What if Peter talked to Assumpta after Leo had left and before Peter learned of his mother's illness? The conversation might have gone something like this:
Peter had seen Nancy on to the bus and chatted briefly afterwards with Father Mac. Left alone with Keiran, he started walked back towards the bridge when he changed his mind and walked into Fitzgerald's. Niamh had just finished talking to Assumpta and was walking back towards the bar when Peter came in with her son.
"Ah, perfect timing, Father. I was just going to come find you. How was he?"
"No problem," he replied as he handed the infant back to his mother. He saw Assumpta still sitting in a chair by the fire and went over to her. "Can I join you?"
Assumpta looked up, smiled, and nodded.
He sat across from her. "Niamh tells me Leo is gone."
"Yep." She did not elaborate.
It was Father Clifford that asked her, "Can we go somewhere and talk?"
She got up and motioned for him to follow her upstairs to her sitting room.
Niamh watched them go up. She was glad Father Clifford was going to talk to her. Maybe he could talk some sense into her, she thought.
They sat in her sitting room for a time before Peter started, "Look, I don't want to interfere, but if you want to talk…"
"What do you want me to say?"
He was in full priest mode, not that she noticed. "Why did Leo leave?"
"He wasn't happy here."
"He looked happy to me."
"Well, he wasn't."
"He wasn't? Or was it you that wasn't happy he was here?"
She glared at him, but backed down, realizing he had hit the nail right on the head. "I just thought it would be like old times again. Like in college. But it wasn't."
"He is your husband."
"But not for much longer, though. We'll probably get it annulled." No big deal.
He was frustrated that she took marriage vows so nonchalantly. "Assumpta, did you even give him a chance?"
She was a bit taken aback because the last thing she expected from Peter was for him to try to help her save her relationship with Leo. "Peter, why do you care?"
"I don't want to see you hurt." And that was true.
She snorted. "That's pretty rich, coming from you."
He wasn't buying into it. "You know what I mean."
And she did. "He kept making digs about this village. He wasn't happy."
"I think he would have been if you weren't keeping him at arms length."
Again, another direct hit. "How on earth did you come up with that? You haven't been around much since we got back. Why is that?"
Peter shifted uncomfortably in his chair and evaded her question. "Leo loves you. Do you love him?"
"Then why did you marry him if you didn't love him?"
She was not believing what he was asking. "You mean you honestly don't know? You need it said? Well, fine, here goes. All my friends are married and starting families and I was wanting the family life as well but the man I wanted to father my children was already spoken for so I settled for the next best thing."
"Then what went wrong?"
She laughed a bit at him and said, still shaking her head in disbelief, "What went wrong was that I couldn't put the man I really loved out of my head."
He sighed. "Assumpta, you married Leo. I can't interfere with that…"
She cut him off. "It was a mistake. I should never have done that."
"Assumpta, be reasonable. I never said anything about us."
"Actions speak louder than words, Peter." She practically spit those words out.
"I know." He looked off into the distance.
Softening her tone, she added, "We have a hard time talking to each other about how we feel."
He slowly nodded in agreement. He got up to look out the window debating within himself what he should say, what he could say, what he wanted to say. She came over and stood beside him. Taking his hand, she said, "Look, Peter, I know you're a priest but I can't help how I feel about you."
Father Clifford gave way to Peter. He turned towards her and lightly caressed her face. "Assumpta, I'll ruin your life."
"Peter, how can it get any worse than it is now?" Her voice was light even though tears were in her eyes.
He saw those and went to wipe them off. Shaking his head, he softly said, "But I do love you."
She smiled at him and went to kiss him but he quickly turned away from the window and from her.
Now standing in the middle of the room, he asked, "Assumpta, is this what you want? To be in love with a man that can't … that isn't allowed to express it physically?"
She shrugged. "Things change. Can you honestly say you're happy being a priest? No regrets?" Tell me the truth for once, please.
He watched his shoes for a short time before choosing frankness. "No, I haven't been happy, but it's the life I chose." He looked up at her before continuing, "And, yes, I knew I was giving up companionship, physical love, intimacy and more things than I probably will ever know. But I did it willingly, Assumpta." He started pacing. "I am a priest. It is what I've always wanted to be. My faith is very important to me in a way I don't think you could ever understand. It just feels right for me to do this, at least it did."
Her head perked up when he said that. "Past tense?"
He sat back down on the chair once again regarding his feet. "You know part of me was relieved when you did show up with Leo. At least I felt that way after the shock wore off. I didn't sleep much that first night wondering how I could be so wrong about you, wondering how you could do that to me, but I knew I had no right whatsoever to those feelings. I couldn't offer you what he could offer you. After all, it's me that took the vow of celibacy. And, yes, I regret taking that damn vow."
"And now? What do you want?"
"I don't know and that's the god's honest truth." He was fidgeting with his fingers.
She was dismayed by his response. "We're back to where we were that night at the construction site."
He looked up. "Not exactly. You are married," he reminded her.
"It was a mistake." She was firm. "What do you want?"
"It's not that simple."
"Why not? What if you weren't a priest?"
"That is a fantasy. I am a priest."
He sat back in the chair and stared at the wall. "What are you suggesting we do, then?"
She sat across from him. "I think you are no longer completely satisfied with the priesthood. Am I right?"
He nodded reluctantly.
"You went away on retreat and obviously it didn't help in the long term."
"We are in love."
"Then maybe we ought to stop denying it to ourselves and accept it and move on."
He repeated his mantra. "It's not that simple."
"Then will you tell me why it is not?"
He couldn't, not in so many words but he tried. "It's just that, to even date you, I have to give up everything I have worked for."
"And I'm not worth it." This wasn't what she wanted to hear.
He quickly responded, "That's not what I meant." He got up and walked back over towards the window wondering just what he did mean.
"Then what is it, Peter?" she prodded.
"What are you afraid of?"
He shrugged. "Of making a mistake, I suppose. You are asking a very high price."
She was the voice of reason. "Peter, if you were 100 percent satisfied with being a priest, there is no way I or anyone else could ever turn you away from that and I think you know that."
"True enough. But what I don't know is if that dissatisfaction is because I am in love with you or I am in love with you because I find myself increasingly having a problem with certain teachings of the Church or both."
"You're dissatisfied with the Church?" She was floored by that.
"Parts of it. Yes," he sighed. "And I just don't see myself doing much good here. And perhaps I miss the city and my family."
"Surely that's natural."
His voice turned edgier. "And perhaps I can't see myself tending bar for the rest of my life, Assumpta." From priest to publican was not an attractive career change in his mind.
She smiled and again went over to him. "Who said you'd have to do that?"
The voice of reason was back. "Well, what other jobs are there around here?"
"I see your point but it doesn't mean we have to stay here."
"But this is your home."
Getting very close to him, she softly said, "I would follow you anywhere you wanted to go."
He had to say it even though he did not want to. "Isn't that what Leo wanted?"
"That was different. I did not want to leave here because it would mean leaving you forever and I could not do that, try as I might."
Peter closed his eyes before looking off again into the distance deciding what he should do. There were a thousand reasons going through his mind about why he should remain a priest and each one of them was answered by a reason for leaving the priesthood. Idolatry had really been issue that forced him to reexamine his faith, his version of Catholicism and he did not like what he came up with. He could not in all honesty support the Church's position on birth control (not including abortion) and celibate priesthood (when men were allowed in from other denominations to become priests and did not have to make that vow…and then the issue of gay priests who are given far less scrutiny in their daily actions than heterosexual ones even though the temptations and the opportunities to give into temptation are the same for both varieties of men). He was tired of continued questioning by Father Mac about his activities and theology.
And then there was this woman standing before him. What made her different from the ones before? The ones he left behind for various reasons. The one he ran away from in Manchester. Even back when he was at University having to decide between marriage and the priesthood, he had known for a long time that it was not going to be marriage. But he could not say that. Characteristically, he ideally wanted it both ways and kept it that way for as long as he could still seeing his girlfriend even after he had been accepted into the seminary. His excuse at the time was that he was trying to find the right words but he could see now how badly he used her. She ended up finding out almost by accident two weeks before he would become a seminarian. It ended very unpleasantly for both of them.
So what is different now? He had been a seminarian or priest for ten years now and his faith was still strong. His desire to serve God was still strong. If priests could marry… But was that only it? Was it loneliness? Hormones? Disillusionment with the Church? Well, they all played a part but there was one thing he had been fighting ever since he had known Assumpta. He was in love with her more deeply and more completely than he had ever loved anyone else. The time had come to acknowledge that.
He put his arms around her and held her, caressing her hair and finally daring to kiss her. That act sent a surge of emotion through both of them and they both started laughing, telling each other of their love and kissing. It felt like the weight of the world had been taken off their shoulders.
It was Peter that brought back reality. "Please, we need to stop this for now. You are still married. I still am a priest and I need to behave accordingly for as long as I wear this collar." He was still holding her close. "And I think I need to stay a priest as long as you are married. But, I promise you, as soon as your divorce is final, the collar will be permanently put aside and we will be together. OK?" He wasn't letting her go.
"And it may mean keeping our distance and not seeing you for a while. Can you accept that?"
"Your definition of celibacy?"
He laughed. "Not exactly. Just necessary measures to ensure that I remain celibate for now."
"Is that really what you want?" She was fully aware of the response of his body to their embrace.
He could tease as well. "What do you think?"
"OK. OK. For now I accept your terms."
They kissed again before Peter broke away and headed for the door. "Well, I'll see you later, then, right?"
"Ah, Peter, you better look in the mirror."
He went over and saw his face. She had been wearing lipstick and so brought a Kleenex over to him to wipe his face. He was blushing. "That was close!"
Down in the pub, the after Mass crowd was in full force and Niamh and Ambrose were kept quite busy tending to their requests. Siobhan was minding Kieran. Niamh noticed Father Clifford coming downstairs followed by Assumpta.
"Well, Father, whatever you did you appear to have worked a miracle."
"I wouldn't say that. I think this place has had enough miracles for a lifetime."
There was general laughter following that remark. Assumpta went up to the bar and pulled him a pint of lager. Serving it to him, she said, "Thanks for the chat. It really helped me sort things out."
"Just doing what I can to help my parishioners." He couldn't help but blush, a state which Brendan couldn't help but notice.
"I'd like some of that help, Peter," teased Brendan.
"No, I don't think you would," Peter fired back.
Niamh motioned Assumpta into the kitchen. "Talk went well with Peter?"
"You mean to tell me you really are taking advice from a priest?"
"Yes." She laughed.
"What are you going to do about Leo?"
"We are getting a divorce. It is clear that our marriage was a mistake."
"You are letting a perfectly good man walk right out of your life and you won't try to stop him."
"Niamh, our marriage was a mistake," she repeated.
"Does Father Clifford agree with that?"
"You got a Catholic Priest to support you in getting a divorce?"
"God, Assumpta, you are a miracle worker, then." She laughed. "Well, it's your life."
"Yes. It is my life and I will do with it what I choose." They went back out into the bar.