What If

by Theadora McKee

It is late. Peter and Assumpta have just gotten the bar tidied and are sitting together sipping at wine.

 Peter asks her, "So what is this terrible thing Niamh said to you?"

 "Oh, just something about me always wanting what I can't have."

 "Ah, the human condition."

 "Yeah, but you're human, aren't you?"  She seems dead serious.

 He tries to lighten things. "Oh, I've been promoted?"

 She looks at him. "Do you ever want what you can't have?"

 Somewhat uncomfortable, he shrugs. "Sure."

 "And what's stopped you?"  He doesn't answer, and she repeats her question. "What's stopped you?"

 He hesitates. "Me."

 "Why, what are you afraid of?"

 "Nothing," he says, looking into his glass.


 "Assumpta, we shouldn't be having this conversation."

 "Why not?"

 "Because you are feeling the effects of three glasses of wine," he says.

 "Oh, and I'm leading you astray?"

 "No...but these are big questions, not to be undertaken lightly, and not 'under the influence'."

 She looks at him intently. "Well, I may be tipsy, but you aren't."


 "So what do you want that you can't have?"

 He is silent for a moment, then gestures with his hand. "This, I suppose."

 "This?" She is confused.

 "Being alone, with you., comfortable, talking.  Friends."

 "Well, Peter, you know you do have that. We are friends."

 "Yeah."  He stands."Look, I'm not supposed to put myself in situations like this. Drinking wine, late at night, with a beautiful woman."

 "You think I'm beautiful?" she asks. There is no trace of coyness, no longer any trace of the wine.

 "Oh yes," he says.

 "Peter," she puts her hand on his arm. "What do you want that you can't have? The truth."

 There is a long moment, then he reaches out to touch her face and bends forward, kissing her gently on her mouth.


 Her eyes widen. "Peter....."

 "I have to go, Assumpta."

 She reaches out to him again. "No, you don't."

 He looks at her.  "Oh, yes I do."

 Peter felt very unsure of himself and of what he wanted, so he avoided the pub for over a week.  That didn't stop the memory, let alone the dreams, of Assumpta and that night.  He was miserable, and tried telling himself that he just missed her friendship and the cameraderie of Fitzgerald's.  But he was afraid he knew better.

 Assumpta had berated herself over and over when she thought about that night.  Why, oh why, had she moved them to a different level? She had known for a while now how she had come to feel about him, and now that he was avoiding her, she missed him terribly. She wasn't sure how she would feel when she saw him again.  Would she see him again, she wondered.  Would he ever come back to the pub?  It's a tiny village, she thought, he'll have to see me sometime!  She began
to think that it was time to make a decision, perhaps a big one.

 Peter had been hearing all the comments from people about his absence, so one night, he came into the bar, relieved to find it crowded and noisy.  The greetings were enthusiastic, but tinged with teasing.

 "Where've ya been hidin', Father?" asked Padraig.

 Brendan slapped him on the back. "I thought you might have given up drink," he said.

 Siobhan added, "I thought you might have given up US."

 Assumpta came to take his order, but said nothing until she returned with his pint, when she said in her old sarcastic voice, "Here y'are, FATHER."

 She then went into the kitchen, where she took a deep breath, leaning against the door. What the hell is going on, she thought,  Her heart was pounding, her face felt flushed, her hands were shaking. Suddenly, someone pushed the door open, and there was Peter.  She went to lean against the sink. "What do you want?" she said.

 He was nervous.  "Assumpta, I just want to say...I want you to know that I"m sorry."

 "For what?"

 "You know for what!  For kissing you."

 "Oh, that?  Think nothing of it, Father, by now you must have been to confession, received absolution.  Over, done with."  All the old sarcasm.

 "Actually, I have," he said, ignoring the hostility.

 "Oh God!" she said, glaring at him. "To Father Mac?"

 "No, of course not. I went up to see Bucky Beaumont.  He's the best priest I know around here, an old guy, very wise.  And he gave me some good advice."

 "Oh, yeah?  What kind of advice?"

 Peter took a deep breath.  He hadn't known he was going to tell her this.  Not yet.  But there was this strong feeling that she was the only one he could talk to. "He told me to make up my mind once and for all.  Do I want to be a priest, the best priest I can be?  Or do I want....love, companionship, closeness.  With a woman."

 "Any particular woman?"  To herself she thought, what am I saying? Do I want this conversation? Lokk what happened the last time we talked about this!

 He looked at her incredulously.  "You!  Assuming you'd have me.  Assuming I'd ask."

 "And what did you decide?"

 He sat down at the table. "Assumpta, I'm not sure!  This is what I've wanted for so long, to be a priest, to have my own church, my own community.  But these days, it somehow isn't enough."


 "No, let me finish, please.  I'm thinking of leaving Ballyk for a while, maybe going on retreat, to try to really think it through, make a decision, one way or another."

 "You've done that, before, haven't you?" she said. "Run away?  And look what happened.  She came after you.  Well, don't worry, I won't do that."

 He looked confused.

 "Your little friend, Jenny.  Do you know what she said? 'I've come for the priest'.  I wanted to smack her pretty little face!  I told myself I was furious that she was going to ruin your name, your reputation.  But when I saw that cozy, candle-lit dinner, I knew I felt more than that.  It was like she was encroaching on my territory."

 He stood up and came closer to her.  "Assumpta..."

 She held up a hand to keep him from getting too close. "No, now let me finish.  I don't know why I'm telling you this." Her eyes filled with tears.  "There's just no one else I can tell!  So it's time for the truth,  What have I got to lose, except for what's left of my pride and dignity?  When that sexy creature came to town, posing as Eamon's niece, I watched her flirt with you, stand much too close...and I had to face the fact that I was ragingly jealous." She turned away, hoping to get the tears under control. "But that's my problem.  So go on your retreat, be the good priest.  This situation is a joke! It makes me know I've made the right decision."

 "What decision?" he asked, feeling terrible about those tears.

 "Look, I've got customers," she said, and left.  He stood watching the closing door, thinking that this whole conversation had only made things worse.

 Peter arrived at the old monastery which was used for retreats, and he spent several hours in prayer and meditation.  He had spent so much time in the past months going over the same path, asking God to show him the way to a decision, asking for some indication of what God wanted for him.  Suddenly, he had a blinding moment of clarity, an intense conviction that God had already done this!  The love he felt for Assumpta, the overwhelming wish to take care of her, to spend his life with her, to spare her pain, suddenly seemed to him to reflect exactly what God wanted for him, from him.  With a sharp pang, he realized how much pain he himself had caused her, and he longed to speak to her, to tell her how he wanted to make it up to her.  But the Great Silence had settled over the old building, so he deferred any action until the morning.

 That night, he slept peacefully for the first time in months.  In the morning, he had a long, heartfelt talk with Father Xavier, the priest who had been assigned to him. He was able to clarify  for himself and the other man the depth of his feelings and his certainty that this was the path that God wanted him to follow. Then he went to the phone and called the pub.

 "Fitzgerald's", a voice said.


 "No, it's Niamh."

 "Niamh, Peter Clifford here. Is Assumpta around?"

 "No, Father, she's gone."

 "Gone?"  His heart sank.

 "Yeah, she left this morning.  I don't know why or where she was going. She wouldn't tell me.  She just talked about what's involved in running the pub, said she'd let me know whether she was going to sell it or whatever.  The way she sounded, Father, it scared me!"

 "Niamh, you're sure you don't know where she was going?"

 "I have no idea, Father,  She said she'd let me know. But what about you? Are you coming home?"

 "No, I'm going to Manchester to see my mother,  I'll call you, but if you hear from Assumpta, tell her I must talk to her! Please."

 In Manchester, he and his mother talked at length, and Peter was relieved to find that she was neither angry nor hurt that he was leaving the priesthood. She feared with him, however, that he might have waited too long, that he might lose Assumpta.  He called Niamh every day at first, until he realized that she was annoyed and reluctant to talk to him, especially when she told
him that there was a new priest in town, and that Father Mac had told them that he was leaving the church.

 "Not the church, Niamh, just the priesthood.  I still go to mass every day, I just don't say it anymore."

 "And does this have something to do with Assumpta?" she asked.

 "Yes, it does, and that's why I have to talk to her.  Please promise me that you'll call me when you hear from her."

 She sounded reluctant, but agreed, and took his number.

 In the meantime, Assumpta had fled to London, leaving Ballyk the day after Peter had gone. She stayed with a friend who worked in a big, busy pub, and helped out there.  he spent her free time on long walks, trying to fix what was wrong in her head. She missed her home, her friends, her dog, but whenever she thought of Peter returning to Ballyk, invigorated in his faith, being the best priest he could be, and how it would feel to see him, she knew she couldn't go back. She put off calling Niamh, not wanting to hear about Father Clifford. She did send a postcard, but refrained from giving an address or phone number. Just a word to say she was okay. But London was not the answer, she realized. Too big, too strange, too not-Ireland. She called her friend Sara, who had her own pub in Dublin, and Sara leaped at the chance to have her work with her.

 Once in Dublin, back in Ireland, she began to feel some peace, some comfort in the familiar streets, the known lilt of the language. She had a room upstairs, just like at home. She had even told Sara some of why she'd left Ballyk, leaving out the part about Peter being a priest. Finally, she she felt she could talk to Niamh, to see how things were going, to get some news of home. Niamh was delighted to hear from her, to know that she was okay, but neither of them mentioned Peter. Niamh asked for the address of the pub. "I have some mail and stuff to send you," she said.

 Peter flew into Dublin, rented a car and drove to Ballykissangel, where Niamh gave him some papers and Fionn, things she felt Assumpta needed.  Back in Dublin, he walked into Sara's pub, and asked for Assumpta.  The young woman behind the bar looked at him with hostile eyes.  "Peter Clifford?" she repeated.

 "Yes," he said.

 "Why don't you go back to your wife and leave Assumpta alone," she said coolly.

 "Wife?" he said,  "Is that what she told you, that I was married?"

 "Well, not in so many words," she said, flustered.  "I just assumed....."

 "What did she tell you?" he asked, using his considerable charm and empathy to try to win her confidence.

 "Well, just that there was a man.....already spoken for."

 "Sara, " he said, reaching across the bar to touch her arm.  "I'm not married, never have been.  It's worse than that.  I was a priest."

 She stared at him, astounded, then began to laugh.  "Poor Assumpta!  A Catholic priest, and an Englishman! "  She asked him some more questions, and when it was established that he'd resigned the priesthood and how long he'd been looking for Assumpta, she warmed a bit and suggested that he look for her now in Grafton Street.

 Assumpta was, indeed, walking in Grafton Street, enjoying the lack of traffic, the young people surging happily in and out of shops, thinking to herself how much Dublin had changed in the years since her college days. Ireland had changed, she realized, prosperity and globalization doing their part. Less the church-run theocracy she used to deplore, people having money to spend, less of the havoc that alcohol used to have on family life. She smiled to herself as she noted young couples holding hands, laughing together. With a sigh, she wondered if she would ever have that kind of relationship. Always the unbidden thoughts.....She cut them off, but it was an effort.

The sound of a dog barking broke through her fog, and suddenly, an Irish setter bounded up to her, jumping up to lick her face. "Fionn?" she said, "is it you? My God, it is you! How did you get here?" Before looking around, she knelt down to hug him, kissing his head, his ears.

 "Is there one of those for me?" a voice asked, and she looked up to see Peter standing there, holding Fionn's leash.

 "Peter! What on earth are you doing here?"

 "I've come to find you," he said, "I have things to tell you." He looked at her very seriously.  "Important things. Things I should have said a long time ago."

 She stood up, still holding on to the eager dog's collar, and he put his arms around her. "I don't believe this," she said.

 "Believe," he said gently, "please believe."

 They walked back to Sara's pub, holding hands, and with just a glance at Sara, they went up the stairs to her room.  He held out his arms and she walked into them, putting her own arms around him.  "Oh, Assumpta," he murmured. "How I wish you had waited for me."

 She pulled back. "I did wait!" she said coldly. "Two years!"  But when she saw the look on his face, the pain, she said, "I'm sorry, Peter, I shouldn't have said that."

 "No, you're right," he said, "I deserved it.  But I'm here now to try to make it up to you.  I love you.  I know what I want, and it's you.  A life with you. If you'll have me." He told her how he had realized this on his first day on retreat. "If I had called you that night, you wouldn't have run away. But like the fool I am, I waited, trying to do the right thing."  His eyes filled.

 "Peter, it's all right.  I think it's going to be all right."  She put her arms around him again, and nestled her head into his shoulder, closing her eyes as he held her close against him.

 "Are you okay? " he asked.  "I've been so miserable, so focussed on myself, as always.  You----you left your home, your business, your friends, everything you care about."

 She smiled ruefully. "What I cared most about I thought I'd lost.  I kept telling myself it just wasn't meant to be, that it was ridiculous anyway."

 "A joke, you said."

 She walked over to the bed, where Fionn had stretched out happily, looking at them both. She sat down and began to pet her dog. "Well, Peter, it is a joke, isn't it? The priest and the publican? And here I am, someone who has spent most of her life hating the Catholic clergy, and despising the English as well. And you! How can you love me, knowing what a witch I can be.
Hot-headed, intemperate, with a wicked tongue, likely to say anything. Especially about your church!"

 "But I do love you," he said with a tender smile.

 "Yeah," she said.  "And I love you. The odd couple, that's us."

 He sat down next to her, and lifted her face to his.  As he bent to kiss her, for the first time, he grinned. "No, we're a perfect couple," he said.