Chapter no 26

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

AM NAKED, LYING ON the floor, looking at the underside of the table. The pale wood is unvarnished, and there is a faded stamp bearing the imprint ‘Made in Taiwan’. Some important items are lined up on the tabletop – I can’t see them, but I can sense them above me. This hideous table, blue melamine top, rickety legs, the varnish scraped off in places by decades of careless use. How many kitchens has this table been in, before it found its way to me?

I imagine a hierarchy of happiness; first purchased in the 1970s, a couple would sit here, dining on meals cooked from brand-new recipe books, eating and drinking from wedding china like proper grown-ups. They’d move to the suburbs after a couple of years; the table, too small to accommodate their growing family, passes on to a cousin newly graduated and furnishing his first flat on a budget. After a few years, he moves in with his partner and rents the place out. For a decade, tenants eat here, a whole procession of them, young people mainly, sad and happy, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, lovers. They’d serve fast food here to fill a gap, or five stylish courses to seduce, carbohydrates before a run and chocolate pudding for broken hearts. Eventually, the cousin sells up and the house clearance people take the table away. It languishes in a warehouse, spiders spinning silk inside its unfashionable rounded corners, bluebottles laying eggs in the rough splinters. It’s given to another charity. They gave it to me, unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged. Also the table.

The things are all laid out. Painkillers (twelve packets of twenty-four tablets, prescribed and carefully hoarded); bread knife (hardly used, shark’s teeth ready to bite); drain cleaner (‘cuts through all blockages, even hair and grease’ – also flesh and internal organs). This table, this table where I have never sat with another person and shared a bottle of wine. This kitchen, where I have never cooked for anyone but myself. Lying here on the floor, corpse-like, I can feel spiky crumbs sticking to

the bare backs of my arms, my buttocks, my thighs, my heels. It is cold. I wish I were a corpse. Not long, not long now.

All of the empty vodka bottles are in my sightline, dropped on the floor when they were finished. I ought to feel ashamed that someone will find the place in this state, but I feel nothing. Eventually my body will be removed and industrial cleaners will be dispatched, I suppose. The flat will be re-let. I hope the new tenants will be happy here, leave some traces of love in the walls and the floors and the gaps around the windows for the next inhabitants. I have left nothing. I was never here.

I don’t know how long I have been lying like this. I don’t recall how I ended up on the floor of the kitchen, or why I am naked. I reach for the bottle beside me, anxious about how much remains, instantly relieved at its heaviness. This is the last one, however. When this bottle is done, I have two choices: get off this floor, get dressed and go and buy more; or kill myself. Actually, either way, I’m going to kill myself. It’s simply a case of how much vodka I drink before I do it. I take another big mouthful and wait for the pain to be released.

When I wake up again, I am in the same place. Ten minutes have passed, or ten hours – I have no idea. I move into a foetal position. If I can’t be a corpse, then I wish that I was a baby, curled up in some other woman’s womb, pure and longed for. I move slightly, turn my face towards the floor and vomit. It is, I notice, clear and streaked yellowish-green – alcohol and bile. I haven’t eaten for some time.

There are so many liquids and substances inside me, and I try to list them all as I lie here. There is earwax. The yellow pus that festers inside spots. Blood, mucus, urine, faeces, chyme, bile, saliva, tears. I am a butcher’s shop window of organs, large and small, pink, grey, red. All of this jumbled inside bones, encased in skin, then covered with fine hair. The skin bag is flawed, speckled with moles, freckles, little broken veins. And scars, of course. I think of a pathologist examining this carcass, noting every detail, weighing each organ. Meat inspection. Fail.

It is incomprehensible to me now that I could ever have thought that anyone would love this ambulant bag of blood and bones. Beyond understanding. I think of that night – when was it, three days ago, four? – and reach for the vodka bottle. I retch again, remembering.

The day had not augured well from the start. Polly the plant had died that morning. I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds. That plant, though, was the only living link with my childhood, the only constant between life before and after the fire, the only thing, apart from me, that had survived. I’d thought it was indestructible, assumed it would just go on and on, leaves falling off, new ones growing to replace them. I’d neglected my duties these last few weeks, too busy with hospitals and funerals and Facebook to water her regularly. Yet another living thing that I’d failed to look after. I wasn’t fit to care for anyone, anything. Too numb to cry, I dropped the plant into the bin, pot, soil and all, and saw that, throughout all these years, it had been clinging on to life only by the slenderest, frailest of roots.

Life was so very precarious. I already knew that, of course. No one knew it better than me. I know, I know how ridiculous this is, how pathetic, but on some days, the very darkest days, knowing that the plant would die if I didn’t water it was the only thing that forced me up out of bed.

Still, later that day, I’d come home from work, put the rubbish out, dressed up, made myself go out to the concert. I went alone. When I met the musician, I needed it to be just me and him, no distractions, no complications. I needed to make something happen, anything. I couldn’t keep passing through life, over it, under it, around it. I couldn’t go on haunting the world like a wraith. And things did happen that night. The first thing was the realization that the musician simply didn’t know I was there. Why on earth had I ever thought that he would? Stupidity, self- delusion, a feeble connection to reality? Take your pick.

The shame. I had stood right at the front, ridiculously trussed up in new clothes, clownish makeup, tottering on heels. When he came on stage, I was close enough to see the double knot he’d tied in his shoelaces, the strand of hair that flopped over his eyes. His hands on the guitar, fingernails carefully manicured. The lights were bright on him, and I was in darkness. But he would see me, nonetheless. If it was meant to be, and surely it was, then he would see me, the way I’d seen him, all those weeks ago. I stood still and looked up at him. The band started to play and he opened his mouth to sing. I could see his teeth, the soft pinkness of his palate. The song finished, and another began. He spoke to the crowd but he did not speak to me. I stood and waited, waited throughout another song. And another. But still he didn’t see me. And

gradually, as I stood there beyond the lights, the music beating off my body without getting in and the crowd unable to permeate the layer of aloneness that encased me, encases me, I began to realize the truth. I blinked, again and again, as though my eyes were trying to clear the view before them, and it crystallized.

I was a thirty-year-old woman with a juvenile crush on a man whom I didn’t know, and would never know. I had convinced myself that he was the one, that he would help to make me normal, fix the things that were wrong with my life. Someone to help me deal with Mummy, block out her voice when she whispered in my ear, telling me I was bad, I was wrong, I wasn’t good enough. Why had I thought that?

He wouldn’t be drawn to a woman like me. He was, objectively, a very attractive man, and could therefore select from a wide range of potential partners. He would choose an equally attractive woman a few years younger than himself. Of course he would. I was standing in a basement on a Tuesday night, alone, surrounded by strangers, listening to music I didn’t like, because I had a crush on a man who didn’t know, and would never know, that I existed. I realized I had stopped hearing the music.

There he was on stage, pressing guitar pedals and saying something trite about touring as he tuned. Who was this stranger, and why had I chosen him, of all the men in this city, this country, the world, to be my saviour? I thought about a news story I’d read the previous day, some young fans holding a tearful vigil outside a singer’s house because he’d cut his hair. I’d laughed at the time, but wasn’t I behaving like them, acting like a lovestruck teenager who writes fan letters in purple ink and etches his name on her schoolbag?

I didn’t know the man on stage before me, didn’t know the first thing about him. It was all just fantasy. Could anything be more pathetic – me, a grown woman? I’d told myself a sad little fairy tale, thinking that I could fix everything, undo the past, that he and I would live happily ever after and Mummy wouldn’t be angry any more. I was Eleanor, sad little Eleanor Oliphant, with my pathetic job, my vodka and my dinners for one, and I always would be. Nothing and no one – and certainly not this singer, who was now checking his hair in his phone during a bandmate’s guitar solo – could change that. There was no hope, things couldn’t be put right. couldn’t be put right. The past could neither be escaped nor undone. After all these weeks of delusion, I recognized, breathless, the

pure, brutal truth of it. I felt despair and nausea mingled inside me, and then that familiar black, black mood came down fast.

I slept again. When I woke, my head was empty, finally, of all thoughts except physical ones: I am cold, I am shaking. Decision time. I decided on more vodka.

When I got to my feet, slow as evolution, I saw the mess on the floor and nodded to myself – this was a good sign. Perhaps I might actually die before I needed to choose one of the methods laid out on the table. I took a tea towel from the hook – A Present from Hadrian’s Wall, it said. It had a centurion and an SPQR sigil on it. My favourite. I used it to wipe my face and then dropped it on the kitchen floor.

I didn’t bother with underwear but simply pulled on the nearest clothes from the bedroom floor – the outfit I’d been wearing on Tuesday night. I stuck my bare feet into my Velcro work shoes and found my old jerkin hanging in the hall cupboard. I didn’t know where the new coat was, I realized. My bag, however, needed to be located. I recalled that I had taken the new black handbag with me that night. It only had room for my purse and keys. The keys were on the shelf in the hall where I always put them. I found the bag in the hall too, eventually, dropped in a corner next to my shopper. My purse was empty of cash – I couldn’t recall how I’d got home or when I’d bought the vodka that I’d been drinking, but I assumed it must have been en route here from the city centre. Luckily, the purse still contained both of my bank cards. The concert ticket was in there too. I dropped it on the floor.

I walked down to the corner shop. It was daylight, cold, the sky ashen. When I entered, the electronic bleeper sounded and, behind the counter, Mr Dewan looked up. I saw his eyes widen, his mouth fall open slightly.

‘Miss Oliphant?’ he said. His voice was cautious, quiet.

‘Three litres of Glen’s, please,’ I said. My voice sounded strange – croaky and broken. I hadn’t used it for some time, I supposed, and then there was all that vomiting. He placed one before me, then seemed to hesitate.

‘Three, Miss Oliphant?’ he said. I nodded. Slowly, he put another two bottles on the counter, all of them now lined up like skittles that I’d need to knock over, knock back.

‘Anything else?’ he said. I briefly considered a loaf of bread or a tin of spaghetti, but I was not in the least bit hungry. I shook my head and

offered him my debit card. My hand was shaking and I tried to control it, but failed. I punched in the numbers, and the wait for the receipt to be printed was interminable.

A pile of evening newspapers sat on the counter beside the till, and I saw that it was Friday. Mr Dewan had fixed a mirror on the wall to see into all the shop corners, and I caught sight of myself in it. I was grey- white, the colour of larvae, and my hair stood on end. My eyes were dark hollows, empty, dead. I noted all of this with complete indifference. Nothing could be less important than my appearance, absolutely nothing. Mr Dewan handed me the bottles in a blue plastic bag. The smell of it, the chemical reek of polymers, made my stomach churn even harder.

‘Take care of yourself, Miss Oliphant,’ he said, head tilted to one side, unsmiling.

‘Goodbye, Mr Dewan,’ I said.

It was only a ten-minute walk home but it took half an hour – the bottles in the bag, the weight in my legs. I didn’t see another living creature in the streets, not even a cat or a magpie. The light was opaque, rendering the world in grey and black, a bleak absence of tone that weighed heavily on me. I kicked the front door closed behind me and stepped out of my clothes, leaving them in the hallway where they fell. I noticed in passing that I smelt very bad – perspiration, vomit and a sweet staleness that must be metabolized alcohol. I took the blue carrier bag into the bedroom and pulled on my lemon nightgown. I crawled under the covers and reached blindly for a bottle.

I drank it with the focused, single-minded determination of a murderer, but my thoughts just could not, would not be drowned – like ugly, bloated corpses, they continued to float to the surface in all their pale, gas-filled ugliness. There was the horror of my own self-delusion, of course: him, me … what was I thinking? Worse, far worse than that, was the shame. I curled myself into a ball, tried to make myself occupy as small a space in the bed as possible. Despicable. I had made a fool of myself. I was an embarrassment, like Mummy had always told me. A sound escaped into the pillow, an animal whine. I couldn’t open my eyes. I did not want to see even a centimetre of my own skin.

I’d thought I could solve the problem of myself so easily, as if the things that were done all those years ago could actually be put right. I knew that people weren’t supposed to exist as I did, work and vodka and sleep in a constant, static cycle in which I spun around on myself, into

myself, silent and alone. Going nowhere. On some level, I realized that this was wrong. I’d lifted my head up just high enough to see that, and, desperate to change, I’d clutched at a random straw, let myself get carried away, imagining some sort of … future.

I cringed. No, that’s wrong. Cringe denotes embarrassment, fleeting shame. This was my soul curling into whiteness, an existential blank where a person had once been. Why did I start to allow myself to think I could live a normal life, a happy life, the kind other people had? Why did I think that the singer could be part of that, help bring it about? The answer stabs at me: Mummy. I wanted Mummy to love me. I’d been alone for so long. I needed someone by my side to help me manage Mummy. Why wasn’t there someone, anyone, to help me manage Mummy?

I played the scene in my head again, over and over, remembering the second thing that I’d realized that night. It was later and I’d been standing further back, right in the middle of the crowd. I’d gone to get yet another drink, and the path to the front of the stage had closed up while I’d been at the bar. I’d downed the vodka – my sixth? Seventh? I don’t remember. He couldn’t see my face from where I was standing, I was aware of that. The band had stopped playing – someone had broken a string and was replacing it.

He leaned into the microphone and cocked an eyebrow. I saw his lazy, handsome smile. He peered, unseeing, into the darkness.

‘What are we going to do now, then? Since Davie’s taking so fucking long to change that string.’ He turned back towards a sullen man who gave him the finger without looking up from his guitar. ‘Right then, here’s something to keep you entertained, ladies!’ he said, then turned his back, undid his belt, dropped his jeans and wiggled his pale white buttocks at us.

Some people in the crowd laughed. Some people shouted insults. The singer retorted with an obscene gesture. I realized with uncompromising clarity that the man on stage before me was, without any doubt, an arse. The band started their next song and everyone was jumping up and down and I then was at the bar, requesting a double.

Later. I woke again. I kept my eyes closed. I was curious about something. What, I wondered, was the point of me? I contributed nothing

to the world, absolutely nothing, and I took nothing from it either. When I ceased to exist, it would make no material difference to anyone.

Most people’s absence from the world would be felt on a personal level by at least a handful of people. I, however, had no one.

I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or to hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.

I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive. Something had shifted now, and I realized that I didn’t need to wait for death. I didn’t want to. I unscrewed the bottle and drank deeply.

Ah, but things come in threes, don’t they say? The best was saved for last, and it came towards the end of the set. My focus was slightly filmy by that stage – the vodka – and I didn’t trust my eyes. I screwed them up, strained to confirm what I thought I was looking at. Smoke; grey, hazy, deadly smoke, emanating from the side of the stage and along the front. The room started to fill with it. The man next to me coughed; a psychosomatic action, since dry ice, stage smoke, prompts no such reflex. I felt it drift over me, saw how the lights and the lasers cut through it. I closed my eyes. In that moment, I was back there, in the house, upstairs. Fire. I heard screams, and could not tell if they were mine. The bass drum beat fast with my heart, the snare drum skittered like my pulse. The room was full of smoke, and I couldn’t see. Screams, my own and hers. The bass drum, the snare. The spurt of adrenaline, speeding the tempo, nauseatingly strong, too strong for my small body, for any small body. The screaming. I pushed out, out, pushed past every obstacle, stumbling, panting, until I was outside, out in the dark black night. Back to the wall, I slumped down, sprawled on the ground, the screaming in my ears, body still pounding. I vomited. I was alive. I was alone. There was no living thing in the universe that was more alone than me. Or more terrible.

I woke again. I had not closed the curtains and light was coming in, moonlight. The word connotes romance. I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole.

When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. I don’t mean a lover – this recent madness aside, I had long since given up on any notion that another person might love me that way – but simply as a human being. The scalp massage at the hairdresser, the flu jab I had last winter – the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost always wearing disposable gloves at the time. I’m merely stating the facts.

People don’t like these facts, but I can’t help that. If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.

When I first started working for Bob, there was an older woman in the office, only a couple of months away from retirement. She was often absent to care for her sister, who had ovarian cancer. This older colleague would never mention the cancer, wouldn’t even say the word, and referred to the illness only in the most oblique terms. I understand that this approach was considered quite usual back then. These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.

I got onto all fours, shuffled forward like an old dog, and pulled the curtains closed against the moon. I fell back onto the covers and reached again for the bottle.

I heard banging – bang bang bang – and a man shouting my name. I was dreaming a charnel house scene of fire, blood and violence, and it took for ever to make the transition from then to now, to realize that the banging was real and coming from my front door. I pulled the covers over my head but it would not stop. I desperately wanted it to end but, despairing, I could not think of any way to make that happen other than answering the door. My legs were shaking and I had to hold onto the wall as I walked. As I fumbled with the locks, I looked down at my feet – small, white, marble. A huge bruise, purple and green, bloomed across one, right down to my toes. I was surprised – I could feel nothing, no

pain, and had no recollection of how I had acquired it. It may as well have been painted on.

I finally managed to open the door, but couldn’t raise my head, didn’t have the strength to look up. At least the banging had stopped. That was my only objective.

‘Jesus Christ!’ a man’s voice said. ‘Eleanor Oliphant,’ I replied.

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