you?’
‘What?’ Jenny looked over, and saw Phil watching her.
‘Just thought that was a strange place for you to be standing.’ Jenny looked at the stand in front of her. Pick n’ mix lollies and nuts. ‘Even I don’t risk the germs on that lot,’ Phil continued with a smile, ‘not after all the little kids have snuck their hands in and fingered them all.’
Jenny allowed herself a small smile. ‘No, you’re right. Definitely not my thing. Beyond disgusting.’
Phil looked at her with concern. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes. No. Well, not really. I mean, I am – it’s just, something really awful happened.’
‘Er, I know, I saw.’ Phil said, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘I wasn’t spying or anything, I just happened to be at the end of the aisle when you bumped into that guy’s trolley. It’s not a big deal.’
‘Not a big deal?’ Jenny asked, incredulous. ’That’s the most embarrassed I have ever been in my life. Literally EVER. And believe me, that’s saying something. It was mortifying.’
‘Well, Jenny, you obviously have not lived the life of a fat security guard. The stories I could tell…’
Jenny couldn’t help but laugh, and smiled at Phil gratefully. ‘Thanks Phil. Honestly. I don’t know why I even came here. What was I hoping for?’
‘Well, by the looks of your trolley,’ Phil said, as he eyed the rubber gloves and lubricant, ‘I’d say you were hoping for an orgy of some sort?’
Jenny laughed again. ‘I definitely think that’s more Ellen’s style than mine. So, how did you get on then?’
Phil waved a hand, to encompass the contents of his trolley. Jenny looked at it with wide eyes. ‘Er, did Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory explode in there?’
‘Something like that.’ Phil looked rueful. ‘A couple of ladies saw my bananas, and headed my way actually – but as soon as they got close enough to see these sweaty pits and all this chocolate, I guess they assumed I was a lost cause and did a swift u-turn.’
‘I’m sorry, Phil. Truly.’
‘Ah, don’t be. Those ladies don’t have a clue what they’re missing – little do they know, inside this fat suit I’ve got a lean, mean running machine just waiting to be set free.’
‘Exactly,’ Jenny agreed. ‘And behind this obsessively clean and freakishly tidy facade, is a nail-biting, nose-picking, hand-shaking germ lover. So, shall we go find the others?’
Walking to the cash registers, Jenny and Phil spotted Petra waiting for them by the front door. Jenny waved, and mouthed “where’s Ellen?” Petra rolled her eyes and pointed across to the alcohol aisle. Jenny followed her glance, and saw Ellen chatting to not one, but two men with bananas in their trolleys. Seeing Jenny, Ellen smiled at the two men and said her goodbyes, before walking over to the cash registers.
‘Well, that was interesting,’ Ellen said, ‘and productive. Or, in my case, counter-productive. Who knew the supermarket was such a hive of eligible men?’
Jenny and Phil shook their heads at each other, and started to laugh. Ellen looked surprised. ‘How did you go?’
Jenny shook her head. ‘Not so well, actually.’ Seeing the dismay on Ellen’s face, Jenny smiled reassuringly and indicated her trolley. ‘It may have had something to do with the fact that I spent the whole time in the cleaning section, choosing this lot. I should have taken a leaf out of your book and headed straight for the beer.’
‘Or maybe the condom section.’ Ellen added. ‘Next time?’
‘There won’t be a next time!’ Jenny and Phil chorused together, and the three of them laughed.
‘So, are you going to buy all that?’ Jenny asked Phil, pointing to the contents of his trolley.
‘I don’t know.’ He looked at her own mountain of cleaning products. ‘Are you?’
‘How about we just choose two things each, and leave the rest?’
Jenny mulled over the contents of her trolley, and picked out the Dettol and a new brand of floor cleaner. Phil did the same, choosing a king-size bar of Rocky Road and a packet of chocolate Freddos. They each held up their selections, and nodded their mutual approval. By the time they had paid for their items, Ellen had walked on ahead with just her bunch of bananas and was standing waiting by Petra at the door.
‘Well, how’d you go?’ Petra asked Jenny.
‘You know, it wasn’t the worst evening I’ve ever had,’ Jenny said with a smile. Ellen and Phil nodded. ‘It was almost fun.’ She caught Phil’s eye. ‘Almost.’
After saying goodbye to Ellen and Phil, Petra walked Jenny to her car. ‘I think you’re really brave Jenny, honestly.’
‘Brave? I’m a wimp. A crazy germ-obsessed wimp. Do you know I’d rather chew off my own arm than touch one of those filthy eftpos machines at the counter?’
Petra laughed. ‘I kind of guessed that when I saw you paying for your stuff. You were watching the eftpos machine like it was going to jump off the counter and bite you… What I meant was, you were really brave agreeing to come along. I kind of didn’t realise how big a fucking deal this would actually be for you.’
Jenny grimaced. ‘I don’t think I’m brave. Weird, yes. Brave, no. Anyway, thanks for organising this. I may not have found a boyfriend, but at least I got out of the house and did something normal for a change.’ She paused. ‘Well, semi-normal.’
Petra smiled at her kindly. ‘You’re not weird Jenny. Just, um, a bit troubled I think. But no more than the rest of us. Have a good week – I’ll see you at the next meeting.’
‘Thanks, you too Petra.’