Chapter no 35

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

WE HAD INCREASED OUR counselling sessions to twice a week, which had sounded excessive when Maria first proposed it, but I was finding, to my surprise, that this was barely enough. I hoped I wasn’t turning into one of those needy people, though, the kind who are always droning on about themselves and their problems. Boring.

I was slowly getting used to talking about my childhood, having spent the best part of thirty years studiously avoiding the subject. That said, every time the topic of Marianne came up, I sidestepped it. Before each session, I told myself that this would be the right time to talk about her, but then, when it came to it, I just couldn’t do it. Today, Dr Temple had asked about Marianne again of course and, when I’d shaken my head, she suggested that it might be helpful to think about my childhood as two discrete periods: before and after the fire, as a way of getting to the topic of Marianne. Yes, I said, it might be helpful. But very, very painful.

‘So what’s your happiest memory from before the fire?’ she said. I thought hard. Several minutes went by.

‘I remember moments here and there, fragments, but I can’t think of a complete incident,’ I said. ‘No, wait. A picnic, at school. It must have been the end of term, or something like that – we all were outside, at any rate, in the sunshine.’ It wasn’t much to go on, and certainly not a detailed recollection.

‘What was it about that day that made you feel so happy, d’you think?’ She spoke gently.

‘I felt … safe,’ I said. ‘And I knew Marianne was safe too.’

Yes, that was it. Marianne – don’t think too hard – that’s right, her nursery class was there that day too. We all got a packed lunch, cheese sandwiches and an apple. The sunlight, the picnic. Marianne and I had walked home together after school, as we always did, going as slowly as we could and telling each other about our day. The walk home wasn’t

long. It was never long enough. She was funny, a gifted mimic. It hurt to remember how much she made me laugh.

School had been a place of refuge. Teachers asked how you got your cuts and bruises, sent you to the nurse to have them dressed. The nit nurse combed your hair gently, so gently, said you could keep the elastics because you’d been such a good girl. School dinners. I could relax at school, knowing Marianne was at nursery, safe and warm. The little ones had their own special peg to hang their coats on. She loved it there.

It wasn’t long after the picnic that Mummy found out Mrs Rose had been asking about my bruises. We were home-schooled after that, all day every day – no more escaping from nine till four, Monday to Friday. Worse and worse, quicker and quicker, hotter and hotter, fire. I’d brought it on myself as usual, my own stupid fault, stupid Eleanor, and, worst of all, I’d dragged Marianne into it too. She’d done nothing wrong. She’d never done anything wrong.

Dr Temple pushed the tissues towards me and I wiped the tears from my cheeks.

‘You mentioned Marianne a lot there,’ she said gently, ‘when you were talking about your day-to-day life.’

I was ready to say it out loud. ‘She’s my sister,’ I said.

We sat for a moment and I let the words crystallize. There she was: Marianne. My little sister. My missing piece, my absent friend. The tears were coursing down my cheeks now, and Maria let me sob until I was ready to speak.

‘I don’t want to talk about what happened to her,’ I said. ‘I’m not ready to do that!’

Maria Temple was very calm. ‘Don’t worry, Eleanor. We’ll take this one step at a time. Acknowledging that Marianne is your sister is a huge thing. We’ll get to the rest, in time.’

‘I wish I could talk about it now,’ I said, furious with myself. ‘But I can’t.’

‘Of course, Eleanor,’ she said, calmly. She paused. ‘Do you think that’s because you can’t remember what happened to Marianne? Or is it because you don’t want to?’ Her voice was very gentle.

‘I don’t want to,’ I said slowly, quietly. I rested my elbows on my knees and put my head in my hands.

‘Be gentle with yourself, Eleanor,’ Maria said. ‘You’re doing incredibly well.’

I almost laughed. It certainly didn’t feel like I was doing well.

Before and after the fire. Something fundamental had gone missing in the flames: Marianne.

‘What do I do?’ I said, desperate, suddenly, to move forward, to get better, to live. ‘How do I fix this? How do I fix me?’

Dr Temple put down her pen and spoke firmly but gently.

‘You’re doing it already, Eleanor. You’re braver and stronger than you give yourself credit for. Keep going.’

When she smiled at me then, her whole face crinkled into warm lines. I dropped my head again, desperate to hide the emotion that flamed there. The lump in my throat. The pricking of more tears, the swell of warmth. I was safe here, I’d talk more about my sister soon, however hard it was going to be.

‘See you next week, then?’ I said. When I looked up, she was still smiling.

Later that day, Glen and I were watching a televisual game in which people with a fatally flawed understanding of statistics (specifically, of probability theory) selected numbered boxes, each containing a cheque, to be opened in turn, in the hope of unearthing a six-figure sum. They based their selections on wildly unhelpful factors such as their birth date or that of a person they cared about, their house number or, worst of all, ‘a good feeling’ about a particular integer.

‘Humans are idiots, Glen,’ I said, kissing the top of her head and then burying my face into her fur, which had grown back with such resplendence that she could now afford to shed it all over my clothes and furniture with gay abandon. She purred her assent.

The doorbell rang. Glen yawned extravagantly then jumped down from my lap. I wasn’t expecting anyone. I stood before the door, thinking that I ought to get one of those spyholes installed, so that I would know who was there before I unlocked it. I found the trite theatricality of it rather dull. Who’s behind the door? Boring. I don’t like pantomimes or whodunnits – I like to have all the relevant information at my disposal at the earliest opportunity, so that I can start to formulate my response. I opened the door to find Keith, Sammy’s son, standing on the doorstep, looking nervous. Mildly surprising. I invited him in.

By the time Keith was sitting on my sofa with a cup of tea, Glen had disappeared. She only really enjoyed her own company. She tolerated mine, but fundamentally she was a recluse at heart, like J. D. Salinger or the Unabomber.

‘Thanks for the tea, Eleanor. I can’t stay long, though,’ Keith said, after we’d finishing exchanging the usual pleasantries. ‘My wife’s got Zumba tonight, and so I need to get back for the kids.’ I nodded, wondering who Zumba was. He reached into the backpack he’d brought with him, pushed a laptop to one side and took out a parcel, something wrapped in a carrier bag – a Tesco one, I noted with approval.

‘We’ve been clearing out Dad’s stuff,’ he said, looking directly at me and keeping his voice even, as though he was telling himself to be brave. ‘This isn’t much, but we wondered if you might want it, as a keepsake? I remember Raymond saying how much you’d admired it, after that time you helped Dad …’ The words snagged in his throat and he trailed off.

I unwrapped the parcel carefully. It was the beautiful red sweater, the one Sammy had been wearing on the day Raymond and I found him in the street. I could smell it, still faintly scented by its wearer with apples and whisky and love, and I squeezed it tight, feeling the softness and the warmth against my palms, the gentle, exuberant Sammyness of it.

Keith had gone to the window and was staring out at the street, an action I completely understood. When you’re struggling hard to manage your own emotions, it becomes unbearable to have to witness other people’s, to have to try and manage theirs too. He couldn’t deal with my tears. I remember, I remember.

‘Thank you,’ I said. He nodded, his back still turned. Everything was there, obvious to us both, but it all remained unsaid. Sometimes that was best.

After he’d gone, I put the sweater on. It was far too big, of course, but that made it even better, with more of it to go around me, any time I needed it. Sammy’s parting gift.

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