He glanced up to see Leo McGarvey standing in front of them. "Leo," he said, keeping his voice and expression calm.
"Well, well, it appears that you are Father Clifford in yet another
sense, eh? So, did you marry my wife?"
"Leo, don't do this, please."
"It was always you, Father, wasn't it? What a priest you were, sleeping with another man's wife. So did you marry her, my wife?"
Peter rose to his feet and stepped away so that the boys did not have to hear this conversation. Leo seemed not to care. "Yes, I'm married to Assumpta, if that's what you're asking, but Leo, you're wrong..."
Leo cut him off. "How long now?"
"And two children?"
"Three, actually, but that's Kieran Egan, Niamh's boy."
"Three kids!" Leo exclaimed,"you've turned her into a caricature of an Irish housewife? A Catholic joke? Has she become fat, old before her time?"
"See for yourself!" Peter retorted, his efforts to contol his temper failing him. He went to meet Assumpta as she csme up to them, holding Caitlin's hand and carrying several parcels, with Niamh walking next to Josie.
Assumpta was looking radiant today, happy to be on vacation, to be with Niamh again, enjoying a hot, summer day with her family. "Leo!" she said, trying to conceal her uneasiness.
"Assumpta, you look terrific," he said, trying to take her hand. "I
can't believe you have..." He stopped himself, not quite as comfortable
as he'd acted. "Well, er, how are you?"
"I'm fine," she said, moving closer to Peter, while Niamh stood by, looking apprehensive. The children looked at their parents and this stranger, aware that something was interfering with their carefree day. Peter took Caitlin from her, and Assumpta touched his arm.
"Shall we go and feed this lot then?"
He shook himself and smiled warmly at her and said, "Yes, let's do that." He turned. "Leo, goodbye."
They all walked off together, as Leo watched them go.
"Did I think we could ever run into him and just have a civil conversation, no anger, no sarcasm, no insults? I mean, it's been more than seven years!"
"Let it go, Peter," she said quietly. "Some wounds never heal properly. I would have hoped his had. As a matter of fact..." she broke off. "Give me just a minute," she said, and walked back to where Leo still stood.
Peter, Niamh, and the children watched her go, and he said, "An old friend of your mamma's. We'll just walk on and she'll catch up with us."
Leo frowned as she came up to him, but she smiled and gently asked,
"Leo, haven't you moved on with your life? I thought I'd heard that you'd
gotten married, and that your career was going great?"
"Yes to both," he said, "and I thought I had moved on, but when I saw him, your priest, sitting there with these kids, it just all flared up again. I guess I can't ever forgive him." He smiled at her."I forgave you, though, long time ago. Are you happy, Assumpta?"
"Yes," she nodded. "I am. But Leo, if you're still angry, it's me you shouldn't forgive. Peter never behaved anything but honorably. It was me who hurt you, not him. My fault, not his. I really want you to know that, to believe it."
He looked at her, eyebrows raised. "Not his fault? A priest coming between a man and his wife?"
She shook her head. "Leo, he left, so as not to do that. If he figured in our breakup at all, it was in my head, not in anything he did."
"Oh, so it was coincidence that you two wound up getting married? Not something you'd planned all along? Somehow, I find that hard to believe."
"Well, it's true. When he left Ballyk, I thought I would never see him again. Leo, our marriage was a mistake from the start, but if you remember, it ended long after Peter had gone. I never had any thoughts that Peter and I...it seemed impossible."
Again, he raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, but it wasn't. Something did make it possible."
"Yes, but months after you left. So please, Leo, be happy with your life and let's all move on." She laughed. "And please, remember that I have three children, I am not the girl you knew, not someone you should have any illusions about!"
"Okay, Assumpta, I'll try to remember you that way, a mammy, living in that hick town."
He changed the subject and walked with her to where Peter waited, asking about Niamh and the others back home. They shook hands as her friend and family watched, and Leo walked away. When she reached them, she took Peter's free hand.
"Not to worry," she said, "I think it really is over now." She turned
to the children. "Okay, what's for lunch?"
"Oh, Assumpta, would you fancy walking down the aisle with me again?"
She looked up at him with smile. "Are you drunk?"
"Well, maybe just a little," he answered, "but I mean it. When I watched Emma walking down the aisle on her father's arm, I remembered you on Brendan's, and I got a lttle teary."
"I noticed that. I thought you were thinking of your little girls."
"No, I was thinking of their mother, remembering how beautiful you looked,
how I couldn't believe you were really going to be my wife. So...would
"Do it all over again?" He nodded. She reached up to kiss him, tenderly, lovingly. "What do you think?"
Peter and Assumpta were sitting on the sofa in front of the fire, her
head on his shoulder. She yawned.
"A long day, Aren't you tired?"
"No. I've been sitting here, enjoying the fire and having you next to me. Sometimes I can't help thinking...."
"How amazing it is that we're here, the two of us, kids asleep upstairs. Am I still dreaming?"
"No," she chuckled. "Not anymore. This is your life, Peter Clifford."
"Our lives," he said, kissing her forehead. "I remember when I'd get lost in a daydream of a life with you."
"Mmmmm. Me too."
"I was so wrapped up in myself. MY struggle. I didn't let myself think that you were having your own struggles."
"God, Peter, I thought at times it was obvious. When your little girlfriend turned up, I almost had to admit to myself that I was feeling something for you. I was seething from her first sentence, 'I've come for the priest!' I wanted to smack her face! And then that romantic candle-lit dinner I intruded on. Maybe you didn't get it but she sure did. We exchanged looks of sheer animosity, territorial..."
"I was oblivious," he said. "I was only concerned that she had come, I wanted her gone. I thought you were just annoyed at coming out in the rain."
"No," she smiled. "Do you remember that time at the grotto? I thought you could see how upset I was. I startled myself at how I felt at the idea that you could be leaving."
"Like I said, oblivious. But when you gave me the petition, I was so overwhelmed, but I wanted most to know if you wanted me to stay....as a friend, I told myself."
"God, I thought you knew then! I mean, I'd written the damn thing, got it circulated. Who else would I have done that for?"
"I didn't let myself think about it. I began to know that I felt more than I should for you when the idea of my being in the play presented itself. I knew it was a dangerous idea."
"I thought you could read my mind when you came to ask me about it. All I thought was that I'd get to kiss you."
"I was so scared! I was shaking when you started to kiss me."
"I know. I thought you were just nervous, having to put your precious celibacy on the line. I didn't know if it was that or me that had you shaking." She turned and kissed him lightly, then more seriously. "I was so disappointed when it didn't happen."
"You! Remember that I had to leave the theater, couldn't stand to see you kiss that guy."
They were quiet, looking at the fire, their hands clasped. "You know that I couldn't stand seeing you with Leo either."
He sighed, looking into the distance. "Remember the night of the Battle
of the Bars?"
"Yes," she said simply and began to sing softly, "Forgive me, love, if I forsook you...."
He closed his eyes. "I was supposed to stay at the Egans, but there was a mixup, Brian'd been thrown out of his house. I left, and just as I got outside, I saw Leo drive up. I hid....hid in the shadows, watching him lock the car and go in to the pub. I tortured myself, thinking of him going up to your room, your bed."
"He came up to a locked door!" she said. "I didn't speak to him for days. Poor guy, he got used to my pushing him away, shutting him out. But he always said that I was frigid anyway, so he wasn't all that surprised."
He pulled away and looked at her incredulously. "Frigid! You? You love sex!"
She looked back at him. "I love sex with you," she said softly. "I didn't like it with him, ever. In college, I finally gave in, because I felt guilty. He wanted it so much. And he decided I was just a simple country girl at heart, needed to be married to enjoy sex."
"Maybe he was right," he said, stroking her wedding band.
"No. I needed to be in love. I loved Leo as a friend, for all he taught me, all we shared, but I knew I was never in love with him."
She put her arms around Peter, and for a moment they sat quietly. Then she grinned. "Remember the night I kind of came on to you?"
"I thought you were mocking me."
"When you asked if I ever wanted what I couldn't have, I thought you were making fun of me----vows, priesthood, all that."
"No, I was trying to seduce you!" she said. "Think of the time we'd have saved! I was so angry---at you for walking out on me, at myself for being such an eejit."
"I was the eejit," he said. "I never imagined that someone like you, so beautiful, could be interested in me that way. I always saw myself as kind of goofy-looking, arms too short, clumsy,awkward."
"Peter, half the women in the parish had little crushes on you! I always thought you were good-looking. When I picked you up in the van, I thought so. That's why I was so annoyed when you said you were the priest. But it was never just your looks that I loved. You cured my loneliness, that sense I had of always being alone. No one else had ever made me feel that. So I couldn't help myself, I was in love with you for all those reasons."
"Me too. You made me feel complete too."
"Well, Peter, with all the obstacles we had to get around, we managed to make it happen. And here we are---not a dream, reality."
He stood up. "Fire's down. Time for bed." He pulled her to her feet and put his arms around her, holding her close. "Thank you, Assumpta."
"For this. For loving me, for giving me a life, a wife, family, home."
"Well, I might say the same," she said, hugging him. "Come on, before we know it, your children will be up, wanting to be fed, given attention, no time for just us."
They started upstairs, arms entwined. "Ah, I think we have a little time," he said with a smile.
She glared at him, then softened her expression. "It's really something, isn't it, that since Frankie metamorphosed into 'Gard Sullivan', the closest thing to a friend that I have around here is you? And as nice a guy as you are, Father, you hardly qualify as a girlfriend." She got up and started clearing dishes, and they moved into the kitchen, where she washed and he dried.
He suddenly asked, "Have you considered Assumpta?"
"Assumpta Clifford? I hardly know the woman!" she answered. "As you
well know, I stay away from the pub, and I hardly move in the young mother
"Well, she's got kids, you've got horses. Don't you both need to get away from your charges?"
"No, seriously," he continued, "apart from Siobhan, I don't think she has any woman friends either. And it seems to me you have a lot in common." He realized that she was glaring at him again, her hands still in the dishwater.
"What?" he asked, "have I said now?"
"Are you suggesting that I share her emotional involvement with a priest? I know that story, and I think you're vastly overestimating my affection for you!"
"No!' he sputtered, "that's not what I meant at all! I don't flatter myself.....No, I meant that you're both intelligent,. thoughtful women in your thirties, concerned about larger issues. You're both trying to run a business. You've both had your share of disappointments. I;m afraid you also share a distaste for my employer the Catholic Church. You're both prickly, suspicious, short=tempered. Yeah,a match made in heaven." By the time he left, he had almost convinced her.
The next morning, he stopped by the pub for a cup of coffee and, finding Assumpta behind the bar, he told her of his conversation with Avril, and she began to think how much she missed the old comraderie with Niamh, and some of her old friends at college. She was very fond of Siobhan, but they rarely talked of anything but their children. The closest friends she had were Peter and, she supposed, Father Vincent himself.
That afternoon, she took Caitlin out to the Barn to see the horses. Avril was watching some of the racers being groomed, and the two women eyed one another warily. Assumpta decided to just start.
"Vincent seems to think we should get to know one another," she said.
Avril nodded. "So he does."
Assumpta began talking of growing up in Ballykissangel, and remembered when Avril had first come to town.
"Yeah, with my husband," Avril replied. "That didn't last too long, did it?" She was surprising herself, as she added, "and there's a sad story about my last 'friend' there too." She blurted out some of that painful story, and she could tell from Assumpta's expression that she had an interested and sympathetic listener.
They walked back to the house, lifting Caitlin between them, much to
her delight. They sat down with cups of tea, the child asking for a pencil
to draw the horses. They talked of their business problems, the people
in the town that they liked, what had happened to Frankie to turn her into
a caricature, about the role of the church in rural Ireland. When it was
time to leave, Avril fixed Assumpta with a quizzical look. "He was right,
wasn't he, Vincent? We could be friends, I think."
"I think we've made a good start," Assumpta answered, and they shook hands before she drove away.