Once, long ago, there had been a time when Kathleen Hendley was a sweet, personable girl with much to look forward to. But love had not been kind to her and little by little, year by year, her life had closed in until all her dreams were gone. All that remained were the shop, the church and of course gossip.
As she did every morning, Kathleen swept the sidewalk in front of the shop. She was careful to observe when one of the neighboring businesses didn't do likewise. Heaven help the slacker that failed to keep up his end, as Kathleen saw it. They would most surely fall victim to the sharp edge of her tongue.
Assumpta Fitzgerald had a morning routine as well. After she swept the sidewalk in front of the pub, she stacked the empty barrels and cases of empty bottles on the far bench for the distillery van to pick up. Disgusting, Kathleen thought, all that money and time wasted on drink. While people stopped by Kathleen's out of necessity for a loaf of bread and lingered for the latest tidbit of gossip, they often stopped by Fitzgerald's just to say hello to Assumpta. Kathleen envied her that and it made her look all the harder for things to disapprove of.
Kathleen finished straightening the newspaper rack and was about to go back into the shop, when Eammon Burns' rusty old Ford rattled to a stop in front of the pub. It was unusual for Eammon to be in town this early in the day, so Kathleen waited. You never knew when something interesting would happen. Assumpta turned to say something to him, a case of bottles in her hands, as Eammon and a tall man climbed out of the car. Assumpta never spoke, the case of empties fell to the ground, many of them breaking. Assumpta just stood there, staring at the man for a few seconds before looking at the mess at her feet. He quickly stooped to help her with the broken glass. Kathleen wished she were closer. She couldn't hear a word they were saying. Between the baseball cap and the beard that he wore, she couldn't even get a good look at his face. All she could tell for sure, was he was tall and somehow very familiar. As Assumpta reached for a piece of broken bottle, the man took her hand. Eammon watched quietly for a few seconds and then retrieved a backpack from the Ford. He leaned it against the side of the pub. He said something to Assumpta and the man. She stood up and hugged the old man. Eammon looked very embarrassed, but quite pleased. He patted Assumpta on the shoulder and shook hands with the bearded man before getting back into the Ford. Assumpta and the man watched Eammon drive away.
There was something about the way they stood, that caught Kathleen off guard. She knew a little about body language, all accomplished gossips did. She wondered who he was. He obviously knew Eammon well. The old pig farmer was much too frugal to waste precious diesel driving a stranger to town. Then there was Assumpta's reaction. Whoever he was, one thing was crystal clear, he was no stranger to Assumpta. Before Kathleen had a chance to ruminate further, Assumpta and the man noticed her watching them. They waved. Surprised, Kathleen waved back. She couldn't just stand there, now that they had seen her. Reluctantly, she went inside the shop, but hurriedly went to the window, fussing with a product poster so she could still watch them. They dealt with the broken glass and stood talking. He was considerably taller than Assumpta and tilted his head to see her eyes. He took her hands in his, earnestly. Then to Kathleen's utter astonishment, Assumpta stepped into his arms. The man held her tightly for a few seconds, then he kissed the top of her head. They went into the pub. Very, very interesting. Kathleen watched for a while but one by one customers took her from the window. Later she noticed the backpack was no longer leaning against the pub and Assumpta's van was no where to be see. If Kathleen were a swearing woman.....
At lunch time she heard Brendan hammering on the pub door and calling for Assumpta. No one opened the door and eventually he gave up. A few minutes later Brendan was rummaging through the sandwiches in Kathleen's refrigerator case.
"Don't often see you in here at lunch time, Brendan."
"Well Kathleen, I usually have a hot lunch at Fitzgerald's but for some reason Assumpta's not open today."
Kathleen smiled slyly as she put his money in the till.
"I don't suppose You would know why?"
Kathleen smiled again. Not for a second did she consider keeping this morning's scene to herself.
"I couldn't say for certain, mind you, but it might be that she went off with that man."
Brendan was surprised. "What man?"
Kathleen recounted what she had seen earlier on the street with only minor flourishes, but as the day drew on the tall man grew scruffy and their encounter passionate.
Niamh was surprised at the large number of customers in the pub that evening. Liam and Donal took places at the bar.
"What will it be boys?"
"A pint please, Niamh."
Liam leaned close to Donal and whispered something. Shock showed clearly on Donal's face.
"Is it true, then?"
"Is what true, Donal?" Niamh asked.
"That Assumpta has run off with a gypsy!"
Niamh slammed the pint down on the bar, beer slopping out. "Where did you get a ridiculous idea like that?"
Donal looked at Liam. Niamh, in turn glared at Liam. Liam held up his hands. "I had it straight from Timmy Joe," he said defensively, "he was at Kathleen's this afternoon. She saw the whole thing."
"Exactly, what did she see?" Niamh demanded.
"Assumpta and this gypsy canoodling right out front."
"Liam, don't you know better than to listen to anything Kathleen says about Assumpta?" Niamh shook her in head in despair. "Do you honestly believe that Assumpta Fitzgerald would...what did you call it? CANOODLE with anyone, much less a gypsy, on the street...and in front of Kathleen!"
"When you put it like that, it does sound a little strange..."
"A little strange, ha! You just better hope that Assumpta doesn't hear about you spreading Kathleen's garbage or you'll end up barred for life."
Liam blanched, after all Ballykay was a one bar village.
Assumpta had started the day with a mix of elation and trepidation. On the one hand, Peter was back and he had made it clear that there were no longer any barriers between them. On the other, by now the entire village must know about yesterday. There was no faster news service than Kathleen and she'd had a front row seat. She had even waved. Assumpta braced herself for the inevitable questions and insinuations but to her surprise no one even mentioned Peter. It wasn't until Niamh told her about the gypsy rumor that she understood. Somehow Kathleen hadn't recognized Peter. Assumpta didn't understand how that was possible. After all it's not like regular clothes and a week old beard were much of a disguise. A gypsy! Wait until she told Peter!
Michael pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and waved it at the four other occupants of the pub. "I've had a letter from Peter!"
"Good news for a change, I hope."
"How's he doing?"
Michael smiled, "Better, much better. It sounds like he's finally made peace with himself."
"Not blaming himself anymore?"
"No Siobhan, I think he's finally accepted that his leaving the church had nothing to do with his mother's death."
"What's he going to do now?"
"That's the best part. He said he would drop in sometime and buy us all a pint."
"He's coming home!"
"That's what he said."
"It's a shame." Brendan said shaking his head.
"What's a shame, Brendan?"
"I'm not following you."
"Why couldn't Peter have sorted himself sooner?"
"Well, think about it. Niamh's behind that bar more in the last week than Assumpta."
"Well, it's fairly obvious, isn't it. She seeing someone...Isn't she, Niamh."
"I can't say, Brendan." Niamh said noncommittedly.
"You mean you think there is a shred of truth in Kathleen's rumor."
Brendan nodded reluctantly.
"Even so, what has that got to do with Peter?"
Brendan looked at Padraig with dismay. How blind was the man? "If you had to pick one person in Ballykay, who would you say was Peter's best friend?"
Padraig looked at each of the others in turn. "Assumpta."
Brendan smiled, maybe Padraig wasn't so dumb after all. "Okay. Now, not counting Niamh here...who would you say was the one person in this village that could always talk Assumpta around."
"Peter." Padraig said without hesitation.
"Right...I just hoped that once Peter was out of the church, he and Assumpta..."
Peter closed the car door and held out his hand to Assumpta. "Come on. I want to show you something."
Assumpta took his hand and followed him to a small rock outcropping. Peter jestered to the valley below. Assumpta looked down to the valley and back to Peter's animated face.
"Magic." They said in unison. Strange how many thoughts they had in common even after all the months apart.
Peter put his arm around her and leaned his cheek against her head. "Do you remember that first morning when you picked me up in the rain? You stopped the van right over there so I could see the village. It was so beautiful. I remember thinking...I'm home....I never thought I'd feel like that. I never want to leave again."
It suddenly began to sprinkle. By the time they reached the car, it was pouring.
"Why did you wait so long to come home?"
"Guilt.." he said honestly. "When I was at that retreat, I wasn't reflecting on God and the church. I was wishing I was with you, here in Ballykay. So when my mother died the day after I officially left the church, it was like God was punishing me. It took me a long time to work through that. I'm just glad that you were still here."
"I almost wasn't."
Peter swallowed hard. "What happened?"
"It doesn't really matter, does it?"
Assumpta took a deep breath. She hated the thought of dredging it all up again. Still... "We didn't exactly spell things out before you left."
Peter nodded in agreement.
"At first I was sure that you were going to leave the church but the days kept going by and I never heard a word from you. Fr Mac started dropping by the pub almost every day...saying how well you were getting along...how your faith and vocation had been restored....then he said that you had gone home to England and wouldn't be coming back."
"But that's not how it was."
"I know that now, but back then..."
"I'm so sorry."
Assumpta patted his hand. "It's alright. I understand...So anyway, about then Leo Mc Garvey came to cover another story...."
"Leo had been trying to get me to marry him since we were at University."
"Well, my life had pretty much turned to ashes by then. I hadn't heard a word from you in months and the prospect of spending the rest of my life alone, behind that bar wasn't all that appealing. I decided to make a whole new life. Leo asked me to marry him again. I said yes...It nearly gave him a heart attack."
"You were going to marry Leo?" Peter said, sincerely shaken.
"Yep...I had it all planned. Brian was going to buy the pub, Leo and I were going to live in London...I was never going to think of you again...We had this huge engagement party at the pub. Everything was great until the end when Michael mentioned that he had gotten a letter from you. The one about you leaving the church and then your mother dying. After the party, Leo said we had to talk...He had been watching my face while Michael was talking about you. Leo knew what I hadn't been willing to admit...He went to London alone. Nobody has mentioned him in months."
Peter put his arms around her. "I'm so sorry. I was so caught up in the things happening to me, I never thought that you might not be here when I got back." Peter ran his fingers across her cheek.
"I almost lost you..."
Assumpta had been in the pub so little in the last three weeks that Brendan was surprised to see her when he stopped in for lunch.
"Hi ya, Brendan."
"I was beginning to think you'd left Ballykay for good."
"Would I do that without saying goodbye to you?"
"Hope not...Can I talk to you seriously for a minute?"
"Sure." Assumpta came around the bar and sat down next to him. "Is everything ok? It's not Siobhan or the baby, is it?"
Taken off guard, Brendan floundered for a second. "No, no everything is right on course with Siobhan and the baby. It's you I'm worried about."
"ME? Things couldn't be better with me."
"I'm concerned about this fella you're seeing."
"He's not good enough for you."
Assumpta took Brendan's hand. "And how would you know that?"
"If there wasn't something wrong with him, you wouldn't be hiding him from us."
"You've been my friend and protector since I was in nappies. I love you for it. But, I want you to trust me on this. I know what I'm doing...I'm happy."
"And if he breaks your heart?"
"Then I'll send you after him." Assumpta kissed his cheek. "Be happy for me, Brendan, please."
Brendan smiled half heartedly. "Do I ever get to meet him?"
"Not until I'm sure you won't have him tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail."
"Are you sure about this?"
"The you and me part, most definitely." Peter said kissing her lightly. "It's the going downstairs part that's got me sick to my stomach."
"Don't worry, I have Brendan's solemn oath that he won't harm a hair on your gypsy head unless you break my heart. Then all bets are off."
"Then we have nothing to worry about."
"You aren't the only one that is nervous. Seems like everyone I know has managed to pull me aside for a little heart to heart. The general idea being that I should throw my secret lover over and wait for a better man. At least half of them asking if I had heard that a certain well liked, former priest was coming home."
The private party sign hung on the pub door. Inside all of Assumpta's
closest friends waited anxiously, tonight they were finally going to meet
her mystery man. Assumpta and Peter held hands, took a deep breath and
started down the stairs.