Assumpta was busy. She hurried through the bar like a woman with the very minions of hell chasing her. She also had the temper to go with them, as Padraig found out rather to his detriment. He had watched her running about for the better part of an hour and finally the urge to rile her became too great, and he spoke up smiling. When he began Brendan, Siobhan, and Fr. Clifford all looked at him with warning in their eyes, but he pressed on. The trio of onlookers focused studiously on their glasses of lager in attempt at avoiding being sucked into Assumpta's impending tirade.
"So there Assumpta, is it a record you're after, or just a few pounds to shed?" asked the doomed Irishman. There was a collective gasp, and she spoke.
"Excuse me Padraig? You do know that there are those of us who have to work hard for our living. I as you may have noted, am not of the 9 to 5 variety." Assumpta's eyes were flashing, and Peter was taken aback by how beautiful she looked in that instant. Padraig, who would not give up his fun so quickly, spoiled the moment. It seemed to everyone that he was looking to be barred.
"I'm only saying that if you'd a mind to, you could take up short-distance sprinting, or relaying… after all as quick as you're moving now you'd be trained for gold in no time at all." Padraig never knew what hit him.
"Padraig O'Kelly, I will thank you to leave my bar immediately!"
"Assumpta…" he stammered trying to calm her.
"No. You've had your last drink in here. I mean it Padraig you are barred. I am not breaking my back in here day after day alone, lifting kegs, and barrels, cooking your food, and swabbing out leius for my health, and if you can't summon up a bit of respect then you are not welcome." She paused breathing hard with her anger, and Peter made a valiant effort.
"Assumpta I'm sure he didn't mean any real disrespect. We're all friends..."
She cut him off. "Stay OUT of this before you join him, Peter! I am so sorry to have misled everyone into thinking that I was superhuman. I am working here, and unlike you lot, I don't have the time or the funds to sit and eat and drink and chat all evening." she dared any of them to speak with her eyes.
Once again the brave soul was Peter. "If we didn't have the time or funds to spend in here, then you wouldn't have a business to run though." Peter's tone was very mild, and it exasperated Assumpta the way he always managed to be right when she wanted to be angry.
"Right. Serve yourselves then." She stormed into the kitchen, and slammed the door behind her.
After a beat Peter looked at Brendan who nodded in the direction of the door, and simultaneously reached his hand out to rest on Padraig's arm stopping him from rising to leave. Peter walked toward Fitzgerald's kitchen like a man walking to his own execution.
Brendan looked at Padraig and encouraged him. "Let Peter have a go at soothing her, yeah? She usually listens to him, but you remember this and learn when to let her alone will you?" Brendan was earnest, and Padraig nodded his assent. He knew he had gone too far, and regretted hurting his friend's feelings.
Upon entering the kitchen, Peter expected anything except the sight before him. Assumpta Fitzgerald, the strongest, and most obstinate, independent, and spirited woman he had ever known was sitting at her table in tears. Genuine, shoulder-shaking sobs were emitting from her, being muffled by her arms on the table under her head. He considered turning around and not making his presence known for a split-second to save her dignity, but he knew there was more to this than Padraig's foolish remarks. Peter resolved to help his friend if she would only let him. He reached out a tentative hand and rested it feather soft upon her shoulder. Assumpta sprang up from her chair and turned her back to him frantic to keep him from seeing her tears.
"What are you doing back here?" she asked bitterly. "You know I don't take confession."
"I am not wearing the collar Assumpta, I'm here as a friend to ask if there's anything you need." Peter silently prayed this would finally be the time she'd let him in. He could tell she needed someone to talk to badly.
"I don't need priests in my kitchen prying into my private thoughts I know that, collar or no collar," she spat wishing to the heavens or anyone interested that she could just let her guard down once and talk to Peter. She wanted nothing more, and there was no one else she favored talking to. No one else she trusted.
[Fine], thought Peter. [I should have known better than to get my hopes up. She knows where I am if she wants to talk, I can't do more for her than she will let me… as much as I'd love to help. She is going to have to give a bit too].
Just as he turned to go back out to the bar she spoke his name. In her voice there was a deep note of panic, and a large amount of pain, and something pleading. It shook him to the depths of his soul to hear her cry out that way, but the relief that she'd turned to him at last was steadying. He turned back toward her, and before he could speak she was in his arms, clinging to him as though she were drowning. He wrapped her safely in his embrace for a long, sweet, painful moment and when her trembling subsided he felt her step back a half pace. She did not speak, just sat down again, and waited for him to sit opposite her.
"Ok," Peter began hesitantly. He really wasn't sure how to begin as he harbored visions of Assumpta closing herself off again as quickly as she'd opened up. One misstep on his part could be the end of the very important exchange to come, and he was nervous.
"I don't know," she stated looking lost.
"What don't you know?"
"Why I flew at Padraig like that. I just, he- well how could he? I am so tired Peter." Assumpta's shoulders slumped with the effort of speaking, and her eyes were very dull.
"I can see you are. I would like to help, please let me try this time. I promise not to preach, or judge, ok?" he implored her and she was struck by the clear note of pain present in his voice, and looking up she saw it reflected in his eyes as well.
"Ok, only I am not sure what it is I need really. I don't want to ruin your reputation." She indicated the door, and the people opposite it. He waved the gesture away, and she continued. "I mean it. Once I get started I may not stop for quite a while, so people are bound to talk. I'd hate for you to suffer any humiliation for my sake." She stopped again giving him his final chance to back out. He didn't move, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
"I am not concerned in the least with what anyone out there thinks of my coming in here. If I were I would not have come at all. I could have sent Niamh or Siobhan instead, you know." He sounded resolute.
"Right. I just wonder sometimes why I stay in Ballykay. My life has never been easy here, or particularly happy for that matter, and I am alone. I choose to be alone, and I am tired. I am immensely tired of everything, the pub, the town, my life, my empty lonely existence is wearing me out." The dullness had returned to her eyes, and behind the fog there lingered a distinct light of hope clinging to life, ready to blaze but in grave danger of being snuffed out.
"Assumpta I can empathize with your position completely, and I want you to know that there are people here who love you very much. You're not as alone as you feel; you just need to let them in more often," he encouraged her warmly.
"Yeah everyone loves me and no one loves me Peter that's the problem- you don't understand, you can't."
"I do understand. I could be the most beloved priest in the country `loved' by countless people and still be alone and unloved. I know what you're saying because I have felt it. I do feel it all the time, but for you it isn't a hopeless situation. You can find love. I know you can, you are loved so much already; believe me." He stopped before saying too much.
"I may be loved by that lot out there, but it's one person's love I long for. I have considered leaving, but I can't go looking for something that's in my own- mind," she answered wistfully.
"If you really think you can find something somewhere, then I think you should go. I am not saying I agree with it, but you need to be sure. Explore your options, get your mind clear." Peter prayed she'd stay, but he had to think of her not himself.
"If you don't think it's a good idea then why advise me to go?" she asked.
"I would miss you. That's what I meant and I'm not alone in that, but if you'd be happy then that's what matters to me. You matter so much to me Assumpta. I- " He stopped, worried.
"I would come home you know. I could never stay away forever…this place is in my blood and Peter, I'd miss you too." She smiled.
For a few moments the two of them sat looking at each other quietly, then Assumpta seemed to recall something, and broke the silence. She had a new look in her eyes Peter noted with some amazement. He never tired of her dazzling eyes. They spoke volumes, and he could forget everything that hurt him when he had the chance to study them. It was a look he could not clearly define, but the ray of hope was suddenly a bit brighter. For that he was grateful, immensely so.
"It's not a hopeless situation for you either you know Peter," she said softly.
"What do you mean?" he asked feigning ignorance rather badly.
"Being alone is not hopeless for you either. I impose it upon myself by choice, and so do you." She was dangerously near something very sensitive to him, so she paused.
"The vows I made do not leave much room for freedom of choice in that area I'm afraid." He sounded sadly definite.
"So why don't you break them?"
"What? I can't just quit!" She had shocked him, but he was not as scandalized as he sounded.
"I am not ridiculing the Church or the priesthood, I just think if you're unhappy then you should follow your own advice and get away for a while. As you said, to make sure it's what you want," she carefully explained.
"I don't know. I just never- we're talking about you Assumpta not me." He was deliberately evasive.
"Oh so it's fine for me to tell you everything that's bothering me, but you obviously don't trust me enough to do the same. I'm supposed to just let you give me all this advice, but not try and help you in return. I should have known better right? You'll tell all your problems to a man wearing a frock but not to me." She was hurt and a little angry. She saw his hedging as a personal slight, a sign he didn't trust her, or want her to help.
"I'm sorry Assumpta that's not what I meant. I just never thought you'd see any reason for me to leave the Church. You surprised me, and I don't know how to answer you." He was honest with her, and she pressed on.
"Do you remember my asking you if you ever wanted things you couldn't have?" She could see the memory play out over his features as she asked.
"Of course I do."
"Well, I want an answer Peter. I am tired of all this wondering, constantly evading any real resolution. I need to know my options, you said so yourself." She waited for him to speak hoping the words he'd say would be the ones she needed to hear at last.
"I want the same things you want; all of it. I want someone to love me, someone to come home to, and someone to hold, to be there when I am hurting. I want all those things, but I made promises to God, to the Church and to myself. I am not sure I can break those promises for something so intangible." He seemed so forlorn it pained her to see it, and gave her the strength to ask the real question.
"What if it weren't so elusive? What if you could have all those things; if someone wanted them with you?"
"I don't know," he replied honestly. [If the person was you, I'd never stand a chance], he thought. He watched her for a moment, as her eyes transformed yet again into the stubborn, spicy, soft, and beautiful eyes he treasured. The flame was there again, and sadness still, but it was altered. He hoped it would fade altogether with a little time, completely unaware that his last few words had caused it to remain etched into her very soul.
Assumpta hoped Peter couldn't see her disappointment. She had gotten her answer though from his indecision. She couldn't deny the pain in her heart, nor could she go on in this state of suspension. She needed action, and now she'd have it. He was right she needed to get her mind clear, and set her priorities, straight away.
"Ok. Thank you for listening Peter. I needed someone to hear me out, and you helped a lot," Assumpta said abruptly, standing and moving toward the door and into the bar with a renewed determination in her stride. Peter watched her with admiration, and wondered what she'd do next. He walked into the bar, watched her step up to Padraig, and put her arm around his shoulder. She spoke something to him that made him laugh, and Brendan looked at Peter with gratitude. Peter nodded warmly to Brendan and Padraig as he stepped from behind the bar. He stopped walking, surprised to hear Assumpta calling for silence, and standing in the center of the room like a queen. She looked aloof and regal, but kind- her hand raised, smiling at her friends. He listened as she began to speak to the now hushed punters.
"Everyone please! A bit of hush!"
"Thanks. I have some news, which will affect all of you, so I felt now would be as good a time to tell you as any. I am leaving Ballykay." Assumpta paused not really for effect but to allow her friends and neighbors an expletive or two. Brendan and Padraig in particular were vocally inclined, while Niamh was brought to tears. Peter was gravely silent.
When the occupants of the room had stopped firing questions at her in a cacophony of indiscernible babble, Assumpta continued. "You see a friend of mine from Dublin has asked me to go in with her to a Wine Bar Business. She has made the partnership extremely attractive, and I have been thinking the offer over for several weeks. I have now made my decision and I rung her up this evening to tell her so." Another loud pause. "I hope that eventually you can all come to support me in this, and to help ease our parting I will be hosting an "Off to Dublin" Party here in the bar in a fortnight. Everyone is invited of course and I expect a great turnout so I can tell everyone in the new place how much fun it was." She turned to Niamh, and addressed her directly. "I'd really love your help in planning this thing Niamh if you can manage it. After all it will give us time…" she trailed off as her emotions came to her throat.
"Of course I'll help you Assumpta, I just wish you'd have told me earlier."
"I didn't know for sure until now Niamh or I would have. You know I tell you everything." This last remark was spoken into her friend's ear as Assumpta passed her, and returned to her place behind the bar, and effectively dismissed her listeners with a final note of instruction. "Go on you lot, finish those pints, I do have to eat for the next two weeks after all!"
Everyone smiled and returned to their drinks and conversations in some time, but most of the talk now centered on this momentous development. After a bit, Brendan noticed Peter sitting alone in one of the armchairs near the fire, staring into it, lost. He moved toward him, but when he asked Peter if he was all right the young priest brusquely affirmed, and immediately left the bar.
The two weeks before the party flew by in a flurry of activity for everyone involved with the "Off to Dublin" bash, Assumpta, Niamh, Siobhan, everyone even Peter, was too busy to be overtly depressed. The night of the party arrived, and everyone had trickled slowly into the bar until it was heaving with thirsty punters. As Peter entered he saw Assumpta standing behind the bar, and noted the crush of people dancing to the very loud music the band supplied. A smile played at the corners of his mouth at the memory of the last time everyone had enjoyed the sound of this particular band. The nearly derailed Eagan wedding, how long ago it seemed, and how sad to know that this would be the last time they would enjoy Assumpta's company this way for a good while, maybe forever.
Assumpta found herself absently staring into the crowded bar without seeing, as she wrestled with the feelings of desperation and loneliness beginning to overtake her. Fleetingly she wondered if she should remain here. [No! I will not allow myself to be tortured on and on this way!] Her mind screamed to her unwilling heart, causing her to wince visibly. As if on cue, Peter appeared at her side, and asked after her well-being. "I'm fine" was all the answer he could get from her even after several minutes of waiting, so he moved toward Brendan and Siobhan talking boisterously at their customary end of the bar as they watched Padraig and others dance. She watched him drift into the group, and her thoughts finish the answer to his questions as he goes. [Of course I am not fine you fool! How could I possibly be fine when I am about to leave everyone and everything I have ever known because of you! You who cannot possibly be decisive for one minute, in spite the fact that my happiness… oh Hell, my sanity depend upon it! You just go on about things as though nothing could be better, and leave me to suffer alone.]
Peter spoke and laughed amicably with them for a few minutes, until suddenly the song changed, and Brendan, inspired by the music and Padraig's many-partnered example, whisked Siobhan, protesting LOUDLY all the way, onto the dance floor, and twirled her across it brightly. She finally acquiesced and finished the dance with a smile.
During the dance Peter who was now alone wondered morosely how he would survive here alone. [Assumpta has been my light, my oxygen, for so long now], he thought miserably. He felt as though he was being tossed heart first into the abyss, dark, airless and cold as death with no warm Fitzgerald eyes to sparkle and light the bar, no soft gentle hands making his dinner just as he liked it, or to pull his pints just so. In the midst of this mire of self-pity reality struck! Assumpta's abrupt decision to leave had nothing to do with some wine bar in Dublin. His mind replayed their conversation in the kitchen. She was leaving because of HIM! [She loves me!] Peter turned to look at Assumpta as though doing so would confirm his thoughts, and he saw a single tear slip down her left cheek.
Resolved now beyond recourse, Peter strode over to where Fr. Mac was seated near the door, spoke quietly into the older man's ear, and marched directly from the bar into the night without a backward glance.
Assumpta caught Peter's outward bound form, and unknowingly strengthened
her resolve. [That's just like you then isn't
it? Running away when things get a bit hard! Well go right ahead, I'm moving on, blast you!]
Brendan watched with some alarm as Assumpta stormed from behind the bar up to the first single man she saw, and swept the hapless Timmy Joe onto the dance floor in a vicious flurry before he could even agree to the dance. He had also observed the pallor of Fr. Mac's expression sink to a deathly shade of pale as a flaming eyed Peter Clifford spoke to him directly before Assumpta's queer display. Things were moving to be sure, but in which direction he wondered? Brendan prayed silently that Peter's exit would signify that he had finally come to the conclusion which most of the villagers had already reached. Assumpta Fitzgerald and Peter Clifford were very much in love. He just hoped it would dawn on Peter in time to stop Assumpta from running away.
"Behaving a bit irrationally aren't you FATHER Clifford?" asked the now more than irritated parish priest.
"No Fr. MacAnally, I am completely rational. Also completely resolved to do this. Even if I have to go all the way to Rome myself," Peter answered emphatically.
"Hasty though," came a distracted reply.
"In my opinion you are being far too quick to abandon something which has encompassed the last five years of your life. Especially when what you anticipate receiving in exchange could very well prove to be fleeting at best." Fr. Mac added the last bit out of honesty, but Peter staunchly ignored the implication.
"Your opinion, though respected changes nothing," he said.
"Respect? Bah! You have never demonstrated more respect for me, your position here, or Our Mother Church for that matter than appearances demanded of you!"
"You may not be ready to accept it Fr., but that is not true. I have always respected you, the Church and this job. I simply cannot continue doing it with the feelings I have for Assumpta. I would be more disrespectful in perpetuating this lie any longer than I am in tendering my honest resignation." Peter waited for a response.
Fr. Mac looked contemplative. "All right. I will process your resignation", he looked stormily at the young man.
"Thank you Father. I intend to make an announcement tonight. I …"
"You don't mean you'd disgrace yourself and the Church, not to mention Assumpta Fitzgerald in such a way?" Frank MacAnally sounded horrified.
"I will not be mentioning Assumpta at all. I only want a chance to inform everyone that I will not be serving in Ballykissangel any longer, and get it over in one place, at one time rather than again and again every time I step outside my door. It will be generic, and tactful I assure you." Peter in truth had no idea what he would say, but he knew he'd speak to Assumpta privately before anything was said publicly.
"I should hope so. By the way, you are aware that you will need to vacate the Priest's House well before your replacement arrives aren't you? I am sure someone in this town has a room vacant." On Peter's nod Fr. Mac looked somewhat mollified, but still not pleased.
"Shall we go back in Father?" Peter asked holding the door for him.
"No, I think I will get to the business of procuring a curate for St.
Joseph's, and there's the paperwork to do with your
departure…" he trailed off.
"All right then. Good night, Father."
"Good night, Peter." The effort of using Peter's first name was great, and the younger man thought somewhat distasteful to the priest.
When he re-entered Peter was shocked to see Assumpta dancing with Padraig.
Shocked but not displeased, she looked happy. She looked beautiful, even
more beautiful now that she was no longer out of reach. When the song ended
and she and Padraig parted smiling, Assumpta looked up in surprise to see
that Peter had returned without Fr. Mac, and more glaringly sans the collar.
As he moved toward her, she sensed a change had occurred and wordlessly
moved through the kitchen door knowing he'd follow. Brendan had seen Peter's
eyes as he'd returned, and silently he was thankful as the two young people
disappeared into the kitchen.
"Well what is it?" Assumpta asked as Peter closed the door behind himself. He did not answer, only smiled at her standing there in her kitchen looking to him the most exquisite being on earth.
"Peter, are you all right? You're looking at me as though you've never seen me before," she asked becoming a bit disconcerted.
"So I have never seen you before. I have never seen you before as a possibility. Now you are," he answered cryptically.
"What? Are you mad? Or is it drunk? If so on what?"
"Oh yes I am very drunk Assumpta. Drunk with love and the anticipation of it." She looked confused and more than a little frightened so he continued. "I finally understand. I am free at last. Free to feel, to live, to love, to be loved. I've left the Church. I told Fr. Mac just now, and he's gone home to work up a replacement. I never thought there was any chance… even when you asked me earlier what I'd do if there were someone who loved me I could really answer you entirely."
She cut him off. "Peter, please! You're not making sense at all. Just slow down and tell me what you mean by all this. What else did you want to say earlier?"
"I thought it, just couldn't make myself say it aloud. What I thought was that I wasn't sure what I'd do if just anyone said they loved me, but that if the `someone' were to be you then I wouldn't stand a chance. I could never resist being with you if I thought there was any hope of you loving me half as much as I love you. There it's out. I said it. I love you. Assumpta Fitzgerald I love you." He stopped breathless and she sank heavily into the nearest kitchen chair. "Are you ok?" he asked.
She didn't answer; she began to laugh. Quietly at first then loudly with her whole body. Suddenly she stopped and looked up.
"Are you seriously telling me that I have gone through all this misery for nothing. I thought you didn't care and I couldn't go on seeing you every day knowing I could never be with you. You let me come this close to leaving everything I love behind, and now you realize that you care for me? Unbelievable!" She stopped, and stood from her chair, and for one horrid moment Peter worried that she'd slap him. She didn't slap him she walked across to him as he leaned on the wall beside the door, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She pulled herself up to reach his mouth and kissed him feather soft. For a delirious instant Peter felt her kissing him without really being able to reciprocate. Then something in him snapped into focus again, and he enveloped her in his embrace and kissed her with all the pent up passion, and desire of three years of suppressed devotion. When their lungs finally obliged them to part, she looked up at him and spoke.
"You know you'll never get to heaven if you break my heart," she whispered.
"Then it's a sure thing. Let's go back out. I have to make my generic announcement to the parish sometime."
"Don't worry," he continued off her look of alarm. "I won't be mentioning your part in any of this," he smiled.
"Well I will have to figure something out about the wine bar too…" Just as she spoke the telephone rang.
"Fitzgerald's," she answered, as Peter looked on."Oh, no. That's awful Bronwyn. I am so sorry. I am glad you caught me too. I was leaving in the morning, ok. Do you need anything? Sure. Right. Bye," she rang off and began to laugh again.
"I could get used to that sound," Peter said happily. "What brought it on this time?"
"The wine bar deal is off. It seems my friend Bronwyn had a bit of trouble with the bank, and the financing for the purchase of the property it stands on fell through. I now have no job to go to in Dublin," she laughed again.
"That's brilliant Assumpta, now you have an honest reason to stay here. I have one question; whose announcement will be first yours or mine?" he asked as he opened the door.
"Mine. It'll warm up the crowd for you a bit, I'd say," she answered passing him, and moving swiftly to the center of the room nearly as she had two weeks before. This time Peter watched her with elation, not dread aware that this was the beginning of his life not the end of it. They would be happy together at last.