Merry Christmas

by Lynne


***** Do You Hear What I Hear? *****

It's a few weeks before Christmas and Niamh is awake in the middle of the night with Kieran, who is getting over a cold. Finally asleep, she thought, as she glanced down at him and covered him with the blanket he had thrown off. He may be asleep, but now she is wide awake. She shivers slightly and just wants to get into her warm bed next to Ambrose. She had left a CD of rock and roll Christmas music to help Kieran fall asleep. She had decided not to enquire too closely of Ambrose as to why her son had developed an affinity early on for rock music, but he had. Whatever works, she thought. On her way out of the room she turned the player off, but then stopped with her head tilted to one side. Why was she still hearing music? It sounds like sleigh bells of all things. I'm hallucinating from lack of sleep, she thought to herself.

She glances out the window and stares as she sees coming through the falling snow, down the middle of the road through town, reindeer. They are strung together with lead rope like in a dog sled. What she heard was the bells that are attached to each of the halters on the animals. Going in front and behind are several people bundled up warmly against the night in colorful ethnic looking clothes, and they have bright red caps on. She stares down the street after they have passed out of sight.

The next morning, Saturday, Assumpta is making her way slowly and carefully down the stairs, watched closely by Peter. She is under strict orders not to attempt the stairs on her own anymore, especially going down. She is heavily, hugely pregnant, with only a few weeks to go until her due date, which just happens to be December 25. She didn't get much sleep last night either, but that's because she can't find a comfortable position to sleep in. Peter starts making coffee for the morning crowd.

The door opens and Ambrose and Niamh come in carrying Kieran, who is 18 months old now and talking up a storm. No one can understand a word he says yet, except his Grandda Brian. Niamh is helping at the bar during these last stages of Assumpta's pregnancy. Peter glances up and notes that they are arguing, again, not that there is anything unusual about that, Peter thought.

"I was not dreaming," she says to Ambrose "I know what I saw, and heard. Reindeer came through the middle of town last night." She had woken a sleepy Ambrose up to come and see, but by the time she got him to the window the snow had covered any tracks, it was coming down very thick by then.

"What?" says Peter in surprise.

Assumpta comes out from the kitchen and says thoughtfully, "You know, last night when I couldn't sleep I thought I heard something too, but I couldn't be bothered to heave myself out of bed to go see what it was. It did sound like bells though."

Padraig had come into the bar while the conversation had been going on and joins in the conversation. "Now come on, if Niamh says she saw some reindeer, then I for one believe her."

"Thanks Padraig," says Niamh with a defiant look at Ambrose.

Padraig asks Niamh, "Can you do me a special favor Niamh? I'm kind of embarrassed to ask," he says in a confidential manner.

"Sure Padraig," Niamh asks concerned "anything, what is it?"

"If you see Santee Claus as well will you put in a good word for me?" The rest of the bar erupts in laughter, except Niamh. She never did have much of a sense of humor if it was directed at her.

Siobhan comes in and sits down, obviously half-asleep. She doesn't usually show up at the bar for breakfast, but she has just come back from a sick animal visit. She is propping her chin up with her hand, eyes closed, waiting for the coffee, listening to the conversations around her. "Ah, they're here then," she says.

 "What? There are really reindeer in Ballykissangel?" Ambrose asks skeptically.

Siobhan replies, "Oh sure, Brian told me to expect them and give them a look over once they get here, didn't he tell you Niamh?"

"No, I wish he had. It would have saved me having to convince this git." She refers irritably to her husband.

"What does Brian Quigley want reindeer for?" asked Peter. "Is he starting a reindeer farm here in Ballyk?" No one there seems to know anything about it.

Brendan has just come in with Aisling, he has been watching her while Siobhan was out on the call. Aisling rushes to Siobhan, "Mummy!" No matter how tired she is, reflects Siobhan, the sight of this precious little face makes it all worth it. Just at that moment Siobhan, Niamh, and Assumpta all give huge jaw-cracking yawns.

Peter, Ambrose and Brendan all look at each other. "Right," says Peter, "everybody off to bed. Siobhan you can sleep in the guest bed upstairs, you're dead on your feet.

"Go on," says Brendan to Siobhan, "please," he adds when he sees the mutinous look on her face. "I'll wake you if anyone has any emergency veterinary needs."

"Go home love," says Ambrose to Niamh "get some sleep."

"You too," Peter says to Assumpta, in a no nonsense tone of voice. He had learned that with Assumpta he had to pick his battles and then not back down. He knew she wouldn't need much convincing, she was worn out from the pregnancy. Assumpta would never admit that she kind of liked not having to be the one in charge all the time, she let Peter think that he was winning the skirmishes, but she knew she had won the battle. They were married, weren't they?

She gave Peter an unexpectedly big smile, kissed him, said, "Alright Peter," meekly, with a wink at the rest of the bar patrons, and went to move past him. As Assumpta tried to move past Peter behind the bar, she realized she had a major problem. She tried turning one way and then the other, but Peter had to practically crawl on top of the counter for her to get by, much to the amusement of everyone else.

***** Go Tell It On The Mountain *****

Liam and Donal are at the field Brian Quigley has purchased to build his life-size crèche. Liam is irritated, he's been trying to reach Brian on his cell phone. Donal is sitting around the space heater with two young men in red felt caps who happen to be the Laplanders Brian Quigley has brought, along with the reindeer herd, all the way from Finland for his latest scheme. The plan is to build a replica of the manger scene of the birth of Jesus, bring in the reindeer, get a sleigh and dress someone up in a Santa suit. Then busloads of tourists from as far away as Dublin will come pouring in to have their picture taken with real live reindeer and the children will get to sit on Santa's lap. He conveniently skipped over the fact that Santa wasn't actually at the birth of the blessed savior, but that was a minor detail in Brian's mind.

Liam and Donal had been working on the building for weeks, and had only kept it a secret because Brian had promised each of them a big bonus if they did. Now it was finished, the reindeer and Laplanders were here, they just needed to start bringing in the tourists and collecting the money.

Brian finally shows up bringing food for the men. He orders them to get bales of hay in there, and string the rest of the lights up. "And put on that Santa suit," he tells Liam, "I'm bringing some people by later, so get ready."

Donal is chatting away to the Laplanders, and somehow they seem to be understanding each other. Donal has the gift. Things get especially chummy when one of them brings out a bottle of Russian vodka they brought with them.

***** Silent Night *****

A few hours after the conversation in the bar, Assumpta has been able to get a nap and is now on her way to see Doc Ryan for an antenatal checkup. Ambrose is driving her as he has business out that way and Assumpta can't fit behind the wheel of the car anymore. Peter had worked it out with Ambrose ahead of time so he could finish getting Assumpta's gift ready.

He had been building a crib out in the shed. Even though he was a city boy, he had learned to use tools during seminary from one of the priests who thought all the young men should know how to work with their hands. I'm thankful for that training now, thought Peter, looking proudly at the beautiful but simple crib he had built. It had been his secret project for months, Assumpta had not been allowed to peek inside the shed, but she was immensely curious about it.

I can hardly wait to be able to breathe again, thought Assumpta. It seemed like the baby was pushing her lungs up into her throat, and she was so huge! People seeing her come down the street looked alarmed. She had more than one tourist ask if she wanted them to call a doctor, or emergency transport, or something.

On the way to the doctor they passed the new curate's residence, Peter's old residence. So many memories as she drives through town. So many good memories now of places she has been with Peter. She remembers the first night they spent together. It's a memory she treasures because it was the first time Peter kissed her. They had been taking care of a newborn, just not their own. And Peter could, and did, kiss her anytime he felt like it. He refused to be embarrassed about it either, let everyone think what they wanted to, he was through hiding how he felt. Assumpta had to say she loved it, and admitted to herself that the look on Father Mac's face when Peter kissed his very pregnant wife was worth all the grief that man had given them.

Assumpta's thoughts went back to that night with Peter and the baby that had been abandoned on the priest's doorstep.

It had been very late when Doc Ryan had left. Peter and Assumpta were alone with a newborn infant. Fortunately, the doctor had brought a few things for the baby, formula, bottles, diapers, and a baby carrier for the social workers to use. Peter walked back into the kitchen to where Assumpta was holding the baby, asleep for now. She glanced up at him with an awkward smile. It was the first time they had been alone together since the play rehearsal. Assumpta admonished herself, thoughts like that wouldn't help her get through this night, alone with Peter. Well, almost alone. Assumpta wondered at the desperation that made a mother seek this as a solution for an unwanted pregnancy. Poor woman, she probably felt she had no choice.

 "Why don't you move to the living room? The sofa is more comfortable." Peter had suggested, "I'll fix some coffee. This little lad is asleep now, but he'll wake soon enough when he gets hungry. It was fortunate for me you knocked at my door to see why the doctors car was here," he added. He admitted to Assumpta later that he probably could have taken care of the baby on his own for a night, but he wasn't about to tell her that. He liked having her around.

"You seem to know about babies, have you been around them much?" asked Assumpta as she carried the sleeping form to the living room.

"Being a priest, off and on. Me mum used to watch a neighbor's baby for her when I was in high school, I would help her sometimes. She said I had a natural affinity, I suppose that's true. I love babies," he added wistfully. "And you? Any experience with babies?" he asked.

"Nope," Assumpta replied, "never even been around one. I did some babysitting as a girl, but always for older children. This is a new experience for me," she added with a smile at the baby in her arms.

Peter had made coffee and Assumpta had continued to hold the baby. She was surprised at how comfortable she felt. But then she had always felt comfortable with Peter, and safe. They had started to talk comfortably together about anything and everything. Peter was telling her about a visit he had made to a parishioner, old Sean Thornton, he was a lonely man who loved to play checkers when Peter came to visit. Part of her mind was on Peter and part on remembering the last time they were completely alone together. When she had almost kissed Peter in the play rehearsal, the scales had fallen from her eyes and she had seen Peter, and herself, in a completely different way. She had known from the day she picked the new curate up from the rain on his first day in Ballyk that she liked Peter Clifford. She still remembered the disappointment she felt upon learning he was the new priest.

A few hours later, Assumpta woke up to find Peter watching her asleep on the couch next to the baby. They had both woken up a little while later when the baby started to cry, he drank a little formula, but nothing they did after that seemed to calm him down. Peter glanced outside, the rain had stopped and the summer evening was not too cool.

Peter picked up the baby carrier and said, "Come on wee man, we're going for a little drive. I remember my own mum saying a car drive often calms a baby down and gets them to sleep," he added to Assumpta, "what have we got to lose?" They had packed up the baby paraphernalia and driven off. Assumpta was more than willing to go for a drive in Peter's car with him, she had always loved doing that.

After a while the baby fell asleep and they stopped the car at a spot that overlooks the Wicklow valley. There were a million stars in the sky, the night was silent and still. Assumpta had been thinking about the time Peter had given her a ride in his then new car and they had stopped in this very spot for a while, just talking. They had talked that day about their own respective families.

Assumpta still remembered every word of their conversation that night. Assumpta had studied the night sky and asked, "Do you think about it, a family of your own? I mean, I know you're a priest, but you're human too."

"Ah, I've been promoted," Peter replied, trying to keep the atmosphere light.

"Do you Peter, ever want what you can't have, a family?"

Somewhat uncomfortable, he shrugs. "Sure."

"And what's stopped you?"

He doesn't answer, and she repeated her question. "What's stopped you?"

He hesitated. "Me."

"Why, what are you afraid of?"

"Nothing," he had said, looking up at the stars.

"Peter....?"

"Assumpta, we shouldn't be having this conversation."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm still a priest."

Now why did he say it that way? Assumpta remembered thinking, `still' a priest? Did he think that was going to change? "So what do you want that you can't have?"

He is silent for a moment, then gestures with his hand. "This, I suppose."

"This?" she is confused.

"Being alone, with you. We could be any married couple out for a midnight drive trying to calm their fussy baby."

"Yeah," says Assumpta quietly "imagine that." Which is exactly what she had been doing.

"Look," he stands, "I'm not supposed to put myself in situations like this. Alone, well almost," he says with a glance at the car and the sleeping baby, "late at night, with a beautiful woman."

"You think I'm beautiful?" she had asked, with no trace of coyness.

"Oh yes," he said.

"Peter," she put her hand on his arm. "What do you want that you can't have? The truth."

She remembers the long moment he took then, he had straightened up from where he had been leaning against the car and turned to her, then he reached out to touch her face and bent forward, kissing her gently on her mouth.

"That." Her eyes had widened.

"Peter....."

"We have to go, Assumpta."

She reached out to him again. "No, we don't."

He looked at her. "Oh, yes we do."

Assumpta shivered at the memory of that kiss. That had been the beginning for them, or the culmination, depending on how you looked at it, of the immediate attraction they had felt for each other the day Assumpta had given him a ride in her car. Lucky day for me, thought Assumpta.

A few minutes later Ambrose pulled up to Doc Ryan's office and helped Assumpta out of the car. "I've got some official business to take care of, I'll pick you up in a half hour?" He looks questioningly at Doc Ryan.

"That'll be fine Ambrose, see you later."

A little while later Assumpta walks out of the doctor's office in complete shock. Ambrose finds her standing outside the office door just staring off into space. He pulls the car up and gets out to help her into the car.

"Assumpta, are you alright? Assumpta?" When she doesn't respond he asks with concern, "Assumpta, not bad news I hope?"

Assumpta finally seems to see him and asks him, "Ambrose do you remember when you told Peter that you thought being a Gard was a lot like being a Priest? You know, confidences and secrets?"

"Yeah, why?" asks Ambrose, puzzled.

"Well, Gard Egan, I have a big secret for you to keep, at least for a little while."

***** What Child Is This? *****

It's mid afternoon and Assumpta is back from the doctors appointment. Peter asks her how it went and she says, "Fine, just fine, everyone healthy. Um, Peter can I talk to you in the kitchen?" she asks.

"Sure," responds Peter.

Assumpta tries to pass him again behind the bar and Peter has to back all the way out for her to get through. He leans forward across her bump and kisses her. "There's not room for the three of us anymore behind here," he says.

Assumpta turns to head into the kitchen, smiles to herself and says, "Four."

Peter has been asking Brendan how Siobhan is doing handling motherhood and her veterinary practice and doesn't quite catch what Assumpta says. "What that, love?" he asks.

She turns to him and says with a big smile, "Four."

"Four what?" asks Peter, still not getting it.

"Four of us back here."

Peter looks bewildered. Assumpta and Brendan (who caught on immediately) look at each other and roll their eyes. "Was he this dense when you were trying to catch his eye?" Brendan asks with a wink.

"You've no idea Brendan," replies Assumpta, getting into the teasing, "practically had to throw myself at him. I could have shouted it from the roof tops and he wouldn't have understood."

***** Away in a Manger *****

Brian Quigley shows up at Fitzgerald's very excited, he says he has a surprise for Kieran. He wants Peter and Assumpta to come too, and invites everyone there to come out to see the surprise he has planned for the town.

"What about the pub?" asks Niamh.

"It won't kill you to close it down for an hour, it's the middle of the afternoon anyway," responds her father, "ah come on, it's a Christmas surprise".

Niamh agrees and goes to call Ambrose to bring Kieran.

Brian is clearly eager for everyone to see what he has planned, and he is looking forward to seeing Kieran's face. "Come on Brendan and Siobhan, you bring Aisling, she'll love it. Guaranteed," says Brian.

Peter exchanges a look with Assumpta who shrugs. He asks Doc Ryan if it's OK. Michael knows Assumpta needs a distraction right now.

"It won't do any harm, it's only a few miles on smooth roads. But just for an hour mind you, then right back home. Twins are often early, you don't want to be caught out on the road."

"Oh, but you're coming too, aren't you?" asks Assumpta.

"Oh sure, why not, might be fun."

They arrive at the field where the tableau is being set up. As people get out of their cars and walk around the structure that has been built they see a beautiful sight. Liam and Donal have done a magnificent job with decorating the manger building. They built it large to accommodate a large group of people, to keep them sheltered from the wind. It had three sturdy walls with a peaked roof onto which a shining star had been fixed. The Christmas lights gently twinkled in the
dusky light. Some of the reindeer were quietly eating hay and there is a baby Jesus doll in the manger. Kieran and Aisling are absolutely enchanted and rush forward to pet the reindeer.

Assumpta, Peter, and the rest follow, clearly impressed.

"I have to hand it to you Brian," says Peter, "this is beautiful. Did you build all of this just for Kieran?"

Brian explains his plans to Peter and Doc Ryan. The parents of Kieran and Aisling are busy keeping them from burning themselves on the space heaters, being bitten by reindeer, tearing down the decorations, pulling the arms off the Jesus doll, the usual.

Assumpta meanwhile has followed the sound of something she can't identify and goes to look behind some bales of hay. She finds Liam in a Santa suit, Donal dressed as an elf, and two other young men she doesn't know in red felt caps, all asleep and snoring, obviously drunk from the vodka. She starts to laugh, holding her stomach. Suddenly she gasps, doubles over, and looks down at her legs.

Peter glanced around, looking for his wife. He didn't like to let her out of his sight for very long these days. He is still reeling from the news that there are two babies about to be born. Unbelievable! Last year at this time he was completely miserable, thinking he was a failure as a priest, suffering with what he thought was unrequited love for Assumpta, feeling guilty for her failed marriage to Leo. Not a happy time. And now look at them! Doc Ryan said it was not very common, but not unheard of for a second baby to be lurking behind the other one. Even with modern tools like ultrasound machines.

He spotted her, bent over near some hay bales, apparently looking at something on the ground. A split second later he realized something was wrong with the way she was standing there and moved very fast to get to her side. When he saw the look of pain on her face and the spreading water stain on her slacks, he called out urgently, "Michael, come quick, I think Assumpta is in labor."

Assumpta had sunk to her knees, her legs unable to support her body any longer. The contraction was very strong, and very painful. She looked up at Doc Ryan when he appeared at her side with a look of fear on her face. His training as a medical doctor immediately took over, one look at her face and he was ordering the reindeer out of there and calling for blankets. It had been dusk when they arrived at the manger and now the wind was picking up. Brendan and Ambrose took Aisling and Kieran to feed them at Ambrose's house while the other men unceremoniously dragged and dumped the limp bodies of the drunk men into a sheltered corner and left them there. They then built up a wall of hay to keep the breeze out and moved the space heaters closer. Niamh and Siobhan brought blankets from their cars, and Siobhan has plastic sheeting from her van.

Siobhan commented to Michael with a smile, "This is usually my job, delivering babies in outdoor sheds." Everyone smiled at that, until Assumpta cried out with another contraction, which were coming very close together now. Siobhan wasn't a human doctor but there wasn't anyone Doc Ryan would rather have at his side to assist in this delivery.

Peter pulled Doc Ryan aside for a moment. "Michael, I'm scared, what about complications with two babies? "

"Don't worry Peter, we've called an ambulance. Both babies appear to be turned head down, they should be just fine," he said, with more confidence than he felt. But he knew the expectant father's fears had to be managed as well as the mother's.

Assumpta turned wearily to Peter between contractions, "Well I guess they won't be born on Christmas Day, just as well, their birthdays won't have to compete with the big day."

"It's alright love," said Peter, wiping Assumpta's forehead and gripping her hand at the same time. He has never felt so completely helpless. He started to pray fervently.

A surprisingly short time later, Assumpta was being bundled onto the ambulance trolley for the trip to the hospital in Cilldargan. Both babies appeared to be perfectly healthy, they were nearly full term after all. A boy and a girl, Stuart Peter and Grace Assumpta. Peter glanced away from talking to Niamh about arrangements to manage the pub. It was an image he would never forget, Assumpta holding their newborn twins under the twinkling star over a manger building. He started humming the melody of "Joy To The World" under his breath.

***** Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town *****

Christmas Eve, and one to remember, thought Niamh. They have just returned from a Christmas Eve party at Fitzgerald's. It was an especially joyous occasion as they were celebrating the arrival of Ballykissangel's newest residents, Peter and Assumpta's twins. Finally back home that night, Niamh again breathes a prayer of thanks for their safe delivery. She has just checked on Kieran and tucked the blankets around him. She glances out the window, the night is cold and clear. Suddenly, she does a double take as she looks high up into the sky. Is that? Could that be? Not reindeer again. Only this time they are pulling a sleigh holding someone in a red suit and long white beard. She rubs her eyes. Still there. Well now, they really won't believe this, she thinks, and goes to bed.