“Olive! I’m going out. Augustus and Adolphus said they’d meet me at the cinema at half past eight because of the cool, hip new film that’s out. It’s meant to be fabulous. It’s meant to be cool. You ought to see it, actually. Oh, and I expect Brandon will be there. You know, Brandon, the really cool, hip guy with the cool beard. I saw him with Augustus and Adolphus one day at the pub and he’s, like, a really nice guy, and he’s not even…”
The seventy-seven-year-old man trailed off when he saw the thunderous expression on his wife’s face. He bit his lip, automatically reaching up to fiddle with a strand of his greying hair. “I’m sorry, Olive,” he said quietly. “I know you’re upset that he doesn’t like you.”
“It’s not that!” snapped Olive Whinging. “I just need you to be quiet, Fred. I’m trying to look up Raymond’s profile on Facebook.”
Frederick smiled weakly at the pronunciation his wife gave to the word ‘Facebook’: the final syllable stressed instead of the first, and stressed with rather excessive force, as if Olive had been startled by something when she was part-way through the word. It was a default measure she always used when unfamiliar with a phrase. But instead of pointing this out (something that could be saved for later), Frederick Whinging peered at the glowing computer screen. At the top of the screen he recognised the name of the man to whom his wife had referred, and the photograph of the man in the rather arrogant pose and purposeful expression that many younger people automatically assumed when faced with a camera lens. Below this were numerous posts, Frederick believed was the correct term. Many of them offered contributions from Olive’s own Facebook page (although Olive’s Facebook page allegedly belonged to a nineteen-year-old American supermodel called Cheyenne), commenting on the various photographs on display. Frederick instantly noticed that Cheyenne’s profile picture had changed for the third time that day: in place of the rather attractive young lady Olive had seen on a dating website, there was now a ball of red wool with a pair of knitting needles through it.
“Why did you change the picture?” Frederick wondered, aloud this time. “I thought the other one was, um, cool. Wasn’t she meant to be Cheyenne? If you use knitting needles people might think you’re just some old woman.” Frederick briefly wondered whether Olive would find it funny if he joked that she was just some old woman, but he decided against it almost instantly.
“No; I’m using them to show that I’m not just some old woman,” Olive explained carefully, and then paused to wait for Frederick’s impressed reaction to her plan. When he had to take a few more moments to consider his answer, she decided that it might be helpful to explain further. “Because Cheyenne would never do knitting in real life. I’m being ironic. That’s it. Ironic.”
Another pause. “And you’re sure Raymond still thinks you’re a nineteen-year-old girl?” Frederick asked.
“Oh, yes!” Olive said proudly, flicking her wispy grey perm as though it was the mass of long blonde hair she supposedly owned. “He’s going to be so, like, impressed. I mean, he thinks that I’m very cool anyway, even though he’s never said it, because he’s, like, playing hard to get. When he finds out it’s actually me, he’ll be, like, so happy that he’ll divorce that stupid wife of his and marry me. It’s going to be like a fairy tale wedding, and I’ll be…”
Frederick didn’t get to hear what Olive would be, because suddenly her voice tailed off and he noticed a distinct change in her face. Her features twisted into a ferocious scowl as she glared at the screen, and she stopped the blaring popular music coming from her iPod speakers so she might concentrate. One of her hands visibly tightened on the mouse, and her other hand clenched into a white, vein-streaked fist on the table top. Her shining grey eyes narrowed menacingly. Her expression suggested a mixture of extreme focus and blind rage; two things Frederick would have thought were mutually exclusive by definition.
“Ethel Calzone!” was the barely audible phrase that Olive hissed through her teeth. Frederick decided that the danger had become too great for him to remain any longer, and he decided to back off; years of experience had taught him the art of recognising when an angry outburst was imminent.
A few seconds later Olive heart the front door close with the exact volume that occurs when someone desperately tries to be quiet and fast at the same time. If she would have had the patience to glance out of the sitting room window, she would have seen Frederick walk quickly down the drive and head off in the direction opposite to the setting sun, which caused a freakishly long shadow to race out in front of him. He was dressed for the occasion, in a black jacket and jeans.
But Olive was uninterested in Frederick presently, and with good reason. She had been met with the disgusting sight of a new photograph on Raymond’s Facebook page. It was a photograph – ‘pic’, she believed was the correct term – of a woman with chin-length curly blonde hair and a very long neck. Raymond Calzone stood to the right of this woman with his arm around her shoulders. Despite having been forced to listen to multiple speeches from Frederick concerning the ambiguity of facial expressions, Olive had no choice but to acknowledge that he looked happy rather than disgusted. The gleaming blue eyes belonging to the woman named Ethel seemed to laugh through the picture. Olive, with some difficulty, restrained herself from punching the screen, and instead went over to the sofa and punched a cushion instead, startling one of her nine cats.
“I hate her,” Olive choked out, her voice gradually growing louder with each syllable, and every part of her shook with anger. “I hate her! I hate that Ethel! I HATE her! She’s stolen away RAYMOND!”
Olive threw herself down onto the sofa, hurling the cushion at the wall. She heard a sound like glass smashing, but she didn’t care, her life wasover already. It was time for a long, pitiful eruption of tears and emotional hysteria…
“Olive?” said an unexpected voice.
Olive didn’t move. She lay motionless and face-down on the sofa as another elderly woman walked cautiously but with much practice into the room. This woman was about seventy-five, as was Olive, but she looked very different. What was left of this woman’s fluffy hair was dyed a startling shade of pink, and there were copious quantities of mascara and lipstick and eye liner adorning her face, not always in the correct places. The parts that weren’t covered in make-up were also strange. She had very wide green eyes that were permanently curious, and pursed lips, giving this woman the image of a very wrinkled, very confused child with rather neglectful parents. She wore a dark woollen jumper, a short black skirt, black tights and black boots.
“What do you want, Mary?” Olive snarled into the sofa.
“I was bored, so I thought I’d come over,” Mary said quietly. Her voice was high-pitched, with an accent that no one could place.
“How did you get in?”
“The back door.”
“No, you didn’t. The back door’s locked. Fred locked it.”
“Oh, it was. I picked the lock!” Mary triumphantly held up a twisted piece of metal that had obviously once been a paperclip.
To most human beings, this kind of behaviour from someone like Mary would have been highly disconcerting, but Olive was used to it. She still didn’t move. It was becoming difficult to breathe with her face pressed up against the rough fabric, but it would just be too embarrassing to get emotional in front of someone who was as casual an acquaintance as Mary.
“Olive?” Mary said hesitantly, approaching the sofa with appropriate caution. “Is this anything to do with Raymond?”
“Oh…yes!” Olive wailed suddenly, tearing her face away from the sofa and burying it in her palms instead. She burst into passionate tears. “Mary, Operation Cheyenne failed again! Look!”
Olive pointed in the direction of the computer, at the photo of Raymond with his arms around Ethel. Mary walked over and peered through her glasses at the glowing screen. “I take it that Raymond wasn’t so taken with nineteen-year-old Cheyenne that he decided to divorce Ethel, then?” she concluded.
“Oh, don’t!” Olive cried dramatically. “It’s just too awful! How can he even like that stupid Ethel? I’m so much nicer!”
“Yes,” Mary replied quietly.
“I hate her, Mary,” Olive continued. “I really hate her!”
“You don’t,” Mary muttered, suddenly reaching for the computer mouse and beginning to scroll expertly down the page.
Olive removed her hands from her face momentarily so she could fix Mary’s inattentive figure with an icy glare. Olive did not like having her feelings denied, especially by Mary. “No, I hate her! I do!”
“Oh, you don’t,” Mary promised casually. “You’re just a little bit fed up.”
Olive scowled, and turned back to look at the computer. She was sure that Mary simply liked to think that everyone should just be friends and be nice to one another. But then, Mary was something of a stupid person. Stupid people always thought everything was simpler than it really was. Olive understood that Mary needed to begin living in the real world, and she was certain that if her friend had not been so unwilling, this would have happened a very long time ago. But, as seemed to have been the case for much of Olive’s miserable existence, she often had to deal with stupid people.
“Raymond’s the only one I could truly love!” Olive wailed piteously, in a final attempt to try and finally gain a bit of sympathy from her so-called friend.
“What about Fred?”
“Oh, Fred’s nothing special. He’s so totally boring now,” Olive said dismissively. She spoke oddly, as if she were having to think carefully about every word. “When I finally start a relationship with Raymond, I’ll have to tell him that we’ll have to divorce. Amiably, you know; we’ll still be friends.”
“Yes,” said Mary. “I understand. Of course, Raymond will want a relationship, even if you are seventy-five and he’s thirty-five.”
“I wish you’d stop mentioning our ages,” Olive snapped. “It’s not that big an age difference.”
“Only forty years,” Mary reminded her.
“Only forty years,” Olive repeated through gritted teeth. “But you get lots of couples with large age differences these days, don’t you? All I need to do is make Raymond interested in me.” She sat forward and rested her chin on her hands.
“He hasn’t seen the real you, yet,” Mary suggested, remembering a line from a television programme she had seen recently.
“Maybe that’s what I’ve got to do,” Olive murmured. Her eyes were widening, a classic sign that told Mary she was deep in thought. “Get my face out there a bit more? Let Raymond know that Olive Whinging really exists, as it were? Let him know that I’m a really cool, interesting person, and that I deserve someone like him?”
And that was when the phone rang. “Mary, would you get that?” Olive said carelessly, with the sort of automatic determination that Mary was used to. Her voice had a way of making questions sound more like orders, and Mary understood that she had no real choice in the matter.
“Hello?” Mary said tiredly into the receiver of Olive’s home phone, having answered in the middle of the fourth ring.
There was a long pause, and from the other side of the room Olive heard a familiar tone that jerked her out of her thoughts. It was a sound she recognised even without being able to make out any of the words. It was a slow, drawling, lazy tone, always with a mild hint of sarcasm that seemed to have no particular bearing in the conversation. The speaker also had a way of trailing off on their sentences, as though the effort of finishing them was just too much. It was a voice that Olive knew well, and the sound of it made her sit up straight and stiffen as she glared in Mary’s direction.
“Yes…yes…yes,” Mary said dumbly into the phone as the voice yacked away. “Of course. I’ll put her on.”
Mary held the receiver away from her ear and turned to face Olive. Olive was glaring at her, as if to ask why on earth she had told the person on the other end that was able to take a call in the middle of such an important self-searching meditation session.
So Mary opened her mouth and uttered the most unnecessary sentence of all: “Olive, it’s your daughter.”
A pause. As Olive Whinging snatched the phone off Mary (remembering that Frederick had asked their horribly selfish eldest child to ring and ask about some radiator she wanted him to fix for her), she did her best to make her voice a little less sneering; no one knew about Olive’s passion for Raymond Calzone, and the woman on the other end of the phone was probably the last person in the world that Olive would want to tell. So she simply marched over to the living room window and drew back the curtains with one hand, trying to plan her next move.
“Hello, Ethel,” she whispered in an icy hiss, holding the phone at arm’s length as she spoke into it. And it was like the words just came to her completely naturally.