Assumpta had come to London to spend some time with an old friend from her college days; like her, a divorced, single mother. They tried to get together several times a year, as their little girls always enjoyed being together. This time was no different, and the two mothers were pleased to see their daughters thinking up some wonderfully inventive, imaginative games. Assumpta worried sometime that her 4-year old Bronnagh spent too much time alone or with her mother, and it was reassuring to see her having such a good time. She knew it was hard on the child to have had her parents split up, and her father working on the other side of the country from Ballykissangel, seeing him so rarely. She was thankful that Brendan Kearney included her when he took his Aisling out. She smiled to herself, thinking that Brendan, who had often been a substitute father for her, now played a similar role in Bronnagh's life.
The second evening of their five-day stay, Maeve told her that they had to go to a christening the next morning, one of her colleagues had a baby.
"Well, why don't I stay here with the kids, and you can go," offered Assumpta.
Maeve made a face. "The thing is, Ailis loves christenings, and I promised her."
"Well, we can stay here," Assumpta said. "I don't mind missing a christening!"
"Listen, Assumpta," her friend said firmly, "the church isn't far from the film we said we'd take the girls to, and there should be a nice spread for lunch." She looked at her pointedly. "It won't kill you to go to church, you know!"
"All right, all right," Assumpta muttered. "What a treat it is to visit you!" They laughed together, getting the children ready for bed.
Next morning, dressed in what passed for finery at home, Assumpta looked at herself in the mirror and hoped she was respectable enough for London, not wanting to embarrass Maeve…or herself. "Never got past that sense of being a culchie," she thought. Maeve was more than approving, though, saying she looked great, and she herself thought little Bronnagh looked adorable.
"Catholic church", she thought sarcastically, "my favorite place in the world! That lunch better be good!" She wanted to sit at the back, but Ailis wanted to be close to the front to see the baby, and pulled Bronnagh with her, followed by the two mothers. Assumpta looked idly around, scowling a bit at the stained glass windows, not paying attention to the group that came together at the baptismal font, until her daughter whispered, "Mammy, look at the little baby!" She glanced up, just as the priest began to speak. In a familiar voice.
"My God!" she thought. "I don't believe it. It's Peter Clifford!"
The service was over, and she had had time to collect herself. The congregation moved downstairs, where, as Maeve had predicted, there was an ample feast waiting. Assumpta prepared a plate for her daughter, and for Ailis, and she waited for the priest to appear. When he did, it was clear from the affectionate reception that greeted him that Peter was liked and respected by his congregation here. She remembered how true that was in Ballykissangel, where everyone had liked him. Except Father Mac and Kathleen Hendley. And some liked him more than others.
She sat quietly off to the side with the two children, giving Maeve a chance to mingle with her colleagues, giving herself a chance to watch the priest. She thought Peter would be bound to notice her at some point, though he seemed pretty busy, chatting with one or another of the guests. He was laughing, having responded to some joke or other, and glancing around the room, his face suddenly grew serious, startled. He put down the cup he held and walked over to where she sat.
"Assumpta?" he said. "Is it really you?"
She smiled. "It really is."
He sat down. "I don't believe it. What are you doing here?"
"We're visiting a friend, and this christening was something she needed to go to; insisted we come along."
"We?" She motioned to Bronnagh. "This one is mine, my daughter."
He looked around. "And your husband?"
"Oh, not here. Not anywhere, actually, divorced." She looked at him with a little grimace. "Again."
"Oh. Sorry," he said.
"Father Clifford!" someone called to him, and he stood. "Assumpta, I have to go, but can we meet for lunch, or tea? A chat. Tomorrow?"
She hesitated a moment. "Sure," she said. He insisted on getting the number where he could reach her, and said he would call in the morning.
He took her hand. "It is good to see you again. I can't wait to hear all the news."
"Mmm," she said, watching him walk away. She turned her attention back to the children, aware of a strange mix of feelings. Feelings she had forgotten for a long time now. Feelings she was quite sure she had put behind her.
When she pushed open the door of the small tearoom, she saw him sitting in a small, secluded booth at the back. He's wearing the suit, she thought, as he rose to greet her.
"Hiya," he said, and she smiled, noting his nervousness.
"How have you been, Peter?" she asked as she slid into the seat opposite him.
"Me? I'm fine. But how are you? And do you have news of Ballyk?"
"Sure, what do you want to know? I moved back there after the divorce. Running the bar again, since Niamh left." She hesitated. "You do know about Ambrose?"
"Yes," he said. "I was really sorry to hear about that. Brendan wrote and told me. And I ran into Niamh one day here in London. She's remarried, yeah?"
"Yep," she said, not willing to say more.
"She told me you had married, and had a little girl." He smiled warmly. "A beautiful little girl, as I saw yesterday."
The waitress had come with menus, which kept them busy for a few moments, and she was glad to see that he was more relaxed. They ordered, and each sat back, looking at one another, as if to check out what changes the six years had wrought.
"Six years," she said, "since we've seen one another. Have you been at this parish all that time?"
"No, I was in Manchester for a few years, and then I came here two years ago."
"You seem well settled in, then."
"Yes, I think it's a good fit. But Assumpta, tell me about you."
"What do you want to know?" she asked.
"Well….I guess what led to divorce. How you're handling that. How you are."
"Oh, I'm fine, really. What led me to divorce? Is that what you're asking? Why I've had two marriages gone sour?"
"Yes, that is what I'm asking."
She was annoyed. "And in what sense are you interested? I am not one of your parishioners, Father."
He shook his head. "Assumpta, I'm not asking as a priest! As an old friend. But if you don't want to talk to me, I'll….well, I'll try to understand."
Their food arrived, just in time, and she managed to calm down while the plates were set down. She sipped a spoonful of soup, nibbled at her sandwich. "Well, I made the same mistake that I made when I married Leo. Married a man that was basically a friend. You know, I think marriage is hard enough when you're in love with your spouse. It just doesn't work if that love isn't there. Jimmy found someone who really loved him….and I couldn't argue with that."
He nodded. "So maybe the next time you'll wait until you really are in love."
Her laugh tinkled out. "Next time! I assure there will not be a third marriage!"
"Why, Assumpta?" he asked. "Don't you think it's possible to really fall in love?"
She took a deep breath, thought, To hell with it, why not say it? "I did that once, too. And it got me exactly nowhere." Looking at him, she asked, "didn't it?"
He flushed, looking as though his collar was choking him. "Assumpta….."
She laughed again. "Don't worry about it, Peter. I got over you. Long time ago."
Peter looked at her intently. "Well, I haven't," he said softly.
"What??" Assumpta felt her anger rising. "Are you still trying to play games with my head? What's the matter with you!" She pushed her plate away and started to stand, but he put his hand out and stopped her.
"No, please, don't go. I'm sorry. I'm not playing games with you, I never did. I just wanted you to know that I felt the same way. Then……and I guess, still. I hadn't thought about it till you said….."
"That's enough," she said firmly. "Or I will leave."
She took a deep breath, and another spoonful of soup, though it had cooled off. "What else can I tell you about Ballyk?" They both were relieved to have the subject changed. She told him about Brendan and Siobhan raising their daughter together. About Liam becoming more obnoxious, while Donal seemed to be growing up. About Padraig and Kevin moving to England.
"So there's no garage in town?" he asked.
"Oh there is. A young guy took it over, spends too much time chasing after girls but he's a decent mechanic."
"I hear from Michael now and then, so I know he's okay."
"Yes. Taking care of the health of a new generation now. He likes to tell me what I was like at Bronnagh's age. Apparently not as nice a child as she is!"
"And the priest?"
"Vincent Sheehan? He's a good guy, smart, funny. Doesn't drink, but he comes to the pub for meals or a coffee now and then. Seems able to keep Fa. Mac in his place."
"And Kathleen Hendley?"
She laughed. "Just the same." She told him about the priest's house still being a problem, and about Father Mac arranging for Vincent to stay at Kathleen's, how the poor guy seemed henpecked by her, terrified. They were laughing together about this, and for a moment, it seemed to both of them that they had gone back in time; it was so much like their old friendship.
Neither wanted dessert, but they lingered over tea, enjoying being comfortable again. But it was time.
She looked at her watch. "I should go, I've got to get back to Maeve's."
"Assumpta." He was tentative, but he put his hand on her arm. "I really want to tell you what I tried to say before. Without offending you. Please?"
"All right, all right," she said impatiently. "I was in love with you then. But I knew I wasn't going to leave the church. So I went away partly to be fair to you, believe it or not."
She looked down. "I do believe it. I had come to that conclusion myself. But are you happy in the church, as it is today, Peter? I think of you every time another scandal comes to light. Will the church survive? Will you become a relic?"
He laughed. "Ah, the endless question! A friend of mine, another priest, told me last week that the Catholic Church is becoming more Protestant all the time, and that may be the saving of it. Certainly in America, and in England, and from what I hear, even in Ireland. Bible study, good works! Can a married priesthood be far behind?"
"In our lifetime?" she said. "No way!"
"But it made me think….would I have asked you, if it had been possible?"
"Oh, Peter! Do you see me as a clergy wife? I think not!" She looked at him tenderly, "It wouldn't have worked, you know."
"I know," he said softly. "I know. So that's what I meant when I said I wasn't over you. You're the woman I loved, and so you always will be. The one who got away. The one I pushed away. I don't think about it very often, and I will probably stay a priest all my life. But it is there."
She stood, feeling such a rush of feeling that it shook her. "I suppose that's my position as well." She pulled her jacket on. "I'm glad we had this conversation….I think."
"Me too." He walked with her to the door, and was glad that he was in uniform. He could only touch her hand, and as she left, he stood on the pavement watching her walk out of his life. What she left behind, what she took with her, was a bittersweet notion of what might have been.