Chapter no 4

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

IT WAS WEDNESDAY EVENING. Mummy time. However much I might wish it were otherwise, she always managed to get through to me in the end. I sighed and turned off the radio, knowing I would have to wait until Sunday’s omnibus now to find out whether Eddie Grundy’s cider had fermented successfully. I felt a flash of desperate optimism. What if I didn’t have to talk to her? What if I could talk to someone else, anyone else?

‘Hello?’ I said.

‘Oh, hiya hen, it’s just me. Some weather the day, eh?’

It was hardly surprising that my mother had become institutionalized – that, one assumed, was a given, considering the nature of her crime – but she had gone far, far further than necessary by occasionally adopting the accent and argot of the places where she has been detained. I assumed this helped her ingratiate herself with her fellow residents, or, perhaps, with the staff. It may simply have been to amuse herself. She’s very good at accents, but then she’s a woman with a broad range of gifts. I was poised, en garde, for this conversation, as one always had to be with her. She was a formidable adversary. Perhaps it was foolhardy, but I made the first move.

‘It’s only been a week, I know, but it feels like an age since we last spoke, Mummy. I’ve been so busy with work, and—’

She cut across me, nice as pie on this occasion, switching her accent to match mine. That voice; I remembered it from childhood, heard it still in my nightmares.

‘I know what you mean, darling,’ she said. She spoke quickly. ‘Look, I can’t talk for long. Tell me about your week. What have you been doing?’

I told her that I had attended a concert, mentioned the leaving do at work. I told her absolutely nothing else. As soon as I heard her voice, I felt that familiar, creeping dread. I’d been so looking forward to sharing

my news, dropping it at her feet like a dog retrieving a game bird peppered with shot. Now I couldn’t shake the thought that she would pick it up and, with brutal calm, simply tear it to shreds.

‘Oh a concert, that sounds marvellous – I’ve always been fond of music. We’re treated to the occasional performance here, you know; a few of the residents will have a singsong in the recreation room if the mood takes them. It really is … quite something.’

She paused, and then I heard her snarl at someone.

‘Will ah fuck, Jodi – ahm talkin tae ma lassie here, and ahm no gonnae curtail ma conversation for a wee skank like you.’ There was a pause. ‘No. Now fuck off.’ She cleared her throat.

‘Sorry about that, darling. She’s what’s known as a “junkie” – she and her similarly addicted friends were caught purloining perfume from Boots. Midnight Heat by Beyoncé, would you believe.’ She lowered her voice again. ‘We’re not exactly talking criminal masterminds in here, darling – I think Professor Moriarty can rest easy for now.’

She laughed, a cocktail party tinkle – the light, bright sound of a Noel Coward character enjoying an amusing exchange of bon mots on a wisteria-clad terrace. I tried to move the conversation forward.

‘So … how are you, Mummy?’

‘Fabulous darling, just fabulous. I’ve been “crafting” – some nice, well-meaning ladies have been teaching me how to embroider cushions. Sweet of them to volunteer their time, no?’ I thought of Mummy in possession of a long, sharp needle, and an icy current ran up and down my spine.

‘But enough of me,’ she said, the jagged edge in her voice hardening. ‘I want to hear about you. What are your plans for the weekend? Are you going out dancing, perhaps? Has an admirer asked you on a date?’

Such venom. I tried to ignore it.

‘I’m doing some research, Mummy, for a project.’ Her breathing quickened.

‘Is that right? What kind of research? Research into a thing, or research into a person?’

I couldn’t help myself. I told her. ‘A person, Mummy,’ I said.

She whispered so softly that I could hardly hear her.

‘Ah, so the game’s afoot, is it? Do tell …’ she said. ‘I’m all ears, darling.’

‘There’s really nothing to tell yet, Mummy,’ I said, looking at my watch. ‘I simply came across someone … nice … and I want to find out a bit more about … that someone.’ I needed to polish and perfect things before I plucked up the courage to share my shiny new jewel with her, set it before her for her approval. In the meantime, let me get away, let this end, please.

‘How marvellous! I shall look forward to regular updates on this project of yours, Eleanor,’ she said brightly. ‘You know how much I’d love for you to find someone special. Someone appropriate. All these talks we’ve had, over the years: I’ve always had the impression that you’re missing out, not having someone significant in your life. It’s good that you’ve started looking for … your other half. A partner in crime, as it were.’ She laughed quietly.

‘I’m not lonely, Mummy,’ I said, protesting. ‘I’m fine on my own. I’ve always been fine on my own.’

‘Well now, you haven’t always been on your own, have you?’ she said, her voice sly, quiet. I felt sweat cling to the back of my neck, dampening my hair. ‘Still, tell yourself whatever you need to get you through the night, darling,’ she said, laughing. She has a knack for amusing herself, although no one else laughs much in her company. ‘You can always talk to me, you know. About anything. Or anyone.’ She sighed. ‘I do so love to hear from you, darling … You wouldn’t understand, of course, but the bond between a mother and child, it’s … how best to describe it … unbreakable. The two of us are linked for ever, you see – same blood in my veins that’s running through yours. You grew inside me, your teeth and your tongue and your cervix are all made from my cells, my genes. Who knows what little surprises I left growing inside there for you, which codes I set running. Breast cancer? Alzheimer’s? You’ll just have to wait and see. You were fermenting inside me for all those months, nice and cosy, Eleanor. However hard you try to walk away from that fact, you can’t, darling, you simply can’t. It isn’t possible to destroy a bond that strong.’

‘That may or may not be true, Mummy,’ I said quietly. Such audacity. I don’t know where I found the courage. The blood was pounding through my body and my hands quivered.

She responded as though I had not spoken.

‘Right, so we’ll keep in touch, yes? You carry on with your little project, and I’ll speak to you at the same time next week? That’s settled,

then. Must dash – cheerio!’

It was only when the air went dead that I noticed I’d been crying.

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