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Chapter no 21

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

MONDAY, MONDAY. THINGS DIDN’T feel right; I hadn’t been able to relax yesterday, hadn’t been able to settle to anything. I just felt on edge, somehow. If my mood was a crossword clue, the answer would be ‘discombobulated’. I tried to think why, but was unable to arrive at a plausible conclusion. I’d ended up taking the bus into town in the afternoon (free of charge – thank you, travel pass) and gone back to see Bobbi Brown. Once again, Ms Brown herself had failed to report for duty – I feared her work ethic was somewhat lacking – and a different lady had made me up, almost the same as last time. On this occasion, I’d purchased the multiple products and tools required to recreate the same face at home.

The total cost exceeded my monthly council tax bill by some margin, but I was in such a strange mood that this did not deter me. I kept the painted face on all day, and had reapplied it this morning, in an almost exact facsimile. The lady had shown me what to do, including the careful blending of concealer over my scars. The smoky eye was a bit uneven today but that, she had said, was the beauty of a smoky eye – it didn’t need to be precise.

I’d forgotten I’d done it, until I got to the office and Billy whistled, a wolf whistle in fact, which made the others turn and look.

‘New hair, bit of lippy,’ he said, nudging me with his elbow. I shrank back. ‘Somebody’s hoping to get herself a bit of action, if I’m not mistaken?’

The women gathered round. I was wearing my new outfit too. ‘You look lovely, Eleanor!’ ‘Black really suits you.’ ‘I love those boots, where did you get them?’ I examined their faces, looking out for sly glances, waiting for a punchline. None was forthcoming.

‘Where did you get your hair done, by the way?’ Janey said. ‘It’s a very flattering cut.’

‘Heliotrope, in town,’ I said. ‘Laura did it. She’s a friend of mine,’ I said proudly. Janey looked impressed. ‘I might try them out,’ she said. ‘My hairdresser is moving up north, so I’m looking for someone new. Does your friend do wedding hair, d’you know?’

I rummaged in my shopper. ‘Here’s her card,’ I said, ‘why not give her a call?’

Janey beamed at me. Could this be right? I smiled back quickly – if in doubt, smile, remember – and made for my desk.

Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on. I had had more attention from them today (non-malevolent, positive attention, that is) than I’d had in the last few years. I smiled to myself, pleased that I’d unlocked part of the puzzle. An electronic message arrived.

You ran off on Saturday without saying cheerio – everything OK? R.

I hit reply.

Fine, thank you. I had simply had enough of the dancing and other people. E.

He replied instantly.

Lunch? Usual place, 12:30? R.

Much to my surprise, I realized that I actually liked the idea of having lunch with Raymond, and was genuinely pleased to be asked. We had a Usual Place! I steeled myself as best I could, and, with teeth gritted, using only one finger I typed:

C U there E.

I sat back, feeling a bit queasy. Illiterate communication was quicker, that was true, but not by much. I’d saved myself the trouble of typing four whole characters. Still, it was part of my new credo, trying new things. I’d tried it, and I very definitely did not like it. LOL could go and take a running jump. I wasn’t made for illiteracy; it simply didn’t come naturally. Although it’s good to try new things and to keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you really are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.

Raymond was already there when I arrived, chatting to a different yet almost identical young man with a beard from the one who’d served us last time. I ordered a frothy coffee and a cheese scone again, which made Raymond smile.

‘You’re a creature of habit, Eleanor, aren’t you?’ I shrugged.

‘You look nice, by the way,’ he said. ‘I like your …’ He gestured indistinctly at my face. I nodded.

‘People seem to like me better with makeup on, for some reason,’ I said. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, apparently as stumped as I was.

The bearded man brought our food and Raymond began shovelling it into his face.

‘Did you have a good time on Saturday, then?’ he asked. I wished it had been between mouthfuls, but it was, in fact, horrifically, during one.

‘Yes, thank you,’ I said. ‘It was the first time I’ve tried dancing, and I quite enjoyed it.’ He kept forking the food into his mouth. The process, and the noise, seemed almost industrial in its relentlessness.

‘Did you enjoy yourself?’ I asked.

‘Mmm,’ he said. ‘It was fun, wasn’t it?’ He wasn’t using a knife, but held a fork in his right hand like a child or an American. He smiled.

I considered asking whether he and Laura had danced again that evening, whether he’d escorted her home, but decided against it. It was none of my business, after all, and intrusive questions are very ill- mannered.

‘Eh, so … did you decide about the promotion? Are you going to take it?’

I had, of course, been pondering this in spare moments throughout the preceding days. I had looked for signs, clues – none were forthcoming, however, except that, last Friday, twelve across had read: in favour of (upwards) movement (9). I had taken this as an encouraging omen.

‘I’m going to say yes,’ I said.

He smiled, put down his fork and held up his hand. I realized I was meant to place mine against his in what I now recognized as a ‘high five’.

‘Nice one,’ he said, resuming his lunch. ‘Congratulations.’

I felt a flash of happiness, like a match being struck. I couldn’t recall ever having been congratulated on anything before. It was very pleasant

indeed.

‘How’s your mother, Raymond?’ I asked him, having enjoyed the moment and the last of the scone. He talked about her for a while, told me she’d been asking after me. I felt slightly concerned about this, a default anxiety pertaining to maternal inquisitiveness, but he put my mind at rest.

‘She really liked you – said to tell you to pop over any time,’ he said. ‘She’s lonely.’

I nodded. I had recognized that. He excused himself and plodded off to the bathroom, and I gazed around the café while I awaited his return. Two women around my age were seated at the table next to me, each with a brightly dressed baby. Both infants were in car seats; one was asleep, the other stared dreamily at a beam of sunlight as it danced on the wall. The coffee machine hissed into life behind us, and I watched alarm ripple in waves across his face. In slow motion, his sweet pink mouth puckered into a kiss and then opened wide to release a wail at quite momentous volume. His mother glanced down and, reassured that he was fine despite the noise, continued her conversation. The crying got louder. It made evolutionary sense, I supposed, that a baby’s cries of distress would be tuned to precisely the right pitch and volume to make them impossible for an adult human to ignore.

He was winding himself up now, fists balled furiously, his face getting redder by the minute. I closed my eyes, tried and failed to ignore the noise. Please stop crying, please stop crying. I don’t know why you are crying. What do I need to do to make you stop? I don’t know what to do. Are you hurt? Are you ill? Hungry. I don’t know what to do. Please don’t cry. There isn’t anything to eat. Mummy will be back soon. Where’s Mummy? My hand was shaking as I picked up my coffee cup, and I breathed as slowly as I could, staring at the tabletop.

The crying ceased. I looked up and saw the baby, lying quietly in his mother’s arms now as she covered his face with kisses. I breathed out. My heart soared for him.

When Raymond returned, I paid for lunch, since he had paid last time; I was really starting to get the hang of the concept of a payment schedule. He insisted on leaving the tip, however. Five pounds! All the man had done was carry our food from the kitchen to the table, a job for which he was already being recompensed by the café owner. Raymond was

reckless and profligate – no wonder he couldn’t afford proper shoes or an iron.

We walked back slowly to the office, and Raymond told me in detail about some computer server issue that I did not understand (and didn’t particularly care to) that he would have to deal with that afternoon. In the lobby, he turned towards the stairs, where his office was located.

‘See you soon, yeah?’ he said. ‘Take care.’

He actually sounded like he meant both; that he would indeed see me soon, and that he wished me to take care of myself. I felt a warmth inside, a cosy, glowy feeling like hot tea on a cold morning.

‘Take care yourself, Raymond,’ I said, and I meant it.

That evening, I had planned to relax with a cup of Bovril and listen to a very interesting radio programme about South American politics, after completing my usual checks on what Johnnie Lomond was up to. He’d sent a desultory tweet about a character in a television programme and posted a photograph on Facebook of a new pair of boots he wanted. A slow news day, then. Hearing from Mummy on a Monday was an unexpected, unwelcome surprise.

‘Eleanor, darling. Not our usual time to talk, I know, but I was thinking about you. Just wanted to say hello, see how you were getting on, you know the sort of thing.’

I was silent, shocked by the unscheduled intrusion into my evening. ‘Well?’ she said. ‘I’m waiting, darling …’

I cleared my throat.

‘I, er … I’m fine, Mummy. You were – thinking about me?’ This was a first.

‘Mmm. Two things really: first of all, do you want me to see if I can give you a hand with your project? I can’t do much from where I am, obviously, but I might be able to, I don’t know, pull some strings? Might there perhaps be some way I could engineer a little visit, come and help you? I mean, I know it sounds impossible, but one never knows … mountains can always be moved and so on—’

‘No, Mummy, oh no no no …’ I said, gabbling. I heard her breathe in, and forced my words into order. ‘What I mean, Mummy’ – I heard the hiss as she released the air trapped in her lungs – ‘is that it’s very kind of you to offer, but I think I’m going to decline.’

‘Might one ask why?’ she said, sounding somewhat put out.

‘It’s just … I really do think I’ve got everything under control here,’ I said. ‘I think it’d be better if you … stayed put, as it were. I’m not sure there’s anything more you can do at this point.’

‘Well, darling … if you’re sure. But I’m very efficient, you know?

And, to be frank, you’re a bit of a bumbling idiot at times.’ I sighed, as quietly as I could.

‘And furthermore,’ she went on, ‘I’m getting rather impatient now. Things need to move forward with this man, you know? A bit more action, Eleanor – that’s what’s needed, darling.’ She was starting to sound calmer now.

‘Yes, Mummy. Yes, you’re absolutely right of course.’ It was true that, since the time when I’d first seen the musician, my interest and therefore my progress had been subsumed by more pressing matters over the last few weeks. There were so many other things to be getting on with – Raymond, the new job, Sammy and his family … But she was right.

‘I’ll try to move things along a bit faster,’ I said. That had placated her, I hoped, and she started to say her goodbyes.

‘Oh wait, Mummy – hang on a second. You said there were two things – what was the second thing you were thinking about?’

‘Oh yes,’ she said, and I heard her dismissive sideways hiss of cigarette smoke. ‘It was just that I wanted to tell you that you’re a pointless waste of human tissue. That was all. Bye then, darling!’ she said, bright as a knife.

Silence.

@johnnieLrocks

Newsflash! Am leaving Pilgrim Pioneers. No hard feelings TOTALLY respect those guys #soloartist #astarisborn (1/2)

@johnnieLrocks

I’m going solo in a different, stronger musical direction. More soon. Peace out #iconoclast (2/2)

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