(Thanks to Bronn, who, as always, was willing to share her knowledge and expertise.)
The bar was busy that afternoon, when Ambrose came in, looking for a favor. Kieran was being discharged today from the hospital where he'd had a tonsillectomy, and Ambrose hadn't been able to get another Garda to cover the town. Could Assumpta drive over to Cilldargan to fetch mother and child?
"Oh, Ambrose, I'd love to, but my van is down. Let me see if Padraig has wheels I can borrow."
Peter had been listening to this conversation.
"I'll drive you over," he said. "The Javelin's right outside."
"Oh, Father, that would be great!" Ambrose said, clapping the priest's shoulder.
Assumpta went to get her jacket, and to make sure Peggy was all right with the bar. "Come on, then," she said to Peter, and the two of them left.
They were driving along, in the usual winter rain, chatting comfortably as they often did. It occurred to both of them how easy it always was to be alone together. Suddenly, a car came speeding down the winding road, swung wildly into their path, and crashed violently into the side of the Javelin, which careened over the bank of the road, hanging precipitously nearly straight down. The other car sped off. Assumpta knew there was something terribly wrong with her arm and she couldn't move her leg, but when she looked over at Peter, her heart stopped. He was unconscious, with the steering wheel crushing his chest. She tried to angle herself to touch him, to make sure he was breathing, and was relieved to find that he was.
She cursed herself for having resisted getting a mobile phone. "Peter?' she whispered, "Peter. Oh, God…."
He groaned, opened his eyes. "Wha' happened?" he said, wincing in pain at the effort of talking.
"Hit and run", she said. "The bastard didn't even stop to see if he could help us."
"Are you okay?" he whispered shallowly.
"I think something may be broken," she said, "But it's you I'm worried about."
He patted her hand, which brought a groan from her. It was cold, and it seemed as though hours went by. Assumpta found herself in what was for her an unusual situation, praying, asking God to help them. She thought ironically that she was giving Peter's God, the kind, loving one, His chance. Every little while, she would urge Peter to hang on, someone would surely be driving this way soon. To herself she wondered where the hell was everyone? This road wasn't all that traveled, but was not one single car ever going to come by? Peter was slipping in and out of consciousness, looking pale and ashen, obviously in terrible pain. She noticed his lips moving silently, and then saw his eyes open. He looked at her intently, his breathing labored and shallow.
"Don't try to talk," she urged, "save your strength."
"I…need to…talk to you." He struggled on. "I think….there's a chance….that I could die…I've made my peace….with God. Now I need….to make peace…with you."
"Assumpta….I want to tell you that I…. love you." His eyes misted over.
"I know, Peter, you love all of us. You love Ballyk."
"No!" He grimaced. "No, I…love you. Have for… long time now….Never wanted to say….anything… make you….angry. But I want…you to know."
"Peter," she said softly. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
A trace of a smile. "Yes. I'm….crazy about you. Crazy…in love with you." His eyes closed again, but she thought he was still conscious.
"And you thought that would make me angry?"
Eyes still closed, but making the effort to go on. "Priest…"
"Peter. I've tried to put it aside, because you are a priest, but…" She hesitated. "I have… feelings for you, too."
His eyes flew open. "Seriously?"
"Yes," she said. "Very seriously."
He smiled, but a fresh wave of pain overtook him, and he was silent for a moment. "If I…make it….will you….marry me?"
She began to weep quietly. "Peter, this isn't the time for this. We have to get rescued, then we can….talk."
His eyes fixed on her. "Need…to talk…now. In case…."
"And you want to know if I would marry you?"
A barely perceptible nod. He was losing consciousness again, but managed to hang on. "Please," he murmured.
"Yes, Peter, I will. Now, please, no more talking, just save whatever strength you have left!"
Eventually, a vehicle did arrive, a farmer in a truck, and, miraculously, with a mobile phone. The police and ambulance arrived, but they needed special equipment to right the car before it could be cut open to remove Assumpta and Peter. It was agreed by all that they had been spared further injury by the fact that the windshield hadn't shattered, nor had the old Javelin flipped over, which would have meant death for them both.
The medics were sure that while Assumpta's arm was badly broken, her legs, while battered, did not seem to be broken. There was a deep gash on her forehead. Unsure of internal injuries, she was carefully placed on a stretcher.
Peter was more seriously hurt; both legs crushed, and it would take
a surgical staff to determine how much damage the steering wheel post had
done to him. There probably was a good bit of internal bleeding, and there
was some muttered speculation about his chances of survival. After a hurried
discussion, it was decided to take them to hospital in Wicklow. Dublin
might have better equipment, but it was decided that speed of treatment
should be the deciding factor.
Father Mac arrived shortly after the ambulance reached the hospital, and when he saw Peter on a stretcher, broken, white-faced and unconscious, he reached for the ever-ready paraphernalia, ready to give the young priest the sacrament. Peter roused briefly, and clutched his superior's arm. "No," he whispered, "first … promise me…."
"Of course, my son, but you mustn't try to speak."
"Father, please!" Peter groaned. "I want you….to start ….paper work…release from my vows."
"Now, now, " the older man soothed. "We can talk about this later, after your surgery."
"No!" Peter was getting agitated.
Dr. Ryan, standing with the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, shook his head at Father Mac. "For God's sake, Father, promise him, we have to get him to surgery! I said you could have a minute, but this is too much."
Peter's hand tightened on Father Mac's arm. "Promise!'
"All right, Father, I promise, but I don't see what the hurry is right now."
"To ….marry Assumpta….." Those were Peter's last words, as he succumbed to the anesthesia, and Father Mac began the sacrament of Extreme Unction. "With this holy oil, I anoint you…"
Hours later, Assumpta had been sent to a room, her arm in a cast, her head bandaged, her legs packed in ice. She had been given an injection of painkillers, but she fought falling asleep. No one had been able to give her any information about Peter, and she was trying hard to maintain a shred of optimism. That damned old car, with inadequate safety measures, that feckin' car that he loved, may have killed him, she thought. What will I do without him? She had turned her head to the wall and fell into a light, tormented sleep, but woke immediately as someone came into the room. Father Mac stood at the side of her bed, the last person she wanted to see.
"How are you feeling, child?" he asked.
"I am not your child!" she retorted, "And I am feeling as well as can be expected. But what can you tell me about Peter…..Father Clifford?"
"Oh, too soon to tell," he said. "He'll be in surgery for hours yet, I should think. He is very badly hurt."
"I know," she said, turning away so that he would not see the tears in her eyes. "I was there."
He pulled a chair over to her bedside, and sat down, heavily. "That is what I want to talk to you about. Father Clifford." He looked at her, his eyes hooded.
She returned his look, not without hostility. "Oh?"
He cleared his throat. "Yes, well. He told me he wants to leave the priesthood… to marry you."
"Assumpta, you know that he was not in, shall we say, his right mind?"
She tried to sit up. "You don't have to tell me!" she said. "I know he was probably delirious. Don't worry! I'm not going to hold him to it! I just want him to live….and if he does, I promise…..I'll give him back to you!"
She had finally fallen asleep, and when she woke, it was dark. She was parched, and her arm and legs throbbed painfully. Somewhere, there was a button to push to get the attention of a nurse, but she was damned if she could remember where it was. Groping around in the bed, she found a control box, and fumbling, was able to hit a button, which turned on the light over her bed. She was studying the unit, looking for the call button, when the door opened.
"I saw your light go on," said Dr. Ryan. He walked over to the bed and took her hand. "Feeling bad?" he asked.
"Thirsty," she said, and he brought the glass of water on the table to her lips. She drank greedily, and managed a little smile. "Thanks, Michael." She patted the bed, and he carefully sat. "Tell me….is there any word?"
"I think he's going to live, Assumpta."
Her eyes filled. "Thank God."
"He still has a long way to go. He's had several blood transfusions, which should help. We put out a call for A-negative blood. Turns out Father Mac is the same type as Peter."
"Ironic," she said.
"As is one of the sisters here, and a doctor. And Moira Kilfeather came over a little while ago, said she owed Father Clifford a lot more than a pint of blood." He smiled, remembering that story.
"That's good," she said. "What else?"
"Well, it will take months of recovery, lots of physical therapy, but eventually, he may be able to walk. He has several fractured ribs, and one of his lungs is punctured, but those should heal. The steering wheel column missed his heart, and his liver, or that would have been the end of him. The surgeon said that he has a strong will to live….and that always counts for something."
"Thank you, Michael, for telling me." She reached for a tissue, wiped her eyes and smiled again, more heartfelt this time.
"He's a lucky man. But let's have a look at you." He listened to her heart and lungs, took the blanket from her legs to look at them. "I'd say you were lucky too. You're going to have some terrific bruises, but I think you're going to be fine. Your arm has a plate in it, but eventually you won't be aware of that." He patted her cast. "Ambrose and the Cildargan Gardai think they've found the guy who did this. The car was abandoned, but the damage sure matched the Javelin's, and they traced it to a fella from Cildargan. He'd been drinking all night, maybe spent the night in a field somewhere, got hold of some whisky for breakfast. He got into his car to go home, but seemed to have gotten turned around. Obviously speeding too, on that country road!"
"I hope he never drives again," she said. "I couldn't believe that he didn't stop to see how we were." She felt the tears welling up again. "What did you mean, Michael, that Peter MAY be able to walk again?"
"His legs were shattered." The doctor's tone was grave, as he patted her arm again. "The surgeons did a lot of repair work, and he may need some more further down the line. But if he has something to live for, he may have something in mind to walk towards." He looked at her steadily. "Never underestimate the power of a man's will."
"Mmm." She didn't want to say anything, not even to Michael Ryan, who she knew would never judge her.
"Assumpta, if you feel up to it, I'd like to take you down to the recovery room when Peter is awake. If not tonight, then tomorrow. He's asked for you several times, every time he comes to. I think it would do him a world of good to see you."
"I…I don't know, Michael. It may not be a good idea."
"Assumpta?" The doctor, who had brought her into the world, knew her fairly well, and now he gazed at her quizzically.
"Oh, Michael, I don't know what to do!" She told him of Peter saying he wanted to marry her, and of her conversation with Father Mac. Her promises, the one to Peter, and the other to Father Mac. Dr. Ryan patted her hand again.
"Assumpta, I'm not asking you to marry him tonight, just to go and see him. Let him see you. I don't know what Peter will want to do once he's out of the woods, but it will be his decision, not just yours. You can't `give' him back to the church if he doesn't want to go on being a priest."
She looked at him, eyes wide. "You're right. Of course. Okay, let's go and see him." She started to swing her legs over the side of the bed, and gasped in pain.
"Sit right there, I'll get a wheelchair."
It broke her heart to see Peter hooked up to tubes and monitors, pale, eyes closed, impervious to the beeps that filled the air of his cubicle. Michael Ryan pushed her chair close and she reached out with her uninjured hand to touch the patient.
"Peter," she whispered. "I'm here, I'm okay."
After a moment, he opened his eyes and stared at her. A smile. "I love you," he mouthed, and fell back to sleep.
She sat there for a few minutes, watching him, then turned to the doctor, who nodded his approval before taking her back to her own room.
Assumpta was released from hospital a few days later, with firm admonitions to rest, take it easy, and not work too hard. Dr. Ryan had made sure she would follow orders by enlisting Niamh and Peggy and anyone else that had ever worked the pub. And he stopped by every day, to examine her, watch the bruises fade, and to hope that she would open up and talk to him again. Peter was still in Intensive Care. His sister and brothers had come from England, and almost everyone in town had written to him, sent him cards, flowers, goodies that he was not yet able to eat. There had been no word from Assumpta.
A new priest had been assigned to St. Joseph's, a young Irish fellow who came from a monastery. One day, he came to see Peter, to offer confession, absolution, communion. Peter gratefully accepted, and asked a few questions about parishioners.
"It was good of you to come, Father, but I had said that it was Father MacAnally that I particularly want to see."
"Yes," Father O'Connell said, "and he said he would come, soon. He's very busy."
Peter lay back against the pillows. "I'll bet he is. Tell him, please, that I want to see him. Tomorrow."
When Father Mac did not come the next day, or the day after that, Peter asked his sister to write a letter for him. He had a visitor soon after, one that spent more time with him than the nurses were comfortable with. And the day after that, Father Mac arrived, quite red in the face and clearly angry.
"You wrote to the Bishop?" he asked icily. "Went over my head?"
"Father, it was clear to me that you were not doing what I asked. And the Bishop agreed; he had not heard from you that I was asking to be laicized." He looked at the older man steadily. "You promised, Father."
"Well, yes, but in my judgment, I thought you needed more time….to get well, to know your own mind."
"I do know me own mind," Peter answered. "And now the Bishop knows me mind, and he agreed to start the paper work." He turned away. "I'm tired, Father." He closed his eyes, shutting the parish priest out.
It was early, and Assumpta was alone in the pub, though she knew that her friends would be in soon. She wished everyone would let her get on with work; she needed the distraction. A knock. "Not open yet!" she called out. Another knock, firmer this time. With an exasperated sigh, she turned the locks and opened the door. Brendan stood there, with a strange couple.
Brendan gestured to the strangers. "Assumpta, this is Helen, Peter's sister, and this is his brother Rob." Hands were extended, clasped. "May we come in?"
"Oh! Yes, of course. I'm sorry." She led the way into the bar, looking as uneasy as she felt. "Can I get you something? Tea? A coffee?"
"No, thanks. We just want to talk to you," Helen said.
She blanched. "Is Peter….?"
"Oh, he's doing pretty well. Physically. It's going to be a long recovery, and eventually, we'll take him home. To England. But emotionally, he's not so good."
She didn't answer, wondering what these people wanted. Brendan nudged her gently onto a bar stool, and sat opposite her. "Assumpta, why haven't you been to see Peter?"
When she didn't answer, Helen spoke. "He needs to see you, you know. He has told us how he feels about you, and now he's very worried….frightened, almost….that he scared you off, that you are angry at him."
"Oh, no!" she blurted out, almost against her will. "I'm not angry, of course not. I just thought he should concentrate on getting well. I want him to know that I'm not holding him to anything….."
"But he wants you to hold him to it!" Rob said. "He talks of nothing else." He smiled at her. "Very unlike him, my brother, to talk about how he feels. He tells us over and over how much he loves you, that he wants to marry you." His face grew sober. "But if you don't feel the same way, we'll try to let him down easy."
"That's why we came to see you," Helen added. "To find out, to know what you feel, what you want. And if it's for him to be out of your life, we'll try to help him deal with it." She looked at Assumpta hard. "Somehow, I don't think that is what you want…for him to be out of your life."
"No!" The word was anguished. "It isn't. God help me, it isn't what I want at all."
At the hospital, the nurses and the rest of Peter's family seemed delighted that Assumpta had come. They had all heard him asking for her. She sat down next to his bed, and he looked at the hovering members of his family and said, "Would you all get out of here….please?"
Alone, he tenderly touched the cast on her arm. "How are ya?"
"Oh, I'll be fine, once this thing is off. What about you?"
"I'll get there. Now. If you're with me." He took her hand. "Assumpta? Are you with me? Don't think the accident erased my memory. I know what I said, what I asked you."
She hesitated. "Peter, are you sure? About giving up the priesthood, all that you've been and worked for?"
He sighed. "Yes. I've gone through all this with the bishop. It isn't just you, Assumpta. There are a lot of things....But I don't want to go over that again. Not now. Is this why you haven't come to see me? Did you think I'd changed me mind?"
"I….wanted to give you time. I promised Father Mac…." She hesitated.
"What? What did you promise him?" He was getting agitated.
"I said that if you lived, I would give you back to the church," she said.
He began to laugh. "Very generous!" he said. "But I'm not a piece of merchandise. And, Assumpta, I should tell you that lying here, wondering if you had changed your mind, I knew I still would leave the priesthood." His face and voice turned very serious. "Have you? Changed your mind?"
The old Assumpta came to life, and she teasingly said, "Did I promise you anything?"
He thought for a moment. "Well, you didn't say No! As a matter of fact, I think you said yes. Or did I dream that?"
"No," she said softly. "You didn't dream it."
And so it came to pass that Peter Clifford stayed in Ireland, where he received the excellent medical and rehabilitation care that he needed. His family acceded to his wishes, acknowledging that he was not used to all the fuss and care they were lavishing on him. They went home to their own lives, though periodically, his sister or one of his brothers came to visit. Assumpta saw him as often as she could, and their relationship grew in depth and intensity. There were, indeed, many things they did not know about one another, and there were many gaps to fill in. If they argued-and they did---it was almost always about the church, and the role it would play in the life they planned to live together. Their love seemed to survive their different outlooks.
When Peter was able, he came to Ballykissangel, and the people of the community were getting used to him, sans collar, first in a wheelchair, then on crutches, with a walker, and finally, leaning on the cane he would probably use for the rest of his life. They seemed also to get used to his being with Assumpta. One day, Peter was sitting with Brendan in the sunshine on one of the benches outside the pub. Tom Brady, one of the workmen in the town came by and stopped for a chat.
"It's good to see you up and around, Father, " he said. "That was quite a scare you gave us."
"Thanks, Tom, I appreciate that. But it isn't `Father' anymore, you know."
"Yeah, we've heard, but I don't know what else to call you. Mr. Clifford? Sounds too formal."
"You could try `Peter', that wouldn't be too hard."
"Okay, I guess I can try that. So, when are you going to propose to the girl?"
"What girl is that," Peter asked with a grin.
"Ah, Fath….Peter, you know what girl! Herself there, in the pub. We will get to see you married, won't we?"
"That's right, Tommy," said Brendan. "Tell him. He needs a little encouragement."
"Well, it really means a lot that at least some people in town won't disapprove," Peter said.
"I'm sure there's plenty will," the young man said as he ambled off.
"So what are you waiting for, Peter?" asked Brendan.
"You know what. I still haven't been released from me vows. But once that happens, if she'll have me, we will get married." He tapped the cane. "I don't know that I would have asked her, if I had to stay in the wheelchair."
"You think that would have mattered to Assumpta? Come on, man!"
"It would have mattered to me," Peter said softly. After a moment, he said, "But now that I have some employment possibilities, I feel as though there's something I can offer her."
"And have you decided? Will you teach science at the college in Wicklow? Or will you be off to darkest Africa with Catholic Relief Services?"
At that moment, Assumpta came out of the pub, with a cup of coffee in each hand. "Yes, Peter, which one will it be?" she said with a mock frown, handing him one of the cups. Brendan looked pointedly at the other. "Not for you, Brendan, for me; if you want a coffee, go and talk to Orla in there. Give us a rare minute alone."
The schoolteacher got to his feet, shaking his head. Assumpta sat down in his place.
"How're ya doing, Peter?"
"Enjoying the sunshine, and the sight of you."
"Gaaa," she said, dismissing him.
He laughed. "Take me seriously, woman!" He took her hand.
"Peter! I thought you insisted on no public displays of affection!"
"Ah, I'm heartened, emboldened today. Tom Brady just gave us his blessing. I'd like to think he represents the people of the town. Like Eammon's approval felt like the farmers would be okay with the fact of us."
"And Father O'Connell seems to accept it. Or is that Orla's influence?"
"No, Aidan says while he isn't comfortable with the idea of a priest leaving the fold and marrying, he's getting comfortable with the two of us."
"And Father Mac? He still comes in, usually with Brian to get treated to a whisky, but he never speaks to me directly…Or you, for that matter." She finished her coffee. "Not that I mind!"
"Yeah. I don't know that he'll agree to Aidan marrying us in St. Joseph's, but I'm exploring that with the bishop."
"Ooh, the bishop," she said, teasing.
"Yeah, yeah, I know your position. But you did agree to a church wedding, did you not?"
"In a moment of weakness!"
He sighed happily. "Oh, Assumpta, I hope it will be soon. I can't wait for the day we can….."
"Shush! You're not supposed to say things like that!"
"Can't help it!"
"I know," she said, smiling tenderly at him.
"Okay. Is it all right if I tell you that I love you?" He smiled back, so full of the joy he felt looking at this woman, the joy in feeling his old strength returned, the joy of the day, the sunshine.
"Any time," she said, echoing the same sense of wonder. "Any old time."