Peter took a deep breath and stepped into Fitzgeralds, hoping in vain that Niamh had been wrong...that he'd just imagined Leo's Saab out the front and that Assumpta would be in there, single, with a smile and a sarcastic remark...Instead he was greeted with Niamh, Siobahn, Brendan and Padraig; a beaming Leo and a smiling Assumpta, looking even more beautiful than when he'd last seen her.
"Hi Assumpta"...the smile on his face felt too forced so he eased it a little and averted his eyes, but that felt to impolite so he looked back "...and Leo...hello...". Was his face the way he pictured it in his mind? The way he'd practiced all afternoon? He tried his best to look uninformed.
"They're married Father," Siobahn gestured to the couple and the remark stabbed at Peter like a blunt knife. He plastered the smile back on his face and tried his absolute best to look the picture of happy surprise. He desperately searched for the words he'd rehearsed but his mind was blank. "...married? You two?" Something more was needed...he knew that, but what? 'Something normal. Think of something normal to say for God's sake!' he screamed at himself. "Well that's fantastic. Well done, the two of you..." the words blurted out and he hoped to God that they sounded sincere. He stepped forward to shake Leo's hand and in doing felt so giddy that he nearly lost his balance...An embarrased silence. Peter was aware of Niamh's smile, not so unlike his own. He guessed she'd figured his thoughts to some degree as he could feel her periferal vision boring into to him...
"You're advice paid off Father...eventually." Leo's words turned the knife which had wedged itself deep in Peter's heart. He struggled to smile...making excuses about parish errands, he left them to celebrate with their champange and laughter. A sound which tore the final shreds off Peter's wounded heart.
What had he done to deserve this? 'Is this another test?' he asked himself as he walked back up to his house and got in the car. Thank goodness Padraig had offered to fix it...he would have been there outside his house all day doing it himself. He drove along the Cilldargen road, his window down, the crisp air cooling his face but not his thoughts...Was this what his life had come to? Serving a community which included a woman whom he loved more than his own life, but couldn't have? He realised that now, oh yes he realised. "Too late"...what dreadful words. Leo's glowing face was a fixed image in his mind.
Peter stopped the car but it was not until he'd turned off the engine that he discovered the grotto at which he'd once shared a conversation with Assumpta was just three or four hundred metres ahead to the right. He stepped out of the car and walked up to the grotto... standing in front and staring at the statue, mesmerised, deep in self pity and anxiety. He was so lost thought that he didn't even hear the blue Renault van come to halt down off the road. It wasn't until Assumpta spoke that Peter was jolted out of his trance-like state.
He swung around. Startled. Mortified that someone should see the tears in his eyes and horrified that the someone was Assumpta. He searched for a reply. Assumpta didn't need one, his feelings were written in upper case across his boyish face. Her next sentence was slow in starting, almost awkward...
"We...didn't really get a chance to talk back there..."
He turned away and gazed down to the road.
"How was your time away?" He turned back to her and half smiled...she relaxed a little. "Forget I asked that..."
"Ok..." he said.
"Peter..."She sighed and her words came out in a rush. "Leo's gone and he's not coming back."
He started at her. "What???"
She met his eyes with hers and continued. " He's seeing someone else...she's married...it's been going on for months apparently, only he waited until after we were married to tell me..." She attempted to make light of it. "Less than and hour back in Ballyk and he was already ready to leave." Her smile faded an her face became serious again.
Peter looked at her in utter confusion.
"You know I thought I was prepared spend my life with him. That maybe I'd learn to love him again like before. But I'm now positive that I wouldn't have coped knowing that you were in this world and that we could never be together...or that we can't ever be together." Her upper lip was trembling and he observed the tears forming in her eyes. "I'm leaving Ballyk Peter...for good. I know you don't feel the same about me, you made that quite clear when we last saw each other. I just had to tell you how I felt....I had to tell you how I love you." She suppressed a sob turned abruptly and went to leave him there.
By the time he caught up with her she was half way to the road. "Assumpta..." he took her arm and turned her to face him. Slowly and deliberately, he took off his priests collar. He looked at her and for the first time, Assumpta allowed herself to see the love in his eyes. "I'm never wearing that again..."
She continued to look into his eyes.
"Do you understand what I'm saying? I love you...I want you in my life...for good." He lowered himself on to one knee and looked at her earnestly. "Will you marry me?"
With that Assumpta completely lost her calm and the tears spilled over as she nodded her head...Peter stood and took her in his arms, holding her close to him.
Assumpta buried her face in his shoulder...her voice was muffled. "I love you Peter"
Peter smiled and kissed the top of her head. "I love you too...and nothing will ever change that..."