Chapter no 23

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I WAS GETTING THE HANG of this shopping business. I had returned to the same department store and, after seeking advice from a different shop assistant, had purchased a black dress, black tights and black shoes. This was my first dress since childhood, and it felt strange to have my legs on public display. She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again – why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established some fiendish cartel. On reflection, though, she was correct in stating that the fitted black dress did not really ‘go’ with either my new boots (too informal, apparently) or my Velcro work shoes (it appeared that nothing did, much to my surprise; I had thought that they were the very definition of versatility).

We compromised with some improbably named ‘kitten heels’, which, contrary to what one might think, had nothing to do with cats. They were heels which were easy to walk in, but which were, nonetheless ‘very feminine’. On what basis was this decided, and by whom? Did it matter? I made a mental note to research gender politics and gender identity at some point. There would be a book about it – there were books about everything.

On this trip, I’d even bought a handbag, judging that my shopper probably wouldn’t be appropriate for a funeral. The fabric was imprinted with a very jaunty pattern, and I felt it might stand out at a graveside. The wheels could also be a bit squeaky.

The bag I finally settled on was impractical, being far too small to carry, for example, either a hardback book or a bottle of Glen’s. I examined it when I got home, stroking its glossy leather outer and silky fabric lining. It had a long gold chain which you simply placed over your shoulder, leaving your hands free.

At further horrendous expense, I’d also bought a black wool coat, single-breasted, knee-length, fitted. It was warm and plain,

characteristics that I found attractive. Looking at all my purchases, spread across my bed for closer examination, I assuaged my concerns about the cost by reassuring myself that the entire outfit could be worn again and again, either together or separately. I now owned what I believed was called a ‘capsule wardrobe’, clothes which were appropriate for most social events that the musician and I might attend together. I’d look right in them, on his arm. An evening at the ballet, perhaps? The opening night of a new play? I knew he’d be opening up uncharted worlds for me. At least now I had the appropriate shoes for them.

I’d spent more in these last few weeks than I usually spent in a year. Social interaction, it appeared, was surprisingly expensive – the travel, the clothes, the drinks, the lunches, the gifts. Sometimes it evened out in the end – like with the drinks – but, I was finding out, more often than not, one incurred a net financial loss. I’d a bit of money saved up, but it only amounted to a month’s wages or so, and Bob’s pay cheques were far from generous. I saw now that this had only been possible because I hadn’t had much requirement to spend money on the social aspects of life before now.

Mummy liked to live extravagantly, but after … everything changed

… I’d learned that money was something to worry about, to ration. It had to be asked for, and then counted out into my red raw hands. I never forgot – was never allowed to forget – that someone else was paying for my clothes, the food I ate, even for the heating in the room where I slept. My foster carers received an allowance for looking after me, and I was always conscious of making sure not to cause them to exceed it by needing things. And especially not by wanting things.

‘Allowance’ is not a generous, lavish word. I earn my own money now, of course, but I have to be careful with it. Budgeting is a skill, and a very useful one at that – after all, if I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out. I’d be destitute. I have no anonymous benefactor to pay my rent, no family members or friends who could kindly lend me the money to replace a broken vacuum cleaner or pay the gas bill until I could return the borrowed sum to them on payday. It was important that I did not allow myself to forget that.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t attend Sammy’s funeral in inappropriate clothing. The black dress, the assistant assured me, was smart, but could

also be ‘dressed down’. The coat could be worn all winter. My jerkin had more than paid for itself over the years, but I would keep it, of course, in case it was required again in future. I hung everything up carefully. I was ready. Bring out your dead.

Friday was bright, although it was impossible to tell if it would stay that way. I showered and put on my new clothes. It had been many years since I’d worn tights, preferring a handy pair of pop socks under my slacks, but I still remembered how to roll them on. I was very careful, as they were thin and delicate, and could be ripped in an instant by a careless fingernail. I felt enclosed in them, somehow, as though I was wearing someone else’s skin.

I’d made my legs black, and my hair blonde. I’d lengthened and darkened my eyelashes, dusted a flush of pink onto my cheeks and painted my lips a shade of dark red which was rarely found in nature. I should, by rights, look less like a human woman than I’d ever done, and yet it seemed that this was the most acceptable, the most appropriate appearance that I’d ever made before the world. It was puzzling. I supposed I could have gone further – made my skin glow with tanning agent, scented myself with a spray made from chemicals manufactured in a laboratory, distilled from plants and animal parts. I did not want to do that. I picked up my new bag and locked the door behind me.

For safety and security reasons, I had specified that I should be collected from a location on a main road near my flat rather than disclose my home address, and an unprepossessing vehicle drew up outside the building at the correct time. The driver glanced quickly in the rear-view mirror as I slid into the seat behind him, next to Raymond. It took a while, as I was conscious of my dress, trying to make sure that it did not reveal more of my legs than it was designed to.

Everything took so long. Before, I’d simply bathed, run a comb through my hair and pulled on my trousers. Being feminine apparently meant taking an eternity to do anything, and involved quite a bit of advanced planning. I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to hike to the source of the Nile, or to climb up a ladder to investigate a malfunction inside a particle accelerator, wearing kitten heels and ten denier tights.

It was hard to gauge the full effect of Raymond’s outfit, but it was apparent, even from this position, that he was wearing an ironed white

shirt, a black tie, and black trousers. I couldn’t see his feet, and issued a silent prayer that he was not shod in training shoes, even black ones.

‘You look nice,’ he said.

I nodded, feeling slightly self-conscious in my new dress, and looked at him again. He hadn’t shaved off his odd little beard, but it had been trimmed, and his hair was combed neatly. The taxi moved off, and we joined the slow morning traffic. The radio jabbered nonsense, and we didn’t look at one another or speak. There was really nothing to be said.

The crematorium was in the suburbs, a 1970s monstrosity of white concrete and brutal angles. The gardens were neat in a sterile, municipal way, but, surprisingly, were full of beautiful blown roses. There were lots of mature trees around the perimeter, which pleased me. I liked to think of their roots, coursing with life, snaking under this place. We drew up in an enormous car park which was already almost full, although it was only ten thirty. The place was out of the way and would be impossible to reach by public transport, which was completely illogical. There ought to be a train or a shuttle bus, I thought. It was a place we were all guaranteed to be visiting at some point.

Raymond paid the driver and we stood for a moment, taking it in. ‘Ready?’ he said.

I nodded. There were lots of other mourners, moving through the grounds like slow black beetles. We walked up the path, in silent agreement that we were in no hurry to leave the trees and the roses and the sunshine and go inside. A long hearse sat at the front door, and we looked at the coffin, which was covered in wreaths. A coffin was a wooden box in which Sammy’s corpse would be lying. What was he wearing in there, I wondered. I hoped it was that nice red jumper; cosy, smelling of him.

We sat down on the left-hand side of the room, in a pew not too far from the front. The place was half full already, and there was a low hum of muttered conversation, a muted, insect-like buzzing that I hadn’t heard in any other venue or set of circumstances.

I picked up one of the sheets that had been placed along the pews: Samuel McMurray Thom, it said, 1940–2017. Inside it told us what would happen, listed the readings and hymns, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with a desire for it to be over, not to have to be there and experience it all.

Raymond and I were silent. The room was much nicer inside than the exterior had suggested, with wooden beams and a high vaulted ceiling. The entire side wall to the left of where we were seated was glass, and we could see the rolling lawns and more of those huge, primeval trees in the background. I was glad. Nature should make her presence felt in the room in some way, I thought; living nature, not cut flowers. The sun was quite bright now, and the trees cast short shadows, although autumn was creeping up through a shimmer of wind in the leaves. I turned around and saw that the room was full, perhaps a hundred people, maybe more. The buzzing hum threatened to drown out the dull recorded organ music. Something shifted in the air and silence fell. Both of his sons and four other men whose faces I recognized from the party carried Sammy’s coffin down the aisle and placed it gently on a sort of raised platform with a roller belt, at the end of which was a set of red velvet curtains. I tried to remember what the platform reminded me of, and it came to me: the supermarket checkout in Tesco, where you place your items and they move towards the cashier. I leaned across to tell Raymond, but he had fished a bag of peppermints from his suit pocket and offered me one

before I could speak. I popped it in and sucked.

Other people had joined us on the pew, and we’d had to shuffle up like crabs to make space for them. I was therefore in very close proximity to Mr Raymond Gibbons. I noticed that he smelled extremely pleasant today; the peppermints, of course, but also a clean soap scent and something almost woody, like cedar. I hadn’t seen him smoke a cigarette yet. I suppose even Raymond would think it inappropriate to smoke a cigarette outside a crematorium.

The rest of the family entered and sat beside Sammy’s boys on the front pew; Laura was on her own, looking impossibly glamorous. Dark glasses! Indoors! Astonishing. They were followed by a jolly-looking minister. A man at a keyboard tucked away in the corner flexed his fingers and started to play, and we shuffled to our feet. The words to the hymn were printed in the booklet but I found that I could remember them from childhood. The communal singing was of extremely poor quality, more like an atonal mumble, and the minister’s unpleasant voice was overly loud, perhaps because he was wearing a lapel microphone. He really ought to turn it off for the hymns, I thought – there was no need to amplify his caterwauling. Raymond, to my immense surprise, had a pleasant light tenor, and he was singing properly, unlike most other

people. When did people become embarrassed to sing in public? Was it because of the decline in churchgoing? And yet the television schedule was full of singing contests in which people, however untalented, were far from shy about participating. Perhaps people are only interested in giving solo performances.

Surely this was the ultimate in disrespect – to attend a man’s funeral and mumble during hymns which, however dreary, had been specifically selected to commemorate his life? I began to sing more loudly. Raymond and I were making more noise than the next four pews put together, and I was glad of it. The words were incredibly sad, and, for an atheist like myself, entirely without hope or comfort, but still; it was our duty to sing them to the best of our ability, and to sing proudly, in honour of Sammy. I sat down when it was finished, happy that Raymond and I had shown him the respect he deserved. Quite a few people turned around to look at us, presumably because they had enjoyed our vocal tribute.

The minister spoke about Sammy’s life; it was interesting to hear that he’d grown up near a tiny village in the North East, on a sheep farm. He’d joined the merchant navy when he left school but, soon tiring of life at sea, he’d pitched up in Glasgow with ten pounds, a new suit and no desire whatsoever to return to farming. He’d met Jean in Woolworths, looking for a needle and thread. The minister, looking pleased with himself, said that they’d stitched a happy life together after that. There was a brief religious bit – the usual balderdash – and then, like the assistant in Tesco, he made the coffin conveyer belt move, and Sammy checked out.

Bright as a button, smile plastered on, as though this were the best part of the whole terrible event, the minister announced that we would sing the final hymn. Raymond and I made a valiant effort, but it’s impossible to sing when you’re crying – there’s a lump like a plum stone lodged in your throat, and the music can’t get past it. Raymond blew his nose and passed me a packet of tissues, which I gratefully accepted.

The family, the minister told us, would be very pleased if we would join them afterwards at the Hawthorn House Hotel for light refreshments. The congregation filed out, shaking hands and mumbling meaningless platitudes. I did the same. There was a collection basket for the British Heart Foundation, ‘in lieu of flowers’, and I saw Raymond drop in a twenty-pound note. I put in three pound coins. If anything, I felt that this was overly generous. Researching new drugs and

efficacious treatments for heart disease costs hundreds of millions of pounds. Three pounds or three hundred pounds – it was hardly going to swing the balance between finding and not finding a cure, after all.

I perched on a low wall behind the crematorium and turned my face to the sun. I felt utterly exhausted. After a moment, Raymond sat beside me, and I heard the click of his lighter. I didn’t even have the energy to move away. He blew out a long stream of smoke.

‘All right?’ he said. I nodded. ‘You?’ He shrugged.

‘Not a big fan of funerals, to be honest,’ he said. He looked away. ‘Reminds me of my dad. It was years ago, but it’s still hard, you know?’

I nodded; that made sense. Time only blunts the pain of loss. It doesn’t erase it.

‘I really, really, really do not want to go to the Hawthorn House Hotel for light refreshments, Raymond,’ I said. ‘I want to stop thinking about death. I just want to go home, put on normal clothes and watch television.’

Raymond stubbed his cigarette out and then buried it in the flowerbed behind us.

‘No one wants to go to these things, Eleanor,’ he said gently. ‘You have to, though. For the family.’ I must have looked sad.

‘You don’t need to stay long,’ he said, his voice soft and patient. ‘Just show face; have a cup of tea, eat a sausage roll – you know the drill.’

‘Well, I hope they’ve at least got a high meat content and friable pastry,’ I said, more in hope than in expectation, and shouldering my handbag.

The Hawthorn House Hotel was walking distance from the crematorium. The woman at the reception desk smiled, and it was impossible not to notice that she had only one front tooth; the remaining molars were the exact same shade as Colman’s English mustard. I’m not one to make judgements about other people’s personal appearance, but really; of all the available staff, was this woman the best choice for the front desk? She directed us to the Bramble Suite and flashed us a gappy, sympathetic smile.

We were among the last to arrive, as most people had driven the short journey from the crematorium to the hotel. The crematorium was a busy

place and the parking spaces were needed, I supposed. I’m not sure I’d like to be burned. I think I might like to be fed to zoo animals. It would be both environmentally friendly and a lovely treat for the larger carnivores. Could you request that, I wondered. I made a mental note to write to the WWF in order to find out.

I went up to Keith and told him how very sorry I was, and then I sought out Gary to say the same thing. Both of them looked overwhelmed, which was understandable. It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I’m still something of a work in progress in that regard. The grandchildren sat quietly in the corner, cowed, perhaps, by the sombre atmosphere. The other person I had to pass on my condolences to was Laura, but I couldn’t spot her. She was usually easy to find. Today, as well as the huge sunglasses, she’d been wearing vertiginous heels, a short black dress with a plunging neckline, and her hair was piled on top of her head in an artful birdcage creation that added several inches to her height.

There being no sign of her, and no sign of the promised refreshments either, I went in search of the lavatories. I would have put money on their having a dusty bowl of apricot-scented potpourri beside the washbasins, and I was right. On the way back, I spotted a tell-tale platform heel poking out from behind a swagged curtain. There was a window seat recess, in which Laura was sitting in the lap of a man who, it soon became apparent, was Raymond, although they were embracing so closely that it took a moment before I could see his face and be sure. He was wearing black leather shoes, I noticed. So he did at least possess a pair.

I went back into the Bramble Suite without disturbing them; they hadn’t seen me, being very much otherwise engaged. This was an all too familiar social scenario for me; standing alone, staring into the middle distance. It was absolutely fine. It was absolutely normal. After the fire, at each new school, I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.

I wasn’t good at pretending, that was the thing. After what had happened in that burning house, given what went on there, I could see no point in being anything other than truthful with the world. I had, literally, nothing left to lose. But, by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little.

Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way. Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.

The buffet had been laid out – yes, there were sausage rolls, but also sandwiches. Staff were dispensing indistinguishable tea and coffee from bitter-smelling urns into industrial white crockery. This wouldn’t do at all. I was decidedly not in the mood for hot brown liquid, oh no. I was in the mood for cool, clear vodka.

All hotels had bars, didn’t they? I wasn’t a great frequenter of hostelries, but I knew that bedrooms and bars were their raison d’être. I spoke to the dentally challenged lady in reception again, who directed me down another long corridor, at the end of which lay the imaginatively named Hawthorn Lounge. I stood on the threshold and looked around. The place was deserted, the fruit machines flashing purely for their own amusement. I walked in. Just me. Eleanor, alone.

A barman was watching TV and absent-mindedly polishing glasses. ‘Homes under the Hammer,’ he said, turning towards me. I remember

thinking, surprised, that he was passably attractive, and then chastising myself for the thought. My prejudice was that beautiful, glamorous people would not be at work in the Hawthorn House Hotel on a Friday lunchtime. Granted, the receptionist had confirmed my initial thoughts, but really, it was shameful of me to have these preconceptions – where on earth did they come from? (A little voice whispered the answer in my head: Mummy.)

The barman smiled, revealing a lovely set of teeth and clear blue eyes. ‘It’s a load of old shite,’ he said, in a voice that could strip paint from walls, after giving them a good sanding down first. See – told you!

Mummy whispered.

‘Is it?’ I said. ‘Unfortunately I’m not generally at home during the day to see it.’

‘Watch it here, if you like,’ the man said, shrugging. ‘Could I?’

‘Why not?’ he said. ‘It’s not like there’s much else going on, is there?’ He gestured around the empty bar.

I perched on a bar-stool – something I have always wanted to try – and ordered a vodka and cola. He made it slowly, added ice and lemon without asking, and pushed it towards me.

‘Funeral, was it?’ he said.

I wondered how he knew, and then I realized that I was dressed entirely in black, that my smoky eye makeup had run somewhat, and that there was no other reason to be in this particular venue at this time of day. I nodded. No further exchanges were required, and we both settled back to see how Iain and Dorothy would fare with the 1970s terrace that they’d bought at auction for £95,000, intending to renovate the bathroom, install a new kitchen and ‘knock through’ from the lounge to the dining room.

‘The finishing touch,’ the presenter said, ‘was to paint the front door

… this fetching shade of green.’

‘“Green Door”,’ the barman said, without missing a beat, and seconds later, lo and behold, that very song began to play. We both laughed, and he pushed another vodka towards me without my having to ask.

We had moved on to Loose Women, another programme I was unfamiliar with. I was on my fourth vodka by now, and the funeral service was there in my mind, but it didn’t hurt – like noticing you had a stone in your shoe, but while you were sitting down rather than walking on it.

I thought that I probably ought to attempt a sausage roll at some point, or at least put a few in my bag for later, but then I remembered that I had brought my new, tiny bag, into which I could fit, at most, two savoury pastries. I tutted, and shook my head.

‘What’s up?’ said the barman. We hadn’t asked each other’s names; it didn’t seem necessary, somehow. I slumped forward on my stool and stared, in clichéd fashion, into my glass.

‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ I said breezily. ‘I suppose I ought to have something to eat now, really.’

The barman, who had become less handsome as time had worn on, picked up my glass, filled it back up with vodka and a dash of cola, and returned it to me.

‘No rush, eh?’ he said. ‘Why not stay here and keep me company for a while longer?’

I looked around – the bar was still deserted.

‘You might need a little lie-down after this one, eh?’ he said, tapping my glass and leaning very close to me. I could see the enlarged pores on the sides of his nose, some of them filled with microscopic black dots.

‘Perhaps,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I do need a lie-down after vodka and cola.’

He smiled wolfishly.

‘Puts you in the mood, eh?’

I tried to lift my eyebrows into a question, but, strangely, could only make one of them rise. I’d had too much to drink because I’d had too much pain, and there was nowhere else it could go but down, drowned in the vodka. Simple, really.

‘What do you mean?’ I said, hearing that I was pronouncing the consonants somewhat indistinctly.

‘Funerals,’ he said, moving closer to me, so that his face was almost pressed against mine. He smelled of onions. ‘It’s nothing to feel bad about,’ he said. ‘All that death … afterwards, don’t you find it really makes you want to—’

‘Eleanor!’ I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned round on my stool, exceptionally slowly.

‘Oh, hello, Raymond!’ I said. ‘This is … actually, I don’t know.

Excuse me, what’s your name, Mr …?’

The barman had moved at what must have been lightning speed to the other end of the counter, where he had resumed his glass polishing and TV watching. Raymond gave him a look that could best be described as unfriendly, and placed a twenty-pound note on the counter.

‘Wait, Raymond,’ I said, scrabbling for my new bag, ‘I’ve got some money in here …’

‘Come on,’ he said, pulling me down rather gracelessly from my stool. ‘We can sort it out later.’

I trotted after him in my kitten heels.

‘Raymond,’ I said, tugging at his sleeve. He looked down at me. ‘I’m not going to get a tattoo,’ I said, ‘I’ve decided.’

He looked puzzled, and I realized that I’d forgotten to tell him that I’d been considering it, ever since I’d spoken to the barman at The Cuttings. He sat me down in a window seat off the corridor – not the same one he’d been in before – and left me there. I looked around, wondering what time it was, and whether they would have burned Sammy by now, or whether they kept all the bodies back till the end of the day to get a really

good blaze going. Raymond returned, a cup of tea in one hand and a plate of savoury pastries in the other.

‘Get this down you,’ he said, ‘and don’t move till I come back.’

I discovered that I was ravenous. Mourners kept wandering past, but no one noticed me in my hidey-hole. I rather liked it. The seat was comfortable and the corridor was warm, and I felt like a little dormouse in a cosy nest. Next thing I knew, Raymond was there again, shaking me gently but insistently.

‘Wake up, Eleanor,’ he said. ‘It’s half past four. Time to go.’

We took a taxi to Raymond’s flat. It was on the south side of the city, an area I didn’t know very well and had no cause to visit, as a rule. His flatmates were out, I was relieved to learn, stumbling slightly as we entered the hallway and trying not to laugh. He steered me in a very ungallant fashion into the living room, which was dominated by a huge television. There were lots of what I assumed were games consoles scattered around in front of it. Aside from the computer detritus, it was astonishingly tidy.

‘It doesn’t look like a place where boys live,’ I said, surprised.

He laughed. ‘We’re not animals, Eleanor. I’m a dab hand with the Hoover, and Desi’s a bit of a neat freak, as it goes.’

I nodded, relieved to know as I sat down that nothing untoward would be adhering to my new dress and tights.

‘Tea?’ he said.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any vodka or Magners drink, by any chance?’ I said. He raised an eyebrow.

‘I’m absolutely fine now, after the sausage rolls and the catnap,’ I said, and I was. I felt floaty and clean, not intoxicated, just very pleasantly numbed to sharp feelings.

He laughed. ‘Well, I suppose I could go a glass of red, right enough,’ he said.

‘Red what?’ I said.

‘Wine, Eleanor. Merlot, I think – whatever was on special at Tesco this week.’

‘Ah, Tesco,’ I said. ‘In that case … I think I’ll join you. Just the one, though,’ I said. I didn’t want Raymond to think I was a dipsomaniac.

He came back with two glasses and a bottle with a screw cap. ‘I thought wine had corks?’ I said.

He ignored me. ‘To Sammy,’ he said, and we clinked glasses like people do on television. It tasted of warmth and velvet, and a little bit like burnt jam.

‘Take it easy now!’ he said, waggling his finger in a way I recognized was supposed to be humorous. ‘I don’t want you falling off the sofa!’

I smiled. ‘How was your afternoon?’ I asked, after another delicious sip. He took a very big swig.

‘You mean apart from rescuing you from the clutches of a pervert?’ he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

‘Och, the afternoon was fine,’ he said, when it became clear I didn’t know how to respond. ‘It all went off as well as these things can. It’ll be tomorrow that it really hits them. The funeral’s a big distraction; you keep busy with all the arrangements, stupid decisions about scones or biscuits, hymns—’

‘They were bad hymns!’ I said.

‘—and then the day itself, making sure you thank people, the cortege and all that stuff … The family said to thank you for coming, by the way,’ he finished, tailing off. It was he who was drinking all the wine, I noticed – he’d already refilled his glass while I’d only had two sips.

‘But the days and weeks after that … that’s when it really starts to get hard,’ he said.

‘Is that how it was for you?’ I said.

He nodded. He’d switched on the fire, one of those gas ones that’s supposed to look real, and we both stared at it. There must be some piece of wiring left over in our brains, from our ancestors, something that means we can’t help but stare into a fire, watch it move and dance, warding off evil spirits and dangerous animals … that’s what fire’s supposed to do, isn’t it? It can do other things too, though.

‘D’you want to watch a film, Eleanor? Cheer ourselves up a bit?’ I thought about this.

‘A film would be perfect,’ I said.

He left the room and returned with another bottle of wine and a big packet of crisps. ‘Sharing bag’ it said. I’d never tried one, for that very reason. He ripped it down the middle and spread it out on the table in front of the sofa where we were both sitting, then topped up our glasses. He went out again and came back with a duvet which I guessed he’d removed from his bed, and a cosy-looking fleece blanket, red like

Sammy’s sweater, which he passed to me. I kicked off my kitten heels and snuggled under the blanket while he fiddled with what seemed like ten remote control devices. The enormous TV sprung to life, and he flicked through various channels.

‘How do you feel about this one?’ he said, nodding towards the screen as he wrapped himself in his duvet. The highlighted selection said Sons of the Desert. I had no idea what it was, but I realized that I’d happily sit here in the warmth with him and watch a golf programme if that was all there was.

‘Fine,’ I said. He was about to press play when I stopped him. ‘Raymond,’ I said, ‘shouldn’t you be with Laura?’ He looked quite taken aback.

‘I saw you today,’ I said, ‘and at Keith’s golf club birthday party.’ His face was impassive.

‘She’s with her family right now, that’s how it should be,’ he said, shrugging. I sensed he did not wish to speak about it further, and so I simply nodded.

‘Ready?’ he asked.

The film was black-and-white, and it was about a fat, clever man and a thin, stupid man who’d joined the Foreign Legion. They were patently unsuited to it. At one point, Raymond laughed so much that he sprayed wine all over his duvet. I choked on a sharing crisp not long afterwards and he had to pause the film and thump me on the back to dislodge it. I was very disappointed when it ended, and also to see that we had eaten all the crisps and drunk most of the wine, although Raymond had had far more than me – I couldn’t drink wine as quickly as vodka or Magners drink, it seemed.

He walked unsteadily to the kitchen and returned with a big packet of peanuts.

‘Fuck,’ he said, ‘bowl.’ He came back with a receptacle, into which he attempted to decant the peanuts. His aim was poor, and he began to pour them all over the coffee table. I started to laugh – it was just like Stan and Ollie – and then we were both laughing. He turned off the TV and put on some music, via another mysterious remote-controlled device. I didn’t recognize it, but it was pleasant; soft and undemanding. He chomped on a handful of peanuts.

‘Eleanor,’ he said, nut crumbs falling from his mouth, ‘can I ask you something?’

‘You may certainly ask,’ I said. I hoped he would swallow again before he spoke.

He looked closely at me. ‘What happened to your face? You don’t’ – he leaned forward quickly, touched my arm over the blanket – ‘you definitely don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m just being a nosy bastard!’

I smiled at him, and took a gulp of wine.

‘I don’t mind telling you, Raymond,’ I said, finding, to my surprise, that it was true – I actually wanted to tell him, now that he’d asked. He wasn’t asking out of prurience or bored curiosity – he was genuinely interested, I could tell. You generally can.

‘It was in a fire,’ I said, ‘when I was ten. A house fire.’

‘Christ!’ he said. ‘That must have been terrible.’ There was a long pause, and I could almost see questions crystalizing, as though letters were emanating from his brain and forming words in the air.

‘Faulty wiring? Chip pan?’

‘It was started deliberately,’ I said, declining to explain further. ‘Fucking hell, Eleanor!’ he said. ‘Arson?’

I sipped more velvety wine, said nothing. ‘So what happened after that?’ he said.

‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I mentioned before that I never knew my father. I was taken into care after the fire. Foster placements, children’s homes, back to being fostered again – I moved every eighteen months or so, I guess. I got a place at university – I was seventeen – and the council housed me in a flat. The flat I still live in.’

He looked so sad that it was making me sad too.

‘Raymond,’ I said, ‘it’s really not that unusual a story. Plenty of people grow up in far, far more challenging circumstances; it’s simply a fact of life.’

‘Doesn’t make it right, though,’ he said.

‘I always had a bed to sleep in, food to eat, clothes and shoes to wear. I was always supervised by an adult. There are millions of children in the world who can’t say the same, unfortunately. I’m a very lucky person, when you think about it.’

He looked like he was going to cry – it must be all the wine. It does make people overly emotional, so they say. I could feel the unasked question hovering between us like a ghost. Don’t ask, don’t ask, I

thought, wishing as hard as I could, crossing my fingers under the blanket.

‘What about your mum, Eleanor? What happened to her?’ I gulped the rest of my wine down as fast as I could.

‘I’d prefer not to discuss Mummy, if that’s all right, Raymond.’

He looked surprised, and – a familiar response, this – slightly disappointed. To his credit, he didn’t pursue the topic.

‘Whatever you want, Eleanor. You can talk to me any time, you know that, don’t you?’

I nodded; I found, to my surprise, that I did.

‘I mean it, Eleanor,’ he said, the wine making him more earnest than usual. ‘We’re pals now, right?’

‘Right,’ I said, beaming. My first pal! Granted, he was a poorly turned out computer repair man with a range of unfortunate social habits, but still – pals! It had certainly taken me a long, long time to acquire one; I was well aware that people of my age usually had at least one or two friends. I hadn’t tried to shun them, and neither had I sought them out; it had just always been so difficult to meet like-minded people. After the fire, I never managed to find anyone who could fit the spaces that had been created inside me. I can’t complain; it was entirely my own fault, after all. And anyway, I’d moved around so much during my childhood that it was hard to keep in touch with people, even if I’d wanted to. So many foster placements, all those new schools. At university, I’d fallen in love with classics, happily devoting myself to my work. Missing a few nights out at the Union to get top marks and generous praise from my tutors had felt like a fair exchange. And, of course, for a few years, there had been Declan. He didn’t like me to socialize without him. Or, indeed, with him.

After graduating, I’d gone straight to working at Bob’s firm, and heaven knew there were no like-minded people there. Once you get used to being on your own, it becomes normal. It certainly had become so for me.

Why, now, did Raymond want to be my friend? Perhaps he was lonely too. Perhaps he felt sorry for me. Perhaps – incredible, this, but, I supposed, possible – he actually found me likeable. Who knew? I turned towards him, wanting to ask why, wanting to tell him how glad I was to have finally found a friend, but his head had fallen onto his chest and his mouth was slightly open. He sprang back to life quickly, though.

‘Wasn’t sleeping,’ he said, ‘just … resting my eyes for a minute. It’s been a hell of a day.’

‘It has,’ I said, and I meant it. I slipped my kitten heels on and asked if he could call me a taxi. I was horrified to see that it was almost nine. I peered anxiously between the curtains. It was dark now. It would be safe in the taxi, though. The drivers were all checked by the police, weren’t they?

Raymond walked me down to the front of the building and opened the cab door.

‘Safe home, Eleanor,’ he said. ‘Have a good weekend. See you Monday, yeah?’

‘See you Monday, Raymond,’ I said, and I waved until the taxi turned the corner and I could no longer see him.

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