Chapter no 37

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

OLD ROUTINES, NEW ROUTINES. Perhaps even, sometimes, no routines? But twice a week, for as long as it was going to take, I made the journey to town, avoided that old lift, and climbed the stairs to Dr Temple’s consulting room. I no longer found it nasty – I was beginning to understand the efficacy of neutral, unattractive surroundings, tissues, chairs and an ugly framed print. There was nothing else to look at, save oneself, nowhere to retreat to. She was smarter than she first appeared, Dr Temple. That fact notwithstanding, her dreamcatcher earrings today were, frankly, abominable.

I was about to take to the stage and say my piece. I wasn’t acting, though. I’m a terrible actor, not being, by nature, a dissembler or a faker. It’s safe to say that Eleanor Oliphant’s name will never appear in lights, and nor would I want it to. I’m happiest in the background, being left to my own devices. I’ve spent far too long taking direction from Mummy.

The subject of Marianne had caused me so much distress, me trying furiously to build up my courage and direct my memory into places it didn’t want to go. We’d agreed not to force it, to let her appear naturally, we hoped, as we talked about my childhood. I’d accepted this. Last night, as Glen and I listened to the radio, the memory, the truth of it, had come to me, quite unbidden. It had been a perfectly ordinary evening, and there was no fanfare, no drama. Just the truth. Today was going to be the day I spoke it aloud, here in this room, to Maria. But there had to be some preamble. I couldn’t just blurt it out. I’d let Maria help by leading me there.

There was also no escaping Mummy in the counselling room today. It was hard to believe that I was actually doing this, but there it was. The sky didn’t fall in, Mummy wasn’t summoned like a demon by the mere mention of her name. Dr Temple and I were, quite shockingly, having a reasoned, calm conversation about her.

‘Mummy’s a bad person,’ I said. ‘Really bad. I know that, I’ve always known that. And I wondered … do you think I might be bad too? People inherit all sorts of things from their parents, don’t they – varicose veins, heart disease. Can you inherit badness?’

Maria sat back, fiddled with her scarf.

‘That’s a very interesting question, Eleanor. The examples you gave are physical conditions. What you’re talking about is something different, though – a personality, a set of behaviours. Do you think that behavioural traits can be inherited?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. I thought about it. ‘I really, really hope not.’

I paused for a minute. ‘People talk about nature and nurture. I know I haven’t inherited her nature. I mean, I’m a … difficult person sometimes, I suppose … But I’m not … I’m not like her. I don’t know if I could live with myself if I thought I was like her.’

Maria Temple raised her eyebrows.

‘Those are very strong words, Eleanor. Why do you say that?’

‘I couldn’t bear it if I thought that I would ever actually want to cause someone pain. To take advantage of weaker, smaller people. To leave them to fend for themselves, to … to …’

I broke off. It had been very, very hard to say that. It hurt, a real, physical pain, as well as a more fundamental, existential ache. For goodness’ sake – existential ache, Eleanor! I said to myself. Get a grip.

Maria spoke gently.

‘But you’re not your mother, are you, Eleanor? You’re a completely separate person, an independent person, making your own choices.’

She gave an encouraging smile.

‘You’re still a young woman – if you wanted to, you could have a family of your own one day, and be a totally different kind of mother. What do you think about that?’

That was an easy one.

‘Oh, I’ll never have children,’ I said, calm, matter of fact. She indicated that I should keep talking. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? I mean, what if I passed it on, the Mummy thing? Even if I don’t have it, it could skip a generation, couldn’t it? Or … or what if it’s the act of giving birth that brings it out in a person? It could be lying dormant all this time, waiting


She looked very serious.

‘Eleanor, I’ve worked with several clients over the years who’ve had similar worries to yours. It’s normal to feel that way. Remember, though – we’ve just been discussing how different you are from your mother, the different choices you’ve made …’

‘But Mummy’s still in my life, even after all this time. That worries me. She’s a bad influence, a very bad influence.’

Maria looked up from the book where she was taking notes. ‘You’re still talking to her, then?’ she said, her pen poised.

‘Yes,’ I said. I clasped my hands and took a deep breath. ‘But I’ve been thinking that it needs to come to an end. I’m going to stop. It has to stop.’

She looked as serious as I’d ever seen her.

‘It’s not my role to tell you what to do, Eleanor. I will say this, though – I think that’s a very good idea. But, ultimately, it’s your decision. It’s always been your decision,’ she said, excessively calm and ever so slightly aloof. It was as though she was trying just a bit too hard to be neutral, I thought. I wondered why.

‘The thing is, even after everything that she’s done, after all of it, she’s still my mummy. She’s the only one I’ve got. And good girls love their mothers. After the fire, I was always so lonely. Any mummy was better than no mummy …’

As I paused, in tears, I saw that Dr Temple was completely sympathetic, that she understood what I was saying and was listening without judgement.

‘Lately,’ I said, starting to feel a bit stronger, a bit braver, buoyed by her kind eyes and supportive silence, ‘lately, though, I’ve come to realize that she’s … she’s just badShe’s the bad one. I’m not bad and it’s not my fault. I didn’t make her bad, and I’m not bad for wanting nothing to do with her, for feeling sad and angry – no, furious – about what she did.’

The next bit was hard, and I looked at my clasped hands as I spoke, scared to see any change in Dr Temple’s demeanour in response to the words coming out of my mouth.

‘I knew that something about her was very, very wrong. I’ve always known, as long as I can remember. But I didn’t tell anyone. And people died …’

I dared to look up, and felt my body slump with relief when I saw the expression on Maria’s face, unchanged.

‘Who died, Eleanor?’ she said quietly. I took a deep breath. ‘Marianne,’ I said. ‘Marianne died.’ I looked at my hands, then back at

Maria. ‘Mummy set a fire. She wanted to kill us both, except, somehow, Marianne died and I didn’t.’

Maria nodded. She didn’t look surprised. Had she already worked it out? She seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, but I didn’t. We sat in silence for a moment.

‘It’s the guilt, though,’ I said, whispering. It was very hard to speak, physically hard, trying to force out sound. ‘I was her big sister, I should have been looking out for her. She was so small. I did try, I really did, but it just … it wasn’t enough. I failed her, Maria, I’m still here and that’s all wrong. It should be her who survived. I don’t deserve to be happy, I don’t deserve to have a nice life when Marianne …’

‘Eleanor,’ she said gently, once I’d calmed myself, ‘feeling guilty about surviving when Marianne didn’t is a perfectly normal reaction. Don’t forget, you were only a child yourself when your mother committed her crime. It’s very important that you understand that it’s not your fault, that none of it was your fault.’

I was sobbing again.

‘You were the child and she was the adult. It was her responsibility to look after you and your sister. Instead, there was neglect and violence and emotional abuse, and there were terrible, terrible consequences for everyone involved. And none of that is your fault, Eleanor, absolutely none of it. I don’t know if you need to forgive your mother, Eleanor,’ she said. ‘But I’m certain of one thing: you need to forgive yourself.’

I nodded through the tears. It made sense. I wasn’t sure that I quite believed it – yet – but it certainly made logical sense. And you can’t ask for more than that.

Blowing my nose, unembarrassed by the trumpeting, which was as nothing compared to the horrors I’d already laid before Dr Temple in this room, I made my decision. It was time to say a final goodbye to Mummy.

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