(This was inspired by reading Marg's last Vincent/Avril story, and is again reflective of my need to have Peter and Assumpta live on.)
Peter was once again out of the country on a work assignment, and the first weekend she was alone, Assumpta was surprised by the intensity of her loneliness. Their youngest child had gone off to college, joining her siblings to live and study in Dublin, which gave their mother a great deal of pleasure. But she missed them, all of them, and the family-centered life that had been hers for so long. At loose ends, she had offered to fill in at the pub, but Dermot wasn't interested in a day off. Niamh was in London with Sean, Siobhan was overwhelmed by a mini-epidemic of swine flu, and Avril had gone away for a week, leaving the Yard in Grainne's hands. She literally didn't know what to do with herself, which was a new sensation for a woman who had been busy for years with a house full of children, friends, and a business to run. Have I forgotten how to amuse myself, she thought?
When Peter called that evening, she found herself telling him how annoyed she was with herself for these feelings.
"Assumpta, this is a new stage of life for you. Empty nest syndrome, isn't it? We'll have to see if we can figure out what you're going to do with this gift of free time."
"Oh Peter! Always looking on the bright side!" she said disgustedly. "I hate to think I'm having a 'syndrome'. I'd prefer to think I'm just having a bad day!"
"Okay, okay," he said, not wanting to antagonize his touchy wife any further. "Can I hope tomorrow will be better?"
"Sure. So tell me how you work is going," she said, agreeing tacitly to change the subject.
"Pretty good. I'll tell you about it when I get home. You know, you might contact the EU, maybe there's another craft project you could do."
"Yeah, we'll see." She was annoyed to think that he saw her as another problem to be solved. So she wasn't surprised when her son called the next morning. They were a close family, and she suspected that Peter shared his concern about her with the children. John said he'd like to come home for a couple of days, would that be all right with her?
"Why would it not? I'd love to have you to myself, but I wonder if your father didn't put out an SOS call. Save Our Mum?"
He laughed. "Something like that. But I need a break anyway, so it's also Save Our Son. Hold lunch for me, I should be there in a couple of hours."
It was really special to have some time with one of her children. She'd tried to do that when they were little, planning some special activity that would interest just one of them, but as they grew up, they had their own plans, their own friends, not often wanting to spend a day with Mother. Or father, for that matter. And now they were thoroughly launched into their own lives, so this was a gift.
She and John lingered over their lunch, as he filled her in on his life, and what he knew of his sisters'. He was so like his father, she thought, as he got her to talk about her loneliness of the day before.
"And all your mates were unavailable?" he asked.
"Well, Sean had to see his doctors in London, and you know Auntie Niamh wouldn't let him go alone. And Siobhan is breaking her back with this epidemic."
"And Avril's off for one of her little vacations?"
"Yeah," she said, absently sipping her tea. "Actually, she's been thinking of giving up the business, moving away."
"So that's still going on, is it?"
She looked up. "What?"
"Oh, Mom, come on, I've known about it for a long time."
"What are you talking about?" she said, hoping she could deflect this conversation.
"You know what I'm talking about," he said gently. "Avril and Father Sheehan. We all kind of knew growing up, without knowing, you know how that is. When they would both come for dinner, or parties here, there was always a connection. And then a few years ago, when I went with my friend Declan to Killkenny, I saw them together."
"Well John, I hope you don't think...."
He looked at her, eyebrows raised. "Mother, I'm not a child. When he was parish priest, she always took off when he was out of town. And when he became a bishop, and went to the other side of the country, she had these little vacations. Do you think we didn't notice?"
"Oh, dear," she said. "Well, it isn't what you think it is. That is, it isn't only what you think it is."
"Mom, I've known Father Sheehan, and Avril, both, all of my life. I know the kind of people they are. So I know it isn't just an affair. I mean, an affair wouldn't have lasted...what is it, fifteen, sixteen years?"
"Something like that, yes." She couldn't believe she was having this conversation with her son. She had kept Avril's secret to herself for so long.
"So I would guess they really love one another," he said.
She nodded. "I think they do."
He stood and began pacing, again, she thought, like Peter. "Why didn't they do something about it? I mean, you and Dad did."
"Your Dad," she began. "John, your father never felt he could have both lives at the same time, priest and lover. And I wouldn't have been able to either! For him, it was always which one he would choose. Remain a priest in every way, or marry me. It took him forever to decide, and there were a lot of pitfalls along the way. But you know your father, do you think he could have led a double life? He'd have torn himself in two."
"Is that what Vincent has done?"
"Father Sheehan is a friend, I'm not judging him!" she said. "But he's a man who's always kept a part of himself to himself. A very private person. I don't know how he reconciles it, but I'm sure it's been a struggle. Maybe he just couldn't give up either one, the church or Avril."
"And Avril?" he said.
"She always knew he wouldn't give up his life in the church. She said it was enough this way. But lately, she's thought about what would happen if Vincent ever became ill. She'd want to take care of him, and she knows she couldn't. It worries her a lot, that."
"And what if she felt ill?" he asked.
Assumpta smiled. "I've promised her that I would look after her. Or one of you kids. She's always been another surrogate 'Auntie', like Niamh, Siobhan. We'd never let her wither away!"
"Of course not!" he said. "So I think she'd be foolish to move away from Ballykissangel."
"You're right, you're right, but she want to be closer to him," she said ruefully. "I can understand that."
"And give up the Yard? She loves that place! What a choice." He looked at her intently. "Does Dad know?"
"John, we've never talked about it. He and Vincent have been good friends for years, but it may not have been something that either of them could talk about." She smiled a little secret half-smile. "Priests don't have those kind of friends."
"I can't believe you and Dad never talked about it. Why not?"
"Because Avril is my friend, and I promised, a long time ago, to keep her secret. Maybe your father made the same promise to Vincent. It's not our secret to tell. I hope you remember that. This is not to be a subject for gossip."
"Of course not! It would never have come up if I hadn't worried about you being alone."
"You know how people in this village love a bit of gossip," she said. "Which reminds me...when you decided to leave the seminary and go back to university, lots of folks wanted to speculate about your reasons. I said I hadn't asked you."
"You didn't, Mom, but that's not a secret. I felt like a fish out of water there. My Catholicism, the one I got from Dad, wasn't what I saw there. Oh, there were a couple of serious, idealistic guys, and in one class, we did talk about Dorothy Day and her Christ-like religion. But there were a lot of immature fellows, and not all of them students. And some, despite the new rulings, seemed to be looking for a safe, cared-for life. I began to think about Dad, who lives his religion, and has love and family too. And I decided that was the path for me."
"And?" she said, looking at him lovingly.
"And yes, it is. I'm happy, But no, there isn't a serious woman in my life!" He patted her shoulder. "'Cept you."
"G'wan wid ya," she grinned.
They began to clear the table, and as they were doing the dishes together, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. "I hope I never have a huge secret to keep, Mother. But if I do, I'll remember how good you are it."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Assumpta's way, always, of handling a compliment. She wondered to herself it it felt better to have the secret shared, or whether it was more of a burden, knowing that her children, and perhaps others in the community, had put two and two together. And come up with those two, her friends.