A Common Barmaid

by Thea McKee

Peter and Assumpta had come to Manchester to visit his family, and on Sunday morning, as his wife sat at the breakfast table with his sister and her husband, Peter went to change the baby. When he returned to the dining room, he murmured to Assumpta that he was going to take their daughter to church with him, hoping to introduce her to old friends and former parishioners. She raised an eyebrow. "Brave man," she said.

"No, everyone will be glad to see me again." He grinned.

"Maybe. Well, I hope so."

He kissed her goodbye and waved to the others. As he left the house, his ten-year old nephew came running out.

"I'll go with you, Unc," he said.

As they walked into the church, Peter was pleased to see his old friend William in the pulpit, and he and Tommy sat quietly down. He had always liked this church, and it was always a thrill for him to hear the words of the Mass; he was very glad he had come. As people began to go up to the rail to take communion, he tried to leave Josie with her cousin, but the baby protested loudly and so he approached the priest with her in his arms. Suddenly a loud voice broke the quiet of the sacrament.

"Travesty! For shame, Father, allowing this sinner to take communion!" The man turned angrily to accost Peter, preventing his access to the priest. "What kind of example do you set, a priest violating his vows, flaunting his sins in this house?"

Will spoke quietly but firmly. "Mr. Fables, you are interrupting a holy moment, will you please step aside?"

"I will not," the old man replied. "I always suspected this man of being a morally and spiritually weak priest when he served here. Never liked him, and I wasn't surprised that he had succumbed to some seductress. If you won't stop him from trying to take communion, I will."

Other people began to come closer, some obviously upset by the man's behavior, one or two others nodding approval. Father William gestured to two men standing nearby, and they each took hold of Mr. Fables, trying to escort him out peacefully. The protester refused, clearly enjoying the fuss he had created.

"This man betrayed the church, his vows, he is living in sin, and you would give him communion? For shame!"

"No, Mr. Fables, you are mistaken. Mr. Clifford is married, and in the Church, and he is as entitled to communion as you. This is God's house, and He welcomes all, with love and forgiveness. He will welcome you, too, if you can be quiet and respectful. If not, I will have to ask you to leave."

"Gladly!" The old man spat out the word and turned to leave, shaking off the men who were restraining him. "I will go to find a real priest." He spun around and faced Peter directly. "And I understand this…wife…you've brought back, is a common Irish barmaid."

Peter started to go after him, fists clenched, when he remembered the baby in his arms and his nephew, watching all this with open mouth. He shook his head in disgust, and began to walk away from the altar, until William called his name softly.

"Peter…and the rest of you who want communion, please…."

At the end of the service, Peter hoped to slip away but his old friend put out a hand to stop him. A group of people stood with the priest, and one man, whom he remembered from his days at this church, called to him.

"Peter! Please, stay and let us meet your daughter."

Several women came close, smiling at the baby who hid her face in her father's shoulder for a moment, before turning to smile back. "Peter, we want you to know that we welcome you, that that old crank spoke only for himself."

Another woman touched his arm and cooed at the baby, before addressing him. "Mr. Fables enjoys the attention he gets by saying awful things. I hope he never comes back."

A third woman said, "He's a lonely old man, and he thinks it's the only way he can get any attention, being obnoxious." There was a murmur of assent from the others.

Tommy, who had been deeply shocked by the scene in the church, stayed close to his uncle. He remembered his parents talking about how Mr. Fables seemed to enjoy provoking other people. He and his uncle stayed a bit longer now, chatting, then took their leave and headed off home.

"Tommy," his uncle said, "I think this had better stay quiet for now. Aunt Assumpta would be furious if she heard what happened here. Do you think you can wait till we're gone to talk to your family about it?"

"Okay," the boy said. "But, Uncle Peter, how could that man say Aunt Assumpta was `common'? She's a really smart lady."

"Yes, she is, and runs a business. You know, when she was at college, there were other things she was planning to do, careers she was going to pursue. Then her parents died, and the only thing resembling a family she had left was the pub. Our pub isn't only a place where people drink. It's like a community center, a restaurant too. All presided over by your aunt. There is nothing `common' about her. That old git just wanted to get my goat." He chuckled, shifting the baby to his other shoulder. "Almost did, too. I would have punched him if I weren't carrying Josie." He patted Tommy's arm. "Not what you'd expected, going to church with me, eh?"

The boy was quiet for a moment, then said, "Actually, sir, I did. I went with you to show that you have your family's support." Peter was surprised. "Really?"

"Well, not everyone, but there were a few people who said hurtful things to Mom and to others in the family. But Mom told me that it was an honorable decision you'd made, and that maybe the Church was going to have to rethink the business of priests not marrying, so many are leaving. And the seminaries are having a hard time getting and keeping men who might want to be priests. Other religions let their priests marry, right?"

"Right," Peter said gravely, enjoying having this conversation with his young nephew.

"Would you have stayed a priest, if it was allowed?"

His uncle laughed. "I'm not sure my wife could handle that," he said, "but I might have. I liked many things about it, and I think I was a good priest."

"I've heard that you were," Tommy said, and as they approached his home, they changed the subject.


The next afternoon, with a few hours to spare before they were to return home to Ballyk, Peter went to meet with William and Father Spenser, another old friend from his past. A third priest had joined them, and Peter was sure that they wanted to talk about his having left the priesthood. It was nice to find that this didn't make him in the least uneasy, that he was comfortable with his decision, happy to be married to the woman he loved and to have the chance to be a different kind of "father". He told the men as much, and Father Spenser then asked if he didn't miss the priesthood at all.

"Oh, there are things I loved about being a priest. Baptisms, I guess, would be something I miss. Confessions the least!"

William chuckled. "I like marrying people, too, but I don't like preparing young people for marriage. I always feel like…what do I really know about marriage?"

"Yeah, " Peter said. "The one I really felt uncomfortable with was the "joys of marriage" talk." He smiled. "I could really do that very well now." When he saw the knowing glances the others exchanged, he laughed. "No, not sex…although that certainly is one of the joys of being married. But it's more the other kinds of intimacy, letting another person really know you, your foibles, your flaws, your bad habits, your dreams. It's sharing your life with that person, knowing her dreams, and if you're lucky, having a family. Mostly feeling that love will get you through the inevitable bad times."

"That's the sort of thing I emphasize," Will said, "but I think I'll incorporate some of that speech the next time." They went on to talk about how the priesthood was changing. In the old days, most churches had several priests, and in addition to sharing the duties, they were company and support for one another.

"It's become a lonely life," Father Spenser said, "busy with people most of the time, but at the end of the day, alone."

Peter nodded. "I think one of the things that drew me to Assumpta, my wife, was realizing that she was in the same boat. A publican, busy with people all the time, but at night, at Christmas, alone She had friends, and I was friendly with a few people, but you know…" he smiled, "Priests don't have those kinds of friends."

The four of them shook hands, agreed to meet the next time Peter was in Manchester, the others saying that they might get to Ballykissangel some day. Peter left them and walked back to his sister's house. He found Assumpta getting their bags packed, and the baby ready.

"Have a good time with the men in frocks?" she teased.

"Well, they weren't wearing their frocks today," he said, "and yes, I did enjoy talking to them." He leaned over and kissed her tenderly. "It made me aware of how lucky I am, how lucky we are, to have gotten to where we are today." He held her away from him and looked at her quizzically.

"What?" she said. "You just look like such an…UNCOMMON barmaid," he said with a laugh.