There were few people on the early bus and none that she knew. She took a seat near the front, settling the child on her lap. She stared out the window, drinking in the countryside. For so many years Ballyk had been a part of every atom of her being. So many of her life’s most important decisions had been grounded in the town, what would it think, how would it react, would it accept... She had never thought herself strong enough but one day she had escaped..
She had found the courage and walked away. It had been two years. Good years. She kissed the top of Drinda’s head. And now like an addict giving into the addiction she could feel it pulling her back, deeper with every mile.
The bus lumbered on slowly, flooding her with memories. Her school day outings with Brendan, afternoons haring off with Niamh, being piggy in the middle between her warring parents. The rainy morning she had found a very soggy Peter on the road. That confusing night in the badger’s wood, when he had taken her hand. Another few minutes and he might have told her everything, but the others had returned too soon. All he had been able to say was “I’m a Priest.”
“Fine,” she had said,”be a Priest.” She had been too upset to sleep when she had gotten home. Instead she had sat drinking wine in front of the fire. She had found out later that Peter had walked for hours in the freezing cold before coming to her door. Unable to face him, she had called out “We’re closed.”
“Assumpta, I need to see you.”
She had stood at the door, close to tears. “Tomorrow, Peter.”
He had leaned his head against the door, quietly pleading. “Please, Assumpta, I really have to see you.” When she opened the door, he was distraught and shaking with the cold.
Concerned she had reached out to him, “Peter, what’s wrong?”
He had tried to answer her “I...I...” He touched
her faced with his hand and then he had kissed her. Assumpta had been
shocked, but she had returned his kiss. It had been a long and moving kiss. “I love you,” he had whispered before hurrying off down the street.
The next morning Peter had told her about the retreat Fr Mac had insisted he go on. Standing there in her kitchen, his words still hanging in the air she had realized it would be impossible for her to stay in Ballyk, seeing him every day, the church always between them. Kathleen had begun more of her rumors. Each worse than the last.
Assumpta had given the pub to Niamh and left Ballyk for good, she had thought. After a while an old university friend had given her a job with the European Union. She had made a new kind of life for herself in Brussels, fighting the loneliness by filling her days with work. One evening months later she had come home from work to find Peter sitting on her doorstep. Niamh ever the romantic had sent him. The shock of seeing him sitting there had stopped her in her tracks. How many times had she dreamed of his being there finally ready to accept their emotional bond? He had gone to her, put his arms around her and held her closely.
“Why didn’t you wait for me, Assumpta?”he had asked.
She had leaned her head against his.“I did wait Peter. I waited 3 years while you dithered back and forth between me and the church.” Stung by her words he had looked at her. She had lost so much, been so hurt, she needed to hurt him.
“It’s too late Peter, I’ve moved on.” She had watched silently as his face crumbled and his arms fell.
The bus crested the hill and the valley came into view. Her heart began to race, her stomach to tighten. The old bus seemed to take forever to reach the town. Finally the driver braked and opened the door. Anxiety overwhelmed her, she could not move.
“This is Ballykissangel, missus.” The driver said with a depreciating sweep of his hand.
As if she didn’t know! She gave him an apologetic smile and stepped off the bus into her past. Nothing seemed to have changed, like the entire village was caught in a time warp. She remembered once Peter asking her if Ballyk were in the Twilight Zone. She had told him no. Now she wondered if he had been right after all. She felt a part of every brick and tile in the village and yet as if she were a complete stranger.
Down the street Kathleen Hendley stepped out of her shop, broom in hand she began to sweep. At first she took little notice of the arrival of the bus. Then, something about the woman drew her attention back. If she didn’t know better...recognition. She abandoned her sweeping and stood open mouthed. Taking her broom she hurried inside, anxious for the first customer she could enlighten. Assumpta Fitzgerald was back! She began to speculate about the child.
Assumpta had felt Kathleen’s eyes burning into her back. She fought the urge to take up the child and run. Instead she carefully seated Drinda on her hip so the child’s leg brace wouldn’t bind, then pulling her suitcase she calmly crossed the street and pushed open the pub door. The familiar odors of her old home hit her immediately. She truly was home. Her life in Brussels had been wonderful. Her work with the E.U. stimulating, but she knew this was where she was meant to be.
The pub was empty except for a tall blonde woman rubbing down the bar. She took note of Assumpta’s bag.
“Sorry, we don’t do rooms anymore.”
Before Assumpta could reply the kitchen door pushed opened and Siobhan came through carrying a tray.
“Assumpta!” Plunking the tray down on the bar, she rushed to embrace Assumpta. Assumpta was surprised but genuinely pleased. She let go her bag and returned Siobhan’s enthusiastic hug.
“It’s so good to see you.”Siobhan seemed to notice
the toddler for the first time. “And who might this
be?” she asked ruffling Drinda’s dark curls.
“This is Drinda,...my daughter.”
Siobhan looked from Assumpta to the child. ”Niamh
said you had married last year but she never
mentioned this one.”
“It’s kind of complicated, we weren’t sure we would get to keep her until recently.”
Siobhan looked confused, “Get to keep her. Why wouldn’t you get to keep your own...”
“She was a Bosnian orphan.”
“Oh,...How did you find a Bosnian Orphan in Brussels?”
“I didn’t. My husband was on a mission for the E.U. He was touring a hospital caring for war orphans. She had just had surgery and her leg was in traction. So tiny and terrified. He said it was love at first sight.”
“You must have quite a husband.” Siobhan looked down at the toddler, “Hello, Drinda, my name is Siobhan.”
Drinda popped a thumb in her mouth and leaned her head against Assumpta’s neck.
“She’s still a little shy.”
Drinda snuggled closer to Assumpta and gave Siobhan a little smile around her thumb.
“She’s taking it very hard. I think she’s blaming herself.”
“I thought you said, on the phone, it was some kind of accident.”
Siobhan looked across at Orla, who seemed completely engrossed in their conversation. Orla had heard dozens of stories about the legendary Assumpta Fitzgerald. She wondered if any of them were true. Standing there with a baby on her hip she looked like any other young mother. Suddenly aware she had been caught listening to them, Orla turned and quickly began to tidy behind the bar.
“They’d been having a few problems.”
“What kind of problems?”
“I thought they were just growing pains.”
“And they weren’t?”
“Last week she told me she was thinking of leaving him.”
“That doesn’t sound like Niamh, why would she want to leave Ambrose? He wasn’t mistreating her was he?”
“I don’t know all the details but she and Ambrose weren’t getting along for sometime. And then Sean Dillon had to show up a few months ago. She started talking about taking Kieran and going to Dublin.”
“Goodness. And now?” Assumpta said running a hand through her hair.
“She won’t see him or anyone else, doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep. Michael wanted to give her something but she wouldn’t allow it.”
“He’s with Brian.”
Assumpta looked around the pub and took a deep breath.”I think we should go up.”
Siobhan smiled, “It’s good to have you back. I don’t mind being in charge with animals, but I’m not very good at it with people.”
Assumpta gave her a quick hug.
Assumpta stood outside the sitting room door watching her oldest friend. Niamh sat on the sofa, hairbrush in hand, hair half brushed, not moving. Lost. Assumpta thought about all the tragedies that had welded their lives together. Niamh’s mother and both of Assumpta’s parents individually, Niamh’s miscarriage. Peter had found a way to help her then. Where was he now? She wondered. She wished he were here to help her with Niamh. Niamh still hadn’t moved. A shiver ran down her spine. More than just Ambrose’s memory haunted these rooms. She handed Drinda to Siobhan . A look of fear crossed her little face. Assumpta whispered in her ear, Drinda nodded and put her arms around Siobhan’s neck and let herself be carried downstairs.
Assumpta walked into the room unnoticed. “This won’t do Niamh.”
Several seconds passed, Niamh blinked several times, then looked up at Assumpta. For the first time since hearing of Ambrose’s death, tears ran down her cheeks. Assumpta put her arms around Niamh and let her cry. The dam burst. All the pent up anger and remorse broke free.
An emotionally drained Niamh finally fell sleep. Assumpta hoped that now she would begin the slow process of grief. Assumpta closed the door and slipped downstairs. Waiting for her were Brendan, Michael and Padraig. Siobhan it seemed had been busy with the phone. Behind the bar Orla watched the exhubrent welcome Assumpta received somewhat jealously. Maybe there was more to Assumpta Fitzgerald than met the eye.
The five of them took a table and started to get caught up on each others lives. Finally Brendan put his hand on Assumpta’s shoulder. “Why did you leave us, Assumpta?”
“It was time.”she said, picking up an ashtray and examining it like she had never seen such a thing before.
“Assumpta, why did you go?”
“You all heard the things Kathleen was saying.”
“You were always one of Kathleen’s favorite targets. It never drove you away before.” Michael said.
“It wasn’t just me this time.” Assumpta looked down at her wedding ring and began to twist it.
“I thought that if I left she’d run out of nonsense. Peter’s career was on the line.”
“I guess you heard, we lost Peter too. Fr Mac sent him on retreat and he never came back. Left the church.” Padraig said.
“Well you know the old saying, the best laid plans.”
“Why don’t you come home for good?”
“Kathleen would just start her rumors again. I don’t think my husband would like that.”
“Maybe we could influence Kathleen, make her see the error of her ways.”
The two friends walked slowly along the river, each holding one of Drinda’s hands so she wouldn’t slip on the rocks. When they came to a large rock under the bridge Assumpta stopped.
“This was Peter’s favorite place to come and think. It’s so strange. I half expect to see him sitting there tossing stones into the water.”
Niamh watched as Assumpta drew the child onto her lap. She handed the child a small stone. Drinda held it for a minute, then looked closely at it and threw it a short distance into the water with a plop! Crowing with delight she held out a small hand for another stone.
“I wish you’d never left.”
“I couldn’t stay Niamh. You know the things that were being said. I thought if I left things would calm down enough that Peter wouldn’t have to. You know how much he loved it here. How much he wanted to help the people that live here. It was the most important thing in his life.”
“You left to save him, and he left to find you. I lost both of you.”
“I know and I’m sorry.”
Niamh looked closely at Drinda for a minute.”You know she looks a lot like you.”
Assumpta smiled, “That’s what everyone says.” then she looked serious. ”Niamh, I have to know. Am I to blame for the trouble you and Ambrose were having?”
Niamh looked up in surprise, “Assumpta, how could our problems be your fault?”
“I left you here, holding the bag. You took over my responsibilities with the pub. I know you tried to stop the gossip. Was it all too much? Did I cause the problems between you and Ambrose?”
Niamh shook her head and handed Drinda another stone. “Assumpta, I didn’t take the pub just so you could get away from the gossip and Peter.” Plop! Went Drinda’s stone. “I took it because I wanted more than just nappies and ironing Ambrose’s shirts. But he couldn’t see why I wasn’t content to be the housewife his mother was. That’s where our problems started. After a while we were so far apart we couldn’t even talk.”
“Siobhan said something about a fellow named Sean Dillon coming back to Ballyk and stirring up trouble.”
“Yeah, Sean certainly didn’t help things. Talk about timing. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he had never come home. It was just Ambrose and me.”
“I should have been here.”
“At least we could have talked.”
Niamh leaned over and hugged Assumpta. “You’ve made a good life. Do you honestly think any of that would have happened here.”
Assumpta shook her head,”You’re right. I’d still be mooning over Peter, wondering if he’d ever choose between me and the church...But why didn’t you call me?” Niamh handed Drinda another stone, stalling her answer.
“I guess I didn’t want to admit it to you, because then I would have had to admit it to myself.” She took a deep breath. “Tell me about Brussels.”
A solemn Kieran and Drinda played on Brian’s lawn. Assumpta and Brian watched them from the patio, Niamh had gone in to make coffee.
“Thank you for coming back. I know it must have been difficult, your job, your husband and the little one.”
“After all these years, I would think that you would know, I’d cut off my arm for Niamh. Coming home for a few days isn’t too much to ask.”
Brian took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Drinda returned to show Assumpta little treasures she found in the yard, once a feather, once a dandelion. Brian watched closely as Assumpta carefully named each one.
“I never would have believed it, but motherhood suits you.”
“A little miracle worker, that one.”
“Niamh said you had married.”
She nodded, “Last year in Brussels.”
“I can’t see you with a European.”
“He’s not European. He’s from the U.K.”
“Must be interesting, whirlwind courtship, marrying someone you’ve known only a few months.
“I suppose it would be, but I’ve known him for years. Old friends.”
“Ever thought of coming home to stay? Better place to raise the little ones.”
“We have talked about it. But...”
Kathleen stood quietly watching Assumpta at Ambrose’s
funeral. For some reason Assumpta had always annoyed her. It had pleased
Kathleen to know that it had been her rumors that drove Assumpta away.
She felt it was her Christian duty to make sure that she found it too hot
to stay in Ballyk after the funeral. Kathleen would make sure that everyone
in town knew the disgraceful way she had carried on, trying to tempt that
poor priest. Fr Clifford was no saint but if Assumpta Fitzgerald had known
her place the church would not have lost him. The funeral was over, people
started to leave. Kathleen looked up to see
herself surrounded by Padraig, Siobhan, Brendan and Michael.
“Kathleen, there is to be no more gossip about Assumpta.”
“It’s not your place...”
Brendan interrupted her,”We want Assumpta to come home. We need her. If we have to, we’ll start a boycott of your store. We may not be able to close you down, but can you afford to find out.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Kathleen, unless you want to find out, you better make sure there is no more gossip about Assumpta.”
Kathleen closed her mouth tightly and gripped her purse. They would find out quickly just what could be done. She would tell Fr Mac...no, she couldn’t tell Fr Mac. What could she do. Slowly she came to the realization that she could do nothing except comply.
The pub was closed. Michael, Brendan, Siobhan, Padraig and Assumpta had gathered chairs near the fire. They drank to Ambrose’s memory. They spoke about the gossip. Michael pointed his glass to the sofa, where Drinda slept.
“Was she really a surprise?”
Assumpta nodded,”I knew something was up, though. He called about a dozen times. Made a lot of subtle little hints. I was afraid she was going to be a puppy.”
“Not many husbands find babies on business trips.”
“He’s a softie.”
Brendan took another sip of his drink,”Why all the secrecy? When are you going to fill us in on him. We don’t even know his name.”
Assumpta smiled , “He’ll be back from Germany in a day or two. You can meet him then, grill him to your heart’s content.”
Someone knocked on the pub’s door. Padraig, the closest went to answer it. He opened it a crack and looked back at the others in surprise. “Peter!”
They all looked at each other in surprise. Peter entered, looking very nervous. Siobhan looked anxiously from Peter to Assumpta. Assumpta’s face betrayed nothing. Peter and Padraig shook hands.
“Visiting his ma.”
The others stood and shook hands one by one.
“Good to see you Peter!”
“Good to be back Brendan. I wish I could have gotten here in time for the funeral.”
“I’m sure Niamh will be glad to see you anyhow.” said Michael.
Assumpta took a deep breath. Peter stopped in front of her. The room was silent except for the crackling of the fire.
“Peter” she said looking into his eyes and smiling.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
“Some habits are hard to break.”
“Yes, I guess they are.”
“I’ve got someone special in the car I want you to meet.”
Peter rushed out. Everyone knew he had left the church, with dread they realized that he had probably found someone, as Assumpta had. Siobhan wondered how it would affect Assumpta. Peter came back into the pub carrying a small baby.
“What have you got there Peter?” Assumpta smirked.
Peter turned the baby in his arms so she could see the round little face topped with blond fuzz. Assumpta’s face softened. Siobhan wanted to say something but she couldn’t find the words.
“He’s beautiful, Peter.” Assumpta said holding out her arms for the baby. Peter handed it to her. Assumpta looked into to the baby’s eyes and then kissed his forehead. The baby took hold of her finger. Peter crouched down beside her chair.
“I thought we could call him John after my father.”
Assumpta nodded, eyes still on the baby. “John.”
To everyone’s amazement Peter leaned over and kissed her. Siobhan looked at Brendan as if to ask ’what’s going on.’ Padraig just smiled. He always did like happy endings. Before anyone found their voices, Drinda sat up on the sofa, and looked around.
“Daddy!” she squealed, jumped off the sofa and ran as quickly as her brace would allow to Peter. She jumped into his arms. Peter swung her up into a hug.
“Hello sweetheart. How’s Daddy’s girl?” He kissed her cheeks and she giggled and squeezed his neck.
“Look what Daddy brought you. A brother just like you wanted.”
“Assumpta, why didn’t you say it was Peter you married?”
“Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been about you two?”
Drinda squirmed to get down. Peter put her down. She stood beside Assumpta softly rubbing the baby’s head. Brendan pointed to the two children.
“Some husbands just bring home flowers."
Peter looked at Assumpta,”You wouldn’t really rather have had flowers would you?”
“No, but we’re going to need as awfully big house
if you keep this up!”
Sometime later the six occupants of the pub stepped outside. Obviously saying goodnight, there was a lot of hugging and handshaking. Kathleen had an equally low opinion of all of them. Padraig was divorced and drank excessively. Brendan and Siobhan had a daughter out of wedlock. And the doctor, well he spent too much time with the others. The doctor was the first to drive away, followed by Brendan and Siobhan. Padraig stood talking for several minutes before shaking Peter’s hand and kissing Assumpta’s cheek. He walked off into the darkness.
Peter and Assumpta stood ther framed in the light spilling from the open door. Then to Kathleen’s surprise, Assumpta put her arms around the former priest’s neck. He put his arms around her and whirled her around. They began to kiss. Kathleen’s first thought was vindication! Boycott or no, she would call Fr Mac in the morning. If it came from him, who could blame her. She watched as Assumpta took his hand and started into the pub. Peter said something to her and turned towards the car. Maybe he had regained his senses and was leaving before she could further corrupt him. Instead, he pulled several suitcases from the car and they went inside. Kathleen wondered what Assumpta’s husband would think of her behavior and how she could let him know what Assumpta was up to, anonymously, of course.
Assumpta locked the door behind them. Peter put the suitcases down and reached for her. They stood a moment in each other’s arms.
“I missed you.” he whispered.
“I missed you, too.”
“I thought they took it pretty well.” she mused.
“They did. I was afraid...”
Assumpta put a finger to Peter’s lips. “They really are our friends. They’ve been trying to convince me that it’s time to come home. Even Brian!”
Peter looked surprised, “You aren’t really considering it?” he asked.
She nodded, “This is where Drinda and the baby should grow up.”
“Think about the gossip.”
“The four of them had a chat with Kathleen after the funeral. Threatened her with a boycott if she said anything else.”
“But she’s not the only one that will gossip.”
“No, but without her, in time the others will lose interest.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we don’t have to decide tonight.”
“It would be nice to come home.”
Assumpta smiled and touched his face. “Why don’t you take those upstairs, while I tidy up down here.” Peter gave her a quick peck and hurried up the stairs with the bags.
When he came down again Assumpta was behind the bar putting away glasses. Peter stood beside the bar watching, a smile on his face.
“What?” she said, smiling back.
Peter leaned across the bar and kissed her. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Thought I was the only one.”
Drinda sat happily on Peter’s shoulders as he walked
through the early morning mist. She no longer remembered the horrors of
her early life. She had been rescued. Now she was safe, secure and she
knew she was loved. Peter and Assumpta had made sure of that. She was delighted
to have Daddy back. She didn’t like it when he went away. She held on to
Peter’s hair, giggling as he wobbled down the street. He loved to hear
her laugh. There had been a time when he had worried that she would never
be free of the past. But today the only evidence of her early life was
the brace she wore on her right leg and a tendency
to be a little shy with strangers. Peter had to travel regularly, but he always tried to keep the trips as short as possible. This last trip he had been away for over two weeks, a long time in a two year old’s life. He always brought her something so she would know that he had been thinking of her while he was away. For some time she had been asking for a brother like her friend Taryn, at preschool. He had brought her John, and now he was trying to make sure she didn’t feel eclipsed by the baby.
Peter had forgotten how captivating Ballyk could be. He had wandered this way when he had first come to town. First in love with the beauty and the freedom and later in search of answers. Suddenly Drinda squealed in delight. A small flock of sheep were in the field across the road. Peter crossed the road and put Drinda down to pet a sheep. It ran off. She ran lopsidedly after it , calling,’sheb, sheb.’ In time Peter found they were in front of St. Joseph’s. Another ghost to face. In his day, it would have been morning mass. Maybe the new curate had changed the time to increase attendance as he once had. The door was open. Peter lifted Drinda from his shoulders as they went inside. Memories flooded back to him. So little had changed. After a bit they sat on a pew in front of Peter’s favorite statue. For a few moments he was lost in thought. Drinda was used to Daddy’s quiet times and was very still. Peter didn’t hear Aidan come up behind them.
“Are you here for mass?”
It wasn’t until Drinda stood and put her arms around his neck that Peter realized they weren’t alone.
“Sorry Father, I didn’t hear what you said.”
“You must have been very deep in prayer. I didn’t to interrupt.”
“Not at all, just brought my little girl to see St Joseph’s. Not all that long ago I spent a lot of time here.”
“Then you you used to live locally. I thought from your accent you might be a tourist.”
“I’m Peter Clifford, I was curate here for three years,” he said offering Aidan his hand.
Brendan sat in Siobhan’s sunny kitchen. His daughter
in the high chair before him, her face covered in cereal. How, he wondered
did Siobhan manage to feed her without making such a mess. Still, he didn’t
know when he had seen anything so cute. Brendan had spent much of his life
surrounded by children. Even the few he had taken to his heart, had never
captured it so completely. He wondered what gave her such power over him.
Could it be blood alone? If so, how did you explain Peter and Assumpta?
They absolutely gloried in that little girl, and the baby. The look on
Assumpta’s face when Peter had handed
him to her. Brendan had felt that same elation when he had held his won daughter for the first time.
Peter and Assumpta! He realized now that it had been
inevitable. All the concern he had experienced those last few months they
had been in Ballyk. He had read the signs. He had known what was developing.
He hadn’t seen a way out for them. Assumpta was one of those few children
that he had let into his heart. He had been her teacher, advisor and confidant
in school and when things got really bad between her folks, he had been
her sanctuary. He had written the letter that got her into university.
And Peter had become a friend almost the day he came to town. He didn’t
often agree with the church but he
almost always agreed with Peter. And now they were together. He and the others would have to make sure they could come home. Besides, the way Peter was increasing the family he would personally keep the school’s population high enough to ensure all the teacher’s positions.
Orla was getting used to Asumpta’s presence. She had expected Assumpta to take over but that hadn’t happened. She had made herself at home, certainly, after all she still held an interest in the pub, but she had busied herself with Niamh, the little girl and the scores of old friends who had come by to visit. Orla had to admit that Assumpta had helped Niamh. She had been almost catatonic after Ambrose’s accident, but with Assumpta’s help she was getting better. She had made it through yesterday’s funeral. Besides, Assumpta had been very good for business. It seemed to Orla that half of Wicklow had come by to visit. Most of them promising to return when Assumpta’s husband finally arrived.
This morning the pub was quiet. The aroma of bacon came from the kitchen. Assumpta must be making a late breakfast. Orla decided to join her and Drinda while they ate. She could use a chat and a friendly cuppa. Orla was about to push open the door when an unfamiliar man’s voice stopped her.
“Do you remember the last time we were in this kitchen?’
“I’m hardly likely to forget one of the worst days of my life.”
“I told you it was over, your eyes filled with tears, I don’t think tears have ever affected me as much.”
Orla was at a loss. She could hardly barge in but she wanted to know what was going on. She quietly pushed open the door an inch and peered in. She had a clear view of the stove area. Assumpta and a tall man stood close together. He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her to him.
“Do you ever wonder...”
Orla closed the door. She couldn’t intrude on such a private moment. She was more confused than ever. The tall man was someone from Assumpta’s past but he was no longer local. Orla wondered if he was the reason Assumpta had left Ballyk. It had always puzzled her why someone so well liked would just leave. Maybe now she knew.
Orla stood behind the bar, watching, trying to absorb
any tidbit of information. This morning’s scene in the kitchen had intrigued
her. Who was the man and what was his relationship to Assumpta? She hadn’t
seen Assumpta since the kitchen but the man was sitting with her brother
at one of the tables. The table top was strewn with receipts and account
books. They had been at it nearly an hour. Whatever he was trying to explain,
Aidan was finding it difficult to understand. Several times Orla had tried
to catch his eye but so far, all she had gotten was a stern look from her
brother. She wondered idly how long he would be
around. If Ballyk had a shortfall, it was a serious lack of attractive men. Aidan began to gather up his accounts. The man stood and put his hand on Aidan’s shoulder.
“I’ll be around the rest of the week. Happy to go over it again.”
“Thanks, Peter,’ said Aidan, “I appreciate your help.”
They shook hands and Peter went upstairs. Orla went over to her brother.
“Who’s your friend?” Aidan looked at his sister. As usual he didn’t understand her.
Aidan was surprised the name meant nothing to her. Orla looked at the box of receipts and account books.
“What’s all this about?”
“Peter’s giving me a hand straightening out the accounts. I had no idea what I was doing.”
“And what would he know about church record keeping?”
Aidan opened the account book and turned back several pages.
“He kept all these.”
Orla looked at the bottom of the page. It was signed Father Peter Clifford.
“He’s a PRIEST!”
“Peter used to be the curate here.”
“Oh my go...!”
“Orla!” her brother admonished
“But you don’t understand, he and Assumpta...”
Aidan interrupted, “Peter and Assumpta are married.”
As usual Eammon was in with Mary. He was playing the phonograph for her, when he heard the car pull up out front.
“Sounds like we have visitors, Mary.” he said to the pig.
He turned over the record and went out to see who it was. Peter and Assumpta had gotten out of the car and were standing shoulder to shoulder beside it. They were both nervous. Assumpta, because she was genuinely fond of the old man, and wanted his blessing. Peter, because Eammon was typical of so many of the residents of Ballyk. If he didn’t accept their relationship, there was no hope for Assumpta’s dream of coming home. Eammon came through the barn door, wiping his hands on a old rag. When he saw Assumpta he stopped in his tracks, not sure he could believe his eyes.
“Sumpta?” he asked.
“Eammon!” she said, moving toward him, arms outstretched. Eammon blushed furiously as they embraced. Through the many layers of clothes she felt how thin he and frail had become. She felt a lump in her throat. Time was catching up.
“It’s so good to see you, Eammon. How’s Mary?”
“Good, Mary’s good. And you? Niamh said you had married.”
Peter stepped forward, “Hello Eammon.”
“Father Clifford, so you’ve come home too,” he said noticing Peter for the first time.
“It’s not Father Clifford anymore, just Peter.” Eammon looked from Assumpta to Peter and then with understanding he offered Peter his hand.
Peter took his hand. “Thank you , Eammon,” he said sincerely. Assumpta kissed his cheek. Assumpta went to the car and took John from his baby seat. Peter did the same with Drinda.
“We thought you and Mary might like to meet...”
Eammon looked at the baby in Assumpta’s arms. Speechless for a moment he looked at Assumpta.
“Isn’t he lovely.!”
Peter came around the back of the car carrying Drinda. She smiled at Eammon, popped her thumb in her mouth and laid her head against Peter’s neck. Eammon touched a gnarled hand to her cheek.
“Sumpta, she’s the image of you at this age.”
Assumpta put an arm around the old man’s shoulder and squeezed him gently.
“It’s good of you to bring the little ones. Mary likes to keep abreast of her friends, does Mary.”
They began to walk towards the barn. Peter watched with relief as Eammon introduced the children to the pig.
“You’ve been away too long, Assumpta. When are you coming home?”
They sat in Eammon’s tiny overcrowded front room drinking tea. Eammon took a throw off the rocker and tucked it around John.
“Bit of a chill today.”
Peter looked closely at the throw.
“This is beautiful, Eammon”
“My sister Rose made that , years ago. She was one of the weavers, before her troubles.”
“Weavers?” asked Peter. “Ballyk used to have a thriving weavers community. Very well known,” explained Assumpta.
Fr Mac was furious. He had spent half the morning
on the phone. Someone had come up with the harebrained scheme of starting
up the old community weavers association. Years ago the area had been very
well known for its work. But that had been years ago. And if that wasn’t
bad enough, they had gotten on to the Bishop about funding. And the Bishop
expected him to come up with the lion’s share of the money. To come up
with that kind of money, he would have to cancel his golfing holiday. The
Bishop was new to the area and the job. Fr Mac tried to change his mind.
He explained that the area was
rife with unemployment, money was too tight.
“Exactly.’‘was all the Bishop had said.
“Even if they could start producing,” Fr Mac asked, “who would be able to buy the goods?”
The Bishop was of the opinion that the European Union would be waiting with bated breath.
“It’s not that easy,” Fr Mac had said.
“It is, when you have two E.U. staffers coordinating the plans. They’ll be at the meeting tonight.”
“I’m afraid I can’t...”
The Bishop interrupted, “I want this to work Father, I’m relying on you.”
“The meeting is at seven.”
Fr Mac slammed his car door. He was going to this meeting under duress. He was going to make things as difficult as possible. He pushed open the door with a bang. The pub was crowded. The Bishop was sitting with Brian Quigley, he looked at his watch.
“Afraid you weren’t going to make it, Father.”
Fr Mac looked around the room. He knew many of those present, he wondered who the E.U. representatives were. Fr Mac watched the activity with distaste. Kathleen had kept him up to date on the scandalous goings on. He yearned for the old days when a Parish Priest was an absolute law unto themselves. How different things would be. Assumpta stood behind the bar, laughing along with Brendan and Siobhan as Padraig played ‘got your nose’ with a toddler. She had dark auburn curls, an angelic face and a very noticeable leg brace. Fr Mac cruelly thought ‘the sins of the father.’ Peter came out of the kitchen and went to stand beside Assumpta behind the bar. The Bishop said something to Brian, who went behind the bar and rang the bell.
“Your attention please. Bishop McCleary has an announcement.”
The Bishop stood. “Thank you, Brian. A few days ago an idea was proposed to me. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. The church is going to put up the money necessary to reestablish the weaver’s association. The loan to be paid back, only after the association is firmly on it’s feet.” Pointing toward Peter and Assumpta “I’m sure you all know these two. Peter and Assumpta are going to be our liaison with the E.U.” Fr Mac could feel his blood boil. Well maybe he needed to have a word with the Bishop about those two. Everyone was sitting around discussing the future. Fr Mac pulled the Bishop aside.
“I can only assume that you don’t know about those two or you would never allow them to have anything to do with any project the church is promoting.”
“It was their idea.”
“Did you know that Peter Clifford used to be a Priest, in fact he was the curate here.”
“Not every Priest stays the course, that doesn’t mean that they have to become outcasts.”
“He left the church for a woman, that woman. But she went off and got married.”
“Her daughter obviously predates her marriage.”
“Father I don’t think this is something we should be discussing.”
“One of my parishioners has been keeping me informed. Those two have been carrying on disgracefully since he came back to town. If the church goes ahead with this project, its tantamount to endorsing their relationship, past and present.”
“Fr Mac, I think you and I need to have a long talk tomorrow in my office.”
Fr Mac thought he had put an end to the loan. He was feeling very self-satisfied. Peter carrying Drinda and Assumpta holding John came to the table. Fr Mac’s face became very red.
“Hello Fr Mac. Ted, we thought you might like to meet the kids you were so instrumental in our being able to adopt.”
Fr Mac felt lightheaded.
The Bishop stood. “Did I tell you Fr Mac that I met Peter on one of his first missions for the E.U. right after he and Assumpta were married. I’m the one that gave permission for them to adopt this little sweetheart. Hello Drinda, you look more like Mummy everyday.”
Drinda hid her face in Peter’s neck. The Bishop patted her shoulder.
“Daddy’s girl, eh,” he said taking the baby from Assumpta.
“And this big fella must be John.” Peter and Assumpta
were smiling with a warm glow. They had that look only people who are truly
in love get in their eyes as they looked at each other.. Fr Mac thought
he might throw up or have a stroke. Things certainly weren’t going the
way he had planned.
"Can I ask you something personal?"
Assumpta looked up from her task of changing John. Already, he had begun to bond with her and seemed to revel in her attentions.
"You can ask, Siobhan, but I don’t promise to answer."
Siobhan hesitated, weighing her curiosity against the possibility of offending Assumpta. She certainly wouldn’t have chanced it with the old Assumpta.
"Why did you wait so long?"
Assumpta looked up slightly baffled. "Wait so long for what?"
Siobhan looked back out the window at Peter. "To get married."
"I don’t understand you." she said.
"You and Peter left Ballyk over two years ago."
Assumpta nodded. "That’s right."
"And you’ve been married how long?"
"Almost 18 months."
"So...why did you wait?"
Assumpta had been expecting questions, the surprise was that it had taken so long and started so directly. Assumpta finished with John, tickled his chest and put him in the bouncy seat on Siobhan’s table.
"Okay, I understand now. You were wondering how long the Priest and I lived in sin before we saw the ‘error’ of our ways," she bristled.
Siobhan looked embarrassed "I didn’t mean it like that. Not at all. It’s just..."
Assumpta softened quickly, playing with John’s fingers. "The answer is very simple Siobhan. Peter and I may have left around the same time but we didn’t go together. As a matter of fact he had no idea where I was until 18 months ago."
"Very easy." said Assumpta shaking a brightly colored butterfly rattle before putting it in the baby’s hand. "I didn’t tell him where I was going or even that I was going."
"Now I don’t understand. We all just assumed...."
"No, it wasn’t like that. We were never..."
Assumpta made up her mind to tell Siobhan what had happened between Peter and herself.
"Remember that night you and Brendan and Michael planted those bones and arrowheads on Brian’s building site?"
"Yeah, that was just before you both left." said Siobhan eager for details.
"Peter and I ...Peter and I talked that night. We said some things that changed everything, things that we couldn’t take back. The next morning he went to see Fr Mac and he convinced Peter to go on retreat."
"But why did you leave?"
"Everything was such a mess. I had told Peter how I felt about him and he had told me how he felt about me, but he just couldn’t seem to commit to a choice. As always it came down to me or the church."
"Did he really have to choose? I mean he wouldn’t have been the first Priest to fall in love, even have a family."she said matter of factly.
Assumpta shook her head. "Peter couldn’t see it that way and neither could I."
"So you just left."
"I ran just as fast as I could."
"But why didn’t you give him a chance to..."
"It was obvious to me that he was choosing the church, again. I couldn’t just stand behind the bar and watch him break my heart." said Assumpta, her voice tinged with emotion.
"Why didn’t you say anything. I couldn’t have changed it but I could have offered you a shoulder."
Assumpta smiled at her and squeezed Siobhan’s arm. "It hurt too much. No mattered how much I cared for him, he wanted the church more than he wanted me."
"So you just let him go without a fight."
"Had to...It wasn’t another woman, Siobhan." Assumpta shook the rattle again.
"So what did you do?"
"After I finally made up my mind, I talked to Niamh. She agreed to take the pub. I made her swear not to tell anyone where I was."
"So Niamh knew about you and Peter?"
"I never came right out and told her, but we’ve known each other forever. Sometimes I think she knows me better than I do."
"So I left. I spent a long time trying to get past it. Then I ran into a friend from university, Glen Mullins. Over a couple of drinks I poured out my tale of woe, minus the part about Peter being a priest."
Siobhan nodded. "Understandable."
"Glen thought that distance would help. He offered me a job with his division of the E.U. and off I ran to Brussels."
"It must have been awfully hard on you," she said as she looked out the window again. The children had surrounded Peter and were staging a very noisy attack.
"I was pretty miserable and as it turned out, so was Peter."
"What was he doing all this time?"
"Fr Mac was sure the retreat would pull Peter back into the fold but it only convinced him that he had to leave the church," Assumpta said joining Siobhan at the window. "When he called the pub to tell me, Niamh wouldn’t tell him where I had gone."
"Didn’t she want the two of you to be together?"
"Peter didn’t tell her he had left the church. Besides, Niamh has some very definite ideas about Priestly behavior."
"Then how did you two...?"
"Peter went home. His mother was pretty sick by then, but each week he called Niamh. After his mother died he told Niamh that he had left the church. She told me later that she had never heard someone so depressed, she couldn’t help it."
"So she caved," laughed Siobhan.
"Like a house of cards."
"So Peter ended up on your doorstep."
"Yep, I came home from work and there he was."
"And you lived happily ever after."
"Not hardly. I wasn’t exactly what you could call receptive."
"But he had come all that way to find you."
"It had taken me months to get to the point where I could get through a day without thinking about him a dozen times. I couldn’t just let it start all over again."
"But it wouldn’t have been like that. He wasn’t going to hurt you."
"I didn’t think he would hurt me the other times, but he did."
"I know, but I wasn’t thinking, just reacting. I said some things that hurt him."
"He was pretty upset when he left."
"Poor Peter...poor you."
"When he left I fell apart. I called Glen, I was supposed to go on an inspection tour the next week. He arranged for me to leave the next morning."
"You ran again."
"I was getting pretty good at it," Assumpta said wryly.
"So what did Peter do?"
"When he got over the things I said and he couldn’t find me at home, he went to my office."
"That must have been interesting."
"You have no idea. He sat in Reception for 3 days. All day, every day, for 3 days."
"Yep,"Assumpta smiled warmly at the memory. "By the time I got back he knew half the building."
"Did they know why he was there?"
"He said we were old friends, he was just passing
through and wanted to say hello. I don’t think they
were exactly fooled."
"I shouldn’t think so, not after 3 days."
"I walked in like an innocent. Peter was talking to Glen. I just stood there, not believing my eyes."
"Did he sweep you off your feet?"
"Not exactly. We just stared at each other across the room. There were all these people there, none of them saying anything. They just watched us. I don’t know how long we stood like that. Finally Glen took Peter and me by the arm and led us down the hall to my office."
"Then you made up."
"And Peter rushed you off to the Registry office."
"No, we never did get around to discussing marriage. Twenty minutes later Glen came back and told us come to his office, there was someone there who could marry us."
"Just like that!"
Out on the lawn the attack had been successful. Peter
lay on the grass, all three children on top of him. Siobhan looked at the
tangle of arms and legs and back at Assumpta. They had gone through so
much to be together and yet they had triumphed. She had always thought
Peter a nice man but as a Priest he had seemed a little one dimensional
to her. Until he had walked into Fitzgerald’s the night of Ambrose’s funeral,
she had never dreamed he could be capable of generating the kind of emotions
Assumpta had just unveiled. And in Assumpta, the change was phenomenal.
No longer the hard shelled publican of old, but a
doting mommy. Just then, Peter with Drinda in her customary spot on his shoulders, trooped in with the other children.
"We need a drink Mummy," Peter said kissing Assumpta lightly. Siobhan saw the look that passed between them. What a look.... Siobhan had never been that possessed by love, and for a second was jealous. She had never allowed another person that degree of control over her life. Then remembering the pain they had had to endure, the jealousy vanished.
She wondered if they had always looked at each other that way. If so, how blind had she and the rest of Ballyk been! Siobhan began to pour juice.