Friends and Lovers

by Theadora McKee

    After Assumpta returned from seeing Leo, she filed for an annulment of her marriage, and when Father Clifford came back
after his mother's death, they seemed to settle down into a comfortable routine of friendship. They really were best friends,
and most people found this amusing, the village priest and the feisty, anticlerical young woman.
    Father Mac was one of the ones who was not amused, and he found occasions to scold his curate for what he feared was an unseemly relationship. "I hear that you are sometimes seen leaving the pub long after closing."
    Peter held firm. "Father, there is nothing at all unseemly! She is my good friend, and if I take the time to help her out now and
then, well, no one else seems to do that!"
    "Yes, but I recall when what you felt for Assumpta was not only friendship."
    "Father, rest assured, I resolved that a long time ago," Peter said, knowing as he said it. that it was not quite true. There were
times when he continued to struggle with his feelings. Most of the time, he was content to be her friend, but he knew that part of
what made him comfortable was knowing that she slept alone. Surely there would be another man in her life someday. She was young,beautiful,.passionate, and he often was aware of men's interest in her. She seemed to deflect those attentions with humor, sometimes catching his eye and smiling when she realized he'd been watching. He couldn't imagine how he would feel if she returned that interest, but he pushed those thoughts away. Sometimes he would see her in repose, when she thought no one was watching her, and he could see a sadness in her eyes. He still wasn't sure what had made her marriage fail, and he wondered if she missed Leo, if she regretted her decision.

    One night, he was coming home late after visiting a sick parishioner, and he stopped at the bar to see if she needed help with the cleaning up, something he did a few times a week. She wasn't up front, and he locked the door and went into the kitchen.
    She was sitting at the table, head in her hands. Clearly, she'd been crying.
    "Assumpta, what's wrong?"
     She looked up and hurriedly dried her eyes on the towel she held. She smiled. "Nothing, " she said, "I'm just tired."
    He sat down next to her and took her hand. "Are you sure? I've never seen you cry before." A sudden stab of memory shook him, but he kept still, watching her face.
    She hesitated. He knew most of her secrets, but not this one. "I just wonder sometimes if I'll ever get on with my life."
    "I didn't know your life had stopped," he said gently.
     She couldn't contain her tears, and they began to spill over again. She tried to control them, but when she was tired, it was harder to keep the feelings from overwhelming her. She turned away from him, removing her hand from his, wishing he would
go away. "Peter, I'm fine," she said, "go home."
    "I will not," he said. "Not till I know what's wrong. Assumpta, you know you can tell me anything."
    She walked to the other side of the room, not looking at him. He followed her, and resisting the impulse at first, he gave in and put his arms around her. As he would to a sister, he told himself.
    "Now, what is it? Come on, as you once said to me, 'a trouble shared'. Maybe I can help."
    She was trembling, and he held her tighter. "I can't."
    He tipped her face up so that he could see her, and he was stunned by the look in her eyes. Only once before had she
looked at him that way! He was overcome with the old feelings, the ones he had told himself he'd put to rest. He hesitated for a
long moment, then bent towards her and kissed her face, her eyes, and finally, her mouth. She clung to him and for a long,
passion-filled moment, they held the kiss. He pulled back.
    "Assumpta...." he whispered. He knelt in front of her, his arms encircling her body, his face against her belly.
    "Peter, what are you doing?" she asked, and he stood up, his eyes on hers
    "Assumpta," he said again, trying to control himself. "I thought this was over, but..." He began to kiss her again, and this time
he didn't stop. "Oh, God, Assumpta, you must know how I feel about you."
    "I don't," she said softly,. "I often wonder, but I don't know. I have trouble enough knowing my own feelings."
    "I love you! If I were honest, I would have told you years ago! I tried to tell you once, but...." His own eyes began to fill, and he held her close without saying anything more.
    She put her arms around him and reveled in the comfort, the joy, in finally being
able to hold him. She had dreamed of this, had longed for it, but had accepted that it would never happen. She had thought he
was completely comfortable just being friends, and that her ever-growing love for him was doomed to be one-sided. Now
what, she asked herself. When she had gone over and over this in her mind, she always came up against his happiness in being a priest, his dedication to his work. Now what, she thought again, and realized that she had said it aloud when he answered.
    "I don't know," he said, still holding her. "I had told myself that it was over, that you weren't interested in me that way, and that I could live with just being friends. I pushed aside my feelings for you.....I didn't think until this minute that there could be any future for us." He heard her gasp. "What?" he asked.
    "Just those words, the sound of it, a 'future for us'. What....what kind of future, Peter?"
    "What would you want?" he asked.
    "I don't know. I know what I don't want. I won't be a priest's mistress! Not even yours!"
    He pulled away, looking shocked. "Assumpta, how could you think...? I have never thought......"
    "Even in my wildest dreams, Assumpta, I've only thought of two possibilities. I stay a priest, and we're just friends....or we get  married."
    This time it was she who looked shocked. "You mean you'd give up being a priest? I never let myself get that far."
    "I don't know, that's the wall I always come to. Is there a way round it? A door to go through? And what's on the other side?"
    Her eyes filled with tears again. "There you go then. Still on the fence." She took a deep breath. "You better go home, Peter, let's forget this conversation ever happened." She looked so forlorn.
    "No, that's not an option. Just tell you love me?" She wouldn't answer. He put his hands on either side of her face,
forcing her to look at him. "Assumpta?"
    Her eyes were wide, so beautiful, so sad. "Yes," she whispered.
    This time the kiss was longer, deeper, and he put his hands under her shirt, touching the skin at her waist. "You know, this is
the only part of your body I ever saw, just once or twice when you raised your arms to reach for something. I've dreamed of
touching you here." His hands moved up to her breasts. "And here." Her eyes were closed, and he went on holding her, caressing her. "Assumpta, can we go upstairs? Despite our resolutions?" She leaned against him, and he led her out of the kitchen and started up the stairs, almost having to support her.
    When they reached her bedroom door, she stopped and looked at him. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
    "Yes," he said, "oh, yes. But what about you?"
    She pulled his head down to hers to kiss him, and opened the door.

    They had made love twice, and it had been wonderful, beyond what either of them had dreamed. Now she lay propped on her elbow, watching him sleep. Oh God, she thought. what do we do now? I've done what I vowed not to do, and I'm not sorry. But where, oh where, so we go from here?

    She finally fell asleep, to toss fitfully until, well before dawn, she woke to Peter whispering her name.
    "What?" she asked groggily.
    "Can you wake up? We have to talk."
    "Sure." She sat up, suddenly aware of her lack of clothing; Oh God, she thought, he's sorry this happened, what does he want to talk about at this hour?
    She pulled the sheet up to cover herself, and was surprised when he grinned and leaned over to kiss her.
    "Now you're awake," he said.
    "Yeah." She smiled back "So what do you want to talk about in the middle of the night?"
    "I have to leave, before the village wakes up" he said, and she nodded, thinking that she knew it was so but wished it weren't. "I have a lot to do as soon as the sun rises. I have to see Father Mac and go to see some other people."
    "What people?"
    "Assumpta, there's an organization of ex-priests that I think can help"
    "How?" The old edge in her voice.
    "They'll advise me how to get dispensation from my vows as quickly as possible, and help me to decide on another career, maybe even steer me to a job."
    "How do you know all this?"
    He looked at her intently, "I've had their number for a long while."
    He nodded. "Yes" He took her into his arms and kissed her.
    "Now you can go back to sleep."
    "Peter, you're sure this is what you want? It's such a big step for you, so many changes, sacrifices. Everything you've worked for."
    He smiled. "Assumpta, all of a sudden yesterday, everything I had tried to ignore, deny, forget, fell into place. Everything became totally clear. It is what I want. But...what about you?"
    "Yes." She looked solemn, then she smiled, "So get going."

    She couldn't sleep after he'd gone, but she stayed in her bed, trying to absorb it all. Is this really happening? she thought. After all this time, are we really going to make it happen? She bathed and dressed and went down to get the pub ready for the day. She thought she was acting normally, not any differently, but her friends seemed to see a change in her, and there was more teasing than ever. All of her attention was focused on the phone, but the day went by without it ringing. She closed the bar, did the cleanup, and slowly went upstairs, trying not to think that he might be letting her down. She lay on the bed, remembering last night. Suddenly, the sound she'd waited for, the telephon ringing. Sitting up, she reached for the phone.
    "Hiya," he said.
    "Listen, my girl, I have to tell you....I'll be leaving Ballyk after Sunday's service. I'm to do a farewell sermon, and say good-bye."
    "Yes, to everyone else. Not to you, though. Assumpta, this is very hard for me....I have to go away, and not see you or talk to you or even write to you. For six months. That's what the organization insists on."
    "I don't understand," she said, "what's the point?"
    "To test our commitment to one another, they said. Assumpta, will you agree to this? Will you wait?"
    "I guess....she said, swallowing hard. "Oh Peter, just when I let myself think we could be happy. Be together. Have a future, you said."
    "We will! We just have to wait another six months. Someone will call you, to see if you want to talk. And there'll be someone for me too. So I can talk about you."
    "What if you meet someone else?"
    There was a long silence. "There'll never be anyone else," he said, "not for me. But Prince Charming could walk into the pub any time. No collar, no complications."
    "That might be too easy, no challenge," she teased. Then, more seriously. "He wouldn't be you."
    "So....willl you marry me in six months?"
    "How can I tell what I'll want in six months? After three years? What if I say no?"
    "Then I guess I'll have to spend another six months convincing you."

    The months seemed to crawl by. It was winter, cold, no tourists, not much money. Assumpta found little comfort in the routine bickering of the regulars. She missed Peter desperately. If nothing else, he'd been her friend, stopping by nearly every day. At first, when she'd gotten a call from the group that was responsible for their separation, she dismissed the offer of help, but after another long, lonely week, when a man called her with a repeat of the offer, she agreed to meet him. Seamus Muldoon, his name was, and he came into the pub one quiet afternoon, a big bear of a man, with a gentle manner. Making sure they were alone, she asked, "Have you seen Peter?" He nodded. "How is he?"
    "He's okay," Muldoon said, "he's busy, started a new job. He's teaching school, seems to really like it."
    "Where?" she asked, her hands clenched.
    "I'm afraid I can' t tell you that," he said.
    "That means England then."
    He hesitated. "You won't be disappointed with the location," he said, smiling.
    "Ireland?" Her heart leaped.
    "Not another word," he said. "Now, what else do you want to know?"
    "Well...." She felt herself blushing.
     "He misses you, my child, He's counting the days. He loves you."
    "My child?" she bristled. "God, are you a priest?"
    "I'm sorry," he said. "Old habits.....I haven't been a priest for ten years!"
    "So you left it too." She sat down and smiled at him for the first time.
    "Are you married?"
    "Oh, yes," he said. "So I do know exactly what the two of you are enduring. My wife and I were very angry. We had actually been married in a civil ceremony, but we both wanted to be back in the Church. We thought it was outrageous that we had to live apart for six months. But we're not sorry now."
    "D'you have children?"
    "Four of 'em. Good Catholic kids," he said, looking at her. "Peter said you hadn't gotten that far in planning the future. He says he doesn't know what you'd want."
    "Listen, I'm obsessing about whether he'll want a church wedding!" she said.
    "Well, I know that that's what he wants, but he won't insist on it. He wants you to be happy."
    She bit her lip and looked squarely at him. "I would go along with anything that was important to him. Anything. Will you tell him that?"
    "Sure," he said, taking his leave. "I'll call you again next week, Assumpta, and if you want to talk....." She nodded and saw him to the door just as Niamh came in. She looked at Seamus and then at Assumpta, her face a big question mark.
     "Who was that?"
    "A friend."
    "Assumpta, you are so mysterious lately. You never tell me anything. Sometimes you seem so sad, and other times, for no reason, you're happy, and you won't talk to me. I don't know where your head is these days!"
    "On my shoulders, as always," she said flippantly.
    Niamh sat down across from her friend. "Assumpta, do you know where Father Clifford is? And why he left?"
    "Why ask me?" she said, busying herself with a glass that didn't need attention.
    Because I think you know," Niamh said.
    "Well, I don't know where he is, so don't ask me. Leave it, will you?"

    Seamus came back again the next week, and once a week after that. Sometimes they went for a walk to talk in private, and Brendan began referring to him as "your new boyfriend." She didn't respond to the teasing, barely paid attention, because the time was going faster, and there were only two months left. She had so many questions, only some of which Seamus would answer. And he had questions for her. It turned out that Peter wanted to get married in St.Joseph's, to put the answer to any questions people might have about his previous commitment to the Church, and about their relationship. She was taken aback, but agreed to think about it. Seamus was increasingly a go-between, asking her what Peter wanted to know, agreeing to ask him some of her questions. She was reluctant to ask anything personal, but he always told her how much Peter missed her, how much he longed to see her. They were using this man as a sort of medium, she thought, to ask and answer questions, to work out some of the details of their future, to keep connected.

    Six months to the day had passed, and this time, when the phone rang, her heart soared at the sound of his voice. "It's me," he said, "finally."
    "Peter," she said, unable to breathe.
    "Will you come to Dublin? Today?"
    "Dublin! You've been in Dublin?" Two hours, she thought, at the most, with traffic. Has he been just two hours away all this time?
    "Actually, I'm living in Wicklow," he said, "but I think it's best if we meet in Dublin. Will you come, Assumpta?"
    "Yes, Peter, I will. Just tell me where to meet you." Wicklow! she thought, if he's working in Wicklow, less than an hour away, we can live in Ballyk!

    She made arrangements for Orla to cover the bar, and she was soon on her way. With unaccustomed joy in her heart, she faced, for the first time, the rest of her life. Her future.

    She parked the car in the St. Stephen's Green car lot, and there he was, right where he'd said he'd be, and for a moment, they felt shy, awkward. Then Peter grabbed her, whirled her off her feet, kissed her soundly, and when he put her down, just held her in his arms. She laughed, relieved to have the tense moments pass. "Let me see you!" she said, holding him at arm's length.
    "Peter, you look thinner. Have you not taken care of yourself?"
    "My new friends say I'm lovesick, no appetite. I may get fat now that we're together!" He then held her away and looked her over carefully, for so long that she blushed. "You look wonderful," he said, "more beautiful than ever." "Ah, g'wan wid ya!" she said, and they linked arms and walked into the grey Dublin day, feeling as though the sun were shining. They had a lot to talk about, as they walked through the Green. He told her about the school, a Jesuit secondary school where he taught Science, and, he said with a grin, Religion. Fewer priests these days. More lay teachers, and he found himself comfortable with this new role. Even learned to tie a tie," he said. He told her about seeing the bus from Ballykissangel come into Wicklow occasionally, wondering if any of his friends would get off. They never did, and he was relieved not to have to think up a story. He wanted to hear about Niamh and Ambrose and Kieran, about Brendan, Siobhan, Padraig. About her. She told him of fending off questions. They talked of Seamus Muldoon and what he'd come to mean to them both. It was a relief to find that they could talk so easilytogether, to have the old feelings of friendship so strong. She remembered an American tourist once telling her that a good spouse should be three things---a friend, a companion, and a lover. She had wondered if their friendship would last after their relationship had...well, changed. Here they were though, walking through the streets of Dublin, and after six months, it was friendship that was making them so easy with one another. They stopped for lunch and went on talking, and as dusk began to fall over the city, Peter said, "You know, I have rented a hotel room here this weekend."
    "Yes," she said.
    "So will you come home with me?"

    They had had the whole weekend, and now, late Sunday night, she was to drop him in Wicklow before returning to Ballyk. As they walked to the car, he suddenly stopped, and holding her again, said he had something important to tell her. He had arranged for their banns to be announced at St. Joseph's that morning, and he wanted to warn her that everyone in the village would know by now that they would be married. In three weeks. Anyone who hadn't been in church that morning would have heard the news from Kathleen Hendley. She had no idea how their friends would take this. but Peter was certain they'd be happy for them. "I'm going to ask Seamus to be my best man, that'll take care of having to choose one of my brothers."
    "Do you think Father Mac is going to let this happen?" she asked breathlessly.
    "Well, maybe he won't be happy, but the Bishop is fine. He helped me get my job, and if Father Mac has any problems, he said he'd marry us himself!" He saw her expression change, and asked, "What's the matter?"
    "Seamus said I'd have to go to confession before getting married in the church. I won't confess anything to Father Mac!"
    "No, I don't think so! He laughed. "You could talk to the new priest, or to my priest in Wicklow. He knows all about you.... about how long it's been since your last confession. He knows all about us too, so that's a possibility." He looked more serious for a moment. "Assumpta, I can't tell you what it meant to me when Seamus said you'd be willing to do this."
    "One more thing to think about," she said. "And did you say three weeks? How will I ever be ready?"
    "Ah, you're so efficient, I figure you can do it all in three weeks."

    They left the hotel, and went to the car. He promised to come to Ballyk the next evening, to see everyone, and she agreed to come to Wicklow during the week, to meet his new friends, including the priest. It was a long drive, lots of traffic, but they went on talking, laughing, and whenever they stopped, he'd hold her hand. When they reached Wicklow, he kissed her tenderly.
    "Assumpta, we have lot to do in the next few weeks, but once the logistics are taken care of, we'll have the rest of our lives to get to know one another again. Just remember that I love you, and whatever we have to face, we face together."
    "Well, I wish you were going home with me right now, to face the town together! Everyone knowing about us, asking questions. What will I tell them?"
    "The truth," he said, "it's easier to remember!"
    She drove off, and all the way home, she hugged that thought to herself.

    The townspeople were divided in their reactions to Peter and Assumpta's plans to marry, their friends happy about their news, feeling it was time they acknowledged what the rest of them thought they had known long ago. Then there were those,
Kathleen Hendley the most vocal, who thought it was a scandal. The implicit message being that there had been a long-standing
affair. It certainly gave everyone a topic of conversation.
    Assumpta was trying hard not to react to the gossip. With Niamh's help, she was busy altering her mother's wedding dress to fit, and working with Orla to plan a reception. She was also wrestling with how to deal with her reluctance to ask favors, to see if Brendan would walk her down the aisle, and with her date to go through with what she thought of as "the confession thing" with Father Thornberry, Peter's friendly priest in Wicklow. Too many things to think about!
    And Peter was almost as busy, working, getting ready to move back to Ballyk, so there was little  time for them to be together. He called her early one morning and asked if she would meet him, after he was through with work, at the lake. She brought a thermos of tea, a few sandwiches, a blanket, and they sat and ate, reveling in the quiet of the setting and of being out of the limelight for a while.
    He leaned back and smiled. "Ah, we needed this, Assumpta. You know, I've gone through this with a lot of couples in my day, and I know that something often gets overlooked in the days before the wedding."
    "What's that?"
    "The bride and groom," he said. "Us."
    "Yeah, it's easy to get lost in the details, to forget what's important. So I thought we should spend a little time together, to remember why we're doing what we're doing."
    "I think I remember," she said, leaning over to kiss him.
    He sighed contentedly. "Have you thought about a honeymoon? Where would you like to go?"
    "Right here would be perfect."
    "No, seriously, we have a week. Do you want to go to Paris?"
    "No," she said thoughtfully. "I think we need a quiet, peaceful time away. What about Bray, the seaside? Or just drive down to the South coast? Just a few days to be together, alone. Let's save Paris."
    "Now I believe you do remember what's important." He reached for her and held her for a long time. She loved to be in his arms this way, her head nestled into his shoulder, feeling an unfamiliar happiness, contentment, peace.

    Brendan came into the bar the next day. "Assumpta, can I have a word?"
    "Sure," she said, motioning to the kitchen, her favorite place for private talks. "What's up?"
    "Well, I've been thinking about your wedding, and I wonder who will, so to speak, give you away. I've known you longer than anyone else around here. and I wonder if you would consider....."
    He stopped as she kissed him on the cheek. "Brendan, I would ove to have you walk me to the altar, and you know you've been dying to 'give' me to Peter for years!" They both laughed at this, and she inwardly rolled her eyes, relieved to have one less item on her agenda. She was due to talk to Father Thornberry the next day, and she worried that she'd be too flippant. The whole idea struck her as ludicrous, cramming in fifteen years of "sins" to be confessed. But she'd agreed to do it, and she knew that he liked and respected Peter, and that he was accepting of their decision.

    Everything had been done, all the items on the agenda checked off, the dress perfect, the food and drink ready for the reception. The church was filled, with their friends, Peter's family, some of the townsfolk who were just curious. Kathleen had persuaded Father Aidan to let her play the organ. Assumpta said she just wanted to be there for this "scandalous" wedding, without inviting herself. She and Brendan and Niamh stood at the back of the church. waiting to walk down the aisle, listening to the badly played organ. At the right moment, she put her arm on Brendan's and they began their measured pace, Niamh walking behind them.
    "Just look at Peter," Brendan said to her out of the side of his mouth. "He's looking at you as though you were the prize he just won."
    "I know, " she murmured, "it terrifies me."
    "You know what a witch I can be. Is he prepared to live with me?"
    "He's known you for almost four years, Assumpta. I think he knows all your moods. He loves you so much. I just hope he
knows that you feel the same....." They reached the altar and he nodded at Peter and walked back to take his seat.
    As they got ready to face Father Aidan, Peter whispered, "What were you and Brendan talking about?"
    "Was it so obvious?"
    "Yes," he said, faintly smiling.
    "I was telling him....." she said, "How much I love you." He flushed with pleasure and they turned together for the ceremony
that would join them forever.