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Chapter no 31

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

FEW WEEKS PASSED, AND the sessions with Maria Temple had become a natural part of my routine. It was nice to be out, despite the wind, and I decided to walk instead of taking the bus, enjoying what remained of the sun. There were plenty of other people with the same idea. It felt good to be part of a throng, and I took gentle pleasure in mingling . I dropped twenty pence into the paper cup of a man sitting on the pavement with a very attractive dog. I bought a fudge doughnut from Greggs and ate it as I walked. I smiled at a spectacularly ugly baby who was shaking his fist at me from a garish pushchair. Noticing details, that was good. Tiny slivers of life – they all added up and helped you to feel that you, too, could be a fragment, a little piece of humanity who usefully filled a space, however minuscule. I was pondering this as I waited for the lights to change. Someone tapped me on the arm, and I jumped.

‘Eleanor?’ It was Laura, looking cartoonishly glamorous as usual. I hadn’t seen her since Sammy’s service.

‘Oh hello,’ I said. ‘How are you? I’m sorry I didn’t manage to speak to you at your father’s funeral.’

She laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it, Eleanor – Ray explained that you were a bit tiddly that day,’ she said.

I felt my face flush and looked down at the pavement. I suppose I had drunk rather a lot of vodka that afternoon. She punched my arm gently.

‘Don’t be daft, that’s what funerals are for, aren’t they – a wee drink and a catch-up?’ she said, smiling.

I shrugged, still averting my gaze.

‘Your hair’s looking good,’ she said brightly.

I nodded, glanced up into her kohl-rimmed eyes.

‘Several people have remarked upon it, actually,’ I said, feeling a bit more confident, ‘which leads me to think that you must have done a very good job.’

‘Och, that’s nice to hear,’ she said. ‘You can pop back into the salon any time, you know – I’ll always try to fit you in, Eleanor. You were lovely to my dad, so you were.’

He was lovely to me,’ I said. ‘You were very lucky to have had such a delightful father.’

Her eyes started to brim, but she blinked the tears away, aided no doubt by the enormous artificial lashes she had glued along her upper lids. The lights at the pedestrian crossing started to flash.

‘Raymond mentioned how fond of him you both were,’ she said quietly. She checked her watch. ‘Oh God, sorry, I’ll need to run, Eleanor – the car’s on the meter, and you know what those wardens are like if you go a minute over.’

I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, but I let it pass. ‘I’m seeing Ray this weekend, actually,’ she said, touching my arm.

She smiled, ‘He’s actually quite nice, isn’t he? He kind of slipped under my radar at first but then, once you get to know him …’ She smiled again. ‘Anyway, I’ll let him know you were asking after him on Saturday, Eleanor,’ she said.

‘No need,’ I said, bristling slightly. ‘I’ve recently had luncheon with Raymond, as it happens. What unfortunate timing – I could have let him know that you were asking after him.’

She stared at me. ‘I wasn’t … I mean, I didn’t know you two were close,’ she said.

‘We lunch together weekly,’ I said.

‘Ah, right – lunch,’ she said, looking happier, for some reason. ‘Well, like I said, got to run. Nice seeing you, Eleanor!’

I raised my hand and bade her farewell. It was incredible how she managed to run so nimbly in those heels. I feared for her ankles. Fortunately, they were rather on the chunky side.

Maria Temple was wearing yellow tights today, teamed with purple ankle boots. Yellow tights did not, I noticed, flatter a sporty calf.

‘I wonder if we might revisit the subject of your mother, Eleanor? Is that perhaps something we could—’

‘No,’ I said. More silence.

‘Fine, fine, no problem. Could you tell me a bit about your father, then? You haven’t really mentioned him so far.’

‘I don’t have a father,’ I said. More of that awful silence. It was so annoying, but in the end, it actually worked, her refusal to speak. The quiet went on for aeons, and in the end I simply couldn’t bear it any longer.

‘Mummy told me she was … I assumed she was … well, she didn’t tell me directly when I was a child, but as an adult, I’ve come to understand that she was the victim of a … sexual assault,’ I said, somewhat inelegantly. No response. ‘I don’t know his name and I never met him,’ I said.

She was writing in her notebook, and looked up. ‘Did you ever wish you had a father, or a father figure in your life, Eleanor? Was it something that you missed?’

I stared at my hands. It was difficult, talking openly about these things, dragging them out for inspection when they’d been perfectly fine as they were, hidden away.

‘You don’t miss what you’ve never had,’ I said eventually. I’d read that somewhere and it sounded as though it ought to be true. ‘For as long as I can remember, there’s only ever been me and … her. No one else to play with, to talk to, no shared childhood memories. But I don’t suppose that’s particularly unusual. And it didn’t do me any harm, after all.’

I could feel the impact of these words in my stomach, acidic and bitter, swirling around inside.

She was writing in her notebook again and didn’t look up.

‘Did your mother ever talk about the assault? Did she know her assailant?’

‘I stated quite clearly on the first day I came here that I didn’t want to talk about her,’ I said.

She spoke gently. ‘Of course. Don’t worry – we won’t talk about her, Eleanor, not if you don’t want to. I’m just asking in the context of your father, trying to find out more about him, your feelings about him, that’s all.’

I thought about it. ‘I don’t really have any feelings about him, Maria.’ ‘Did you ever consider trying to find him?’ she said.

‘A rapist? I shouldn’t have thought so,’ I said.

‘A daughter’s relationship with her father can sometimes influence her subsequent relationships with men. Do you have any thoughts about that, Eleanor?’

I pondered. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Mummy wasn’t particularly keen on men. But then, she wasn’t keen on anyone, really. She thought most people were unsuitable for us, regardless of their gender.’

‘What do you mean?’ Maria said.

Here we were, talking about Mummy, after I’d expressly forbidden it. However, I found, much to my surprise, that I was actually starting to enjoy holding court like this, having Dr Temple’s undivided attention. Perhaps it was the lack of eye contact. It felt relaxing, almost as though I was talking to myself.

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘she only wanted us to socialize with people who were nice, people who were proper – that was something she talked about a lot. She always insisted that we spoke politely, behaved with decorum … she made us practise elocution, at least an hour a day. She had – let’s just say she had quite direct methods of correcting us when we said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing. Which was pretty much all the time.’

Maria nodded, indicated that I should go on.

‘She said that we deserved the best of everything, and that, even in straitened circumstances, we should always conduct ourselves properly. It was almost as though she thought we were some kind of displaced royalty, you know … the family of a deposed tsar or an overthrown monarch or something. I tried so hard, but I never managed to look and behave the way she thought I should, to behave appropriately. That made her very unhappy, and very angry. Mind you, it wasn’t just me. No one was ever good enough. She was always telling us we had to be on the lookout for someone who was good enough.’ I shook my head. ‘I suppose that’s how I ended up here,’ I said. ‘Trying to find someone like that, and then getting confused and making a giant mess of everything.’

I realized that my whole body was shaking, like a wet dog on a cold morning. Maria looked up.

‘Let’s move on, for now,’ she said gently. ‘Do you want to tell me something about what happened after you and your mother parted company, about your experience of the care system? What was that like?’

I shrugged.

‘Being fostered was … fine. Being in residential care was … fine. No one abused me, I had food and drink, clean clothes and a roof over my

head. I went to school every day until I was seventeen and then I went to university. I can’t really complain about any of it.’

Maria spoke very gently.

‘What about your other needs, Eleanor?’

‘I’m not sure I’m quite following you, Maria,’ I said, puzzled. ‘Humans have a range of needs that we need to have met, Eleanor, in

order to be happy and healthy individuals. You’ve described how your basic physical needs – warmth, food, shelter – were taken care of. But what about your emotional needs?’

I was completely taken aback.

‘But I don’t have any emotional needs,’ I said.

Neither of us spoke for a while. Eventually, she cleared her throat. ‘Everyone does, Eleanor. All of us – and especially young children –

need to know that we’re loved, valued, accepted and understood …’

I said nothing. This was news to me. I let it settle. It sounded plausible, but it was a concept I’d need to consider at more length in the privacy of my own home.

‘Was there ever someone who fulfilled that role in your life, Eleanor? Someone who you felt understood you? Someone who loved you, just as you were, unconditionally?’

My first response was to say no, of course. Mummy most certainly did not fall into that category. Something – someone – was niggling at me, though, tugging at my sleeve. I tried to ignore her but she wouldn’t go away, that little voice, those little hands.

‘I … Yes.’

‘No rush, Eleanor. Take your time. What do you remember?’

I took a breath. Back in that house, on a good day. Stripes of sunshine on the carpet, a board game set out on the floor, a pair of dice, two brightly coloured counters. A day with more ladders than snakes.

‘Pale brown eyes. Something about a dog. But I’ve never had a pet …’ I felt myself becoming distressed, confused, a churning in my stomach, a dull pain in my throat. There was a memory there,

somewhere deep, somewhere too painful to touch.

‘OK,’ she said gently, passing me the much-needed box of man-sized tissues, ‘time’s almost up now.’ She took out her diary. ‘Shall we agree to meet at the same time next week and come back to this?’

I couldn’t believe it. All that work, I was so close, so close now, and she was throwing me out on the street again? After everything I’d

shared, all the things I’d uncovered, was about to keep uncovering? I threw the tissue on the floor.

‘Go to hell,’ I said quietly.

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