Peter walked down the familiar road until he reached number 48. The front garden was unkempt; the grass had not been cut, the borders were full of dandelions. The milk had been on the step all day, and there was a newspaper half out of the letterbox. He rang the doorbell and there was quite a long wait until his mother opened the door. When she did, Peter had to hide his shock; never a big woman, she was now so frail-looking that he was afraid to hug her hello. Her skin was pale, and she had dark shadows under her eyes. Her voice was weak, definitely that of an old woman now, a sick old woman. Peter could feel tears pricking the back of his eyes.
They were both determinedly cheerful, trying to behave normally; she made tea, and even volunteered to cook him a meal. Peter lied and said he had already eaten. They talked for a while; she told him all the news about the rest of the family, and Peter told her about recent happenings in BallyK. She looked exhausted, so as soon as possible he said he was tired and would she mind if he got an early night. She went up first, he stayed and washed the cups. Then he checked the doors were locked, and put the bolts across; his father always used to do that last thing at night.
He walked back into the kitchen and sat at the table, unable to shake off thoughts of his father. Theirs had never been an easy relationship; they seemed to lack understanding of each other at a basic level. When Peter told his parents he was intent on becoming a priest, his father was furious, believing he was throwing his life away. The ensuing row seemed at the time like a normal family disagreement, hot and painful but something that would be overlaid with other, happier interactions. Instead, it now lived in Peter's memory word for word, the biggest source of regret in his life. His mother had tried to mediate between her youngest son and her husband. Alan Clifford felt that she was taking Peter's side against him; he felt angry, bitter, and betrayed. After 35 happy years of marriage, his feelings for his wife changed; he still loved her, but somehow it could never be the same after that. It was a sadness to both of them.
With the ignorance of youth, Peter assumed that there would be all the time in the world to make things up with his father. Unfortunately they were equals in stubbornness. They were still barely on speaking terms when Alan Clifford had a fatal heart attack. Now, nine years later, and facing the loss of his mother, Peter cried for his father for the first time. When his tears were spent, he walked slowly upstairs to the room he had slept in as a boy; he lay awake for a long time.
Peter and his mother quickly fell into a routine. She behaved as though this was a sort of holiday, the kind of visit he hadn't been able to make since he was transferred to Ireland three years ago. Peter shopped, cooked, cleaned the house, and made sure his mother had the right medication at the right time, and got enough rest. Visitors came, carefully planned so as not to tire her too much; the family, Father Graham, her friends. She was fretting about the garden, so on fine days he took her chair outside, and sorted it all out under her guidance. They talked a lot, but at quite a superficial level; she didn't discuss her illness, and Peter didn't want to burden her with his problems. It was a strange interlude, slightly unreal.
He phoned Fr Mac several times, just to keep in touch, but didn't find much to say. Fr Mac's updates about events in Ballyk seemed remote and unimportant. It all seemed like another life, he couldn't imagine himself as part of it.
One evening when they were sitting quietly watching television, she said out of the blue, "You're not happy, Peter; and you haven't been for a long time now. What is it?"
Peter thought he had hidden his own personal crisis well; he certainly didn't want to burden her with it. "I'm fine," he said. "Really," he added, when she continued to look at him, obviously unconvinced.
"I'm your mother, don't lie to me." She smiled at him to soften the words. Suddenly Peter couldn't meet her eyes, and again he could feel tears starting. Helen reached out and took his hand. "You can tell me anything, Peter. Nothing you could say to me would make me love you less, you know that. I am worried about you. Please tell me what is wrong. I want to help if I can."
"You can't," he said, more abruptly than he intended. "No'one can. It's my problem and I have to deal with it, I am dealing with it. I can't talk about this, I'm sorry." He left the house and went for a long walk, only returning when he knew his mother would be in bed. She did not mention it again, but he could still sense her concern. In a strange way it made him angry; why did she have to make things worse, upset herself worrying about him? Things were bad enough already, surely.
Helen had seemed to improve the first week Peter was there, but after that her condition got worse. Peter wanted to deny it all, if he refused to believe it then it couldn't be true, but the practicalities of dealing with the situation would not let him bury his head in the sand. Pain relief became a big problem; Dr Cooper tried different drugs, none of which seemed to work for more than a few days. Soon Helen was only getting out of bed for an hour or so each day. The doctor suggested to Peter that he would find it easier if his mother was in hospital, but he knew she did not want that. So Dr Cooper arranged for nursing and personal care at home, which Peter was very grateful for. She had almost no appetite, so Peter's ingenuity was taxed finding something to tempt her to eat and keep her strength up.
The evenings were very long for Peter now, sitting alone in the living room while Helen slept upstairs, under the influence of the latest cocktail of drugs. He had the television on for company, with the sound low in case she called him, which she sometimes did. Each night before he went to bed he would go in and say goodnight to her, even though he was sure she didn't hear him.
One Sunday night, feeling a sudden need to get in touch with his other life, he rang Doc Ryan. Michael told him, among other things, that Assumpta's marriage was over. Leo had left. Peter gave Michael his phone number in England, and said would he tell Assumpta she could give him a call if she wanted to talk. After he put the phone down he started trying to justify it to himself: he would have done the same for any parishioner having personal problems; but Assumpta was not one of his congregation; but she was a friend; or was she? Were they still friends? Could they be friends now? The phone call, which he thought would ease his feelings of isolation, guilt and depression, had made him feel much worse. He dialled Assumpta's number, as he had done so many times before, but as always he put the phone down before it started to ring. If only he could hear her voice. But what on earth could he say to her?
It was quite late when he went upstairs to bed. He knocked gently and went into his mother's room. As his eyes got used to the darkness, he could just see the outlines of the furniture and her slight, still form in the bed. He sat on the bedside chair. Tears were starting again, and he suddenly felt useless; he was supposed to be caring for his mother, making her as happy as he could, and he was letting her down. She was worried about him, for God's sake; he was adding to her burden, not easing it.
Sitting there in the quiet dark room, crying, he whispered, "I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you, but I can't. I've let you down so badly. My life is a mess and I can't see any future. I have prayed and I have put my life in God's hands but I can't see a way out of this.
"I am too weak to be a priest, that's the truth. There's someone in Ballykissangel, someone I love. I can't get her out of my mind, I've tried, God knows I've tried everything, but it just gets worse. I haven't said anything to her, she doesn't know how I feel, that's something at least. Nothing wrong has happened between us.
"I never thought this would happen. And especially not with her, because I represent everything she dislikes most in the world. And she's so stubborn, we're always arguing. And she's an agnostic. And she's married. They were only together a short time, but that doesn't change the fact.
"And I know all of that but it doesn't make any difference to how I feel...
"I am just not strong enough, Mum - I need someone to love, someone to love me. If I was a real priest, I would be able to deal with this, put her out of my mind, focus on other things, get past it. But there's a hole in my life that nothing can fill, not the love of God, not serving my community. Only she can. And that's wrong. Everything in my life is wrong."
He sat quietly for a minute, then continued.
"How can I be a priest when I feel like this? I can't help and advise people when I'm such a mess myself. I can't in all sincerity stand before them in church...I feel like a liar and a hypocrite, just an empty shell."
"And now I'm losing you and I can't bear it. Instead of being strong for you, I'm falling apart in front of your eyes. I'm so sorry. Forgive me. Don't leave me." He felt ashamed; what sort of person was he, feeling sorry for himself and his own problems when his mother was dying? Thank God she couldn't hear him. He went to his room and lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling, unable even to pray.
The next day she asked for Father Graham to come, and they spent a long time talking privately in her room. Helen seemed happier after his visit, she said Father Graham had helped put her mind at rest. Peter was pleased, but felt even more guilty that he couldn't have done that for her.
Over the next 48 hours her condition deteriorated quite quickly. She was sometimes very confused, thinking Peter was her husband Alan, and that her sons were small boys. At other times she was quite lucid, but obviously in pain. Peter stayed with her day and night, sleeping fitfully in the chair by her bed. In the early hours of Friday morning, the sound of his name woke him. He answered her, but she didn't say anything more. He took her hand and held it. Suddenly he was moved to say, "I always thought you were the best Mum. Do you remember when I was little I used to bring my friends home if they were crying? It was because I knew you would make it better. You have always made everything better. I always knew you loved me, no matter what I did, and you always supported me and guided me. All of us. We built our lives on that foundation. And I don't imagine for a moment that any of us ever stopped for a second to thank you. So I'm thanking you now, for us all. I love you more than I can say."
There was no way to tell if she could hear him, but maybe she did. He wanted to believe she did. He sat there quietly, just holding her hand. He dozed again in the chair. Around 4am he woke again, aware of a change, but not sure at first what it was. He sat very still listening to her breathing. It became ragged, stopped and re-started. Then stopped again.
After mass on Sunday Father Graham asked him to stay behind for a few minutes. They talked about the funeral arrangements, and when they had finished Father Graham handed him an envelope and said, "Your mother asked me to give you this. I'll leave you to open it privately, but I'm just in the sacristy if you want to talk."
Peter opened the envelope and read the letter inside.
"Assumpta, it's Peter."
"Peter! How are you? How's your mother?"
"Um, she died. On Friday."
"Oh Peter, I'm so sorry..."
"Thank you. Um, can I ask you something? A big favour."
"What is it?"
"I really need a friend right now, Assumpta. And - I need to talk to you. And I don't think I could do that in Ballyk. Could Niamh look after the bar for a few days?"
"You want me to come to England?"
"Well, I suppose so, if that's what you want. But what about your family? What will they say?"
"Don't worry about it. Just say you'll come."
"Well, yes, okay. When?"
"As soon as you can? Ring me and let me know where and when to pick you up. You've got my number?"
"Okay, I'll wait to hear from you."
"Wait - Peter - are you all right?"
A pause. "Not too good just now."
"You take care. I'll see you soon."
"Yeah." He put the phone down.
Assumpta loaded the dishwasher while Peter said goodbye to the last of his family. It had been a very long day, with the funeral and then the - well, she wouldn't exactly call it a wake. People caught up with family news, talked about the weather, their gardens, property prices, golf, the stock market...Assumpta didn't hear Peter's mother mentioned once. The English way of mourning? Strange. The afternoon wore on, and she found herself thinking, for the love of God, will they never go? When she glanced guiltily at Peter she was sure she could see the echo of her wish.
Peter had simply introduced her by name, offering no explanation of her presence or her relationship to him. Everyone had politely accepted this without comment or question, but she was sure there were plenty of questions being asked now in their cars on the way home. Peter's sister-in-law Liz had taken Assumpta under her wing when Peter was busy elsewhere, and been warm and friendly and generally made her feel like less of an intruder, for which she was extremely grateful.
When Liz and her husband Andy left, Liz had hugged Assumpta and said quietly, "Take care of him, Assumpta."
The front door closed and Peter came into the kitchen. He leaned on one of the worktops, watching her. She carried on with what she was doing. After a long silence he said, "Want to go for a walk? I could do with some fresh air."
She looked up at him. He looked exhausted. She wished he would try and get some sleep, but that obviously wasn't going to happen any time soon, he was wound up tight. "Let's go," she said, and closed the dishwasher.
They walked down the long tree-lined avenue, and turned down a path and into a park. More trees, and a stream. It was late afternoon, the shadows were long and the air was pleasantly cool after the stuffy heat of the house.
"So, this is where you grew up?" Assumpta said.
"It's really nice."
He didn't say anything.
"I thought you were a city boy."
"Nope, suburban middle class, I'm afraid. My first parish was in the inner city, though. Drugs, gangs, prostitution, you name it."
"Must have been tough."
"We had to cover up our collars when we went anywhere. And try not to go out alone, although that's not really practical." She gave him a puzzled look. "Clergy bashing, you know?" he added in explanation.
"Happens in big cities. You go around looking like a priest, you get your head kicked in."
"My God, Peter! Did you ever...?"
"Yeah, once. I ended up taking a wedding with a black eye and a split lip. Must have looked great on the video."
She shook her head slowly. "No wonder you were so happy when you arrived in Ballykissangel. You were like a child in a sweetshop." She smiled fondly, remembering his transparent pleasure at his first sight of the village and the church.
He remembered it too. That first day, when she had given him a lift. That glorious valley. The beautiful church, so warm and welcoming, obviously cherished by the community. The tiny village. He had been nervous at first, a stranger in a strange land, but soon he grew to love the place and the people and he could never have imagined, in those early days, that he would come to this.
"I'm not going back," he said softly.
Assumpta stopped walking, shocked. He stopped too, but didn't look at her.
"We'll...we'll miss you." Her stomach was a cold lump inside her. How could she live there if he was gone? The bar, the village, everywhere would be full of his absence. He finally looked at her, registered the distress on her face.
"I'm sorry. All I seem to be able to do lately is upset people I care about." He reached out and took her hand. "Assumpta, I do care about you. And I have gone past the point where I can convince myself that friendship is enough." She was aware of small sounds; a distant car, someone calling a dog, the wind in the trees. "I don't know how you feel about me, but either way, I can't go back there."
"Peter, are you saying you never want to see me again?"
"I'm saying that I love you." She just stared at him. He dropped her hand and stepped back. Fixed his eyes on a clump of daisies near his feet. "Okay, I guess this is the part where you say, 'you're a good friend, Peter, but...' Maybe we can just take that as read, yeah? Spare both our feelings." He started to turn away. She grabbed his sleeve, held on.
"No, Peter, that's not true. I mean, yes, you are a good friend, but you're more than that. You always have been. I just thought it was impossible, you and me. I didn't think you would ever..."
"It's not impossible. Not easy. But is it what you want? You and me?"
"Yes, it is what I want. As long as you're sure."
"I'm sure", he said. "But we have to make it right..."
"Niamh, have you got a minute?"
"Course. What is it?"
"How would you feel about looking after the pub again? Now that everything's sorted out, the annulment I mean, I've decided to leave Ballyk for a while."
"Oh! Well, good for you. I'm glad you've made up your mind at last. Where will you go? Dublin?"
"Then I take back what I said. The last person who went there didn't come back."
"Niamh, Peter was English!"
"So? He was one of us all the same. You'll come back though?"
"I don't know, Niamh. It depends."
"Is there someone special there? Is he the one that phones you?"
"I'm not the only one that's noticed. You're all glowy after you get a call. Come on, tell."
"Well, yes, there is someone. But it's early days. I'll tell you all about him if it works out, okay? Let's not jinx it."
"Just make sure I get an invitation to the wedding this time."
Once again Assumpta found herself stacking the dishwasher after a Clifford family gathering. A happier occasion this time, Christmas. The brothers and their families had always come 'home' for Christmas day, and still felt that instinct to gather together, even though their mother was gone. Assumpta had co-hosted the day, and shared the cooking with Peter. This time she felt much more confident; she still didn't know his family very well, but now they all knew that she was Peter's girlfriend, and she felt secure in that. After everyone had gone, she looked back over the day, and judged it a success. And she was pleased that she had been able to relax and enjoy it.
She couldn't believe the changes in her life, and in Peter's too. After a couple of false starts, she now had a good job managing an "Irish" pub, and was renting a flat not far away. Peter was well settled into a teaching job. They had both made friends through work, some of whom were now mutual friends. They had a good social life. Peter was involved with a number of things at church, and was always being approached to do more, but he chose carefully and would not let anything encroach on his time with her. At the moment he was co-leading a course designed to introduce, or re-introduce, people to the Christian faith. The group met every Wednesday night. She had wondered when it began if he would invite her to come. He didn't, and she was glad.
When she looked at Peter now, she could see again that happy optimism she had warmed to when she first met him. She had watched it fade gradually as he struggled to the end of his life as a priest. These days there was something else, an added dimension. He seemed fully content, that lost, bewildered look she had sometimes seen in his eyes was gone.
She had never had a relationship anything like this before. She loved him so much. They had their arguments, of course, and there had been a period of adjustment for both of them when they first got together, but there was nothing damaging, they just had different views about some things. Normal. She had even cured herself of sniping at the Church; she had had to bite her tongue a few times early on, but it was easier now. They had discussed their respective views on religion, and agreed to differ, and with goodwill and a good deal of effort on both sides that seemed to be working. She trusted Peter totally, and knew he would always be there for her. That feeling she had always had, that it was her against the world, had evaporated almost without her noticing; there was nothing to fight any more.
Peter was still living in his mother's house, which belonged to him now. His mother had left him the bulk of her estate, because he was the only one of her children without a six-figure income, and, he suspected, because she thought he was likely to be facing hard times starting a new career. But in the event it hadn't been too hard, there was always a shortage of science graduates. And he had found he really enjoyed teaching. He had wondered about selling the house and buying something smaller, but thought he would postpone that decision; there were others to be made first.
Assumpta finished loading the dishwasher and set it running. Peter was leaning on the worktop again, coffee in hand. He put the mug down as she came and put her arms around him and kissed him. He said, "Thanks for today. It was great."
"I enjoyed it," she said. "And I understand now why you said you wouldn't go back to Ballyk if we got together."
"Can you imagine what it would have been like? The priest and the publican. Endless gossip. And too much pressure on us to make it work. We'd have been under a spotlight. I wanted us to have time and space to do all those things that normal couples do, going out together, getting to know each other properly. And thanks to you, we have done just that." He kissed her, then stroked her hair and looked into her eyes. "Tired?"
"Well, what with someone dragging me to midnight mass, I didn't get a lot of sleep last night."
"You wanted to come."
"Yes. Actually, I did. But don't start thinking I'm going to make a habit of it. Anyway, you go to mass enough for both of us."
He held her close and smiled to himself. She had been to church a few times since coming to England, just for special occasions, like weddings and christenings. Maybe she would come back to the Church one day? Probably not, but that was okay. He loved her just the way she was.
She pulled away a bit and then kissed him again and said, "I love you. I'm so happy. There's just one thing that would make this a perfect day..."
"You know what." She snuggled up close to him, half joking but half serious. She was pretty certain he wouldn't let her stay the night, however much he might want to. She reluctantly accepted that he didn't believe in sex outside marriage, and so they tried to avoid situations which would prove too tempting. But it was very difficult sometimes. Like this evening. They had had a lovely day together, and she was feeling really close to him. Sometimes her desire just wouldn't be ignored. She kissed him, a serious kiss. For a few exciting moments he went with it, but then she could feel him start to resist. Not going to happen tonight, then. Ah well. Moving away, she sighed and gave him a rueful smile. "You're going to call me a cab, aren't you?"
"Yes. Today I am."
Interesting choice of words, she thought. "What does that mean?"
"It means that I hope we won't always be living five miles apart."
"Well I can't afford to live around here."
"Oh, well, maybe we'd just better call it all off then...or..."
"We could get married."
Her heart leapt. She laughed and said, "Is that your idea of a proposal?"
Smiling, he took both her hands. "Assumpta, you have made me happier than I've ever been in my life. I love you, and I want to be with you, I want my future to have you in it. Please, will you marry me?"
"Yes, Peter, I will."
He still called her a cab, though.
Peter re-filled Assumpta's wine glass. "Can you believe this is really happening?" he said. "This time tomorrow we'll be married."
"It's pretty unbelievable when you think where we were before. I thought you would never get off the fence. Three years! Then out of the blue I get this phone call, will I come to England. Then you tell me you love me, and promptly start laying out demands. If I want to be with you I have to get an annulment, and live in England, and respect your beliefs...I was amazed at you."
"I was amazed at myself, to be honest."
"So what happened? Why the change?"
"It was my mother."
"You talked to her."
"No. She wanted me to, but I couldn't. I was so unhappy then. Really messed up. When I look back now..." He shook his head. "I knew I had to do something, fix my life somehow, but every way I turned there seemed to be barriers I couldn't see past. Mum wouldn't give up, typical of her, so as I wouldn't talk to her she wrote me a letter. The priest gave it to me after she died. In it she told me to decide what was really important in my life, the things I wanted most, regardless of whether they seemed impossible at the time. Then focus just on those things and do whatever was necessary to achieve them. Her letter gave me the strength to break out of a situation that was damaging me very badly. I was losing my faith in people, in God, in myself. But knowing that she had faith in me, that she wouldn't be disappointed in me, whatever choice I made, was enough to turn me around."
"Well done your mother. She was a clever woman. And she obviously loved you very much."
"Yes. And while we're handing out well-deserved praise, you have been wonderful. I had nothing to offer you, no promises, no guarantees, but you left your home, your friends, everything." He smiled at her. "Not many women would emigrate on the promise of a date."
She said seriously, "Yeah, but Peter, I could have put my life back the way it was if things hadn't worked between us. You couldn't. Once you left the priesthood..." She shook her head. "You made a big leap of faith."
"I have no regrets."
"So, what were they?"
"The things you wanted most?"
"To marry you, in the Church. To keep my faith in God. To practise my religion."
"I believe that everything else flows from that. But what about you? Sometimes I wonder if I've just made you do what I want."
"Peter, you've never made me do anything I didn't want to. I'd like to see you try!"
"Are you sure?"
"You were honest about things that are really important to you. And I accepted the whole package, because I wanted to, not because you made me. I could have walked away any time. I didn't, because I love you, exactly the way you are."
"You won't change your mind? Leave me at the altar?"
"Well, I've spent all that money on the dress, and I can't really use it for anything else, can I? And then there's the reception - I hate to miss a good party. Although we could do like Niamh and have the reception without the wedding..."
"Assumpta," he said, pleadingly.
"Ok, ok, I'll be there. You know I will," she laughed.
They sat quietly for a while, then Peter said, "It's been great having Ambrose and Niamh here, hasn't it?"
"Yeah. And it's lovely to see them happy. They had a bit of a bad start. I was worried for a while."
"They've both done a lot of growing up."
"So has Kieran! I couldn't believe it when I saw him."
"It's made you a bit homesick, hasn't it? Seeing them again?"
How did he know? She hadn't said anything. "A bit," she admitted.
"Would you like to go back to Ballyk one day? To live, I mean?"
"Well that's not possible, is it?"
"Well, what would people say, for a start? And what about your job, and the house?"
"People can say what they like. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Anyway, it will be an old story, won't it? Even Kathleen couldn't get much mileage out of it. Work could be a bit difficult, there's nothing for me in the village, but I could look for something within driving distance. I'd rather not sell this place, but we can let it."
"What about you? Do you want to go back?"
"You know I loved it there. Well? What do you think?"
"I think it would be wonderful."
"Then we'll make it happen," he said firmly. "What?" he added, seeing her smile.
"So decisive! I'm impressed," she said, gently mocking.
"I know, I must have driven you crazy in Ireland. But now that we're together, I feel like anything is possible. I love you so much, Assumpta."
"And I love you."