Chapter no 10

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

OF COURSE RAYMOND DIDN’T have a car. I would guess he was in his mid thirties, but there was something adolescent, not fully formed, about him. It was partly the way he dressed, of course. I had yet to see him in normal, leather footwear; he wore training shoes at all times, and seemed to own a wide range of colours and styles. I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sportswear are the least likely sort to participate in athletic activity.

Sport is a mystery to me. In primary school, sports day was the one day of the year when the less academically gifted students could triumph, winning prizes for jumping fastest in a sack, or running from Point A to Point B more quickly than their classmates. How they loved to wear those badges on their blazers the next day! As if a silver in the egg-and- spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.

At secondary school, PE was simply unfathomable. We had to wear special clothes and then run endlessly around a field, occasionally being told to hold a metal tube and pass it to someone else. If we weren’t running, we were jumping, into a sandpit or over a small bar on legs. There was a special way of doing this; you couldn’t simply run and jump, you had to do some strange sort of hop and skip first. I asked why, but none of the PE teachers (most of whom, as far as I could ascertain, would struggle to tell you the time) could furnish me with an answer. All of these seemed strange activities to impose on young people with no interest in them, and indeed I’m certain that they merely served to alienate the majority of us from physical activity for life. Fortunately, I am naturally lithe and elegant of limb, and I enjoy walking, so I have always kept myself in a reasonable state of physical fitness. Mummy has a particular loathing for the overweight (‘Greedy, lazy beast,’ she’d hiss, if one waddled past us in the street) and I may perhaps have internalized this view to some extent.

Raymond wasn’t overweight, but he was doughy and a bit paunchy. None of his muscles were visible, and I suspect he only ever used the ones in his forearms with any degree of regularity. His sartorial choices did not flatter his unprepossessing physique: slouchy denims, baggy T- shirts with childish slogans and images. He dressed like a boy rather than a man. His toilette was sloppy too, and he was usually unshaven – it was not a beard as such, but patchy stubble, which merely served to make him look unkempt. His hair, a mousy, dirty blond, was cut short and had been given minimal attention – at most, perhaps a rub with a grubby towel after washing. The overall impression was of a man who, whilst not exactly a vagrant, had certainly slept rough in a flophouse or on a stranger’s floor the previous evening.

‘Here’s our bus, Eleanor,’ Raymond said, nudging me rudely. I had my travel pass ready but, typically, Raymond did not possess one, preferring to pay well over the odds for want of a moment’s advance planning. He did not, it transpired, even have the correct change, and so I had to lend him a pound. I would be sure to recoup it at work tomorrow.

The journey to his mother’s house took about twenty minutes, during which I explained the benefits of a travel pass to him, including where one could purchase such an item and how many journeys one needed to take in order to break even or, indeed, to effectively travel for free. He did not seem particularly interested, and didn’t even thank me when I’d finished. He is a spectacularly unsophisticated conversationalist.

We walked through a small estate of square white homes; there were four different house designs interspersed in a predictable pattern. Each had a newish car in the driveway, and evidence of children – small bicycles with stabilizers, a basketball hoop fixed to the garage wall – but there was neither sight nor sound of any. The streets were all named after poets – Wordsworth Lane, Shelley Close, Keats Rise – no doubt chosen by the building company’s marketing department. They were all poets that the kind of person who’d aspire to such a home would recognize, poets who wrote about urns and flowers and wandering clouds. Based on past experience, I’d be more likely to end up living in Dante Lane or Poe Crescent.

I was very familiar with such environs, having lived in several virtually identical houses in virtually identical streets during foster placements. There would be no pensioners here, no friends sharing a house, and no one living alone, save for the occasional transitory

divorcé. Newish cars lined up in driveways, two per house, ideally. Families came and went, and the whole place felt temporary, somehow, like theatrical scenery that had been hastily assembled and could be shifted at any time. I shuddered, chasing away the memories.

Raymond’s mother lived in a neat terrace behind the newer houses, a row of tiny pebble-dashed semis. It was social housing; the streets here were named after obscure local politicians. Those who had purchased their homes had fitted UPVC double-glazed front doors, or added little porches. Raymond’s family homestead was unmodified.

Raymond ignored the front door and walked around the side of the house. The back garden had a shed with net curtains in the window, and a square of green lawn marked by clothes poles. Washing flapped on the line, pegged out with military precision, a row of plain white sheets and towels and then a line of alarming elasticated undergarments. There was a vegetable patch, with tropically lush rhubarb and neat rows of carrots, leeks and cabbages. I admired the symmetry and precision with which they had been laid out.

Raymond pushed open the back door without knocking, shouting hello as he walked into the little kitchen. It smelled deliciously of soup, salty and warm, probably emanating from the large pot that sat on the hob. The floor and all the surfaces were immaculately clean and tidy, and I felt certain that, were I to open a drawer or cupboard, everything inside would be pristine and neatly arranged. The décor was plain and functional, but with occasional flashes of kitsch – there was a large calendar with a lurid photograph of two kittens in a basket, and a cloth tube to store plastic bags and designed to resemble an old-fashioned doll hung on a door handle. A single cup, glass and plate were stacked on the drainer.

We walked into a tiny hall and I followed Raymond into the living room which, again, was spotless, and reeked of furniture polish. A vase of chrysanthemums sat on the window ledge, and an uncurated jumble of framed photographs and ornaments were protected by the smoked-glass doors of an outmoded dresser like holy relics. An old woman in an armchair reached forward for a remote to mute an enormous television. It was showing that programme where people take old things to be valued and then, if it turns out they are worth something, pretend they like them too much to sell them. Three cats lounged on the sofa; two glared at us,

the third merely opened one eye and then went back to sleep, not deigning us worthy of a response.

‘Raymond, son! Come in, come in,’ the old woman said, pointing to the sofa and leaning forward in her chair to shoo the creatures off.

‘I’ve brought a friend from work, Mum, hope that’s OK?’ he said, walking forward and kissing her on the cheek. I stepped forward and held out my hand.

‘Eleanor Oliphant, pleased to meet you,’ I said. She took my hand, then clasped it in both of hers, much as Sammy had done.

‘Lovely to see you, hen,’ she said, ‘I’m always pleased to meet Raymond’s friends. Sit down, won’t you? You’ll be needing a cup of tea, I’m sure. What do you take in it?’ She made to stand, and I noticed the wheeled walking frame by the side of the chair.

‘Stay where you are, Mum, I’ll get it,’ Raymond said. ‘Shall I make us all a nice cuppa?’

‘That’d be lovely, son,’ she said. ‘There’s some biscuits too – Wagon Wheels – your favourites.’

Raymond went off to the kitchen and I sat on the sofa to the right of his mother.

‘He’s a good boy, my Raymond,’ she said proudly. I was unsure how best to respond, and opted for a short nod. ‘So you work together,’ she said. ‘Do you fix computers too? My goodness, girls can do just about anything these days, can’t they?’

She was as neat and tidy as her house, her blouse fastened at the neck with a pearl brooch. She wore wine-coloured velvet slippers with a sheepskin trim, which looked cosy. She was in her seventies, I’d guess, and I noticed, when I shook her hand, that her knuckles were swollen to the size of gooseberries.

‘I work in accounts, Mrs Gibbons,’ I said. I told her a bit about my job, and she appeared to be fascinated, nodding along and occasionally saying ‘Is that right?’ and ‘My my, isn’t that interesting.’ When I ended my monologue, having exhausted the already limited conversational opportunities afforded by accounts receivable, she smiled.

‘Are you local, Eleanor?’ she asked gently. Usually I abhor being questioned in this manner, but it was clear that her interest was genuine and without malice, so I told her where I lived, being deliberately vague as to the precise location. One should never disclose one’s exact place of residence to strangers.

‘You don’t have the accent, though?’ she said, framing it as another question.

‘I spent my early childhood down south,’ I said, ‘but I moved to Scotland when I was ten.’

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘that explains it.’ She seemed happy with this. I’ve noticed that most Scottish people don’t enquire beyond ‘down south’, and I can only assume that this description encapsulates some sort of generic Englandshire for them, boat races and bowler hats, as though Liverpool and Cornwall were the same sorts of places, inhabited by the same sorts of people. Conversely, they are always adamant that every part of their own country is unique and special. I’m not sure why.

Raymond returned with the tea things and a packet of Wagon Wheels on a garish plastic tray.

‘Raymond!’ his mother said. ‘You might have put the milk into a jug, for heaven’s sake! We’ve got a guest!’

‘It’s only Eleanor, Mum,’ he said, then looked at me. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘I always use the carton at home too. It’s merely a vessel from which to convey the liquid into the cup; in fact, it’s probably more hygienic than using an uncovered jug, I would have thought.’

I reached forward for a Wagon Wheel. Raymond was already chewing on his. The pair of them chatted about inconsequential matters and I settled into the sofa. Neither of them had particularly strident voices, and I listened to the carriage clock on the mantelpiece tick loudly. It was warm, just on the right side of oppressively hot. One of the cats, lying on its side in front of the fire, stretched out to its full length with a shudder, and then went back to sleep. There was a photograph next to the clock, the colours muted with age. A man, obviously Raymond’s father, grinned broadly at the camera, holding up a champagne flute in a toast.

‘That’s Raymond’s dad,’ his mother said, noticing. She smiled. ‘That was taken the day Raymond got his exam results.’ She looked at him with obvious pride. ‘Our Raymond was the first one in the family to go to university,’ she said. ‘His dad was pleased as Punch. I only wish he could have been there for your graduation. What a day that was, eh, Raymond son?’ Raymond smiled, nodded.

‘He had a heart attack not long after I started uni,’ he explained to me. ‘Never got to enjoy his retirement,’ his mother said. ‘It often happens

that way.’ They both sat quietly for a moment.

‘What did he do for a living?’ I asked. I wasn’t interested, but I felt it was appropriate.

‘Gas engineer,’ Raymond said.

His mother nodded. ‘He worked hard all his days,’ she said, ‘and we never wanted for anything, did we, Raymond? We had a holiday every year, and a nice wee car. At least he got to see our Denise married, anyway – that’s something.’

I must have looked puzzled. ‘My sister,’ Raymond explained.

‘Och, for goodness’ sake, Raymond. Too busy talking about football and computers, no doubt, and I don’t suppose she wants to hear about that sort of thing anyway. Boys, eh, Eleanor?’ She shook her head at me, smiling.

This was puzzling. How on earth could you forget that you had a sister? He hadn’t forgotten, I supposed – he’d simply taken his sibling for granted; an unchanging, unremarkable fact of life, not even worthy of mention. It was impossible for me to imagine such a scenario, alone as I was. Only Mummy and I inhabit the Oliphant world.

His mother was still talking. ‘Denise was eleven when Raymond came along – a wee surprise and a blessing, so he was.’

She looked at him with so much love that I had to turn away. At least I know what love looks like, I told myself. That’s something. No one had ever looked at me like that, but I’d be able to recognize it if they ever did.

‘Here, son, get the album out. I’ll show Eleanor those photos of that first holiday in Alicante, the summer before you started school. He got stuck in a revolving door at the airport,’ she said, sotto voce, leaning towards me confidentially.

I laughed out loud at the look of utter horror on Raymond’s face. ‘Mum, Eleanor doesn’t want to be bored to death looking at our old

photos,’ he said, blushing in a way that I supposed some people might consider charming. I thought for a moment about insisting that I’d love to see them, but he looked so miserable that I couldn’t do it. Conveniently, my stomach gave a loud rumble. I’d only had the Wagon Wheel since my lunchtime repast of spaghetti hoops on toast. She coughed politely.

‘You’ll stay for your tea, won’t you, Eleanor? It’s nothing fancy, but you’re very welcome.’

I looked at my watch. It was only five thirty – an odd time to eat, but I was hungry, and it would still allow me time to go to Tesco on the way home.

‘I’d be delighted, Mrs Gibbons,’ I said.

We sat around the small table in the kitchen. The soup was delicious; she said she’d used a pork knuckle to make stock, and then shredded the meat through the soup, which was also full of vegetables from the garden. There was bread and butter and cheese, and afterwards we had a cup of tea and a cream cake. All the while, Mrs Gibbons regaled us with tales of her neighbours’ various eccentricities and illnesses, along with updates on the activities of their extended family, which seemed to be of as little relevance to Raymond as they were to me, judging by his expression. He teased his mother frequently and affectionately, and she responded with mock annoyance, gently slapping him on the arm or chiding him for his rudeness. I was warm and full and comfortable in a way I couldn’t remember feeling before.

Raymond’s mother heaved herself to her feet and reached for her walking frame. She had crippling arthritis in her knees and hips, Raymond told me, while she hobbled upstairs to the bathroom. The house wasn’t really suitable for someone with limited mobility, but she refused to move, he said, because she’d lived all her adult life there and it was the place where she’d brought up her family.

‘Now then,’ she said, returning from upstairs, ‘I’ll wash these few dishes and then we can settle down and watch a bit of telly.’ Raymond got straight to his feet.

‘Sit down, Mum, let me do it – it won’t take a minute. Eleanor will help me, won’t you, Eleanor?’

I stood up and began gathering up the plates. Mrs Gibbons protested vehemently, but eventually sat back down in her chair, slow and awkward, and I heard a tiny sigh of pain.

Raymond washed and I dried. This was his suggestion – somehow, he’d noticed my red, sore hands, although he didn’t make a hullaballoo about it. He’d merely nudged me away from the sink and thrust a tea towel – a rather jaunty one with a Scottie dog sporting a tartan bow tie – into my damaged fingers.

The tea towel was soft and fibrous, as though it had been washed many times over, and had been ironed carefully into a neatly pressed square. I cast an eye over the plates before stacking them on the table for

Raymond to put away. The crockery was old but good quality, painted with blowsy roses and edged in faded gilt. Mrs Gibbons saw me looking at it. There was certainly nothing wrong with her powers of observation.

‘That was my wedding china, Eleanor,’ she said. ‘Imagine – still going strong almost fifty years later!’

‘You, or the china?’ Raymond said, and she tutted and shook her head, smiling. There was a comfortable silence as we worked on our respective tasks.

‘Tell me, are you courting at the moment, Eleanor?’ she asked. How tedious.

‘Not presently,’ I said, ‘but I have my eye on someone. It’s only a matter of time.’ There was a crash from the sink as Raymond dropped the ladle onto the draining board with a clatter.

‘Raymond!’ his mum said. ‘Butterfingers!’

I’d been keeping track of the musician online, of course, but he’d been rather quiet, virtually speaking. A couple of Instagram snaps of some meals he’d had, a few tweets, uninteresting Facebook updates about other people’s music. I didn’t mind. It was merely a matter of biding my time. If I knew one thing about romance, it was that the perfect moment for us to meet and fall in love would arrive when I least expected it, and in the most charming set of circumstances. That said, if it didn’t happen soon, I’d need to take matters into my own hands.

‘And what about your family?’ she said. ‘Do they live close by? Any brothers or sisters?’

‘No, unfortunately,’ I said. ‘I would have loved to have had siblings to grow up with.’ I thought about this. ‘It’s actually one of the greatest sources of sadness in my life,’ I heard myself say. I had never uttered such a sentence before, and, indeed, hadn’t even fully formed the thought until this very moment. I surprised myself. And whose fault is that, then? A voice, whispering in my ear, cold and sharp. Angry. Mummy. I closed my eyes, trying to be rid of her.

Mrs Gibbons seemed to sense my discomfort. ‘Oh, but I’m sure that must mean you’ve got a lovely close relationship with your mum and dad, then? I bet you mean the world to them, being the only one.’

I looked at my shoes. Why had I selected them? I couldn’t remember. They had Velcro fastenings for ease of use and they were black, which went with everything. They were flat for comfort, and built up around the ankle for support. They were, I realized, hideous.

‘Don’t be so nosy, Mum,’ Raymond said, drying his hands on the tea towel. ‘You’re like the Gestapo!’

I thought she’d be angry, but it was worse than that; she was apologetic.

‘Oh, Eleanor, I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, hen, don’t cry. I’m so sorry.’

I was crying. Sobbing! I hadn’t cried so extravagantly for years. I tried to remember the last time; it was after Declan and I split up. Even then, those weren’t emotional tears – I was crying with pain because he’d broken my arm and two ribs when I’d finally asked him to move out. This simply wasn’t on, sobbing in the kitchen of a colleague’s mother. Whatever would Mummy say? I pulled myself together.

‘Please don’t apologize, Mrs Gibbons,’ I said, my voice croaking and then splitting like a teenage boy’s as I tried to calm my breath, wiping my eyes on the tea towel. She was literally wringing her hands and looked on the verge of tears herself. Raymond had his arm around her shoulder.

‘Don’t upset yourself, Mum. You didn’t mean anything by it, she knows that – don’t you, Eleanor?’

‘Yes, of course!’ I said and, on impulse, leaned across and shook her hand. ‘Your question was both reasonable and appropriate. My response, however, was not. I’m at a loss to explain it. Please accept my apologies if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable.’

She looked relieved. ‘Thank God for that, hen,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t expecting tears in my kitchen today!’

‘Aye, it’s usually your cooking that makes me cry, Ma,’ Raymond said, and she laughed quietly. I cleared my throat.

‘Your question took me unawares, Mrs Gibbons,’ I said. ‘I never knew my father, and I know nothing about him, not even his name. Mummy is currently … let’s just say she’s hors de combat.’ I received blank looks from both of them – I was clearly not amongst Francophones. ‘I don’t ever see her, she’s … inaccessible,’ I explained. ‘We communicate once a week, but …’

‘Of course – that would make anyone sad, love, of course it would,’ she said, nodding sympathetically. ‘Everyone needs their mum now and again, doesn’t matter how old they are.’

‘On the contrary,’ I said, ‘if anything, weekly contact is too much for me. Mummy and I – we’re … well, it’s complicated …’

Mrs Gibbons nodded sympathetically, wanting me to continue. I, on the other hand, knew that it was time to stop. An ice-cream van went past in the street, the chimes playing ‘Yankee Doodle’, pitched a few painful hertz below the correct notes. I recalled the words, feathers in caps and macaroni, from some deep and completely useless vault of memories.

Raymond clapped his hands together in fake bonhomie.

‘Right then, time’s marching on. Mum, go and sit down – your programme’s about to start. Eleanor, could you maybe give me a hand and bring in the washing?’

I was glad to help, glad to be moving away from Mummy-related conversation. There were various chores Mrs Gibbons needed assistance with – Raymond had elected to change the cats’ litter trays and empty the bins, so I’d certainly drawn the long straw with the laundry.

Outside, the early evening sun was weak and pale. There was a row of gardens to the right and the left, stretching off in both directions. I placed the laundry basket on the ground and took the peg bag (on which, in looping cursive, someone had helpfully stitched ‘Pegs’) and hung it on the line. The washing was dry and smelled of summer. I heard the syncopated thud of a football being kicked against a wall, and girls chanting as a skipping rope skimmed the ground. The distant chimes of the ice-cream van were now almost inaudible. Someone’s back door slammed, and a man’s voice shouted a furious reprimand at – one hoped – a dog. There was birdsong, a descant over the sounds of a television drifting through an open window. Everything felt safe, everything felt normal. How different Raymond’s life had been from mine – a proper family, a mother and a father and a sister, nestled amongst other proper families. How different it was still; every Sunday, here, this.

Back indoors, I helped Raymond swap the sheets on his mother’s bed for the clean ones I’d brought in from the line. Her bedroom was very pink and smelled of talcum powder. It was clean and nondescript – not like a hotel room, more like a bed and breakfast, I imagined. Save for a fat paperback and a packet of extra strong mints on the bedside table, there was nothing personal in the room, no clue to the owner’s personality. It struck me that, in the nicest possible way, she didn’t really have a personality; she was a mother, a kind, loving woman, about whom no one would ever say, ‘She was crazy, that Betty!’ or, ‘You’ll never guess what Betty’s done now!’ or, ‘After reviewing psychiatric reports, Betty was refused bail on grounds that she posed an extreme risk to the

general public.’ She was, quite simply, a nice lady who’d raised a family and now lived quietly with her cats and grew vegetables. This was both nothing and everything.

‘Does your sister help out with your mother, Raymond?’ I asked. He was grappling with the duvet and I took it from him. There is a knack to such things. Raymond is a man without the knack. He put on the pillowcases (flowers, ruffles) instead.

‘Nah,’ he said, concentrating. ‘She’s got two kids, and they’re a bit of a handful. Mark works offshore, so she’s a single parent for weeks at a time, really. It’s not easy. It’ll be better when the kids are at school, she says.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Do you – do you enjoy being an uncle, then?’ Uncle Raymond: a somewhat unlikely role model, I felt. He shrugged.

‘Yeah, they’re good fun. There’s not much to it, to be honest; I just bung them some cash at Christmas and birthdays, take them to the park a couple of times a month. Job done.’

I would never be an aunt, of course. Probably just as well.

‘You had a lucky escape with Mum and the photo albums this time, Eleanor,’ Raymond said. ‘She’ll bore the pants off you next time about the grandkids, just you wait and see.’

He was making a lot of assumptions there, I thought, but I let it pass. I looked at my watch, surprised to see it was after eight.

‘I must be off, Raymond,’ I said.

‘If you want to hang on for another hour or so, I’ll be done here and we can get the bus together?’ he said. I declined, naturally.

I went downstairs and thanked Mrs Gibbons for ‘tea’. She, in turn, thanked me profusely for coming and for helping with the chores.

‘Eleanor, it’s been lovely, so it has,’ she said. ‘I haven’t been beyond the garden for months now – these knees of mine – so it’s a pleasure to see a new face, and such a friendly one at that. You’ve been a great help around the house, too – thanks, hen, thanks very much.’

I smiled at her. Twice in one day, to be the recipient of thanks and warm regard! I would never have suspected that small deeds could elicit such genuine, generous responses. I felt a little glow inside – not a blaze, more like a small, steady candle.

‘Come back any time, Eleanor – I’m always in. You don’t have to come with’ – she jabbed a finger Raymond-wards – ‘him, just come yourself, if you like. You know where I am now. Don’t be a stranger.’

On impulse, I leaned forward and brushed my cheek (not the scarred one, the normal one) close to hers. It wasn’t a kiss or an embrace, but it was as close as I was able to come.

‘Cheerio!’ she said. ‘Safe home, now!’

Raymond walked me to the end of the road to show me where the bus stop was located. I’d probably have a bit of a wait, it being Sunday, he said. I shrugged; I was used to waiting, and life has taught me to be a very patient person.

‘See you tomorrow, then, Eleanor,’ he said.

I took out my travel pass and showed it to him. ‘Unlimited travel!’ I said. He nodded, gave a small smile. Miraculously, the bus arrived. I raised my hand and climbed on board. I stared straight ahead as the bus pulled away to avoid any awkwardness with waving.

It had been quite a day. I felt drained, but something had crystallized in my mind. These new people, new adventures … this contact. I found it overwhelming, but, to my surprise, not at all unpleasant. I’d coped surprisingly well, I thought. I’d met new people, introduced myself to them, and we’d spent problem-free social time together. If there was one thing I could take from today’s experiences, it was this: I was nearly ready to declare my intentions to the musician. The time for our momentous first encounter was drawing ever closer.

You'll Also Like