Chapter no 34

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

SUNDAY. I HAD TO leave the house at twelve to meet Raymond for lunch. Glen was dozing in her new bed, and I used the camera function on my mobile telephone to take some more shots of her. In the final picture, she had one paw covering her eyes as if to block out the light. I knelt down on the floor beside her and buried my face in the biggest patch of fur. She wriggled slightly, then increased the volume of her purring. I kissed the softness on the top of her head.

‘See you later, Glen,’ I said. ‘I won’t be long.’ She appeared blissfully untroubled by my imminent departure.

When I was ready to leave, I opened the door as quietly as I could and tiptoed into the living room to check if she was still asleep. I found her on top of the giant catnip-stuffed mouse, both she and the rodent facing me, its glazed button eyes staring straight ahead. She had her front paws thrown over its mousy shoulders and was lazily kneading them while she humped it energetically from behind. I left them to it.

Ever since the session, all I could think about was Marianne. Marianne Marianne Marianne; I turned the name over and over in my mind like a coin between my fingers. Dr Temple had asked me to prepare myself to talk about her again in our next session. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Is knowing always better than not knowing? Discuss.

Raymond, untroubled by philosophical questions, was already there when I arrived at the Black Dog, reading the Sunday Mail and sipping a pint.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said.

His face was paler than usual, and when he stood up to hug me, I could smell old as well as new beer, in addition to the usual reek of cigarettes.

‘How’s it going?’ he said, his voice sounding scratchy. ‘How are you?’ I said. He didn’t look well.

He groaned. ‘I nearly texted you to cancel, to be honest,’ he said. ‘Had a bit of a late one last night.’

‘Did you and Laura go on a date?’ I said.

He boggled at me. ‘How on earth did you know that?’ he asked, sounding incredulous.

I remembered something I’d seen Billy do in the office, and tapped the side of my nose with my index finger knowingly.

He laughed. ‘I think you might have a bit of witch in you, Eleanor,’ he said.

I shrugged. I even had a black cat now to prove it.

‘I bumped into Laura a while back, actually,’ I explained. ‘She told me you were seeing each other.’

He took a big gulp of his pint.

‘Right. Yeah, she’s been in touch a few times, asking if I wanted to meet up. We went to see a film last night, had a couple of drinks afterwards.’

‘That sounds nice,’ I said. ‘Is she your girlfriend now, then?’ He signalled to the waiter to bring him another pint.

‘Laura’s a lovely girl,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think I’m going to be seeing her again.’

A staff member brought Raymond’s beer and some menus, and I asked for a Dandelion and Burdock. Weirdly, considering it was a smart bar in the city centre, they didn’t have any, so I had to make do with a Dr Pepper.

‘Why not?’ I said. ‘Laura’s very glamorous.’

Raymond sighed. ‘It’s a bit more complicated than that, Eleanor, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I think she’s probably a bit … high maintenance for me, if you know what I mean?’

‘Not really, no,’ I said.

‘She’s not my type, to be honest.’ He took a noisy mouthful of beer. ‘I mean, looks are important, of course they are, but you’ve got to be able to have a laugh, enjoy each other’s company too, you know? I’m not sure me and Laura have got that much in common.’

I shrugged, not knowing how best to respond. It was hardly my area of expertise.

We were silent for a moment. He was looking terribly pale and uncomfortable. Classic hangover symptoms. Thankfully I never suffered from them, blessed as I am with an iron constitution.

I ordered an omelette made by the chef, Arnold Bennett, and Raymond went for the full cooked breakfast with extra fried bread.

‘Had quite a lot of Jack Daniel’s with Desi after I got home last night,’ he explained. ‘That should soak it up.’

‘Don’t make a habit of the drinks, Raymond,’ I said sadly. ‘You don’t want to end up like me, do you?’

Raymond reached for my arm, held it for a moment. ‘You’re doing just fine, Eleanor,’ he said.

The food came, and I tried not to look at Raymond as he ate. It was never a pretty sight. I wondered how Glen was doing. Would it be possible to bring her out somewhere like this, if she could sit in some sort of high chair at the table with us? I could see no reason against it but for the small-minded anti-feline contingent who might complain.

‘Look, Raymond!’ I said, thrusting my phone in his face. He glanced at the first four pictures.

‘Ah, that’s nice, Eleanor,’ he said. ‘She looks really settled at your place.’

‘Keep scrolling,’ I said. He flicked through a few more in a desultory fashion; I could tell he was losing interest. Pearls before swine.

We talked about inconsequential matters as we waited for our coffee. When it arrived, there was a lull in the conversation, and Raymond poured a sachet of sugar onto the table. He began to draw in the grains with his forefinger, humming tunelessly as he tended to do when he was feeling anxious. His cuticles were bitten and his nails didn’t look too clean – he could be such an annoying man sometimes.

‘Eleanor,’ he said, ‘look, I’ve got something to tell you, and you’ve got to promise not to be angry with me.’

I sat back and waited for him to continue.

‘I’ve been doing some research online about your mum, about what happened back then.’

I stared at the grains of sugar. How could each one be so tiny, and yet so perfectly angular?

‘Eleanor?’ he said. ‘I’m not sure if what I found is right, but I googled arson, and the year it happened, and London, and there are some newspaper articles you might want to take a look at. We don’t have to if you don’t want to. I just wanted you to know, in case … well, in case you changed your mind about finding stuff out.’

I went to the happy place in my mind for a moment, the pink and white fluffy place with bluebirds and gentle babbling streams and, now, a semi-bald cat purring noisily.

‘Where did you say your mum is these days?’ he asked, very gently.

‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘She’s the one who contacts me. It’s never the other way around.’ I tried to fathom his expression. I find it hard to work out people’s expressions sometimes. The cryptic crossword is much, much easier. If I had to guess what was showing on his face, I would have said: sadness, pity, fear. Nothing good. But the underlying feeling was one of kindness, gentleness. He was sad and afraid for me, but he wouldn’t hurt me, and didn’t have the slightest desire to do so. I took some comfort in that.

‘Look, we won’t talk about it any more, OK? I just wanted to say that

… if anything comes back to you … in counselling or whatever … I might be able to give you some answers, you know? But only if you want them,’ he added quickly.

I thought about this. I began to feel the vague inklings of irritation. ‘Raymond,’ I said, ‘I really don’t think it’s appropriate for you to try

to direct me towards this, not before I’m ready. I’m making perfectly good progress on my own, you know,’ I told him. Be patient, Marianne. I’m coming. I looked at his face, which was even paler now than when he first sat down. His mouth hung open very slightly and his eyes were glassy and tired. It wasn’t an attractive look.

‘You’re not the only person who knows how to use a search engine, you know. It’s my life, and when I’m good and ready, I’m more than capable’ – I treated him to one of my more direct looks – ‘of finding out exactly what happened for myself.’

He nodded, and started to speak. I held up my hand, palm facing forward, to stop him. It was a very rude gesture and I must confess to an illicit thrill of pleasure as I made it. I followed this up by taking a long, pointed draught of my Dr Pepper. Unfortunately, it was almost finished, and the straw made a very unpleasant slurping sound, but I think I managed to get my point across quite effectively nonetheless.

After I finished my drink, I caught the waiter’s eye and indicated that I’d like him to bring the bill. Raymond had his head in his hands, not saying anything. I felt a rush of pain in my chest. I’d hurt his feelings – Raymond. I put my hand over my mouth and felt tears form. He looked

up at me, then leaned over and took both my hands, quite assertively, in his. He puffed out some stale air from inside his hairy little beard.

‘I’m so sorry.’ We both spoke the words at exactly the same time. We tried again, and the same thing happened. Suddenly, I laughed, and he did too. Short bursts, at first, and then for longer. It was proper, genuine laughter, the kind that makes your whole body shake. My mouth was wide open, my breath slightly wheezy, my eyes shut tight. I felt vulnerable, and yet very relaxed and comfortable. I imagined that vomiting or going to the lavatory in front of him would feel the same way.

‘Look, it’s totally my fault,’ he said, when we’d finally calmed down. ‘I’m so sorry if I upset you, Eleanor. I shouldn’t even have brought it up, especially today when I’m hung over – my brain feels mashed,’ he said. ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s your business, and your decision. One hundred per cent.’

He was still holding on to my hands. It was extremely pleasant.

‘It’s fine, Raymond,’ I said, and I meant it. ‘I’m sorry if I overreacted. I know that you’re a kind man who means well, and you were only trying to help.’ I ventured a small smile at the sight of his face, which was full of relief.

He let go of my hands very gently. I hadn’t really noticed his eyes before. They were green, flecked with brown. Very unusual.

He smiled again, then put his palms up to his face and rubbed it, groaning quietly.

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to visit my mum now and see to the cats. I just want to crawl back to bed and sleep until Tuesday.’

I tried not to smile, and paid the bill – he protested, but I took full advantage of his weakened state.

‘Do you want to come with me?’ he said. ‘She’d love to see you.’

I didn’t even consider it. ‘No thank you, not today, Raymond,’ I said. ‘Glen will have had a bowel movement by now, and I don’t like to leave her faeces in the tray for more than an hour or two, in case she needs to urinate again afterwards.’

Raymond stood up quickly. ‘Just nipping to the gents,’ he said.

I bought some cat food for Glen on the way home. The thing about Glen is that, despite her offhand manner, she loves me. I know she’s only a

cat. But it’s still love; animals, people. It’s unconditional, and it’s both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.

Sometimes, after counselling sessions, I desperately wanted to buy vodka, lots of it, take it home and drink it down, but in the end I never did. I couldn’t, for lots of reasons, one of which was that, if I wasn’t fit to, then who would feed Glen? She isn’t able to take care of herself. She needs me.

It isn’t annoying, her need – it isn’t a burden. It’s a privilege. I’m responsible. I chose to put myself in a situation where I’m responsible. Wanting to look after her, a small, dependent, vulnerable creature, is innate, and I don’t even have to think about it. It’s like breathing.

For some people.

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