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Chapter no 29

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

WHEN THE GP SIGNED me off work, I wondered how a life of indolence would suit me. I’ve always had a full-time job, having started with Bob the week after I received my degree, and in all the years since then, I’ve never once had cause to call in sick. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with an extremely robust constitution.

That first week, the week immediately after the incident with the vodka and the visit from Raymond, I slept a lot. I must have done other things, normal things too, like going out to buy milk or having a shower, but I can’t recall them now.

The doctor had somehow managed to deduce that I was suffering from depression, even with only a few scant details to go on. I managed to keep all of my most important secrets to myself. She suggested that medication and talking therapy combined was the most effective form of treatment, but I insisted that I did not wish to take any tablets, at least initially. I was worried that I might start to rely on them in the same way that I’d been relying on vodka. I did, however, reluctantly agree to see a counsellor as a first step, and the inaugural session had been scheduled for today. I had been assigned to a Maria Temple – no title provided. I cared nothing for her marital status, but it would have been helpful to know in advance whether or not she was in possession of any formal medical qualifications.

Her office was located on the third floor of a tall modern block in the city centre. The lift had transported me back in time to that least belle of époques – the 1980s. Grey grey grey, sludgy pastels, dirty plastic, nasty carpets. It smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since the 1980s either. I had been reluctant to attend the counselling session from the outset, and to do so in this setting made it even less enticing, if such a thing were possible. Sadly, the environment was all too familiar, and this was, in its own way, a comfort. The institutional corridors with floral friezes and Artex ceilings down which I have walked in my life are legion.

I knocked on the door – thin plywood, grey, no nameplate – and, too quickly, as though she had been standing right behind it, Maria Temple opened it and invited me in. The room was tiny, a dining chair and two institutional armchairs (the wipe-clean, uncomfortable kind) arranged opposite a small, low table, on which was placed a box of non-branded ‘man-size’ tissues. I was momentarily thrown. Their noses are, with a few exceptions, more or less the same size as our own, are they not? Did they really need a vastly bigger surface area of tissue, simply because they were in possession of an XY chromosome? Why? I suspected that I really did not want to know the answer to that question.

There was no window, and a framed print on the wall (a vase of roses, made using a computer by someone who was dead inside) was more offensive to the eye than a bare wall.

‘You must be Eleanor?’ she said, smiling.

‘It’s Miss Oliphant, actually,’ I said, taking off my jerkin and wondering what on earth to do with it. She pointed to a row of hooks on the back of the door, where I placed it as far away as possible from the very practical waterproof which hung there already. I sat down opposite her – the chair released a tired whump of stale air from its grubby cushions. She smiled at me. Her teeth! Oh, Ms Temple. She had done her best, but nothing could change the size of them, I supposed. They belonged in a far bigger mouth, perhaps not even a human one. I was reminded of a photograph that the Telegraph had featured some time ago, of a monkey which had grabbed a camera and taken its own grinning photograph (a ‘selfie’). The poor woman; an adjective which one would never wish to have applied to one’s teeth was simian.

‘I’m Maria Temple, Eleanor – erm, Miss Oliphant,’ she said, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you.’ She looked intently at me, which made me sit forward in my seat, not wanting to show how uncomfortable I was feeling.

‘Have you ever had counselling before, Miss Oliphant?’ she said, taking out a notebook from her handbag. It had, I noticed, several accessories attached to it, keyrings and the like – a pink, fluffy monkey, a giant metallic letter M, and, most hideous of all, a tiny, sequinned red stiletto shoe. I’d come across the type before. Ms Temple was ‘fun’.

‘Yes and no,’ I said. She raised a quizzical eyebrow, but I declined to elaborate further. There was a silence, in which I heard the lift clattering

again, although no further sound or evidence of human occupation followed. I felt marooned.

‘OK then,’ she said, brightly, too brightly. ‘I think we’ll get started. Now, first of all, I want to reassure you that everything we discuss in here together is absolutely confidential. I’m a member of all the relevant professional bodies, and we adhere to a very strict code of conduct. You should always feel comfortable and safe in this space, and, please, ask me anything, at any time, especially if you’re not clear about what we’re doing, or why.’ She seemed to be waiting for some sort of response, but I had none to offer her. I shrugged.

She settled into her chair and began reading from her notebook. ‘You’ve been referred here by your GP, I see, and you’ve been suffering from depression.’

I nodded.

‘Can you tell me a bit about how you’ve been feeling?’ she said. Her smile had assumed a slightly fixed quality.

‘I’ve been feeling a bit sad, I suppose,’ I said. I stared at her shoes. They resembled golf shoes, only without spikes. They were gold. Unbelievable.

‘How long have you been feeling sad, Ele— Miss Oliphant?’ She tapped her enormous teeth with her pen. ‘Actually, would you mind if I called you Eleanor? It would just, you know, help the discussion flow a bit more freely if we were both on first-name terms, I think. Would that be OK?’ She smiled.

‘I prefer Miss Oliphant, but yes, I suppose so,’ I said graciously. Titles were better, though. I didn’t know her from Adam, after all. She wasn’t my friend, she was someone who was being paid to interact with me. A bit of professional distance is highly appropriate, I feel, when, for example, a stranger is examining the back of your eyeballs for tumours, or rooting around in your dentine with a hooked instrument. Or, indeed, poking around in your brain, dragging out your feelings and letting them sit there in the room, in all their shameful awfulness.

‘Great,’ she said brightly, and I could tell that she had realized I was most decidedly not ‘fun’. We wouldn’t ever be going bungee-jumping or to a fancy dress party together. What else is supposed to be fun? Sing-a- longs. Sponsored runs. Magicians. I’ve no idea; personally, I like animals and crosswords and (until very recently) vodka. What could be more fun

than that? Not belly dancing classes in the community hall. Not murder mystery weekends. Hen dos. No.

‘Was there something in particular that led you to seek help from your GP?’ she said. ‘An incident, an interaction? Telling someone how you’re feeling can be a very difficult thing to do, but it’s great that you took such an important first step.’

‘A friend suggested that I see my doctor,’ I said, experiencing a tiny frisson of pleasure as I used the ‘F’ word. ‘Raymond,’ I clarified. I rather liked saying his name, the rhotic trill at the start. It was a nice name, a good name, and that at least seemed fair. He deserved some luck – after all, given his meagre physical blessings, he already had enough to contend with, without being lumbered with, say, Eustace or Tyson as a first name.

‘Would you like to tell me about the events leading up to your decision to visit your GP? What prompted your friend to make the suggestion?’ she said. ‘How were you feeling, then?’

‘I was feeling a bit sad and things got on top of me, that’s all. So my friend suggested that I should see my GP. And the GP said I had to come here, if I didn’t want to take the pills.’

She looked intently at me. ‘Could you tell me why you were feeling sad?’ she said.

I released a sigh that was longer and more unintentionally histrionic than I had been expecting. I felt my throat constrict at the end of the breath, tightening with tears. Don’t cry, Eleanor. DO NOT CRY IN FRONT OF THE STRANGER.

‘It’s quite boring,’ I said, trying my best to sound nonchalant. ‘It was just … a sort of love affair that went wrong. That’s all. A perfectly standard situation.’ There was a lengthy silence. Eventually, purely to try and get this over with as quickly as possible, I spoke again. ‘There was a misunderstanding. I thought … I misinterpreted some signals. It turned out that I had very much got the wrong impression of the person concerned.’

‘Has this happened to you before?’ she asked, quietly. ‘No,’ I said.

There was another lengthy silence.

‘Who was this person, Eleanor? Can you talk a bit more about what happened to make you … how did you put it … misunderstand the signals? What were the signals?’

‘Well, there was a man that I took a bit of a liking to, a little crush, you might say, and I got slightly carried away, and then I realized that, actually, I’d been a bit silly. We weren’t going to be together. And he – well, it turned out that he wasn’t even right for me anyway. He wasn’t the man I thought he was. I felt sad about that, and I felt extremely stupid for getting it all so wrong. That’s all it was …’ I heard my voice trail off. ‘OK, well … there are a few things I’d like to unpick in all of that.

How did you meet this man? What was the nature of your relationship with him?’

‘Oh, I never actually met him,’ I said.

She stopped writing in her notebook, and there was a bit of an awkward pause. I think, in theatrical terms, it’s called a beat.

‘Right …’ she said. ‘So how did your … your paths cross, then?’ ‘He’s a musician. I saw him perform and – well, I fell for him, I

suppose you’d say.’

Maria Temple spoke cautiously. ‘Is he … is he famous?’

I shook my head. ‘He’s local. He lives here. Near me, in fact. He’s not famous, as such. Yet.’

Maria Temple said nothing and waited for me to continue. She didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Nothing. I realized that I may have given her a slightly misleading impression of my behaviour.

‘To be clear,’ I said, ‘I’m not some sort of … stalker. I merely found out where he lives, and I copied out a poem for him, which I didn’t even send. And I tweeted him once, but that’s all. That’s not a crime. All of the information I needed was in the public domain. I didn’t break any laws or anything like that.’

‘And you’ve never found yourself in this sort of situation before, Eleanor, with anyone else?’ So she thought I might be some sort of obsessive, serially fixated on strangers. Charming.

‘No, never,’ I said firmly and truthfully. ‘He was just … he caught my eye, piqued my interest, that’s all. He was, you know, handsome …’

There was another long pause.

Finally, Maria Temple sat back in her chair and began to speak, which was a relief. It was exhausting, answering all these questions, talking about myself and worrying whether I sounded as stupid, as embarrassingly naïve as I thought I did.

‘Here’s a scenario. I’ll run it by you and you can see what you think. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Eleanor, that you had developed a

crush on this man. These sorts of feelings are generally a sort of emotional “trial run” for a real relationship. They’re very intense. Does that sound reasonable, plausible so far?’ I stared at her.

‘So,’ she went on, ‘there you were, quite enjoying your crush, feeling the feelings. Tell me, what happened to bring this to an end all of a sudden? What crushed the crush, as it were?’

I slumped back into my seat. She had taken me by surprise with her startlingly accurate summary of how things had been, and then asked a very interesting, pertinent question. Despite the gold shoes and the novelty keyrings, I could see already that Maria Temple was no fool. This was all going to take me a while to process, but in the meantime, I tried to gather my thoughts into some sort of coherent response.

‘I suppose on some level I actually felt the whole thing was real, and that, when we finally met, we’d fall in love and get married and so on. I felt, I don’t know, somehow ready for a relationship like that. People – men – like him don’t cross my path very often. It seemed only right not to let the opportunity pass by. And I felt sure that … certain people … would be pleased that I’d found him. When he and I were finally in the same room together, though, something that I’d worked hard to make happen, the whole thing just sort of … dissolved. Does that make any sense?’

She nodded encouragingly.

‘I suppose I realized, right there in that room, that I’d been stupid, acting like a teenager rather than a thirty-year-old woman. He wasn’t even special, I’d been focused on him, but really, it could have been anyone. I’d been trying to please M—’

Nodding, she interrupted me, thankfully stopping me from going too far.

‘There are actually quite a number of issues I’d like to suggest we explore over the next few sessions,’ she said. ‘We’ve been talking about recent events here today, but at some point I’d like to hear a bit about your childhood—’

‘Absolutely not,’ I said, folding my arms and staring at the carpet. The lady does not need to know what goes on in this house.

‘I understand that it can be a very difficult thing to talk about,’ she said.

‘I don’t want to talk about any of that, Maria. Please, do not ask me to talk about Mummy.’

Damn, damn, damn. She leapt on that, of course. Mummy’s always the star turn, the big draw.

‘What sort of relationship do you have with your mother, Eleanor?

Are you close?’

‘Mummy’s in contact quite regularly. Too regularly,’ I said. The cat was out of the bag now.

‘You two don’t get on, then?’ she said.

‘It’s … complicated.’ I noticed myself physically as well as metaphorically squirming in my seat.

‘Can you tell me why?’ Maria asked, bold as brass, nosy, intrusive.

Shameless. ‘No,’ I said.

There was a very long pause.

‘I know that it’s difficult, really difficult, to talk about painful things, but, as I said, that’s the best route to helping us move forward. Let’s start very slowly. Can you tell me why you don’t feel comfortable talking about your mother?’

‘I … she wouldn’t want me to,’ I said. That was true. I remembered the last – and only – time I’d done it, with a teacher. It wasn’t a mistake you made twice.

My left leg had begun to tremble; just a little quiver, but once it started, I couldn’t get it to stop. I threw my head back and made a noise, a sort of sigh mixed with a cough, to try to distract her eye from it.

‘OK,’ she said patiently. ‘If it’s all right with you, to finish up, I’d like to suggest that we try something a bit different. It’s called the empty- chair exercise,’ she said. I folded my arms and stared at her.

‘Basically, I’d like you to imagine that this chair here’ – she indicated the lone upright dining chair – ‘is your mother.’

She anticipated my response.

‘Now, I know this might feel silly, or embarrassing, but please, just try and go with it. No one’s judging you here. This is a safe space.’ I twisted my hands together anxiously in my lap, mirroring the feeling in my stomach.

‘Are you willing to give it a try?’

I stared at the door, willing myself out of it, willing the hands of the clock to tick round to the hour.

‘Eleanor,’ she said gently, ‘I’m here to help you, and you’re here to help yourself, aren’t you? I think you want to be happy. In fact, I know

you do. Who doesn’t? We can work together in this room towards helping you achieve that. It’s not going to be easy, or quick, but I really think it could be worth it. What have you got to lose, after all? You’re going to be here for an hour either way. Why not give it a try?’

She had made a fair point, I supposed. I looked up and slowly unfolded my arms.

‘Great!’ she said. ‘Thank you, Eleanor. So … let’s imagine that this chair here is your mother. What do you want to tell her, right now? If you could say anything, right here, without being interrupted? Without fear of judgement? Come on, don’t worry. Anything you like …’

I turned to face the empty chair. My leg was still trembling. I cleared my throat. I was safe. She wasn’t really here, she wasn’t really listening. I thought back to that house, the cold, the damp smell, the wallpaper with the cornflowers and the brown carpet. I heard the cars passing by outside, all of them driving to nice places, safe places, while we were here, left all alone or – worse – left with her.

‘Mummy … please,’ I said. I could hear my voice outside of my own head, disembodied in the room, floating. It was high and very, very quiet. I breathed in.

‘Please don’t hurt us.’

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