"Fr Clifford!" shouted Fr Mac as he stormed through the sacristy door. Finding the room empty only further enraged him. He threw open the outside door so violently that it slammed against the wall and bounced back into him, nearly knocking him off his feet. "I'll have his ears for this!" he muttered. He stalked to his car and slapped his hands hard against the top, "Blast him!" He headed the car towards Fitzgerald's, convinced he would find Fr Clifford there, undoubtably doing something else to disgrace the church. Moments later Fr Mac stopped his car in the middle of the street, unable to believe his eyes. There in front of the pub, atop a 20 foot ladder, stood Peter Clifford fixing a colorful banner to the wall. On the ground below him Liam held the ladder and Donal held the rest of the banner. So intent were they on the task at hand, that none of them noticed Fr Mac pull up.
"Fr Clifford!!" he screamed.
Fr Mac's shout startled Peter and he lost his balance. The ladder swayed violently. If Liam hadn't been holding it tightly Peter would surely have fallen.
"Get...down... here!" fumed Fr Mac.
Peter regained his balance and leaned his head against the wall, trying to calm his pounding heart.
"Good grief, Fr Mac, you gave me quite a scare."
"I said, get down here! Now!"
That had been much too close thought Liam, as he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. Peter looked at Fr Mac as he cautiously descended the ladder. He had never seen Fr Mac so upset, his face was bright red, a vein throbbed in his forehead, even his fists were clenched . Something was very wrong. Peter was barely half way down the ladder when Fr Mac started his tirade.
"I won't have it! I know what you are up to. You won't get away with it."
Peter was flabbergasted. He had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to done this time.
"I'm sorry Fr Mac, I don't..."
"I know what you're up to," interrupted Fr Mac,"I know. I tell you...I know."
Liam, who still holding the ladder had to step to one side to let Peter down. He and Donal watched, round eyed. As Peter stepped to the ground, Fr Mac stood directly in front of him.
His face only inches away from Peter's.
"You..."He said poking Peter forcefully in the chest with a forefinger.
"What did I do?" Peter asked.
"Don't play innocent with me."
"Fr Mac, I really have no idea..."
Fr Mac raised a clenched fist and began to pound on Peter's chest. Surprised, Peter grabbed Fr Mac's wrists to prevent a further onslaught.
Shocked and embarrassed at being berated and assaulted, Peter spoke softly. "Fr Mac, please...calm down...let's talk..."
Fr Mac pulled himself free, a look of disgust on his face."I know what's going on..." then suddenly with the back of his hand he hit Peter across the face, cutting his cheek. "You don't deserve to be a Priest." he spat.
Liam and Donal exchanged a look of astonishment. Peter put his hand to his cheek, a drop of blood smeared his fingers. He looked at the blood and then at Fr Mac. This couldn't be happening.
"I'm going to have you out of my parish, out of the church, out of Ireland!"
Fr Mac saw the small trickle of blood running down Peter's cheek and began to laugh shrilly. Peter turned and walked briskly away. Liam and Donal watched as Fr Mac got in his car and drove away, laughing.
"Have we been drinking?"
"Well, there's where we went wrong."
They went into the pub and wasted no time in filling in the other patrons on the scene that had just taken place. When they got to the part about the blood on Peter's cheek, Brendan stood.
"I think I'll run over and have a word with Peter. Make sure he's okay."
Siobhan turned to Liam,"What was it all about?"
Liam took a long drink of his pint. "I haven't a clue and I don't think Fr Clifford did either."
"Fr Mac's always been a little over the top but to slap another Priest and in public..." Padraig said shaking his head.
"That wasn't the weirdest part. You should have heard him laughing."
"He was laughing?"
"Yep, when he saw the blood he started this strange laugh."
"He was still laughing when he drove away," chimed in Donal.
"Sounds like he flipped his lid."
"I didn't know Priests did that," said Donal, in all sincerity.
They were all still there when Brendan returned . "Peter wasn't up at the church or at his house. Did he say where he was going?"
"No, he didn't say anything, he just walked away."
Ambrose was looking forward to lunch as he drove back from Cilldargen. Spending the morning in court was one of his least favorite duties. He was thinking of a large bowl of the homemade soup that Niamh often had simmering in the crock pot when she subbed for Assumpta . Suddenly, a black sedan came flying around the curve ahead of him, much too fast and in Ambrose's lane. He had to cut the wheel sharply to avoid the sedan. The Garda car skidded on the rain slick pavement and bumped off into a field. Fortunately he was unhurt.
Ordinarily Ambrose was a man not easily angered, that was one of the things that made him a good police officer. Careless stupidity made his blood boil. A driver less skilled than himself could have been injured, needlessly. The driver of that sedan had a lot to answer for.
Ambrose carefully guided his car back onto the road and began to pursue the sedan. It had already committed at least 4 violations. Ambrose didn't see the sedan for several miles. The driver ignored his lights and siren. Ambrose tried to over take him but the road was far from obliging. Ambrose realized that the road ahead was much too dangerous for the speed they were traveling. He slowed considerably and once again lost sight of the fleeing vehicle.
Moments later he saw where the sedan had lost control on a curve and left the road. The sedan had rolled several times. Ambrose radioed for an ambulance. He took his first aid kit and rushed over to the car.
Fr Mac was trapped beneath the steering wheel, unconscious. They were going to need the cutters to get him out. Whatever could have possessed Fr Mac. He got back on the radio and requested that someone call Ballyk and get a hold of Fr Clifford.
In the early days of Peter's life in the church everything, every rule, every ritual, every ideal seemed cast in concrete. The possibility if fallibility or doubt never entered his mind. Now so many of those 'truths' seemed as believable as fairies and sea monsters. How had he been so blind to himself. He walked slowly along the road, unaware of the rain or even where he was going. When Fr Mac's ring had cut open his cheek, it was as if a veil had been lifted. He could no longer imagine his life constrained by the edicts of the church. For months it had been a constant struggle to prevent himself from telling Assumpta how he really felt and to hell with the consequences. It was just a good thing she had gone to Cilldargen this morning, because the mood he was in.....
Peter found himself standing in front of the Madonna's statue. He had no idea how he gotten to the grotto. He had always found solace there before, maybe he had come to the right place after all.
"Show me the way." he pleaded silently.
Peter looked up half believing the Madonna had spoken to him.
The voice came from behind him, he turned to find Assumpta coming towards him, a worried look on her face.
"Assumpta!" he said softly.
"Peter...what happened to your face?" she said reaching out to touch it.
He covered her hand with his own."It's nothing," he said still holding her hand.
"Where's your car?"
He looked with surprise at the road in front of the grotto, empty except for Assumpta's green van.
"I guess it's still at my house."
"You walked all this way in the rain! You don't even have a jacket."
Peter smiled sheepishly. "Didn't notice," he said. "I was thinking about something important."
"What could have been that important?"
"You," he said to himself.
The rain was coming down very hard. Assumpta didn't understand what had come over Peter but she didn't think standing in the pouring rain would help. He was still holding her hand, she pulled him along to the van.
"No...I need to tell you something."
"Tell me in the van."
Peter got in the van. Assumpta rummaged around until she found a towel. She handed it to Peter. She started the engine and turned the heater all the way up. Peter dried his hair with the towel. Assumpta watched him cautiously, still not understanding why he was so different. She took the towel and turned his face to see the cut on his cheek. When their eyes met she was shocked by the look that passed between them. To cover, she dabbed gently at the wound.
"Sumpta," he said almost choking on the emotion he had bottled up.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked.
He put his hand to the side of her face and caressed the curve of her cheek. Their eyes met. Tension in the van was suddenly very high. Butterflies attacked Assumpta's stomach. She was terribly afraid of making a fool of herself again, like she felt she had during the rehearsal of the play and again that night they had been alone in the pub. Those times she had been convinced that he had wanted to be with her as much as she had wanted to be with him. She had been wrong. She wasn't going to allow herself to be burned again. Peter leaned slowly forward. Assumpta watched mesmerized. It seemed to take an eternity for Peter's lips to reach hers. She couldn't believe it was happening. The kiss when it finally came was so different than her fantasy, so much better. Peter realized that they had both known it would be like this from the beginning. There was no going back now. No way to return to the facade of being just friends. One kiss turned into many and the windows began to fog up.
Several sudden blasts of a horn startled them apart. Seconds later Jimmy Joe appeared at Assumpta's window.
"Assumpta," he said as she rolled down the window, "have you seen....Oh Father there you are. Half of Ballyk is out looking for you."
It occurred to Peter that it was fortunate that the rain was a heavy curtain and the grotto was well off the beaten path or he and Assumpta could have been quite embarrassed. Nothing to engender the faithful like catching the curate necking in a parked car.
"You win the scavenger hunt, Jimmy Joe. Here I am."
Jimmy Joe was a little surprised at Peter's attitude, but then all priests were a bit of a mystery to him.
"You're needed in Cilldargen, right away, father."
Fr Mac must want his head pretty badly to send out a search party. Well, he would have something so say to Fr Mac.
"Fr Mac's crashed his car. They want you at the hospital."
Guilt flooded Peter. Assumpta blanched.
"Do you want me to run you over there Father?"
"That's okay Jimmy Joe, I'll take him,"Assumpta said.
"Okay, see ya," he said and sprinted back to his truck through the rain. It occurred to him that Fr Clifford and Assumpta had seemed very strained. He must have interrupted another one of their arguments. Strange place for an argument, he thought as he drove away. Assumpta had seen the flood of guilt sweep over Peter. She was certain that he would blame Fr Mac's accident on the moments they had just shared. There was no going back and now there would be no going further. Assumpta decided that the last half hour had never happened. It was the only way she could hope to survive. She put the van in gear, Peter put his hand on her arm.
Assumpta gently shook her head. "Peter...I..."
"Okay," he said simply.
She looked wide eyed at him, then drove off. When Peter could no longer stand to watch, he stared out the rain streaked window, all his worlds colliding and falling down around him.
Peter placed the stole around his neck and leaned over Fr Mac. It had only been a few hours since the scene in the street and yet so many things would never be the same. As Peter finished giving Fr Mac the last rites, his eyes opened, focused on Peter with a baleful glare, "I...know... what...you're...up...to." His eyes closed. Peter wondered what Fr Mac had been talking about. He had gone over his actions and behavior for several weeks prior and could find nothing to draw the Parish Priest's ire. What took place or nearly took place in Assumpta's van didn't count because that had been hours afterwards. Peter folded the stole and looked once more at Fr Mac. It seemed unlikely he would ever know now.
When the bishop had asked him to cover both Ballyk and Cilldargen until a new parish priest could be chosen, Peter had known he would be busy. Busy didn't even come close to describing it. He had spent the last three weeks rushing from Ballyk to Cilldargen and back again. He raced from mass to classes, to the hospital, to meetings and on to appointments. Though it seemed to Peter he spent most of his time on the road, perpetually running late.
His thoughts returned again and again to Fr Mac and Assumpta. Peter had been unable to find the trigger to Fr Mac's last furor. He knew only that he had not been its only recipient. As for Assumpta, the longer it was before they talked about that afternoon the more difficult it would be. There was so much left unsaid. He missed those evenings in the pub, the endless arguments, just being with his friends and near her.
His presence was missed in Ballyk, too. While his parishioners understood his absence, they missed having Peter around, his friendly chats and real interest. But he was missed most in the pub. The evening's conversation wasn't as lively, everyone seemed subdued. After the first week, Brendan and Siobhan stopping staying until closing. Without them Padraig lost interest as well, some evenings he didn't even bother to come in. So the last hour or so before closing, Assumpta was often alone. The extra time alone was hard on her. Her mind turning back again and again to that afternoon in the rain, Peter's hand on her cheek and the things she had thought she read in his eyes, and oh.. those kisses!!! The pub had been empty most of the night and Assumpta gave up any hope of another customer and locked the door. Seconds later there was a knock.
"Sorry we're closed," she said wearily.
"When did you change your hours?"
"Peter?" she said opening the door for him.
Peter closed the door behind him, relaxing for the first time in weeks. Seeing him standing there Assumpta suddenly realized how much she had missed him. Neither of them seemed to know how to start.
"What can I get you?"
Peter hesitated, watching her. When their eyes met, he smiled and color came up in her face. Assumpta quickly went behind the bar to cover the awkwardness.
"Whatever you're having."
She poured two glasses of white wine and handed Peter one as she came back around the bar.
"You look exhausted," she said as they sat.
"Have you eaten? I could..." she said starting to rise.
Peter put his hand on hers to stay her. "No, thanks...I'd rather just talk."
"Okay." She looked at his hand still covering hers. "Is something wrong, Peter?"
"Only everything," he said softly.
"Life in the church not working out for you, then," she quipped, trying to lighten the mood.
He looked at her as if his heart would break. "Hasn't been for a long time."
Assumpta was shocked. In all the confused emotional mishmash surrounding her feelings for him she had never once considered that possibility. Peter picked up her hand and held it in both of his.
"You know how I feel about you, Assumpta."
"How would I know that?"
Peter blinked in surprise. How would she know that? He thought his feelings had been clear. "You're all I think about. I..."
"Peter," she said very softly.
He didn't think he had ever heard his name spoken like that before. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. There seemed no safer place in the world than standing there in each others arms.
"I love you, Assumpta. I can't make it without you," he whispered.
A tear formed in Assumpta's eye, nothing else seem to matter now.
Peter spent several hours in the church before going home to wander from room to room until morning. Just before mass he called the pub.
"Did I wake you?"
"No, I couldn't sleep."
"Neither could I."
"Haven't changed your mind, have you?"
"No...just wanted to make sure I hadn't dreamed the whole thing."
Assumpta put Siobhan's lunch on the bar in front of her. Brendan sat down beside her and took a deep sniff of the plate.
"Looks good, Assumpta. I'll have the same."
"Sure thing, Brendan."
The phone rang and Assumpta rushed into the kitchen to answer it. Several minutes later she came back into the bar empty handed.
"What will it be, Brendan?"
Brendan gave her a bemused look.. "I'll have what Siobhan's having."he said
Assumpta went back into the kitchen.
"Have you noticed anything strange about her lately?"
Siobhan wiped her mouth on the napkin. "Do you mean the land speed records to answer the phone, the absent mindedness, or the disappearing tricks?"
"What do you suppose it's all about?"
"You honestly don't know?"
"Assumpta? What man?"
"There you have me. But it's love if I ever saw it."
Brendan looked at her with sudden understanding. "I think maybe you're right." He picked the pickle off her plate and ate it. "Any ideas on the lucky man?"
Assumpta came through the kitchen door carrying Brendan's lunch. "What lucky man?"
"We were just wondering about the big winner at the dog track last night."
It was nearly midnight, but Peter was anxiously waiting at the lake when Assumpta drove up.
"Hi ya," he said pulling into his arms. His mood was infectious.
Kathleen was expounding to a couple of customers when Assumpta came into the shop.
"I think it's simply disgraceful. Replacing a wonderful man like Fr Mac, God rest him, with someone like Fr Clifford. I dare say the Bishop will discover that soon enough."
Assumpta stood in front of the register."2 Kitkat bars, please Kathleen. Did I hear you say Fr Clifford is going to be the new P.P.?"
Kathleen nodded. "My sister is housekeeper for Fr Collins in Wicklow. She reckons they're just waiting for the new curate before they make the announcement."
Assumpta looked thoughtful. "Isn't Fr Clifford kind of young for P.P.?"
"Too young if you ask me. But then the Bishop is a young man himself. He may have plans for Fr Clifford."
Assumpta took her change and left the shop. She walked down to the bridge and watched the water. Parish Priest! Someday it might be Bishop. Peter had a future in the church. Something he had wanted all his life. Could she let him ruin it? If it came down to a choice between her and the church...She resolved to make the most of the time they had left.
Peter and Assumpta sat together in front of the fire. Something was bothering her. She had hardly said a word in the last hour. Peter had been waiting for the perfect moment but it obviously wasn't coming tonight and he just couldn't wait to share his news .
"I spoke to the Bishop tonight."
He felt her body tense as she waited for the axe to fall. "Oh?'
"He finally chose a P.P."
Assumpta caught her breath. It was true. She tried to put a brave face on it for him. She didn't want to ruin the little time they had left. "Congratulations."
"Thanks," he said smiling, "but I turned it down."
Assumpta turned in his arms to see his face."What!"
"I told him it was too far from my local."
Assumpta couldn't believe her ears. "Peter what's going on?"
"I told him about us."
"I'm leaving the church. Fr Collins will be the new P.P."
"I think it's time we make some decisions."
Niamh and Assumpta sat on Niamh's livingroom floor playing with Kieran. Assumpta was very nervous and kept her eyes on the baby, carefully avoiding Niamh's.
"I'm going to miss him."
"What do you mean, miss him?" Niamh asked.
"I was thinking I might go away ...for awhile."
Niamh looked up in surprise. "But, I thought..."
Niamh softened, "You've been so happy lately, I just hoped ..."
"That you had met someone."
"Was I that obvious?"
Niamh nodded. "Everyone has noticed." Assumpta ran a hand through her hair. "Everyone is guessing who it might be."
Assumpta smiled wistfully, so much for her future as a secret agent.
"It hasn't gone bust, has it?"
"No, we haven't gone bust."
"Then why are you leaving?"
"Niamh, it's complicated."
"Oh my god! He's married, isn't he?"
"He is not married."
"I thought I was your best friend!"
"You are my best friend, Niamh, and I will tell you everything. Just not yet."
"Will I like him?"
"You already do."
Peter and Assumpta walked hand in hand down the Dublin street. "Any ideas?"
"Lots, just none that will work."
"We have to come up with something, soon."
"We could just go home, let everyone figure it out for themselves."
"A little too blunt, don't you think?"
"I know, have Niamh set up a VCR in the bar, show the videotape of the wedding we sent her and Ambrose."
Assumpta playfully punched him in the stomach, he kissed the top of her head and laughed
"Then you come up with something."
"Fr Clifford!" came a shout down the street.
They turned to find a blonde woman coming quickly behind them.
"Fr Clifford, it is you!" she said staring pointedly at Assumpta.
"Hello, Nora. Assumpta have you met Nora?"
"No, I don't think I have. Hello Nora."
"Assumpta," she said with a very familiar sneer.
"Nora is Fr Collins' housekeeper, Assumpta. How does he like being Parish Priest?"
"He's in his element father. We had heard that you were in the running."
"Fr Collins will do great. Wish we could stay and chat, but my wife and I are running very late. Nice to see you Nora."
Peter turned quickly and pulled Assumpta down the street. Nora stared open mouthed after them. After a few yards Peter put his arm around Assumpta's shoulder and laughed.
"How to tell the folks in Ballyk about us."
"How does telling the Parish Priest's housekeeper we're married solve anything?"
"Nora's Kathleen's sister."
"Oh my god, the whole county will know before we even get back to the hotel."
"You never said," Peter asked , "where are we going to live? Above the Pub or in a house and start a family??"