Eleanor Oliphant is me

The trouble with life as a writer the search for narrative intensity -the desire to turn every event into a story with a beginning, middle and end, but also to include an ascending arc that brings in the wow factor and can make people’s jaws drop open – is never ending.

I sit at dinner with my three sisters and all I want is to plunge into the past, to explore what it was like when we four were young and reflect on the things that made us into who we are today.

But tonight they’re not so inclined. We talk instead about our careers, our children and grandchildren. We talk about their travels and the places in which we live today.

I try to stop myself from slipping into boredom and watch other people in the restaurant, one of those cheap and cheerful Italian pizza joints in St Kilda near the beach, where the waiter is kindly and I can see the way he looks at us, as if we are a group of old biddies and it takes an effort to be friendly because we are generations out of his reach and he’s not interested in the ticking of our minds, much as I might be curious about his.

I sit face out to the restaurant and there’s an archway between the two rooms and steps on either side that lead into a third larger room. As people walk down the steps and into our room they appear to arrive in twins and yet when they materialise at the door of the restaurant there is only one.

It bothers me and so I go to check out this optical illusion and, in the process, catch the eye of a young woman who is looking towards our table.

I take myself off to the stairs in search of what one sister tells me is a mirror at the top of the stairs that must be causing the illusion and the young woman approaches the table in my absence.

She offers cards to my sisters and from the top of the stairs I can get a full view of the restaurant and its mock chianti style bottles with candle wax dripping and gingham table cloths and garlic hanging from the walls.

I find the mirror further back at the top of the stair. It fills an entire wall of the walkway between the two rooms and creates the illusion whenever someone walks through, there are two, the mirror image that arrives first when you’re seated down below and the actual person who appears next on the stars.

Back at our table the young woman has left my sisters alone alone and taken back her cards.

‘She was deaf,’ one sister says ‘The cards give the directions for signing. Asking price $5.00.’

No one takes up her offer.

After she’s gone, we speculate on the nature of begging and the fact that the streets are filled with homeless people.

‘How sad,’ we say, and then go through the trite polite platitudes of people who are privileged and caught up in our own lives to the point we don’t give a damn.

I tell my sisters about Eleanor Oliphant, a fictional character whom I have come to love as if she is a real person who walks the streets of somewhere in Scotland.

Someone, I might meet one day.

 Eleanor Oliphant is the fictional creation of Gail Honeyman, first time novelist and a youngish woman by the look of her picture on the back cover of my copy.

Eleanor Oliphant is a person who tells no lies. And even as a naive and seemingly innocent person she remains inscrutable to all those with whom she works in some boring office in the middle of town. She can be acid sharp in her thinking and her observations of her colleagues.

Given she has not mastered the art of politeness in any conventional sense and is not friendly towards people but prefers her own company, she is slow to form relationships but over the course of the book we meet Raymond, an ungainly man whose eating manners are appalling and who lives alone, like Eleanor, but he has a mother whom he visits regularly and although it can be a trial, we get the impression he loves his mother and she loves him.

The two come together over an old man Sam who collapses in the street and Raymond does the right thing by organising an ambulance and with Eleanor’s help gets Sam into hospital.

Eleanor tags along and over time begins to connect with Sam and his family and with Raymond. The story goes on from there.

Eleanor Oliphant does not know about love. Images trickle in early in the book where we come to understand something of the cruel relationship, she has with a mother whose sharp tongue and brutality leave us gasping.

And Eleanor Oliphant must speak to her mother every Wednesday night whether she likes it or not, her mother who is unable to visit in person for reasons that also become clear early in the book. And then even clearer at the end.

This story of a young woman’s life is a page turner, one I cannot stop admiring because Eleanor Oliphant, as fictional as she is, enters into the realm of real life in my head as a representative of so many people who exist in this world who have been traumatised and who cannot engage with others in the way they might otherwise.

I sense an Eleanor Oliphant in my own bones, even though I have worked out how to relate to people. I am polite and can be spontaneous but underneath in my writer’s head I can think all the harsh things about people that Eleanor Oliphant thinks, all the crude criticisms of other people’s foibles, including their appearance.

As if my writerly sensibilities give me permission to stand outside of myself and observe. But like Eleanor Oliphant I am not so good at seeing myself in this process.

I am not so good at seeing how I might appear to others, though I get hints from time to time and more so in recent years since I passed the age of fifty that I have joined the group of invisible people, the characters who stand to one side of the principle actors in any movie, the cast of thousands who must stand around looking as if they are simply going about their business without so much as a passing glance at the actors at the centre on whom all the lights and sound recording equipment are focussed. One of the many expendable people who flank the footpath as the actors go through their lines.

A blimp on the wall paper of life in a movie and although I dislike this position it also offers a level of anonymity that, as it is for Eleanor Oliphant, offers a point from which to observe. But unlike Eleanor Oliphant who goes home each weekend to drink vodka until she is blind, I go home to write about my observations, and it offers a type of blindness to my own peculiarities and also a safe place in which to hide the actuality of what it’s like to be alive these days in my body and mind.

The shame of shitting

My seventeen year old slept overnight at school last night with a group of forty other senior school girls in a gesture of solidarity with the homeless. It was intended as a fund raiser but my daughter is a little sceptical about the value of such exercises when it comes to making a real difference to homelessness.

‘Better to join a soup kitchen,’ her boyfriend had suggested. I’m inclined to agree.

I bought my daughter a padded mat from Kathmandu to avoid sleeping on the bricks of the school’s breezeway and despite the fact that such a ‘mattress’ does not exactly emulate the plight of the homeless my daughter agreed to use it.

Now we have to figure out how to deflate this amazing piece of padding. It is self inflating and operates by opening and closing the nozzle. Every time I open the nozzle though I cannot be sure whether it is inflating or deflating.

Perhaps, as my husband says, we should read the instructions first.

I tend to by pass written instructions. I like to figure out things for myself and invariably as with this inflatable self inflating sleeping bag I find myself in trouble.

It’s a type of laziness I expect, the voice within that says ‘let me at it’. I can figure it out, only to be stymied at the first obstacle.

I have been reading about shame these last few weeks, shame and the way it links to grief and death. Jeffrey Kauffman’s series of essays on The shame of Death grief and trauma I had never thought of shame like this before, I had never considered that the essence of shame lies in our bodies and our vulnerabilities and how difficult we find it to accept the limitations of our bodies, especially when it comes to illness and death.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hesitate to go through the process of having a colonoscopy. I even shudder to write the word. I expect you all know the procedure.

For some reason that I cannot fathom I have always held a morbid fear of getting bowel cancer. There is no history of bowel cancer in my family, not as far as I know.

I’m not sure how to put this. I wonder whether it has to do with that part of the body, the hidden part that ends in the anus and is so closely related to the toilet. I suspect part of my fear and my deep shame goes back to some childhood anxiety about bottoms and poos and all those secret bits of bodies that go on underneath.

When I was little I imagined that my soul which was meant to stay pure and white was located in my bottom close to my poo hole. I do not know where this idea came from but it has long stayed with me. The idea that centre of my soul on which all sins were marked as dark stains was located so close to the dirtiest part of me.

Maybe my adult fear of bowel cancer harks back to this. And perhaps for this reason I have long resisted the idea that I should endure a colonoscopy if only as a screening procedure to rule out any polyps or precancerous cells.

Shame and the body. If I put those two things together, the first thing I think about is the shame of shitting, then I think of the shame of sex and then I think of the shame of illness generally and finally I think of the shame of dirt, as in a dirty house and of getting things wrong in areas where I think I should get them right.

I’m not too ashamed of being unable to deflate the Kathmandu bed mat. I don’t expect that of myself, but there are areas where I do expect more of myself and it is in these areas where I suffer the most.

In an effort to break up the text and to illustrate some aspect of my earlier shame I include a picture here from my childhood, one that demonstrates the clutter in which we once lived. I’m the headless one on the bed.

And in this photo, I’m the one on the left with long fair hair. The girl facing the camera was a visitor. The other two are siblings. In black and white the room may not look quite so bad as I once imagined, the mess and the clutter that is, but in my memory it is.

And did you know that shame and pride are close cousins? Pride to cover over our shame. I think often about my mother’s pride and how much I have soaked it in.

These days I sit with my mother in her retirement village room and listen yet again as she boasts about her age.
‘I’m 91 years old. I don’t get sick, It’s amazing. Other people here, all the other people here are coughing and spluttering. So many have the flu, but me not a sniffle.’

‘That’s good’ I say. ‘But if you get so much as a sniffle, or a tickle in your throat you must tell the doctor straight away.’

It feels like a threat. My mother towards the end of her life refuses to recognise the possibility of her death any day now, and I’m not far behind reluctant to acknowledge the same about my own.

In my family we boast about our good health, our genes, our immunity.

I spread the sorbolene cream over my mother’s legs and pull back once again at the stale smell that wafts over me whenever I take off her slippers. They are all she wears on her feet these days, special slippers, with Velcro strips that adhere together to make for easy wearing. She cannot otherwise get her slippers on and off. They smell of the vinegar of old age and dead skin.

She knows it, I suspect. My mother knows that her feet let off this sad stale smell but she says nothing.

I say nothing but spread the white smooth cream up and down her ankles and calves as if they are my own.

There’s a dark spot like a blood blister that I had not noticed before. I rub it with the tip of my finger. It’s smooth to touch.

‘I noticed that too, my mother says. It wasn’t there before.’
‘The mark of death,’ I want to say. ‘Your skin is breaking down.’

But no. ‘It’s probably just a blood blister,’ I say. ‘I get them all the time, ever since I had babies.’

‘Nothing to worry about then,’ my mother says.

‘Maybe mention it to the doctor next time you see him.’

All this emphasis on our bodies. All this effort to reduce our skin and bones into efficient machines that might go on forever, if only to keep out the cold and the shame.