Linda slides her chair across to make room for her.
"Sorry," the stranger says, looking down at the floor, "I didn't mean to interrupt."
Everyone stays quiet, waiting for her to sit down. The spare chairs are all piled up in the corner of the room. She picks one from a smaller stack and tries picking it up. She's small, in height and proportion and the chair dwarfs her almost entirely. She gets back to the circle and lets the chair down. When she slides it into place, it makes that piercing screech of chalk on a blackboard.
Linda watches, Victor watches, Tim watches, I watch.
It's awkward, horrible, must be so much worse for her. Being stared at by a bunch of strangers when you're at your worst. A perfect introduction to Helping Hands really.
"So," Tim says, addressing the stranger, "why don't you tell us a bit about yourself?"
She stands up, even though she's not supposed to. We all sit; we're all on the same level. Tim motions for her to sit down but she doesn't see him. She's shaking. She doesn't want to be here. None of us want to. We have to be here. Here is all we have.
"My name is Elizabeth," she says, "I'm twenty-six," she stops for a second and sniffs. It's cold out. "I don't know what to say next," she says, we all say it first time.
"Just tell us a bit more about yourself, why are you here?"
"I don't know really, I guess someone I knew has...you know, and I saw the poster for you guys and you seemed friendly. Larry, you know Larry? The cleaner. He said you were nice people, and well, I really didn't know what to do. So I came here. Is that all?" she talks like she's being interrogated and sits down immediately.
When I get home the rest of the boxes are gone. The hallway was packed full of them before, you had to step sideways to get around the myriad of clothes and toiletries, but now, it's all empty. I never had that much stuff. The space is the first thing that hits me. I step over on a section of the floor I haven't seen in months, I walk up and down it a few times, to get my bearings back. This isn't my house. This is a cavern, a hole, an empty socket. There was something here a long time ago, but all there is now is a shell.
She's left a piece of paper, folded over on the sideboard. At first I think it's a letter, telling me everything she thinks I want to hear. How she'll always love me, and it wasn't my fault, and that we both know why we can't be together; but when I unfold it, all I find is her sister's phone number in Manchester.
'Emergency contact details,' the writing reads, 'in case you need to get in touch.' I rub my hands, stretching skin over my knuckles. I pick a bit of dry skin off and leave it to fall to the floor as dust.
...and I touch her, I kiss her back. For a moment it feels right, it feels good. This is what should be happening, I move my lips across the nape of her neck, then down, unzipping the back of her dress and letting it fall down. Letting it land gracefully on the floor. Kissing her breasts.
This is what should be happening.
I move further down, it's been a long time for me. I think about how long it's been since I was last in the same situation. Six months? A year? Longer. Much longer.
This is what should be happening.
So am I ready? Is it long enough? The time...am I ready? I stop kissing. She stops moving. I'm not ready for this. Not ready for anything like this.
"Are you OK?" she says, sitting up.
A few more fireworks light the room green then red. A crowd 'oohs' and 'ahhs' at the spectacle. She puts her dress on.
"I knew this was a bad idea, I told myself not to come here tonight," she pulls her zip up, leaving her underwear on the floor, and hurriedly packs her bag, "Happy new year," she says before slamming the door.
This is what should be happening.
Elizabeth catches up with me after the meeting. She asks if I want to go for a drink, to unwind. It's been years since I've been for a drink, even longer since someone asked me to go along with them.
"So how did you find them?"
"Yeah, how did you find out about them?"
"It was after the funeral, someone gave me Tim's number, said I should go along. That they would help."
We sit at a booth, hidden from the rest of the bar. It's the day after Boxing Day and I never even noticed Christmas go by. Elizabeth has been asking me questions all night, though she doesn't exactly seem to care about the answers. It seems she's more interested in stopping the lull in conversation. I don't ask her anything. She doesn't let me get a word in.
"Has it helped?"
I think about the shop. I wish they had it in. I wish I could go in tomorrow and the man in the hat would smile at me and hold it aloft, and I could walk out with it. I doubt it. But there's that thought in my mind, the one that says 'but what if it did happen? How good would it feel if it happened?' I like that thought.
Elizabeth has to go home, she says her friends are pretty scared of intruders and she lives in a bad area, but she asks if she can come by New Year's Eve, spend it with a friendly face. I suggest a hotel, somewhere where neither of us will be known. She agrees.
The next day I go back to the shop, when I walk in the man with the hat recognises me.
"We don't have it," he says without even looking up, "You've been in every day for five months now and we never have it. Look, have you checked somewhere else?"
I've tried everywhere else.
"I'm gonna be honest with you," he says, "What the hell you want it for anyway?"
What do I want it back for? What the fuck do I want it back for? It's mine, it wasn't hers to get rid of, it wasn't hers to give away to anyone. It was mine to get rid of and to decide who to give it to and I didn't want to get rid of it and I didn't want her to pack it up in a box and tell me she gave it to a charity shop but she couldn't remember the name of it.
I try to take a deep breath like Tim said to do, but it doesn't work. My hands reach out for a ball, I throw it at the window. The crash of glass isn't satisfying enough. I pick another up and throw it, it doesn't even matter where now, I just throw it as hard as I can. I throw more and more and more and it starts to feel better, but not better enough. It never feels better. It never feels better. It never feels better.
I take lots of breaths, lots of little breaths.
"Get out now," the man says, "and I won't call the police. Get out now, leave and don't come back, and I won't call them and tell them you've been coming in for months looking for a little girl's dress. You fuckin' pervert."
"I'm not a..." I try to say, but I can't. How can I explain everything to him? I can't. Instead, I just leave.
I sit on the edge of the hotel room bed and let my feet glide over the cream carpet. Freshly washed. That's what hotel rooms are for. Keeping things clean. You can do anything in a hotel room and the next day the cleaner will show up and clean, they'll wash the bathroom, replace those dirty towels, empty that bin, give you fresh sheets. You can do anything in a hotel room, and the next day it's like it never even happened.
I pick her underwear up and throw them in the bin.
Like it never even happened.
Daniel Carpenter is a British writer.