Peter put a brimming pint glass in front of Brendan. "There ya go."
"Even after all this time, I still get a faint urge to say 'Amen' when you do that."
"Well, suppress it please, Brendan. You know Assumpta doesn't allow sacrilege in the pub. And we don't want to upset the new priest."
Brendan smiled; Assumpta wouldn't recognise sacrilege if it bit her on the nose. "What do you think of Father Vincent then, now he's had time to settle in?"
"I like him. I think he'll be good for the village."
"Yeah - Aiden was all right, but he wasn't exactly - dynamic, was he? Didn't make a lasting impression."
"He should have got married. That certainly makes an impression."
Brendan laughed. "You gave them something to talk about, all right."
Peter and Father Vincent had hit it off straight away. Peter admired Vincent's robust, straightforward manner. Where he himself would have thought and worried about how to approach a problem, Vincent seemed to just sail straight in. And it worked, more often than not. Even with Father Mac, it seemed. Peter was starting to think that Father Mac had enjoyed picking on him, just because he could. He did not think Vincent would stand for too much of that.
Vincent had heard all about Peter and Assumpta initially from Kathleen, and later from Peter himself. He admired their courage in staying in the village and facing up to the gossips. It couldn't have been easy. They seemed very well suited, and clearly they were very happy. Good for them. He thought, he hoped, that Peter would become a close friend. And it was good to have someone to talk to who knew all the ins and outs of being the curate in Ballykissangel.
Vincent came into the pub several times a week, mainly to be sociable it seemed, because he didn't drink. As Peter had before him, he would sometimes have lunch there. When they got to know him better, the regulars had started teasing him, saying watch out for the publican, she has an eye for a priest. Assumpta played along with them, she liked Vince and found him very easy to get on with. Peter found himself feeling - what? He wasn't comfortable with the joking, but why? Thinking about it, he realised that his problem was that Vincent was an intelligent and attractive man, and Assumpta liked him. Peter had never felt jealous before, and he didn't like it, it was painful, and it made him feel bad about himself. He resolved he would try not to let it happen again. Vincent and Assumpta were friends, just as he and Vincent were friends. There was nothing more than that. But a small part of him said, yes, and she and I were just friends once...
Once awakened, the feeling wouldn't go away. Suspicion was starting to become part of his daily life. Peter found himself wondering, was Assumpta always where she said she was? Against his will, hating himself, he started quietly checking up on her. And he would mention Vincent sometimes, and watch her reaction carefully. Peter thought he knew quite a bit about people and could spot deception at 10 paces, and he never detected any in Assumpta; but somehow no amount of reassurance was enough. Then one afternoon he came in and found Vince drinking tea with Assumpta in the kitchen. They were chatting happily, quite relaxed in each other's company. Peter felt a rush of irrational anger, and was short with both of them, so that Vince was embarrassed and left.
Peter hated the way he was feeling and behaving. He loved Assumpta so much, how could he think about her like this? Why couldn't he trust her? He wanted it to stop, but he couldn't stop it himself. He was praying about it every day. He didn't know who to turn to for help. He was too ashamed to talk to Brendan, even more so Father Vincent. Father Mac? Not in a million years. He could just see Father Mac's smug 'I told you so' look; he had always said they would have problems. Peter remembered their wedding reception, full of joy and celebration, clouded only by Father Mac, who as he left early said quietly to Peter, "I give it five years. At the most." Someone in the family? Maybe, as a last resort. But in the meantime all he could do was keep trying to deal with it himself. At least I haven't said anything to her, he thought, at least she doesn't know.
Assumpta was in the kitchen when she heard the door open. Good, a customer, she could use the distraction. Lately, whenever her mind was not fully occupied she was worrying about Peter. She walked through to the bar and saw Vince, bedraggled from the rain. She smiled at him. "Thank goodness, I was beginning to think the whole town had emigrated to somewhere sunny and not invited me."
"No, you're all right, they're still here. Some of them more in body than mind perhaps..."
"Now what did I tell you about talking to Donal?"
They chatted for a while, but Vincent could see Assumpta had something on her mind. Mentally re-jigging his schedule, he accepted another coffee he didn't really need, and left room in the conversation for her to open up if she wanted to. Just as he was starting to give up she said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course. Ask away."
"Well, you're a priest...so I thought that maybe you would have some insight into how Peter feels about leaving the Church."
"What's worrying you, Assumpta?"
"Well - I think he has regrets."
"Why would you think that? Has he said anything?"
"No, but he wouldn't. He'd never say. But he's not happy, and I'm sure it's my fault. Oh God, Vincent, if I've made him do something he's sorry for I'll never forgive myself..."
"Just hold on a minute, you're leaping to conclusions from a standing start here, aren't you? First of all, you didn't make him do anything. He made his own decision."
"But what if it was the wrong one? Wrong for him? He was a good priest. It was all he ever wanted. He took those vows for life."
"Assumpta, have you spoken to him about this?"
He looked at her enquiringly. She said quietly, "I don't ask the question because I don't think I can live with the answer."
"I thought you had more guts than that, Assumpta," he said with a smile.
"What!" Assumpta wasn't sure if she was furious or amused. It was always hard to be angry with Vincent. "Is this your standard priestly pep-talk, Father? If so, you may be ready for a refresher course."
He just looked at her, the smile still in his eyes. "Well? Are you going to make yourself miserable wondering what's on Peter's mind, or are you going to do something about it? Talk to him. Tell him how you feel. Ask him how he feels. Can that be worse than what's going on now?"
"Maybe not." Her confidence was so badly undermined that everything she said to Peter now felt unnatural and forced. The easy loving closeness had gone. In bed at night she was hesitant to reach for him, she waited for him to turn to her. And increasingly often, he did not.
Vincent watched her. It was clear how much she loved Peter. And any fool could see that Peter loved her just as much. How could they have got into such a tangle?
Suddenly Assumpta reached her decision. "I'll do it," she said firmly. "I'll talk to him today. As soon as he gets back from Cilldargan." She felt a lot better. Vincent was right. She and Peter would sort this out together. She began to wonder why she had let it go on this long without doing something positive. Well, that would end today.
"Good." Vince was pleased to see the nervous indecision leave her, it was not like the woman he knew. "Peter's a good bloke, I like him a lot. How did he end up here? It's a long way from home."
"You're a fine one to talk, aren't you? At least Peter managed to stay in the same hemisphere."
As their coffees got cold she told him about Peter's arrival; the naïve city boy out of his depth in Irish village life. His first day, marked by the first of many run-ins with Father Mac, and an unexpected television interview. She went on to tell Vince how Peter had day by day been friendly and willing to learn, and given his best efforts for the community, so that eventually most of them had stopped thinking of him as a foreigner and just accepted him as a good priest and, to many of them, a good friend. When the street door opened they were laughing about Peter sticking the glasses to her tray for the publicans' race.
Peter opened the door on his worst nightmare. Assumpta was sitting on one of the bar stools, next to Vincent. She was looking at him with such love, and that beautiful smile, when had he last seen that? She was happy and relaxed. Not too long ago he had made her happy. As she heard the door and turned and saw him, her expression changed.
"Oh, hi, you're back." She was flustered and her cheeks were getting pink. "We were just...talking about..."
"I got all the stuff, it's in the van. I'll unload it later, okay?" Not waiting for an answer he turned and headed out of the door.
"Where are you going?" Assumpta asked, jumping off the barstool.
"For a walk," he said, and was gone, the door shut firmly behind him.
"It's pouring with rain," Assumpta said weakly to the empty doorway where he had been.
"Talk to him," Vincent said, and he paid for his coffees and left.
It was late when Peter came back. Assumpta had closed the bar and was clearing up. Without a word, he hung up his coat and started to help her.
She spoke gently, not wanting her words to seem like a reproach. "Where have you been, Peter? I was worried."
"Were you?" His voice was cold; he had never spoken to her like that before and it hurt. He added, "I didn't think you would miss my company."
"What? What do you mean by that?"
Looking at him properly for the first time she realised with a shock that he was wet and shivering. The rain had gone right through his coat. She went to him and touched his hand, and his cold damp shirt. "God, Peter, you're chilled. Get upstairs now and into a hot shower, and put some dry clothes on. You'll catch your death." Without a word he went upstairs. She carried on clearing up, listening for him, but he did not come back down.
The light was off in the bedroom. She took off her shoes in the doorway, and went in quietly, undressed and slipped into the bed beside him. He had his back to her, and she could tell by his breathing that he was not asleep, but he did not speak or move. She lay in the darkness, wide awake, aching with misery; she had ruined his life, he was sorry he had married her, sorry he had abandoned his vows. What possible future could they have now? Slowly she became aware that Peter was crying. Trying not to, and trying not to let her hear. She turned to him, put her arm over him and said, "Peter, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." And Peter, believing he was hearing her confession, believing he had lost her, felt his heart break, and turned to the person he loved more than his own life, and clung to her, never wanting to let her go.
Father Vincent missed Peter at mass for the next two days. As soon as he got the chance he went into Fitzgerald's to ask after him. Assumpta was making a dispirited token effort at drying glasses while Brendan, Siobhan and Padraig chatted at the end of the bar. They greeted him as he came in.
"Afternoon all. Assumpta, is Peter about? Oh, here he is," Vincent said as Peter came through the door from the kitchen carrying three plates on a tray. "All right, mate?" Peter barely glanced at him, and just said "Hi." He served the food to Brendan, Siobhan and Padraig, took their money and gave change. Vincent waited, puzzled. Assumpta looked awkward. When it looked as though Peter was going to go back into the kitchen without a further word, Vincent said, "Actually Peter, I came to see if you're okay. I've been missing you at mass. You're my only weekday customer who's under 80. It's a real bonus to see someone in St Joe's who has their own teeth and hair."
"I've been busy." It became clear that no further explanation would be forthcoming. Brendan was looking at Peter with a slight frown of concern.
Vincent shrugged. "Fair enough. I'll - er - see you when I see you, then."
Peter nodded and went back into the kitchen. Vincent stood in front of the bar, nonplussed. Assumpta came to life a bit, remembering her role. "Uh, what can I get you, Father?"
"Nothing, thanks, Assumpta. I'd better get off." He added quietly, so the others couldn't hear, "Did you talk to him?" She shook her head.
"Why not?" he whispered.
"It's not that simple." Vincent made a face - why? Just then some tourists came into the bar and she went to greet them. Vincent said goodbye to everyone and left.
Later Brendan asked Peter to go fishing with him, something they did every few weeks. Not that Peter knew or cared anything about fishing, but the two enjoyed each other's company and Peter enjoyed the countryside. Niamh took the opportunity to speak to Assumpta alone.
"Okay. Tell me. What's wrong with you and Peter?"
"What? Oh. Nothing. Just a difficult patch. Everybody has them, don't they."
Niamh stared at her, head on one side. "This is me you're talking to. What's happened?"
"Oh Niamh...Father Mac said this would happen, and he was right. God, I hate him."
"What did Father Mac say would happen?"
"He told me about priests. When they are ordained, it's forever. Ok, you can do like Peter did, and get released from your vows, but it doesn't make you a lay person, it just means you're a priest who doesn't do the job any more."
"So they take their vows knowing that. It's for life, Niamh. And Father Mac said that Peter might very well regret leaving. Apparently a lot of them do. But by then it's too late."
"You really think Peter is sorry he left the Church?"
"Well look at him, Niamh! Does he look happy to you? Does he look like a man whose new vocation of pulling pints and washing dishes and cleaning toilets is bringing him joy and fulfilment?"
"Assumpta, those things aren't important. He loves you, that's what matters."
"You think so? He did love me, Niamh. I do know that." She was choking with tears now. "But I don't know anything any more."
Niamh held her while she cried.
It was sunny and peaceful beside the river. A perfect late-summer day. Peter hadn't said a word, and Brendan, who could see him starting to relax slightly, left him in peace. Peter lay down on the grass, and the next time Brendan looked at him he had dozed off. Good, Brendan thought, he needs a bit of rest by the look of him. Brendan carried on quietly fishing, and after a while Peter sat up again, and they talked intermittently about nothing in particular, as they usually did on these occasions. They fell silent as Father Vincent came into view.
"Hello Brendan, Peter. Lovely spot you've got here. Mind if I join you?"
"Hello Father," said Brendan. "Actually, I've just remembered - I promised Siobhan - I didn't realise the time - I'd better get back. I'll see you later Peter, Father."
Peter realised at once he had been set up for something. He waited to see what it was. Vincent sat down beside him on the bank. "Did you catch anything?"
"I don't fish. I just go fishing."
"Oh, right." Makes as much sense as anything else I've heard lately, Vince thought.
"What can I do for you, Father?" Peter said.
Peter obviously wasn't up for small talk. Straight to business, then. "Peter, please don't think I'm interfering, but Assumpta is very worried about you."
Silence. Vincent carried on. "She thinks you are sorry you married her. That you regret leaving the Church."
"She's been talking to you about me?" There was anger in Peter's voice.
"Only because she thought I might understand what was going on with you. Because we have this in common." Vince pointed to his collar.
"Why didn't she talk to me?"
"I don't know. See, that's exactly what I don't understand. She's not talking to you, you're not talking to her. Why?"
No answer. "Is she right? Do you regret leaving the Church?"
"I could never be sorry I married her. I love her. More than anything in the world."
"So tell her."
"It's not that simple." Now where have I heard that before, Vincent thought. Why did these two have to make things so hard for themselves?
"Of course it's that simple. Just do it."
Peter looked Vincent straight in the eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
Vincent was a bit confused by Peter's question. "Because I want to help. As your priest, but most of all as your friend."
"My friend." Peter's voice was flat.
"Peter, have I done something to upset you?"
Peter studied Vincent, and could see no guile in the man. But he knew what he had seen in the bar. Assumpta's face had told the story.
"Telling Assumpta I love her won't help if she is in love with someone else."
"But she's not. You know she's not. She loves you, Peter."
"You have no idea how much I wish that was true."
Vincent couldn't keep the exasperation out of his voice. "Exactly who is she supposed to be in love with?"
Peter just stared at him in silence.
"Me? You're crazy!" Then Vincent remembered Monday afternoon, and Peter's reaction to finding him with Assumpta. Suddenly everything fell into place. "Is this about the other day?"
"I saw the way she looked at you. I saw her face, Vince. I know her, better than anyone. Give me some credit, I'm not stupid."
"Aren't you? Peter, for God's sake, she was talking about you. She sat on that bar stool for half an hour telling me what a great bloke you are, how clever, how kind, how funny. You can walk on the water, mate, as far as she's concerned. A solid half-hour of 'I love my husband' is what it amounted to. And I was glad to hear it. You and Assumpta are made for each other, anyone can see that. Well, anyone except the two of you, obviously."
As Vince spoke he could see the life come back into Peter. He got up quickly. "Vince...I..."
Vincent waved him off. "Later. Go and talk to your wife." Peter needed no second bidding.