Chapter no 9

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

RAYMOND WAS WAITING OUTSIDE the front door of the hospital. I saw him bend down to light the cigarette of a woman in a wheelchair – she’d brought her drip out with her, on wheels, so that she could destroy her health at the same time as taxpayers’ money was being used to try and restore it. Raymond chatted to her as she smoked, puffing away himself. He leaned forward and said something and the woman laughed, a harridan’s cackle that ended in a prolonged bout of coughing. I approached with caution, fearing the noxious cloud might envelop me to deleterious effect. He spotted me coming, stubbed out his cigarette then ambled towards me. He was wearing a pair of denim trousers which were slung unpleasantly low around his buttocks; when his back was turned I saw an unwelcome inch of underpant – a ghastly imperial purple – and white skin covered in freckles, reminding me of a giraffe’s hide.

‘Hiya, Eleanor,’ he said, rubbing his hands on the front of his thighs as though to clean them. ‘How’re you doing today?’

Horrifically, he leaned forward as though to embrace me. I stepped back, but not before I’d had a chance to smell the cigarette smoke and another odour, something unpleasantly chemical and pungent. I suspected it was an inexpensive brand of gentleman’s cologne.

‘Good afternoon, Raymond,’ I said. ‘Shall we go inside?’

We took the lift to Ward 7. Raymond recounted the events of the previous evening to me at tedious length; he and his friends had apparently ‘pulled a late one’, whatever that meant, completing a mission on Grand Theft Auto and then playing poker. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this. I certainly hadn’t asked. He finally finished speaking and then enquired about my evening.

‘I conducted some research,’ I said, not wishing to sully the experience by recounting it to Raymond.

‘Look!’ I said. ‘Ward 7!’ Like a child or a small pet, he was easily distracted, and we took turns to use the alcohol hand rub before we went

in. Safety first, although my poor ravaged skin had barely recovered from the previous dermatological onslaught.

Sammy was in the last bed nearest to the window, reading the Sunday Post. He glared at us over the top of his spectacles as we approached; his demeanour was not friendly. Raymond cleared his throat.

‘Hi there, Mr Thom,’ he said. ‘I’m Raymond, and this is Eleanor.’ I nodded at the old man. Raymond kept talking. ‘We, eh, we found you when you had your funny turn, and I went with you in the ambulance to hospital. We wanted to come by today and say hello, see how you were doing …’

I leaned forward and extended my hand. Sammy stared at it.

‘Eh?’ he said. ‘Who did you say you were?’ He looked quite perturbed, and not a little aggressive. Raymond started to explain again, but Sammy held up his hand, palm facing forward, to silence him. Given that he was wearing candy-striped pyjamas and his white hair was as fluffy and spiky as a baby pigeon’s, he nevertheless cut a surprisingly assertive figure.

‘Now hold on, wait a minute,’ he said, and leaned towards his bedside cabinet, grabbing something from the shelf. I took an involuntary step back – who knew what he might be about to pull out of there? He inserted something into his ear and fiddled about for a moment, a high- pitched squeal emitting from that side of his head. It stopped, and he smiled.

‘Right then,’ he said, ‘that’s better. Now the dog can see the rabbit, eh? So, what’s the story with you pair – church, is it? Or are you trying to rent me a telly again? I don’t want one, son – I’ve already told your pals. There’s no way I’m paying good money just to lie here and watch all that shite! Fatties doing ballroom dancing, grown men baking cakes, for the love of God!’

Raymond cleared his throat again and repeated his introduction, while I leaned forward and shook Sammy’s hand. His expression changed instantly and he beamed at us both.

‘Oh, so it was you pair, was it? I kept asking the nurses who it was that had saved my life – “Who brought me in?” I said. “How did I get here?” – but they couldn’t tell me. Have a seat, come on, sit down next to me and tell me all about yourselves. I can’t thank you enough for what you did, I really can’t.’ He nodded, and then his face became very serious. ‘All you hear these days is that everything’s going to hell in a handcart,

how everybody’s a paedophile or a crook, and it’s not true. You forget that the world is full of ordinary decent people like yourselves, good Samaritans who’ll stop and help a soul in need. Just wait till the family meet you! They’ll be over the moon, so they will.’

He leaned back on his pillows, tired out from the effort of talking.

Raymond fetched me a plastic seat, then another for himself.

‘How are you feeling, then, Mr Thom?’ Raymond asked him. ‘Did you have a good night?’

‘Call me Sammy, son – there’s no need to stand on ceremony. I’m doing fine, thanks; I’ll be right as rain in no time. You and your wife here saved my life, though, no two ways about it.’

I felt Raymond shift in his chair, and I leaned forward. ‘Mr Thom,’ I said.

He raised his eyebrows, then waggled them at me in quite a disconcerting way. ‘Sammy,’ I said, correcting myself, and he nodded at me.

‘I’m afraid I have to clarify a couple of factual inaccuracies,’ I said. ‘Firstly, we did not save your life. Credit for that must go to the Ambulance Service, whose staff, although somewhat brusque, did what was necessary to stabilize your condition whilst they brought you here. The medical team at the hospital, including the anaesthetist and the orthopaedic surgeon who operated on your hip, alongside the many other healthcare professionals who have carried out your post-operative care – it is they who saved you, if anyone did. Raymond and I merely summoned assistance and kept you company until such time as the National Health Service took responsibility.’

‘Aye, God bless the NHS, right enough,’ said Raymond, interrupting rudely. I gave him one of my sternest looks.

‘Furthermore,’ I continued, ‘I should clarify post haste that Raymond and myself are merely co-workers. We are most certainly not married to one another.’ I stared hard at Sammy, making sure that he was in no doubt. Sammy looked at Raymond. Raymond looked at Sammy. There was a silence which, to me, seemed slightly awkward. Raymond sat forward in his chair.

‘So, eh, where do you live then, Sammy? What were you up to the other day when you had your accident?’ he asked.

Sammy smiled at him.

‘I’m local, son – born and bred,’ he said. ‘I always get my bits and pieces from the shops on a Friday. I’d been feeling a bit funny that morning, right enough, but I thought it was just my angina. Never expected to find myself in here!’

He took a toffee from a large bag on his lap, then offered them to us. Raymond took one; I declined. The thought of malleable confectionery, warmed to body temperature on Sammy’s groin (albeit encased in flannel pyjamas and a blanket) was repellent.

Both Sammy and Raymond were audible masticators. While they chomped, I looked at my hands, noticing that they looked raw, almost burnt, but glad of the fact that the alcohol rub had removed the germs and bacteria which lurked everywhere in the hospital. And, presumably, on me.

‘What about you two – did you have far to come today?’ Sammy asked. ‘Separately, I mean,’ he added quickly, looking at me.

‘I live on the South Side,’ Raymond said, ‘and Eleanor’s … you’re in the West End, aren’t you?’ I nodded, not wishing to disclose my place of residence any more precisely. Sammy asked about work, and I let Raymond tell him, being content to observe. Sammy looked rather vulnerable, as people are wont to do when they are wearing pyjamas in public, but he was younger than I’d originally thought – not more than seventy, I’d guess – with remarkably dark blue eyes.

‘I don’t know anything about graphic design,’ Sammy said. ‘It sounds very fancy. I was a postman all my days. I got out at the right time, though; I can live on my pension, so long as I’m careful. It’s all changed now – I’m glad I’m not there any more. All the messing about they’ve done with it. In my day, it was a proper public service …’

Raymond was nodding. ‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘Remember when you used to get your post before you left the house in the morning, and there was a lunchtime delivery too? It comes in the middle of the afternoon now, if it comes at all …’

I have to admit, I was finding the post office chat somewhat tedious. ‘How long are you likely to be in here, Sammy?’ I said. ‘I only ask

because the chances of contracting a post-operative infection are significantly increased for longer-stay patients – gastroenteritis, Staphylococcus aureusClostridium difficile—’

Raymond interrupted me again. ‘Aye,’ he said, ‘and I bet the food’s rank as well, eh, Sammy?’

Sammy laughed. ‘You’re not wrong there, son,’ he said. ‘You want to see what they served up for lunch today. Supposed to be Irish stew … looked more like Pedigree Chum. Smelled like it too.’

Raymond smiled. ‘Can we get you anything, Sammy? We could nip to the shop downstairs, or else pop back later in the week, bring stuff in, if you need it?’

Raymond looked at me for confirmation and I nodded. I had no reason to dismiss the suggestion. It was actually quite a pleasant feeling, thinking that I might be able to help an elderly person who was suffering due to inadequate nutrition. I started to think about what to bring him, types of food that could be transported without mishap. I wondered if Sammy might enjoy some cold pasta and pesto; I could make a double portion for supper one evening and bring the leftovers to him the next day in a Tupperware tub. I did not own any Tupperware, having had no need of it until this point. I could go to a department store to purchase some. That seemed to be the sort of thing that a woman of my age and social circumstances might do. Exciting!

‘Ach, son, that’s awful kind of you,’ Sammy said, deflating my sense of purpose somewhat, ‘but there’s really no need. The family are in here every day, twice a day.’ He said this last part with evident pride. ‘I can’t even finish half the stuff they bring. There’s just so much of it! I end up having to give most of it away,’ he said, indicating the other men on the ward with an imperious wave of his hand.

‘What constitutes your family?’ I asked, slightly surprised by this revelation. ‘I had assumed you were single and childless, like us.’

Raymond shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

‘I’m a widower, Eleanor,’ Sammy said. ‘Jean died five years ago – cancer. Took her quick, in the end.’ He paused and sat up straighter. ‘I’ve two sons and a daughter. Keith’s my eldest, married with two wee ones. They’re cheeky monkeys, those boys,’ he said, his eyes crinkling. ‘Gary’s my other son; Gary and Michelle – they’re not married, but they live together. That seems to be the way of it these days. And Laura, my youngest … well, God knows about Laura. Divorced twice by the age of thirty-five, can you believe it? She’s got her own wee business, a nice house and a car … she just can’t seem to find a good man. Or when she does find one, she can’t hang on to him.’

I found this interesting. ‘I’d counsel your daughter not to worry,’ I said, with confidence. ‘In my recent experience, the perfect man appears

when you’re least expecting it. Fate throws him into your path, and then providence ensures that you will end up together.’ Raymond made a strange sound, something between a cough and a sneeze.

Sammy smiled kindly at me. ‘Is that right? Well, you can tell her yourself, hen,’ he said. ‘They’ll all be here soon.’

A nurse walked past as he said this and had clearly overheard. She was grossly overweight and was wearing rather attractive white plastic clogs teamed with striking black-and-yellow-striped socks – her feet looked like big fat wasps. I made a mental note to ask her where she’d purchased them before we left.

‘There’s a maximum of three visitors to a bed,’ she said, ‘and we’re strictly enforcing that rule today, I’m afraid.’ She didn’t look afraid. Raymond stood up.

‘We’ll go, and let your family visit, Sammy,’ he said. I stood up too; it seemed appropriate.

‘No rush, no rush now,’ Sammy said.

‘Shall we return later in the week?’ I asked. ‘Is there a magazine or a periodical you’d like us to bring?’

‘Eleanor, it’s like I said – you two saved my life, we’re family now. Come and visit any time you like. I’d love to see you, hen,’ Sammy said. His eyes were damp, like periwinkles in seawater. I held out my hand again and instead of shaking it, he clasped both of mine in his. Normally I would be horrified, but he surprised me. His hands were large and warm, like an animal’s paws, and mine felt small and fragile inside them. His fingernails were quite long and gnarly, and there were curly grey hairs on the backs of his hands, running all the way up and under his pyjama sleeves.

‘Eleanor, listen,’ he said, staring me in the eye and gripping my hands tightly, ‘thanks again, lass. Thanks for taking care of me and bringing in my shopping.’ I found that I didn’t want to remove my hands from the warmth and strength of his. Raymond coughed, his lungs no doubt reacting to the absence of carcinogens over the last half hour or so.

I swallowed hard, suddenly finding it difficult to speak. ‘I’ll return later in the week, then, with comestibles,’ I said eventually. ‘I promise.’ Sammy nodded.

‘Cheers then, big man,’ Raymond said, placing a meaty hand on Sammy’s shoulder. ‘See you soon, eh?’

Sammy waved to us as we made our way out of the ward, and was still waving and smiling as we turned the corner and headed towards the lift.

Neither of us spoke until we got outside.

‘What a lovely guy, eh?’ Raymond said, somewhat redundantly.

I nodded, trying to hold on to the feeling of my hands in his, cosy and safe, and the look of kindness and warmth in his eyes. I found, to my extreme consternation, that nascent tears were forming in my eyes, and I turned away to rub them before they could spill over. Annoyingly, Raymond, usually the least observant of men, had noticed.

‘What you doing for the rest of the day, Eleanor?’ Raymond asked gently. I looked at my watch. It was almost four.

‘I suppose I’ll return home, perhaps read for a while,’ I said. ‘There’s a radio programme on later where people write in to request excerpts of items they’ve enjoyed during the week. That can often be reasonably entertaining.’

I was also thinking that I might buy some more vodka, just a half- bottle, to top up what remained. I yearned for that brief, sharp feeling I get when I drink it – a sad, burning feeling – and then, blissfully, no feelings at all. I had also seen the date on Sammy’s newspaper and remembered that today was, in fact, my birthday. Annoyingly, I’d forgotten to ask the nurse where she had purchased her wasp socks – those could have been my present to myself. I decided that I might buy some freesias instead. I have always loved their delicate scent and the softness of their colours – they have a kind of subdued luminosity which is much more beautiful than a garish sunflower or a clichéd red rose.

Raymond was looking at me. ‘I’m going to my mum’s now,’ he said.

I nodded, blew my nose, and zipped up my jerkin in preparation for the journey home.

‘Listen – d’you fancy coming with me?’ Raymond said, just as I was turning towards the gate.

Under no circumstances, was my immediate thought.

‘I go over most Sundays,’ he went on. ‘She doesn’t get out much – I’m sure she’d love to see a new face.’

‘Even one like mine?’ I said. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would take any particular pleasure in looking at my face, either for the first or for the thousand-and-first time. Raymond ignored me and began to rummage in his pockets.

I thought about his suggestion while he lit up another cigarette. I could still purchase vodka and birthday flowers on the way home, after all, and it might be interesting to see the inside of another person’s home. I tried to think of the last time I had done so. I had stood in the hallway of my downstairs neighbours’ flat a couple of years ago, when I was delivering a parcel I’d taken in for them. The place had smelled strongly of onions, and there was an ugly standard lamp in the corner. A few years before that, one of the receptionists had hosted a party at her flat and invited all the women from work. It was a beautiful flat, a traditional tenement with stained glass and mahogany and elaborate cornices. The ‘party’, however, had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unedifying spectacle; seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators. I left after ten minutes, having downed a tepid glass of Pinot Grigio and parried an outrageously impertinent question from a cousin of the host about my private life.

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysian revels, of course, but it strikes me as utterly bizarre that women should want to spend an evening together drinking and purchasing such items, and, indeed, that this should pass as ‘entertainment’. Sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear. When the musician and I spent our first night together, the joining of our bodies would mirror the joining of our minds, our souls. His otherness; the flash of dark hair in his armpit, the buttons of bone at his clavicle. The blood scent in the crook of his elbow. The warm softness of his lips, as he takes me in his arms and …

‘Erm, Eleanor? Hello? I was just saying … we’ll need to go now to catch the bus, if you’re coming to Mum’s?’

I dragged myself back to the unwelcome present and the squat figure of Raymond, with his grubby hooded sweatshirt and dirty training shoes. Perhaps Raymond’s mother would prove intelligent and charming company. I doubted it, based on the evidence of her progeny, but one never knew.

‘Yes, Raymond. I will accompany you to your mother’s house,’ I said.

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