Hiding to Nothing

by Jan Milnes

                This is another of my "what-ifs". This begins sometime after "I Know When I'm Not Wanted". I always thought there would have been some conversations between Peter and Leo. I wondered why Leo didn't press the "hiding to nothing" issue. So...

Chapter One

                Leo had taken Finn out for a stretch and stopped by at Kathleen's to his wife some chocolates. Assumpta had been increasingly short with him lately and he knew that all the jokes he had been making about life in small town Ireland had been bugging her. This was his way of apologizing. Kathleen also suggested flowers. He selected an arrangement and then noticed that Kathleen had dropped half a crate of oranges while staring across the street. Leo followed her gaze but didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

                "How much is all this, Kathleen?"

                She didn't hear him so he repeated it. That shook her out of her reverie and they went inside to complete the sale. "How's married life then?"

                "Fine." He was not about to feed the gossips.

                "How are you liking Ballykissangel?"

                "Getting used to small town life. It is beautiful here."

                Gesturing at his purchases, she asked, "Is there a special reason for all this?"

                "You might say I'm apologizing for making jokes about small towns."

                "Hope it works for you."

                "I hope so, too."

                Kathleen couldn't help but sow a seed. "You know, if you're having problems, perhaps you should talk to the Priest."

                "Father Clifford?"

                "Yes." She went to wait on another customer smiling to herself.

                Leo walked out with his purchase and untethered Finn. He walked back into Fitzgerald's and with a flourish gave the flowers and chocolates to Assumpta. It looked like she was pleased anyway…a little. But it didn't last for long. Leo watched her wondering what in hell was wrong. She was so caring and loving in London but get back here, though, it's a different story, a different person. Maybe he should talk to Father Peter…he was somewhat reluctant, though, because she had once told him that she never wanted him talking to Peter about the two of them ever. At the time, her fury startled him. At the time, he had realized she was attracted to the priest. But that was then. Now, she was his wife. Perhaps Peter would be helpful. He had been before.

                Later that morning, he had an opportunity to get away for a while and he went up to St. Joseph's. Peter was busy in the sacristy preparing for the Sunday sermon when Leo knocked. He invited him in and Leo shut the door behind him.

                "What can I do for you, Leo?" He wasn't at all sure he wanted to hear what he had to say but he was in full priest mode and kept his feelings totally in check, held so tightly it hurt.

                "Haven't seen you around much."

                Peter had been hearing that a lot and so he gave his standard response. "I've been busy since I got back from retreat."

                Leo sat down in the chair Peter offered. "I think I need some advice again, Father."

                "Sure. What with?" Carefully neutral.


                Oh, God, I don't want to hear this. Don't put me in this position. "How can I help?"

                Leo described her London visit and contrasted that with her attitude here. "I don't understand why it's any different. She's so distant now. I suppose I've made a few too many jokes about this place that she's taken exception to but I did apologize. It doesn't seem to have helped. I don't know what else I can do. It seems she's holding me at arms length and I don't know why."

                "Has she said anything?"

                "No, she won't talk about it. She won't discuss it."

                "Have you talked to her about your concerns?"

                "She won't let me."

                "Perhaps you should try harder."

                "You know how stubborn she can be."

                "Oh, yes." The men enjoyed a rare laugh together.

                "It just seems that she regrets marrying me."

                That struck a chord in the priest. "Has she said that?"

                "No. Like I said, she doesn't talk to me."

                "Well, Leo, I don't know what to say. If she won't talk to you, you'll just have to try different approaches to get through to her."

                "Father, do you think you could talk to her?"

                Oh, God, no. Not this. No way. "Why me?"

                "She might listen to you. I know she likes you."

                "Leo, she won't listen to the clergy. You know that."

                "She might make an exception in your case."

                "I doubt it. I have an idea. Why don't you take her out for dinner or go somewhere and talk through this? Perhaps it is her worries about the business now that there are two mouths to feed that makes her on edge." Lord, forgive me for being less than forthcoming but I have no choice.

                Leo hadn't considered that. "That sounds like a good idea, Father. Once again, you do give good advice."

                "Well, I don't know about that…"

                And Leo booked a table at a nice restaurant in Wicklow and arranged for help to cover the bar. She was very loathe to go out with him but finally agreed.

                For her part, she was hurt that Peter was a no show in the pub. Most of the nights since the day he first arrived, he had at least stopped by for a brief chat if not a pint or two. Now, nothing. The look of pain on his face when she first tried to talk to him expressed what he could not put into words. Still, he should have accepted this by now. His continued absence in the bar did little to help her mood with Leo. More and more she was beginning to believe, as Peter no doubt would tell her, that her marriage to Leo was a mistake. She liked Leo. She loved Peter and was having one hell of a time driving that priest out of her head. Perhaps coming back here had been a mistake, after all.

                The dinner actually was enjoyable. To get her away from Ballyk was to get her full attention. It was like she had acted in London. He tried to get her to talk about what was troubling her. All she would say is complaining out his continual digs. He reminded her he promised to stop that and she accepted it. The rest of the evening was wonderful as well.

                But it really didn't change a thing in the long run.

                A few weeks later, Leo sat at his computer trying to put some words down but nothing came. The only thing that seemed to matter was not this silly story he was trying to write but Assumpta. He kept thinking about what was not happening between them. Every time he tried to find an answer, he kept coming back to the same thing, the same person, Father Clifford. Assumpta had a special place in her heart for him that much he knew and he could understand why as well. That priest had a good sense of humor and was intelligent and friendly. But he still was a priest. And that special place that man held in her heart was definitely interfering with whatever place she had for Leo. And he was afraid to ask her why. Afraid of the answer. This is leading nowhere. With a start, he left the room to go for a walk.

                About an hour later, Assumpta came upstairs only to find Leo gone. She was getting fed up with his midnight wanderings and this time took it upon herself to find him. Grabbing a sweater, she did just that.

                That night also, Peter sat in the sacristy never feeling so low and so alone in his life. What happened to the renewed energy I got from the retreat, he wondered. How could it have just vanished? Am I still on the fence about my vocation? Was my retreat just a delusion?

                Thinking back on his time in Ballyk, he was trying to sort out just how things had all gone wrong with Father Mac, with the Church, with his life….with Assumpta. No place to stay, no reliable car to use, Father Mac not lifting a finger to help, taking over Father Flood's duties while he was on retreat, tending for a sick and unappreciative Father Mac, being the only Priest on duty in the entire parish…Don't really want to go to Fitzgerald's even for a pint because I don't think I have the strength to deal with Assumpta…that abomination of the statue…Assumpta's betrayal…

                An owl hooted outside and Peter remembered that the Church was still wide open even though the hour was late. He went outside to look around but could not find the source of the hoot. With a sigh, he shook his head and walked sadly back into the church. Unbeknownst to him, he was observed by Assumpta who was out looking for Leo. She just stared at Peter and noticed how drawn out he looked and how sad. Hesitating only for a moment, she followed him into the church, unseen.

                Peter went up to the podium and stopped there. Cradling his head in his hands, he leaned against the podium, exhausted. A voice quickly shocked him out of this state.

                "Do you want to talk about it?" Assumpta asked.

                Peter had a violent start and turned around to see Assumpta. "What?"

                "Whatever has you looking knackered…"

                Peter leaned back against the podium and rested his head on his arms. He looked down at the podium and replied in a voice filled with exhaustion, "You think talking solves everything, don't you?"

                "Well, a trouble shared…" Peter just stood there without response. This caused Assumpta to begin to get a little feisty. "Oh, I'm sorry. Priests only talk to God."

                "I haven't got the strength, Assumpta. Most of it's your fault anyway." He pointed an accusatory finger at her.

                She walked a few steps closer to him and softly replied, "Look I..."

                Realizing what he had said, he quickly backpeddled. "I mean -I've a lot on my mind and I don't need half the parish upset coming up to me about your women's group."

                "Ah," although Assumpta knew full well that that wasn't the whole story. She just stood there staring at Peter, waiting for him to continue. He obliged.

                "I know it's stupid - but you put ideas in their heads." He turned to look directly at her and firmly repeated not without some anger, "You put ideas into people's heads. You just don't think, do you, Assumpta?"

                Assumpta understood the accusation and apologized. Peter turned back to the podium and resumed his original position, burying his head in his folded arms. Assumpta took another step towards him and called, "Peter?"

                Unmoving, he answered, "What?"

                "You can tell anything to a friend."

                Peter lifted his head and, staring at the wall, he sarcastically replied, "Priests don't have those kind of friends."

                Right, she thought, don't talk about your feelings. She left without looking back.

                Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. He very much wanted to talk to her but he had no right to. And the feeling of betrayal was still too painful. He did follow her outside and watched her walk away back to her pub wanting so much to just take her in his arms and remove her from Ballyk and Leo…but that was a mortal sin, coming between a husband and wife. Celibacy and priesthood were but minor blemishes compared to adultery. Assumpta had really upped the ante. Why? He didn't know, didn't want to speculate. Since he believed himself to be unobserved, he did not bother to hide the anguish he was feeling. After a few moments, he went back inside.

                Leo noticed him in the moonlight and just leaned against the gatepost. The answer to his dilemma was written clearly on Father Clifford's face. No longer could he ignore that. If he wanted his marriage to work out, he would have to take care of the priest. Complain to the parish priest and get him transferred? No, best take care of problems at the source. Into St. Joseph's he quietly strode.

                Peter was sitting in a pew, head in his hands, perhaps in tears. Leo entered without a sound and stood in the back just watching him. Peter raised his head to glare at the altar. Leo was at enough of an angle to read that look. After a few minutes, Peter shook his head, hit the pew in front of him with his fist, and then got up to go into the sacristy. Leo stayed in the shadows and watched him leave.

                For the next few days, Peter was mercifully kept very busy and had very little time to think about things. Fortunately, Father Mac's heart tested out fine…with a bit of medicine and some lifestyle changes he should be all right.

                And Peter was beginning to show up a little more often at her pub. He was still uncomfortable in the place but was adjusting to reality. He had no choice. The pain of her betrayal was lessening. And more importantly he had come to terms with the fact she was married. He didn't like it, but he would live with it. The only alternative was to leave and he had realized that night sitting alone in the Church after her unexpected visit that he would rather see her dating another man, married to another man, bearing the children of another man than never see her again. He could not leave. But he always wore the suit especially to the pub to remind himself but also to make a statement to her.

                And Brian gave him his house back. Well, it was the same house but it also held all of Brian's worldly possessions making the small space extremely cramped. Luckily, Brian lived elsewhere. But things were returning to some kind of normalcy. Peter was becoming settled once more.

                Nainsi had arrived and was looking for information about her sister. Padraig had apparently known her as had Father Mac. She discovered that she was not Eileen's sister but her daughter. Padraig had for years told a story about him and Eileen in a barn one rainy night. He must have begun to believe his version because he offered to take a blood test to check for paternity. He was not her father. But Kathleen knew who the father was. She also felt very guilty about something she did long ago and finally was able to confess it to Father Clifford.

                Father Clifford was beginning to suspect who the father must be but could of course do nothing about it except ponder it silently and muse to himself how he would have reacted in that situation. He couldn't believe Father Mac wouldn't at least acknowledge the possibility to Nainsi or discretely arrange for a blood test. On the other hand, his superior was never one to admit a mistake. Peter wondered if that situation had happened to him, what would he have done? Well, he'd never get in that situation to begin with. He may have been dithering around the fence with Assumpta, but his body never crossed the line. He never even went so far as kissing her, not even in that play last year. Suddenly he forced himself away from thinking about Mrs. MacGarvey. That was dead, over, finished.

                It was also this week that Siobhan came to talk to Peter to tell him the news that she was pregnant. She was quite uncertain about what to do. He wasn't. He congratulated her and told her it was a blessing given to few people. He assured her she would be a great mother. He was genuinely excited for her. After she left, he once again thought about what it would be like to have a family of his own, the option he had forsaken when he became a priest. He indulged himself for a few more minutes before putting that thought to rest.

                That evening, Nancy took Peter down to Fitzgerald's to buy him a drink in thanks of all the help he had given her.

                Assumpta and Leo were busy both with the pub and babysitting Kieran. She had to tend the busy bar so he was left alone with the infant. Never having held a baby before, he was so afraid he would damage the child or drop it or something. Kieran started crying and crying. He was at a loss as to what to do. She asked if anyone in the bar could go help Leo. The only one who could was Father Clifford.

                Leo greeted him with, "How are you with babies, Father?" He held Kieran out to Peter.

                "Ah, as good as the next man," he replied as he took the infant from Leo. He spoke quietly to the baby and snuggled him up close to his chest.

                Leo turned away and mumbled, "A bit better than that, I'd say." He went to the sink and turned around to face the priest. He watched him with Kieran who was quickly settling down on Peter's shoulder and that irritated him. The marriage was falling apart and he had no choice but to confront the man responsible, not that Peter had been doing anything purposefully to interfere. Just his being in town was enough. Leo heard Assumpta's voice in the next room. Looking back at Peter, he asked, "I'm on a hiding to nothing, would you say, Father?"

                Peter had been playing with the infant and only heard Leo call him "Father". He turned to Leo and asked, "What's that?"

                "Am I on a hiding to nothing?"

                Peter looked confused and asked, "What are we talking about here, Leo?"

                Leo smiled knowingly at him and replied, "Ah, come on now, Father. I ask you because I think you are the man in the know." Time to come clean, Father.

                Peter shook his head. "I'm sorry. I'm in the dark."

                "I don't think that's quite true, is it? I think you know what I'm asking."

                "I don't." Peter looked intently at him.

                Leo repeated the statement more forcefully almost accusatory. "I think I am on a hiding to nothing unless you say otherwise…Last chance, Father."

                The two men just looked at each other. Peter's face was questioning as if not believing what Leo was asking. Leo waited. Peter did not know what to say. Just when he seemed to come to terms with the marriage, it seemed Leo was realizing it was a failure. Leo left the room, disappointed in Peter's response or rather the lack thereof. Peter stared after him, kissing the baby's forehead, lost in thought, wondering what he should say or could say to help repair Leo's marriage. Of course, that was made extremely difficult since every part of him that wasn't Father Clifford was rejoicing with the news.

                Assumpta chose that moment to come barging in to check on the men and stopped short when she saw Peter holding a quiet child. She smiled. "Ah, you're a natural!" Peter did not respond. Instead, he looked at her questioningly and then looked out the door that Leo had exited. She wondered what she had walked in on.

                Peter turned back to her. He could only watch her since he still did not know what to say. She wasn't sure what she wanted to hear, so she went back into the bar.

                Leo chose that moment to come back in and couldn't help but notice the look on Father Clifford's face as he stared out the door at the bar. "Well, I am on a hiding to nothing. That is quite plain now." He shut both doors and waited for Peter's response.

                That brought Peter back to reality. "Leo, I honestly don't know what you are talking about." Proof positive that priests can tell lies.

                "Oh, you don't, do you? Have you noticed the look on my wife's face every time you come `round? Her whole attitude is much different towards you than towards me." He was getting increasingly worked up and sarcastic. "And you don't see that, Father? That's probably because you hardly look at her anymore." He paced around the kitchen much like a panther waiting to pounce on his prey but the prey was silent, unmoving. "You know I thought there was something going on between you two when I first came to Ballyk to cover that election, but I told myself, `Assumpta and a Priest? Are you mad?' Only it's true, isn't it?" He stopped right in front of Peter. "Well, Father Clifford, would you kindly enlighten me as to your definition of celibacy? Or does that only apply to your parishioners?"

                "Now, hold on a minute, Leo," Peter began.

                He put a hand to Peter's chest. "No, you hold on. She is my wife. She chose me. You have no right to interfere." There was no mistaking the anger especially when it was displayed right in front of Peter's face.

                "How am I interfering?"

                He backed away in disbelief. "Are you an idiot or what? I'll make it plain to you then. My wife is in love with you."

                Still not wanting to discuss this subject, he tried to deflect it. "Has she said that?"

                That question incensed Leo. "She doesn't have to. It is obvious. It should be obvious to you. I'm her second choice, the also ran."

                Peter regarded the infant in his arms as he struggled with what he needed to do to try to repair things, if he could. He leaned against the wall. Taking a deep breath, he looked his accuser in the eye and said, "Leo, I care about Assumpta, that's true. We are friends, nothing more, nothing less..." And that's all it can be…now and forevermore.

                He spat the words out. "I love your definition of friendship, Father."

                "Leo, please, let me finish."

                But it was at this moment that Assumpta reentered the room and was surprised to see that Leo had returned. It was clear she had walked in on some sort of confrontation. As she closed the door behind her, she asked them, "What's going on?"

                Leo said, "I think Father Peter has something to say."

                Peter looked at him but spoke to her, "Leo asked me if I thought he was on a hiding to nothing." He turned to her, "Do you know what he is talking about?"

                She looked back and forth between the two men. Then, she sat down on the sofa and said to no one, "Has all this been a mistake?"

                Peter was motionless, well as motionless as one could be while holding an infant. Leo regarded his wife and asked, "Are you in love with him?"

                Peter was amazed to see her nod her head in agreement. Just when his wound was healing, here she went and pulled away the scab and opened it up even wider than before.

                "Then why the hell did you marry me?" The pain in Leo's voice was clear.

                She got up and walked over to the sink, gathering up the courage to answer that question. "Leo, I…"

                But Peter interrupted her, "Look, before anything else is said, let me say something to you both. Assumpta, you chose him as your husband. He is your husband. I cannot and will not come between you. This has nothing to do with vows of celibacy, Leo. It's far more serious than that. You two have made your decision and I respect it. I do care for you, Assumpta. I've told you that before and I still mean it. If I am coming between you, it is not my intent. If you want me to leave, I will."

                Her reaction was immediate. "No, Peter, I don't want you to leave." Leo looked at her in amazement.

                "Assumpta, you are a married woman," Peter reminded her.

                "Married to the wrong man, it seems," she muttered. Both men heard her clearly though.

                "Ah, well, that's it, then," began Leo. He looked as though he was ready to punch someone, namely Peter.

                Father Clifford knew what he had to do and turned to her. "No, you didn't marry the wrong man. You married the man that cares so much about you that he gave up everything to be with you. He loves you deeply and completely. For him, you are everything. Open your eyes and see what you have. Yes, I do love you. Fine. I've said it, but there is nothing I can do about it. I am unable to give you the love you deserve. As I've told you before, I can only love you as a brother towards a sister. That is all."

                "That may be all you can do, but I think you love her differently as well."

                He sighed and resigned himself to having to tell the truth or at least part of it. It was probably the only way to help Leo save his marriage. "OK. I'll admit it, then. But it doesn't matter because I cannot act on it. And I won't act on it, Leo. You have my word on that."

                He was trying desperately to offer some way out of the mess he himself had created. "Assumpta, I know we haven't been forthcoming about the feelings we have for each other. I went away on retreat instead of confronting the issue as I should have. But I am a priest. I made my decision years ago. Yes, I was seriously considering leaving my vocation for you, but I can't. I am sorry, but I can't. I do love you. I always will but the last thing in the world I want to do is hurt you. You chose him. I chose the priesthood. Neither one of us can have it both ways." He had a tenuous grip on his emotions, but it was sufficient for now. He finished with, "And I think perhaps it is time that I did leave." He gave Kieran to Assumpta and left the room to rejoin the group at the bar.

                Leo watched her and noticed tears in her eyes. He reached out to her, "Assumpta, I love you. You know that. I always have, but, if you want Peter instead of me, just say the word and I will walk out of your life forever."

                She still was in shock from the words of the last few minutes. "Leo, I like you very much. You are a good friend."

                "But you don't love me."

                "I did before."

                "But right now, you love Father Peter."

                "Yes, but he is right. He never will be mine."

                "So I'm your second choice, is that it?"

                "Leo, I don't want to hurt you. I do care about you."

                There was silence for several moments. Leo was looking at his wife and couldn't bear to think what his life would be without her. "Look, can we salvage our marriage? Do you want to try?"

                She nodded.

                "Then, let's give it an effort. I promise no more digs about Ballyk. I'll be the loving husband and together we will make this work."

                She thought about that briefly and then went over to him. Hugging him, she said, "I am sorry, Leo." He returned her hug. "Leo, we will make this work."

                "Then that's good enough for me right now. I know you'll always love Peter but he was already spoken for before you even met him." They held that embrace, Leo enjoying it, Assumpta accepting it.

                Peter was out in the bar quietly sipping his pint just watching the others and their conversation. He didn't dare tell the truth in there. The truth that he loved her. The truth that he came back from retreat ready to leave the priesthood for her. The truth that he wanted to pick her up and carry her away from there forever…

                Brendan thought Peter looked shell shocked and wondered just what went on behind those doors. Brendan and Peter had spent a lot of time together, walking, fishing, biking and Brendan knew of his friendship towards Assumpta and knew of the anguish her marriage had caused Peter. What he would have given to be a fly on that wall…

                Those same doors soon opened and the MacGarveys came out.

                "Ah, Assumpta, I see you've quieted Kieran down," teased Brendan.

                "Well, actually, I think that was Father Clifford's doing," she replied.

                Brendan looked to Peter and said, "Well, now we know who to count on for babysitting."

                "Oh, don't count on me. I'm not the reliable type." It was the first words he had spoken since he had left the kitchen five minutes ago.

                "You seem quite reliable to us."

                "Don't bank on it, Brendan. Things change," said Peter but he offered no further elaboration preferring instead to sip his pint. Assumpta was watching him and he held her look before deciding to leave. "I must be off then." He broke the gaze.

                "Time for confessions, is it, Father?" joked Siobhan.

                "No, done that. Now it's just paperwork. Bye, all." He left. No one in the pub suspected that this farewell was final. She watched him leave and then excused herself and went upstairs leaving Leo to tend to the bar.

Chapter 2

                When Peter got to his house, he knewwhat he had to do. He didn't want to leave Ballyk, but he knewthere was no choice. Manchester all over again, he thought. No, not exactly. This was much, much worse. Without pausing, he phoned Father Mac and left an urgent message. Afterwards, he was overcome with emotion as the thought of actually leaving her forever took hold. He crumbled into the chair and let his tears flow. In spite of what he had told Leo, he loved her more than he had ever loved anyone in his life. If she weren't married, he would have definitely tried to come between them. She was married and he wanted more than anything to come between them. But the romantic in him always was subservient to his practical side, to the side that always behaved as others expected him to behave. So he was left alone with only his tears for comfort.

                Father Mac had had dinner that evening with Kathleen and had checked his messages before leaving. He wondered what was so urgent that Father Clifford wanted to talk to him as soon as possible so he drove up to the house. He stopped outside, preparing to knock, but something prompted him to look first inside. All he saw was his curate sitting in a chair, back to the window, head in hands, clearly distraught. He watched him for a bit idly speculating what could be wrong with him. Finally, he knocked. There was quick movement inside, then, from behind the door, a voice asked, "Who is it?"

                Father Mac identified himself and asked to be let in.

                Silence. The door opened. Father Mac entered and walked into the living room before turning around to face Peter. Peter had grabbed a Kleenex and was wiping his nose fully aware of what he must look like and what the inevitable question would be.

                And it came. "Father, what is wrong?"

                Peter was trying to put on a brave face and control his feelings but was hard pressed to do so. Motioning his superior to a chair, he sat down across from him and, quite reluctantly, began, "Father, I have made a terrible mess of things."

                Father Mac was very concerned about him and worried, as well. "Can I help somehow?"

                "I don't know." He stopped to regain control. Somewhat more sure of himself, he continued, "Father, I think it is time I left Ballykissangel."

                This was not what Father Mac had expected to hear. "Why? Why now?"

                Peter was struggling to get the words out as he stared off into space. "Because…because it is time for me to leave."

                "Because of Assumpta?"

                He nodded and regarded his hands.

                "I thought you had put her out of your head."

                Peter looked up and said, "I did. Now I find out that she and Leo are having marital problems. Why? According to Leo it is because of me. A little while ago, he confronted me and all but accused me of having an affair with his wife."

                Father Mac reluctantly asked, "And are you?"

                Peter looked at him in amazement and replied, "How can you ask me that? It goes against everything I believe in and stand for. She chose Leo. I cannot come between them." He was still shocked that his morals would be questioned. "How can you ask me that? Do you think I wear this collar as a fashion statement?" His voice broke.

                Father Mac had realized that Peter was telling the truth. "No. I am sorry. I know you can resist temptation…"

                "'Til hell freezes over, I think you once said," finished Peter angrily.

                Father Mac was trying to make amends. "Father, I'm sorry. We have our differences but we have similar standards of conduct and I apologize for questioning yours."

                Peter accepted the rare apology. "But Assumpta still loves me." He closed his eyes. "I don't understand it. She has a perfectly good man who loves her and has given up everything for her and yet she still loves me more…And the only thing I can do about it is to leave this place for good." Defeat.

                "And do you still love her?"

                The response was silence.

                Father Mac nodded to himself and then quietly asked, "Where do you want to go?"



                He looked at his superior. "Now would not be too soon, Father. I should have left here instead of doing the retreat."

                Father Mac's mind was working quickly. He finally would be rid of his troublesome curate. But that happiness was shadowed by the obvious anguish on Peter's face. That man needed counseling. "I'll need some time to find a replacement, Father. But you need not stay here any longer, if that is what you want. You could move today into a B&B in Cilldargen while we get things sorted out."

                There was relief on Peter's face. The relief then faded to sadness as he knew he had to come clean about everything. "Father, Assumpta isn't the only reason I want to leave here. I am not sure about my vocation."

                "You need not make any decision at this time."

                He cut him off. "No, you don't understand. This was not the first time I've gotten too involved with a woman."

                Father Mac had suspected that, but was still a bit surprised to hear Peter admit it. "What had happened before?"

                "I left."

                "How many times had this occurred?"

                "This is the third time since I was ordained and the worst by far."

                "And you think this is what disqualifies you from the priesthood?"

                "Well, it certainly doesn't help, Father."

                "Did you break your vow?"


                "Then, Father, there is no reason to abandon your vocation just yet. Every priest is tempted. Besides what would you do if you left?"

                He sighed. "Father, this is all I've ever really wanted. A Church of my own, a congregation of my own. I've wanted to serve God and  help people. I knew what the price was and I accepted it willingly. But now? The loneliness is tremendous…and look at the damage I've done by letting my guard down just a little bit to a woman who isn't even one of my parishioners. I thought her hatred of the clergy would keep any feelings from arising. But it didn't work. Instead I've managed to ruin her marriage, her life and put my own life through hell." He hung his head in despair. "I'm just not cut out for this. I've failed."

                There was actually a twinge of compassion coming from Father Mac. "Father, you are a good priest. People tell me that. They can't all be wrong. You're not my kind of priest but then there are very few of my kind left. You are not a failure by anyone's book."

                The compliment didn't register on Peter. "No? Look at the mess I've created here."

                "Perhaps, but look at the good you've done here. The mess, as you call it, is only in your own life."

                Before Peter could respond, the phone rang. It was the last thing he needed right now because the only reason someone would call at this hour was because they needed him. He glared at it but it kept on ringing. Father Mac offered to take it and did so. But it wasn't a social call. When he heard the message, he had to hand the phone to Peter. His brother, Andy, was doing most of the talking. Peter was standing there in shock, listening. He turned to look at Father Mac shaking his head wondering what else could go wrong.

                When he hung up, he couldn't say anything but sat down in a chair. Father Mac waited for him to speak. He didn't so the elder priest took the initiative. "You must go to her."

                Peter was still in slow motion. "Yeah. Andy got me a plane ticket for tomorrow. Father, can you…?"

                "Don't worry about this place, Father. You need to go home. I'll put through the paperwork to put you on leave. Do you need a ride to the airport?"

                "I guess, yes. But…maybe this should be permanent."

                "You won't come back?"

                "No. I don't have much to move. I can pack up tonight. It can all fit in my car and if you could make arrangements to have it shipped over…"

                "No problem, Father. You are sure this is what you want, then, to leave here for good?" Now that his curate was actually going to leave, Father Mac found himself regretting that it was indeed happening. Well, at least he regretted the circumstances under which it was happening.

                He shook his head ruefully. "It's not what I want, Father. It's not what I want at all. There just is no choice." He was as close to tears as Father Mac had ever seen him.

                He helped him pack up and offered, "Why don't you spend the night at my place? Then we can leave first thing."

                Peter accepted. They loaded up his car and both drove off to Cilldargen.

                Peter could not even bear to look at Fitzgerald's when he drove past. Therefore, he did not notice Assumpta looking out the window, watching him drive away, wondering what was going on. Probably got called out, she mused. Ah, well, caring and listening, that's your job, Peter. The bitterness was palatable.

                The next day, Father Mac dropped him off at the airport after a very quiet ride. Peter's last words to him were, "Father, I did come for more than the suit. I just didn't realize what the price would be. Take care." And Peter walked away from him for good.

                On the drive back, Father Mac reflected on what had happened and what, if anything, he could have done differently to help Peter. Perhaps it was inevitable that two lonely souls would find each other and find love. She would have done well by Peter, he had to admit that. Still, it was unfortunate but, at least, he'll have an Irish priest. No more imports, thank you very much.

                The flight was uneventful. Peter spent it staring out the window, trying to sort out the events of yesterday. He knew he needed to do that because, once he got to the hospital, he'd be needed to tend to his mother and brothers. No time for his own pain. That's just part of the job you chose, Peter. Surely, there was enough misery in the world that he didn't need to add to it. He'd put on the brave face and be the good son. That was his role. That was what was expected of him. He would do what needed to be done. There'd be plenty of time to sort out his own life later.

                Andy met his plane and filled him in on the rest of the details as they walked to the car. His older brother, Phillip, had arrived that morning and was with their mom. Tim would be in sometime tomorrow morning. Chris was traveling on business but would be in later that week. Some family reunion this is, commented Peter wryly.

                On the way to the hospital, Andy asked innocently, "So how's God bothering these days?"

                Watching the traffic, Peter replied softly, "I think it's bothering me more than God."


                "Nothing. Just trying to make a joke," he lied since he didn't have the strength to elaborate.

                Andy picked up on it though. He was the closest to Peter in age and temperament and understood him the best of anyone. He also understood him well enough to know not to pursue whatever else it was that obviously bothering his brother. He sifted instead to safer topics like weather, football, family gossip. Peter didn't talk much which was very uncharacteristic but he did appreciate his brother's company.

                When they arrived at the hospital, they were not going to be able to see her because it wasn't time for visiting hours, but then the nurse at the desk noticed Peter's attire and said, "Ah, you may go in, Father."

                He muttered to his brother, "See, this collar is good for something, Andy."

                "I'll wait out here with Phil, Father," said Andy, smiling.

                "That's good of you, my son," jested Peter.

                His mother was hooked up to machines, I Vs, monitors and in spite of all that was sound asleep. Peter sat down beside her, took her hand and watched her sleep for a while before offering a prayer. It was understandably very hard to see her laying in that bed looking so frail. He sat there silently observing and praying until the nurse came in to record vitals. Of course, that activity woke her up and she noticed Peter.

                She was delighted to see him and tried to reassure him by telling him, "Well, if you're here, I must be at death's door." She laughed which did bring a smile to his face.

                "Hopefully not. I'm here to keep that door shut." He got up to hug and kiss her.

                After the nurse left, mother and son talked. She hadn't seen Peter for almost three years. Sure, they talked often on the phone, but it wasn't the same. Andy and Phil came in to join the conversation. They talked with the doctor when he came in on his rounds and found out the prognosis as well as treatment plans. She would be in the place for only a few days but then she would need to go to a nursing home for at least a while. She couldn't live by herself anymore.

                The time flew quickly. After visiting hours were over, the three brothers went to get something to eat. None of them felt much like talking. As they left to go home, Andy asked Peter, "You'll stay with me, yeah?"

                "No. I thought I'd spend the night in the hospital."

                "They won't let you."

                "Of course they will. I'm her Priest, remember? Might as well take advantage of it while I still can." With that he walked away.

                Tim asked, "While he still can? Is he thinking of leaving the priesthood?"

                "Dunno. But there's a story to be told when he's ready to, I expect." They walked to their cars and departed for their homes.

                Peter did not go back to the hospital immediately. Instead, he walked to a nearby park and just sat quietly on a bench thinking over the events of the last two days. He needed some time to himself, to . Assumpta came to mind and he found himself wondering what was doing, thinking. He would have given anything for her company right here, right now. Well, almost anything. She was married after all. Still, he missed her more than he thought possible.

                Sure, he was 32. His brothers were all married and all but one had families of their own. His friends, outside of the clergy, of course, also were in relationships of one sort or another. He stood there alone, apart from them in many ways. Is it loneliness? Is that all? Each night when he returned home, he had gotten in the habit of turning on the TV, not to watch necessarily, but so there would not be that insufferable silence. The idea behind celibacy was supposed to be that it would allow him to concentrate on prayer and serving his congregation which was just fine during the day. It did nothing for his loneliness at night.

                That got him thinking back on his various relationships with women both before and after ordination. Time and distance let him view those objectively and he was uncomfortable with what he discovered about himself. All those relationships had progressed to the same stopping point, a point where he broke them off for one reason or another, reasons that were perfectly valid at the time. There was just a limit to intimacy for him and it really didn't have anything to do with Church teachings on the subject, now, did it? The shrinks would have an explanation, no doubt.

                But what about Assumpta? He had to admit that she was different than the rest. She was increasingly the focus of his thoughts, his dreams. Well, this isn't the time or the place for those thoughts. She was in his past, not his future. He had to accept that…somehow.

                His brothers had gone home to their families and he had nothing, no one, and that's how it was always going to be. It was his choice and he was well aware of the consequences when he made that choice all those years ago. It didn't do a thing to ease his present pain though.

                He went back in to sit by his mother's side soon falling asleep in the chair.

                Someone was shaking his shoulder. "Father? Father?" A nurse was there. "Father, please, we need you."

                Momentarily confused, he managed to ask, "What?"

                "We need you to administer Last Rites."

                With that, he woke up and, rummaging in his suitcoat, said, "Yes, of course." He left with the nurse who took him down the hall. Before he entered, he took a deep breath and said a short prayer. Once inside, he was in full Priest mode, comforting, consoling, hearing confession and administering the Sacrament. He stayed with the family after their father's death for a while doing what little he could to help. Afterwards, he took his leave to go back to his own family.

                The more Leo thought about their conversation the other night, the more he considered talking alone to Peter. It was true that he was the man she loved, not Leo. Maybe it's time to stop fighting it. He told her he was talking Finn for a walk and headed up the road to St. Joseph's. Peter's car wasn't there but then it hadn't been there the past few days. There seemed to be some life in the house so he knocked on the door. A stranger in a priest's suit answered, "Can I help you?"

                Momentarily startled, he asked, "Yes, can I speak with Father Clifford?"

                "I'm sorry, he's gone."

                "Well, when will he be back?"

                This stranger looked questioningly at him, "He's left Ballykissangel to go home to England, I was told. I'm the new curate, Father Aidan. Can I help you?"

                It was then that Leo noticed a few boxes in the living room. That news stunned Leo leaving him speechless. "Ah, no, I need to talk to him. Do you have a phone number or address that I can reach him at?"

                "No. Nothing was left. I was told to send any personal mail to Father Mac. He no doubt knows where Father Clifford went and can perhaps help you."

                Leo regarded Father Aidan and wondered briefly if indeed he should talk with him, but decided against it. He and the dog walked back down the street to Fitzgerald's. And he also decided not to mention Father Peter's departure quite yet. He needed to figure out what this news would do to his wife.

                An hour later, there was a strange priest down in Fitzgerald's who Father Mac was introducing as the new curate, Father Aidan. When Assumpta was introduced, she was like ice and glared at Father Mac. "What do we need another priest here for?"

                "Father Clifford has gone home to England." That news stunned the regulars who knew Peter hadn't been around but that in itself wasn't very unusual. There were several occasions where his duties kept him away from Ballyk for a few days at a time. No one had taken any notice of his absence this time. But they were disappointed that he would leave without saying goodbye.

                Assumpta was irate as well as upset. "So you got your way after all, eh, Father Mac? You've been wanting to get rid of him ever since he got here. You must be thrilled." There were other reasons for her anger as well.

                Father Aidan wondered what all that was about but was assured by Father Mac that it was just how she treated the clergy. Don't worry about it. Father Mac turned back to Assumpta. "No, I am not thrilled, Assumpta. He went back to England to tend to his sick Mother. She can no longer live on her own so Father Clifford will stay with her. He's on leave for as long as necessary. But, since we don't know how long that could be, Father Clifford has agreed to reassignment so that the village wouldn't be left without a priest."

                Assumpta's expression was a mixture of shock and concern. Brendan had watched her response and knew the reason for it. He had also been a little put out that Peter had left without a word but now understood why. Leo was also watching her closely with a mixture of relief that his competition was gone but a bit of fear over how she would deal with that.

                Father Mac was watching her reaction. He realized he had been staring at Assumpta when she came right up to him and asked what he wanted.

                "A word," he replied, motioning her into the kitchen.

                She followed and shut the doors behind them.

                "You must be very happy." The Fitzgerald sarcasm was in full form.

                "Actually, I am not happy to see him go, not under the circumstances he left in at any rate." And that really was the truth.

                She didn't believe him one bit. "Right. I thought any circumstances would be just fine for you as long as he left."

                "Well, you're wrong. He was a fine priest. Not my type, certainly, but a credit to the priesthood and an asset to the Church."

                She noticed the past tense. "Was a fine priest?"

                He sighed. "He told me that he was increasingly frustrated over what he was accomplishing here. He wanted to go back to England. Under the circumstances I had no choice but to let him go."

                "Without letting him say goodby."

                "It was his request."

                "Oh, please…"

                "It's true. I tried to persuade him otherwise but, well, you know how stubborn he can be." He let that sink in before continuing, "He also told me that your marriage is in trouble because of him. That is the other reason why he asked to be transferred. I was trying to talk him out of it but he was adamant. When he got word of his mother's condition, I had no choice but to acquiesce."

                She nodded.

                "Had he spoken to you?"

                A sadness was settling over her and that made her rather uncharacteristically open up to this priest. "Leo confronted him a few days ago and I entered in during that discussion. Peter told me to open my eyes and see the love that Leo has for me. That Leo gave up everything to be with me and had absolutely no regrets. That Leo gave himself to me completely which was something he never would be able to do."

                "How did Leo react?"

                "I think he believed him. It was me that couldn't accept what he had said."

                "Assumpta, you did choose Leo."

                "I know but I still love Peter. I can't help it and believe me we've both spent a long time denying it to each other and to ourselves. Imagine me falling in love with a Catholic priest from England!" Her brief attempt at levity vanished. "I know he would never leave the priesthood because of the vows he had taken. Even though it was tearing him up inside, even though the loneliness was tremendous, he would hold to those vows."

                Well, she would hear his confession, too. "Neither one of us have made this year easy for him, Assumpta. I fought him at every opportunity because of my own prejudice against the English. I knew he was in pain over his feelings towards you but I did nothing to help him because I wanted to be rid of him. It wasn't until he went away on retreat and I was covering for him that I realized all the work and all the good he was doing in this community. I realized then that I was only seeing the Father Clifford I wanted to see, not the Father Clifford that really existed. I saw only what I perceived to be his flaws."

                "I saw his honesty, his integrity, his dedication… It's funny, all the signs were there from the very beginning."

                "I'm not following you."

                "Remember the family living in a caravan that Liam and Donal were dumping manure next to?"


                "Well, Peter gave me a talking to over it. I was teed off that he was accusing me of making that baby ill, but he was right. He encouraged me to take the money I was going to offer that family to move on and put it on Cilldargen in that football game. Siobhan also thought it would be a good idea. Then he ends up as goalkeeper for Ballyk. When I told him how fortunate that was, he looked at me in disbelief that I would think he would purposefully throw a game! Even when I reminded him of the reason behind the bet, he wouldn't do it."

                "Yes, he did hold himself to a high standard."

                "And he is doing it again, isn't he?"

                "Yes. He holds himself to too high a standard for his own good, in my opinion. In others you might say it is pride or conceit but in him it is genuine. Given that how could he behave otherwise? "

                She nodded. "Part of what attracted me to him was his honesty. I should have known from the very beginning that he could never leave the priesthood just because he fell in love. But what I don't understand is why he didn't tell me he was having doubts about his vocation."

                "He wouldn't have because that would be seen as coming between you two which he couldn't do."

                She had to accept that. "When had he made up his mind?"

                Father Mac thought about that and decided not to relay what he had been told. "I don't really know. I do know that the statue had a lot to do with it."

                She thought back about that and his actions started making more and more sense. "So that was why you sent him on retreat two months ago?"

                He looked confused. "I didn't send him. I merely suggested it and he concurred."

                That was news to her and then she laughed to herself, "I see." Peter had told her he was ordered on retreat.

                Father Mac didn't see. "What?"

                "Father, I think Peter and me are two of a kind. We're willing to take a stand for what we believe in and hold it to the bitter end, damn the consequences. He took the vows and accepted them as permanent even though he was becoming increasingly unhappy as a priest. I knew he was a priest and respected his vows even though I wanted him more than I have ever wanted anyone. We both were aware of our feelings towards each other but we remained in denial out of respect for each other. Now look at the result!"

                Father Mac had a rare smile. "I would agree with that."

                "But now that he's gone…" She was fighting back tears.

                "Assumpta, you are going to have to put him out of your head. He is, if nothing else, a devout Catholic even more than he is a priest. Even if Leo were not in the picture, I don't think there would be much difference. I still don't think he will leave the priesthood no matter how much he may want to at present."

                "I suppose you're probably right. I just wish things had been different, that's all."

                He had to agree with that. "Funny, I think he probably does, too."

                "How is his Mother?"

                He proceeded to tell her more details about his mother and her prognosis. She sat in silence, stunned.

                "How can I get in touch with him?"

                He was very reluctant. "I'm not sure that's a good idea, Assumpta. Don't you think he has enough to deal with right now?"

                She pleaded. "And don't you think that there is no way he will be anything but the proper son, the proper priest irregardless of how much that act is costing him inside? Don't you think he needs someone now?"

                He did acknowledge the truth of that. "He probably does. But this may not be the best time and you may not be the best person to provide it. His family is with him."

                "Please, Father. Just let me know how I can contact him. He needs a friend."

                Father Mac knew she was right. "I will get you his number." But he did not follow through on that promise.

                For the next few days, Peter was reacquainting himself with his nieces and nephews and meeting his newest niece. This was his first time back in England since he had left for Ireland three years ago. He had missed his family. Peter had to admit to himself that another part of his dissatisfaction with his vocation was that he was beginning to want a family of his own. Being everyone's Father was becoming less and less important to him than becoming someone's Daddy. He loved playing with the children but what he loved most was reading to them. He had made a sort of hobby of accumulating various accents and he used those for the various characters much to the children's delight. He was staying in his mother's house along with his two youngest brothers so it ended up being the meeting place. This lasted until their mother was discharged from the hospital five days later.

                As the doctor had said, it was clear she could no longer live on her own. Phil had been looking into nursing homes until Peter offered to take care of her.

                "What about your congregation?"

                "It isn't a problem. I was being transferred soon anyway so there is no need for me to return." Not quite the truth, not exactly a lie.

                "Transferred where?"

                "That part hadn't been worked out yet. But I can get a leave to take care of her. That won't be a problem." It would also buy time for him to consider a career change.

                "But we can't ask you to give up your position."

                "Look. I want to do this. I've missed out on seeing her these last few years and I want to stay with her. Besides, the rest of you have families. It's no problem." And so it was agreed.

                As the days went on, Peter and his mom were enjoying each other's company. It gave them an opportunity to talk at length for the first time since his ordination. She did most of the talking before turning the tables. She had picked up on his underlying sadness and didn't think for a moment that it was entirely due to her condition. She said as much.

                True to form, he at first denied it but she didn't buy into it. Finally, he told her of his increasing dissatisfaction with his life and lifestyle. What was bothering him most of all was the loneliness of his chosen vocation. She suggested that perhaps he try for a transfer to a larger city. It was then he told her that he had left Ireland for good. At first, she was pleased since it meant he would be able to be nearer but she realized that it wasn't the full story. Finally, he told her that he was very possibly leaving the priesthood.

                "I'm sorry, mum."

                "Sorry about what?"

                "For letting you down."

                "There is no way you would ever let me down, Peter. You didn't become a priest to please me, did you?"

                He smiled. "No."

                "Well, then how would your leaving the priesthood let me down?"

                "I thought you'd be disappointed that I've failed."

                "Failed what?"

                "Failed at being a priest."

                "I don't think anyone would accuse you of that."

                "I know I have failed. It doesn't matter what others think. But I've failed in the task God set out for me."

                "Peter, you haven't failed God…"

                He was in no mood for consolation, especially from her. "Well, I don't want to debate it."

                She realized he had shut that door so she tried another one. "Is it just loneliness then?"

                "No." He related the statue incident and how it brought up many questions that he could not answer. He told her how he also found himself in conflict with some of the teachings of the Church. And then he told her about Assumpta and how he had lost her because he couldn't make up his mind. And he finally admitted that his indecision was because he was afraid she would run away from him leaving him with nothing. And that turned out to be exactly what had happened. She was now married to someone else and he was having a very hard time with that.

                "You don't make life simple for yourself, do you, Peter?" she teased.

                "I like challenges I suppose." He laughed with her.

                "What will you do?"

                "About what?" He wasn't following her since he had become somewhat distracted in thinking about Assumpta.

                "Your life."

                "Oh, that." He laughed again. "Well, try not to make a mess of it anymore. I don't see how I could make it any worse."

                "I'd agree with that."

                "Well, it still is important for me to serve God even if no longer a priest. Perhaps teach or do social work, I'm not sure."

                "You'll stay in England."

                "Most definitely. That part I know for sure. I'll stay with you until you can be on your own, assuming you don't kick me out."

                "When will you have to go back?"

                "I'm on leave for as long as I need. Don't worry about it."

                "Hmm. How much are you going to cost?"

                "I live a life of poverty, remember? You won't even notice it." And they laughed.

                The discussion continued on along those lines and the days passed quickly. Peter, in spite of the reason he had come home, was beginning to enjoy himself. It was good to see his family again and accented the loneliness he had felt in Ireland. In many ways, it felt like a holiday. He busied himself with projects around the house, tending to tasks his mom hadn't felt up to for a while. His mom was very happy for his company. She had many friends but it wasn't quite the same as family.

                One Friday night Andy and his wife, Liz, showed up to relieve him of duty. Andy invited him down to the pub where Phil and Tim were already warming a table. Liz stayed at the house and left the brothers to themselves.

                They spent the evening drinking pints and talking and laughing and reminiscing. Even Peter was participating just like he used to. At one point, Phil asked him the usual question, "So, how's God bothering these days?"

                Peter dismissed it with a curt response, "Fine."

                Siblings being siblings, they realized that Peter didn't want to talk about it and so they did their best to get him to talk about it.

                Andy jested, "Still into frocks, eh, Peter?"

                "Something like that." They could see Peter was quickly erecting his shell.

                "How's celibacy?" Phil asked.

                Peter felt his temper rise and also knew his brothers knew they had just touched on a sore point. Although how sore, they had no way of knowing. Peter resorted to evasion, his best weapon in these matters. "I thought we had an agreement about not discussing religion."

                Andy replied, "We're not discussing religion. We're discussing you."

                "Just let's drop it then," requested Peter.

                Phil said to Andy and Tim, "I think we touched a nerve in our brother." All three turned innocent faces to him. Peter found his beer quite fascinating.

                Andy changed his tone, "Look, we know something's bothering you, something more that mum, I mean. If you can't tell us, who can you tell?"

                Phil broke in with, "Or is this only for confession, Father?"

                Peter glared at Phil and then answered, "Leave off the `father' bit, will ya?"

                "Sure." They agreed, waiting. Peter kept them waiting and then offered to buy the next round to which they agreed like the good brothers they are. While Peter was fetching the pints, the three brothers were trading theories about Peter. When he returned, Peter said quite reluctantly, "Maybe I've done enough God bothering in my life."

                That shut them up. Peter always had enjoyed whatever he happened to be doing and the priesthood was no exception. Their mother had shared the letters he had written and they were full of joy especially when he talked of Ireland. If anyone was a natural priest, it was Peter.

                Andy decided another tack. "Will you go back to Ireland?"

                Peter found his pint quite fascinating. "I'm not going back."

                "You were transferred again?"

                "In a way."

                "In a way, what? What's going on that you're not talking about?"

                It was time to give in. "OK. You want to hear my confession?"

                Tim teased, "The story's going to be that good?"

                They all laughed and even got a smile out of Peter. He continued, "I left Ireland for good when I came here. I have not been transferred, I just left."

                "Priests can do that?"

                "This one did. As for how long I can stay here, I'll stay as long as I need to. You needn't worry about caring for mum. Like I said, I will gladly do that as long as necessary. Do I have a job? No. I've been put on leave. Do I have any money? No. Do I still have a vocation? I don't know. Have I entertained you enough? Yes. Can we change the subject?"

                His brothers were stunned by this and pressed him for more information. "Why? For the longest time, you've always wanted to be a priest. What changed?"

                He shrugged. "Me, I suppose."

                Andy tried to lighten the mood by saying, "Ah, he just fell in love again…" He stopped short when he saw Peter's reaction. Dawning recognition. "Is that why…"

                Phil added, "Tell us about her, then." They were all ears and were clearly enjoying Peter's discomfort in a way only brothers can.

                There was no choice. "All right. I'll admit it. Peter the Pure fell in love. Happy?"

                "Well, what happened?"

                "Ah, well, you see Peter the Pure can't sully himself with a mere mortal," Peter replied. He softened his tone. "Look, this is a subject I don't want to discuss, OK? All I'll say is that I was friends with a woman and that friendship developed towards a point that I had to make a decision one way or the other and I didn't. I sat on the fence for the longest time wanting it both ways. Peter the saint of all spineless saps couldn't decide. She ended up marrying someone else and, yes, that tore me up inside. But, hey, I have God. I don't need anything else." He broke off the bitterness. "I had already decided it was time to leave there. Mum's stroke only got me here a few days earlier. Satisfied?"

                Silence. Many things came to Andy's mind but he dismissed them realizing now was not the time for teasing. "What will you do?"

                "Short term. Take care of Mum. Long term? I don't know. It's seems like I've lost everything I've ever wanted. Mum's stroke just is one more thing to add onto the list."

                Tim asked, "Loneliness?"

                "That's a large part of it and there are some aspects of Church teachings that I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with as well. But, look, another time, eh, lads?" The wound was still too great.

                They agreed and moved onto less controversial subjects like football.

Hiding to Nothing Ch 3

                Good grief!! I go on vacation for one week, just one week, and someone takes off on my storyline! (As if we all haven't done that on the original storylines...) I don't mind that at all. In fact, I'm honored that my story inspired someone to do that. But I'm headed down a different path... So, ever hopeful that we will avoid confusion, I offer the next installment.

Chapter 3

                It was six weeks after Leo had confronted Peter and Assumpta. She seemed more attentive and caring but she still wasn't happy. Peter was gone home to England but it wasn't making any difference. Maybe it's too soon to tell, but maybe also this whole marriage was a mistake, like she said. He loved her too much to let her go, though. Her sarcasm was absent fortunately and he was doing his part not to make digs at the rural life. On the surface, things seemed a lot better. Only on the surface.

                Upstairs, Leo poured himself a whiskey and sat beside her both tired from a long workday. Staring for a while at the glass, he asked, "Is this a mistake?"


                "You aren't happy with me, with us, are you?"

                She sadly shook her head. "No."

                "So let me ask the question. Do you still want to be married to me?"

                "Leo…" she began but didn't know what to say.

                "It's not just Father Peter, is it?"

                Reluctantly, she shook her head, "No, it's not just him… Maybe you can't go back. Maybe we had our chance and now it's gone."

                "Do you want a divorce?"

                She hesitated but then said, "I never meant to hurt you. I really thought it would work between us. I really did."

                "Even though you knew you still loved Father Peter?"

                "Yes. I suppose I thought that we could continue our friendship, that it would be easier now that we both were spoken for. I don't know. I guess I didn't think it all through… He was right. I just didn't think."

                "He said that about our marriage?"

                "Well, not exactly, no. It was about the women's group but I think he meant the marriage as well. I didn't realize how upset he would be. He couldn't even look me in the face."

                Leo thought for a time, sipping his whiskey. "What did you expect him to do?"

                "I thought he would be relieved."

                "Why's that? Had something happened between you two?"

                "No, not in the way you're thinking." She hesitated before deciding that she owed him an explanation especially since she was the one that wanted to marry in the first place. Still, it was hard to tell the truth but it would be harder to drag this out any longer. "Over the past year I've been seriously considering leaving this place, selling out and going to Dublin. I was ready to do just that and had told Niamh as much several months ago. Well, this is a small town and Peter found out about it. When he asked me if it was true, I said I wasn't sure but I would let everyone know when I'd made up my mind. And his response was, `I care about you.' He was hurt that I hadn't talked to him about it. That was the first time he ever put words to his feelings towards me…

                "We enjoyed each other's company. He would often help me clean up at night and occasionally we would have a quiet drink together afterwards, but nothing happened physically. I respected his position and his beliefs. I'll admit I daydreamed about him and wondered what it would be like to have a physical relationship, but I never acted on those thoughts and I never talked about that with him, either. He did once talk about different kinds of families and different kinds of love. I was sure then that our feelings were mutual, but that he could never acknowledge it to himself much less act on it.

                "When I would occasionally date various men, I tried to keep those activities away from him, because I knew he was uncomfortable with that although I'm sure if I'd asked him he would have denied it. And I felt very self-conscious almost as if I were cheating on him, which was silly. But I did. So you can see how successful that dating was.

                "Then, one night, there was a small protest going on to stop Quigley from bulldozing a forest. I wasn't for it and neither was Peter, but we both ended up out there bringing sandwiches and hot drinks to the protesters. The night was colder than they had expected so they asked Peter to mind the place while they went to get warmer clothes and some artifacts to seed the place with. Anyway, Peter wasn't keen on staying there so I offered to stay with him. Peter had become more and more aloof lately and I didn't know why. He seemed very troubled and I attributed it to stress from all the work Father Mac was laying on him.

                "Well, it was cold and we ended up sitting in his car. He wasn't saying anything just sipping some tea and looking out the window. I wanted to comfort him somehow so I just started talking about whatever I could think of. It was getting colder and colder and so was I. Peter saw I was shivering and took my hand in his. He held it for a while and I could tell he was debating what to say. He brought my hand to his face and I thought he was going to kiss it but instead he rested his forehead on it and closed his eyes. I guess I stiffened at one point and he felt that and looked up at me with such a loving expression that I couldn't take my eyes away. He reached out for me and pulled me towards him. He just held me close, idling stroking my hair. I was shocked but I wasn't complaining a bit. I had so longed for him to hold me and now he was doing just that and it felt every bit as good as I thought it would.

                "Then our friends came back. He heard their car and immediately let me go. He got out of the car quickly. I knew he felt embarrassed so I gathered my things to leave. When they went into the woods, he came over to my car and took hold of my shoulders. He turned me back towards him and caressed my face before looking off into the distance and saying, `I'm a priest.' I told him that was fine and I left. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw him standing there, watching me go. I wanted so much to stay with him but I also didn't want to make him break his vows, either, so I kept going. He seemed poised on the edge but still undecided.

                "I didn't see him then for several days. I think he was very embarrassed over his actions. That's all I thought it was until he came to tell me that he was leaving to go on retreat. I had called you telling you I was coming to London because I wanted to give him space. He's a priest, after all, sworn to celibacy. He is a very honest man and I know there is no way he would break those vows and I know that I didn't want to make him do anything that would break those vows. What I didn't know was how he was feeling about me and about his vocation. Anyway, I could tell he was very upset. He was so nervous talking to me there in my kitchen. What he was trying to tell me was that he couldn't give me what I wanted. When I accused him of still being on the fence, he assured me that he was off it and would remain a priest. That hit me unexpectedly hard and I was trying not to show it but wasn't doing a very good job of it. Neither was he. We couldn't talk any more because there were customers at the bar. I didn't see him leave. And I didn't see him before he left on retreat, either."

                "So you came to London to forget about Peter."


                Pieces were coming together. "I had wondered what upset you so. You wouldn't talk about it and after a bit you acted like there was no problem. You seemed happy, then, and happy when we got married. You seemed happy, in fact, until you saw him again. Am I right?"

                "Yeah. I talked with him alone the afternoon we got back. I tried to thank him for letting me sort things out with my life, but he cut me off. He didn't want to hear it. His anger was obvious and it was also obvious he was very uncomfortable around me so I left."

                "But you two did start talking again."

                She shook her head sadly. "No, we didn't. And he wasn't coming in here like he used to."

                "Oh, come on, Assumpta. You think I didn't notice your late night meetings with him at St. Joseph's?"

                "There were no late night meetings, Leo." She was getting angry.

                "Don't lie to me. I saw you leave there and he watched you walk away."

                She had a blank stare for a few seconds and then she remembered. "Oh, that time. It's not what you think. I was out looking for you. It was you who had walked away. I couldn't find you so I was walking back to the pub when I saw Peter standing outside of the Church. I could see his expression in the moonlight and he looked totally knackered. I thought I would go see if there was something I could do to help. He didn't want to talk to me and was upset that I was even there. I apologized but he wouldn't hear of it so I left."

                "He watched you leave, though, and he looked anything but angry then."

                "How did he look?"

                "Like a man in love. That's when I knew we would never work out at least not as long as he was around us. Celibate or not, he clearly loved you… But he's been gone for a while now and it still is not working out with us." Leo finished his whiskey. "So, I think we should seek an annulment and I'll just go back to London and pick up the pieces."

                "Leo, I never meant to hurt you."

                "Well, you managed it all the same."

                "Leo, I'm sorry."

                "I'll just pack my things, shall I? I'll leave tomorrow."

                Around midmorning, Leo came downstairs, bags in hand. She didn't come over to him or say anything. He didn't either. Outside, Niamh came up to him and he told her he was leaving. She was shocked and asked him why. He merely said that rural life wasn't for him. She watched him drive off and went into the pub to clear this up but got no answers from Assumpta. She was lost in her own thoughts.

Chapter 4

                Peter had now been in England over two months. His mother's condition seemed to be stable, although he knew and the doctor kept reminding him that it could deteriorate at any time, sooner rather than later. Peter was thankful that God had given him this opportunity to be with her and give back to her in some small way all the care and love she had given him.

                It also gave him some distance from his vocation.

                One evening, his Mother had settled down early for the night. Peter poured himself a brandy and sat down in the living room staring off into space. Living again with someone only served to accentuate the loneliness he had experienced in Ireland. He kept pretty much to the same routine he had established as a priest - celebrating or attending daily Mass at a local parish - but, instead of ministering to an entire congregation, he focused on his Mother and her needs. Evenings were his time for reflection, meditation and prayer.

                Had he made any decisions about what he would do…after? No. Had he been keeping track of events in Ireland? No. That morning, he had called Father Mac for his required monthly check-in but the call was all business, no gossip. The only thing he had done was seek counseling from a vocations counselor, hoping that somehow, talking it through with a fellow priest would help him sort through this minefield of feelings. The only thing that kept coming back to him was that he had made a promise and he needed to keep it, if he could. He had convinced himself that Assumpta was now in his past, finished and he found that he could accept it. The distance allowed him to resolve it and move on in his life. But the question of vocation still hung unanswered.

                A few Saturdays later, the Cliffords were in full force at their Mum's place. Peter had been taking care of her during the week so his brothers came to take over for him on the weekend. He had gone for a long walk as had been his habit in Ireland. He passed a Church and went inside out of habit. He tried to pray but just sat there, lost in thought.

                There was a knock on the door and Andrew went to answer it. A very attractive woman was there, asking for Peter, and her Irish accent was definitely noticed. There was no question as to who she must be. Andrew invited her inside. She hesitated. Andy asked her if Peter was expecting her.

                "No, I don't think so. Look, maybe I should wait outside."

                "Why? It's rather cold and there's no place to be comfortable. Come on in. I'll make some tea so you can warm up."

                There looked to be a lot of people inside and she didn't want to intrude especially since she wasn't at all sure what sort of reaction she would get from Peter. In spite of assurances that she would be welcome, she said she would call back later. Away she walked.

                Andy wondered what went on in Ireland that Peter wasn't saying. She would not have come this far to see him if their relationship had ended as Peter as described. Peter had always been teased mercilessly about celibacy vs. the joys of women. (After all, what are brothers for?) Still, the presence of this woman would no doubt lead to an interesting situation for Peter. Andy could hardly wait.

                She decided to walk around the neighborhood checking out the place Peter had been raised in. There was a nearby park along the river that looked inviting. Passing through it, she came to a Catholic Church and went inside for a lark (and to warm up). She didn't think she'd run into Peter, but you never know.

                And there he was, off to one side, kneeling in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin oblivious to his surroundings. She stayed in the back, sitting in a pew, waiting, thinking. He arose perhaps thirty minutes later and walked to a confessional at the side. When it became vacant, he went in.

                It had never occurred to her that priests also went to confession. Maybe it was more for moral support since they were supposed to be above those sorts of frailties. She decided that it would be prudent for her to leave before meeting Peter here. This was his world, not hers. She had no right to intrude on this part of his life.

                About two hours after her visit, Peter returned home where he was attacked by his nephews who had been waiting to ambush him. They tackled him and then made him chase them. He followed them into the front room where they tackled him again. Andy told him, "You had a visitor."

                "Who?" Peter was rough housing with the kids becoming just a big kid himself.

                "A beautiful woman looking for you."

                Peter froze. A thousand thoughts sprung to mind. He asked his nephews for a time out. "And her name?"

                "Gee, big bro, you have that many beautiful women chasing after you that…" He caught his brother's expression. This was not a subject Peter wanted to be teased about. "She didn't leave her name but said she'd call later. She had a lovely Irish accent."

                With that news, Peter closed his eyes and shook his head. "What is she doing here?" he asked himself.

                "Looking for you, I said."

                Surprised that he had said that aloud, he recovered and commented cryptically, "Life is never simple, is it?" He called `time in' and attacked. He was definitely outnumbered.

                A little over an hour later, there was a knock at the door. Peter had been expecting it and immediately went to answer it. No words were spoken between them. Peter grabbed his jacket and said something about going for a walk, be back later.

                They walked in silence down the street. Peter finally broke it. "Assumpta, what are you doing here?"

                "Look, Peter, I don't want to interfere or become a bother or anything. I just wanted to let you know that I'm here for you if you want me as a friend. If not, just say the word and I'll be out of your life for good."

                Peter said nothing. They kept walking.

                She continued, "I do want you to know that we have filed for a divorce and that Father Mac will grant an annulment."

                He still said nothing. They kept walking.

                She was getting more and more uneasy about his silence. "Peter, say something, please," she begged. They stopped walking.

                Finally, he spoke very quietly. "You and Leo are divorced?"

                "Well, we've filed. But it will be final within 30 days since neither one of us is contesting it."

                "And you'll get an annulment from Father Mac? Has he agreed?"

                "Yes and yes."

                There was silence again for a short time as he debated with himself over what to say, what to do. "So why are you here?"

                "Because I wanted you to know that."

                "But why?"

                "I wanted to see you again. You left without saying goodbye."

                "Well, I'm sorry `bout that, but with mum…" Not quite the truth. As she would have said, he was being a typical Englishman…being economical with the truth.

                "I know." And she did know the truth.

                They started walking again in silence. Peter wasn't sure now what he wanted. Just when he had accepted that she would no longer be part of his life, she shows up, almost free and clear. But he did know one thing. "Assumpta, I'm not going back to Ireland."

                It was her turn not to say anything. She was hoping he would wish to return to the town he used to love at one point.

                He decided she needed an explanation. "I have to stay here and take care of my Mother. She needs someone with her. I also need some time for myself, to try and figure out what I want. All I know for sure is that I will stay here in England."

                "Do you want me to go back?"

                Peter was silent. She misinterpreted his silence and started to walk away. As she walked past him, he reached out and took her hand. "Please, don't go. At least not yet." That was all he needed to say. She turned to him with a questioning look. He broke into a smile and took her other hand before telling her, "You don't know how much I missed you."

                She smiled, "Oh, I think I might have some idea."

                "You want to meet my family?"

                "Why not?"

                He held her by the shoulders. "Well, I suppose it's time to face the music. My brothers will never let me live this down." His mood turned serious. "But I can't make plans for the future, Assumpta. Not now. I need to stay here. Do you understand?"

                "Yeah. Peter, the reason I came here is only as a friend and to let you know about Leo. I'm not asking you for anything. I'm just here for you if you want me."

                "This is not sitting on the fence," he reassured her.

                And she accepted it. "Father Mac mentioned something about your dissatisfaction with the priesthood."

                Knowing how keeping the truth unspoken fouled up their lives, he knew he had to be honest with her, at least, if not his brothers. "Well it is true." He dropped his hands and looked off into the distance.

                "Because of me?"

                "Partially, yes, but not totally."

                "Peter, can I ask you a question?"


                "What did you decide on retreat?"

                Peter laughed to himself and turned back to her. "I told you before it was to remain a priest. And it was. But it wasn't the whole truth. Since you and Leo have separated, I can tell you that it was my intent to remain a priest. And that resolve lasted until I got on the bridge and saw your pub. I knew then that I could no longer be a priest since it would mean not having you in my life." He let that sink in.

                She had thought that was what his decision might have been when she saw the hurt on his face when he learned she was married. "I'm glad you told me."

                "But, Assumpta," he reminded her, "I can't act on it. You're still married and I need to stay here."

                "I know. I know you need to take care of your mother. I won't interfere with that. I can wait. I've waited this long."

                "And, please, I really need to think all this through. So much has happened these past months that I need to sort it all out first. And maybe it should start by talking honestly with each other about our feelings and our fears. I don't want to keep making mistake after mistake anymore. But before that I really need time. Do you understand?"

                And she did. "Like you said, I'm still married but I do want to be with you."

                Once again, he embraced her. "OK. Then I'll introduce you to my family as a good friend. How's that?"

                They laughed and he turned her around. They walked back to his mum's house hand in hand. Pausing at the door, he asked, "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

                "Why not?"

                "I'm not sure I should inflict you on my brothers. They may not survive."

                She made a face at him. He kissed her lightly on the forehead and opened the door. "Here goes."

                His nephews once again attacked him but he asked them to wait until later. They walked away disappointed. Peter led her into the living room where his mum and brothers were. She was introduced as a very good friend from Ireland. Peter gave his brothers a look that if they said anything they would have him to deal with. But his family came through for him, welcoming Assumpta as they would have welcomed any friend of his. She was put at ease very quickly. His family was warm and loving unlike her own. Seeing how they all interacted, she saw the influences that Peter had grown up with. Contrasting what his childhood had probably been like with her own, she found herself wanting to be a part of his life even more.

                She watched Peter play with his nephews. Although he was often seen playing with the local children, this was different. He was as much a kid as they were. She laughed to herself. The perfect father, Niamh had called him. If she could see him now… There was no trace of Father Clifford here. This was the Peter that was rarely seen in Ballykissangel, relaxed and happy. It only increased her interest in him.

                After dinner well into the evening, Peter walked her back to her hotel. She invited him up and was amazed when he accepted.

                "Assumpta, I am glad you came." He walked over to the window. She joined him, putting her arms around his waist. He turned around and put his arms around her shoulders. "I do love you, Assumpta."

                She looked up and smiled, "I know."

                "I do need to take care of me mum, though. I can't leave her like this."

                "I'm not asking you to."

                "How long are you here for?"

                "How long do you want me to be?" she replied coyly.

                He smiled. "Forever."

                "Well, not yet. Niamh can manage to the pub for a few days, but I will need to get back in four or five days."

                "Fine." He still held her and they stood in silence relishing the contact. "I need to go." But he still held her.

                "Peter, you don't have to."

                He did manage a laugh. "Oh, yes, I do. That part hasn't changed."

                "Wishful thinking?"

                "Something like that." He kissed her on the forehead and then left.

                She spent the next days with Peter and his family. The warmth and acceptance she felt from them were greatly appreciated. If only she hadn't married Leo, she would have Peter right now. She resolved that there would be no more mistakes.

                Peter went with her to the airport for her flight back to Dublin. They really had nothing more to say that hadn't already been said. The phone company was going to reap the rewards of their separation, that much was certain.

                When Peter got back home, only his mother was there. They settled down into a daily routine. He cared for her, ran errands, took her to doctors and to Church. Most importantly, they talked and talked. The days went quickly. He wrote Assumpta almost every day. (Phone bills would get way too expensive.) The weeks passed.

                Assumpta received the package but wasn't able to open it until later in the afternoon when she had some time to herself. When she did, she was speechless. Peter had enclosed a note saying on paper what he couldn't in person and she tucked the note into her pocket. She put it on. It was a beautiful diamond ring in an old style setting. It fit almost perfectly.

                Since there was a lull in the bar, Niamh came into the office and noticed something. Pointing to it, she asked, "Where did you get that?"

                Assumpta was startled. "What?"

                "That diamond ring."

                "It was an inheritance." She really didn't want to say anything else.


                "Mine. Can't I wear it if I feel like it?"

                "Seems an odd finger to wear it on."

                Making a face, she did make a mental note not to wear the ring on her finger tonight. Maybe on a chain.

                Niamh was looking at her quite suspiciously. "There is a story here. Why can't you tell me?"

                And why not? "Alright." She handed her Peter's note and enjoyed watching Niamh's expressions as she read it. "Happy now?"

                She stared at her friend with a mixture of shock, disbelief and amazement. "I don't believe it. When's the wedding?"

                "Ah, that part's a little tricky at the moment. Peter is taking care of his mother still and will probably do that for the foreseeable future. But it looks good for sometime within the next few months."

                "At St. Joseph's?"

                "No, in England. Peter has made the arrangements."

                "You're planning to sell the pub."

                "Next month."

                "What will you do then?"

                "Go to England, of course. There's nothing keeping me here now besides you."

                "Well, congratulations. Very few people end up getting what they can't have. I'm happy for you…and Father Clifford, er, Peter. Is he still a priest?"

                "Yes, actually, he is, for now, I think. So would you like to be my bridesmaid?"

                "I'd be honored."

                That same morning in England, Peter's mother asked him when he planned to give the ring to Assumpta.

                Ever the practical son. "I mailed it to her."

                "Mailed it? How romantic," she commented dryly. "So when will you marry her?"

                "Sometime soon, not sure when."


                "At Holy Spirit. I talked Father Randall into marrying us."

                "He must have been shocked."

                "That's putting it mildly. But I explained everything to him and he supports me in my decision just as he did when I decided to enter the priesthood ten years ago."

                Then, one morning tragedy struck. As she was watching the morning news and Peter was fixing some tea, she had another stroke, a bad one. He quickly called 911 and then went to her. She was conscious but unable to speak. Peter was reassuring her, consoling her as best he could. She motioned him to bless her and he asked if she wanted last rites. She could shake her head and did so. He left quickly to get the stoll and oil. Fighting tears, he performed the ritual and then held her close to him, talking to her, praying for her, comforting her as best he could. By the time the paramedics arrived, Peter was the only one who could do anything because she had died in his arms. The paramedics took her body away to the morgue leaving Peter alone to begin making arrangements.

                Before he did anything, though, he let his emotions go. He knew he would not have that luxury later.

                Although he had had to make those awful phone calls before as Father Clifford, it was far different as one of the bereaved. Still, Father Clifford came through and he made the final arrangements. The mechanics of the situation helped him set aside his grief for a time.

                As the family and friends began to gather at the house, the brothers were kept busy. Of the five, Peter seemed to be handling it the best, at least on the surface. Liz was worried, though. She had gone for a walk with him and he was clammed up tight in his priest shell.

                Back at the house, the phone rang. Liz answered. It was Assumpta. Unfortunately, Peter was not around. "Did he tell you what has happened?"

                He hadn't, so she did.

                "How's Peter handling it?"

                "Like you'd expect. The perfect son. But he has to be dying inside."

                "Is there anything I can do to help?"

                "Maybe you should come here." Having her there was probably the only way he could keep it together. She said she would be there as soon as she could.

                Author's note:
                I know this is leaving things hanging a bit, but I still can't decide exactly how to end it so I will leave it up to your individual imaginations. Besides, it is going into territory already covered by many including myself.