A Cottage by the Sea
by Jane Elliot
She didn't die.
Peter didn't like to think about what might have happened if she had. He probably would have left. The church, the town. Maybe even the country.
But Assumpta lived. And Peter prayed.
(Later, when Assumpta is well, she and Peter do leave Ireland, as Assumpta has decided that she wants to see the world. Peter loves the idea, even if he can't talk her into staying in hostels. He does talk her into a night of camping, though. A single night of camping. Assumpta is happy to spend time outdoors, but she's very firm on the subject of indoor plumbing as a daily necessity.)
When Assumpta first opened her eyes, Peter was at her side, carefully holding one of her heavily bandaged hands. Her eyelids only slid open for a second, and though it might have only been his imagination, he thought he heard her whisper his name.
It would be months before she spoke again.
(Later, Peter finds that oftentimes he can't get her to shut up, and once he thoughtlessly comments on how nice it had been when she was still healing. He immediately tries to apologize, but she just laughs at him and kisses him on the mouth. He blushes, because he's still getting used to displaying affection in public, but his heart soars.)
Aside from serious burns on the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet, Assumpta appeared unhurt by the incident. No indication at all of the horrific damage within.
Most of her internal organs had been touched by the electricity, and for several weeks the doctors hadn't been sure she would survive. The only bright spot was that her heart had miraculously been untouched and the damage to her lungs not as severe as it could have been.
(Assumpta never fully relinquishes her contempt of the church, but Peter maintains until the day that he dies that her survival is a miracle from God.
His prayers always begin and end in thanks for that gift.)
Some people in town -- undoubtedly led by Brian Quigley -- whispered that the electrocution was justice, that Assumpta deserved punishment for tempting a man of the cloth to leave his calling. They didn't say it in front of Peter, of course, or in front of Niamh or Father Mac, but when his back was turned, they whispered and he heard.
He knew deep in his soul that Assumpta would never be able to heal in Ballykissangel.
(Later, they do return to Ballykissangel, and they find that time (and a series of priests that never quite fit in) does heal most wounds. Assumpta has all of the wiring in the pub replaced and Peter ends up teaching at the school after Brendan Kearney's first novel proves to be an runaway success.)
Surprisingly, Leo did not prove to be an obstacle. Apparently Assumpta had finally been clear enough or maybe he'd just tired of her vacillation. Whatever the cause, when Peter quietly presented his plan to take Assumpta away to recover, Leo supported Peter's decision over Niamh's vehement protests, signed the necessary paperwork, and helped make the arrangements.
Hard to believe that in the end Leo would be the most supportive of them all.
(Leo later goes to Africa, where he covers electoral violence in several struggling countries. He's shot in Zimbabwe and loses an eye and part of his ear, but he wins a wife and the Gellhorn Prize and considers the final weighing to be in his favor.)
And so Peter found himself in a cottage by the sea. The house belonged to a professor of his from the one semester of uni he took before seminary; it was a vacation home that the professor rarely used and under the circumstances he was more than happy to lend it to Peter.
For the first few days, Assumpta refused to leave the cottage's tiny bedroom. The burns on her hands and feet were deep enough that the doctors had considered skin grafts, but the placement was awkward and the wounds were healing well, so they agreed to let nature take its course. They were still heavily bandaged, however, making it impossible for Assumpta to take over even the most intimate aspects of her welfare. She never protested Peter's care, but she refused to meet his eyes as he fed her spoonfuls of soft food that her healing stomach could digest or when he carefully ran a sponge over her naked skin.
Peter spent most of these days in a perpetual blush and more than once wondered if he should have allowed someone else to take over these tasks. Yet Assumpta never stopped him and the very idea of giving over her care to another made his stomach clench. Eventually the blushes faded.
(Later, Assumpta insists that she be allowed to return the favor, and armed with a basin and a sponge, she takes great pleasure in each and every blush she puts on Peter's cheeks.)
Peter gave her a week to wallow in bed. By that point the sheets were in desperate need of changing and the bandages on her hands and feet thin enough that she could hold her own spoon and stand up if absolutely necessary. The weather outside was beautiful enough that a complete invalid -- which Assumpta was not -- could have no complaints.
He wheeled the chair into the room and began a long lecture on why she couldn't stay in bed indefinitely and how warm and bright the sunshine was and how fresh air could only do her some good.
Assumpta got up halfway through the speech and limped to the chair. Peter stared at her nonplussed, and he didn't think he imagined the small smile curving her lips.
(Later, Peter swears that Assumpta delights in catching him off-guard whenever possible. She smiles and denies nothing.)
After that, they started spending more and more time in the living room or the tiny porch attached to the side of the cottage. Sometimes they watched the telly, sometimes Peter would read out loud, and sometimes Assumpta just stretched out on the couch and watched silently as Peter went about his chores.
(Afterwards, Peter continues to read to Assumpta every evening. She has always preferred to read to herself, but when he picks up the book he keeps by the bedside each night, she leans into his side with her eyes closed and listens.
She usually lets him get in a chapter before distracting him in the best possible way.)
Things got easier between them as Assumpta grew stronger. Peter remembered that she'd never liked needing assistance, and did his best to allow her to struggle through on her own wherever he thought it would be safe.
They'd been at the cottage for over a month when Assumpta looked up from the simple lunch Peter had prepared for the two of them and said, "Thank you, Peter."
Peter's eyes burned, and for the rest of the day he found himself smiling at odd times.
(Assumpta never does learn to accept help gracefully. She delights, however, in giving Peter long lists of entirely random chores just to see if he'll do them. Most of the time, he does.)
They made love for the first time in the cottage by the sea. Assumpta still had tenderness in her hands and feet and Peter had wanted to wait, but she was adamant. He finally agreed on the condition that she let him take care of her.
It was far from being Assumpta's first time, and even Peter wasn't a virgin (he reminded her that he hadn't been born a priest; she just snorted in reply), but it had been over five years since he had done anything like this and so it wasn't a surprise that he came quickly. Assumpta just held him close and told him it was a good idea to take the edge off.
He spent the next hour making it up to her and she appreciated that as well
(Peter later learns that Assumpta prefers to be on top, because it allows her to be in control. She can use her mouth more from that position and her hands have a tendency to roam.
Peter finds that he doesn't mind this at all.)
One day Assumpta came out of her room with something in her hand. Peter frowned but reigned in his curiosity until she settled on the couch and made a great production of turning the object over and over with her fingers. Deciding that she must want to be asked, he sat down next to her. "What do you have there?"
She held the object up between two fingers and Peter had to fight to control his breathing. It was a wedding ring. Her wedding ring.
Not saying anything, Assumpta stood up and limped outside to the edge of the water. Peter followed of course, and Assumpta held on to him for balance as she flung the ring out into the ocean.
(They never do get married. Assumpta offers, and even makes an argument that since she didn't get married in a church, they can persuade the priest that the marriage didn't count. Or maybe they could marry in the Church of England, which isn't so picky about divorce.
Peter just smiles and shakes his head. Marriage is a contract between a couple and God and he no longer sees a need to have the church as part of that equation. He speaks to God just fine on his own.)