Chapter no 20

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

SATURDAY MORNING PASSED IN a blur of household chores. I’d started wearing rubber gloves to protect my hands, and, although unsightly, they were helping. The ugliness didn’t matter – after all, there was no one to see me.

Gathering up the detritus of the previous evening, I noticed that I had failed to consume all of my vodka allocation; the best part of a half- bottle of Smirnoff was extant. Mindful of my gauche faux pas at Laura’s party, I put it in a Tesco carrier bag to present to Keith tonight. I pondered what else I should take for him. Flowers seemed wrong; they’re a love token, after all. I looked in the fridge, and popped a packet of cheese slices into the bag. All men like cheese.

I arrived five minutes early at the train station nearest to the party venue. Mirabile dictu, Raymond was already there! He waved at me and I waved back. We set off towards the golf club. Raymond walked quickly, and I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with him in my new boots. I noticed him glance at me, and then he slowed his steps to match mine. I realized that such small gestures – the way his mother had made me a cup of tea after our meal without asking, remembering that I didn’t take sugar, the way Laura had placed two little biscuits on the saucer when she brought me coffee in the salon – such things could mean so much. I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew that I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.

It was quiet out in the suburbs; the views were open, with no tenements or high-rise blocks to obscure the distant hills. The light was soft and gentle – summer was drifting ever onwards and the evening seemed delicate, fragile. We walked in silence, the kind that you didn’t feel the need to fill.

I was almost sad when we arrived at the squat, white clubhouse. It was halfway to dark by then, with both a moon and a sun sitting high in a sky that was sugar almond pink and shot with gold. The birds were singing valiantly against the coming night, swooping over the greens in long, drunken loops. The air was grassy, with a hint of flowers and earth, and the warm, sweet outbreath of the day sighed gently into our hair and over our skin. I felt like asking Raymond whether we should keep walking, walk over the rolling greens, keep walking till the birds fell silent in their bowers and we could see only by starlight. It almost felt like he might suggest it himself.

The front door to the clubhouse burst open and three children came running out, laughing at the tops of their voices, one wielding a plastic sword.

‘Here we are, then,’ said Raymond, softly.

It was an odd venue for a social gathering. The corridors were lined with noticeboards, all pinned with impenetrable messages about Ladders and Tee Times. A wooden panel at the end of the entrance hall bore a long list of men’s names in golden letters, starting in 1924 and ending, this year, somewhat improbably, with a Dr Terry Berry. The décor was a discomfiting mix of institutional (a look with which I’m very familiar) and outdated family home – nasty patterned curtains, hard-wearing floors, dusty dried flower arrangements.

When we walked into the Function Suite, we were met with a wall of sound; a mobile discotheque had been set up and the floor was already packed with dancers, ages ranging from five to eighty, all illuminated randomly by some unimpressive coloured lights. The dancers seemed to be pretending to ride a horse in time to the music. I looked up at Raymond, very much out of my depth.

‘Christ,’ he said, ‘I need a drink.’

I followed him gratefully to the bar. The prices were gratifyingly low, and I drank my Magners quite fast, comfortable in the knowledge that I’d brought enough money for several more, although Raymond had, despite my protests, purchased this one. We found a table as far away from the source of the noise as possible.

‘Family dos,’ Raymond said, shaking his head. ‘It’s bad enough when it’s your own family; when it’s someone else’s …’

I looked around. I had no prior experience of such events, and the main thing that struck me was disparity; age range, social class, and the sartorial choices made by the guests.

‘You can choose your friends …’ Raymond said, toasting me with his pint glass.

‘But you can’t choose your family!’ I replied, delighted to be in a position to complete the well-known phrase. It was only a quick crossword clue, not a cryptic one, but still.

‘This is exactly like my dad’s fiftieth, Mum’s sixtieth, my sister’s wedding,’ Raymond said. ‘A shite DJ, overexcited kids high on sugar, people who haven’t seen each other for years catching up and pretending they like each other. Bet you anything there’ll be a buffet with vol-au- vents, and a fight in the car park at closing time.’

I was intrigued.

‘But surely it must be fun?’ I said. ‘Catching up with family? All those people, pleased to see you, interested in your life?’ He looked at me carefully.

‘D’you know what, Eleanor? It is. I’m just being a grumpy bastard – sorry.’ He finished his pint. ‘Same again?’ he said. I nodded, and then remembered.

‘No, no, it’s my turn,’ I said. ‘Will you have the same again?’ He smiled.

‘That’d be great. Thanks, Eleanor.’

I picked up my shopper and made my way to the bar. I caught Sammy’s eye en route – he was sitting in an armchair surrounded by friends and family members, as usual. I went over.

‘Eleanor, love!’ he said. ‘How are you? Great party, eh?’ I nodded.

‘I can’t believe my wee boy’s forty. It seems like yesterday he was off to school for his first day. You should see the photo – he’s got no front teeth, the wee scamp! And look at him now.’

He pointed across the room to where Keith was standing with his wife, their arms round one another’s waists, laughing at something an older man was saying.

‘That’s all you ever want for your kids: for them to be happy. I just wish my Jean was here to see it …’

I pondered this. Was that what people wanted for their children, for them to be happy? It certainly sounded plausible. I asked Sammy if I

could purchase a drink for him, although he did, to my inexpert eye, already seem somewhat intoxicated.

‘You’re fine, hen,’ he said, ‘I’ve already got these waiting for me!’

The table was covered with short glasses of amber liquid. I said I’d see him again later and went to the bar.

There was quite a queue, but I was enjoying the atmosphere. Blessed relief – the DJ was taking a break, and I could see him over in the corner, swigging from a can and talking morosely into his mobile telephone. There was a background hum of noise, male and female voices, and a lot of laughter. The children seemed to have multiplied, and had gravitated towards one another in order to form a merry band of mischief makers. It was clear that the adults were all occupied with the party, so they could run and whoop and chase each other with unsupervised abandon. I smiled at them, envied them slightly.

All of the people in the room seemed to take so much for granted: that they would be invited to social events, that they would have friends and family to talk to, that they would fall in love, be loved in return, perhaps create a family of their own. How would I celebrate my own fortieth birthday, I wondered. I hoped I would have people in my life to mark the occasion with me when the time came. Perhaps the musician, the light of my new life? One thing was certain, however: I would not, under any circumstances, be celebrating in a golf club.

When I returned to our table, it was empty. I put Raymond’s pint down and sipped my Magners. I supposed he’d found someone more interesting to talk to. I sat and watched the dancing – the DJ was back behind the decks, and had selected a cacophonous racket from a silver box of records, something about a man after midnight. I allowed my mind to wander. I’ve found this to be a very effective way of passing the time; you take a situation or a person and start to imagine nice things that might happen. You can make anything happen, anything at all, inside a daydream.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped.

‘Sorry,’ Raymond said. ‘I nipped to the gents, got talking to someone on the way back.’

I felt the heat where his hand had been; it was only a moment, but it left a warm imprint, almost as though it might be visible. A human hand was exactly the right weight, exactly the right temperature for touching

another person, I realized. I’d shaken hands a fair bit over the years – more so recently – but I hadn’t been touched in a lifetime.

Of course, Declan and I had had regular sexual intercourse, whenever he wanted to, but he never really touched me. He made me touch him, told me how and when and where, and I did so. I had no choice in the matter, but I remembered feeling like another person at those times, like it wasn’t my hand, like it wasn’t my body. It was simply a case of waiting for it to be over. I was thirty years old, I realized, and I had never walked hand in hand with anyone. No one had ever rubbed my tired shoulders, or stroked my face. I imagined a man putting his arms around me and holding me close when I was sad or tired or upset; the warmth of it, the weight of it.

‘Eleanor?’ Raymond said.

‘Sorry, I was miles away,’ I said, sipping my Magners.

‘Seems to be going well,’ he said, gesturing around the room. I nodded.

‘I was chatting to Sammy’s other son, Gary, and his girlfriend,’ he said. ‘They’re a good laugh.’

I looked around again. What would it be like in future, going to events like this on the arm of the musician? He’d make sure I was comfortable, dance with me if I wanted to (unlikely), make friends with the other guests. And then, at the end of the evening, we’d slip away together, home, to nest like turtle doves.

‘We seem to be the only people here who aren’t part of a couple,’ I told him, having observed the other guests.

He screwed up his face. ‘Aye – listen, thanks for coming with me. It’s shite going to stuff like this on your own, isn’t it?’

‘Is it?’ I said, interested. ‘I don’t have a control situation to compare it with.’

He looked at me. ‘You’ve always been on your own, then?’ he said. ‘You mentioned that guy last week, the one that …’ I saw him reach for words, ‘the one that you were with when you were at uni?’

‘As you know, I was with Declan for a couple of years,’ I said. ‘And you also know how that turned out.’ More Magners. ‘You get used to being on your own,’ I said. ‘Actually, it really is much better than being punched in the face or raped.’

Raymond choked on his pint, and took a moment to recover himself.

He spoke very gently.

‘You do realize, Eleanor, that those are not your only options, don’t you? Not all men are like Declan, you know.’

‘I do know!’ I said, brightly. ‘I’ve met one!’

In my mind’s eye, I saw the musician bringing me freesias, kissing the nape of my neck. Raymond looked uncomfortable, for some reason.

‘I’ll just nip to the bar,’ he said. ‘You still on the Magners?’ I felt strange, stirred up. ‘I’ll have a vodka with cola, please,’ I said, knowing from experience that vodka would be good for whatever ailed me. I watched Raymond shuffle off. If he would only stand up straight, and shave! He needed to buy some nice shirts and some proper shoes, and read a book or two instead of playing computer games. How could he ever hope to find a nice girl otherwise?

Keith came up to the table and thanked me for coming. I gave him his birthday present, which he seemed to find genuinely surprising. He looked at each item in turn with an expression that I found hard to read, but I quickly eliminated ‘boredom’ and ‘indifference’. I felt happy; it was a nice feeling, giving someone a gift, the kind of unique, thoughtful present that he wouldn’t have received from anyone else. He put the carrier bag on a nearby table.

‘Would you, eh, would you like to dance, Eleanor?’ My heart started to pump faster. Dance! Could I? ‘I’m not sure I know how,’ I said.

Keith laughed, and pulled me to my feet. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you’ll be fine.’

We’d only just reached the wooden dancing area when the music changed, and he groaned.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but there’s no way. I’m going to have to sit this one out. Birthday boy privileges!’

I watched as some people left the dance floor and others flocked to take their place. The music had a lot of brass instruments and a fast beat. Michelle, Gary’s girlfriend, beckoned me over and pulled me into a small group of women, around the same age, who smiled at me and looked very happy. I joined in with what seemed to be jigging on the spot. Some people moved their arms as though they were jogging, some people were pointing at nothing; it appeared that you were supposed to move your body around in any way you saw fit, as long as it was in time with the music, which was a steady eight beats, helpfully marked out by a drum. Then the beat changed abruptly and everyone started doing the

same thing, making strange shapes with their arms above their head. It took me a moment or two to learn the shapes, and then I was able to copy them. Freeform jigging, communal shapes in the air; freeform jigging, communal shapes in the air. Dancing was easy!

I found myself not thinking about anything, sort of like how the vodka worked, but different, because I was with people and I was singing. YMCA! YMCA! Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvellous idea! Who knew that dancing could be so logical?

During the next freeform jigging section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Brontë novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender- and faith-based youth organization?

The song finished and another one began; this one was not nearly so much fun, being entirely freeform jigging with no communal arm patterns in between, but nevertheless I remained on the dance floor, with the same group of smiling women, feeling that I was in the swing of things now. I was beginning to understand why people might find dancing enjoyable, although I wasn’t sure I could manage an entire evening of it. I felt a quick tap on my shoulder and turned around, expecting Raymond to be there, a smile ready as I thought how he’d like to hear about the arm-shape dance, but it wasn’t him.

It was a man in his mid to late thirties, whom I’d never met before. He smiled and raised his eyebrows, like a question, and then simply started freeform jigging in front of me. I turned back to the group of smiling women, but the circle had reformed without me. The man, red-faced, short, with the pasty look of someone who has never eaten an apple, continued to jig enthusiastically, if somewhat unrhythmically. At a loss as to how to respond, I resumed my dancing. He leaned forward and said something, which, naturally, was rendered inaudible by the volume of the music.

‘I beg your pardon?’ I shouted.

‘I said,’ he shouted, much louder than before, ‘how do you know Keith?’

What a bizarre question to ask a stranger.

‘I assisted his father when he had an accident,’ I said. I had to repeat this twice before the man understood – perhaps he had some sort of

hearing impairment. When it had finally penetrated, he looked intrigued. He lunged forward towards me with what I could only describe as a leer.

‘Are you a nurse?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m a finance administration assistant.’ He seemed to be at a bit of a loss for words after that, and I looked ceiling-wards as we jigged in order to discourage further conversation; it was quite challenging to dance and speak at the same time.

When the song ended, I’d had enough for the time being, and felt in fairly urgent need of refreshment.

‘Can I get you a drink?’ the man yelled, over the top of the next song. I wondered whether the DJ had ever considered introducing a five- minute break between records, to allow people to go to the bar or the lavatory in peace. Perhaps I should suggest that to him later.

‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you.’

‘Eh?’ he said, cupping his hand around his ear. Clearly he had tinnitus or some other hearing impairment. I communicated via mime, simply shaking my head and waving my index finger, while mouthing NO. I turned around and went in search of the lavatory before he attempted any further conversation.

It was difficult to find, located down a corridor, and I could only see signs for a Powder Room. This, it eventually transpired, meant Lavatories. Why don’t people just call things what they are? It’s confusing. There was a queue, which I joined, standing behind a very inebriated woman who was dressed inappropriately for her age. I do feel that tube tops are best suited to the under twenty-fives, if, indeed, they are suited to anyone.

A sheer, sparkly jacket was doing an inadequate job of covering up her enormous, crepey bosom. Her makeup, which would have been subtle had it been intended for a stage performance in the Royal Albert Hall, had started to run. For some reason, I could imagine this woman sobbing on the stairs at the end of the night. I surprised myself with the insight, but there was something rather febrile about her demeanour which led one to this conclusion.

‘How much of your life do you think you’ve wasted queuing for the bogs?’ she asked, conversationally. ‘They never have enough of them, do


I didn’t speak, as I was trying to calculate the approximate queuing time, but she didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t responded.

‘It’s all right for the men, isn’t it?’ she went on, in an angry tone. ‘There’s never a queue for the gents. Sometimes I feel like just going in there, squatting over the urinal. Ha!’ she said. ‘Imagine their faces!’ She laughed, a long smoky laugh that turned into a protracted cough.

‘Oh, but I think it would be terribly unhygienic in the gentlemen’s toilets,’ I said. ‘They don’t seem to mind so much about cleanliness and that sort of thing.’

‘No,’ she said, her voice full of bitterness, ‘they just come in, piss everywhere and then waltz off, leaving someone else to clean up after them.’ She gazed unsteadily off into the distance, clearly with a specific individual in mind.

‘I feel quite sorry for them, actually,’ I said. She glared at me, and I hurried to clarify my statement. ‘I mean, imagine having to micturate in a row, alongside other men, strangers, acquaintances, friends, even? It must be dreadful. Just think how odd it would be if we had to display our genitals to one another when we finally reached the front of this queue!’

She belched, very gently, and stared with uninhibited frankness at my scars. I turned my head away.

‘You’re a bit mental, aren’t you?’ she said, not in the least aggressively, but slurring her words somewhat. It was hardly the first time I’d heard this.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘yes, I suppose I am.’ She nodded, like I had confirmed a long-held suspicion. We didn’t talk after that.

When I returned to the function suite, the mood had changed – the pace of the music was slower. I went to the bar and bought myself a Magners and a vodka and cola, and, after a moment’s thought, a pint of beer for Raymond. It was quite tricky to carry it all back to our little table, but I managed without spilling a drop. I was glad to sit down, after all the jigging and queuing, and finished my vodka in two gulps – dancing was thirsty work. Raymond’s denim coat was still slung over the back of his chair, but there was no sign of him. I thought he had perhaps gone outside to smoke. I had a lot to tell him, about the dancing, about the queue lady, and I was looking forward to doing so.

The music changed again, and was now even slower. Lots of people left the floor, and those who remained drifted together. It was a strange

sight, like something from the natural world; monkeys, perhaps, or birds. The women all put their arms around the men’s necks, and the men put their arms around the women’s waists. They swayed from side to side, shuffling their feet awkwardly, either looking into one another’s faces, or else resting their heads on each other’s shoulders.

It was some sort of mating ritual, clearly. But then, might it not be quite pleasurable, to sway in time to slow music, pressed close against someone rather wonderful? I looked at them all again, the various sizes and shapes and permutations of them. And there, in the middle, was Raymond, dancing with Laura. He was speaking into her ear, close enough to be able to smell her perfume. She was laughing.

The drink I’d bought him was going to go to waste. I picked it up and drank it down, the whole pint, acrid and bitter tasting. I stood up and put on my jerkin. I’d visit the Powder Room one more time, and then I would get the train back into town. The party, it seemed, was over.

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