Assumpta realised she hadn't seen Leo for quite a while. He had said he was going to work on an article. She thought she'd go up and see if he wanted a coffee or anything. She pushed open the bedroom door. His laptop was on the desk, with just half an opening sentence on the screen. The chair was pushed back, his sweater was over the back of it. Of Leo however there was no sign. He'd gone again without a word. Was that three or four times this last week? Suddenly determined, she took his sweater and went out to find him.
Half an hour later she decided to give up and go home. It was cold and getting late. She walked back down the hill, past the school, past the gate of St Joseph's. Glancing towards the church she saw Peter standing alone outside the door, looking up at the sky. She knew him well enough to see how unhappy he was. As she watched he turned and went inside, head down, moving slowly. Without stopping to think she hurried into the church after him.
"Want to talk about it?" Her voice sounded over-loud in the large empty church.
Peter started, he had been lost in his thoughts, and sure that he was alone. He turned towards her. "What?"
"Whatever's got you looking so knackered."
Peter looked at her thoughtfully, and then said "Yes. Yes, I do have something to tell you."
"What is it?" Assumpta sensed something serious.
"Everyone else will know tomorrow at mass. I'm leaving. Going back to England."
Assumpta felt her stomach lurch. "What? I mean, why? When?" Out of her dismay anger flared. "It's Father Mac, isn't it? He's not going to get away with this, we won before and we will again. People in this village are not going to...."
"Assumpta." For a long moment they looked at each other and the truth was there, unspoken. They both knew this was not about the village or Father Mac. Peter said quietly, "It was my suggestion. I'm going back to my home parish. I think it's for the best."
"When do you leave?"
"Tomorrow. There's a job waiting for me."
Tomorrow he would be gone forever. She could feel her throat tightening, tears stinging her eyes. "How long have you known about this?"
"A while. A few weeks."
Why hadn't he told her? He always used to tell her things. But he'd been avoiding her since she came back from London, and when she had tried to talk to him he had been distant, unwilling even. She had thought that by marrying Leo she could sort her life out, but keep Peter's friendship as well, and it hadn't worked out that way. That had hurt, but not as much as this.
"So this is it, then. This is goodbye." She did her best to make her voice normal, not very successfully.
"Yes. It is." To her surprise he came and gave her a hug. "Take care of yourself, Assumpta. Be happy." She stayed in his arms, he didn't seem in a hurry to let her go. Then she realised that he was crying. She hugged him closer, wishing with all her heart that things could be different. Then he pulled away, whispered, "I'm sorry", and started to walk away, towards the sacristy.
He stopped but didn't turn.
"Take me with you." She couldn't believe she had said that, it had come straight from her heart without conscious thought. But she wasn't sorry.
He turned to her and said, "Assumpta...you don't know what you're saying. What about Leo?"
"It's over. It, it never really started...."
"But you're still married. And I'm a priest."
"I know...but both those things can be changed. If that's what you want."
He just stood looking at her, and she couldn't read his expression. She could feel her heart racing. She had always sworn to herself that she would never do this to him, make him chose. She took a step towards him and reached out her hand.
"Peter, we wouldn't be the first. Or the last."
He didn't take her hand, and she slowly let it fall. He closed his eyes and a tear ran down his face. Then he looked at her again and said gently, his voice catching, "That doesn't make it right."
She wanted to shout at him, to say 'For God's sake Peter, you talk about doing the right thing, but you're just hiding behind that collar again, because you're too weak to make a decision for yourself. You need someone to tell you what to do, and that's exactly what the Church is best at, you're made for each other. For three years you couldn't bring yourself to either be with me or let me go. Every time it got too real you'd run and hide. If I hadn't married Leo, you would still be playing your games with my life.' But she had always known this about him, and she loved him still. And so the bitter words were left unsaid. Her anger collapsed, leaving only the hurt and the pain, and when she spoke her voice was soft, barely above a whisper: "Go then."
She turned and walked slowly towards the door, listening hard above the echo of her footsteps, hoping to hear her name. But he said nothing. Out in the fresh cold air, she ran and cried, cried and ran.
When later, cried out, she went back to the pub, she found Leo dejectedly nursing a beer. She didn't ask him where he had been, she didn't care. It really was over. There was no reason to carry on the pretence of a marriage. It would be best for both of them to draw a line under it now. "Leo, we need to talk."
Half an hour later Leo was on his way to Dublin.
She knew she wouldn't sleep, so she sat listening to some music, and catching up some of the paperwork for the business. When exhaustion hit, she looked at the clock and found it was nearly 4am. Definitely time for bed, and she was so tired she might even sleep. She was just dozing off when the phone rang. Her first thought was that it must be Leo. Her heart was racing, but habit took over as she answered, "Fitzgerald's."
There was a pause, then Peter's voice: "Did you mean what you said?"
Her heart leapt. "Yes."
"Then come with me now."
Her mind was racing. Common sense was saying, what about the pub, her home and livelihood, and Niamh, and Fionn, but as they streamed across her consciousness she knew she could and would leave them all. Everything could be sorted out later, but this had to happen now.
"Assumpta? Speak to me, please...."
"Yes. I mean, yes, I'll come."
She could hear him sigh with relief. "I promise I won't let you down."
"You'd better not", she replied, smiling. "You'll never get to heaven if you break my heart."
"We'll take your van, my car is out of action. Come and pick me up as soon as you're ready. Bring your passport." He put the phone down.
Assumpta couldn't think straight, she found herself spinning around the place without achieving anything. Suitcase, start with the suitcase. What to take? Still her brain wouldn't work properly. Eventually she just put in whatever came to hand, stopping when the case was full. Credit card, cheque book, don't forget those. Passport, God, where was that? The desk was a mess when she had finished rummaging. A note to Niamh. What to say? After a few false starts, the final version said, "Niamh, I'm going away for a while. Can you look after the pub and Fionn? Sorry about the short notice. Don't worry about me, I'm fine. I'll ring you as soon as I can. Assumpta." She slipped quietly out of the front door and across the road to Niamh's. Opened the letterbox silently, slid the note through. Then back to lock the pub and put her case in the van. The doors sounded loud in the still night. Start the engine, and up the hill to the little house below the church. Peter was standing outside the front door, a rucksack at his feet. He walked towards the van, and she got out. He took both her hands. He looked pale, it was obvious he hadn't had any sleep either.
"Assumpta, are you sure this is what you want?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"I love you."
"I know. I love you too."
She put her arms around him. He was shivering, and only partly
from the cold, she thought. If ever anyone needed a hug...he couldn't be
more scared than her, though. They moved apart slightly, and he gave her
a small smile, she could see he was just starting to believe that this
was really happening. Then breaking away she said "Come on. You can
drive," and got back into the van on the other side. He put his bag
in the back, got into the driver's seat, and the little blue van pulled
away, drove up the hill, and was gone.
"Peter, if you've changed your mind, it's okay. I'll take you to the airport and go back home. No one will ever know."
He looked over at her, puzzled. "Changed me mind?" he said. "Whatever makes you think I've changed me mind?"
"Well, you haven't said a word to me since we got into the car."
"I've been thinking about all the things we have to do!" he said. "Assumpta, how can you think....? I love you! I finally got up the nerve to say it, to do something about it, and here you are thinking I've changed me mind?"
"Peter, pull over."
He did, stopped the car. The roads were still empty at this early hour. "What?"
"Would you kiss me, please? Once?"
He began to laugh and reached out for her hand. "I don't think I can," he said.
"What, kiss me?"
"No," he said tenderly, "kiss you once. I think if I start to kiss you, I'll never stop."
"Try," she said, loosening her seat belt and leaning into him. He tipped her face up and kissed her, gently at first, and then with growing passion. Finally, he pulled back. "See?" he said breathlessly.
She smiled. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see." She rebuckled her seat belt. "Okay, drive on, but try thinking out loud, will you? Tell me what we're going to do."
The sky gradually lightened, though the rain didn't let up, but the little van was cozy and warm. They drove on, outlining plans, raising questions. Flight? Ferry, so they could have the car in England? London. Lawyer for her, to file for annulment. Organization of ex-priests for him, to seek speedy release from his vows, get some vocational counseling. Jobs. Calls back to Ballyk. Calls to his brothers. All of the possibilities, the plans, shared. Things to get done, together. A future, together.