Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year: the winning story

The 2017 Hennessy Literary Awards overall winner is Rachel Donohue for The Taking of Mrs Kennedy, the story of a love affair and a betrayal


It was at dinner. In her well-appointed, extended kitchen. We were sitting on the distressed oak chairs, which perched on the lime-washed floor, beside the dresser, with the pictures of her children, husband and the dog. When her lover called at the door. Just before she served the salad. It was like a demolition. Shouting in the hall above and the sounds of a well-upholstered life cracking apart.

I knew her before she became Mrs Kennedy. We had been in school together, a Victorian pile perched on a cliff in Wicklow. It was closed in the early 1990s after becoming mired in scandal when a student went missing. Gardaí and journalists on the steps. We tended not to reference it in polite company. Back then she had seemed destined for greatness as an actress or a politician, but she somehow mislaid the map and became a solicitor. I didn’t see her for many years until she turned up in one of the big houses around the corner from my two-roomed cottage. She and her husband had renovated all three floors into submission, painted everything grey and then had me over for coffee.

We had never been close friends in school, I was on the edges of her orbit and 20 years later it was the same. I wouldn’t say I saw it coming then, during those coffee mornings, though it was there. You might call it a capacity for restlessness, masquerading as the desire for an authentic life. She was bored though she didn’t fully yet know the extent. Her constant energy was admired and understood to be ambition. A partner by 32, with two children under three and a three-storey red-brick. There seemed, for a time, nothing left to surprise us with.

But, to go back to the beginning of the end, the detour. She told me there had been a thunderstorm. She was walking back to the office on a Wednesday afternoon in August, when the sky opened. Lightning, even. Having no umbrella, she took shelter in the National Gallery. And instead of standing in the porch, as others might, she decided to visit the Caravaggio. It was the kind of story she would have told everyone at our book club and we all would have thought how bohemian she remained. Of course this wasn’t a story for the book club. Though it would be in time.

Apparently, she sat in front of the painting watching St John, Jesus and Judas in the half light. A few tourists milled past but mostly it was quiet, the dead-hour before closing. I imagine the attendant hovering in the background, wishing the foreign and the middle-class would go home. I didn’t ask her why the Caravaggio. She’s never been interested in art, even in school it was always drama and public speaking, never art. She’s not particularly spiritual either, though there is a Buddha on the patio. If it had been me that afternoon, in the gallery and I hadn’t stayed in the porch, I think I would have gone to the Yeats room. I would have sought out Grief in the rain. Not Christ.

Now this I don’t know but I imagine he spoke first. She probably looked expensive. Her hair doesn’t fizz in the wet. She gets all dewy and healthy looking, not drowned and old. She is appropriately attractive for 38. The make-up is subtle; clothes understated; the perfume light with the air of choices wisely made; roads well-travelled and a helpful au pair all floating in the ether around her. I have noticed that women always underestimate her attractiveness. The face is not perfect. It is only when their husbands end up clustered around her at the end of a dinner party do they realise the allure of controlled restlessness. The hint of possibility.

He was from Belfast. Working as an interpreter in Brussels but studying in Trinity for a few months. He’s younger than her, though not embarrassingly so. They were both enraptured. The painting. The history. Hanging on the walls of the Jesuits’ house. Layers of dust and dirt hiding its true colours, its true genesis. He had heard about the painting and felt that he had to see it, that day in a summer storm. He walked her out. It was still raining. They stood in the porch. It was after five. She thought she might just head home rather than go back to her desk. I don’t know what he was thinking but can surmise. She told me it didn’t start then. That was later. The evening I met them.

I had lunch with her after this. She felt the need to explain and that’s how I know some of the story, though not all. We went to the cafe in Brown Thomas. We didn’t usually lunch alone together. I am with the gang but not one of them. I thought she would lie and say he was a friend but instead she told me it was unstoppable. She knew it was a train wreck but couldn’t say no. She’d started smoking again which I took as a sign of conscience on her part. We left the cafe and stood behind the car park beside a pile of rubbish. She didn’t look dewy and fabulous. I didn’t say much. I offered no judgement and become in essence her confidante. As we were about to leave she asked me about school. Did I remember the name of the nun who went mad and knitted a hat for the Virgin Mary in the chapel? Sister Evangelista, I said.

We met every week after this, every Thursday evening. She needed me. She was going back, far back to find cause and meaning. We spoke of school. She remembered me differently. I was the trusted adviser, the one people told everything to. This was not the case. She said they all thought I would be a writer. That was true. I had been eloquent on the madness of King Lear. And Aoife. Forever 15. Every few years, when the picture of her in her school uniform appeared in the paper, she said she thought about calling the gardaí to say that she had seen her the night she went missing. I told her I had seen her too. I was standing on the staircase of the school, looking out through the arch window above the porch. She waved and walked into blackness.

I have to admit I was interested to know what the sex was like. The sense of it hung around her. He was not an unattractive man. All she would say is “he inhabits me”. I thought yes, like a virus, but I knew she meant other things. He had a flat on Raglan Road. She likes the fact he is from Belfast. She imagined a childhood of guns and bombs and religion. She said younger men were different. They were not intimidated by women with money and status. No indeed, I thought, it could well be the attraction. They had arguments over politics and the cultural significance of the GAA which she found refreshing and they’d go to the Lighthouse Cinema in the afternoons when she was supposed to be at meetings. She wanted me to meet him but I drew the line at this. I saw her husband most mornings on the walk to work. He is an accountant, always pin-striped and suitably master of the universe in greeting. He knows the mothers at the school gate better than her, advises them on tax issues and residential parking rights. I felt sorry for him. His wife was spending her lunch hours in the bed of a man from Belfast, who reads poetry. In French.

We don’t speak of him. In the wine bar, her husband was a blot on the landscape. An indicator of time having passed, choices set in stone and regret. She had a mistaken belief that there was a real her, not in the future but in the past. The one who might have been an actress or a war correspondent. I was tempted to share my philosophy for living, that there is a good chance that in the quest for a better life, you will miss the life you have. This is why admitting you are imperfect, regret will be a constant companion and accepting that most lives, like political careers, end in failure is the best approach to living. You will suffer from melancholy but it won’t slip into depression which is as much as anyone can ask for. But then I realise, the wanting to miss the life you have, is the point of her, her lover and all those with the energy to be restless.

You know the end. He arrived on her doorstep the night of her dinner party for the residents’ committee. We were trapped for over an hour in the basement kitchen as her husband shouted and broke things in the hall above. Someone finally found a key for the back door and we regrouped next door. It was all very EastEnders, someone joked. I thought she would send him packing, attend marriage counselling and express contrition. But it was not to be.

She left the house a few days later, her children in the window, and went to Brussels with him. Dragging her matching suitcases down the steps and into a taxi. It must have been love, of a sort, though no one ever mentioned this as the tale wound its way around the circle. It would have been less amusing.

They have an apartment. The children will spend the summer with her and become bilingual. There is always an upside. She writes me sometimes. Letters and cards never emails. She trusts me even more now. I didn’t tell. It was someone from her office.

It’s mostly memories of nuns and school trips that even I have forgotten. She wrote once that she thought she saw Aoife, one day in the rain in Stephen’s Green, just before the affair came out. She took it as a sign. A ghost from the past inviting her to walk towards oblivion.

She is working in a think tank on Europe. Every now and then an article about European social policy appears in the newspaper with her name underneath. She is happy, I think, though the restlessness is there, the box opened. There is talk of new cities, new opportunities. She thinks her lover could probably earn more elsewhere. I fear for his bohemian soul.

I go to the gallery every week myself now. I have found surprising peace watching St John, Jesus and Judas in the half light. I too find it mesmerising, though draw different conclusions, that at the peak of your power, you are at your most vulnerable and alone.

Always alone, except for some ghosts and a rendezvous with your fate.

Rachel Donohue was shortlisted for the Hennessy First Fiction award in 2013 and the Hennessy Emerging Fiction award in 2014; she was previously a runner-up in the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland short-story contest

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