Chapter no 8

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

THERE IS NO SUCH thing as Hell, of course, but if there was, then the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theatre. The complete oeuvre of Lloyd Webber and Rice would be performed, without breaks, on a stage inside the fiery pit, and an audience of sinners would be forced to watch – and listen – for eternity. The very worst amongst them, the child molesters and the murderous dictators, would have to perform them.

Save for the exquisite oeuvre of a certain Mr Lomond, I have yet to find a genre of music I enjoy; it’s basically audible physics, waves and energized particles, and, like most sane people, I have no interest in physics. It therefore struck me as bizarre that I was humming a tune from Oliver! I mentally added the exclamation mark, which, for the first time ever, was appropriate. Who will buy this wonderful evening? Who indeed?

One of the foster carers kept a video library of musicals that we worked our way through en famille at weekends, and so, although I fervently wish that I wasn’t, I’m very familiar with the work of Lionel Bart, Rodgers and Hammerstein et al. Knowing I was here on the street where he lived was giving me a funny feeling, fluttery and edgy, verging on euphoric. I could almost understand why that frock-coated buffoon from My Fair Lady had felt the need to bellow about it outside Audrey Hepburn’s window.

Finding out where the musician lived had been easy. He had posted a picture of a lovely sunset on Twitter:


The view from my window: how lucky am I? #summerinthecity #blessed

It showed rooftops, trees and sky, but there was also a pub in the corner of the photograph, right at the end of the street, its name clearly visible. I found it in seconds, thanks to Google.

The street, like most in this part of the city, was made up of tenements. They all had a secure main front door with named buzzers on the outside wall, one for each flat inside the building. This was the right street. Which side should I start with? Even numbers, I decided. He was an even sort of man, not an odd one. I had a puzzle to solve. I hummed as I worked, and couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt like this – light, sparkly, quick. I suspected that it might be what happiness felt like.

It was fascinating to see all the different names on the buzzers, and the manner in which they were displayed. Some were scribbled in biro on a sticker and placed carelessly over the button. Others had typed their names in bold upper case, printed it out and affixed it with three layers of Sellotape. A few had left their buzzer blank, or failed to replace their name when the elements had made the ink run, rendering it illegible. I really hoped he wasn’t one of those, but I kept a list of their locations in my notebook, just in case. If I had eliminated all the legible names without coming across his, I’d have to go back and work my way through the list of blank ones.

Ah, but how could I have doubted him? Halfway down the street, the most even of even numbers, there he was: Mr J. Lomond Esq. I stood before the buzzer, examining the letters. They were written neatly but artistically in classic black ink on thick white paper. It was so him.

It seemed unlikely that he, a popular, handsome man with the world at his feet, would be at home on a Saturday night, so, just to see how it felt, I gently touched his buzzer with the tip of my index finger. There was a crackle, and then a man’s voice spoke. I was somewhat taken aback, to say the least.

‘Hello?’ he said again.

A deep voice, well spoken, measured. Honey and smoke, velvet and silver. I quickly scanned the list and selected another resident’s name at random.

‘Pizza delivery for … McFadden?’ I said. I heard him sigh.

‘They’re on the top floor,’ he said, and hung up. The door buzzed and clicked open. Without stopping to think too much about it, I went inside.

The musician was upstairs on the first floor, in the flat on the right- hand side. There was a discreet brass nameplate above the bell. I stood

and listened. I could hear nothing from inside, just the hum of the stair light and faint sounds from the street below. On the floor above, a television was blaring. I took out my notebook and tore off a blank page. I placed it over the nameplate and took out my pencil, then began a brass rubbing. Within moments, I had a stunning facsimile of the plate, which I placed carefully into my bag, between the pages of the notebook. The exterior doors were open and his interior door, a typical Victorian design of mahogany and opaque etched glass, was tantalizingly close.

I stood as near as I dared. I could hear nothing from within, and there was no visible movement. I could almost make out the shape of a bookcase, and a painting. A cultured man. How much we had in common!

I stiffened. There: soft fingers on vibrating steel, and a chord shimmered into the air, nebulous and milky, like light from an old, old star. A voice: warm and low and gentle, a voice to cast spells, charm snakes, shape the course of dreams. I could do nothing but turn towards it and lean closer. I pressed myself against the glass. He was writing a song, working it all out – words, music, feelings. What a rare privilege, to be permitted to eavesdrop on the very moment of creation! He sang of nature, my handsome Orpheus. His voice. His voice!

I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. I pictured a sky. It was blue-black, soft and dense as fur. Across and over the expanse of night, into the velvet depths of it, light was scattered, enough for a thousand darknesses. Patterns revealed themselves; the eye, exquisitely dazzled, sought out snailshell whorls and shattered pearls, gods and beasts and planets. As we stood still, yet we rotated, and, whilst turning, moved in a larger circle, round and round the sun, and oh, the dizzying momentum of it …

The music stopped and there was a sudden, blurry movement. I stepped back, and quickly started to walk upstairs, my heart hammering. Nothing. I stood on the upper landing and waited for a few minutes. Nothing.

I tiptoed down and placed myself outside his door again. The music had started up once more, but I did not wish to disturb him. I was only there to see where he lived, after all … there was no harm in looking. Mission accomplished.

It was sheer spendthrift madness, but once on the street, I hailed a passing black cab to take me home. The evening had lingered slowly, but

now it was definitely night, and I did not care to be abroad. The dark is where bad things happen. I estimated that the taxi was likely to cost in the region of six pounds, but I had no choice. I put on my seat belt and closed the glass panel that separated me from the driver. I had no desire to hear his views on association football, the city council or any other topic. I had only one thing on my mind. Or, more accurately, one person.

I realized after an hour or two that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep after my earlier adventuring. I put on the light and looked down at my nightdress. I have two, to allow for alternate washing. They are identical, both of them ankle-length with a high neckline, made of cosy brushed cotton. They’re lemon-coloured (the shade reminds me of explosively fizzy boiled sweets, not a feature of my early childhood but a comforting image nonetheless). When I was young, for a treat, Mummy would pop a pimento-stuffed olive into my mouth, or, occasionally, an oily anchovy from a coffin-shaped yellow-and-red tin. She always stressed to me that sophisticated palates erred towards savoury flavours, that cheap sugary treats were the ruin of the poor (and their teeth). Mummy always had very sharp, very white teeth.

The only acceptable sweet treats, she said, were proper Belgian truffles (Neuhaus, nom de dieu; only tourists bought those nasty chocolate seashells) or plump Medjool dates from the souks of Tunis, both of which were rather difficult to source in our local Spar. There was a time, shortly before … the incident … when she shopped only at Fortnum’s, and I recall that in that same period she was in regular correspondence with Fauchon over perceived imperfections in their confiture de cerises. I remember the pretty red stamps on the letters from Paris: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Not exactly a credo of Mummy’s.

I folded my pillow in half to support me as I sat up. Sleep still felt far away, and I was in need of soothing. I reached down into the gap between the mattress and the wall and sought my old faithful, its edges rounded and softened with years of handling. Jane Eyre. I could open up the novel at any page and immediately know where I was in the story, could almost visualize the next sentence before I reached it. It was an old Penguin Classic, Ms Brontë’s portrait gracing the cover. The bookplate inside read: Saint Eustace Parish Church Sunday School, Presented to Eleanor Oliphant for Perfect Attendance, 1998. I had a very ecumenical upbringing, all told, having been fostered by Presbyterians, Anglicans,

Catholics, Methodists and Quakers, plus a few individuals who wouldn’t recognize God if he pointed his electric Michelangelo finger at them. I submitted to all attempts at spiritual education with equally bad grace. Sunday school, or its equivalent, did at least get me out of whatever house I was living in, and sometimes there were sandwiches, or, more rarely, tolerable companions.

I opened the book at random, in the manner of a lucky dip. It fell open at a pivotal scene, the one where Jane meets Mr Rochester for the first time, startling his horse in the woods and causing him to fall. Pilot is there too, the handsome, soulful-eyed hound. If the book has one failing, it’s that there is insufficient mention of Pilot. You can’t have too much dog in a book.

Jane Eyre. A strange child, difficult to love. A lonely, only child. She’s left to deal with so much pain at such a young age – the aftermath of death, the absence of love. It’s Mr Rochester who gets burned in the end. I know how that feels. All of it.

Everything seems worse in the darkest hours of the night; I was surprised to hear that the birds were still singing, although they sounded angry. The poor creatures must hardly sleep in summer, when the light glimmers on and on. In the half dark, in the full dark, I remember, I remember. Awake in the shadows, two little rabbit heartbeats, breath like a knife. I remember, I remember … I closed my eyes. Eyelids are really just flesh curtains. Your eyes are always ‘on’, always looking; when you close them, you’re watching the thin, veined skin of your inner eyelid rather than staring out at the world. It’s not a comforting thought. In fact, if I thought about it for long enough, I’d probably want to pluck out my own eyes, to stop looking, to stop seeing all the time. The things I’ve seen cannot be unseen. The things I’ve done cannot be undone.

Think about something nice, one of my foster parents would say when I couldn’t sleep, or on nights when I woke up sweating, sobbing, screaming. Trite advice, but occasionally effective. So I thought about Pilot the dog.

I suppose I must have slept – it seems impossible that I wouldn’t have dropped off for at least a moment or two – but it didn’t feel like it. Sundays are dead days. I try to sleep as long as possible to pass the time (an old prison trick, apparently – thank you for the tip, Mummy) but on summer mornings, it can be difficult. When the phone rang just after ten,

I’d been up for hours. I’d cleaned the bathroom and washed the kitchen floor, taken out the recycling and arranged all the tins in the cupboard so that the labels were facing forwards in zetabetical order. I’d polished both pairs of shoes. I’d read the newspaper and completed all the crosswords and puzzles.

I cleared my throat before I spoke, realizing that I hadn’t uttered a word for almost twelve hours, back when I told the taxi driver where to drop me off. That’s actually quite good, for me – usually, I don’t speak from the point at which I state my destination to the bus driver on Friday night, right through until I greet his colleague on Monday morning.

‘Eleanor?’ It was Raymond, of course.

‘Yes, this is she,’ I said, quite curtly. For goodness’ sake, who did he expect? He coughed extravagantly: filthy smoker.

‘Erm, right. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going in to see Sammy again today – wondered if you wanted to come with me?’

‘Why?’ I said.

He paused for quite a while – strange. It was hardly a difficult question.

‘Well … I phoned the hospital and he’s much better – he’s awake – and he’s been moved into the general medical ward. I thought … I suppose I thought it’d be nice if he met us, in case he had any questions about what happened to him.’

I wasn’t thinking very quickly and had no time to consider the ramifications. Before I quite knew what had happened, we had arranged to meet at the hospital that afternoon. I hung up and looked at the clock on the living room wall, above the fireplace (it’s one I got in the Red Cross shop: electric blue circular frame, Power Rangers; adds a kind of rakish joie de vivre to the living room, I’ve always thought). I had several hours until the rendezvous.

I decided to take my time getting ready, and looked cautiously at myself in the mirror while the shower warmed up. Could I ever become a musician’s muse, I wondered? What was a muse, anyway? I was familiar with the classical allusion, of course, but, in modern-day, practical terms, a muse seemed simply to be an attractive woman whom the artist wanted to sleep with.

I thought about all those paintings; voluptuous maidens reclining in curvaceous splendour, waif-like ballerinas with huge limpid eyes, drowned beauties in clinging white gowns surrounded by floating

blossoms. I was neither curvaceous nor waif-like. I was normal-sized and normal-faced (on one side, anyway). Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?

These were, of course, rhetorical questions.

I looked at myself again. I was healthy and my body was strong. I had a brain that worked fine, and a voice, albeit an unmelodious one; smoke inhalation all those years ago had damaged my vocal cords irreparably. I had hair, ears, eyes and a mouth. I was a human woman, no more and no less.

Even the circus freak side of my face – my damaged half – was better than the alternative, which would have meant death by fire. I didn’t burn to ashes. I emerged from the flames like a little phoenix. I ran my fingers over the scar tissue, caressing the contours. I didn’t burn, Mummy, I thought. I walked through the fire and I lived.

There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.

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