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The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue

The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoqhue

The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoghue

‘Funny, LOVELY, romantic, DRENCHED in nostalgia’ MARIAN KEYES

 

The Rachel Incident is an all-consuming love story. But it’s not the one you’re expecting. It’s unconventional and messy. It’s young and foolish. It’s about losing and finding yourself. But it is always about love.

Chapter 1

 

I only ever really talk about Dr Byrne with James Devlin, and so I always assumed that, were he to ever come back into my life, it would be through him.

I was wrong. He came via the Toy Show.

The Late Late Toy Show is an annual Irish TV event whereby small children review the year’s besttoys and advise other children what to put on their Santa lists. It’s a big deal if you’re a child in Ireland, and a bigger deal if you’re an Irish adult who lives abroad. It’s a hard thing to explain to outsiders. This, in itself, is part of the appeal. Either you get it or you don’t. You’re one of us or you’re not. Perhaps it’s because so many people claim Irishness that we keep putting our private jokes on higher and higher shelves, so you have to ask a member of staff to get them down for you.

All over the world there are group screenings where Irish adults cheer for five-year-olds testing out Polly Pockets on live TV. I am an editor at The Hibernian Post, a newspaper for the Irish in Britain. It is my job to write about ex-pat movements, and therefore it is my job to write about the Toy Show.

‘Are you sure?’ Angela says. ‘I don’t want to send you out in the cold, all the way into Soho, three weeks before Christmas.’

‘It’s fine,’ I say, wrapping a long scarf up to my chin, smothering myself briefly in the process.

‘I don’t want to sound like that colleague,’ she says. ‘But in your current condition . . . ’

‘I’m grand, honestly.’ I rub at the dome of my stomach, having just recently settled into a period of relative calm in my pregnancy. The rough nausea and perilous uncertainty of the early months had made me feel like I was in the first stages of a long whaling voyage. I had, after all, miscarried before. But by month seven, I have reached a kind of plaintive ocean madness. I cannot imagine land. As far as I am concerned, I am going to be pregnant for ever.

I make my way to the Soho bar that has, for one night only, become a haven for the homesick. I used to come to a lot of these ex-pat nights out, arranged around referendums and demands for change. I cared a lot. I was invested. I was also making great money. English papers were running alot of features on the Irish fight for abortion, and I was one of the people they commissioned to write them. I interviewed campaigners, people from Marie Stopes, people who had lost daughters or wives to complicated childbirth and a doctor that refused to act on behalf of the mother. It was a blip of a moment, where being an Irish journalist in England meant something. I went to protests and ended up at parties afterwards. My contact list heaved with people who I would drunkenly promise something to, some form of coverage that was utterly not in my jurisdiction to provide.

My phone still clings to them now, four years and an iPhone upgrade later. CLARA REPEAL, SIOBHAN REPEAL, ASHLING REPEAL, DONNACHA REPEAL.

Strangers to each other, but briefly connected to a family tree of people who all wanted the same thing, and, now that we have it, have almost nothing to connect them at all.

We are glad to have abortion and gay marriage but we are lonely for nights like this.

There are no seats, and in my current bout of ocean madness, I forget that I now have a right to a chair. A man around my own age, happily settled with a gang of friends, offers me his.

‘I don’t want to break up your circle.’ The group, so vivid in their enjoyment of the evening, strike me as mostly gay. Out of courtesy to the gay social gods, I must at least pretend to resist being the intruding straight female. I am, obviously, sweating to get involved.

He shakes his head, and guides me, gently, into his seat. ‘No worries, missis, no worries,’ he says, the Dublin accent pranging through. ‘What would we be like, leaving a pregnant lady to stand at Christmas?’

‘What would the baby Jesus think?’ says another, and because we’re all now sitting so closely, I have no choice but to become an honorary member of the gang. I’m grateful for it. They make me feel large and special, like Mary hovering before the Children of Fatima.

The first ad break begins, and I feel a tap on my leg. ‘Sorry,’ he says. He’s one of the men from the otherside of the circle, who I haven’t talked to yet. ‘Can I just ask—’

I miss what he says next. The host of the evening hits mute on the TV screen and turns up the speaker.‘C’est La Vie’ by B*Witched plays, the volume way too loud, shocking everyone briefly out of their seats. The host quickly turns it down, putting his hands up, in a sorry, guys gesture.

I turn my attention back to the boy.

‘ . . . do you by any chance know what’s going on with him?’ he says, finishing a sentence that I did not hear.

Maybe it’s because I’m among gay men, or because I’m asked about my best friend so often. Maybe it’s pregnancy brain. But I really thought he was asking about James Devlin. This is the precise setting where I would normally be asked about James. He occupies a funny intersection on the fame Venn diagram: Irish famous, gay famous, social media famous, but not actually famous. Famous enough that, if he were here tonight, he would be stopped for pictures, but not autographs. Famous enough that, when he’s one of five writers on a film, one of the papers back home will run a headline that says, Hollywood movie penned by Cork local.

‘New York,’ I say proudly. ‘He’s doing really well, you know, and not just on the Instagram videos. He writes for one of the talk shows.’

He looks blankly back at me, and so I name the talk show.

Another empty look.

He furrows his brow. ‘You were in his third-year seminar group, weren’t you?’ he says. ‘Dr Byrne? Victorian Lit?’

‘Dr Byrne,’ I repeat, and for a second, my brain disconnects. Like a power cut. A thousand lights in an apartment building switching off at once.

‘You were in UCC with me, I’m pretty sure?’ he says slowly. ‘You were in my group with him. Fred Byrne’s class.’
‘Yes,’ I reply, and despite my shock at hearing the name, I’m already conscious ofthe PR message my face is sending. I smooth my expression, but it’s too late. I need to explain something to this stranger, but where would I start? How could you understand the year in Shandon Street unless you were there, with us, living it?

‘Listen, I didn’t mean to . . . ’ he says, realising that he has somehow put a foot wrong, but with no clue where or how to retrieve it. ‘I just thought, you know, you were one of his favourites, or it seemed like you were, and maybe you knew.’
‘Knew what?’ I say. How can I subtly inform this stranger that I was not, despite popular myth around Cork at the time, having sex with Dr Byrne?

‘He’s in a coma,’ he says, dropping the information so he can run quickly away from it. ‘He got some crazy brain illness, and now he’s in a coma.’

Being this pregnant makes me feel my body in layers – crust, mantle, core – and all of it rumbles at once when I think about Dr Byrne. Big, strange Dr Byrne, lover of French wine and fancy little cakes. The Portuguese tarts he brought us, still warm from the English Market. That deep yellow taste, the freckles of blackened sugar on the top.

The music pours out of the speaker to inform us that the ad break has ended, and the Toy Show comes back on, and a little boy from Wicklow rides his bike around in a circle.

I need to call James.

 

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