The last three months had without a doubt been the hardest in Peter's life. It had begun with the realization that he truly wasn't necessary. The people of Ballykay could get along quite easily without either his moral leadership or counsel. Firmly on the heels of that, he realized that he had lost the fight to control his feelings for Assumpta. She was all he ever thought about. Every time they were alone for more than a few seconds he felt as if he were perched high on a wall that had begun to crumble away. Still, he had tried to be the good priest. He had even allowed Fr Mac to talk him into going on retreat. In the weeks away he had been able to convince himself that he wasn't really in love with Assumpta, that she was only a physical weakness. He had returned to Ballykissangel smugly certain in his ability to withstand her temptation. He had hardly been back two minutes when his illusions were shattered and he had to come face to face with reality. The only thing that had changed while he was away, was that Assumpta no longer patiently waited for him, willing to accept and settle for his meager offerings of platonic love. She had married Leo McGarvey. When Peter heard the news it was as if the floor had suddenly fallen away beneath him. Everything was lost. He wandered about Ballykay in a half-trance. If anyone noticed, he wasn't aware. The only time he truly came to his senses was when he was in the total grip of anguish over losing her. He quickly found that he had to avoid the pub because seeing Assumpta and Leo together tore him apart inside. He found himself mesmerized, like a passerby at a traffic accident, watching the complete and total ruin of his life. He kept imagining how it must be between them and wishing it were himself and not Leo with her. He thought he might simply go crazy. If it hadn't been for the urgent summons to Manchester he might have.
His mother's sudden illness had rescued him from one hell and delivered him into the pit of another. For three weeks he sat by her bed watching her grow weaker and weaker. For all his beliefs and life of denial he could change nothing. His mother died. Unable to stand it another second, he stumbled down the halls to the hospital chapel. Hours later he tried desperately to remember how he had come to believe that he had been chosen for the church. One of his earliest memories was the dining room wall at home. A large crucifix hung there, along with a picture of the Pope and his great uncle Frank. Frank had been his mother's favorite uncle, a priest who had died a hero during the war. Though he had been dead twenty years before Peter's birth he was spoken of in nearly mythic tones. The perfect priest, who had died heroically trying to save fellow prisoners in a Japanese prison camp. By the time he had started school Peter dreamed of becoming a Priest the way other boys dreamt of being heroes on the cricket pitch. Peter felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at his mother's Priest.
"I know this is a difficult time for you, Peter, but don't let it shake your faith in the church."
Peter listened dutifully to the older priest but he already knew it was too late. It had been since that rainy day nearly three years ago when he had climbed into Assumpta's van. He had known for a long time that he could never be that saintly priest going through life on bended knee, sustained only by faith and prayer. Only one image had kept him going these last terrible weeks, Assumpta. He didn't know how he could do anything about it but he knew he had to try.
The wake was interminable. Peter tried to be a good host, briefly chatting with each of his mother's friends but his heart wasn't in it. He had known most of them his entire life, but they seemed distant, somehow more comfortable with his brothers and sisters. He had no way of knowing if it was because he had been gone so long or it was another reaction to the collar. Whatever the reason, he felt terribly alone.
The only bright spot he had all week was the call he had gotten from Michael Ryan. Michael had called to relay condolences from everyone in Ballykissangel and then as if he sensed Peter's acute need to connect, he had gone on with little bits of news. Brendan had finally admitted to all and sundry, in other words the patrons of Fitzgerald's, that he was the father of Siobhan's baby. News that had driven Fr Mac fairly wild, but because the teachers now had a union there was absolutely nothing he could do. Kevin's goat had been up to no good again and Ambrose had issued a warning to the boy. Finally, Assumpta was once again on her own. Leo having left departed permanently for parts unknown. Peter had felt his heart take a tiny leap at the mention of her name. He knew he would make it through. Peter looked around the room. There must be forty-five people, all of them smoking, drinking and eating. Finally desperate for something to be doing, he took a tray from the kitchen and began collecting empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays. When he was on his second trip through the room his mother's bridge partner bustled up to him.
"Whatever are you doing, Father?"
"Training for a second career." he quipped. The old woman's face froze at the levity. Images of the night he had done the same at Fitzgerald's popped into his mind. He and Assumpta sitting together afterward sharing a bottle of wine, the tension higher than usual between them.
"Don't you ever want what you can't have?"
He felt a terrible ache in his heart as he remembered her words. He should have taken her in his arms right then, not wasting the last two years. He shouldn't have let the church or anything else stand between them. It wasn't a mistake he was going to make again. Suddenly he was very homesick. The noise and the smoke forced him back into the kitchen. He puttered about, loading the dishwasher, cleaning the counter, Assumpta's words on a continuous loop playing over and over in his head.
"Don't you ever want what you can't have?"
Peter thought about the crowd in the other room. It was early afternoon the house wouldn't clear out for hours. He picked up the phone and began to dial. He was half way through the number when he had a better idea. It didn't take him long to pack. He pinned a note to the cork board by the phone. It said only, 'Had to go, love Peter.' He knew his family would find it odd that he had left so suddenly and without saying goodbye but it no longer mattered.
"Don't you ever want what you can't have?"
"Yes, I do." Peter said aloud.
He remembered none of the trip, it was like he was on autopilot. He had walked out his mother's backdoor, backpack on his shoulder, then he was standing in the blessed rain in Cilldargen waiting for the last bus to Ballykay. He didn't know the driver or either of the other passengers but even so he felt more at ease with them than with any of the people he had left behind in Manchester. It seemed as though he could take full breaths for the first time in weeks. The bus dropped him across the street from Fitzgerald's and rumbled off. The street was unusually dark and quiet. Peter was surprised to find the pub door locked. He checked his watch. No where near to closing. He rattled the door handle and tapped on the window. Nothing. He quickly began to panic, a million catastrophes running through his mind. He knocked firmly.
A familiar voice laced with sarcasm called out. "Can't you read...we're closed."
In Peter's haste and panic he hadn't even noticed the sign. He smiled warmly and realized he had been holding his breath.
"Even for old friends?"
Assumpta was shocked to hear his voice. He had been on her mind all day.
"Peter!" she asked incredulously.
The door rattled as the locks were released and it swung open. Peter wanted to drop his backpack and swoop Assumpta into his arms there and then but his natural reticence still held him back.
"Lo, 'Sumpta" he said breathlessly.
Assumpta was surprised at his sudden unannounced appearance but she was suddenly happier than she could have said to see him. The last few months had been equally as hard on her because she cared as deeply as he, but she knew it was hopeless. She didn't believe that Peter would ever be able to leave the church or even bend his principals enough to allow her into his life as anything more than a friend. When he had gone to be with his mother she'd had to accept a great many things. Not the least of which was her marriage. What a fiasco! Leo, she quickly realized had just been a way of protecting herself from Peter's ambivalence and ultimately a way to spite him. Poor Leo. And as Peter's absence had stretched into weeks she began to fear that she would never see him again.
But there he stood, much as she had seen him the first time, carrying that same backpack fresh from the rain. As always her first instinct was to reach out and touch him but as always she didn't. She had decided, one of those long sleepless night after he had left, that if he ever came back to Ballykay it would be the way that he wanted ...only friends, no matter what it cost her. Peter, there, even if it was only as a friend was a thousand times better than the stark loneliness her life was without him.
Peter looked around the dark pub. "Forget to pay the bill or has Ambrose finally shut you down?"
"I wish it were that simple...It's the electrics.....they've been acting up for weeks."
"Want me to take a look?"
"Unless you were an electrician before you joined the church it won't do much good."
"Sorry, I took a degree in astronomy."
"You never fail to amaze me...but I don't think that would be much help. Besides Brian has already been down there."
"Says I need a whole new system."
"Ouch! When is he going to start?"
"He's not. I can't afford $1000 to replace everything."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"Find someone to patch it."
Peter looked at her. Nothing ever really changed in Ballykay or Fitzgerald's.
"How about a room?"
"Peter, there's no electricity!"
"I promise not use any power tools while I sleep."
"Sumpta, I'm homeless...You know that Brian has rented out my house again."
Assumpta hesitated, she knew it wasn't a good idea. As much as she had missed Peter in the last few weeks, she was afraid that with just the two of them under one roof she might inadvertently say or do something that ruined her resolve. It had been too hard won to chance. Still the prospect of being alone with him was worth it. Besides she had always found it difficult to tell Peter no. She surrendered and waved a hand at the key board.
"Take your pick, any room in the house."
Peter came downstairs a few minutes later to find that Assumpta had started a fire and poured two glasses of wine. He accepted the glass she offered and took a long drink.
"This has been the longest week of my life."
Assumpta put her hand on his arm. "I'm so sorry about your mother, Peter...I know how hard that can be."
"Thanks..." he said looking deeply into her eyes, "that means a lot to me."
"We didn't expect you back so soon. I thought you'd need to be with your family."
Peter smiled softly. "That's why I'm here."
Assumpta felt an odd pang in her stomach. She knew how devastating grief could be but she was trying hard not to read something else into what Peter was saying. She watched as he took her hand in both of his.
"Today was my mother's wake...house jammed with people...People I'd known most of my life...I watched them hugging my brothers and sisters...calling them by name...no one hugged me...no one called me anything but Father...it's like I didn't belong...like I wasn't real."
The tears in his eyes reached his voice. Assumpta couldn't stand it any longer. She opened her arms.
"Come here, Peter."
He went gratefully into them. A sob tore through him. Assumpta pressed his head to her shoulder. She held him, comforted him, shared his pain. Pure sympathy, nothing more. A few minutes later she was almost surprised to find him in her arms, very aware suddenly of his closeness. He was calm again but he stayed in her arms. Assumpta knew it wasn't wise but she didn't want to break the spell. It might only be an illusion and never come again. A second later his lips brushed against the side of her neck. She felt a shock as the tingle raced down her back. It had been an accident of course. This was exactly the kind of thing she had been afraid of. A perfectly innocent moment that would torture her. How many times would she wonder what it would have been like, what would have happened, if it hadn't been so innocent. Peter's lips brushed against her neck again. This time it was no accident. He began to kiss her neck. His arms held her very close. Oh god! She was in so much trouble. For a moment she didn't care. Peter's lips broke away from her neck. He looked at her and then they were kissing. Three years of rationalizations and denials were quickly lost in the accompanying fog. Several minutes passed, the kisses getting more and more intense. For once neither of them stopped to think, they were just swept along until Peter's hand moved across her breast. Suddenly it was as if ice water had been thrown in her face. Oh god! What had she done? She pushed him away.
"Peter, this is wrong!"
He looked at her in confusion. Always in the past it had been him putting on the brakes and now it was suddenly Assumpta. After all the months of soul searching he had done, how could it be wrong.
"I'm sorry, Peter...this never should have happened...I'm sorry."
She raced up the stairs, his heart tearing as she went. He looked about the room for his glass. He quickly filled it. He watched the fire die as he drank it. Peter soberly climbed the stairs and stopped outside her door.
"Sumpta...I'm sorry...I shouldn't have assumed....I...I love you, Assumpta." He said softly , leaning his head against the door.
Assumpta sat on her bed, tears running down her face. How had it happened? She had slipped so easily. Had the mistake been to offer him comfort? When she heard his step outside her door, she quietly went over to it. Over the years Peter had made it clear that their relationship was balanced on the edge of a knife. One slip and it was over. She had finally accepted it. Right now he might just be a man who had lost his mother and needed the comfort of a woman's arms but tomorrow he would be the Priest again. How would he be able to look at her without seeing his fall? How long before he hated her? She heard the anguish in his voice as he apologized, as he said he loved her. She realized that it was too late, everything had been changed by those kisses. Now there was nothing left to lose.
Assumpta knocked lightly on Peter's door. No answer.
No answer. She tried the handle, the door wasn't locked. Assumpta stepped hesitantly into the room, muted light spilled through the open bathroom door. She heard the shower running. Assumpta pushed the bathroom door all the way open. A small maglite flashlight stood upright on the sink illuminating the curtain of steam. Peter faced the back wall of the shower, his hands were braced against the wall, his head was directly under the shower head, water spray pounding into the top of his head. Assumpta's robe slid to the floor, she opened the shower door and stepped in. She reached out, her hand touching his shoulder. He started in surprise, turning quickly.
She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him. "I love you too, Peter."
Niamh was giving Kieran his early morning bottle when she heard the knock on the door. She looked over at the clock on the mantle. 4:30 am. Who on earth could possibly be calling at this time of the morning. She was sure it meant trouble. She put the baby to her shoulder and went to the door.
"Who is it ?" She asked cautiously.
Niamh breathed a sigh of relief and opened the door.
"Come in here, girl."
Assumpta closed the door behind her and looked nervously about the room.
"Is something wrong Assumpta? You're not usually up this time of the morning."
"Nothing, well nothing more than usual. I was hoping you could do me a favor."
"You only have to ask, you know that. Let's go into the kitchen so we don't wake Ambrose."
"I don't have time, Niamh."
Assumpta pulled an envelope from her jacket and offered it to Niamh.
"Could you give this to Brian?"
Niamh looked suspiciously at the envelope and then at Assumpta. Niamh had been Brian's daughter too long not too worry about envelopes full of cash delivered in the dark of night, even if the messenger was her best friend.
"It's not like that, Niamh. It's for the electrics."
Niamh relaxed visibly. "You don't know what it's like. He's been so desperate for cash. I've been terrified that he was going to do something foolish."
"Maybe this will help keep his straight a little longer."
Niamh took the envelope.
"Thanks, but I thought you were strapped, too."
"I am, but the punters seem to expect electricity."
Niamh smiled. "Ungrateful lot aren't they?"
"I'm going to take off for a few days while the pub's down. See if I can figure out my life...So I was hoping you could ride herd on the refit...Make sure Liam and Donal don't drink up all of next year's profit."
"Of course, take as much time as you need...Are you going to London?"
Assumpta looked softly at her. "I'll let you know."
She kissed the top of Kieran's head, quickly hugged Niamh and hurried out the door. A few minutes later Assumpta's van drove out of Ballykissangel.
Is it for good?
Or is it for a short time?
Check again later and see.