Variations on the Niamh Theme

By Theodora McKee

    Assumpta noticed that Niamh had stopped in the middle of collecting glasses and was staring into space. "Niamh," she called, "quick as you like, eh?" Startled, her friend nodded and carried a tray of used glasses to the kitchen door. Assumpta took the tray and motioned Niamh to come in to the kitchen. "Sit down," she instructed, "I think we have time for a cup of tea." Busy with the kettle, she glanced at Niamh, and when the tea was poured, she sat down across from the other woman. "Care to tell me what's wrong?" she said in a gentle tone.
    "Oh. Nothing."
    "Niamh, come on, you've been in another world. Something's bothering you, I know you too well."
    "Assumpta, there's nothing….well, nothing I want to talk about."
    "Well, now I think you do have to tell me. We don't keep secrets from one another."
    Niamh widened her eyes. "No? You certainly kept Peter a secret."
    "Maybe, but I don't anymore, do I?"
    Her friend giggled. "You can't very well keep a husband secret."
    She took a last sip of tea, and pushed her chair back and got to her feet, walking into the bar.

    In such a tiny community as theirs, it was difficult for Assumpta not to see that something was clearly wrong in the Egan's marriage. Ambrose seemed as distracted as his wife, and if he came to the pub at all, it was without Niamh.
    Siobhan came in one afternoon, toting Aisling in her carrier with one hand, holding Kieran's in the other. "Assumpta, are you terribly busy? Could you give me a hand here?"
    "What are you doing with Kieran?" she asked.
    "That's what I'd like to know!" the vet said.
    "Niamh came by this morning and asked if I could watch him for a couple of hours. I told her I had calls to make this afternoon, and she said she'd surely be back before I needed to go out. But lunchtime came and went, I fed him, and I'd put him down for a nap, but I really do have calls to make. D'you think you could…..?"
    "Sure, " Assumpta said, hesitating only a fraction of a second. "Do you want to leave the baby here too?"
    "No, she's fine. Still young enough to sleep in the carrier, and the car motion sends her right off."
    "I'll put Kieran upstairs for his nap. But I wonder….where do you think Niamh went?"
    The vet sighed. "Not sure," she said, patting Kieran's head as she left.

    It was getting quite late when Ambrose burst into the bar, and finding it empty, pushed open the door to the kitchen. "Assumpta!" he called. "Do you have any idea where….? Oh, Kieran, you're here!" He went over to his son, who was having his dinner, and knelt, putting his arms around the child. "I was so worried. Where's your Mammy?"
    "I dunno," the little boy said.
    "Assumpta?" the Gard asked.
    "I have no idea. She asked Siobhan to watch Kieran, and then I took over. I hope she's alright."
    "She's fine," he said tightly. He wiped the little boy's face and hands with a nearby towel, and picking him up, held him close. "Let's go home, little man," he said.         "T'anks, Assumpta."
    "Yeah, anytime, " she said. She went upstairs, where her husband sat at the big oak desk, typing away at the computer. "Do you have any idea what's going on with Niamh?" she asked him, leaning her chin on his head. He pulled her around to sit on his lap.
    "Not at all. Is something going on with her?" he asked.
    "I don't know." She told him about her brief conversation with her friend, and about Kieran being left all day. About Ambrose's manner.
    "I have noticed how grim he looks these days," he said. "Look, why don't you rest a bit, while I finish this up, and then we can go down and relieve Orla for the evening." He smiled at her. "Does anyone know yet?"
    "No, Peter, and I don't want them to know!" she retorted. "Not till at least the third month, when we're sure everything's okay."
    He kissed the tip of her nose. "Everything is okay. Better than okay. Wonderful."
    "Yeah, yeah, yeah," she muttered, but smiled warmly at him, as she took his advice and stretched out on the bed.


    Assumpta waited the next day for Niamh to come by, to offer an apology, if not an explanation…or the reverse, she thought. But her friend did not appear. When Siobhan came to the pub at lunchtime, she asked Assumpta if she'd heard from Niamh. "I was going to ask you the same. I don't understand this change in her. She's preoccupied, and it's not like her to just forget about Kieran. Do you have any idea what's going on?"
    "Well…." The vet hesitated. "Siobhan! You do know something. C'mon, tell me."
    Siobhan looked around, making sure there was no one close enough to overhear. "I'm not sure now, whether there is something….." she said tentatively.
    "Siobhan!" Assumpta was getting insistent. "Okay. I saw them off in the woods together, on my way through Kilnashee."
    "Them. Who's `them'?"
    "Niamh…and Sean Dillon."
    Assumpta looked stunned. "Sean Dillon?" she said. "You think something's going on with Niamh and Sean? I can't believe that."
    "I'm not making this up, Assumpta. I saw them sitting under a tree, her head on his shoulder. I was shocked too. I think they may have seen my van go by, but she hasn't said anything, and neither have I."
    "Well, I'm going to talk to her about it. We can't do nothing; there's too much at stake here."
    "Yeah, I agree. Listen, Assumpta, I have to go home. Brendan's spending his lunch hour with his daughter, but he has to be back at school soon."
    "A bit of father-daughter bonding?" Assumpta asked.
    "More like mommy needing a break…and insisting on it," Siobhan replied with a grin.
    "I wonder if that's at the root of Niamh's problem."
    "I don't know," Siobhan mused. "Ambrose is pretty good about taking his turn with Kieran….and his mother would help out any time. I think it's more to do, maybe, with Ambrose. When I've seen them together lately, she's been very short with him."
    "That she is."

    Once the lunch crowd subsided, Assumpta took a needed break from the air in the pub, standing outside with a cup of coffee. When she saw Niamh come out of the Garda House, she hailed her. "C'mon over, I'll give you a cup too."
    "No thanks," Niamh called back.
    Assumpta crossed the street, and in a low tone, said, "You will come over. I want to talk to you."
    "I don't have time, Assumpta , I'm in a hurry."
    "He'll wait."
    Niamh turned white. "What?"
    "I said he'll wait. Sean. So come inside and talk to me….or listen. Your choice." Niamh hesitated, then nodded, and the two went back into Fitzgerald's.
Assumpta poured another cup of coffee and pushed it across the counter to Niamh, saying, "Okay, talk to me."
    Niamh looked miserable. "I can't," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
    "Look, I know something's going on with you and Sean, and it's making you do crazy things, like forgetting you have a son."
    Niamh gasped. "I didn't forget him! I figured that my father, or Ambrose, would find out he was with Siobhan and would take him home. And I guess that is what happened, because I found the two of them, Ambrose and Kieran, asleep in Kieran's bed."
    "Ambrose found him here. Siobhan had to work…as she said she had told you…and left him with me. Ambrose was distraught."
    "I know."
    Assumpta bent over the counter. "Niamh, what's gotten into you? What is this thing with Sean Dillon?"
    "We're in love," she answered defiantly.
    Assumpta stared at her. "In love?" she asked, "for God's sake, with Sean Dillon? "
    "Why is that so hard to believe?"
    "Because, for one, he's a lot older than you. Short, bald, unshaven, not a man I thought was at all your type. And because, only a few years ago, it was Ambrose you were in love with."
    "Ambrose," she said scornfully. "Ambrose is boring, not any fun at all. And though he says he loves me, I don't ever feel he's interested in me, how I feel, what I think. Sean listens to me, finds me interesting, appealing. Beautiful." She sighed, sipping at her coffee. "It's exciting to be with him."
    "Niamh Egan, you are a spoiled brat!"
    "Thanks for that, Assumpta. You're one to talk, aren't you? A girl who married someone she didn't love, because she fell in love with the priest."
    "And married him eventually, knowing it was for life."
    "This time."
    "Well," Assumpta said, starting to leave the bar for the kitchen. "It's nice to know what you really think about me and my life."
    Niamh put out her hand. "No, don't go away. I'm sorry. I just think you were saying something just as bad about me and my life."
    Assumpta came back and nodded. "I guess I did. But seriously, Niamh, you go off and leave Kieran, spend hours away from home, with Sean, I guess, because it's "exciting" to be with him, not "boring". How long do you think it would take for Sean to get "boring" if you lived with him, had to iron his shirts, figure out his likes and dislikes in the food department? That's all part of marriage, isn't it? That first flush of love, which is, I grant you, exciting….doesn't it settle into something less exciting but more solid? Don't you think it's possible to find the fun in that?"
    "Yeah, you and Peter seem to have found that," Niamh said wistfully. "Maybe if you ever have kids, it will get routine and boring after a while."
    "Well, maybe we're going to find out," Assumpta said with a smile.
    "Assumpta! Really? Are you pregnant?"
    "That's the secret I've been keeping, just for a little while longer."
    "Oh, that is exciting! So Kieran will have another little playmate."
    "If you stick around."
    Niamh put her head in her hands. "That is the big `if'. Sean wants me to just go away with him, to England."
    "What, and take Kieran with you? You think Ambrose will just sit back and let Sean Dillon have his wife and his son too? I'm beginning to think Eammon and Padraig and the others who hate Sean may have a point."
    "No, he's a good man!" Niamh protested. "He's just sold Eammon the land his father stole from the Byrnes family – for a nickel an acre! I don't know what he's got in mind for restitution for Padraig, but I'll bet it's something. And he's tormented about what this would do to Ambrose, he is. But how do you just push aside a love this strong?"
    "I think if he were really an honorable man, he'd suggest you see if you could work out your problems with your marriage. Maybe go for counseling, with Ambrose, see if he could be more romantic, more interested in listening to you, understanding you. It's too easy to walk away from one marriage, deciding it's the bad one, and the other would be better."
    "Assumpta, I'm not trying to be sarcastic, but isn't that exactly what you did with Leo?"
    "Yes," her friend agreed. "But I always knew I didn't love Leo, while you did love Ambrose."
    Niamh sighed. "You're right. I tend to forget that I did love him." Her eyes filled with tears. "Especially when I had the miscarriage. He was so tender and loving then, so supportive."
    Assumpta took her hand. "Don't you think he could be again, if you gave him a chance?"
    "I don't know." She looked at her watch. "Oh, I told Sean I'd meet him half an hour ago. And I told Imelda I'd be back soon. I better run." At the door, she paused and gave Assumpta a long look. "I'll think about all this, Assumpta, I promise."


    Later that evening, Sean Dillon came into the pub shortly before closing time, taking the table furthest from the noisy bar and not drinking the pint he had ordered. As the bell rang and people began to drift out, he continued to sit there. Peter called to him, "Closing time, Sean", but he didn't move. When the room was empty, he walked over to Assumpta, who was covering the taps.
    "I'd like to talk to you."
    She gestured to the mess around them. "Sorry, Sean, lots to do, and it is closing time. You have to leave."
    He put his glass on the bar. "I'm not drinking. I want to talk to you." She looked over at Peter, who was collecting glasses, and he came up to them.
    "What's going on here, Sean? You heard the landlady, it's time for you to leave."
    Sean ignored Peter. "Look, Assumpta, Niamh told me about your little chat. If you really think I'm not an honorable man, I'd like to set you straight."
    Assumpta and Peter looked at one another, then Peter said, "Okay, Sean, why don't you help me clean up, Assumpta can go upstairs and when we're through down here, you and I can join her to talk."
    "You?" said Sean sarcastically.
    "Yeah. Me. We don't have secrets here, and I know all about the talk with Niamh." When Sean continued to stand at the bar, Peter went on. "Look, my wife is pregnant, and I'd like to get her off her feet. The only way you're going to have a conversation tonight is if you do as I say."
    Sean turned and started collecting glasses. "Okay," he said. Peter gestured to Assumpta, who hesitated briefly, then turned to go up the stairs.

    An hour later, when the two men joined her in the small sitting room, she had showered and was sitting on the couch with her feet up, swaddled in her big terry-cloth robe. Peter had three mugs in hand and Sean the teapot. The tea was poured and the men sat down across from Assumpta, who began the conversation.
    "Okay, Sean, what's so important we have to do this tonight?"
    "Niamh said you think I am not an honorable man. Is that true? I've gotten used to some people around here thinking that I'm my father, but I didn't think you were one of them."
    Assumpta shook her head. "I don't think you're your father, Sean. I was impressed by how…well, honorable…you've been in your dealings with Eammon and Padraig. But this thing with Niamh. No, I don't think you've behaved honorably."
    "Do you know that she was the one who started it?"
    "She was?"
    "She was the first person I talked when I arrived. I was sitting up in a tree, trying to collect myself, to deal with all the hostility I felt here, and she sat down under it, not noticing me. You were away, maybe never coming back, and she was very unhappy about losing you. I told her that her mother had been one of the few people who reached out to me when I was a kid. She liked that. But that was all, until I met her by chance one day in Cildargan. We had lunch and talked. Nothing else. I respected her as a married woman, though I admit I found her very attractive. Fun to talk to. Sympathetic. Nothing more."
    Peter was quiet, listening to this conversation. He poured a little more for himself and the other two.
    "So?" Assumpta asked.
    "Then she came by my house one day. She confused me…one minute sort of flirtatious, the next hostile, angry. I had no idea why, but she left in a huff, just as it started to pour down rain. I got my truck and found her on the road, soaked, and persuaded her to get in. I drove her home, and that was all. But Ambrose came to see me the next day, angry, accusing me of acting inappropriately with his wife. I left her strictly alone after that, but she came round again. Sought me out. I admit I was flattered, and I began to fall in love with her. And, I believe, she felt the same. It's taken me a while to get over my wife's death, but for the first time I am feeling something."
    Assumpta sighed, looking over at Peter, as though asking his advice on what to say. He remained silent, so she went on. "Sean, I've known Niamh for years, since we were children, and I love her. She's my closest friend. But she is sort of spoiled, an only child, indulged, and she's always needed excitement, pampering. I think that marriage, and even motherhood, began to feel stale to her. You're giving her an alternative. It's very exciting for her to have this relationship with you. But if she leaves Ambrose…and Kieran, because I doubt that Ambrose would ever let her take him away, if she decides to leave….I think she will have serious regrets. Second thoughts. She loved Ambrose, strait-laced fuddy- duddy that he is, and he hasn't changed And he still loves her. If you take her away, I think you will ruin her life, and do profound hurt all round here…Kieran, her father, Ambrose. And then what happens when life with you becomes routine? You might both be miserable."
    "Maybe I could keep her interested. If we lived in London, I'd really pamper her. Theatre, clubs, restaurants. Maybe I could make it all up to her."
    "Maybe. But maybe not." They all sat in silence for a few long minutes.
    Then Sean got to his feet. "I think I'd better go home now. Lots to think about," he said. He nodded to Peter, and left the room.
    They listened to him go down the stairs, and Peter followed, to let him out, and to lock up the pub. When he came back up, he bent over and kissed Assumpta. "You were magnificent," he said. And tenderly, "I love you." She cocked her head and looked at him quizzically. "What?" he said.
    "Just those words. When Ambrose says them to Niamh, she gets annoyed. When Sean says them, she's thrilled. When you say them to me….."
    "What?" he laughed. "You're not thrilled?"
    "Oh the first time, I was! Thrilled - and terrified. Now it makes me feel warm, close, comfortable .Happy."
    "Me too," he said, "on those rare times you say it." She patted his arm.
    "Ah, but you know I do, don't you?"
    He looked at her, smiled. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I do."


    Early the next evening, Peter, who had taken Fionn for a walk, stopped on the bridge, his favorite spot in Ballykissangel, looking down at the river below, when Ambrose appeared next to him.
    "You don't have any sorrows to drown down there, do you, Peter?" he said sadly.
    "No, I don't. But it sounds as though you do?"
    Ambrose sighed, saying nothing further, but when Peter glanced at him, he saw the Gard's eyes filling with tears.
    "Ambrose, would you like to talk about it?"
    Ambrose looked at him for a moment, then said, "Well, it was always you I went to with problems, wasn't it?" Then, looking down at the river, "But you're not my priest anymore."
    "No," said Peter. "But I hope I'm still your friend."
    "It's a kind of delicate situation."
    "Ambrose….we know what's going on. Assumpta talked to Niamh." He thought it best not to mention his wife's talk with Sean.
    Ambrose hesitated. "Maybe….When could I come to talk to you?"
    "How about right now?  Come on over to the pub, it's still early, not very busy."
    Ambrose nodded, and the two walked back to Fitzgerald's, the eager dog leading the way. With just a nod to Assumpta, Peter put Fionn in the kitchen and led Ambrose to the quiet table near the fire.  He left the Gard there and went to draw two pints, then settled himself in the chair next to his friend. "Okay Ambrose."
    "Well….I think Niamh doesn't love me anymore, and I think she may be having an affair. With Sean Dillon." His fists clenched. "She disappears for hours at a time, leaves Kieran with anyone and everyone, no explanation. If I ask for one, she snaps at me." He gave a short, bitter laugh. "She snaps at me whatever I say. I can't seem to do anything right anymore." He shook his head. "And poor Kieran senses something's wrong. He's gotten very clingy, doesn't want me to go to work."
    Peter had fallen into his old posture from the days in the confessional, hand at his chin, listening sympathetically. "Let's leave Kieran out of this for the
moment. Have you tried wooing her?"
    "Wooing? What do you mean? I brought flowers home once, but I never saw them in a vase. I think she just tossed them."
    "You used to know how much she needed to get out, to be treated like….well, like a beautiful woman."
    "Is that what he does?"
    "I don't know, let's just talk about what you can do. Have you tried taking her out, for dinner, a movie?"
    "I don't think she'd want to go with me," Ambrose said sadly.
    "What about a weekend away?  Dublin, or London. Or somewhere sunny, Spain for a few days?  Your mother would look after Kieran, wouldn't she, or you could leave him here with us."
    Ambrose looked a bit more hopeful. "You know, she might like that!" he said. "The only time we went away was on our honeymoon, and I have seen her looking at ads for sunny places."
    "Why don't you see if that would work? And if she agrees, buy her something pretty. Something to wear, or a piece of jewelry."
    "Is that what you do?" Ambrose asked with a smile.
    "Ah, you know Assumpta, she's not much for jewelry. She likes her old favorites. But my father used to get things like that for my mother. Always seemed to work."
    "So what do you do to woo Assumpta?"
    Peter flushed. "Oh, a book, or some music. An afternoon in Dublin, going to a museum, or a play." He smiled. "I guess you have to know your woman. That's the most important thing, to be her friend, know what she likes, what she thinks, what she dreams. Don't treat her with suspicion, know who she really is."
    Ambrose looked sad again. "I used to think I knew her. I'm not sure now, but a trip might appeal to her." He got to his feet. "Thanks, Peter, thanks for the advice." He nodded to Assumpta and left, walking a bit taller than when he'd come in.
    Peter walked into the kitchen, where his wife was busying herself, and put his arms around her. "What was all that about?" she asked, holding him close. He told her about the advice he'd given Ambrose. "Do you think it might work? Or would she not even agree to try?"
    "I don't know. It might. Especially if Sean tries backing off. I don't know what will happen if he doesn't."
    She kissed him lightly, then said their frequent mantra. "Come on, we've got a pub to run."
    "Yes ma'am," he saluted, taking a tray of clean glasses out to the bar, where people were beginning to drift in.

    It was only a few days later that Niamh came to the pub and asked to have a word with Assumpta, who motioned her into the kitchen, where, as always, she put the kettle on. Niamh sat at the table, looking off into space.
    "Okay, what?" asked Assumpta.
    Niamh sighed. "Ambrose wants me to go to Spain with him for a few days. Second honeymoon, sort of, he says, to see if we can recapture something. Assumpta, I really don't want to go! I'd rather go with Sean…anywhere. But especially to lie on a beach, be alone together."
    Assumpta looked at her friend steadily. "Then why go with Ambrose?"
    "Because he does deserve a chance, doesn't he?"
    Assumpta just waited.
    "Because Sean says I should," Niamh admitted shamefacedly. "He told me about your little talk. I guess some of what you said really struck him. What did you say anyway?"
    Assumpta sipped her tea. "Same things I said to you. That your marriage had come to feel stale, that you needed some excitement. That maybe it was less than honorable for him to provide that excitement, and especially that you had once been in love with Ambrose."
    "Well, I couldn't believe Ambrose. He didn't accuse me of anything, or question me as though I was a police suspect. He was tender and loving…and suggested Spain. He's got his mother to baby-sit Kieran if I agree. Assumpta, do you think I could love Ambrose again? Could I give Sean up?"
    "I don't know," her friend said softly.

    The next week, all arrangements having been made, Niamh and Ambrose went off for five days in Majorca. A young Gard came to take Ambrose's place, and she stayed at Fitzgerald's, as it was thought best that Kieran stay in his own home, with his grandmother in charge. Brian had offered to share the responsibilities of his care with Imelda, and it was understood that Assumpta and Peter would help out as well, all the people that Kieran loved, keeping him happy in his parents' absence.
    The day after they left, Sean came by, again at closing time. "Assumpta, sit down, I'll help Peter clean up," he said. Looking over at her, he asked, "Is it common knowledge yet, your pregnancy?"
    "No," she said, "you're one of the honored few."
    "Well, thanks for that," he said, gathering up dirty glasses and plates and carrying them into the kitchen, while she sat quietly on the sofa near the fire. When the men had finished, the bar tidy, the new dishwasher humming away in the kitchen, Peter pulled out a bottle of wine and offered a glass to Sean, frowning refusal to Assumpta's plea for just a small taste. "So Sean, aside from being a Good Samaritan, what brings you here tonight?"
    "I wanted to tell you that I'm leaving, going back to England. Assumpta, I've thought and thought about what you said, and in case you're right, I'll be gone when they come back. If Niamh decides it is me she wants, she'll know where to find me. But if I was just a distraction from boredom, then maybe this little vacation will remind her of what she loved in Ambrose once."
    "What about you?" Peter asked, not looking at Assumpta's raised eyebrows and small smile.
    "I guess once I'm away from here, not having to live down being my father's son, I'll have my life back again, and I'll be able to find out if Niamh was only the way to give up my wife's ghost. I'll know if there can be another woman. Or if she was the One."
    "Sean," Assumpta said, reaching her hand out to touch his, "I take back my suggestion that you aren't quite honorable. You are a good man. And a brave one."
    "No, don't give me too much credit," he said. "There's a part of me that hopes the second honeymoon thing doesn't work. But when you talked about Kieran's life being ruined, I thought of my daughter. What it would have been like for her if she'd had to give up one of her parents at that age. It was hard enough for her to lose her mother as a teen-ager, and I wouldn't want to give Kieran such heartache. So that's the other part of me, the one that hopes Niamh's son will have the kind of home and family that Emma had." He shook Assumpta's hand, holding it a trifle longer than necessary, and then reached out and did the same to Peter.
    Peter let him out and locked the door behind him, coming back into the pub and turning out the lights. "Time for bed, Assumpta," he said, holding out his hand to help her stand. Quite an evening, I'd say." He saw that there were tears in her eyes. He put his arms around her and held her tightly. "You okay?" he asked gently.
    "Yeah. I was just suddenly overwhelmed by how lucky we are. This whole thing with Niamh - who to love, who to choose, who to spend her life with - it all put me back to the past. I never dared think we could wind up like this, together, happy. It's easy to forget the difficulties." She sniffed. Smiled. "Maybe it's just pregnancy hormones." He held her hand as they went up the stairs, leaving the empty bar behind them.

    When Niamh and Ambrose returned home, there seemed to be a different mood between them. Assumpta just waited, knowing the day would come when her friend came to talk to her. And a few days later it did.
    "Assumpta," she said, her tone accusatory. "I just heard that Sean is gone. Did you have something to do with that?"
    "You overrate my powers. No." she replied firmly. "It was his idea, but I do give him credit for it. He said if you decided that you wanted him instead of Ambrose, you'd know where to find him."
    "Yeah, I guess that's true." She sat down on one of the barstools. "I'm not sure what I want anymore."
    Assumpta smiled. "So the trip did some good?"
    "It did," Niamh said. "We talked a lot; Ambrose reminded me of how close we used to be, we laughed over some of the memories, cried over others. He even danced with me one night," she added with a smile, "if not very well. The thing I liked and respected the most was that he didn't mention Sean at all. He just talked about us. About Kieran, and the life we want to give him. But it was – nice – to be alone, just the two of us, no Kieran, no work."
    "Sounds good to me," Assumpta said, as she began to ready the bar for the lunchtime regulars.
    "You know, Assumpta," Niamh said in her old enthusiastic way, "you and Peter should go to Spain for a few days, before your baby is born, have some time just for yourselves. It would do you so much good."
    "Yeah, right," Assumpta said with a smile. "And give up my little empire here? Ha!" The two friends laughed together, and it seemed, at least for the moment, that all might be well once again in Ballykissangel.