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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine / (by Gail Honeyman, 2017) -

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine /      (by Gail Honeyman, 2017) -

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine / (by Gail Honeyman, 2017) -

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine / (by Gail Honeyman, 2017) -
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2017
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Gail Honeyman
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Cathleen McCarron
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intermediate
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11:02:15
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32 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine / :

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loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by sheer willpower or by simply getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others. the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City 1 WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME what I do taxi drivers, dental hygienists I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no ones ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I cant decide whether thats because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. Im not complaining. Im delighted that I dont have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them. When I first started working here, whenever anyone asked, I used to tell them that I worked for a graphic design company, but then they assumed I was a creative type. It became a bit boring to see their faces blank over when I explained that it was back office stuff, that I didnt get to use the fine-tipped pens and the fancy software. Im nearly thirty years old now and Ive been working here since I was twenty-one. Bob, the owner, took me on not long after the office opened. I suppose he felt sorry for me. I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm. Maybe he sensed, back then, that I would never aspire to anything more than a poorly paid office job, that I would be content to stay with the company and save him the bother of ever having to recruit a replacement. Perhaps he could also tell that Id never need to take time off to go on honeymoon, or request maternity leave. I dont know. Its definitely a two-tier system in the office; the creatives are the film stars, the rest of us merely supporting artists. You can tell by looking at us which category we fall into. To be fair, part of that is salary-related. The back office staff get paid a pittance, and so we cant afford much in the way of sharp haircuts and nerdy glasses. Clothes, music, gadgets although the designers are desperate to be seen as freethinkers with unique ideas, they all adhere to a strict uniform. Graphic design is of no interest to me. Im a finance clerk. I could be issuing invoices for anything, really: armaments, Rohypnol, coconuts. From Monday to Friday, I come in at 8.30. I take an hour for lunch. I used to bring in my own sandwiches, but the food at home always went off before I could use it up, so now I get something from the high street. I always finish with a trip to Marks and Spencer on a Friday, which rounds off the week nicely. I sit in the staffroom with my sandwich and I read the newspaper from cover to cover, and then I do the crosswords. I take the Daily Telegraph, not because I like it particularly, but because it has the best cryptic crossword. I dont talk to anyone by the time Ive bought my Meal Deal, read the paper and finished both crosswords, the hour is almost up. I go back to my desk and work till 5.30. The bus home takes half an hour. I make supper and eat it while I listen to The Archers. I usually have pasta with pesto and salad one pan and one plate. My childhood was full of culinary contradiction, and Ive dined on both hand-dived scallops and boil-in-the-bag cod over the years. After much reflection on the political and sociological aspects of the table, I have realized that I am completely uninterested in food. My preference is for fodder that is cheap, quick and simple to procure and prepare, whilst providing the requisite nutrients to enable a person to stay alive. After Ive washed up, I read a book, or sometimes I watch television if theres a programme the Telegraph has recommended that day. I usually (well, always) talk to Mummy on a Wednesday evening for fifteen minutes or so. I go to bed around ten, read for half an hour and then put the light out. I dont have trouble sleeping, as a rule. On Fridays, I dont get the bus straight after work but instead I go to the Tesco Metro around the corner from the office and buy a margherita pizza, some Chianti and two big bottles of Glens vodka. When I get home, I eat the pizza and drink the wine. I have some vodka afterwards. I dont need much on a Friday, just a few big swigs. I usually wake up on the sofa around 3 a.m., and I stumble off to bed. I drink the rest of the vodka over the weekend, spread it throughout both days so that Im neither drunk nor sober. Monday takes a long time to come around. My phone doesnt ring often it makes me jump when it does and its usually people asking if Ive been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No ones been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; Ive not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. Youd think that would be impossible, wouldnt you? Its true, though. I do exist, dont I? It often feels as if Im not here, that Im a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and Id lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. The threads tighten slightly from Monday to Friday. People phone the office to discuss credit lines, send me emails about contracts and estimates. The employees I share an office with Janey, Loretta, Bernadette and Billy would notice if I didnt turn up. After a few days (Ive often wondered how many) they would worry that I hadnt phoned in sick so unlike me and theyd dig out my address from the personnel files. I suppose theyd call the police in the end, wouldnt they? Would the officers break down the front door? Find me, covering their faces, gagging at the smell? That would give them something to talk about in the office. They hate me, but they dont actually wish me dead. I dont think so, anyway. I went to the doctor yesterday. It feels like aeons ago. I got the young doctor this time, the pale chap with the red hair, which I was pleased about. The younger they are, the more recent their training, and that can only be a good thing. I hate it when I get old Dr Wilson; shes about sixty, and I cant imagine she knows much about the latest drugs and medical breakthroughs. She can barely work the computer. The doctor was doing that thing where they talk to you but dont look at you, reading my notes on the screen, hitting the return key with increasing ferocity as he scrolled down. What can I do for you this time, Miss Oliphant? Its back pain, Doctor, I told him. Ive been in agony. He still didnt look at me. How long have you been experiencing this? he said. A couple of weeks, I told him. He nodded. I think I know whats causing it, I said, but I wanted to get your opinion. He stopped reading, finally looked across at me. What is it that you think is causing your back pain, Miss Oliphant? I think its my breasts, Doctor, I told him. Your breasts? Yes, I said. You see, Ive weighed them, and theyre almost half a stone combined weight, that is, not each! I laughed. He stared at me, not laughing. Thats a lot of weight to carry around, isnt it? I asked him. I mean, if I were to strap half a stone of additional flesh to your chest and force you to walk around all day like that, your back would hurt too, wouldnt it? He stared at me, then cleared his throat. How how did you ? Kitchen scales, I said, nodding. I just sort of placed one on top. I didnt weigh them both, I made the assumption that theyd be roughly the same weight. Not entirely scientific I know, but Ill write you a prescription for some more painkillers, Miss Oliphant, he said, talking over me and typing. Strong ones this time, please, I said firmly, and plenty of them. Theyd tried to fob me off before with tiny doses of aspirin. I needed highly efficient medication to add to my stockpile. Could I also have a repeat prescription for my eczema medication, please? It does seem to become exacerbated at times of stress or excitement. He did not grace this polite request with a response but simply nodded. Neither of us spoke as the printer spat out the paperwork, which he handed to me. He stared at the screen again and started typing. There was an awkward silence. His social skills were woefully inadequate, especially for a people-facing job like his. Goodbye then, Doctor, I said. Thank you so very much for your time. My tone went completely over his head. He was still, apparently, engrossed in his notes. Thats the only downside to the younger ones; they have a terrible bedside manner. That was yesterday morning, in a different life. Today, after, the bus was making good progress as I headed for the office. It was raining, and everyone else looked miserable, huddled into their overcoats, sour morning breath steaming up the windows. Life sparkled towards me through the drops of rain on the glass, shimmered fragrantly above the fug of wet clothes and damp feet. I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. Im a sole survivor Im Eleanor Oliphant. I dont need anyone else theres no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. Thats what Ive always told myself, at any rate. But last night, Id found the love of my life.When I saw him walk on stage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasnt what drew me in. No Im not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as husband material. Mummy was going to be thrilled. 2 AT THE OFFICE, THERE was that palpable sense of Friday joy, everyone colluding with the lie that somehow the weekend would be amazing and that, next week, work would be different, better. They never learn. For me, though, things had changed. I had not slept well, but despite that, I was feeling good, better, best. People say that when you come across the one, you just know. Everything about this was true, even the fact that fate had thrown him into my path on a Thursday night, and so now the weekend stretched ahead invitingly, full of time and promise. One of the designers was finishing up today as usual, wed be marking the occasion with cheap wine and expensive beer, crisps dumped in cereal bowls. With any luck, it would start early, so I could show my face and still leave on time. I simply had to get to the shops before they closed. I pushed open the door, the chill of the air-con making me shudder, even though I was wearing my jerkin. Billy was holding court. He had his back to me, and the others were too engrossed to notice me slip in. Shes mental, he said. Well, we know shes mental, Janey said, that was never in doubt. The question is, what did she do this time? Billy snorted. You know she won those tickets and asked me to go to that stupid gig with her? Janey smiled. Bobs annual raffle of crap client freebies. First prize, two free tickets. Second prize, four free tickets Billy sighed. Exactly. Total embarrassment of a Thursday night out a charity gig in a pub, starring the marketing team of our biggest client, plus various cringeworthy party pieces from all their friends and family? And, to make it worse, with her? Everyone laughed. I couldnt disagree with his assessment; it was hardly a Gatsbyesque night of glamour and excess. There was one band in the first half Johnnie something and the Pilgrim Pioneers who werent actually that bad, he said. They mostly played their own stuff, some covers too, classic oldies. I know him Johnnie Lomond! Bernadette said. He was in the same year as my big brother. Came to our house for a party one night when Mum and Dad were in Tenerife, him and some of my brothers other mates from Sixth Year. Ended up blocking the bathroom sink, if I remember right I turned away, not wishing to hear about his youthful indiscretions. Anyway, said Billy he did not like being interrupted, Id noticed she absolutely hated that band. She just sat there frozen; didnt move, didnt clap, anything. Soon as they finished, she said she needed to go home. So she didnt even make it to the interval, and I had to sit there on my own for the rest of the gig, like, literally, Billy No-Mates. Thats a shame, Billy; I know you were wanting to take her for a drink afterwards, maybe go dancing, Loretta said, nudging him. Youre so funny, Loretta. No, she was off like a shot. Shed have been tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa and a copy of Take a Break before the band had even finished their set. Oh, said Janey, I dont see her as a Take a Break reader, somehow. Itd be something much weirder, much more random. Angling Times? What Caravan? Horse and Hound, said Billy firmly, and shes got a subscription. They all sniggered. I laughed myself at that one, actually. I hadnt been expecting it to happen last night, not at all. It hit me all the harder because of that. Im someone who likes to plan things properly, prepare in advance and be organized. This came out of nowhere; it felt like a slap in the face, a punch to the gut, a burning. Id asked Billy to come to the concert with me, mainly because he was the youngest person in the office; for that reason, I assumed hed enjoy the music. I heard the others teasing him about it when they thought I was out at lunch. I knew nothing about the concert, hadnt heard of any of the bands. I was going out of a sense of duty; Id won the tickets in the charity raffle, and I knew people would ask about it in the office. I had been drinking sour white wine, warm and tainted by the plastic glasses the pub made us drink from. What savages they must think us! Billy had insisted on buying it, to thank me for inviting him. There was no question of it being a date. The very notion was ridiculous. The lights went down. Billy hadnt wanted to watch the support acts, but I was adamant. You never know if youll be bearing witness as a new star emerges, never know whos going to walk onto the stage and set it alight. And then he did. I stared at him. He was light and heat. He blazed. Everything he came into contact with would be changed. I sat forward on my seat, edged closer. At last. Id found him. Now that fate had unfurled my future, I simply had to find out more about him; the singer, the answer. Before I tackled the horror that was the month-end accounts, I thought Id have a quick look at a few sites Argos, John Lewis to see how much a computer would cost. I suppose I could have come into the office during the weekend and used one, but there was a high risk that someone else would be around and ask what I was doing. Its not like Id be breaking any rules, but its no one elses business, and I wouldnt want to have to explain to Bob how Id been working weekends and yet still hadnt managed to make a dent in the huge pile of invoices waiting to be processed. Plus, I could do other things at home at the same time, like cook a trial menu for our first dinner together. Mummy told me, years ago, that men go absolutely crazy for sausage rolls. The way to a mans heart, she said, is a homemade sausage roll, hot flaky pastry, good quality meat. I havent cooked anything except pasta for years. Ive never made a sausage roll. I dont suppose its terribly difficult, though. Its only pastry and mechanically recovered meat. I switched on the machine and entered my password, but the whole screen froze. I turned the computer off and on again, and this time it didnt even get as far as the password prompt. Annoying. I went to see Loretta, the office manager. She has overinflated ideas of her own administrative abilities, and in her spare time makes hideous jewellery, which she then sells to idiots. I told her my computer wasnt working, and that I hadnt been able to get hold of Danny in IT. Danny left, Eleanor, she said, not looking up from her screen. Theres a new guy now. Raymond Gibbons? He started last month? She said this as though I should have known. Still not looking up, she wrote his full name and telephone extension on a Post-it note and handed it to me. Thank you so much, youve been extremely helpful as usual, Loretta, I said. It went over her head, of course. I phoned the number but got his voicemail: Hi, Raymond here, but also not here. Like Schr?dingers cat. Leave a message after the beep. Cheers. I shook my head in disgust, and spoke slowly and clearly into the machine. Good morning, Mister Gibbons. My name is Miss Oliphant and I am the finance clerk. My computer has stopped working and I would be most grateful if you could see your way to repairing it today. Should you require any further details, you may reach me on extension five-three-five. Thank you most kindly. I hoped that my clear, concise message might serve as an exemplar for him. I waited for ten minutes, tidying my desk, but he did not return my call. After two hours of paper filing and in the absence of any communication from Mr Gibbons, I decided to take a very early lunch break. It had crossed my mind that I ought to ready myself physically for a potential meeting with the musician by making a few improvements. Should I make myself over from the inside out, or work from the outside in? I compiled a list in my head of all of the appearance-related work which would need to be undertaken: hair (head and body), nails (toe and finger), eyebrows, cellulite, teeth, scars all of these things needed to be updated, enhanced, improved. Eventually, I decided to start from the outside and work my way in thats what often happens in nature, after all. The shedding of skin, rebirth. Animals, birds and insects can provide such useful insights. If Im ever unsure as to the correct course of action, Ill think, What would a ferret do? or, How would a salamander respond to this situation? Invariably, I find the right answer. I walked past Julies Beauty Basket every day on my way to work. As luck would have it, they had a cancellation. It would take around twenty minutes, Kayla would be my therapist, and it would cost forty-five pounds. Forty-five! Still, I reminded myself as Kayla led me towards a room downstairs, he was worth it. Kayla, like the other employees, was wearing a white outfit resembling surgical scrubs and white clogs. I approved of this pseudo-medical apparel. We went into an uncomfortably small room, barely large enough to accommodate the bed, chair and side table. Now then, she said, what you need to do is pop off your she paused and looked at my lower half erm, trousers, and your underwear, then pop up onto the couch. You can be naked from the waist down or, if you prefer, you can pop these on. She placed a small packet on the bed. Cover yourself with the towel and Ill pop back in to see you in a couple of minutes. OK? I nodded. I hadnt anticipated quite so much popping. Once the door had closed behind her, I removed my shoes and stepped out of my trousers. Should I keep my socks on? I thought, on balance, that I probably should. I pulled down my underpants and wondered what to do with them. It didnt seem right to drape them over the chair, in full view, as Id done with my trousers, so I folded them up carefully and put them into my shopper. Feeling rather exposed, I picked up the little packet that shed left on the bed and opened it. I shook out the contents and held them up: a very small pair of black underpants, in a style which I recognized as Tanga in Marks and Spencers nomenclature, and made from the same papery fabric as teabags. I stepped into them and pulled them up. They were far too small, and my flesh bulged out from the front, sides and back. The bed was very high and I found a plastic step underneath that I used to help me ascend. I lay down; it was lined with towels and topped with the same scratchy blue paper that you find on the doctors couch. Another black towel was folded at my feet, and I pulled it up to my waist to cover myself. The black towels worried me. What sort of dirty staining was the colour choice designed to hide? I stared at the ceiling and counted the spotlights, then looked from side to side. Despite the dim lighting, I could see scuff marks on the pale walls. Kayla knocked and entered, all breezy cheerfulness. Now then, she said, what are we doing today? As I said, a bikini wax, please. She laughed. Yes, sorry, I meant what kind of wax would you like? I thought about this. Just the usual kind the candle kind? I said. What shape? she said tersely, then noticed my expression. So, she said patiently, counting them off on her fingers, youve got your French, your Brazilian or your Hollywood. I pondered. I ran the words through my mind again, over and over, the same technique I used for solving crossword anagrams, waiting for the letters to settle into a pattern. French, Brazilian, Hollywood French, Brazilian, Hollywood Hollywood, I said, finally. Holly would, and so would Eleanor. She ignored my wordplay, and lifted up the towel. Oh she said. Okaaaay She went over to the table and opened a drawer, took something out. Its going to be an extra two pounds for the clipper guard, she said sternly, pulling on a pair of disposable gloves. The clippers buzzbuzzbuzzed and I stared at the ceiling. This didnt hurt at all! When shed finished, she used a big, fat brush to sweep the shaved hair onto the floor. I felt panic start to rise within me. I hadnt looked at the floor when I came in. What if shed done this with the other clients were their pubic hairs now adhering to the soles of my polka dot socks? I started to feel slightly sick at the thought. Thats better, she said. Now, Ill be as quick as I can. Dont use perfumed lotions in the area for at least twelve hours after this, OK? She stirred the pot of wax that was heating on the side table. Oh, dont worry, Im not much of a one for unguents, Kayla, I said. She goggled at me. Id have thought that staff in the beauty business would have better-developed people skills. She was almost as bad as my colleagues back at the office. She pushed the paper pants to one side and asked me to pull the skin taut. Then she painted a stripe of warm wax onto my pubis with a wooden spatula, and pressed a strip of fabric onto it. Taking hold of the end, she ripped it off in one rapid flourish of clean, bright pain. Morituri te salutant, I whispered, tears pricking my eyes. This is what I say in such situations, and it always cheers me up no end. I started to sit up, but she gently pushed me back down. Oh, theres a good bit more to go, Im afraid, she said, sounding quite cheerful. Pain is easy; pain is something with which I am familiar. I went into the little white room inside my head, the one thats the colour of clouds. It smells of clean cotton and baby rabbits. The air inside the room is the palest sugar almond pink, and the loveliest music plays. Today, it was Top of the World by The Carpenters. That beautiful voice she sounds so blissful, so full of love. Lovely, lucky Karen Carpenter. Kayla continued to dip and rip. She asked me to bend my knees out to the sides and place my heels together. Like frogs legs, I said, but she ignored me, intent on her work. She ripped out the hair from right underneath. I hadnt even considered that such a thing would be possible. When shed finished, she asked me to lie normally again and then pulled down the paper pants. She smeared hot wax onto the remaining hair and ripped it all off triumphantly. There, she said, removing the gloves and wiping her brow with the back of her hand, now doesnt that look so much better! She passed me a hand mirror so I could look at myself. But Im completely bare! I said, horrified. Thats right, a Hollywood, she said. Thats what you asked for. I felt my fists clench tight, and shook my head in disbelief. I had come here to start to become a normal woman, and instead shed made me look like a child. Kayla, I said, unable to believe the situation I now found myself in, the man in whom I am interested is a normal adult man. He will enjoy sexual relations with a normal adult woman. Are you trying to imply that hes some sort of paedophile? How dare you! She stared at me, horrified. I had had enough of this. Please, leave me to get dressed now, I said, turning my face to the wall. She left and I climbed down from the couch. I pulled my trousers on, consoled by the thought that the hair would surely grow back before our first intimate encounter. I didnt tip Kayla on the way out. When I returned to the office, my computer still wasnt working. I sat down gingerly and called Raymond in IT again, but it went straight to his preposterous message. I decided to go upstairs and find him; from his voicemail greeting, he sounded like the kind of person who would ignore a ringing telephone and sit around doing nothing. Just as I pushed my chair back, a man approached my desk. He was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog, lying on top of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly. He had pale sandy hair, cut short in an attempt to hide the fact that it was thinning and receding, and patchy blond stubble. All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink. A word sprang to mind: porcine. Erm, Oliphant? he said. Yes Eleanor Oliphant I am she, I said. He lurched towards my desk. Im Raymond, IT, he said. I offered him my hand to shake, which eventually he did, rather tentatively. Yet more evidence of the lamentable decline in modern manners. I moved away and allowed him to sit at my desk. What seems to be the problem? he asked, staring at my screen. I told him. Okey dokey, he said, typing noisily. I picked up my Telegraph and told him Id be in the staffroom; there was little point in my standing around while he mended the computer. The crossword setter today was Elgar, whose clues are always elegant and fair. I was tapping my teeth with the pen, pondering twelve down, when Raymond loped into the room, interrupting my train of thought. He looked over my shoulder. Crosswords, eh? he said. Never seen the point of them. Give me a good computer game any day. Call of Duty I ignored his inane wittering. Did you fix it? I asked him. Yep, he said, sounding pleased. You had quite a nasty virus. Ive cleaned up your hard drive and reset the firewall. You should run a full system scan once a week, ideally. He must have noticed my uncomprehending expression. Come on, Ill show you. We walked along the corridor. The floor squeaked beneath his hideous training shoes. He coughed. So you, eh, have you worked here long, Eleanor? he said. Yes, I replied, increasing my pace. He managed to keep up with me, but was slightly out of breath. Right, he said. He cleared his throat. I started here a few weeks ago. I was at Sandersons before. In town. Do you know them? No, I said. We reached my desk and I sat down. He hovered, too close. He smelled of cooking and, faintly, of cigarettes. Unpleasant. He told me what to do and I followed his instructions, committing them to memory. By the time he had finished, I had reached the limit of my interest in technological matters for the day. Thank you for your assistance, Raymond, I said, pointedly. Raymond saluted, and heaved himself to his feet. A man with a less military bearing was hard to imagine. No bother, Eleanor. See you around! I very much doubt it, I thought, opening up the spreadsheet which listed this months overdue accounts. He loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet. A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, Ive noticed. Im sure training shoes dont help. The other night, the singer had worn beautiful leather brogues. He was tall, elegant and graceful. It was hard to believe that the singer and Raymond were members of the same species. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. There was throbbing pain and the beginnings of an itch downstairs. Perhaps I should have put my underpants back on. The leaving do started around half four, and I made sure to clap extravagantly at the end of Bobs speech and say Hear, hear, bravo! loudly, so that everyone noticed me. I left at 4.59 p.m and walked to the shopping mall as fast as the chafing occasioned by my newly hairless epidermis allowed. I got there by quarter past, thank God. Bird in the hand is what I was thinking, given the importance of the task, so I simply headed straight into the first big department store I saw and took the lift to the electrical department. A young man with a grey shirt and a shiny tie was staring at the banks of giant TV screens. I approached, and informed him that I wished to purchase a computer. He looked scared. Desktop laptop tablet, he intoned. I had no idea what he was talking about. I havent bought a computer before, Liam, I explained, reading his name badge. Im a very inexperienced technology consumer. He pulled at the collar of his shirt, as though trying to free his enormous Adams apple from its constraints. He had the look of a gazelle or an impala, one of those boring beige animals with large, round eyes on the sides of its face. The kind of animal that always gets eaten by a leopard in the end. This was a rocky start. What will you be using it for? he asked, not making eye contact. Thats absolutely none of your business, I said, most offended. He looked like he might cry, and I felt bad. He was only young. I touched his arm, even though I hate touching. Im afraid Im a bit anxious because it is absolutely imperative that I am able to go online this weekend, I explained. His nervous expression remained in place. Liam, I said slowly, I simply need to purchase some sort of computer equipment that I can use in the comfort of my own home in order to conduct some internet-based research. I may in time send electronic messages from it. That is all. Do you have something suitable in stock? The boy stared heavenwards and thought deeply. A laptop and mobile internet access? he said. Why was he asking me, for goodness sakes? I nodded and handed over my debit card. When I got home, slightly giddy at how much money Id spent, I realized that there was nothing to eat. Friday was margherita pizza day, of course, but my routine was, for the first time ever, somewhat out of kilter. I recalled that I had a flyer in the tea towel drawer, something that was put through my letterbox a while ago. I found it easily and smoothed it out. There were money-off coupons along the bottom, which had expired. I guessed the prices would have gone up, but assumed that the phone number had stayed the same, and they presumably still sold pizzas. Even these old prices were ridiculous, though, and I actually laughed out loud at them. In Tesco Metro, the pizzas cost a quarter of that price. I decided that Id go for it. Yes, it was extravagant and indulgent, but why not? Life should be about trying new things, exploring boundaries, I reminded myself. The man on the other end of the line told me that the pizza would arrive in fifteen minutes. I brushed my hair, took off my slippers and put my work shoes back on. I wondered how they managed with the black pepper. Would the man bring a pepper mill with him? Surely he wouldnt grind it over the pizza while he stood on the doorstep? I put the kettle on in case he wanted a cup of tea. They had told me on the phone how much it would cost and I looked out the money, put it in an envelope and wrote Pizza Pronto on the front. I didnt bother with the address. I wondered whether it was the done thing to tip, and wished I had someone to ask. Mummy wouldnt be able to advise. She doesnt get to decide what she eats. The flaw with the pizza plan was the wine. They didnt deliver it, the man on the phone said, and actually sounded quite amused that Id asked. Strange what could be more normal than pizza and wine? I couldnt see how I was going to acquire something to drink in time to have with the pizza. I really needed something to drink. I worried over it as I waited for the delivery. In the end, the pizza experience was extremely disappointing. The man simply thrust a big box into my hand and took the envelope, which he then rudely ripped open right in front of me. I heard him mutter fucks sake under his breath as he counted the coins. I had been collecting fifty-pence pieces in a little ceramic dish, and this had seemed the perfect opportunity to use them up. Id popped an extra one in for him, but received no thanks for it. Rude. The pizza was excessively greasy and the dough was flabby and tasteless. I decided immediately that I would never eat delivered pizza again, and definitely not with the musician. If we ever found ourselves in need of pizza and too far from a Tesco Metro, one of two things would happen. One: we would take a black cab into town and dine at a lovely Italian restaurant. Two: he would make pizza for us both, from scratch. Hed mix the dough, stretching and kneading it with those long, tapered fingers, stroking it until it did what he wanted. Hed stand at the cooker, simmering tomatoes with fresh herbs, reducing them to a rich sauce, slick and slippery with a sheen of olive oil. Hed be wearing his oldest, most comfortable jeans, a pair that sat snugly on his slim hips, bare feet tapping as he sang softly to himself in his delicious voice and stirred. When hed assembled the pizza, topping it with artichokes and fennel shavings, hed put it in the oven and come and find me, take me by the hand and lead me into the kitchen. Hed have set the table, a dish of gardenias in the centre, tea lights flickering through coloured glass. Hed slowly ease the cork from a bottle of Barolo with a long, satisfying pop and place it on the table, then pull out my chair for me. Before I could sit, hed take me in his arms and kiss me, his hands around my waist, pulling me so close that I could feel the pulse of blood in him, smell the sweet spiciness of his skin and the warm sugar of his breath. Id finished eating my poor-quality pizza and was jumping up and down on the box, trying to crush it small enough to fit into the bin, when I remembered the brandy. Mummy always said that brandy is good for shocks and Id bought some, several years ago, just in case. Id put it in the bathroom cabinet, with all the other emergency items. I went to check and there it was, behind the rolled-up bandages and the wrist supports a half bottle of R?my Martin, full and unopened. I unscrewed the cap and took a drink. It wasnt as nice as vodka, but it wasnt bad. I was very apprehensive about the laptop, never having set up a new computer before, but it was actually pretty easy. The mobile internet thing was straightforward, too. I took the brandy and the laptop to the kitchen table, typed his name into Google and hit return, then put my hands over my eyes. Seconds later I peeped through my fingers. There were hundreds of results! It seemed that this was going to be quite easy, so I decided to ration the pages; after all, I had the entire weekend, so there was no point in rushing. The first link took me to his own web page, which was entirely taken up with photographs of him and his band. I moved closer to the screen until my nose was almost touching it. I had neither imagined him, nor overestimated the extent of his beauty. The next link took me to his Twitter page. I allowed myself the pleasure of reading the three latest messages, two of which were wry and witty, the third utterly charming. In it, he was professing his professional admiration for another musician. Gracious of him. Next, his Instagram page. He had posted almost fifty photos. I clicked on one at random, a head shot in close-up, candid and relaxed. He had a Roman nose, perfectly straight, classically proportioned. His ears were also perfect, exactly the right size, the whorls of skin and cartilage flawlessly symmetrical. His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown. There were rows and rows of photographs on the page and my brain forced my finger to press the button and return to the search engine. I scanned the rest of the sites that Google had found. There were video clips of performances on YouTube. There were articles and reviews. This was only the first page of the search results. I would read every piece of information that I could find about him, get to know him properly after all, Im very good at research, and at problem-solving. I dont mean to boast; Im merely stating the facts. Finding out more about him was the right thing to do, the sensible approach, if it turned out that he was going to be the love of my life. I picked up the brandy, a new notebook and a fine-tipped pen that Id borrowed from the office, and went over to the sofa, ready to make a start on my plan of action. The brandy was both warming and soothing, and I kept sipping. When I awoke, it was just after 3 a.m., and the pen and notebook were lying on the floor. Slowly, I recalled getting sidetracked, starting to daydream as the brandy slipped down. The backs of my hands were tattooed with black ink, his name written there over and over, inscribed inside love-hearts, so that barely an inch of skin remained unsullied. A mouthful of brandy remained in the bottle. I downed it and went to bed. 3 WHY HIM? WHY NOW? On Monday morning, waiting at the bus stop, I tried to work it out. It was a tricky one. Who can understand the workings of fate, after all? Far greater minds than mine had tried, and failed, to arrive at a conclusion. There he was, a gift from the gods handsome, elegant and talented. I was fine, perfectly fine on my own, but I needed to keep Mummy happy, keep her calm so she would leave me in peace. A boyfriend a husband? might just do the trick. It wasnt that I needed anyone. I was, as previously stated, perfectly fine. Having perused at length the available photographic evidence over the course of the weekend, I had concluded that there was something particularly mesmerizing about his eyes. My own are a similar shade, although theyre nowhere near as beautiful, of course, containing no such shimmering copper depths. Looking at all those photographs, I was reminded of someone. It was only a half memory, like a face under ice or blurred by smoke, indistinct. Eyes just like mine, eyes set in a little face, wide and vulnerable, full of tears. Ridiculous, Eleanor. It was disappointing that I had allowed myself, even for a moment, to indulge in sentimentality. Plenty of people in the world had light brown eyes like mine, after all that was a scientific fact. It was statistically inevitable that some of them would have made eye contact with me during the course of a routine social interaction. Something else was troubling me, though. All the studies show that people tend to take a partner who is roughly as attractive as they are; like attracts like, that is the norm. I was under no illusions. In terms of looks, he was a ten and I am I dont know what I am. Not a ten, certainly. Of course, I hoped he would see beyond superficialities, look a bit deeper, but that said, I knew that his profession would require him to have a partner who was at least presentable. The music business, show business, is all about image, and he couldnt be seen with a woman whose appearance would be perceived by simpletons as inappropriate. I was well aware of that. Id have to try my best to look the part. Hed posted some new photos online, two head shots, close profiles, right and left. He was perfect in both, and they were identical objectively, literally, he did not have a bad side. Of course, a defining characteristic of beauty is symmetry, thats another thing all the studies agree on. I wondered what gene pool had created such handsome progeny. Did he have brothers or sisters, perhaps? If we ever got together, I might even be able to meet them. I didnt know much about parents in general, or siblings in particular, having had quite an unconventional upbringing myself. I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral. That must be difficult. Always having to prove that theres more to you, wanting people to see beneath the surface, to be loved for yourself, and not your stunning body, sparkling eyes or thick, lustrous hair. In most professions, getting older means getting better at your job, earning respect because of your seniority and experience. If your job depends on your looks, the opposite is true how depressing. Suffering other peoples unkindness must be difficult too; all those bitter, less attractive people, jealous and resentful of your beauty. Thats incredibly unfair of them. After all, beautiful people didnt ask to be born that way. Its as unfair to dislike someone because theyre attractive as it is to dislike someone because of a deformity. It doesnt bother me at all when people react to my face, to the ridged, white contours of scar tissue that slither across my right cheek, starting at my temple and running all the way down to my chin. I am stared at, whispered about; I turn heads. It was reassuring to think that he would understand, being something of a head-turner himself, albeit for very different reasons. I eschewed the Telegraph today in favour of alternative reading matter. I had spent an obscene amount of money on a small selection of womens magazines, flimsy and lurid ones, thick, glossy ones, all of them promising a range of wonders, simple but life-enhancing changes. I had never purchased such items before, although I had, of course, leafed through a few in hospital waiting rooms and other institutional settings. I noted that, disappointingly, none of them had a cryptic crossword; indeed, one contained a soapstar word search that would insult the intelligence of a seven-year-old. I could have bought three bottles of wine or a litre of premium-brand vodka for the price of that little pile. Nevertheless, after careful consideration, Id worked out that they were the most reliable and accessible source of the information that I needed. These magazines could tell me which clothes and shoes to wear, how to have my hair styled in order to fit in. They could show me the right kind of makeup to buy and how to apply it. This way, I would disappear into everywoman acceptability. I would not be stared at. The goal, ultimately, was successful camouflage as a human woman. Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. Shes done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars. So I felt very happy about making these changes. Excited. I was a blank canvas. At home that evening, I looked into the mirror above the washbasin while I washed my damaged hands. There I was: Eleanor Oliphant. Long, straight, light brown hair that runs all the way down to my waist, pale skin, my face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose thats too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional. Around average height, approximately average weight. I aspire to average Ive been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please, nothing to see here. I dont often look in the mirror, as a rule. This has absolutely nothing to do with my scars. It is because of the unsettling gene mix that looks back at me. I see far too much of Mummys face there. I cannot distinguish any of my fathers features, because I have never met him and, to the best of my knowledge, no photographic records exist. Mummy almost never mentioned him, and on the rare occasions when he came up, she referred to him only as the gametes donor. Once Id looked up this term in her New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (from the Greek , husband did this juvenile etymological adventuring spark my love of classics?), I spent several years wondering about this strange set of circumstances. Even at that tender age, I understood that assisted conception was the antithesis of careless, spontaneous or unplanned parenthood, that it was the most deliberate of decisions, undertaken only by women who were serious and dedicated in their quest to be mothers. I simply could not believe, given the evidence and my own experience, that Mummy had ever been such a woman, could ever have wished for a child so intensely. As it transpired, I was right. Finally, I summoned the courage to enquire directly as to the circumstances of my creation, and to seek any available information about the mythical donor of spermatozoa, my father. As any child would in such circumstances possibly even more so, in my particular circumstances I had been harbouring a small but intense fantasy about the character and appearance of my absent parent. She laughed and laughed. Donor? Did I really say that? It was simply a metaphor, darling, she said. Another word Id have to look up. I was actually trying to spare your feelings. It was more of a compulsory donation, shall we say. I had no choice in the matter. Do you understand what Im telling you? I said that I did, but I was fibbing. Where does he live, Mummy? I asked, feeling brave. What does he look like, what does he do? I cant remember what he looked like, she said, her tone dismissive, bored. He smelled like high game and liquefied Roquefort, if thats any help. I must have looked puzzled. She leaned forward, showed me her teeth. Thats rotting flesh and stinking, mouldy cheese to you, darling. She paused, regained her equanimity. I dont know if hes alive or dead, Eleanor, she said. If hes alive, hes probably very rich by dubious, unethical means. If hes dead and I sincerely hope that he is then I imagine hes languishing in the outer ring of the seventh circle of Hell, immersed in a river of boiling blood and fire, taunted by centaurs. I realized at that point that it probably wasnt worth asking if she had kept any photos. 4 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 Sundays omnibus now to find out whether Eddie Grundys cider had fermented successfully. I felt a flash of desperate optimism. What if I didnt have to talk to her? What if I could talk to someone else, anyone else? Hello? I said. Oh, hiya hen, its 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. Shes very good at accents, but then shes 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. Its only been a week, I know, but it feels like an age since we last spoke, Mummy. Ive 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 cant 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. Id 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 couldnt shake the thought that she would pick it up and, with brutal calm, simply tear it to shreds. Oh a concert, that sounds marvellous Ive always been fond of music. Were 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. Shes whats known as a junkie she and her similarly addicted friends were caught purloining perfume from Boots. Midnight Heat by Beyonc?, would you believe. She lowered her voice again. Were 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. Ive 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. Im 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 couldnt help myself. I told her. A person, Mummy, I said. She whispered so softly that I could hardly hear her. Ah, so the games afoot, is it? Do tell she said. Im all ears, darling. Theres 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 Id love for you to find someone special. Someone appropriate. All these talks weve had, over the years: Ive always had the impression that youre missing out, not having someone significant in your life. Its good that youve started looking for your other half. A partner in crime, as it were. She laughed quietly. Im not lonely, Mummy, I said, protesting. Im fine on my own. Ive always been fine on my own. Well now, you havent 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 wouldnt understand, of course, but the bond between a mother and child, its how best to describe it unbreakable. The two of us are linked for ever, you see same blood in my veins thats 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? Alzheimers? Youll 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 cant, darling, you simply cant. It isnt possible to destroy a bond that strong. That may or may not be true, Mummy, I said quietly. Such audacity. I dont 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 well keep in touch, yes? You carry on with your little project, and Ill speak to you at the same time next week? Thats settled, then. Must dash cheerio! It was only when the air went dead that I noticed Id been crying. 5 FRIDAY AT LAST. WHEN I arrived at the office my colleagues were already clustered around the kettle, talking about soap operas. They ignored me; I have long since ceased to initiate any conversation with them. I hung my navy jerkin on the back of my chair and switched on my computer. I had not slept well again the previous evening, being somewhat unsettled by my conversation with Mummy. I decided to make a refreshing cup of tea before I got started. I have my own mug and spoon, which I keep in my desk drawer for hygiene reasons. My colleagues think this strange, or at least I assume so from their reactions, and yet they are happy to drink from filthy vessels, washed carelessly by unknown hands. I cannot even countenance the notion of inserting a teaspoon, licked and sucked by a stranger barely an hour beforehand, into a hot beverage. Filthy. I stood at the sink while I waited for the kettle to boil, trying not to listen to their conversation. I gave my little teapot another hot rinse, just to be sure, and drifted into pleasurable thoughts, thoughts of him. I wondered what he was doing at this very moment writing a song, perhaps? Or would he still be asleep? I wondered what his handsome face would look like in repose. The kettle clicked off and I warmed the teapot, then spooned in some first flush Darjeeling, my mind still focused on the putative beauty of my slumbering troubadour. Childish laughter from my colleagues began to intrude upon my thoughts, but I assumed this was to do with my choice of beverage. Knowing no better, they are content to drop a bag of poorest quality blended tea into a mug, scald it with boiling water, and then dilute any remaining flavour by adding fridge-cold milk. Once again, for some reason, it is I who am considered strange. But if youre going to drink a cup of tea, why not take every care to maximize the pleasure? The giggling continued, and Janey started to hum. There was no attempt at concealment; now they were laughing loud and hard. She stopped humming and started singing. I recognized neither the melody nor the lyrics. She stopped, unable to go on because she was laughing so much, still performing a strange backwards walk. Morning, Wacko Jacko, Billy called out to me. Whats with the white glove? So that was the source of their amusement. Unbelievable. Its for my eczema, I said, talking slowly and patiently, the way you explain things to a child. I had a very bad flare up on Wednesday evening and the skin on my right hand is extremely inflamed. Im wearing this cotton glove to prevent infection. The laughter died away, leaving a long pause. They looked at each other silently, rather like ruminant animals in a field. I didnt often interact with my colleagues in this informal, chatty way, which gave me cause to stop and consider whether I ought to make the most of the opportunity. Bernadettes fraternal connection to the object of my affections surely it would be the work of moments to glean some additional, useful information about him from her? I didnt think I was up to a protracted interaction she had a very loud, grating voice and a laugh like a howler monkey but it was surely worth a few moments of my time. I stirred my tea in a clockwise direction while I prepared my opening gambit. Did you enjoy the rest of the concert the other night, Billy? I said. He looked surprised at my question, and there was a pause before he answered. Aye, it was OK, he said. Articulate as ever. This was going to be hard work. Were the other singers of a similar standard to I paused and pretended to wrack my brains to Johnnie Lomond? They were all right, I guess, he said, shrugging. Such insight, such clear, descriptive prose. Bernadette piped up, as I knew she would, unable to resist an opportunity to draw attention to herself by any means available. I know him, Johnnie Lomond, she told me proudly. He used to be pals with my brother, at school. Really? I said, not, for once, having to feign interest. Which school was that? The way she said the name of the establishment implied that I ought to be aware of it. I tried to look impressed. Are they still friends? I asked, stirring my tea again. Not really, she said. He came to Pauls wedding, but I think they drifted apart after that. You know what its like when youre married with kids, you sort of lose touch with your single pals, dont you? You dont have that much in common any more I had neither knowledge nor experience of the situation shed described, but I nodded as though I did, while all the while the same phrase was scrolling across my brain: he is single, he is single, he is single. I took my tea back to my desk. Their laughter seemed to have turned into low whispering now. It never ceases to amaze me, the things they find interesting, amusing or unusual. I can only assume theyve led very sheltered lives. Janey the secretary had got engaged to her latest Neanderthal, and there was a presentation for her that afternoon. Id contributed seventy-eight pence to the collection. I only had coppers in my purse or else a five-pound note, and I certainly wasnt going to put such an extravagant sum into the communal envelope to buy something unnecessary for someone I barely knew. I must have contributed hundreds of pounds over the years to all the leaving presents, baby gifts and special birthdays, and what had I ever received in return? My own birthdays pass unremarked. Whoever had chosen the engagement gift had selected wine glasses and a matching carafe. Such accoutrements are unnecessary when you drink vodka I simply use my favourite mug. I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man on one side. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says Top Gear. I dont profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills. Janey was planning a short engagement, shed simpered, and so, of course, the inevitable collection for the wedding present would soon follow. Of all the compulsory financial contributions, that is the one that irks me most. Two people wander around John Lewis picking out lovely items for themselves, and then they make other people pay for them. Its bare-faced effrontery. They choose things like plates, bowls and cutlery I mean, what are they doing at the moment: shovelling food from packets into their mouths with their bare hands? I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalizing a human relationship necessitates friends, family and co-workers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them. Ive never actually been to a wedding ceremony. I was invited to Lorettas evening reception a couple of years ago, along with everyone else from the office. It was in a horrible hotel near the airport, and we organized a minibus to get there; I had to contribute to the cost of that, in addition to my bus fare into town and back. Guests were obliged to buy their own drinks all evening, which shocked me. Entertaining is not my area of expertise, Ill admit that, but surely, if you are a host, you are responsible for ensuring that your guests are provided with a libation? Thats a basic principle of hospitality, in all societies and cultures, and has been since recorded time. In the event, I drank tap water I rarely imbibe alcohol in public. I only really enjoy it when Im alone, at home. They did at least serve tea and coffee later in the evening, free of charge; this was accompanied by poor-quality savoury pastries and, bizarrely, slices of Christmas cake. For hours and hours, there was a disco, and terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music. I sat on my own and no one asked me to dance and I was absolutely fine with that. The other guests did seem to be enjoying themselves, or at least I assume that to have been the case. They were shuffling on the dance floor, red-faced and drunk. Their shoes looked uncomfortable, and they were shouting the words of the songs into each others faces. Ill never go to such an event again. It simply wasnt worth it, just for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. The evening wasnt completely wasted, however, because I managed to slip almost a dozen sausage rolls into my shopper, wrapped in serviettes, for later. Unfortunately, they werent very tasty nowhere near as good as the always reliable Greggs. When the grim engagement presentation was over, I zipped up my jerkin and turned off my computer, excited at the thought of switching on my personal laptop at home as soon as I could. There might be some useful information online about his schooldays, given the nugget of new information Id inveigled from Bernadette earlier. How wonderful if there was a class photograph! Id love to see how he looked in his youth, whether hed always been beautiful, or whether hed blossomed into a glorious butterfly at a relatively late stage. My money was on him being stunning from birth. There might be a list of prizes hed won! Music, obviously, English, probably: he wrote such wonderful lyrics, after all. Either way, he definitely struck me as a prize-winner. I try to plan my exits from the office so that I dont need to talk to anyone else on the way out. There are always so many questions. What are you up to tonight? Plans for the weekend? Booked a holiday yet? Ive no idea why other people are always so interested in my schedule. Id timed it all perfectly, and was manoeuvring my shopper over the threshold when I realized that someone had pulled the door back and was holding it open for me. I turned around. All right, Eleanor? the man said, smiling patiently as I unravelled the string on my mittens from my sleeve. Even though they were not required in the current temperate atmosphere, I keep them in situ, ready to don as the eventual change in season requires. Yes, I said, and then, remembering my manners, I muttered, Thank you, Raymond. No bother, he said. Annoyingly, we began walking down the path at the same time. Where are you headed? he asked. I nodded vaguely in the direction of the hill. Me too, he said. I bent down and pretended to refasten the Velcro on my shoe. I took as long as I could, hoping that he would take the hint. When eventually I stood up again, he was still there, arms dangling by his sides. I noticed that he was wearing a duffle coat. A duffle coat! Surely they were the preserve of children and small bears? We started to walk downhill together and he took out a packet of cigarettes, offered me one. I reared back from the packet. How disgusting, I said. Undeterred, he lit up. Sorry, he mumbled. Filthy habit, I know. It is, I said. Youll die years earlier than you would have otherwise, probably from cancer or heart disease. You wont see the effects on your heart or your lungs for a while, but youll notice it in your mouth gum disease, loss of teeth and youve already got the smokers characteristically dull, prematurely lined skin. The chemical constitution of cigarettes includes cyanide and ammonia, you know. Do you really want to willingly ingest such toxic substances? You seem to know an awful lot about fags for a non-smoker, he said, blowing a noxious cloud of carcinogens from between his thin lips. I did briefly consider taking up smoking, I admitted, but I thoroughly research all activities before commencement, and smoking did not in the end seem to me to be a viable or sensible pastime. Its financially rebarbative too, I said. Aye, he nodded, it does cost a fortune, right enough. There was a pause. Which way are you going, Eleanor? he asked. I considered the best response to this question. I was heading home for an exciting rendezvous. This highly unusual occasion an appointment with a visitor to my home meant that I needed to curtail this tedious unplanned interaction post haste. I therefore ought to pick any route but the one Raymond would be taking. But which one? We were about to pass the chiropody clinic and inspiration struck. I have an appointment over there, I said, pointing to the chiropodists opposite. He looked at me. Bunions, I improvised. I saw him looking at my shoes. Im sorry to hear that, Eleanor, he said. My mothers the same; shes got terrible trouble with her feet. We waited at the pedestrian crossing, and he was silent at last. I watched an old man stagger down the opposite side of the road. He was small and square, and had caught my eye because of his tomato-red sweater, which burst out from beneath his standard-issue pensioner greys and muted pastels. Almost in slow motion, the old man began to weave and wobble erratically, swaying wildly from side to side, his bulging carrier bags creating a sort of human pendulum. Drunk in the daytime, I said quietly, more to myself than to Raymond. Raymond opened his mouth to reply when the old man finally toppled, fell backwards hard, and lay still. His shopping exploded around him, and I noticed hed bought Tunnocks Caramel Logs and a jumbo pack of sausages. Shit, said Raymond, stabbing at the button on the crossing control. Leave him, I said. Hes drunk. Hell be fine. Raymond stared at me. Hes a wee old man, Eleanor. He smacked his head on that pavement pretty hard, he said. Then I felt bad. Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they dont cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me. Finally, the green man flashed and Raymond jogged across the road, having flung his cigarette into the gutter. No need to be a litter lout, I thought, walking at a more measured pace behind him. When I reached the other side, Raymond was already kneeling beside the old man, feeling for a pulse in his neck. He was talking loudly and slowly, silly nonsense like Hiya, old timer, how you doing? and Can you hear me, mister? The old man didnt respond. I leaned over him and sniffed deeply. Hes not actually drunk, I said. Youd smell it, if he were drunk enough to fall over and pass out. Raymond started loosen-ing the mans clothing. Call an ambulance, Eleanor, he said quietly. I dont possess a mobile telephone, I explained, although Im open to persuasion with regard to their efficacy. Raymond rummaged in his duffle coat pocket and tossed me his. Hurry up, he said, the old guys out cold. I started to dial 999, and then a memory punched me full in the face. I couldnt do it again, I realized, I simply couldnt live and listen to a voice saying Which service do you require, caller?, then approaching sirens. I touched my scars, and then threw the phone back at Raymond. You do it, I said. Ill sit with him. Raymond swore under his breath and stood up. Keep talking, and dont move him, he said. I took off my jerkin and placed it over the mans torso. Hello, I said, Im Eleanor Oliphant. Keep talking to him, Raymond had said, so I did. What a lovely sweater! I said. You dont see that colour often on a woollen garment. Would you describe it as vermillion? Or carmine, perhaps? I rather like it. I wouldnt attempt such a shade myself, of course. But, against the odds, I think you just about carry it off. White hair and red clothing like Father Christmas. Was the sweater a gift? It looks like a gift, all soft and expensive. Its far too nice a thing to buy for yourself. But perhaps you do buy nice things for yourself some people do, I know. Some people think nothing of treating themselves to the best of everything. Mind you, looking at the rest of your clothes, and the contents of your shopping bag, it seems highly unlikely that youre that sort of person. I braced myself and took three deep breaths, then slowly put out my hand and placed it over his. I held it gently for as long as I could bear. Mr Gibbons is calling an ambulance, I said, so dont worry, you wont be lying here in the middle of the street for long. Theres no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. Youre a fortunate man. I mean, you probably wouldnt want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation. But here in Glasgow well, youve struck it lucky, if youll pardon the pun. Raymond hung up and scuttled over. Hows he doing, Eleanor? he said. Has he come round yet? No, I said, but Ive been talking to him, like you asked. Raymond took the mans other hand. Poor old soul, he said. I nodded. Surprisingly, I felt an emotion that I recognized as anxiety or concern in relation to this elderly stranger. I sat back, and my buttocks bumped against something large and curvaceous. When I turned around to check, it was a huge plastic bottle of Irn-Bru. I stood up and stretched my spine out, and then started to collect the spilled shopping and put it into the carrier bags. One of them was torn, so I went into my shopper and took out my favourite Bag for Life, the Tesco one with lions on it. I packed all the comestibles and placed the bags by the old mans feet. Raymond smiled at me. We heard the sirens and Raymond handed me my jerkin. The ambulance pulled up alongside us and two men got out. They were in the middle of a conversation and I was surprised at how proletarian they sounded. I thought theyd be more like doctors. All right, said the older one, what do we have here, then? The old boys taken a tumble, has he? Raymond filled him in and I watched the other one; he was bent over the old man, taking his pulse, shining a little torch into his eyes and tapping him gently to try to elicit a response. He turned to his colleague. We need to get moving, he said. They fetched a stretcher and were fast and surprisingly gentle as they lifted the old man and strapped him on. The younger man wrapped a red fleece blanket around him. Same colour as his jumper, I said, but they both ignored me. You coming with him? the older man asked. Only room for one in the back, mind. Raymond and I looked at one another. I glanced at my watch. The visitor was due chez Oliphant in half an hour. Ill go, Eleanor, he said. You dont want to miss your chiropody appointment. I nodded, and Raymond climbed in beside the old man and the paramedic, who was busy connecting drips and monitors. I picked up the shopping bags and lifted them high enough to pass across to Raymond. Look, said the paramedic, sounding slightly tetchy, this isnt the Asda van. We dont deliver shopping. Raymond was on the phone, and I heard him talking, apparently to his mother, telling her that hed be late, before he quickly hung up. Eleanor, he said, why dont you give me a call in a bit, and maybe you could bring his stuff over to him? I considered this, nodded, watched as he rummaged in his coat pocket and took out a biro. He grabbed my hand. I gasped and stepped to the side, shocked, placing my hand firmly behind my back. I need to give you my phone number, he said patiently. I took out my little notebook from my shopper, which he returned with a page covered in blue scribble, his name barely legible there, and a series of numbers scrawled below it in an awkward, childish hand. Give it an hour or so, he said. Your bunions will be dealt with by then, wont they? 6 I HAD BARELY HAD TIME to get home and divest myself of my outer garments when the doorbell rang, ten minutes earlier than Id been expecting. Probably trying to catch me out. When I opened it, slowly, keeping the chain on, it wasnt the person Id been expecting. Whoever it was, she wasnt smiling. Eleanor Oliphant? June Mullen, Social Work, she said, stepping forward, her progress blocked by the door. I was expecting Heather, I said, peering around. Heathers off sick, Im afraid; weve no idea when shell be back. Ive taken over her cases. I asked to see some form of official identification I mean, you cant be too careful. She gave a tiny sigh, and began to look in her bag. She was tall, carefully dressed in a black trouser suit and white shirt. As she bent her head, I noticed the white stripe of scalp at the parting in her shiny, dark bob. Eventually, she looked up and thrust out a security pass, with a huge council logo and a tiny photo. I scrutinized it carefully, looked from the photograph to her face and back again several times. It wasnt a flattering shot, but I didnt hold that against her. Im not particularly photogenic myself. In real life, she was about my age, with smooth, unlined skin and a slash of red lipstick. You dont look like a social worker, I said. She stared at me but said nothing. Not again! In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency. Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes? Its a conundrum. I made a mental note to return to the topic later, unhooked the chain and invited her in. I showed her into the lounge, listening to her high heels clicking across the floor. She asked if she could have a quick tour; Id been expecting that, of course. Heather used to do that too; I assume that its part of the job, checking to make sure that Im not storing my own urine in demijohns or kidnapping magpies and sewing them into pillowcases. She complimented me unenthusiastically on the interiors as we went into the kitchen. I tried to see my home through the eyes of a visitor. Im aware that I am very fortunate to live here, social housing in this area being virtually non-existent these days. I couldnt possibly afford to live in this postcode otherwise, certainly not on the pittance that Bob pays me. Social Services arranged for me to move here after I had to leave my last foster placement, the summer immediately before I started university. Id just turned seventeen. Back then, a vulnerable young person whod grown up in care would be allocated a council flat close to her place of study without it being too much of a problem. Imagine that. It took me a while to get around to decorating, I remember, and I finally painted the place in the summer after I graduated. I bought emulsion and brushes after cashing a cheque I received in the post from the University Registry, along with my degree parchment; it turned out that Id won a small prize, set up in the name of some long-dead classicist, for the best Finals performance in a paper on Virgils Georgics. I graduated in absentia of course; it seemed pointless to process onto the stage with no one there to applaud me. The flat hadnt been touched since then. I suppose, trying to be objective, that it was looking rather tired. Mummy always said that an obsession with home interiors was tediously bourgeois and, worse still, that any kind of do-it-yourself activities were very much the preserve of the hoi polloi. Its quite frightening to think about the ideas that I may have absorbed from Mummy. The furniture was provided by a charity that helps vulnerable young people and ex-offenders when they move into a new home; donated, mismatched things for which I was most grateful at the time, and continue to be. It was all perfectly functional, so Id never seen the need to replace any of it. I didnt clean the place very often, I supposed, which might contribute to what I could see might be perceived as a general air of neglect. I didnt see the point; I was the only person who ever ate here, washed here, went to sleep and woke up here. This June Mullen was the first visitor Id had since November last year. They come around every six months or so, the Social Work visits. Shes my first visitor this calendar year. The meter reader hasnt been yet, although I must say I prefer it when they leave a card and I can phone in my reading. I do love call centres; its always so interesting to hear all the different accents and try to find out a bit about the person youre talking to. The best part is when they ask, at the end, Is there anything else I can help you with today, Eleanor? and I can then reply, No, no thank you, youve completely and comprehensively resolved my problems. Its always nice to hear my first name spoken aloud by a human voice, too. Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one Church or another will call round to ask if Ive welcomed Jesus into my life. They dont tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, Ive found, which is disappointing. Last year, a man came to deliver a Betterware catalogue, which turned out to be a most enjoyable read. I still regret not purchasing the spider-catcher, which really was a very ingenious device. June Mullen declined my offer of a cup of tea as we returned to the living room, and after sitting down on the sofa, she pulled my file from her briefcase. It was several inches thick, held together precariously by a rubber band. Some unknown hand had written OLIPHANT, ELEANOR in marker pen on the top right-hand corner and dated it July 1987, the year of my birth. The buff folder, tattered and stained, looked like a historical artefact. Heathers handwriting is atrocious, she muttered, running a manicured fingernail down the page at the top of the pile of papers. She spoke quietly, to herself rather than to me. Biannual visits continuity of community integration early identification of any additional support needs She continued to read, and then I saw her face change and she glanced at me, her expression a mixture of horror, alarm and pity. She must have got to the section about Mummy. I stared her out. She took a deep breath, looked down at the papers and then exhaled slowly as she looked up at me again. I had no idea, she said, her voice echoing her expression. Do you you must miss her terribly? Mummy? I said. Hardly. No, I meant she trailed off, looking awkward, sad, embarrassed. Ah, I knew them well these were the holy trinity of Oliphant expressions. I shrugged, having no idea whatsoever what she was talking about. Silence sat between us, shivering with misery. After what felt like days had passed, June Mullen closed the file on her lap and gave me an overly bright smile. So, Eleanor, how have you been getting on, generally, since Heathers last visit, I mean? Well, I havent become aware of any additional support needs, and Im fully integrated into the community, June, I said. She smiled weakly. Work going OK? I see youre a she consulted the file again you work in an office? Work is fine, I said. Everythings fine. What about home? she said, looking round the room, her eyes lingering on my big green pouffe, which is shaped like a giant frog and was part of the charity furniture donation Id received when I first moved in. Id grown very fond of his bulbous eyes and giant pink tongue over the years. One night, a vodka night, Id drawn a big housefly, Musca domestica, on his tongue with a pilfered Sharpie. Im not artistically gifted in any way, but it was, in my humble opinion, a fair rendering of the subject matter. I felt that this act had helped me to take ownership of the donated item, and created something new from something second-hand. Also, he had looked hungry. June Mullen seemed unable to take her eyes off it. Everythings fine here, June, I reiterated. Bills all paid, cordial relations with the neighbours. Im perfectly comfortable. She flicked through the file again, and then inhaled. I knew what she was about to say, recognizing full well the change in tone fear, hesitancy that always preceded the subject matter. Youre still of the view that you dont want to know anything else about the incident, or about your mother, I understand? No smiling this time. Thats right, I said. Theres no need I speak to her once a week, on a Wednesday evening, regular as clockwork. Really? After all this time, thats still happening? Interesting Are you keen to maintain this contact? Why wouldnt I be? I said, incredulous. Where on earth does the Social Work department find these people? She deliberately allowed the silence to linger, and, although I recognized the technique, I could not stop myself from filling it, eventually. I think Mummy would like it if I tried to find out more about the incident but Ive no intention of doing so. No, she said, nodding. Well, how much you want to know about what happened is entirely up to you, isnt it? The courts were very clear, back then, that anything like that was to be entirely at your discretion? Thats correct, I said, thats exactly what they said. She looked closely at me, as so many people had done before, scrutinizing my face for any traces of Mummy, enjoying some strange thrill at being this close to a blood relative of the woman the newspapers still occasionally referred to, all these years later, as the pretty face of evil. I watched her eyes run over my scars. Her mouth hung slightly open, and it became apparent that the suit and the bob were an inadequate disguise for this particular slack-jawed yokel. I could probably dig out a photograph, if youd like one, I said. She blinked twice and blushed, then busied herself by grappling with the bulging file, trying to sort all the loose papers into a tidy pile. I noticed a single sheet flutter down and land under the coffee table. She hadnt seen it make its escape, and I pondered whether or not to tell her. It was about me, after all, so wasnt it technically mine? Id return it at the next visit, of course Im not a thief. I imagined Mummys voice, whispering, telling me I was quite right, that social workers were busybodies, do-gooders, nosy parkers. June Mullen snapped the elastic band around the file, and the moment to mention the sheet of paper had passed. I is there anything else youd like to discuss with me today? she asked. No thank you, I said, smiling as broadly as I could. She looked rather disconcerted, perhaps even slightly frightened. I was disappointed. Id been aiming for pleasant and friendly. Well then, that seems to be that for the time being, Eleanor; Ill leave you in peace, she said. She continued talking as she packed away the file in her briefcase, adopting a breezy, casual tone. Any plans for the weekend? Im visiting someone in hospital, I said. Oh, thats nice. Visits always cheer a patient up, dont they? Do they? I said. I wouldnt know. Ive never visited anyone in hospital before. But youve spent a lot of time in hospital yourself, of course, she said. I stared at her. The imbalance in the extent of our knowledge of each other was manifestly unfair. Social workers should present their new clients with a fact sheet about themselves to try to redress this, I think. After all, shed had unrestricted access to that big brown folder, the bumper book of Eleanor, two decades worth of information about the intimate minutiae of my life. All I knew about her was her name and her employer. If you know about that, then youll be aware that the circumstances were such that the police and my legal representatives were the only visitors permitted, I said. She gawped at me. I was reminded of those clowns heads in fairgrounds, the ones where you try to throw a ping-pong ball into their gaping mouths in order to win a goldfish. I opened the door for her, watching her eyes swivel repeatedly towards the giant customized frog. Ill see you in six months then, Eleanor, she said reluctantly. Best of luck. I closed the door with excessive gentleness behind her. She hadnt remarked upon Polly, I thought, which was odd. Ridiculously, I felt almost slighted on Pollys behalf. Shed been sitting in the corner throughout our meeting, and was clearly the most eye-catching thing in the room. My beautiful Polly, prosaically described as a parrot plant, sometimes referred to as a Congo cockatoo plant, but always known to me, in her full Latinate glory, as Impatiens niamniamensis. I say it out loud, often: Niamniamensis. Its like kissing, the ms forcing your lips together, rolling over the consonants, your tongue poking into ns and over the s. Pollys ancestors came all the way from Africa, originally. Well, we all did. Shes the only constant from my childhood, the only living thing that survived. She was a birthday present, but I cant remember who gave her to me, which is strange. I was not, after all, a girl who was overwhelmed with gifts. She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the foster placements and childrens homes and, like me, shes still here. Ive looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes light, and shes thirsty. Apart from that, she requires minimal care and attention, and largely looks after herself. I talk to her sometimes, Im not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life. A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman whos wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? Im confident that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. Its not as though Im expecting a reply. Im fully aware that Polly is a houseplant. I watered her, then got on with some other household chores, thinking ahead to the moment when I could open my laptop and check whether a certain handsome singer had posted any new information. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Windows into a world of marvels. While I was loading the washing machine, my telephone rang. A visitor and a phone call! A red-letter day indeed. It was Raymond. I rang Bobs mobile and explained the situation to him, and he dug out your number from the personnel files for me, he said. I mean, really. Was all of me on show in buff folders, splayed wide for anyone to flick open and do with as they wished? What a gross abuse of my privacy, not to mention an offence against the Data Protection Act, I said. Ill be speaking to Bob about that next week. There was silence on the other end of the line. Well? I said. Oh, right. Yeah. Sorry. Its just, you said you would call and you didnt, and, well, Im at the hospital now. I wondered, you know if you wanted to bring the old guys stuff in? Were at the Western Infirmary. Oh, and his names Sami-Tom. What? I said. No, that cant be right, Raymond. Hes a small, fat elderly man from Glasgow. There is absolutely no possibility of him being christened Sami-Tom. I was beginning to develop some serious concerns about Raymonds mental capacities. No, no, Eleanor its Sammy as in short for Samuel. Thom as in T-H-O-M. Oh, I said. There was another long pause. So like I said, Sammys in the Western. Visiting starts at seven, if you want to come in? I said I would, and Im a woman of my word, Raymond. Its a bit late now; tomorrow, early evening, would suit me best, if thats acceptable to you? Sure, he said. Another pause. Do you want to know how hes doing? Yes, naturally, I said. The man was an extremely poor conversationalist, and was making this whole exchange terribly hard work. Its not good. Hes stable, but its serious. Just to prepare you. He hasnt regained consciousness yet. In that case, I cant imagine hell have much use for his Irn-Bru and lorne sausage tomorrow, will he? I asked. I heard Raymond take a breath. Look, Eleanor, its entirely up to you whether you visit or not. Hes in no rush for his stuff, and I guess you should throw out anything that wont keep. Like you say, the poor old soul isnt going to be making a fry-up any time soon. Well, quite. In fact, I imagine that fry-ups are exactly what got him into this situation in the first place, I said. Ive got to go now, Eleanor, he said, and put the phone down rather abruptly. How rude! I was on the horns of a dilemma; there seemed little point in travelling to the hospital to see a comatose stranger and drop off some fizzy pop at his bedside. On the other hand, it would be interesting to experience being a hospital visitor, and there was always an outside chance that he might wake up when I was there. He had rather seemed to enjoy my monologue while we were waiting for the ambulance; well, insofar as I could tell, given that he was unconscious. As I was pondering, I picked up the fallen page from the file and turned it over. It was slightly yellowed around the edges, and smelled institutional; metallic, like filing cabinets, and grubby, touched by the unwashed skin of multiple, anonymous hands. Bank notes have a similar odour, Ive noticed. DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL WORK NOTE OF CASE MEETING 15 March 1999, 10 a.m. Case Meeting: OLIPHANT, ELEANOR (12/07/1987) Present: Robert Brocklehurst (Deputy Head, Children and Families, Social Work Department); Rebecca Scatcherd (Senior Case Worker, Social Work Department); Mr and Mrs Reed (foster carers) The meeting took place at the home of Mr and Mrs Reed, whose children, including Eleanor Oliphant, were at school at the time. Mr and Mrs Reed had requested the meeting, which was outwith the regular scheduled sessions, in order to discuss their growing concerns about Eleanor. Mrs Reed reported that Eleanors behaviour had deteriorated since it was last raised at a case meeting some four months earlier. Mr Brocklehurst requested examples, and Mr and Mrs Reed cited the following: Eleanors relationship with their other children had almost completely broken down, particularly with John (14), the eldest; Eleanor was insolent and rude to Mrs Reed on a daily basis. When Mrs Reed attempted to discipline her, for example by sending her upstairs to the spare room to reflect on her behaviour, she had become hysterical and, on one occasion, physically violent; Eleanor had, on occasion, pretended to faint in an attempt to avoid being disciplined, or else in response to being disciplined; Eleanor was terrified of the dark and kept the family awake with hysterical crying. She had been provided with a night light and reacted with violent sobbing and tremors to any suggestion that she should give it up, being too old for it now; Eleanor often refused to eat the food which was provided for her; mealtimes had become a source of conflict at the family table; Eleanor refused point-blank to assist with simple household chores, such as lighting the fire or clearing out the ashes. Mr and Mrs Reed reported that they were extremely concerned about the effects of Eleanors behaviour on their other three children (John, 14, Eliza, 9 and Georgie, 7) and, in light of these concerns and also those raised previously during scheduled case meetings, they wished to discuss the best way forward for Eleanor. Mr and Mrs Reed again requested more information about Eleanors past history, and Mr Brocklehurst explained that this would not be possible, and indeed was not permitted. Miss Scatcherd had sought a school report from Eleanors head teacher in advance of the meeting, and it was noted that Eleanor was performing well, achieving excellent grades in all subjects. The head teacher commented that Eleanor was an exceptionally bright and articulate child, with an impressive vocabulary. Her class teachers had reported that she was quiet and well-behaved during lessons, but did not participate in discussions, although she was an active listener. Several members of staff had noticed that Eleanor was very withdrawn and isolated during breaktimes, and did not appear to socialize with her peers. After lengthy discussion, and in light of the concerns raised and re-emphasized by Mr and Mrs Reed about the impact of Eleanors behaviour on their other children, it was agreed that the most appropriate course of action would be to remove Eleanor from the family home. Mr and Mrs Reed were content with this outcome, and Mr Brocklehurst informed them that the Department would be in touch in due course regarding next steps. File note: on 12 November 1999 a Childrens Panel Review of Compulsory Supervision Order concerning Eleanor Oliphant took place, at which Mr Brocklehurst and Miss Scatcherd were present (minutes attached). The Childrens Panel concluded that, on account of Eleanors challenging behaviour in this and previous placements, foster care in a family environment was not appropriate at the current time. It was therefore agreed that Eleanor should be placed in a residential care home for the time being, and that the decision of the Panel would be reviewed in twelve months. (Action: R Scatcherd to investigate availability of places in local facilities and notify Mr and Mrs Reed of expected date of removal.) R Scatcherd, 12/11/99 Liars. Liars, liars, liars. 7 THE BUS WAS QUIET and I had a seat to myself, the old mans shopping sitting in two Bags for Life beside me. Id thrown out the sausages and the orange cheese, but I kept the milk for myself, reasoning that it wasnt stealing as he wouldnt be able to use it anyway. I had some qualms about throwing out the other perishable items. I do understand that some people think waste is wrong, and, after careful reflection, I tend to agree. But Id been brought up to think very differently; Mummy always said that only peasants and grubby little worker ants worried about such trivial things. Mummy said that we were empresses, sultanas and maharanis in our own home, and that it was our duty to live a life of sybaritic pleasure and indulgence. Every meal should be an epicurean feast for the senses, she said, and one should go hungry rather than sully ones palate with anything less than exquisite morsels. She told me how shed eaten chilli-fried tofu in the night markets of Kowloon, and that the best sushi outside of Japan could be found in S?o Paulo. The most delicious meal of her life, she said, had been chargrilled octopus, which shed eaten at sunset in an unassuming harbourfront taverna one late summer evening on Naxos. Shed watched a fisherman land it that morning, and then sipped ouzo all afternoon while the kitchen staff battered it again and again against the harbour wall to tenderize its pale, suckered flesh. I must ask her what the food is like where she is now. I suspect that lapsang souchong and langues de chat biscuits are in short supply. I remember being invited to a classmates house after school. Just me. The occasion was tea. This was confusing in itself; I had, not unreasonably, been expecting afternoon tea, whereas her mother had prepared a sort of early kitchen supper for us. I can still picture it orange and beige three luminous fish fingers, a puddle of baked beans and a pale pile of oven chips. I had never seen, let alone tried any of these items, and had to ask what they were. Danielle Mearns told everyone in the class next day and they all laughed and called me Beanz Meanz Weird (shortened to Beanzy, which stuck for a while). No matter; school was a short-lived experience for me. There was an incident with an over-inquisitive teacher who suggested a trip to the school nurse, after which Mummy decided that said teacher was a barely literate, monolingual dullard whose only worthwhile qualification was a certificate in first aid. I was home-schooled after that. At Danielles house, her mother gave us each a Munch Bunch yoghurt for pudding, and I snuck the empty pot into my school bag so that I could study it afterwards. Apparently, it was merchandise pertaining to a childrens television programme about animated pieces of fruit. And they said I was weird! It was a source of disgust to the other children at school that I couldnt talk about TV programmes. We didnt have a television; Mummy called it the cathode carcinogen, cancer for the intellect, and so we would read or listen to records, sometimes playing backgammon or mah jong if she was in a good mood. Taken aback by my lack of familiarity with frozen convenience food, Danielle Mearns mother asked me what it was that I usually had for tea on a Wednesday night. Theres no routine, I said. But what kind of things do you eat, generally? she asked, genuinely puzzled. I listed some of them. Asparagus velout? with a poached duck egg and hazelnut oil. Bouillabaisse with homemade rouille. Honey-glazed poussin with celeriac fondants. Fresh truffles when in season, shaved over ceps and buttered linguine. She stared at me. That all sounds quite fancy, she said. Oh no, sometimes its just something really simple, I said, like sourdough toast with manchego cheese and quince paste. Right, she said, exchanging a glance with little Danielle, who was gawping at me, revealing a mouthful of partially masticated beans. Neither spoke, and Mrs Mearns placed a glass bottle of thick red liquid on the table, which Danielle then proceeded to shake violently and slather all over the orange and beige food. Of course, after I was taken into care, I rapidly became acquainted with a new culinary family; Aunt Bessie, Captain Birdseye and Uncle Ben all featured regularly, and now I can distinguish HP Sauce from Daddies by smell alone, like a sauce sommelier. It was one of the innumerable ways in which my old life and my new life differed. Before and after the fire. One day I was breakfasting on watermelon, feta and pomegranate seeds, the next I was eating toasted Mothers Pride smeared with margar-ine. Thats the story Mummy told me, at any rate. The bus stopped right outside the hospital. There was a shop on the ground floor selling an eclectic assortment of goods. I was aware that it was very much the done thing to take a gift when visiting a patient, but what to purchase? I didnt know Sammy from Adam. Comestibles seemed pointless, since the purpose of my visit was to bring him his own food, items that hed only very recently selected for himself. Given that he was in a coma, reading material seemed somewhat irrelevant. There wasnt much else that might be suitable, however. The shop carried a small range of toiletries, but it seemed inappropriate for me, a stranger of the opposite sex, to present him with items pertaining to his bodily functions and, anyway, a tube of toothpaste or a packet of disposable razors did not strike me as very charming gifts. I tried to remember the nicest gift Id ever received. Apart from Polly the plant, I couldnt think of anything. Alarmingly, Declan came into my mind. My first and only boyfriend, Id very nearly succeeded in erasing him from my memory altogether, so it was rather distressing to be reminded of him. I recalled an incident when, on seeing the single birthday card Id received one year (from a journalist whod somehow managed to track me down, with a note inside reminding me that shed pay a substantial sum for an interview, any time, anywhere), he claimed that I deliberately hadnt told him the date of my birthday. For my twenty-first birthday gift, he therefore punched me in the kidneys, kicked me as I lay on the floor until I passed out, and then gave me a black eye when I came round, for withholding information. The only other birthday I could recall was my eleventh. I received a sterling silver bracelet from the foster family I was living with at the time, with a teddy bear charm attached. I was very grateful to receive a present, but I didnt ever wear it. Im not really a teddy bear sort of person. I wondered what sort of gift the handsome singer might give me, for an anniversary, say, or for Christmas. No, wait for Valentines Day, the most special, romantic day of the year. Hed write a song for me, something beautiful, and then play it for me on his guitar while I sipped perfectly chilled champagne. No, not on his guitar, that was too obvious. Hed surprise me by learning the bassoon. Yes, hed play the melody on the bassoon for me. Back to more prosaic matters. For want of anything more suitable, I bought some newspapers and magazines for Sammy, thinking that I could at least read them aloud to him. They stocked a passable selection. From his appearance and the contents of his shopping bag, I divined that Sammy was more Daily Star than Daily Telegraph. I bought a few tabloids, and decided to take him a magazine too. That was more difficult. There were so many. Cond? Nast Traveller, Yachts and Yachting, Now! how would I know which one to choose? I had no idea what interested him. I thought carefully and rationally in order to deduce the answer. The only thing I knew for sure about him was that he was an adult male; anything else would be pure speculation. I went with the law of averages, stood on tiptoe and reached up for a copy of Razzle. Job done. It was too hot inside the hospital and the floors squeaked. There was a hand-gel dispenser outside the ward, and a big yellow sign above it read Do Not Drink. Did people actually drink sanitizing hand gel? I supposed they must hence the sign. Part of me, a very small sliver, briefly considered dipping my head to taste a drop, purely because Id been ordered not to. No, Eleanor, I told myself. Curb your rebellious tendencies. Stick to tea, coffee and vodka. I was apprehensive about using it on my hands, for fear that it might inflame my eczema, but I did so nonetheless. Good hygiene is so important heaven forfend that I would end up becoming a vector of infection. The ward was large, with two long rows of beds, one down each wall. All the inhabitants were interchangeable: hairless, toothless old men who were either dozing or staring blankly ahead, chins slumped forwards. I spotted Sammy, right at the end on the left-hand side, but only because he was fat. The rest of them were bones draped with pleated grey skin. I sat down on the vinyl wipe-clean chair next to his bed. There was no sign of Raymond. Sammys eyes were closed but he obviously wasnt comatose. He would be on a special ward if that were the case, hooked up to machinery, wouldnt he? I wondered why Raymond had lied about it. I could tell from the regular way that Sammys chest rose and fell that he was sleeping. I decided not to read to him, not wishing to wake him, and so I put the reading material on top of the cabinet next to his bed. I opened the compartment at the front, thinking it best to deposit the Bags for Life inside. The cabinet was empty apart from a wallet and a set of keys. I wondered if I should look in Sammys wallet to see if it contained any clues about him, and I was about to reach forward for it when I heard someone clear their throat behind me, a phlegm-filled sound that indicated a smoker. Eleanor. You came, said Raymond, pulling up a chair on the opposite side of the bed. I stared at him. Why did you lie, Raymond? Sammys not in a coma. Hes merely asleep. Thats not the same thing at all. Raymond laughed. Ah, but its great news, Eleanor. He woke up a couple of hours ago. Apparently, hes got severe concussion and a broken hip. They re-set it yesterday hes very tired from the anaesthetic, but they say hes going to be fine. I nodded, and stood up abruptly. We should leave him in peace then, I said. I was keen to be out of the ward, to be frank. It was too hot, and too familiar the waffle blankets, the chemical and human smells, the hard surfaces of the metal bedframe and the plastic chairs. My hands were stinging slightly from the gel, which had seeped into the cracks in my skin. We walked together to the lift, and rode down in silence. The doors opened at the ground floor and I felt my legs speed up of their own accord towards the front door. It was one of those beautiful midsummer evenings eight oclock and still full of heat and soft light. It wouldnt get dark till almost eleven. Raymond took off his jacket, revealing another ridiculous T-shirt. This one was yellow and had two white cartoon cockerels on the front. Los Pollos Hermanos, it said. Nonsensical. He looked at his watch. Im going to pick up a carryout and head round to my mate Andys. A few of us usually hang out there on Saturday nights, fire up the PlayStation, have a smoke and a few beers. Sounds utterly delightful, I said. What about you? he asked. I was going home, of course, to watch a television programme or read a book. What else would I be doing? I shall return to my flat, I said. I think there might be a documentary about komodo dragons on BBC4 later this evening. He looked at his watch again, and then up at the boundless blue sky. There was a moment of silence and then a blackbird began showing off nearby, his song so spectacular that it bordered on vulgar. We both listened, and when I smiled at Raymond, he smiled back. Look, its far too nice a night to be sitting inside on your own. Fancy grabbing a quick pint somewhere? Ill need to head off in an hour or so before the offy shuts, but This required careful consideration. I had not been in a public house for many years, and Raymond could hardly be described as engaging company. I quickly concluded, however, that it would be useful for two reasons. Firstly, it would be good practice, as, if things went well, Johnnie Lomond would probably want to take me to a public house during one of our dates, and so I really ought to familiarize myself in advance with the general environs and required behaviours in such establishments. Secondly, Raymond was an IT expert allegedly and I needed some advice. Such advice might be expensive to obtain via official channels, but I could ask him tonight, for free. All things considered, it seemed expeditious to accede to Raymonds request. He was staring into the middle distance, and I noticed that he had lit a cigarette and smoked almost half of it while I had been pondering. Yes, Raymond. I will go to the pub with you for one drink, I said, nodding. Magic, he said. We ended up in a bar five minutes from the hospital, on a busy road. One of the tables outside was unoccupied. The metal surface was covered in circular stains and its legs looked unstable, but Raymond seemed delighted. Seats outside! he said, happily throwing himself down and hanging his jacket over the back of his chair. Right then, Ill go to the bar, he said. What are you after, Eleanor? I felt a fluttering of concern in my stomach. Firstly, sitting out here, I wouldnt get to see the inside of the public house and observe what went on there. Secondly, I didnt know what to order. What did normal people drink in public houses? I decided to take control of the situation. Raymond, I will go to the bar. I insist. What would you like me to order for you? He tried to argue but I stood my ground and eventually he agreed, although he seemed annoyed. I simply could not fathom why he was making such a fuss about it. Right, well, I suppose Ill have a pint of Guinness then. But I wish youd let me get it, Eleanor. I put both hands on the table and leaned forward so that my face was very close to his. Raymond, I will purchase the drinks. Its important to me, for reasons that I dont wish to articulate to you. He shrugged, then nodded, and I walked off towards the door. It seemed very dark inside after the sunlight, and noisy too there was music of an unfamiliar genre pulsing loudly from large speakers. The place wasnt busy, and I was the only customer at the bar. A young man and a young woman were serving; that is to say, they were deep in conversation with each other, and every so often she would giggle like a simpleton and flick her dyed yellow hair, or he would punch her arm playfully and laugh in an overly loud, false manner. Human mating rituals are un-believably tedious to observe. At least in the animal kingdom you are occasionally treated to a flash of bright feathers or a display of spectacular violence. Hair flicking and play fights dont quite cut the mustard. I was bored and I knocked hard, three times, on the wooden bar, as though it were a front door. They both looked up. I asked for a pint of Guinness, which the boy began to pour from a tap. Anything else? he said. I was still stumped. I reasoned that part of his job would be to help customers in such situations. What would you recommend? I asked him. He looked up from watching the black liquid trickle into the glass. Eh? I said, what would you recommend for me? I dont drink in public houses, as a rule. He looked to his left and right, as if expecting someone else to be standing there. There was a long pause. Erm, he said. Well Magners is very popular. With ice? Nice summer drink. Right, I said, thank you. In that case, Ill have a Magners drink, please, on your recommendation. He opened a brown bottle and put it on the bar. He put some ice in a tall glass and placed it next to the bottle. Whats that? I said. The Magners. And whats the empty glass for? Its for the Magners, he said. Am I expected to pour the drink from the bottle into the glass? I said, puzzled. Isnt it your job to do that? He stared at me and then slowly poured the brown liquid over the ice and put it down quite hard; indeed, he practically slammed the bottle onto the counter. Eight pound seventy, he said, in a most unfriendly manner. I handed over a five-pound note and four pound coins, then took my change and carefully put it in my purse. Would you by any chance have a tray? I asked. He tossed down a filthy, sticky tray and watched as I placed the drinks on it before turning his back on me. There is such a paucity of good manners on display in the so-called service sector! Raymond thanked me for the drink and took a big gulp. The Magners was quite pleasant, and I revised my opinion of the young barman. Yes, his customer service skills were poor, but he did at least know how to make appropriate beverage recommendations. Unprompted, Raymond started to tell me about his mother, how he was going to visit her tomorrow, something he did every Sunday. She was a widow and not terribly well. She had a lot of cats, and he helped her care for them. On and on and on he droned. I interrupted him. Raymond, I said. Can I ask you something? He sipped his pint. Sure. If I were to purchase a smart phone, which type would you advise? I have been looking into the relative merits of iPhones as compared with Android devices, and Id appreciate an insiders perspective on the costbenefit ratio, as it were. He looked somewhat surprised at my question, which was odd, given that he worked in IT and therefore must be asked technological questions quite frequently. Right, well he shook his head in a slightly canine way, as though he were clearing thoughts from it that depends on a lot of factors. He expounded on these factors at some length without reaching any kind of useful conclusion and then looked at his watch. Shit! I better run I need to pick up some beers before I head over to Andys, and its nearly ten. He drained his pint, stood up and put on his jacket, even though it wasnt in the least bit cold. You going to be OK getting home, Eleanor? he said. Oh yes, I said, Ill walk its such a beautiful evening, and its still light. Right then, Ill see you on Monday, he said. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. He turned to leave. Raymond, wait! I said. He turned back towards me, smiling. What is it, Eleanor? The Guinness, Raymond. It was three pounds fifty. He stared at me. Its OK, I said, theres no rush. You can give it to me on Monday, if thats easier. He counted out four pound coins and put them on the table. Keep the change, he said, and walked off. Extravagant! I put the money in my purse, and finished my Magners. Emboldened by the apples, I decided to take a detour on the way home. Yes. Why not? It was time for a spot of reconnaissance. 8 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; its 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 wasnt, Im 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 Hepburns window. Finding out where the musician lived had been easy. He had posted a picture of a lovely sunset on Twitter: @johnnieLrocks The view from my window: how lucky am I?

  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • Assimil.    . Anthony Bulger, 2005. - 640 . + Audio Assimil.
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