Chapter no 38

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

RAYMOND HAD INSISTED ON meeting outside the counselling rooms that day to take me for coffee. I watched him amble towards me. His peculiar loping walk was almost endearing now – I wouldn’t recognize him if he started to walk as normal men did. He had his hands in the pockets of his low-slung denim trousers, and was wearing a strange, oversized woollen hat that I hadn’t seen before. It looked like the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it.

‘All right?’ he said. ‘I nearly froze my bollocks off on the way over here.’ He blew into his cupped hands.

‘It is rather inclement today,’ I agreed, ‘although it’s wonderful to see the sun.’

He smiled at me. ‘It is, Eleanor.’

I thanked him for taking time off to come and meet me. It was kind of him, and I told him so.

‘Away you go, Eleanor,’ he said, putting out his cigarette. ‘Any excuse for a half-day. Anyway, it’s nice to talk to someone about something that isn’t software licences and Windows 10.’

‘But you love talking about software, Raymond,’ I said, sniffing, and then I nudged him in the ribs, very gently, very bravely. He laughed, and nudged me back.

‘Guilty as charged, Miss O,’ he said.

We went into a branch of a café chain – I’d seen lots of them around town. We queued, and I asked for a grande mochaccino with extra cream and hazelnut syrup. The young man asked my name.

‘Why do you need to know my name?’ I said, puzzled.

‘We write it on your cup,’ he said, ‘so the drinks don’t get mixed up.’ Ridiculous.

‘I haven’t heard anyone else order an identical drink to mine, so far,’ I said firmly. ‘I’m sure I’m more than capable of identifying my chosen beverage when the time comes.’

He stared at me, the pen still poised in his hand. ‘I have to write your name on the cup,’ he repeated, sounding firm but bored, as people in uniform are often wont to do.

‘And have to maintain a modicum of privacy by not sharing my given name with all and sundry in the middle of a cafeteria,’ I said, equally firmly.

Someone further back in the queue tutted, and I heard someone else mutter something that sounded like for fuck’s sake. It appeared that we had reached something of an impasse.

‘Fine, all right then,’ I said. ‘My name is Miss Eleanor Oliphant.’ He boggled at me.

‘I’ll just put, eh, Ellie,’ he said, scribbling. Raymond was silent, but I could feel his large shoulders and misshapen body quivering with laughter. It was his turn next.

‘Raoul,’ he said, and then spelled it out.

When we’d collected our drinks – with no problem whatsoever – we sat at a table in the window and watched people pass by. Raymond stirred three sachets of sugar into his Americano, and I resisted the urge to suggest that he made healthier choices.

‘So,’ he said, after what I recognized was a comfortable silence. ‘How did it go today?’

I nodded. ‘It was OK, actually,’ I said. He looked closely at me. ‘You look like you’ve been crying,’ he said.

‘I have,’ I told him. ‘But it’s fine. It’s normal to cry when you’re talking about your dead sister.’

Raymond’s face contorted with shock.

‘She died in the house fire. Mummy started it on purpose. We weren’t meant to survive, but somehow I did. My little sister didn’t, though,’ I said. I sounded strangely calm as I said these words. I looked away when I’d finished, knowing that Raymond’s face would be expressing emotions that I wasn’t quite ready to relive yet while he processed this information. He started to speak, but struggled.

‘I know,’ I said calmly, giving him a minute to compose himself. It was a lot for anyone to take in. It had taken me decades, after all. I told

him a bit more about what had happened to Marianne, about what Mummy had done.

‘Now that I’ve finally been able to talk about what she did to me and what she did to Marianne, I can’t possibly continue to have Mummy in my life. I need to be free of her.’

He nodded.

‘Does that mean you’re going to …’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Next Wednesday, next time I speak to her, I’m going to tell her that we’re done. It’s time to cut contact, for good.’

Raymond nodded, almost approvingly. I felt calm, sure of the way forward. It was a novel sensation.

‘There’s something else I need to do too. I need to find out everything that happened to me, to us, back then. I remember some of the details, but now I need to know all of it.’ I cleared my throat. ‘So, will you help me, Raymond, help me find out what happened, the fire?’ I said, not looking at him, my words barely audible. ‘Please?’

Asking for help was anathema to me. I’d told Maria that. ‘And how’s that been working out for you so far?’ she’d said. I didn’t appreciate her somewhat pointed tone, but she was quite right. That didn’t, however, mean that it was easy.

‘Of course, Eleanor,’ he said. ‘Anything. Whenever you’re ready. Whatever you need.’ He took my hands in his and squeezed them gently.

‘Thank you,’ I said, quiet, relieved. Grateful.

‘I think it’s amazing, what you’re doing, Eleanor,’ he said, looking at me.

This is what I felt: the warm weight of his hands on me; the genuineness in his smile; the gentle heat of something opening, the way some flowers spread out in the morning at the sight of the sun. I knew what was happening. It was the unscarred piece of my heart. It was just big enough to let in a bit of affection. There was still a tiny bit of room left.

‘Raymond,’ I said, ‘you can’t know how much it means to me, to have a friend – a genuine, caring friend. You saved my life,’ I whispered, scared that tears might come, here in the café, and embarrass us both. Now that I’d started crying in public more often, it seemed that I would do it at the drop of a hat.

Raymond squeezed my hands tighter, and I fought, and won over, the urge to whip them away and put them behind my back.

‘Eleanor, don’t thank me. You’d do the same for me, you know you would.’

I nodded. To my surprise, I realized that he was right.

‘I remember the first time I met you,’ he said, shaking his head and smiling. ‘I thought you were a right nutter.’

‘I am a right nutter,’ I said, surprised that he’d think otherwise. All my life, people had been telling me that.

‘No, you’re not,’ he said, smiling. ‘Aye, sure, you’re a bit bonkers – but in a good way. You make me laugh, Eleanor. You don’t give a fuck about any of the stupid stuff – I don’t know, being cool, office politics or any of the daft shite that people are supposed to care about. You just do your own thing, don’t you?’

I was crying now – there was no avoiding it. ‘Raymond, you swine,’ I said. ‘You’ve made my smoky eyes dissolve.’ I was quite annoyed when I said it, but then I started to giggle, and he laughed too. He passed me one of the café’s inferior paper napkins and I wiped off the dark remnants.

‘You look better without it,’ he said.

Afterwards, we walked towards the point where we’d part in search of our respective bus stops.

‘See you soon, then?’ he said.

‘Oh, you’ll be seeing me sooner than you think!’ I said, smiling at him.

‘What do you mean?’ He looked puzzled, and mildly amused.

‘It’s a surprise!’ I said, gesturing with my hands and shrugging extravagantly. I’d never seen a magician perform on stage, but that was the look I was trying for. Raymond burst out laughing.

‘I’ll look forward to it,’ he said, still smiling as he fumbled in his pockets for his cigarettes.

I took my leave of him in a somewhat distracted frame of mind, my thoughts returning to Marianne and to Mummy. I had work to do now. The past had been hiding from me – or I’d hidden from it – and yet there it was, still, lurking in darkness. It was time to let in a little light.

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