Kieran had made a valiant, if messy attempt to feed himself. Cereal covered his face, his bib and the highchair. Niamh was at the sink getting a damp cloth, while Peter pried the spoon from Kieranís gooey little fingers. The phone rang. Peter, the closest, looked at his dripping hands and then at Niamh. She laughed and tossed him the cloth. Peter dutifully began to remove the top layer of cereal from the baby.
Peterís head jerked up in surprise.
"Any chance you could sneak away for lunch?"
"Lunch! Youíre back?" Niamh smiled broadly at Peter, a slow smile spreading across his face.
"Yes and no. Youíre the only one that knows. Letís keep it that way. Ok?"
Niamh looked around the crowded restaurant. She was elated and very nervous at the prospect of seeing Assumpta again after so long. They had been friends forever but it wasnít until she had gone that Niamh had truly realized just how important a part of her life Assumpta was. Niamh scanned the diners looking for that familiar face. Finally she saw Assumpta sitting in a secluded corner booth, staring out the window. Her long auburn hair had been cut very short and unusual for Assumpta, she wore dark somber tones. Niamh doubted if she would have recognized Assumpta on the street. In the few seconds it took her to cross the room, Niamh realized something was very wrong. In twenty years, she had never seen Assumpta so burdened, so very alone. Six months ago when she had left, Niamh had desperately hoped that Assumpta would realize what she sought, was already hers. But the woman in that booth hadnít had an epiphany. She looked more like someone on the verge of surrender. Niamh was more convinced than ever that it was time she took a hand.
"Like what youíve done with your hair."
Assumpta had been a million miles away. She startled at Niamhís voice. "Ah, Niamh!"
After they hugged, to Niamhís surprise, there were tears in Assumptaís eyes.
Assumpta shook her head and dabbed at the tears with a napkin. She took a deep breath and smiled.
"How have you been?"
God, thought Niamh, this had better work or Assumpta would be a complete basket case. For the first time she started to have doubts.
"Good...busy...We miss you. When are you coming home?"
Assumpta shrugged and smiled weakly. "You know I canít do that...How are Ambrose and Kieran?"
Niamh opened her purse and pulled several snapshots out and laid them on the table in front of Assumpta. "See for yourself."
Assumpta greedily scooped them up. The top photo was a posed family portrait of Ambrose, Niamh and Kieran. Assumptaís face melted. "Niamh! You are so lucky."
Niamh gave her a very self-effacing smile. "Yes, I am, but I owe it all to you."
"Me? How do you reckon that?"
"Didnít you introduce me to Ambrose?"
"And werenít you the one, that talked Peter into talking Ambrose out of being a priest after that statue business?"
"You make your own happiness, Niamh."
"Then why donít you?"
"Letís not start that again."
Hoping to change the subject, Assumpta went on to the next photo. It was a group shot of half a dozen men taken at last monthís summer fete.
"Brianís looking very fit...Can you believe that Liamís still wearing that same cap...And Peter." her voice dropping away. Assumpta quietly laid the picture on the table. For several seconds she was lost in thought. The last photo was of Kieran dressed as a footballer. Peter held him so he could kick the ball. "Peter spend a lot of time with Kieran?" her eyes not meeting Niamhís.
"Almost as much as Ambrose...Heís been awfully lonely since..." Assumpta waited for the unspoken... " Peterís the kind of man that needs a family of his own, Assumpta...Kids.."
"I thought the church frowned on that sort of thing." She said with a bemused look.
Niamh glanced toward the door, closed her eyes and took a deep steadying breath. "Assumpta...I know you asked me not to tell anyone you were here.."
"What have you done?"
Niamh swallowed hard and looked apprehensively at Assumpta. "I wasnít alone when you called."
Assumpta ran a hand through her short hair. "So, does the whole of Ballykay know weíre having lunch here?"
"No, no...of course not. Just..." She said nodding toward the door Peter had just entered. Assumpta turned to see who it was. Her face turned quite pale. Peter walked self-consciously towards them. His grey sweater and slacks, informal but quite smart.
Assumpta caught her breath and gave a low moan. "Niamh, why?"
"Because, Iím your best friend."
"Iíll never forgive you."
Niamh was afraid for a second that she meant it but the look on Assumptaís face as Peter stopped in front of their booth told her differently.
"Odds? Hello, Peter."Niamh said brightly.
Peterís eyes hadnít left Assumpta since he had walked through the door. "Niamh...lo ĎSumpta." There was something about the way he said Assumptaís name that made Niamh feel as though she were intruding.
"Peter" Assumpta said, her voice breaking.
Peter looked at the booth, Niamh didnít budge so he slid awkwardly in beside Assumpta. No one spoke. Peter and Assumpta just stared at one another. Niamh was very pleased. So far, so good. As always the waiter appeared at just the wrong moment.
"Give us a few minutes, please." Niamh said slipping out of the booth.
"Youíre not leaving ?" Assumpta gasped.
"No...Iím just going to wash my hands...You two catch up on things."
They watched her walk in the direction of the restrooms. Peter finally broke the silence. "Iíve missed you. Why did you return my letters unopened?"
She started to answer but no words came. She picked up the football picture. "Heís growing up so fast. Iím missing it all."
Peter covered her hand with his. "You donít have to miss anything. Why donít you come home?"
Assumpta looked at their hands. When she looked back at him there were tears in her eyes. Peter lifted her chin. "ĎSumpta" he whispered. They were slowly drawn together. Their lips almost touching when she suddenly pulled back.
"God..Peter...donít you see...I canít go back."
"We canít let that happen again." Assumpta dropped the photos in her purse and slid quickly out of the booth. "Goodbye, Peter. When Niamh comes back ...tell her...Iím sorry...I canít do this...Iíll call her."
She walked quickly to the door. Peter threw a couple of bills on the table and rushed out after her. Just outside the door he caught her. He reached for her shoulder. She turned to look at it and him. Her face losing itís determination.
"Peter, please...donít do this...Go back in there and wait for Niamh."
"Niamhís halfway to Ballykay by now."
"She thought we needed some time alone."
"Itís no good, Peter. IíĎm not coming back to Ballykay."
"Ever!" he said desperately.
Assumpta shook her head. "Why are you doing this, Peter?"
"Because, I love you...I want you in my life."
"Peter," she said very softly, starting across the parking lot. "Itís not that simple. Your life canít afford to have me in it. So it doesnít matter how we feel about each other."
"Of course it does. Thatís all that really matters."
After walking through several rows of cars Assumpta stopped. "Where is your car???"
"I came with Niamh."
Exasperated, Assumpta marched out of the parking lot and down a side street. Peter kept pace with her.
"Youíve got to stop this, Peter. Why do you think I put myself through the hell of the last six months?" She stopped suddenly and faced him, her voice trembling. "What nearly happened just now...what happens every time weíre together...Peter," her fingers touched his face, "If I went home, how long do you think it would be before Fr Mac found out about us?"
Peterís hands gripped her shoulders. "Fr Mac already knows about us."
Assumpta closed her eyes, her defenses melting away. "Everything."
Peter nodded, slipping his arms around her and pulling her close.
"How did he find out?" her head resting against his chest.
"I told him."
"Why ..." she asked, defeat overpowering her. The months of loneliness and sacrifice flooding her with emotion.
"When you left...all the joy in my life went with you." Oblivious to their surroundings, Peter kissed her.
Peter shook his head. "No regrets."
Brendan leaned his rod against the bar and dropped his creel on a stool. "Peter! Peter!" he shouted. "Get your waders on, man."
Niamh pushed through the kitchen door. "Sorry Brendan, youíll have to terrorize the aquatic world without Peter."
"Donít tell me you would make that poor man work the bar on a beautiful day like this?"
"No, Peterís not here, heís taken a few days off."
Brendan took off his fishing hat and dropped it dejectedly on the bar. "Donít tell me, heís having second thoughts about the church."
Niamh laughed. "No, I donít think so."
"Then where is he?"
Niamh shrugged, trying to look innocent.
"Lucky for you, Iím not the suspicious type Mrs. Egan."
"And whatís that supposed to mean?"
"The two of you drove off yesterday afternoon and thereís not been sight or sound of him since. Whereís the body, Niamh?"
"Very funny Inspector Morse. Peter is alive and well. He just decided to take a holiday."
"Sudden wasnít it?"
Niamh put her hands up in mock surrender. "Can you keep a secret?"
Peter kissed the top of Assumptaís head. "Why donít we go home?"
"Which home, exactly do you mean? The flat I share in Dublin with three other girls."
Peter shook his head. "Sounds a little crowded."
"The curateís house?"
Peter shook his head again. "Had to give that back when I left."
"Thereís always the rooms over the pub."
"Shouldnít think so...Niamh and Ambrose and the baby are living there right now. Might be a tiny bit awkward."
"Maybe we could cause a disturbance and get Ambrose to lock us up."
Peter smiled, "Thatís an idea."
"Going to jail!"
"Not exactly to jail. The Garda house. Nobody is living there right now."