Hennessy Emerging Fiction Prize winner 2016: Right or Good

This month’s winning short story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition, by Chris Connolly, is about coping with loss and deception

 

You might think that being intimate in that way is the last thing in the world you’d be doing, the last thing you’d want to do. You might think it was wrong to be doing it, or even cold in a way, and that’s fine – I’m not trying to convince you. I’m just giving the facts.

Our little girl Jessie went quietly one evening, in the hospital room that became her home for those final few weeks. It was expected, and it was peaceful, and neither of those things made it any easier. Because you think you know what to expect, that after all the waiting, the knowledge of what’s going to happen, you’ll be ready for what comes next, but up until that last moment – up until the very end – you don’t really grasp what it is you’re expecting. You just can’t.

So maybe it was the shock of it all, or maybe just the pain, or maybe something else. Whatever it was, for a few months after we lost Jessie that intimacy, that physical contact, became a sort of default between us – between me and Katy, who was my wife. There was a closeness from it, some little speck of goodness in all the bad. By then we couldn’t even talk any more, couldn’t say or do anything to help each other through it, and this one thing was a thing we could share. But there was a wrongness to it, too – and a guilt. It was piled up on top of all the other even worse guilt, which I won’t even try to describe. And it was the guilt that won out in the end.

I’m not making excuses for Katy, for what she did. I’m just telling you what happened. Because when that closeness ended, when the last bit of goodness turned bad, she just opted out. That was it – what was the point any more?

Don’t think I wasn’t completely devastated all over again, just totally broken – and don’t think I haven’t hated her for doing it, for leaving me on my own – but what I’m saying is I can understand it. I thought about doing the same thing. Sometimes I still do.

But that’s not what this is about. That’s what the group is there for, if I want to talk about that kind of thing. Or used to be there, at least. I’m just giving you the context, because without that I don’t think I can explain to you what happened later, with Carol – how this thing with me and her got started.

I’ll try, but I really don’t know where to start.

]]] She was just another newcomer to the group, moved from out of town. And she was welcomed to the meetings the same way anyone is, like a sister or a brother, all in it together. I could tell you I noticed she was different from the start – the way she acted, the way she watched – but I didn’t. I barely even registered her to begin with.

You probably have an idea of how these meetings work. You’ve seen it in the movies or on TV, and that’s exactly what it’s like – we sit in a circle, and we take turns to talk while everyone else listens.

What the movies don’t show is the strange type of eye contact there is at these things. It makes you feel a little uncomfortable at first, until you get used to it. You’re sitting there listening to whoever’s talking, and then suddenly you’re sharing this look with someone else in the circle, this sad sort of half-smile, half-grimace, these watery eyes, and it only lasts a second but for that little instant it’s as if you’re both completely inside each other, completely connected.

After Jessie died, and then Katy, there was a long time of nothingness, of emptiness, but then a kind of normalisation. I got into a routine. It didn’t happen overnight – after something like that you tend to just let go of everything but the pain of it, and anything else slips away so there’s nothing left in your mind, or your world, but the thing that happened. So moving on isn’t what I mean – not at all.

But I guess I started accepting things, started getting outside of my own head a little more, and the group helped with that.

There are different types in the group; some like to talk, some mostly listen. I’m more of a listener, but at that first meeting Carol came to I spoke a little about Jessie and Katy. About how some days it feels almost okay, and then suddenly it hits you like a hammer and you think: Jesus, what’s the point?

And I can’t help wondering now whether speaking at that particular meeting, that particular night, was the cause of all of this. Because you’re an open book up there, letting it all out, baring everything. Which is the whole point – being open, so that you can connect with the others, so you can share that pain. But I think now if it had just been someone else up there talking that night, maybe me and Carol never would have happened. Maybe she never would have noticed me.

And I don’t know how I feel about that – or how I should.

]]] You think sometimes about if it’s maybe worse one way than it is the other. As in, if it’s sudden, like an accident, is that worse or better or harder or easier than if it’s a drawn-out kind of thing and expected, like an illness. Like with Jessie. Everyone in the group is different – with some it was their baby, or their toddler, or their teenager, and with some it was their fully grown, adult child. But you’re sitting there sometimes, listening to whoever’s talking, and it pops into your head, this thought: Who had it worse? And it’s wrong to even think it. The truth is there’s no good age to lose them, and there’s no good way for them to go – you know that completely, but you can’t help your thoughts. Which is maybe why I felt this extra bond with Carol. Her story was so similar to mine, almost exactly the same. Her son Jacob was six, just like Jessie. He was sick for a long time, like Jessie. And she was definitely a listener, too; she didn’t say much, and that’s fine – Paul, who runs the group and organises things, says listening is the most important part. You have to absorb, he says. And that’s what Carol was doing.

I suppose in hindsight it makes sense. But hindsight is one of those horribly useless things, like guilt, and I try not to get too hung up on it.

]]] Paul asked me right at the start whether it was a good idea, this thing with me and her. Not that he was saying it wasn’t, but I think he had an idea by then, about Carol, and just didn’t know for sure.

What I said to him then was that it felt not exactly right, or good, but not exactly the opposite of that, either. I’m not sure I knew what I meant by that at the time, but I think I do now.

And there’s no rule about it, about getting into a relationship with someone in the group. It’s not like AA or something, where you’re not supposed to go out with someone who’s messed up the same way you are, in case you both mess each other up even more. But it’s not exactly encouraged. You’re not really there to make friends. And you don’t want to make friends, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, without the group and the meetings I don’t know where I’d be, but when you sit in that kind of circle listening to just the most horrific, heart-breaking things – and hearing yourself talk about these things – you don’t feel like going and socialising after that. You can’t just pretend everything is normal.

So it felt strange when Carol asked me if I wanted to go for a drink, just the two of us. She’d been coming to the meetings for a couple of months, and like I said I’d barely noticed her. To tell the truth I hadn’t even looked at a woman that way since Katy, but I guess I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought. I was surprised, mostly. The last time I’d been out with someone like that was way back when me and Katy started dating, years before, when we were practically kids.

But I went for the drink, and things went on from there the way things like that do.

This is where it gets complicated, though, this thing with Carol. It might seem when you hear it as if I’ve deliberately left the most important part out – and maybe that’s true. But I wanted you to know exactly what led me here. All about Jessie and Katy, about the group and everything else.

At first things went very slowly. Mostly we just talked. I can’t tell you how reassuring it felt to suddenly find someone whose grief seemed so close to my own. It was like when I first started going to the meetings and realised I wasn’t completely alone, but magnified 10 times.

I don’t want you to think I don’t have people I’m close to, that I can talk to. I have family and friends, and they’re good ones. But when you lose pretty much everything you tend not to want to be around people so much. And you start to think that maybe it’s easier for people not to have you around. Stinking the place up. Misery loves company and all that. That’s how it feels anyway, even though your friends wouldn’t ever say it or maybe even think it. But they treat you a certain way after something terrible like that happens, because really they just have no idea.

So finding Carol seemed like a gift.

]]] There’s a picture I have of Jessie from before she got sick. It’s the one I carry in my wallet, the one I look at most. The one I take out those rare times I feel like I can bring myself to show it to someone. It’s tattered and blurry, not much of a photograph at all, but for some reason it’s my favourite, the one that actually makes me feel something close to happiness when I look at it.

When Carol showed me her pictures of Jacob my first thought was that he was just like Jessie. A beautiful kid. Happy, smiling. Like a picture in a magazine. It’s funny, almost, how you can see what you want to, and not what’s really there.

Jesus . . .

I think about Jessie all day long, and about Katy. I think about what Katy would say about this, about Carol. But she’s not here any more to say anything.

Paul, when he told me what he’d found out about Carol, said he’s come across this kind of thing before, but it’s something you really don’t want to believe can happen. That someone could actually do that. He didn’t tell me how he knew – only that he did, and that he was sure.

I didn’t say much. I was in shock, I think – but not just because of what he was telling me. Which is the complicated bit, I guess: that I wasn’t really surprised. That maybe part of me already knew.

I haven’t been back to the group since; I’ve stopped going to the meetings. Paul calls me from time to time, to see how I’m holding up. Wondering where I’ve been, how I’m coping. We can’t let one person’s deceptions tarnish a good thing, he says, and when he says it I can’t help thinking that he doesn’t know how right he is.

But it wouldn’t feel right now to sit in that circle. Paul and the group – I feel like they’d understand almost anything, but not this.

]]] It might seem obvious, in useless hindsight, how little Carol told of her own story, and how close the story she did tell was to mine. And those photographs of Jacob: a beautiful, smiling, happy kid – the kind of kid you see in a magazine, or in a picture frame in a shop. The kind of posed images so perfect you should be able to tell they’re not what they seem.

But you can see anything you want in something if you try hard enough, or you can choose to see nothing there at all.

And maybe, if I’m honest, I did notice something different about Carol those first few meetings she came to. Not at the time, but later. It goes back to that look, when you meet someone’s eyes and the two of you just connect for an instant – we’re all in this together; but with Carol, maybe, there was a different look. Not so much listening and feeling as drinking it all in. Absorbing. A kind of hunger in her eyes where my own are simply empty.

I don’t know if I can explain it to you in a way you might understand, but we are together, still. After I found out for sure I didn’t scream, or rage, or simply end things. I know what you’re probably thinking: how can I do it, how can I allow it? Is this really something I can do?

I don’t know the answer.

All I know is that we talk, me and Carol, and we listen, and it helps. Even with each of us knowing what we both know – with each of us knowing the truth and the lie – Carol talks about her child.

It’s not right, or good, and I know it; but somehow it helps.

And can you imagine how that feels?

Chris Connolly’s fiction has been broadcast on RTÉ radio and appeared in Southword, Boston Literary Magazine and the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, and will also appear in The Hennessy Book of Irish Writing 2005-2015. This is his second story to appear in New Irish Writing. chrisconnollywriter.com

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