Chapter no 30

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

DON’T RESORT TO FOUL language as a rule, but that first session with the counsellor yesterday was bloody ridiculous. I started crying in front of Dr Temple at the end of her stupid empty-chair exercise, and then she actually said, with faux gentleness, that our session had to draw to a close and that she’d see me next week at the same time. She basically hustled me out onto the street, and I found myself standing on the pavement, shoppers bustling past me, tears streaming down my face. How could she do it? How could one human being see another so obviously in pain, a pain she had deliberately drawn out and worried away at, and then push her out into the street and leave her to cope with it alone?

It was 11 a.m. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking, but I wiped away my tears, went into the nearest pub and ordered a large vodka. I silently raised a toast to absent friends and drank it down fast. I walked out before any of the daytime drinkers could begin an interaction with me. Then I went home and got into bed.

Raymond and I continued to meet for lunch in our usual café while I was off work. He would text me to suggest a time and date (the only texts I had received on my new mobile telephone so far). It turned out that if you saw the same person with some degree of regularity, then the conversation was immediately pleasant and comfortable – you could pick up where you left off, as it were, rather than having to start afresh each time.

During the course of these chats, Raymond asked again about Mummy – why I hadn’t told her I’d been unwell, why she never visited me, or I her, until finally I gave in and provided him with a potted biography. He already knew about the fire, of course, and that I’d been brought up in care afterwards. That, I told him, was because it wasn’t possible for me

to live with Mummy afterwards, not where she was. It was, I’d hoped, enough to keep him quiet, but no.

‘Where is she, then? Hospital, nursing home?’ he guessed. I shook my head.

‘It’s a bad place, for bad people,’ I said. He thought for a moment. ‘Not prison?’ He looked shocked. I held his gaze but said nothing.

After another short pause he asked, not unreasonably, what crime she had committed.

‘I can’t remember,’ I said.

He stared at me, then snorted.

‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘Come on, Eleanor. You can tell me. It won’t change anything between us, I promise. It’s not like you did it, whatever it was.’

I felt a hot flush streak right up the front of my body and then down my back, a sensation I can only liken to being given a sedative prior to a general anaesthetic. My pulse was pounding.

‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘I honestly don’t know. I think I must have been told at the time, but I can’t remember. I was only ten. Everyone was really careful never to mention it around me …’

‘Oh, come on,’ he said. ‘She must have done something really terrible to … I mean, what about at school? Kids can be little shits about stuff like that. What about when people hear your name? Although, come to think of it, I don’t think I remember reading anything about a crime involving an Oliphant …?’

‘Yes, I suppose you would have remembered an Oliphant in the room,’ I said.

He didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a very good joke, on reflection. I cleared my throat.

‘Oliphant isn’t my real name,’ I said. I liked it, always had, and was extremely grateful to whoever had selected it for me. You didn’t come across many Oliphants, that was for sure. Special.

He stared at me, like he was watching a film.

‘They gave me a new identity afterwards, moved me up here … it was meant to stop people recognising me, protect me. Which is ironic.’

‘Why?’ he said. I sighed.

‘Being in care wasn’t always much fun. I mean, it was completely fine, I had everything I needed, but it wasn’t all picnics and pillowfights.’

He raised his eyebrows, nodded. I stirred my coffee.

‘The terminology’s different now, I think,’ I said. ‘They call young people in care “looked after”. But every child should be “looked after”

… it really ought to be the default.’

I heard myself sounding angry and sad. No one likes hearing themselves sound like that. If someone said, Please could you describe yourself in two words, and you said, ‘Erm … let me see … Angry and Sad?’ then that really wouldn’t be good.

Raymond had reached out then and, very gently, he squeezed my shoulder. It was superficially ineffectual, but, in fact, felt surprisingly pleasant.

‘Do you want me to find out what she did?’ he said. ‘I bet I could, quite easily. The magic of the interweb, hey?’

‘No, thank you,’ I said curtly. ‘I’m more than capable of finding out myself, should I ever wish to. You’re not the only person who knows how to use a computer, you know,’ I said. His face went very pink. ‘And in any case,’ I went on, ‘as you so thoughtfully pointed out, it must have been something fairly horrendous. Don’t forget, I still have to talk to her once a week – it’s hard enough as it is. It will be completely impossible if I know that she’s done … whatever it is that she’s done.’

Raymond nodded. To his credit, he looked slightly ashamed, and only a tiny bit disappointed.

He really isn’t prurient, unlike most other people. After this chat, he still asked questions, but they were normal questions that anyone would ask about their friend’s mother (friend! I’ve got a friend!) – how she was, whether we’d spoken recently. I asked him the same questions back. It was normal. I didn’t tell him most of what Mummy said during our chats, of course – it was too painful to repeat, embarrassing and humiliating. I was sure Raymond was already acutely aware of my many physical and character defects, and so there was no need to remind him of them by relating Mummy’s bon mots.

Sometimes, he made me stop and think. We’d been talking about holidays, about how he planned to go travelling when he retired, so that he would have enough money to do it in style.

‘Mummy’s seen so much of the world, lived in so many different places,’ I said. I reeled a few off. Raymond, surprisingly, looked distinctly unimpressed.

‘How old is your mum?’ he said. I was taken aback. How old was she?

I started to work it out.

‘So … I’m thirty, and I think she must have had me when she was very young – nineteen, twenty? So she’ll be … I’d guess she’d be in her early fifties now, something like that?’

Raymond nodded.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘So … I’m wondering … I mean, I don’t have kids, so what would I know – but I imagine it can’t be easy, lodging in an opium den in Tangier if you’ve got a toddler with you? Or … what was the other thing? Working as a blackjack dealer in Macau?’ He spoke very gently, as though he were afraid to upset me.

‘I mean, if you added up all the things she said she’d done, wouldn’t it cover a longer period than thirty years? Unless she did it all before you were born and she was still a teenager. And if she did … well, I’m wondering … where did she get the money from, to do all that travelling, and wasn’t she a bit young to be going to places like that on her own at that age? What about your dad? Where did she meet him?’

I looked away. These were important questions that I couldn’t answer. Questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer. But really, why hadn’t I ever thought about them before?

This conversation with Raymond came back to me the next time I spoke to her.

‘Hello, darling,’ she said. I thought I heard a hiss of static, or perhaps the malign buzz of strip lighting and another noise, something that sounded a bit like the clanging of bolts being drawn.

‘Hello, Mummy,’ I whispered. I could hear chewing.

‘Are you eating?’ I said. She exhaled, and then there was an awful honking sound, like a cat trying to cough up a furball, followed by a moist splat.

‘Chewing tobacco,’ she said dismissively. ‘Ghastly stuff – I’d advise against it, darling.’

‘Mummy, I’m hardly likely to try chewing tobacco, am I?’

‘I suppose not,’ she said. ‘You never were very adventurous. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, though. I indulged in some paan now and again, back when I lived in Lahore.’

As I’d told Raymond, Mummy has lived in Mumbai, Tashkent, São Paulo and Taipei. She’s trekked in the Sarawak jungle and climbed

Mount Toubkal. She’s had an audience with the Dalai Lama in Kathmandu and taken afternoon tea with a Maharaja in Jaipur. And that’s just for starters.

There was some more throat-clearing – the chewing tobacco had clearly taken its toll. I took advantage of the opening.

‘Mummy, I wanted to ask you something. How … how old were you when you had me?’

She laughed, unamused.

‘I was thirteen … no, wait … I was forty-nine. Whatever. Why do you care? What’s it to you, daughter mine?’

‘I was just wondering …’ I said.

She sighed. ‘I have actually told you all this before, Eleanor,’ she said briskly, ‘I do wish you would listen.’ There was a pause.

‘I was twenty,’ she said calmly. ‘From an evolutionary point of view, that’s actually the peak time for a woman to give birth, you know. Everything just springs back into place. Why, even now, I still have the pert, firm breasts of an early-career supermodel …’

‘Mummy, please!’ I said. She cackled.

‘What’s wrong, Eleanor? Am I embarrassing you? What a strange child you are! You always were. Hard to love, that’s what you are. Very hard to love.’

Her laughter trailed off into a long, painful-sounding cough. ‘Christ,’ she said. ‘I’m starting to fall apart.’

For the first time I could remember, I heard a note of sadness in her voice.

‘Aren’t you well, Mummy?’ I asked. She sighed.

‘Oh, I’m fine, Eleanor,’ she said. ‘Talking to you always revitalizes me.’

I looked at the wall, waiting for the onslaught. I could almost feel her gathering herself, ready to strike.

‘All alone, aren’t you? No one to talk to, no one to play with. And it’s all your own fault. Strange, sad little Eleanor. Too bright for your own good, aren’t you? You always were. And yet … in so many ways, you’re incredibly, spectacularly stupid. You can’t see what’s right in front of your nose. Or should I say who …’

She coughed again. I did not dare to breathe, waiting for what would come next.

‘Oh, I’m so, so tired of talking. It’s your turn, Eleanor. If you had even a modicum of social savoir-faire, you’d know that conversation is supposed to be a to-and-fro, a game of verbal tennis. Don’t you remember me teaching you that? So, come on, tell me – what have you been doing this week?’

I said nothing. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to speak.

‘I must say,’ she went on, ‘I was surprised when you told me you’d been promoted at work. You’ve always been more of a follower than a leader, haven’t you, darling?’

Should I tell her that I’d been signed off sick? I had managed to avoid any talk of work recently, but she’d raised the topic now. Did she already know about my absence, and was this therefore a trap? I tried to think on my feet, but that’s something I’ve never been good at. Too slow, Eleanor, too late …

‘Mummy, I … I’ve been unwell. I’m off work at the moment. I’m on sick leave for a while.’ I heard a deep breath. Was she shocked? Concerned? The same breath rushed out of her, down the phone and into my ear, heavy and fast.

‘That’s better,’ she said, sighing happily. ‘Why on earth would you chew tobacco when you could smoke a lovely, delicious Sobranie?’

She took another deep drag on her cigarette and spoke again, sounding, if anything, even more bored than before.

‘Look, I haven’t got long,’ she said, ‘so let’s keep it brief. What’s so wrong with you that you’re skiving off work? Is it serious? Life threatening? Terminal?’

‘I’ve got clinical depression, Mummy,’ I said, all in a rush. She snorted.

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ she said. ‘There’s no such thing.’

I thought back to what the GP and Raymond had said, and how kind and understanding Bob had been. His sister had depression for years, he’d told me. I’d had no idea.

‘Mummy,’ I said, as defiantly as I dared, ‘I have clinical depression. I’m seeing a counsellor and exploring what happened during my childhood, and—’

‘NO!’ she shouted, so loud and sudden that I took a step back. The next time she spoke, she was quiet – dangerously quiet.

‘Now, you listen to me, Eleanor. Under no circumstances are you to discuss your childhood with anyone, especially not a so-called

“counsellor”. Do you hear me? Don’t you dare. I’m warning you, Eleanor. If you start down that path, do you know what will happen? Do you know what I’ll do? I’ll—’

Dead air.

As always, Mummy was scary. But the thing was, this time – for the first time ever – she’d actually sounded scared too.

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