Saturday 22 February 2020

Episode 4 Jean

by Janet Howson 

Costa Coffee

Jean closed her eyes and let the rather monotonous tones of Deidre wash over her. She must have been talking for about ten minutes now and her story was always the same. It wasn’t that Jean didn’t sympathise with her. The account of her abusive husband, four children she couldn’t control and her constant money troubles with no income but benefits coming in to the household. She had heard it all before. In fact since she had been attending the support group, which would be six weeks now, she had heard Deirdre’s tirade every session.

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions had been suggested by her doctor on her last appointment to collect her prescription for the drugs she needed to keep herself away from that ‘black hole’. That feeling of complete desperation. The ultimate goal of wanting to end it all. They helped. In fact, she knew she relied upon them and didn’t want to take the doctor’s suggestion that she cut them down. Instead she had agreed to come to the group therapy sessions on a Tuesday evening at seven thirty in a rather cold and dingy church hall. Up to now she had not contributed, just listened. She had learnt about the problems of literally all the members of the group, except for a middle-aged man in a city suit who like her sat quietly and listened. He fascinated, Jean, it was obvious he felt out of place and didn’t want to be there. 

“So, Jean, would you like to tell us all about how you are feeling today and how the week has gone for you?”

Jean opened her eyes and was aware everyone was looking at her, the counselor, Colin, was smiling at her encouragingly. He was a wiry, enthusiastic man in his thirties, Jean guessed, with thick curly hair, rather unkempt and always dressed in jeans a T-shirt and trainers that had seen better days. 

“Oh, I erm…” she didn’t know what to say.

“In your own time, we are not going anywhere. We would just like to share and perhaps be of help to you. Could you try and tell us when your problems started and how you feel when you are in a black hole and how you cope with it?”

Jean cleared her throat and took a deep breath, “Well, I first started having panic attacks at university. I put it down to having to adapt to a new area, new people and the stress of the academic work. At school I had always been the top of the pile but then I realised there were people far more intelligent than I was and I just didn’t seem able to keep up. By the second year I was lagging behind. I never socialised, just sat in my room trying to work but somehow I couldn’t. My first attack was in a lecture. I will never forget the embarrassment. I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe.” Jean stopped, the emotions of that day revisiting her. There were murmurs and nods of reciprocal understanding from the group.

“You are doing fine, Jean. Carry on when you are ready,” Colin smiled at her encouragingly, rocking back on two legs of his chair to the point where Jean thought he would topple over.

“After that I couldn’t go into lectures and became more and more isolated and further behind with my work. I was called into the principal’s office and it was suggested I took a year off and apply again for a place. I never went back. I got a job in an insurance company near to my home and I am still there. The attacks have continued though and my doctor put me on Citalopram and Pregabalin. They help a great deal. I don’t know how I would cope without them. I just can’t stand that awful feeling of desperation and hopelessness. She wants me to cut down the dosage, but I don’t feel I can at the moment.” She stopped to blow her nose amazed she was talking so much. 

“Is there anything else that helps you besides the pills?” It was the man in the city suit, who up to now had remained silent.

“Oh, belonging to my amateur drama group. I am playing Hippolyta in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream, the dress rehearsal is tomorrow.”

“Oh let us know when it’s on and we can come and see you,” Deidre piped up and several others voiced their agreement.

“Not much notice I’m afraid. It is on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this week. Two performances on Saturday, matinee and evening. I’ve got some flyers in my bag, I can hand them out at the end of the session.”

“How does it help you to be in the group, Jean?” Colin asked.

“I lose myself in the part and forget my problems. It is like being someone else. It’s hard to explain.”

“I think I understand.” This came from the man in the suit. “I belong to a Gospel choir and I get completely absorbed in the music and for those two hours I feel content with myself.” He smiled at Jean.

“I think we are going to have to call it a day. Next week perhaps you would like to talk about your choir, Samuel and its therapeutic effect. The caretaker will be round in five minutes to lock the doors. See you all next week. Don’t forget to collect a flyer from Jean if you can make her play.”

Samuel, what a lovely name, thought Jean as she gathered her belongings together and handed out a few flyers. 

The next day at work, Jean felt very tired. She had gone home after the therapy session and gone over her lines again. The time had flown by and she hadn’t gone to bed before midnight. She knew she had various accounts and invoices to sort out and Dan, her boss wanted them back to him by lunch time. She sipped at the Costa coffee she had brought in with her and pushed sheets of paper about. She could see Dan through the full length glass partitions of his office. She had liked him since the day of her interview for the job. He was so sophisticated and immaculately dressed. Since then her admiration for him had grown to the point of infatuation. She would fantasise about them going to the opera or theatre together, sitting holding hands, discussing the performance in the interval whilst they sipped their gin and tonics. Then, having a coffee in her flat before parting for the evening. It was all a daydream. She was shy in front of him and she always felt clumsy and inadequate. Her mother had always said beauty was in the eye of the beholder. She was still waiting for her beholder. 

“How’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ going, Jean?” Daphne was the only person in the office that spoke to her. The others were all a lot younger and although she was only thirty-two, she felt she had nothing in common with them.

“Oh, not too badly. I am still a bit wobbly with my lines but hopefully after the dress rehearsal tonight I should be okay with them. Are you coming to see it?

“Shakespeare’s not really my thing, Jean. I liked the Alan Ayckbourne you did in the summer. That was funny. Think I’ll give this one a miss though.”

“No problem.” Jean hid her disappointment. She could normally rely on Daphne to support her. She found it hard to sell tickets. She had very few friends. There was always of course her mum and dad. Her brother and sister were always too busy with their family to come and watch their baby sister perform. They still called her that. There was a big age gap and Jean had been born very prematurely and she was a lot smaller than them and didn’t resemble them in any way. They were both good looking and had married in their twenties and had their children young. She had always felt the runt of the litter.

“So what part are you playing, Jean?” a shrill voice boomed across the office floor, “I expect your Bottom, aint you?” The other girls in the office laughed.

“Do you have to have a face like a backside for that?” One of the young male clerks chipped in.

Jean blushed. She never knew how to cope with office banter. It was all alien to her.  “No, she’s Hippolyta, a queen, so just leave it out you lot unless you’ve got something useful to contribute. You could always learn a bit and go and see the play. A bit of Shakespeare’ll do you good. You might learn something, rather than stare at your phones all day.” Jean could have kissed Daphne for standing up for her.

“Rather stick pins in my eyes,” the young clerk replied, leaving the office, defeated. The girls returned to their work having lost interest in the conversation.

“Take no notice, love. They’re only jealous, they couldn’t stand on a stage to save their lives. Oh by the way, Dan wants to talk to you about something? You’ve not been up to no good with the accounts have you?” She laughed.

“If I had I would be in the Caribbean somewhere not stuck in an office. I’d better see what he wants. I’ll finish this coffee after I come back.” Jean picked up her notebook and feeling a bit apprehensive, approached Dan’s office. Once she could see him she felt the usual flutter in her stomach that she always felt when she was with him. Grow up she told herself you are acting like a teenager in love. She knocked tentatively on the door.

 “Come in, Jean.”

“You wanted to see me, Mr Dennison?”

“I do indeed, and please call me Dan. I think we’ve known each other long enough to do away with the formalities. Now, I have a particular favour to ask of you. It is very short notice but I would be eternally grateful if you could help me out of a tight spot. I am attending a charity dinner and I had forgotten all about it until I glanced in my diary this morning. I have two tickets and don’t want to go on my own. I wondered if you would do me the honour of accompanying me? It promises to be a good evening with entertainment and a four course dinner. We would have a taxi there and back. What do you think?”

What did she think? She was absolutely thrilled. This was the dream of her life. She was speechless. She pulled herself together.

“I would love to go, Mr De.. Dan. When is it?” 

“Well, that is why it is such a big ask, it is tonight.”
Jean swallowed hard, what bad luck, it was the crucial dress rehearsal. Shirley would never forgive her. It was vital to have everyone there. She couldn’t let her down. She looked at Dan, he was leaning towards her, willing her to say yes. She might never get an opportunity like this again. He might assume she didn’t like him and never repeat the invitation. Pushing the image of Shirley’s disappointed face to the back of her mind she gave Dan her answer.

“No problem at all. What time will I have to be ready for?”

Links to previous episodes 

About the author

Janet taught for 35 years in Comprehensive schools teaching English and Drama. She wrote scripts for the students to perform. After she retired she found a folder of poetry she had written as a child and this spurred her to join a Writer’s group. She has had short stories published in Best of CaféLit and Nativity. She is waiting for her first novel to be published which she hopes will be soon.

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