If It's Meant To Be

by Theadora McKee

    Over the next few weeks, as his mother slowly regained some strenth, she and Peter began to talk.One day, she suggested that he go to London to attend to some of the matters they had discussed. A friend was coming to visit the next week, so she wouldn't be alone. Reluctantly, he agreed, and the following Wednesday morning, he went off, leaving her with phone numbers where he could be reached plus instructions for her medicines. "Stop fussing, son," she said, "I'll be fine!"
    Within an hour of his departure, a taxi drew up to the house and a young woman got out and slowly walked to the front door and rang the bell. Mrs. Clifford opened the door and put her hand out. "Assumpta," she said, "I am so glad to meet you at last." The two went in, the older woman leaning on the arm of the younger. They settled into chairs in the comfortable front room.
    Assumpta looked at Mrs. Clifford and took a deep breath. "Why have you asked me to come?"
    "Because, my dear, I wanted to meet the woman my son loves so much, and to see if there is some way that I could help both of you-- all of you--to resolve this painful situation."
    Assumpta looked around the room, avoiding the older woman's steady gaze. "I doubt that you can--that anyone could."

    Assumpta could hardly believe how fast the day had gone, how long they had talked. She had fixed lunch for them both, and settled Mrs. Clifford for a nap. Alone, she had started the fire, cleared up, and thought deeply about their conversation, which resumed so easily after Mrs. Clifford woke. Assumpta was deeply surprised to think how easily she had talked to this woman, and how comfortable she felt with her. She smiled to herself as she realized that her hostess' tender expression and the way she gave her complete attention was so like Peter. She was surprised that Mrs. Clifford had meant what she'd said. All of her efforts seemed to be directed towards helping Assumpta to clarify her feelings, to accept that she was, indeed, married, and she realized that she wasn't feeling quite so hopeless as that fact usually made her feel. She had talked to this woman as though she were her own mother, honestly and openly, about her feelings for Peter, her regrets that she had married, her reluctance to be close to Leo. At some point, Mrs. Clifford has asked if she had thought about having a child, wondering whether that could redirect her need to love someone totally, as well as bringing her closer to the man who would love their child as she did. This was, after all, a man she had once cared for, not a newcomer to her life. It was certainly something to think about. She and Leo had never discussed children, and the way things were between them, there wasn't much chance of conceiving one. But perhaps it could work....

    Suddenly they heard the door open and a voice called, "Mum, I'm back! A bit early, but..." He stopped as he saw who the guest was. "Assumpta," he said coldly, "what on earth are you doing here? If you have upset my mother..."
    Mrs. Clifford stopped him. "I asked her to come," she said quickly, "It was not her idea."
    "And our business here is over," Assumpta said, gathering her things. "Will you please call a taxi for me?"
    "No, my dear," said Mrs. Clifford. "My son will drive you to the airport."
    "No way," said Peter. "I will not leave you alone."
    Just then, there was a knock and an elderly woman poked her head around the door. "Helen, I brought some biscuits and thought if you were up to a short visit, we could have some tea?"
    Mrs. Clifford introduced her neighbor, and looked at Peter. "Take our friend to the airport."

    They drove in silence, Peter full of unasked questions as to why his mother had wanted Assumpta to visit, what the two women had talked about, and his own feelings about this person sitting next to him whom he had though he would never see again. Assumpta was trying to keep her own emotions in check, and she kept her eyes on the road in front of them, though she longed to look at Peter. Finally, he parked the car and walked with her into the terminal. They seemed to be surrounded by people embracing. "Assumpta," Peter began.
    "No," she said, "don't say anything. Just goodbye."
    He couldn't bear it another moment, and he reached out for her, pulling her to him, holding her close. He stroked her hair, his eyes shut, and she clung to him briefly, then drew back. He let her go and looked at her, his face expressing all he couldn't say.
    "Goodbye," she said, tears filling her eyes, and she walked to board her plane.

    Leo met her at the Dublin airport, as they had arranged. to drive her home. She hadn't told him where she was going, just to England on some business, but he was sure he knew. As she got into the car, he looked at her sharply. "You've seen him, haven't you?"
    Assumpta decided to tell him a half-truth. "I saw his mother," she said.
    "His mother?"
    "What the hell for?"
    Assumpta shrugged, not answering.
    Leo gunned the motor. "She pleaded his case, did she?"
    She looked straight ahead. "No, actually, she pleaded your case."
    There was no further converstion as they drove back to Ballykissangel.

    A week went by during which Assumpta tried to keep her head focussed, if her heart was not, on her relationship with Leo. One afternoon, she suggested to him that they take a walk together, leaving Niamh to tend the bar once more. He seemed suspicious, but agreed, and as they walked, they talked of easy matters, customers, the next liquor order. He put out his hand to help her over a fallen tree, and when she didn't pull away, he kept her hand in his and smiled at her. "Smile back!" she admonished herself. It was okay.
    A few days later, Assumpta was holding Kieran on her lap, playing with him, and this time, it was she who smiled at Leo. Later that night, when they were alone with the herculean task that the bar always presented after closing, they were cleaning up together.
    Assumpta took a deep breath, and, not looking at him, said, "Leo, what would you think of us having a baby?"
    There was only silence. When she looked over at him, he was standing very still. "What?"
    "A baby, Leo, do you think it might help us, we'd be a real family?"
    "Assumpta, sit down," he said, taking the towel from her hands. "Now, what is this all about? We've never talked about having children, I've never even thought about it!"
    "Never?" she said. "Didn't children cross your mind when we decided to get married?"
    He sat down across from her and looked at her intently. "No" he said, "I don't really relate to babies, and from what I've observed, they don't get much better when they get older. I never thought you were that interested either!"
    "I was always interested," she said, frowning. She looked down at the floor and mused, "do we really know one another?"
    "Well, forget it," he said, getting to his feet and starting to pick up glasses. "I don't think I can have babies anyway. A late case of the mumps."
    "You heard me," he said.
    She stared at him, the famous Fitzgerald temper flaring. "And you never thought to mention that little fact?"
    "Didn't think it mattered," he said, turning away. He picked up the tray of dirty glasses, leaving Assumpta sitting alone, trying to curb the onslaught of conflicting emotions.

    Life seemed to go on as usual, the waters that had parted when Leo left had resumed their normal path, and Siobhan's pregnancy had taken priority for the gossips' tongues overthe failure of Assumpta's marriage. Siobhan was spending more time talking to Assumpta about the impending event than to Niamh, who, after all, was more of an expert, and Niamh was more than a little put out by this. One day, she came into the pub and heard her two friends chatting in the kitchen. She flounced in, wheeling Kieran in his pram, and sat down at the table with them. "So, howis it goin', the two of ye?"
    "Good, great," said Siobhan, showing her the article about under-water birthing that she was considering.
    "And you?" she said, fixing Assumpta with her usual sharp look.
    "Me? I'm fine," said Assumpta with a grin. "Happy to be single again, or almost." She picked the baby up out of the pram and cuddled him close, cooing at him.
    Siobhan smiled. "You should be the one having a baby,"she said.
    "Why does that seem like a good idea to so many people?" Assumpta said. "It would have been awful! Like me with my parents, miserable together and pulling me in two directions. Terrible!" She bent her head to Kieran's. "Although...." she stopped herself. "Well, you two will keep me busy enough with your babies!" She handed Kieran back to Niamh and started washing dishes. "The punters will be crowding in any minute now. You'll have to excuse me."

    The mail had come and Assumpta saw that there was a letter from Mrs. Clifford. who wrote occasionally, brief notes. She put it aside to read later. There was usually just a short sentence mentioning Peter. but she always hoped for more, chastising herself for her continued involvement in what could never be. "I never will have a baby if I don't stop thinking of him! I have to get over this, get on with my life, maybe someday meet someone else I can love," she thought. She had written to Mrs. Clifford about the pending annulment, and about the reason, explaining that she thought a baby would have been a bad idea, too much like her own childhood. It still surprised her how easy it was to confide in this woman she barely knew. It was only to Mrs. Clifford that she had spoken of her guilt at having hurt someone who loved her, and her anger at herself for having done something so impulsive and wrong-headed as to marry him. In a lighter vein, she had written about the new priest in town, out of a monastery, and so shy and diffident that he was having a tough time. A blessing in disguise was that his sister had come too, and turned out to be an experienced barmaid and an excellent cook. Orla was willing to work a few hours a day with Assumpta, and word had gotten around about the new lunch menu, which meant business had picked up. They had even talked of serving dinner a few nights a week.

    Life really was going on, and Assumpta found that she could laugh again, despite her underlying sadness. Her friends were almost happy to hear her old sarcastic retorts; it felt like old times. They all missed Peter, but no one mentioned his name, not wanting to stir up those feelings they had observed for years. Brendan, who thought he really did notice more than the others, had been writing to Peter, though he'd told no one, Peter having sworn him to secrecy about his plans for his future.

    Assumpta came in out of the downpour, balancing bags of groceries she'd bought in Cilldargan, plus the mail. Orla raised a questioning look, but Assumpta said, "I'm okay. I'll get the rest later. No sense in us both being soaked." She took everything into the kitchen and got a towel to dry off her head. "What a miserable day," she thought. The bar was quiet, so she decided that a sandwich and a cup of tea would get her through the rest of the day. When she sat down  to her late lunch, she looked over the mail, grimacing when she came to a large, official-looking envelope. Warily, she opened it and removed the letter. "YES!!" she shouted.and when Orla came to the door, she waved it, smiling. "I'm annulled! Free! Never married!"
    They were not really close friends yet, but Orla came in and gave her a quick hug. "Congratulations!"
    That night, she was cheerful in the bar and told the regulars her news. She patted Siobhan's belly as she passed and they chuckled together.
    "Ah, Assumpta, it's good to see you like this," the vet said.

    A few days later, Assumpta decided to write to Mrs. Clifford, who had asked that she let her know when the annulment came through. She jotted down just a few lines, but they reflected her mood. She was more concerned with Mrs. Clifford's continued bad health. The last letter had shown a serious deterioration in her handwriting, which had been an elegant script in earlier notes, and the news was of another stroke, not as serious as the first, but seemingly harder to recover from. She would have loved to make another trip to Manchester, but she knew she'd better not. "Please be well," she ended her letter.
    Three days later, there was an envelope postmarked Manchester in Assumpta's mail, in an unfamiliar hand. Worried about what this meant, the immediate response as well as the writing, she tore it open standing at the sink. She read it,sat down and was very still as she read it again, trying to absorb this information.
    "Dear Assumpta," the letter began. "I have asked my nurse to write this down for me, as I am no longer able to write. I was very happy to receive your news, and it affirms my sense that God, indeed, moves in mysterious ways. I have not wanted to tell you this before, but Peter had decided, as soon as he arrived here, to leave the priesthood. He told me that there were a number of reasons for his decision, only one of which that feeling as he did about you, he couldn't go on with what he'd come to see as a travesty. He had asked to be released from his vows, a process which can take up to a year and a half. While waiting, and taking care of me and my affairs, he has been taking courses in counseling, preparing for a new career, for which I think he is well suited. Two weeks ago, he received dispensation from his vows, astonishing after only six months. (Things must be slow at the Vatican.) I did not want to tell you this until you were freed from your vows. I did not want either one of you to make these big decisions based on what could have been false hope. I have not asked Peter, or you, about your feelings for one another after all this time. Some things are not my business, although you may feel that I have made too much my business. But I have timed my giving him your news to coincide with your receiving his letter, so when you read this, Peter will just have learned that you are not married. Now it is up to him, and to you. I think yo know what I would like, my dear. I have had loving feelings for you since your visit, and I think of you often." It was signed, in a shaky hand, "Helen Clifford".

    The phone rang. "Fitzgerald's," she said, picking it up. "Well, what do you think our next step should  be?" asked a familiar voice.
    "Assumpta...oh, Assumpta, there are so many things I want to say to you, and I want to say them in person. If my mother weren't so ill, I'd be there on the next plane, but I can't leave now. Assumpta, could you come here? Please?"
    "Peter, what is it? What's going on?"
    He hesitated. "Assumpta, I can't do this on the phone!"
    "What?" she asked, confused.
    "Okay....I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But I didn't want to say this into a telephone. Please, will you fly out today?"
    "Today?" she repeated, not daring to breathe.
    "Would tomorrow do?"
    "Alright, tomorrow."
    "Well, yes, Peter, I will."
     "Okay, I'll meet you at the airport. Just let me know what time you'll get there. Okay?"
    She swallowed hard. "Okay", and after she hung up, she went out to talk to Orla.

    The following afternoon, she emerged from the plane, crossed the field to the waiting room. As she pushed open the door and looked around, there he was, behind the railing. She hadn't seen him since the day here at this same airport, and she realized that she was trembling.
    He came round and put his arms around her and held her lose, murmuring into her ear, "Oh, my darling love, I can't believe you're here." She was very still, her eyes closed, a tear running down her cheek. "Assumpta, are you all right?"
    She pulled herself together, "Yes, I'm fine."
    He looked at her, smiling. "You look fine. You look wonderful."
    She smiled back. "You look pretty good yourself."

    At the house, she was shocked to see how frail Mrs. Clifford looked, but the older woman put out her arms,and Assumpta hugged her gently. "Well?" she asked, looking at her son, "Have you asked her yet?"
    "Not yet, Mum, first things first. Let's let the girl settle in." He took Assumpta's hand and led her upstairs. "I hope you're staying," he said. "This can be your room."
    "I guess I can stay for a while," she said. "Is that what you're supposed to ask me?"
    He sat down on the bed, and patted it for her to join him. "No. I know this is happening so fast, but we have to make up for all the time we wasted. I don't know if you can forgive me for not making this decision a long time ago, but, Assumpta, I....Assumpta, will you marry me? I want to be your husband. I want you to be my wife. I want to stand with you at an altar, in front of a priest, in front of God, and say those words to one another. I want to take care of you all the days of my life. I want to have children, I want to listen to you teasing me, your sarcasm. I want to laugh with you and cry with you. I want to...Do you need to hear the rest?" She was weeping openly now, and shook her head. "I guess not now." He took something from his pocket and picked up her hand. "Did I hear a Yes?" he asked.
    "Yes, Peter, yes," she said, her eyes streaming and her  nose beginning, unromantically, to run.
    He shifted hands, reached into his other pocket and took out a handkerchief, wiping her nose and her eyes tenderly. "Then, will you wear this? It was the ring my father gave my mother when he proposed to her." It fit her perfectly, and she looked at her hand and began to cry again "Don't cry, my love, please. I want you to be happy."
    "I am happy."
    "Assumpta," he said, taking her face in his hands. "Do you remember once telling me that if two people are meant to be together, nothing on earth could keep them apart? I think we were meant to be together, from the beginning. We just needed something to speed it up."
    "I guess that would be your mother," she said.
    His eyes were full of feeling as he looked at her. "I love you."
    She was silent.
    "Assumpta, do you have anything to say?"
    "Ah well, you know, Peter, I'm not the mushy one in this relationship. Don't expect to hear a lot of that kind of talk from me."
    Ah, he smiled, that was his Assumpta. "Not even once?" he said, putting his arms around her.
    She hid her face against his chest. "All right. I do love you, Peter. Always have, always will."
    He tipped her face up, and for the first time, be bent to kiss her, a long, thrilling kiss, and if she found the words awkward, the kiss certainly was not. "I guess we should go downstairs," he said, "break the suspense."
    They stood up and Assumpta stopped, smiling a wicked little smile at him.
    "What?" he asked.
    "Will we have to go to church?" she said.
    "Well, Assumpta," he said, smiling and taking her hand. "I won't presume to speak for you."

    There was a lot to talk about, and after the nurse had settled a very happy Mrs. Clifford into bed for the night, Peter asked if Assumpta would like to go for a walk, get some air. They walked in comfortable silence, hands clasped. Peter suddenly took her hand in both of his, brought it to his lips and kissed it. "Remember?" he said.
    "Oh yes," she answered, "oh yes."
    "Assumpta, do you like opera?"
    "Is this a trick question?"
    "No, it's just one of many things we don't know about one another."
    "Well, I've heard a few operas. If you love them, you'll have to teach me."
    "I love La Boheme, and in the beginning, when the two lovers meet, he takes her hand and sings this gorgeous aria, "Che gelida mannina", such a cold little hand. You don't know how often I've thought of it, hummed it, and felt my heart break."
    "Yeah, a lot of that. The afternoon in my kitchen....."
    He stopped."Assumpta, I've replayed that scene in my mind so many times. You know, it took every bit of self-control I had to keep my  face and voice neutral, to stick to my decision, when what I wanted was to hold you and tell you not to cry, that that was NOT it."
    She shook her head, not wanted to remember. "Well, I was sure I heard your heart breaking at the Battle of the Bars. You may have that aria, I kept hearing the song that girl sang, replaying that in my head. "Forgive me, love, if I forsook you, I was mistaken..."
     "Yeah," he shuddered. "I don't think I've ever felt so totally devastated, so lost. Nothing helped, prayer, God, nothing."
    "Is all that really over?" she asked. "The struggle, the pain, the conflict about me or the church? No doubts, no regrets?"
    "None," he said firmly. "When I came home, agonizing about what to do, I made a list of all the things I loved about being a priest, and a list of the things I definitely did not love. And I saw that I could give up being a priest and still do some of the things I loved, just being as good Catholic, and that there were other jobs I could work at where I could help people, be part of a community. Assumpta, can you live with the fact that I am still a good Catholic?"
     "Peter, I wouldn't know you at all if the church stopped mattering to you. I promise not to try to convert you to my beliefs, I'll respect your involvement with the church. I might even go to mass with you now and then."
    "That would be very nice," he smiled, "if a novelty." Peter went on, "You know, there really are a lot of things we don't know about one another. Ideally, we should spend the next three months filling in the gaps before we get married, doing things like  this, walking, holding hands without shocking anyone."
    "Oh, Peter, I want your mother to be at our wedding, and I don't think she has another three months."
    "I know," he sighed. "The doctor says the next "incident" may well be the last one. So, how soon will you be willing to marry me?" He put his arms around her and kissed her.
    "Not practical. How about two weeks? We could talk very fast, ask lots of questions, fill in those gaps."
    "Okay, two weeks from today. I have to call Ireland, see how Niamh and Orla are managing, ask if anyone's been walking Fionn." She laughed. "Would you call Father Mac and ask him to announce our wedding plans at St. Joseph's?"
    "You want that?" he asked, surprised.
    "Oh yes! I can just see him kind of choking at, '...Assumpta Fitzgerald, spinster of this parish...'"
    "Oh, Kathleen will look up from the orgsn and turn white!"
    "..to Peter Clifford, formerly of this parish."
    "Then Kathleen will faint right onto the organ!"
    "Seriously," she went on, "then everyone will know, and our friends can decide who's going to come for the wedding."
    "Well, the regulars will come, won't they, Niamh and Ambrose, Brendan, Siobhan, Padraig?"
    "Siobhan may be having her baby or be too close to it to travel so far, and I don't know about Brendan."
    "Well, I do," Peter said. "I've been writing to him and he knows what I've been up to. He said if I ever persuaded you to marry me, he would be happy to give you away."
    "Give me away? I'll give myself away, thank you! Though you know, Peter, Brendan is the closest I've had to a real father. When I was a kid, when things got bad at home, I'd go to his house and he'd let me stay and read, talk. He convinced me to go to college."
    "Good for Brendan."
    "Oh, I didn't think so when I got there. I thought he'd been wrong, that it was a mistake."
    "Peter, try and imagine what I was like, a real culchie, from the back of beyond, I knew books, but nothing else!"
    "Well, you sure learned."
    "Yeah, because Leo and his friends took me under their wings, introduced me to literature, theater, politics, ideas." She hesitated, then added, "and I loved him for it." She felt him flinch. "But Peter, I always knew that I didn't love him the way I
should have, the way he loved me, That's why I persuaded him to take the Fleet Street offer. I was relieved to have it end."
    He stopped walking and took her hands in his again. "And after?"
    She looked away, then faced him. "Peter, I hope we don't ever have to talk about this again, but I will tell you that after that time in the kitchen, I was in so much pain that I coudn't bear ever having to see you again. I left town right after you did, and I went to London, to see Leo. I needed to hear someone say they loved me, wanted me. It was a terrible thing to do to him. It was okay at  first, and then I thought I could go home, that I could stand to see you, being married, safe from all the feelings...So you see, even the marriage had more to do with you than with him. I'm not proud of that. It was shameful."
    "If I were still a priest, I would give you absolution," he said, quite seriously. "But I'm not. So we'll both have to live with
mistakes we made, things we're not proud of. Can we go on anyway? Together?" He held her tightly.
    "Yes, Peter," she said. "I think we can."

    Their wedding day was almost over. The ceremony had been beautiful, with Peter's childhood priest presiding. He had spoken so movingly of the long journey Peter and Assumpta had taken to reach this destination, their marriage. He had blessed their union, and they had vowed to love and cherish one another all the days of their lives. Assumpta had thought her heart might burst, standing there with Peter looking at her with such ove in his eyes. She hoped he knew that she felt the same; it was
still awkward for her to tell him as often he told her.
    The party afterward wasn't the loud, noisy affair that wedding receptions were in her pub in Ballykissangel. They had to consider Mrs. Clifford's illness, but she and they were so happy that she had been there, carried downstairs by her son and sitting up in her wheelchair. There had been much good cheer, good food and drink, and the weather had cooperated, so that people had been able to go out into the garden to talk and joke with them. Assumpta was touched that some of her friends from home had come. She had no family, and Peter's was a large, affectionate clan, all of whom had come. But with Niamh beside her as matron of honor, and Brendan walking her down the short aisle in the Clifford living room, and Ambrose sitting
with the Cliffords, she felt she could hold up her head. Two of her old friends in London had come, and Kevin O'Kelley, wno had been visiting his mother, was there! Afterwards, there had been a wonderful long call from Ballykissangel, where Orla had planned a party to help celebrate the day at a distance. Everyone wanted to congratulate them--Siobhan, who was much too close to her due date to risk crossing the Irish Sea, Doc Ryan, Brian Quigley, Orla, Father Aidan, Liam, Donal, even, to their surprise, Father Mac! Assumpta, and Peter too, were thrilled to share their happiness and excitement with the Irish contingent.

    A wonderful day. And now, here they were in the small seaside hotel that Peter had chosen for their three-day honeymoon. The night was clear, and they stood at their window, the darkened room behind them, looking out at the star-filled sky. Peter turned to his wife and kissed her, holding her close.
    "Peter," she whispered, "would you unbutton my robe?" He did, one button at a time, his eyes never leaving hers, and when she started to speak again, he kissed her.
    "Assumpta," he said with a smile. "I've made love to you so many times in my dreams, I think I can take it from here."
    She began to laugh, thinking how Peter could always make her laugh as no one else did, and she knew, with certainty, that he would make her feel passion as no one else could.

    And she was right.