Assumpta Fitzgerald pulled her van over to the side of the road and rolled down the window. Donal stared at her like a deer blinded by the headlights, despite the fact that it was the middle of a brilliant late spring day. Liam, the other half of the dynamic duo, glanced over his shoulder to see who it was, then returned his attention to the sign he was affixing to a post by the roadside.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Assumpta demanded, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.
"Ask Mr. Quigley," Liam called out around his chewing gum.
Assumpta raised her eyebrows emphatically at Donal, hoping to intimidate him into a confession, but he busily looked around and discovered a very interesting cloud. She growled in exasperation and got out of the car. She pushed Liam aside by the shoulder and read the sign he had nailed to the post.
"Discretion?" Assumpta exclaimed. "What is he, opening a brothel?"
"With weekly rates?" Liam pointed out the inconsistency of her thinking. "Like I said, ask Mr. Quigley. We're just following orders."
"Yeah well follow this," Assumpta grunted, ripping the sign down. Underneath was an older sign advertising Fitzgerald's Bed and Breakfast. She shoved Liam's sign at him, nearly knocking him over, and stomped back to her van. "Tell him to bloody well get his own post!"
"How does he find these things out?" Assumpta asked, half in amazement and half in grudging admiration for her erstwhile competitor.
Dr. Michael Ryan shrugged and chimed in from the other end of the bar, "You've got to keep your ear to the ground for those business opportunities."
"Sounds like a good way to get an earful of mud to me," smirked Siobhan, who was having lunch next to the doctor.
Michael condeded the point with another shrug and took a spoonful of soup.
"Yeah well no one ever said Brian Quigley's methods were completely clean," Brendan pointed out.
"Hey, that's my father you're talking about," Niamh protested, fixing the schoolteacher with a warning look.
"Sorry," Brendan apologized graciously.
Assumpta finished stowing the supplies under the bar and joined the group. "And anyway, he can't just decide he wants to open his home up to strangers. There are regulations, tourism boards, fees...does Ambrose know about this?" she asked her friend.
"I'm sure my father is doing everything by the book," Niamh defended Brian firmly. "Just because he's putting up a little competition to you is no reason to start accusing him of things you have no reason to even suspect him of, let alone have any proof of." She knew that Brian sometimes got so caught up with his ideas that he neglected to take care of all the paperwork properly, but in her mind she was the only one who was allowed to criticize him. "I think you're just jealous that he got the jump on you," she finished haughtily.
"Jealous nothing," Assumpta assured her. "And it is playing dirty to cover up my advertisement out on the road."
"That was Liam and Donal," Niamh pointed out reasonably. "He must have just told them to put up the sign, and they used the closest post they could find. It was only a coincidence that it was yours."
"Well the point is moot now," Michael interjected in an attempt to deflect an argument. "Brian couldn't house an entire film crew at his place anyway."
"That's right," Brendan said, picking up the thread. "There'll be plenty of business to go around. Why, I might even consider taking in a starlet or two myself."
"You just would, wouldn't you?" Siobhan said coolly.
Local news reports confirmed the rumour, and the entire town was soon buzzing with excitement. Brian Quigley was leading the camp that subscribed to the idea that the production company would be settling in for several months at least and pumping millions of dollars into the local economy. The presumably hundreds of cast and crew members who would soon be descending on them would need to be hosted, fed, watered, driven around and entertained; there would be work for everyone who wanted it, from Michael Ryan (to patch up the stuntmen) to Padraig (to repair or at least tow away vehicles that had been involved in any of the numerous car chases and crashes they would certainly be filming) to Eamonn (you never know when a director might decide he needed a few sheep standing around). Why, even the priest could count on a larger collection from the swelled ranks of his congregation. Yes sir, it would be a bonanza, that was for sure.
Brian's idea with letting out rooms in his house was just the tip of his entrepreneurial iceberg. He had plans for a catering service, a taxi service, a late-night pizza-and-beer delivery service, sightseeing tours, fishing excursions, and pony trekking. He stopped short of trying to organize a hot-air balloon, but only because he would have to hire someone to pilot the thing, and he had calculated that that would cut too deeply into his profits.
Others, however, were less taken with the idea. Eamonn had sworn to give any vehicle with a Dublin number (or worse, English plates) a wide berth for the duration of the project, and if anyone he didn't recognize so much as cast an eye on his sheep, they would be shot at. So he said to anyone who would listen. He counted on word of mouth to warn the city folk.
"A movie? Wh-- What are they filming a movie here for?" Father Peter Clifford asked in wonderment.
Assumpta, who wasn't part of the conversation, set his drink down loudly on the bar top in front of him and said sharply, "What, isn't Ballykissangel scenic enough?" She had been especially touchy since Leo had left, and the local curate's presence at her bar, in full drag, did nothing to improve her mood.
"Well, no, I-- I mean yeah," Peter stammered. It seemed that lately he was always saying or doing the wrong thing around the beautiful pub owner. If only he could avoid her completely, then he wouldn't have to worry whether she or anyone else could see what was really going through his head. But the avoidance itself would have roused suspicion, and at any rate he couldn't bring himself to stay away. The only course of action was to maintain an air of normalcy while crushing his emotions firmly with whatever sledgehammer happened to be handy. Today it was to be the lager which the object of his discomfiture had so graciously placed before him.
Brendan came to Peter's rescue. "Don't be so hard on him, Assumpta. He probably doesn't know how sought after these Wicklow County hills are in Hollywood."
"Hollywood? Really?" Peter turned attentively to his friend and listened with half an ear while he focussed on the coolness of the liquid running down his gullet.
"Oh sure," Siobhan agreed solemnly. "Why, remember that big wildfire they had in Hollywood a couple of years ago? Destroyed acres of land. Well they sent over a crew and airlifted that entire mountain from Eamonn's field back to California just so they'd have something green to look at."
Brendan turned on Siobhan and said contemptuously, "There's no mountain on Eamonn's property!"
"There you go," she smirked and winked at Assumpta.
Assumpta returned the conspiratorial look. Ladies two, gents zero.
"Well I'm kind of looking forward to it," Peter said eagerly, returning to the last point which he remembered the conversation having turned on. "After all, it's not every day you get to rub elbows with real movie stars."
"Pfff," Assumpta scoffed. "I hope you're not thinking Liam Neeson or Mel Gibson are going to pull up a seat next to you, order a pint of Guiness, and then have a chat about the last football match-up." She moved off toward the other end of the bar, in order to silently express her distaste for all things celebrity.
"I don't know about Mel Gibson, but I heard that Perry Robinson might be coming," Brendan said, ostensibly to Peter and Siobhan, but raising his voice and glancing in Assumpta's direction at the mention of the Australian actor.
Assumpta studiously ignored him, but her increased zeal in wiping the bar top coincided exactly with the utterance of Perry Robinson's name.
Peter was in the dark. "Perry Robinson? Never heard of him," he admitted.
"Good for you, Father," Siobhan said. "I wouldn't have thought you'd spend your Tuesday afternoons glued to the telly. Not like some I could mention," she added, lowering her voice and inclining her head in Assumpta's direction.
"Sorry?" Peter was no more enlightened.
"He's the star of an Australian soap," Brendan explained, then added with a grin, "Plays a priest, no less."
"And she's a fan?" Peter asked in surprise, glancing toward the kitchen, where Assumpta had just disappeared to.
Siobhan folded her arms and leaned across the bar toward Peter. "Let me put it this way. If Perry Robinson DOES come to town, you'll have to find someone else to pull your pints for you."
Brendan and Peter looked at each other in dismay, then relaxed as they both had the same thought. "Niamh," they said together, nodding in relief.
She would need a plan of action. Assumpta usually disliked driving into Cilldargan or, as happened today, all the way to Dublin, for supplies; it was a waste of time that she could think of about a thousand better ways to spend. Like sleeping. But now it was a welcome chance for a few quiet minutes to plot her moves. Because she knew she had to meet Perry Robinson. No telling how long he'd be in town, nor how accessible he might be to the public. She didn't want to come across as some crazed, swooning fan, either. Natural. Just act natural. But not too natural. Don't be a babbling idiot, but don't be too chummy, either. Respectful, friendly, polite. Don't try to be witty, you'll end up insulting half his family. If she ever got close enough to actually say anything. She sighed. Who was she kidding. After "Can I have your autograph?" her subject matter for small talk was pretty much exhausted. She knew from interviews he had given that he was interested in motorcycles, race cars, speed boats, anything built for speed. Padraig'd get farther than she would.
The visitors arrived like a thief in the night, no man knew the hour, not even Brian Quigley. It must have been before the cock had crowed thrice, though, because they were already filming when Brendan cycled past on his way to the school. It was a perfect day if you wanted to capture rural Ireland, cool and misty, with a subdued light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Brendan paused for a moment to see if he could tell anything about the film, but there didn't seem to be much of anything happening. No battle scene at any rate. Actually, they seemed to have some sort of swimming pool set up. Brendan shivered and continued on his way.
It developed that they had brought their own trailers and equipment, complete with diesel powered generators, and many of the crew retired to Dublin when they weren't needed for early-morning shoots. So much for the business boom. Brian didn't go empty-handed, however. He was able to fill at least one of his two guest rooms throughout most of the season by breaking down and accepting American tourists. Eamonn and a couple of other mountainy men whom he clued in found the pizza delivery service much to their liking. Liam and Donal for their part would have ordered enough beer and pizza between them to keep Brian in business for years, if it weren't for the fact that they were the deliverymen. Beyond that, no one in town could really maintain that that summer was much different from any other summer, at least as far as the bottom line was concerned. For wagging tongues, though, it was one that would remain in many memories for years to come.
It was a humid evening after an oppressively still day. The sun, usually a welcome sight, had done little more than drain everyone's energy. Now that the soothing greys of dusk were emerging, people were seeking out the accompanying cool of a dark ale at the local public house. Father Clifford was no exception. Although, no one who was unacquainted with him would guess tonight that he was a Catholic priest. He had opted for a gray, open-necked Oxford shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He found the uniform constricting, in more ways than one.
He was early enough to find an empty stool at the bar, which he gratefully sank down onto. He could feel an intermittent light breeze from a small oscillating fan mounted on the wall behind the bar. At the far end of the bar, he could see Niamh Egan, her long brown hair tied back, hand off a tray full of drinks to Peggy. She made her way gingerly back down to Peter's end of the bar, where he greeted her cheerfully. "Evening Niamh, how're ya?"
Niamh turned a pitiful face toward the priest. "Ach Father, I'll tell you, I don't know what's done it to me worse today, the heat or the 'flu."
"You're here with the 'flu?" Peter asked in surprise.
"Not me; Kieran," she clarified. "Some summer bug, Michael says. I was cleaning up after him all day, and now they're running me off my feet in here. Just look at them!" she insisted, gesturing toward the offending appendages. "They're the size of melons!"
Peter nicely resisted the temptation to oblige and asked instead, "Where's Assumpta?"
"Out," Niamh replied with a pout. Not that she begrudged her friend the time off, it was just that she could tell already the place was going to be hopping. She knew Assumpta had been having a tough time of it since Leo left, and the free evening would certainly do her good, but still, it just wasn't fair, she with a family and household to run, having to help out here while Assumpta was off cavorting with some movie star.
"Well is there anything I can do to help?" Peter asked automatically.
Niamh leapt at the chance. "Oh Father, if you would, I just need to get off my feet for a few minutes." She was already around the bar and on her way to the door before Peter had a chance to protest. "I'm going to sneak down to the river to cool my feet off. Won't be five minutes." And she was gone.
Peter looked around at the rapidly filling room rather helplessly, then grimly rolled up his sleeves and went behind the bar, where he was soon inundated with orders. It was all he could do to keep the beer flowing. He stuffed the notes which the customers waved at him into his breast pocket, turning to the till only when necessary to grab change. Niamh's five minutes soon turned into fifteen, and Peggy had just stepped into the loo when the phone rang.
"Fitzgerald's?" Peter answered somewhat breathlessly.
"Who-- Peter?" the woman on the other end replied in surprise.
Peter pressed a finger into his free ear and tried to concentrate on the voice. It sounded uncomfortably familiar, but the droning noise that was also coming through the line made identification uncertain. "Yes, this is Peter Clifford. Sorry, we must have a bad connection, I can barely hear you."
"It's Assumpta," she said, rather loudly, to be heard over what Peter assumed to be traffic in the background. There was a longish pause. Apparently she didn't know what to say now that she had Peter on the line.
Peter's mouth went dry. He forced himself to answer cheerfully, "Assumpta. Hi."
Assumpta also regained her wits and asked, "Isn't Niamh there?"
"No, actually, she stepped out for a minute, I'm just filling in here, is there anything I can do?"
"Oh, I-- I just wanted to say hello," she said lamely.
Peter thought this was odd; surely Assumpta didn't feel the need to check up on Niamh. After all, she had been left in charge of the bar many times. "Well, I'll pass on the message when she returns," he promised.
"I'm in a helicopter!" Assumpta blurted out.
That explained the thundering noise in the background. Peter suddenly became alarmed. His first association was a medical evacuation. "You're not hurt, are you?" he asked immediately, the patrons clamoring for drinks behind him completely forgotten.
"No, I'm just...I'm flying over Dublin and it's so exciting, I just wanted to tell someone."
Now another thought occurred to him, nearly as devastating as the first. "But, you are coming back, aren't you?"
"Of course! Perry just wanted to take a quick tour, we'll be landing in a few minutes."
"Well, good." The conversation faltered. Peter felt a certain internal pressure to sever what was certainly a sinfully expensive connection. "I'll be sure to tell Niamh when she comes back," Peter promised again.
"Thanks. It's really fantastic, seeing things from the birds' point of view," Assumpta said, apparently loathe to hang up.
Or from God's, Peter couldn't help thinking. "Yeah, I wish I could be there," he said, realizing too late how that must sound. "I mean-- I mean, it must be wonderful," he said.
"It is. Well, I have to go now, get ready for landing."
"OK, I'll tell Niamh you called," Peter said for the third time.
"Thanks, Peter. Bye."
Peter stood dumbly by the kitchen. His ear was throbbing and hot where he had held the receiver to it. He didn't even notice Peggy standing next to him, telling him her next drinks order.
She reached over and touched his arm gently. "It's not bad news, is it, Father?" she asked with concern.
"What? No no, it's nothing. I mean--" he forced his voice to be cheerful, "that was Assumpta. She was calling from a helicopter! Taking a joy ride over Dublin."
"You don't say," Peggy said in awe as the two of them moved over to the taps. Then she sighed, "I reckon it goes with the territory."
"Territory?" Peter responded as he set about catching up on orders.
"Yeah, you know, dating a movie star and all. Niamh!" Peggy exclaimed, catching sight of her as she squeezed her way from the door to the bar. "Niamh, you'll never guess where Assumpta is right now!"
Peter quietly excused himself while Peggy proceeded to fill Niamh in on the latest news. He went through the kitchen and out into the darkness. Once the door had closed behind him, he leaned back against the building and looked up at the sky. The stars were shimmering through the thick air. She was up there somewhere. He wondered whether they would land in Dublin or fly straight back here.
He started to process the information he had just received. He hadn't even registered at first what Assumpta meant when she mentioned the name "Perry", he had been too concentrated on sounding nonchalant and then his fear that something was wrong, but now, with what Peggy had said, he realized that she had meant Perry Robinson. He knew that their friends had been teasing Assumpta about Robinson's presence in town and her by now well-known fondness for his soap opera character, but Peter had no idea that she had actually gotten close enough to the actor to be invited along for a helicopter ride. Although Peggy had said that Assumpta was dating him, Peter comforted himself with the hope that that could mean anything. He knew how easily a small and meaningless word or action could be blown up out of all proportion. Probably Robinson had invited along several fans who were hanging around the set after shooting was over for the day.
As soon as he had completed the thought, he kicked himself mentally for it. Who was he to care whom Assumpta Fitzgerald spent her time with? So what if she were dating someone, celebrity or not? But he did care, and that was the kicker. He was determined not to let it get to him, but it gnawed at him. He had hated himself for being pleased that Leo had left town. The only positive side to the issue was the fact that Assumpta didn't know how he felt and what he was thinking. How she would despise him for taking pleasure in the failure of her marriage, and for hoping that this Robinson fellow didn't have any romantic intentions. What he wanted was just the opposite of what Assumpta wanted. If he were a true friend to her, if her well-being were truly uppermost in his mind, then he would be able to bury his own emotions and feel complete, Christlike sympathy for her pain at the loss of Leo, and to share completely in her joy with her new relationship, if indeed that's what it was, and its attendant perks.
He wandered disconsolately around to the street. The noise of merrymaking drifted out through the propped-open pub door. What was his role in this town anyway? Substitute barman? He felt like he was just clocking off the days. There had to be more than serving as intermediary for the sacraments. Didn't there? Finding a good-sized rock in the gutter, he kicked it along the street up to his residence.
Assumpta handed the cell phone back to Perry. She must have looked slightly uncomfortable, since he leaned over and shouted, "Everything OK?"
Assumpta nodded and tried to look chipper. "Just a little queasy, it'll pass!"
Perry nodded at her genially and clapped the pilot on the shoulder. He seemed to be telling him it was time to be getting back.
Assumpta kicked herself mentally. Would she ever get over that damned priest? Here she was, having the time of her life, and he managed to ruin it without even being there. It was just bad luck that he had answered the phone. Wasn't it? There had been a point at which she had begun to feel that something other than coincidence was at work between her and Peter Clifford. The frequency with which they found themselves in intimate situations, or rather in situations that could easily have become intimate, was uncanny. But that was ridiculous! After all, God wouldn't possibly have any interest in her and Peter getting together, and what other Power could be at work? Whatever it was, she was trying her darnedest to avoid it.
The thing with Leo had been brilliant, if only he had been even the slightest bit interested in being married to her, it might have actually worked. But he had soured on the whole idea once they had set up house back in Ballykissangel. Apparently her feminine guiles just hadn't been tempting enough. Although she had to admit that if she had been even the slightest bit interested in using them on him, he might have found life in the little town more attractive.
This six foot three Australian with a smile the size of his continent was a fish of a whole different colour, though. He actually did set her heart to racing and her eyes to fluttering. At first, the only sensations she had been aware of were the nervousness and thrill of being so close to a flesh-and-blood celebrity, especially one whom she had, she admitted it, coveted. His character anyway. Or her own conceptions of what the man behind the character must be like, based on how he played him. It had been a real paradigm shift to realize that Perry Robinson was not in fact Father Quaternus Wickley, nor even Father Wickley playing Perry Robinson, but rather just plain Perry Robinson. There were certainly elements of Father Wickley in Perry Robinson, or vice versa, but Assumpta decided the best way to think of the two of them was as brothers. Father Wickley came across in public as self-assured, even to the point of pomposity, but the wise viewer knew that he was truly full of self-doubt. Perry, on the other hand, balanced his gregarious appearance by exuding a sense of inner peace. He was a thoughtful observer, which might explain why he was such a good actor, Assumpta mused.
Perry's natural congeniality and down-to-earth manner had quickly cut through the celebrity aura he had arrived with, and it was clear that he was a favorite among his co-workers. Among the locals, too, who had taken to applauding at the end of his successful takes. He seemed to be genuinely flattered by and interested in the handful of fans who steadfastly frequented the set on each and every day he was on location, so much so that he had invited all of them to join him and some other cast and crew for an imprompu on-site barbecue luncheon one day.
He was a natural host, giving enough attention to each guest so that they felt included, without obviously favoring anyone enough to arouse jealousies. He teased the pair of giggling teenage girls who had probably missed way too much school in order to see their idol, without turning it into a flirt. He listened attentively and sympathetically to the young man's comments on how he as an aspiring director would do things differently, without ever criticizing the direction himself. And once he found out that Assumpta ran a pub, he relieved her fear of lack of conversation matter by revealing that his parents also ran a pub back in Broken Hill, and they were able to share anecdotes about overshipments, zealous law enforcement officers, favorite regulars, plumbing mishaps, and the like.
Once she had gotten over her star-struck phase, Assumpta had found that she really liked this Perry Robinson. And she had the feeling that he really liked her, too, although she kept trying to talk herself out of it. But here she was, improbably, flying over Ireland in the helicopter that Perry had hired for a nighttime sightseeing tour, just the two of them (and the pilot of course), and she couldn't get a certain clergyman off her mind. There wasn't much opportunity for chatting up there anyway; aside from all the noise, Perry seemed more interested in the equipment than in his companion at the moment. But that was fine with Assumpta. She doubted she'd be able to shake off many more questions about her sudden change of mood.
The next morning, Peter woke up with a stiff neck and a pasty feeling in his mouth. He squinted at the sunlight streaming in through the front window. He had fallen asleep on the couch. The thought of the spartan bedroom upstairs, with its crucifix over the headboard, had made him feel even more alienated than he had already been feeling last night. It wasn't his room, any more than this was his house. Even the kettle he boiled his water in was foreign property. Someone else had used it before him...and someone else would surely use it after him.
He pulled himself into a sitting position and rubbed at his scratchy chin. At least his head wasn't throbbing, as it had done more than once in the past few weeks. He had chased himself out of the pub before he had been able to do that damage to himself. He went into the kitchen and got himself a glass of water, then set the kettle on for tea.
As he sat down at the table, he realized that there was something in the breast pocket of his shirt. He got a sick feeling in his stomach as he remembered what it was: the notes he had taken in payment for drinks the night before, while he had been standing in for Niamh. It wasn't much, maybe 50 Euros, but Niamh must have worried when the money in the till at the end of the night hadn't matched the receipts. He felt even sicker when he realized that he hadn't even rung up most of the drinks he had served. He had just kept a running tally in his head, meaning to punch everything in, and put the cash in the drawer, when he got a chance. The phone call had pushed everything else out of his head, though. Just as thoughts of Assumpta interfered with the execution of his duties.
It was just hormones, he kept trying to tell himself, and his will was stronger than any hormones his body might throw his way. Why was it, then, that even when he wanted to concentrate on something, like the Sacrament of the bread and wine, which he had always found particularly sublime, even then, he found himself imagining placing the wafer on her tongue, holding the chalice to her lips, her round pink lips, soft and warm--
The kettle screeched. Peter clenched his fists and concentrated on the here and now. He checked his watch. Late enough that someone might already be getting things ready at the pub. He switched the stove off and headed out down the hill, the deflating whistle of the thwarted teakettle winding down behind him.
"Hello?" Peter stood in the doorway of the hotel entrance and tried to see into the darkness of the pub's interior. It was quiet inside, but since the door had been propped open, he assumed someone (hopefully Niamh) was around and airing the place out. It was still cool from the morning mist, but the pearly glimmer of the sun was already visible overhead. It was going to be another hot one.
"Blast!" The exclamation, accompanied by a crash and a thud, sounded from around to the side of the yellow building. Peter walked around the corner and found Assumpta standing next to the garbage bin, kicking a bulging plastic bag.
Peter wasn't really in the mood for jest, nor was he prepared for a conversation with Assumpta Fitzgerald at this early hour, but the sight of her seemed to blow away his angst. She hadn't eloped with Perry Robinson after all. The thought caused him to break a smile. "Doesn't want to go in?" he asked, indicating the garbage bag.
Assumpta glared briefly but good-naturedly at Peter, then lifted the lid on the bin. "Just hold this open, will ya?"
Peter complied. Assumpta hoisted the bag up with both hands and just barely managed to swing it over the rim and into the container. She brushed her hands off on her jeans and marched back to the front of the pub. Peter trotted along behind her.
"Hey, I'm...sorry about last night," Peter said, following Assumpta into the slightly humid pub interior.
Assumpta got a knot in her stomach. What had they said to each other during that brief phone conversation? She couldn't remember anything that he would have had to apologize for. She grabbed the mop from inside the kitchen door and started swabbing the floor. "What?" she asked neutrally.
"Oh, I uh...I wasn't prepared for your call. I must have sounded pretty out of it."
Assumpta kept her eyes on a sticky spot on the floor and pushed her weight behind the mop. "Yeah well it wasn't the best place for a conversation anyway."
"No." Peter watched Assumpta's studiously averted head. Was it possible that she was also avoiding him while not appearing to be avoiding him?
She could feel his eyes on her. She wanted him to leave. No, she didn't. She wanted him to say something. No, she wanted to say something. What was it she wanted to say? She stopped mopping and held the mop upright like a pike. "Is that all?" she demanded softly. She had made the mistake of looking directly at Peter. He was holding her gaze steady. She determined not to flinch away. How could he not feel the electricity between them? But she knew that he did feel it. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that he kept asking for it, exposing both of them to it, all the while knowing that it would burn one or the other of them sooner or later.
'Is that all?' The question echoed in Peter's mind. Yes, that's all, that has to be all, there can't be any more. "No," he said again, softly, too, as if they were in a cathedral. She was so beautiful, he thought, but that one word encompassed so much more than her appearance. It meant exciting, magnetic, catalytic, provocative. Sexy. Did Perry Robinson feel the same way about her?
The knot in Assumpta's stomach tightened further. She felt the same way she had felt that night in the Kilnashee woods, when Peter had taken her hand and pressed it to his face. On the verge of a revelation, perhaps, or an abandonment of social strictures?
I'm sorry for having selfish thoughts, I'm sorry for wanting you for myself, I'm sorry for wanting to freeze you at this point in your life: young, beautiful (again that omnisensical word), unattached, hopeful, yearning, driven, restless. I wish I could preserve you somehow in this state, then hoard you until some later life when I no longer have this mission to fulfill, this exalted, pointless, addictive, leaden mission. Peter licked his lips. "Did you have a good time? Last night, I mean? With Perry?" He suddenly had to know. He tried to sound interested in a kind of concerned friend sort of way.
The question jolted Assumpta back to the here and now. She stared at Peter. Well I'll be damned, she thought. He's jealous. She tried to think quickly. Should she try to draw him out or play it straight? She needed more time, to figure out what she wanted. If this situation had presented itself six months ago, say, before she had married Leo, or even six weeks ago, before she had met Perry...but now...
"Yeah, I did," she finally said, with a gentle, reminiscent smile. "It was exciting at first, when I knew we were actually going to go, getting in the helicopter and watching all the preparations, then it was a little frightening, taking off, but still exciting, like a roller coaster, and then once we were up there and looking down at all the lights, it was just...I can't describe it. Sublime."
Peter took note of Assumpta's hesitation in answering him. She
had obviously weighed her answer carefully, and she hadn't mentioned Perry.
Either that meant that Perry had disappointed her, or she was trying to
protect her privacy. Or maybe she was trying to protect him, Peter, from
the truth. Peter could guess the truth, though. She was glowing. The sublimity
of her experience last night hadn't been solely due to the helicopter ride.
He felt the same way he had felt upon hearing from Niamh that Assumpta
had married Leo. Alone, angry, abandoned. He pushed that whole noxious,
oozing cauldron of emotions down into his gut and forced himself to smile.
"I can imagine," he replied automatically.
Assumpta looked at Peter, taking in his rumpled clothes, his pale, unshaven face, his general demeanor of exhaustion and despondency, and she just felt sorry for him. Here was a man who was deeply unsatisfied with his life, yet unable or unwilling to change his situation, out of a sense of duty. Like a woman who stays in a bad marriage for the sake of the kids. Like her mother. "Yeah," Assumpta responded from a far-away place. "The imagination's a powerful thing."
It was at that moment that Peter realized that Assumpta would never be his. Finally, truly, emphatically. Assumpta was unsettled, too, and he had hedged some sort of vague hope that they might settle together, he didn't know how, maybe that she would, like Kathleen, keep on tending to her business and remain a spinster, and that the two of them would grow old together, in a sense, in this enchanting place. But there had been Enda, and then Leo, and now Perry. Each one taking her a step further away from him: Enda representing the local flavour, Leo the allure of the big city, and Perry the adventure of a life far away from these wind-blown islands. Assumpta Fitzgerald was beyond his reach.
Peter fished around in his pocket and pulled out the money which had provided the original purpose for his visit. He held it out to Assumpta. "Here, I forgot to put this in the till last night," he said brusquely.
"What?" Assumpta snapped out of her reverie.
"It's from when I took over for Niamh last night," he explained. "Don't know where my mind was. Wouldn't want you to think I was one of your typical avaricious clergymen."
Assumpta fixed Peter with a piercing look. "Father Clifford," she said, "if there's one thing you aren't, it's a typical clergyman. Thanks." Assumpta took the money, letting her fingers linger against Peter's for a moment. Then she stuffed the notes into her back pocket.
Peter sighed. "Well, I'd...better get cleaned up," he said tiredly, indicating his attire. "Got a job to do."
"Yeah, me too," Assumpta smiled, indicating the disorganised room around them.
Peter turned to leave, but something in the way his shoulders hung down, as if a great weight were pulling on him, made Assumpta call out to him.
Peter stopped in the doorway and looked back.
"You're a good priest," Assumpta said, although she wasn't sure if that was what he wanted to hear.
Peter looked down and nodded solemnly. He heard the swish-swish
of a broom on concrete. Kathleen was sweeping off her steps, getting ready
for her usual day of chatting, stocking, cleaning, counting, observing,
waiting. She looked over at the priest, standing in the doorway of the
pub, and nodded at him with a prim smile. Peter stepped out into the thin
sunlight breaking through the mist and walked slowly up the road without