Peter's younger brother, Rob, came the week before the wedding. A free-lance writer, he could afford the time, and besides, he was curious. Peter met him at the airport in the newish car that Padraig had sold him, and they drove back to his bed-sitter in Wicklow, and settled down for the first long talk they'd had since being together for their mother's final days. Rob brought him up to date on everyone's lives, then looked at Peter with a grin. "So, are you going to tell me how you came to this momentous decision?"
"What do you want to know?"
"What makes Assumpta different? You must have at least been tempted before to at least break you vows. We've all talked about your feelings for women. I mean, Peter, you really like women! And God knows, they like you."
He smiled. "I never broke my vows before."
"How did you keep that from happening? And why now?"
Peter looked off into the distance, and sighed. "Okay," he said. "It really didn't happen that often, but whenever I was attracted to a woman, 'tempted', as you say, I had a series of questions to ask myself. One, would I want to wake up in the morning with this woman? Two, would I want to have breakfast with her? Three, would I want to sleep with her again, and four, would I even consider giving up the priesthood for her?"
"I never got past the first question before," he laughed. "Seriously, I was ashamed of those feelings, and if I knew that I would feel ashamed...well, after...then I knew the feelings were just hormones. We did learn in seminary how to deal with lust, you know. So I stayed friends, stayed a priest...or I ran away."
"And this is different how?"
"Well, first of all, I often had breakfast with Assumpta." In response to Rob's surprised look, he said, "At the pub, idiot! And even though she often made me angry, sometimes very angry, I always wanted to see her. Every day. I did see her almost every day. Well, except for...."
"When she was with someone else. I couldn't stand seeing them together, so I stayed away as much as possible. But everyone commented on my not coming to the pub, so I'd go every couple of days. But it hurt too much to see her." He shook his head, feeling some of the pain just remembering. "Her marriage was annulled, and after that, I thought about her all the time. I thought about being with her forever, about giving up the priesthood, but I thought she had gotten over her feelings for me. So I told myself I was content to being friends. She was, is, my best friend." He nudged his brother. "After you."
"And our mother," Rob said. "I think I should tell you that Mum knew what was happening, long before you did."
"What are you talking about?"
"We were all with her one afternoon before you got there, and she said you wouldn't be a priest much longer. I thought she was drifting off, you know, not quite making sense. But Andy asked her why she thought that,and she said you were in love. Phil said you'd been in love before, but you got over it, stayed a priest, probably would again. Mum just looked at him and asked if we couldn't tell from your letters that this time was different. Well, you didn't write to any of us that much, so she took out a box, all the letters you'd ever written to her. It kind of got to us, none of us had written to her, maybe a postcard now and then from vacation, but no letters."
"Well, you guys were never that far from home," Peter said.
'Yeah, maybe. Anyway, we took the box and took turns reading them, and we began to see what she meant. I mean, you wrote about everyone, Brendan, Niamh, Siobhan, Padraig, with a pronunciation guide, no less! But Assumpta, Assumpta, Assumpta. Phil said it resonated like a bell, that name. By the time we got to her marrying someone else, we were almost in tears. You never spelled it out, but your broken heart was right there on the page. Then you wrote about the annulment. Those were the last ones, you came home then, to be with Mum before she died. But she knew, and she told us not to give you a hard time about it. To support you. I think she'd be really pleased about this wedding, about your getting to have your dreams come true." Rob slapped him on the back. "So, when are you going to take me to meet her,your bride-to-be?"
"Let's go," he said. When they got to the car, he said, "Rob, thanks for telling me about Mum. It means a lot to me, to know I didn't let her down."
As they drove into Ballyk, Rob looked around. He had marveled at the beauty
of the valley, and was charmed by the village. "I can see why you love
it here," he said, and then, "Fitzgerald's! There it is, exactly as you
described it in your letters."
They parked and as they got to the door, Peter stopped him. "Don't tease her," he said, "we're both a bit nervy these days." His brother smiled and nodded his agreement, but as they opened the door, Assumpta had just come to do the same, and they bumped into one another.
"The Clifford boys!" she said, "as I live and breathe!"
"Oh, do you detect a resemblance? I always say he got the height, and I got the looks. And speaking of looks, how did he manage to land such a beauty?"
"Ah, they speak with the tongues of angels, these Cliffords," she laughed. And Peter inwardly sighed with relief. He should have known that it would be easy for her to get on with his brothers. At least this one, but the others shouldn't be any more difficult. And Phil and Andy had wives who would reach out to her. He hadn't known that he worried about what his mother's reaction would have been to his leaving the priesthood, but hearing that, once again, she had understood him, made him feel so good. Everything really was falling into place.
Several days later, Rob came into town alone, and he and Assumpta had some
time to get to know one another. She wanted to know what Peter had been
like as a kid, about the rest of the family, about their life in Manchester.
The journalist in Rob soon established an atmosphere where he could ask
some personal questions. He and Leo McGarvey traveled in some of the same
circles, and he'd heard about that marriage breaking up. He had an idea
now of the process that had led Peter to the brink of this marriage, now
he wanted to hear about what had brought the complicated, beautiful woman
to the same place.
She told him of rescuing Peter from the downpour when he arrived in Ballyk, and of her amusement and resentment that the new priest was English. She described how he did his job, winning over the villagers, and about their own growing frienship.
"I'd never had a friend like that, no agenda of his own, never tried to get me to church, to change my mind about it. He just listened to me, talked to me. He was intelligent, interesting."
"And good-looking?" Rob asked.
She smiled. "The 'forbidden fruit' factor? Hey, we were two young, healthy people who cared for one another. I guess the physical attraction was there from the beginning, but we always kept it way, way in the background."
"And it never got out of hand?" he asked
She looked down. "The play," she said. "Did he tell you about the play?"
Rob had Peter's letters to their mother with him, and he'd read them again on the plane. He remembered a reference to Peter almost being in a community play. But he shook his head. "No."
"There was a scene where we were supposed to kiss. I was a wreck, I knew it was a bad idea. I mean, I wanted to kiss him, but I was afraid....and then, when it didn't happen, I was disappointed. I kept thinking about it. It got harder to deny how I was feeling. But we went on with our lives, and I pushed away the feelings, until...."
Her eyes were teary. "I can't talk about this!" He knew that part of her wanted to go on; he just waited.
"We had both come to support our friends in a protest, and we were alone for a while. I told him I'd stay with him if he was afraid of the dark. And he....he touched me! Just my hand, but he had never touched me before! I thought....I don't know what I thought! But something changed for me that night, I began to admit to myself how I felt about him. I thought he felt it too. I began to thank MAYBE, just maybe....a seismic shift. I didn't know whether to run away or stay and see if it could happen." Her tone hardened. "Then he came and told me he was going on retreat, to be the best priest he could be."
"Oh, Lord," Rob grimaced.
"I can't tell you what that did to me. He was so cold, so dead certain. THAT IS IT. he said. Nipped in the bud. You know how people think they feel their hearts breaking? I just felt icy cold all over, especially in the pit of my stomach. I felt angry, betrayed...foolish."
"What did you do?"
Her eyes filled. "I went to someone who would touch me, who would say the words, 'I love you, I want you'. And I did something really stupid. I married him, knowing I was in love with Peter. I knew it was a mistake. But when we came back here, and I saw Peter's reaction, I knew it was more than a mistake. It was a disaster. I badly hurt all three of us. And from then on, my feelings were totally out of control. I got out of the marriage, but I thought I was doomed to love Peter without anything coming of it. I thought I'd become the village joke, a bitter old maid in love with the priest. Sometimes I hated him for it, but I couldn't get past it."
He felt really bad, because by now she was crying hard, and he thought, if Peter sees this, he'll be furious. "Assumpta," he said, "I'm sorry I got you thinking about the past. It's over, gone, totally changed. You're getting married in a few days, you have gotten past it, he loves you, he's given up the priesthood, it's okay."
She closed her eyes and was very still, trying to get her emotions under control. Finally, she shook her head. "You're right, you're right." She wiped her eyes, blew her nose. "I just hadn't thought about that day in a long time," she said, "and it still hurts. I could kill him, that brother of yours, for putting me through that. If he had just shown some of that famous Peter Clifford compassion then!"
"I think he was afraid," he said. "If he'd weakened for a moment, it would have been too late. I guess he wasn't ready to face it then. But you did pay him back, Assumpta, it did kind of kill him when you got married. He knew then how wrong he'd been, he couldn't deny his feelings any more."
"Yeah." She stood up. "Conversation over!" she said. "God, do you always get people to open up this way? No wonder everyone hates the press!" She went off to the kitchen, obviously still upset, leaving Rob to wonder if he could repair this mistake.
Peter arrived half an hour later, to find Rob at the bar with Brendan,
who was complaining about the lack of service. He pulled him a pint and
went off to find Assumpta.
She was in the kitchen, leaning against the sink, her face like a thundercloud. He wemt to put his arms around her, and she glared at him.
"What's the matter, love?" he said.
"Talk to your brother!"
She didn't answer, and he went back out to the bar and stood next to Rob. "Something's happened. Do you have anything to tell me?"
"Yeah, I'm really sorry, Peter. I didn't know what I was stirring up when I got her to tell me how the two of you got together. When she got to her getting married, well...."
"Thanks a lot." Peter's face tightened, and he went back into the kitchen. "Assumpta, is this going to spoil everything?"
"I don't know," she said, tears starting. "I guess I had tried to forget that it was you who put us in a downward spiral, you who assured me it was over before it began."
He came up to her and she punched him on the arm and on the chest.
She hit him over and over, until he finally took her hands.
"Assumpta," he said, looking into her eyes. "I know it was my fault. I drove you to....I know. I wish I could undo it, replay that scene right now. She let him take her into his arms, and he held her close. "I was so foolish, trying so hard NOT to love you. I wish I had said that Father Mac had given me a talking to, but that it didn't change anything, that I was in love with you and wanted to spend my life with you. Everything I know now. Let me help you forget what happened, let's go on from where we are today."
She stayed in his arms, and in a while, stopped crying. She sighed and looked up at him. "I guess I needed to hear you say that. Don't be upset with Rob. I didn't know how angry I still was about that day. Better to have gotten it out in the open....before the wedding!" She kissed him, and stepping back, shook a warning finger at him. "Never marry a woman who's carrying a grudge!"
"Have you put it down?" he asked warily.
"Y'know, Peter, I think I have. Finally."
When the pub closed for the night, Peter told Rob he was staying, to take
the car and he'd catch the early bus for his last day at work before the
wedding. Assumpta saw Rob leave and she looked at Peter quizzically.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"I'm not leaving you alone tonight," he said. "I'll help clean up and I'm spending the night here."
"Peter, we agreed to try not to cause any gossip."
"I don't care," he said, busily emptying ashtrays and collecting glasses. "I don't want you starting to think again."
"Oh, and what would I be thinking about?"
He went over and sat her down on one of the barstools, and brought over her favorite wine. He poured them each a glass, and sat down beside her. "Do you remember what you told me about Ambrose having second thoughts about getting married?"
"Do you think that's part of what was wrong today? Are you thinking, Oh, I'm getting married, giving up my freedom? And marrying this guy with strong beliefs, so different from mine,maybe I should think again..."
She shook her head. "No. Peter, I was the most alone person I knew of, and you....you made me feel differently, like there was someone really in my life, part of my life. You completed me." She smiled. "What did you ever say to Ambrose, anyway, that night of the Hardly a Wedding Reception? To make him change his mind?"
He put his hand on her chin and tipped her face up. "I told him that a man who fears love, fears life."
"Hmmm," she said, "a man who fears love fears life. There is something to that." She sipped her wine. "Do you remember sitting here one night, like this, and I tried to get you talking about wanting what you couldn't have?"
"Oh, yes!" he said. "You scared me to death! I knew what you were talking about, and I wasn't at all ready to think about US. Not then. Ask me again, I think you know what the answer is."
She drank the last of her wine, and leaned over to kiss him. He put his glass down and kissed her back.
"So, Miss Fitzgerald, will we give in to temptation? And will you, please, have breakfast with me?" She leaned against him, and with their arms around one another, they went up the stairs."