At the End of All Things
by Sarah Warren
Peter raised a hand upwards. Even in the pale glow of one bedside lamp it was clear, and came as no surprise to him to see how old it looked now. Gently, he touched the face of the woman standing over him, and ran his fingers through strands of grey hair, falling about her shoulders. The woman smiled and his heart missed a beat, just as it always had done. She took his hand and kissed it before intertwining it with her own; two gold bands touching briefly as she did so.
“Assumpta,” he said – or tried to say. Instead, what escaped the man’s lips was a very faint whisper which triggered a nasty cough, and another, and another. He gripped her hand tightly, gasping for breath. Expertly, Assumpta squeezed his hand back, just as hard; supporting him in both senses of the word.
“Peter,” she soothed. “Peter, it’s OK. Breathe.” She stroked his forehead with the back of her free hand. “It’s OK,” she murmured.
Gradually, his breathing became steady and rhythmic once more, and his grip on Assumpta’s hand lessened. When he opened his eyes, he managed a weak smile. She reached over to the bedside table, and took up a glass of water, then seated herself on the side of the bed. Assumpta gave Peter’s hand a comforting squeeze, then let go in order to support his head and help him to take a sip of water. He drank gratefully, though not with ease. As he did so, he studied her face, just as he had done every day for the last 50 years. There was no doubt that Assumpta Clifford had aged since they’d first met, and yet to him she looked just as perfect. Her eyesight had had eventually deteriorated enough for her to need glasses, though she wasn’t wearing them now, and there were lines on her face. Her complexion, however, was still as pale and clear as a young maiden’s and her eyes just as striking as ever.
When Assumpta had first called Peter into the bathroom in horror, some twenty years previously, exclaiming that she was getting wrinkles, he had smiled and told her that he could see nothing. He also said that, even if she were to get wrinkles, they would be from smiling, and should therefore be treasured. She had tried desperately not to smile, opening her mouth to argue, but by now Peter was far too well trained, and silenced her before she’d even started; putting a finger to her lips and kissing her forehead. To that, she had no retort, and merely gave him a look that said “I love you”, which, over the years, had overtaken the “I’m trying to stay angry, so don’t you dare make me laugh” stare, as Peter’s favourite look of all.
Then when she’d first mentioned dying the grey from her hair, Peter had looked at her in utter horror. She enquired after his expression and he’d replied, “I love your hair, Assumpta; it’s part of you. Don’t change it.” It had taken a little while for her to understand what he meant, but never again did she consider colouring her hair.
Now approaching seventy-five, Assumpta’s hair was completely grey (though he would tell her it was just a different shade of auburn). Peter’s hair, still as thick and as full as is wife’s, was as white as the snow now falling outside in Ballykissangel. When first it had turned, Assumpta had teased him, asking when the seven dwarves would be home. But however long and hard he looked, Peter couldn’t help but see the same young woman who had called him a “Hippie Priest” and whom he’d grown to love more than life itself, staring back at him. She was his Assumpta, his world and no amount of time could change that.
He finished drinking, and Assumpta helped him gently back onto the pillow.
“I’m sorry,” he wheezed.
“Hush. I’ll hear no more apologies from you,” she scolded; but there was nothing but love in her voice. Peter gave her a lopsided smile in response. They sat in silence for a couple of moments. Assumpta’s eyes wandered upwards, to the large wedding photo above the bed, and she gave a heavy sigh.
“Sometimes, I would swear it was only yesterday,” she said, quietly. Peter took her hand in his once more in way of response. She studied the face of the young Peter Clifford in the photo and, at the touch of his hand, returned her gaze to the dying man in front of her. Peter registered that there were tears in her eyes, and frowned slightly.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Don’t cry, please don’t cry.” Though his voice was only a whisper, the conviction in his words was enough to set her tears free.
“Oh Peter!” she sobbed. “Peter! I’m just so ... everything’s been so perfect. Our life. Together. Looking back it was so fast. How did we get here? When I was young, I thought I’d always be alone. I could never have dreamed that I’d have half the life that I’ve led with you.”
By this point, a steady stream of tears was running down Assumpta’s cheeks. Peter wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and comfort her, but he had neither the strength, nor the ability. He hushed her soothingly, and motioned to the right hand side of him. Still weeping silently, Assumpta stood and walked slowly around the bed, before sliding carefully under the blankets.
Everything hurt Peter, these days. His joints were painful, and the weakness he felt meant he could barely move. Being Peter, though, he never complained; he’d been blessed for enough throughout his life to want for anything more. Right now, however, for the first time, he was upset, and becoming angry. Not with God, not with old age but with himself. How had he let himself get into a state where he couldn’t comfort his own wife?! Assumpta lay next to him, her face shining with fresh tears, and her eyes closed, trying to conceal it. His brow furrowed; had he the strength, he’d probably have cried himself. But this wasn’t about him. He gathered all the will-power he had and reached across to her with his right arm. Her hair, after all these years, still fell in slightly untidy, but ever beautiful ringlets to her shoulders. He stroked her hair, and then ran his forefinger along her jaw bone. At this, Assumpta’s eyes snapped open and she gazed across at him. She knew how much effort this single movement must have taken, and she gave him a loving, watery smile. Peter let his hand rest on her shoulder.
“Don’t be sad, Assumpta. Just remember all the good times.”
She shuffled closer, making it easier for him to reach and not to have to strain. He wrapped his arm gently around her neck, and let his eyes fall closed.
“Go on, Assumpta, tell me about them,” he whispered. Assumpta thought – where to start?
“Do you remember what you said to me, when they first handed you Laoise?”
She paused, looking at him; he was there in the hospital room. He stood next to a tired Assumpta; he had his arms around her, and kept kissing the top of her head. His eyes, however, were gazing in wonder at the bundle of pink blankets that a nurse was carrying over to them. It all seemed to be in slow motion for Peter; every second felt like a minute and it felt like it would never happen...but eventually, the nurse reached him, and handed to him their first child. Carefully, as though she were glass, he took her from the smiling, student nurse, and peered at her tiny face. Peter was taken aback by just how much she resembled her mother – the same features, and a shock of auburn hair. Secretly, Peter was hoping that, one day, Laoise would have the same fiery personality, too, but however she was, she would be perfect.
Upon seeing the little girl, he’d gasped, and on exhaling, he turned to look at his wife, then back at his daughter and said, “Oh, Assumpta- I think you’ve got competition.” Assumpta had grinned, and mocked being affronted. The nurses had laughed quietly. She’d often teased him about it, but really she thought it rather sweet.
The old man smiled. Assumpta knew exactly what he was re-living; she had done the same thing many times.
“I believe 'Would you ever bog off?' was your exact response,” Peter croaked, opening his eyes briefly to smile at his wife; and she gazed into them for as long as she could without blinking. They’d never stop taking her breath away. He closed his eyes once more when she started to speak.
“That day when you’d taken Laoise and Chris to dancing lessons, and arrived to a darkened hall. You thought you were just early, and went about entertaining them with your very own style of Irish dancing...only to have 30 kids and their parents laugh at you from the back of the room. Trust us to be the only ones not to remember Mrs O’Connell’s surprise party.”
She glanced at her husband. His lips curved into a small smile, but this time his eyes didn’t open. She surveyed his face, sadly.
Is it possible to love someone this much, for so long? she thought. He wants to hear about the significant times, Assumpta. No more skirting around them. Her face gritted in sad determination. It was going to be the most painful thing she’d ever had to do; to talk about the happiest moments in her life, when the man she had lived them with, was slipping away from her with every moment. But it’s what he needed to hear, and for him, she’d do anything.
Assumpta swallowed, willing herself not to give in to the emotion building up inside her; the tidal wave of grief and melancholy happiness which was threatening to take her over once more.
“Laoise’s wedding,” she managed; she had to start somewhere. She took a shuddering breath.
“You were so proud, you couldn’t stop smiling; I’d never seen you like that before. It made me smile just to watch you.” Assumpta’s own eyes closed, visualising. “She looked so beautiful, and so grown up. I couldn’t believe it was our own little girl walking down that aisle...with you.” Her eyes screwed up – her daughter’s wedding was rapidly becoming her own in her memory. She hadn’t wanted to talk about theirs, not now. It was too much. But she couldn’t keep the memories out –they were flooding in; riding on that wave of emotion.
“You,” she whispered. “Brendan walked me down the length of St Joseph’s, and you, Peter, you were the only one I couldn’t look at. Not until I reached the altar; and when I did ...” Assumpta could hear own footsteps on the stone, the organ music and Niamh’s excited whispers from behind her. She could see her old friends; Padraig with Kevin, and Siobhan holding Aisling; Brian, Eamonn, and Ambrose was there, too, with Kieran, and everyone was smiling. Brendan nudged her, and she looked up – into the face of Peter Clifford – gazing at her with a heart-stopping gaze that only he could. Then, for the first time since she’d fallen off her bike outside her parents’ pub when she was 11, Assumpta Fitzgerald cried in public. “...and I couldn’t stop, all the way through the service – I couldn’t believe I was finally going to be happy. I couldn’t believe I was marrying the most wonderful person I’d ever met.” Assumpta sighed, half contentedly, half mournfully.
“Then at the reception, you wouldn’t let go of my hand. It was like you were clinging onto a dream, and I knew exactly how you felt. I mocked frustration, of course, but I told you later that I wanted nothing more than for you told onto my hand for the rest of my life. It was the happiest, most wonderful day of my life. You said then that you couldn’t decide between that and the day we met. I wonder if you’ve ever decided? That crazy, rainy, Irish day back in 1996. Oh, Peter. I ...”
“I love you, Assumpta.” Peter’s voice was barely audible. She opened her eyes and reached for his hand.
“I love you, Peter,” she choked out. She squeezed his hand, but he didn’t do the same. She tried again, but Peter was still. Slowly, she turned to face him. He smiled, even now, but that was all. Assumpta moved closer. She kissed his cheek, and rested her head against his. She could not be sad. She had promised him she would not be. He knew where he was going...and she hoped she knew where she was going, too.
“Oh Peter...” she breathed, as a silent tear traced a line down her face. But Peter was not there.
Peter Clifford stumbled through what, in his opinion, could only be described as Irish fog – like English fog but soggier! The Irish were world experts in everything to do with wet weather. In fact, if he didn’t know better, Peter would say it was starting to rain. He laughed at the thought. His body, however, felt great – his back and limbs didn’t hurt at all and, if it weren’t for the fog, he’d say his eyesight could be as good as when he had first left England. Suddenly, his feet came into contact with something tangible. “Tarmac?!” he thought out loud. The patch of tarmac, however, was fast becoming a road, stretching far out in front of Peter, and out of sight. The mist was clearing, too, forming colours – predominantly, green. Peter stood still; letting it happen (whatever ‘it’ was). Within a minute or two, the fog had completely cleared, and the rain became heavier.
Peter looked down at himself and smiled – checked shirt, jeans and brown boots; and his hands! They looked so young. Looking up, he was stunned to see a glorious view – mountains and valleys for as far as he could see. The rain did not detract from the beauty; in fact it rather enhanced it. Peter just stared for a moment, absorbing the atmosphere. Then, upon deciding that he’d better work out where he was, his eyes caught sight of a church spire, peeking out from the bottom of the valley in the distance. He grinned. He’d often wondered what Heaven would look like ... and never realised how familiar it would be! There was only one thing missing ...
A split second later, he heard a car coming down the mountain road behind him. He turned towards the sound and his heart leaped in joy and surprise. The small blue van pulled up beside him and the beautiful, auburn haired occupant would down the window.
“Assumpta?” he half-questioned, stepping towards the van.
“No, Father Mac!” she replied, rolling her eyes and giving him a wry smile.
“I told you I wouldn’t leave you,” she added, quietly. He shook his head, but beamed at her; it was like nothing had ever changed. Except...
Suddenly, panic shot across his face, and he raised a hand quickly to his neck.
“You’re all clear,” Assumpta reassured him, with just a hint of sarcasm. Peter sighed in relief as he felt only his open-necked shirt. Maybe things weren’t quite the same, after all.
“Now,” said Assumpta, grinning mischievously. Peter looked at her, questioningly. “Can I give you a lift? ... I’m er ... I’m going to Ballykissangel...”