Another Take On An Old Story

by Theadora McKee

    Niamh had been worried about Assumpta for weeks now. She had come looking for her friend one day and found her flung across her bed in tears.  "What's wrong, girl?"
    Assumpta had sat up, dashing the tears from her eyes. "Nothing. Headache."  She'd refused any further converation.  But Niamh started to watch her more closely, and realized that she was either uncharacteristically quiet, or her sarcastic tongue was sharper than ever. She never seemed happy, not even cheerful.  Niamh told Ambrose about her concerns, and asked if he'd mind if she helped out in the pub more often.
    One evening, there was a serious conversation about trivia going on with the regulars, something that would have once brought a delighted, sly smile to Assumpta's face, but as usual, Niamh found her looking distracted, quiet.  Suddenly, she saw Assumpta's face change, a look of tenderness, longing, then pain.  Niamh followed her glance, and when she realized who it was Assumpta was looking at, she gasped.
    In the next weeks, she made sure she could see her friend's face whenever he came in to the pub, and she saw those looks, only when Assumpta thought no one was noticing.  Oh God, she thought. She knew she couldn't tell anyone, not even her husband, what she suspected, but her mind kept churning with questions.  Finally, there was an afternoon when the bar was empty, when she thought she might risk talking to Assumpta.  She floundered for ways to begin, and finally, she suggested they sit down for a cup of tea, and Assumpta agreed.  In the kitchen, Niamh reached over and took her hand.  "Assumpta, will you talk to me?"
    "Sure, what's up?"
    "With me, nothing.  But I think I know what's up with you."
    "What?"
    "Assumpta, I've been watching you.....and I know."
    "Know what?  What are you talking about?"
    "I think you're in love."
    Assumpta flushed, then she became quite pale.  "I don't know what you're talking about, Niamh," she said, pulling her hand away and starting to stand.
    "I think you do.  You're miserable, maybe it would help to talk about about it." She stood up too, and gently pushed Assumpta back into her chair. "I can imagine how you feel. I think this has been going on for a long time."
    "There's nothing going on. I'm fine."
    "No, you're not fine.  You're in love with someone you can't have."
    "Niamh, please, leave me alone."
    "No I won't.  Assumpta, please talk to me."
    Assumpta shook her head. "What do you want me to say?"
    "I think you're in love.....with Father Clifford."

#

    Assumpta was much more careful since her conversation with Niamh. When Peter was around, she hardly looked at him at all, and rarely spoke to him.  Niamh soon gave up watching Assumpta, especially since the day her friend had caught her watching.  Instead, she turned her attention to Father Clifford, who seemed to come round less often than he had in the past.  One rainy afternoon, he did stop in at lunchtime, and Niamh brought him a bowl of soup at the table near the door where he sat reading the newspaper.  She went back behind the bar and when Assumpta came out with a tray of clean glasses, she saw
the priest glance up, then look away. As Assumpta got busy, she saw Peter look at her with the same sequence of expressions she had seen on Assumpta's face weeks before.  Tenderness. Longing. Pain.
    Brendan came in a few minutes later, and sat down with Peter for a while before taking his usual seat at the bar. "The usual?" Niamh asked him.
    "Yeah, and a hot turkey sandwich to go with it, please."
    When Assumpta went into the kitchen to make the sandwich, Niamh saw him and turn and look at Peter with a shake of his head. He looked at Niamh, a knowing kind of look, and she realized that Brendan suspected what she did.  She leaned over the bar and said softly, "Do you miss the old atmosphere around here as much as I do?"
    He looked at her sharply and nodded. "Yeah, I do." He looked around and said in the same undertone she had used, "Have you figured out what's wrong then?"
    "I think I have," she said.
    "Do you think there's anything we can do about it?  Any way we can help?"
    "I wish!" she said. "But this isn't your usual situation, is it? Too many obstacles.  Would he," she nodded in Peter's direction, "talk to you?  She," nodding at the kitchen door, "won't talk to me.  I tried."

    Assumpta had been even more withdrawn, and Niamh was getting frantic. It was like watching her feisty friend waste away, looking thinner, dark circles under her eyes.  One quiet afternoon, she brought Kieran over, hoping the baby would revive Assumpta's spirits.  She did hold him on her lap, and buried her nose in his hair, kissing him softly.
    "Niamh," she said tentatively, "I need to talk to you about something."
    "Sure."  Maybe the time had come!
    "I'm thinking of leaving Ballykissangel. At least for a while."
    "Well, maybe that is a good idea," she said, reaching for Assumpta's hand.  "Where will you go?"
    "Dublin, I think.  A friend wants me to open a wine bar with her. But there's also a possibility in London.  I haven't made up my mind yet, but I think it's time I stopped dithering."
    "You're right.  I think it is a good idea." She grew thoughtful for a moment. "We'll miss you, but.  Especially me."
    Assumpta went on to ask if she would take over for a while, run the bar until she decided if she'd come back, or sell, or whatever.
    Niamh agreed to talk it over with Ambrose, who said he would think about it.  She was taken aback to find out that he had obviously mentioned it to Father Clifford, because the priest had come to ask her if it was true, was Assumpta really going away?
    "Well, she's thinking about it, Father, that's all, right now."
    "Why?" he asked, looking very troubled. "Why would she leave?"
    "Well, Father," Niamh said, choosing her words carefully, "there isn't much for her here, is there?  I mean, maybe she'd like to meet someone, fall in love, have a family of her own.  Wouldn't that be natural?"
    Peter looked flustered. "Yes, of course.  But you know, there are different kinds of love, different kinds of family.  She has a lot of that here, wouldn't you say?"
    "I don't know, Father, does she?"  He'd left shortly thereafter, leaving Niamh to ponder what on earth he'd been thinking.

    What she didn't know was that Peter had gone straight to the pub, and not finding Assumpta in the bar, he pushed open the door to the kitchen, where she was stirring a big pot of soup. "Hi," she said.
    "Assumpta, is it true?  Are you really leaving?"
    She looked at him. "My God, this place can drive you mad!  You say something, you might as well post it on the wall."
    "Are you?"
    "What business is it of yours?" she asked sharply.
    His hands were shaking and he put them on the table. "I care about you, Assumpta!"
    "What?" Her eyes widened, as she stared at him.
    "I....I care about you, what happens to you. I...." He bit his lip and looked away. "I thought we were friends, that you would talk to me about this...about leaving Ballykea!"
    "Yes, Peter, but you are just a friend, aren't you? Like all my other friends?  When I make up my mind, you'll all know."
    He slumped into the nearest chair, and put his face in his hands. "Oh, please, God..." she heard him murmur.
    "Peter, what is it?"  She turned from the stove, watching him intently.
    "What is it you want?" he asked, keeping his face turned away from her. "What are you looking for? What do you expect to find somewhere else?"
    "I don't know," she said. "But whatever it is, I'm not likely to find it here."  She hesitated. "Am I?"
    He looked up, and she saw the tears in his eyes. This time, he looked at her.  "You can find it anywhere."
    She smiled ruefully.  "Do you really believe that?"
    "Why not?" he said softly. "I'm a man of faith, aren't I?" At that, he turned and left.
    She went on absently stirring the soup, wondering what had just transpired, when Peter came back into the kitchen. She said nothing.
    "I don't believe what I just said, that I'm a man of faith?"
    "Well, you'd better be," she said, "you're a priest."
    "Am I?"
    "Last time I looked." Better to take refuge, as always, in detached sarcasm.
    He put his hands over his face and groaned.
    "Peter, what is it?"
    He looked at her. "Why am I always thinking of you?"
    "Wh...what?"
    "Assumpta, you must know how I feel about you!"
    She put down the spoon and covered the pot. "How would I know that?"
    "Are you serious?"  He looked astounded. "I think about you every minute of every day. I take a wedding, or a funeral, I hear confessions, I say Mass, I say the words, but it's you I'm thinking of." In a lighter voice, he went on, "I can't sleep because you won't let me."  He reached over and took her hands. "Am I getting through to you?"
    She just stood there, watching as he folded her hands within his, and brought them to his lips and kissed them, once, twice, three times.  "Peter, I....I don't know what to say."
    "Well, for starters, you can tell me what you feel about me.  If anything."
    "How long have you been here?" she asked slowly. "Two and a half years?"  He nodded. "Well, for most of that time, I've been trying to get you out of my head. Without success."
    He smiled, still holding her hands.  "It's not what's in your head I need to hear," he said.  He reached out for her and pulled her close to him. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her in his arms. When she didn't speak, he said, "Will it help if I get off the fence at last and tell you that I love you?" She looked up at him. "I want you in my life, Assumpta. I'll do whatever it takes. Whatever you want. Just don't run away from me."
    "I won't," she said, leaning her head into his shoulder. "I won't." She sighed. "What are we going to do?"
    "We do what has to be done. When I figure out what that is."
    "And in the meantime?"
    "Pray."
    She pulled away, offended. "Well, I don't think that prayer is going to accomplish anything!"
    He reached for her again. "I said I'll do whatever it takes, Assumpta, and I will.  I promise. And I'll get on it straightaway.
But you'll have to get used to prayer being part of how I deal with problems."
    "And that's what I am, a problem?"
    He couldn't help laughing. "No, you're the solution, I think. Now, no more talk about leaving, okay?"
    "Okay," she said, hugging him. "Peter....is this really happening?"
    "It better be," he said. Then, "yes, oh yes."
    They heard the pub door open and the sound of voices. "I...I have to go," she said reluctantly. He let her step away, but before she could leave, he tilted her chin up so thst their eyes met. He leaned over and kissed her gently on the mouth. "Okay," he said.

    It was really busy, a busload of tourists had come in. Niamh had seen the bus and came running over to help.  As she came in, Assumpta looked at her and smiled. A dazzling smile, one she hadn't seen in a long time. She looked at Assumpta questioningly.
    "Everything's going to be all right, Niamh," she said.
    "Everything?"
    Another big smile. "Yes," she said. "Everything."