It was getting late by the time Assumpta arrived back home. The dusky light of the setting sun kissing the surface of the river giving the village an ethereal quality.
She turned off the engine and sat mesmerised by the light but her thoughts elsewhere. The sense of finality and closure that she had felt after watching Leo walk away had ebbed away and its place already was the anticipation of what was yet to come. She was bright enough to know that she faced many more battles, obstacles and difficulty before she would finally be at peace with her future. No that was not quite right. She was at peace with her future, it was everyone else that would probably need some to time to accept all that had happened.
Peter would have met with Fr Mac by now. A decision would have been made. She was sure that Fr Mac would do all he could to make it difficult for them. Peter, the sweet but naive man he was, had disagreed and thought that Fr Mac would do what he knew to be right. Aye right and I'm the virgin Mary.
She didn't even want to begin to think about how she was going to start telling her friends about the new development in the saga of her and Peter. She knew that her friends were aware of the bond the two had, they had been surprised by the friendship between them at first, at least until they had gotten to know Peter themselves.
But it was always unspoken. Always accepted as what it was. Something that was there to never be acted upon. Brendan, she thought, may have a clue, he knew her well. He knew Peter well.
Brian too had made cryptic remarks to Peter that indicated he knew something was about to go nuclear. But Siobhan, Padraig and the rest? She could imagine that they would never have expected any of this.
Niamh. She had never acknowledged it. She had alluded to it. Criticising her for always wanting what she couldn't have. Tried to convince her that Enda was a good catch or that Leo was the man for her.
Be happy she had said. He's a good man. As if she should be grateful that a man was willing to love her. She wondered if Niamh could have ever imagined this, if she ever feared that it would happen. She wouldn't approve, she knew that, she would probably not understand. She was a good catholic girl through and through. But she had grown up the last few years, marriage and motherhood had changed her. Perhaps she wasn't giving her enough credit. Perhaps she would come to accept the decisions she and Peter had made. Perhaps...
"Are you going to just sit there all day? I do have a husband and son I would like to get back to y'know."
She blinked at Niamh who had wrenched the door open.
"What's wrong?" Her blank stare must have given cause for concern as Niamh bent to look her in the eye. "You sick? Has something happened? Is it Leo? I knew you were up to something today. Brewers fair my ass. Did you go to see him?"
"I knew it, I told Ambrose. I said something is going on with that girl. Are you getting back together?"
"Are you moving back to Dublin? Or, oh God, to London. I mean, oh god, Ill miss you but if it's what you want then you know Ill support you, I just want-"
"NIAMH!" she shouted. "Will you just-no I'm not back with Leo. No I'm not moving to Dublin or London or anywhere else. At least not at this very moment. I might be forced- but no."
She bundled out of the car to see Niamh standing there in anticipation.
"We need to talk."
Peter had felt a little shell shocked as he left Cilldargen. I'm no longer a priest. No longer Father Clifford. People wont call me Father anymore. Mr Clifford. Mr Peter Clifford. Peter. Not Father.
The thoughts swirled around his head, trying to come to terms with what had happened. He felt delirious. He was sure he must be muttering to himself. He chuckled as he realised what he must look like.
He felt like going up to someone in the street and confessing all. Hi my name's Peter, I've just resigned as a priest because I am in love with my best friend. She's a publican. A married publican. But we love each other and we are going to get married and live happily ever after.
Peter laughed out loud, this time definitely attracting the attentions of passers by as he headed for his car.
If he had been in full control of his faculties he may have been concerned at the fact that the journey back to Ballykissangel had passed by in a blur. His mind had continued to whirl, memories and images of his life coming back to him with startling clarity. The discussion with his father about his vocation, his vows, his mother's pride….his mother.
His brother's teasing, the church in Manchester. Jenni. Seems she was right after all. The bus ride to BallyK that first time, his first meeting with Assumpta. His first sermon at St Joseph's. His first beer with Brendan, Siobhan and Padraig. The motorbike. Waking Assumpta to get to an isolated parishioner.
"You'd come anyway, wouldn't you? Knowing you weren't wanted."
The years played before his eyes as if on a movie screen.
The petition to keep him. The imprisoned sheep. Niamh and Ambrose's wedding (the falling statue that preceded it). The Javelin. Mr Bradley. Bootleg Beer. Kieran. Kilnashee. The tournament. Leo.
Each memory came with its own corresponding emotion, which felt as real to Peter now as they each had at the time. The anticipation, the fear, the happiness, the frustration, the laughter, the pain, the love and the tears.
He reached a hand up to his face and was surprised to find it wet with his tears. He pulled to the side of the road and got out to breath in the evening air, the seven shades of green dancing in front of him.
Peter supposed it was only natural to feel grief at what had transpired in Fr. Mac's office. He had always thought that the priesthood was his destiny. Despite his father's reservations.
"Your heart is too big to be a priest, Peter."
"I would think that to have a big heart is a pre-requisite for the priesthood."
"Yes. But the priesthood will never be enough to fill your heart."
The words now seemed like an epiphany, gone was the disappointment he had felt at hearing them at the time. The last few months had been full of epiphanies. He hadn't made a mistake when joining the priesthood. It was right for the man he was at the time. But he had outgrown the priesthood, just as his father had foreseen. He had intellectually outgrown the boundaries of the Catholic Church just as his heart had outgrown the constraints of his vows.
Yes he felt grief, yes he felt regret. But all of the sadness was eclipsed by the rightness of his decision. He felt emboldened by the knowledge that his father had known him better than he knew himself. Knowing that his mother too had accepted him for who he was and not the collar he wore.
"Whatever you decide Peter, you are my son. I'm proud of the man you have become."
"Don't live a lie Pete." His elder brother Tom had said, while his younger brother Andy had punched his arm for being a 'sly old dog'. Andy was a man of few words but he knew he had his support.
Peter wiped his eyes and got back in his car. It was time to face his future head on.
"You're making me nervous Assumpta." Niamh said as she watched Assumpta rise to check the kettle for the umpteenth time in the last 30 seconds.
"A watched kettle never boils you know."
Assumpta glared at her friend, "Do you want a cup of tea or not?"
"If you're going to be in this mood, perhaps you'd better break out the brandy."
Assumpta collapsed in the chair opposite her friend and sighed, "I don't know where to start."
"The beginnings always good."
"Ha, bloody ha."
She took a breath, knowing that she needed Niamh to understand something first.
"I did see Leo today, but not for the reason you may think. Or want to think."
Niamh nodded at her, "Go on."
"We signed the annulment papers, he's gone to London."
Niamh set back in her chair and exhaled, Assumpta could see that Niamh was fighting an internal battle and Assumpta prayed that she wouldn't fight her on this. Not now.
"Okay?" Assumpta asked in shock.
"I mean, its not okay but okay. I get that it's over, I just…I just wanted you to have what I have. And he loves you."
"He does but I don't love him and that's not fair." Assumpta said simply.
"But why marry him Assumpta? Why do that to him?"
"Because I thought he could love enough for both of us. Because I couldn't have what I wanted. You're always telling me 'you only want what you can't have" and you were right. I wanted what I couldn't have and Leo was an escape from that, he was an escape from here." Assumpta looked around her, the world she was desperate to leave yet couldn't wait to get back to.
"But you came back. You brought Leo here, if you wanted to escape why bring him here?"
"Because I couldn't.." Assumpta choked, trying to swallow the tears and failing as they cascaded down her cheek. Niamh reached for her at once, her confusion evident as she grasped her hand.
"Assumpta, please tell me what is going on."
"I tried Niamh, I tried getting away. I tried moving on with Leo, I tried so hard just to forget but I couldn't."
"I don't understand."
"I was so, so unhappy Niamh. You have to understand I never wanted any of this, I didn't want to hurt Leo or you or Ambrose or Brendan or Siobhan or…anyone."
"How could you hurt me Assumpta? I'm disappointed for you, not in you." Niamh said, tenderly wiping the tears from Assumpta's cheeks.
Assumpta huffed a laugh, she was probably going to be disappointed in her in a minute. She pulled away from Niamh, moving to stand. Niamh, for probably one of the few times in her life, waited patiently as Assumpta tried to find the words to explain.
"I'd never been in love. There was Leo, and I liked him, cared for him but I was never truly in love with him. Not even on our wedding day. There were guys at university, tourists who came into the bar - the flirtation with Enda Sullivan even. But to be honest I've never felt that connection."
Niamh was looking at her wide-eyed, realisation dawning it seemed and Assumpta waited for her to explode.
"You mean…are you trying to say…?" Niamh spluttered and Assumpta could only nod.
It was Assumpta's turn to splutter at that.
"I mean, I'm shocked but it's okay Assumpta, I mean you're still you and still my friend, I don't care who you sleep with."
"NIAMH!" Assumpta shouted, half in amusement, half in frustration.
"What? I'm trying to be understanding here." Niamh shouted back indignantly.
"I'm not gay, Jesus." Assumpta said tiredly.
"Well what I am I supposed to think, you tell me you never loved a man at all, that you're in pain and unhappy."
"So all gay people are sad and miserable?" Assumpta retorted with sarcasm.
"No, or course not. That's not what I meant, I just... Assumpta -" It was Niamh's turn to stand in frustration now, "Will you just tell me what is going on?!"
Assumpta picked up at tea towel and wrung it in her hands.
"I am in love Niamh, with a man before you start calling me KD Lang, and it's the first time and probably the last time I will ever be in love. And I'm terrified."
Niamh sat down, her frustration ebbing, but the confusion evident.
"But, who? I mean do I know him?"
"Yeah." Assumpta replied simply.
Niamh just stared at her. And Assumpta stared back.
"Does he love you?" Niamh asked quietly.
Assumpta nodded, the tears again streaming down her face.
"Oh god." Niamh looked stricken as real understanding finally dawned. She knew. Of course she knew, they all probably bloody knew but Assumpta couldn't stop the tears to console or make her understand. Three years of tension, confusion, frustration and hurt poured out of her.
But as she cried, she could feel the relief too and she smiled and the smile turned into a laugh. The more she laughed, the more Niamh looked at her as if she was finally losing her mind.
Assumpta tried to calm herself down and sat back down across from her best friend.
"The priest, Assumpta? The bloody priest?" Niamh said with weary resignation rather than anger.
Assumpta nodded, the smile threatening the corners of her mouth, even as Niamh put her face in her hands.
"You hate priests." Niamh mumbled through her hands.
"I know." Assumpta sighed.
Niamh looked at her seriously and got up with such purpose that Assumpta was sure she was about to storm out, or tell her what a sinning harlot she was. So it was Assumpta's turn to be surprised when she rummaged through the cupboards and pulled out a large bottle of wine.
"What are you doing?"
"From the beginning Assumpta. This time the proper beginning, which is probably when you picked up a drowned Englishman in the pouring rain, who by your words, looked about twelve."
Niamh slammed the bottle down in front of her and Assumpta did not dare to refuse.
Peter felt a strange sense of calm as he packed his clothes into his backpack. He should be panicked, but he wasn't. In fact he was quite the opposite, he couldn't stop smiling. He wasn't stupid enough to think that everything would magically be ok, but he felt ready to handle whatever the world, god or the people of Ballykissangel could throw at him.
He heard the door open and shut.
He looked up and stared into his landlord's eyes. Not backing down for an instant.
"Will you have a drink Peter, before you go?"
Peter nodded, not expecting the conversation to be so…cordial.
Brian poured him a drink and handed to him.
"Well, you're going to need it." Brian said as he downed his whiskey in one and turned to walk back out the house.
"Leave the key under the mat, Peter."
Peter smiled into the glass, never one for sympathies was Brian. He took a large gulp of the whiskey feeling it burn the back of his throat when the door opened again.
Brendan walked in, paper in hand and nodded to Peter before he sat down in front of him.
"Hey." Peter said as he reached in to pack his bag tighter.
Brendan nodded back, "Going somewhere?"
Peter hesitated, not knowing where to start but as he opened his mouth, Brendan beat him to it.
"I see things, Peter. Things others don't see, or don't want to see. Padraig would rather bury his head in his pint, Siobhan in the back end of a cow, but I don't."
"Okay." Peter said, warily.
"For example, I saw how unhappy she was when she brought that husband home, I know how distraught you were over your mother's death, I see the smiles you've been giving each other since you walked off together after the court hearing."
Peter felt himself go cold. Brian was one thing, he would never come out and say what he knew to be true, bad for business, but Brendan? Brendan probably knew them better than they did themselves.
"I was released from the priesthood today." Peter blurted out.
Brendan raised an eyebrow.
"It's why I'm packing."
Still Brendan's face gave nothing away.
"Brian had made it clear he doesn't want to have much to do this with so I thought it best."
"Dammit Brendan." Peter said with exasperation.
"What do you want me to say Peter?" Brendan asked in the infuriatingly calm way he had.
"Nothing, I just…nothing." Peter clipped his backpack shut and made to walk out the door.
"Do you know where you're going?" Brendan asked.
Brendan shook his head.
"No?" Peter asked.
"You're coming home with me."
"You're going to have enough problems without people trying to make it up for themselves what's going in Fitzgerald's after closing."
"I don't want you to be involved in this Brendan."
"And I'm telling you I am involved."
"Brendan-" Brendan held out a hand to stop him.
"I told you. I see things. If I thought for one moment this was a flight of fancy, a fling, a moment of grief or a rebound, you'd be on the first boat back to Manchester."
Peter stood there dumbfounded.
"I've always respected the fact you were a priest Peter, but it was never the reason you became my friend. I want you to be happy. It would make my life easier if she was happy. And I've never seen her look at anyone the way she looks at you."
Peter swallowed thickly.
"You being a teacher wasn't the reason you became my friend either."
Brendan finally smiled, "No? What was it?"
"Good man. What's say we get you set up at my place and then we can go see about that beer."
"Sounds good to me."
"You probably wont think that after I tell you that she and Niamh have been locked in the kitchen for hours drinking wine and brandy."
Peter looked at Brendan with concern, "Is she, are they alright?"
"Well after some raised voices, to be honest all we've heard is giggling for the past two hours."
"Oh god, shouldn't someone go in and take the bottle away from them?"
Brendan just smiled.
"Oh no, not me."
"Your job now Peter. I'm sure you can handle it."
"So you've never even kissed?"
"Uh uh?" Assumpta answered around her glass of wine.
"Never?" Niamh asked incredulously.
"Well, he kissed my hand that time."
"At Kilnashee." Niamh nodded and Assumpta felt she was in some parallel universe. Niamh wasn't only accepting of Assumpta's story, she was positively relishing every minute detail. It had to be the alcohol.
"Yeah. Oh wait, he did kiss me somewhere else too."
"At Kilnashee?!" Niamh squeaked.
"No. Actually, your kitchen."
She couldn't help but laugh at Niamh's face or the way her jaw had dropped open. But fearing she would get the wrong impression, she told her the polar bear joke, just the way Peter had. Niamh's tears fell just as hers had wanted to that night.
"So you hugged him. And then…" Niamh encouraged.
"And then he kissed my neck."
"Oh god." Niamh set back in shock. "Then what happened?"
"I ran out. It just…it wasn't right. I may be a lapsed catholic Niamh but still, y'know?"
Niamh nodded, before she frowned, "So that was before the lake and river talks or after?"
Assumpta smiled, "Before. It kind of led to the talks."
Niamh grinned at her before sobering.
"Its not going to be easy."
"Nothing worth having ever is."
Niamh looked at her approvingly, "I think he's rubbing off on you."
"Not yet he isn't." To which they both spluttered laughing before the object of their mutual mirth tentatively came through the kitchen door.
"Is it safe to come in?" Peter asked and Assumpta almost felt sorry for him.
"Depends." Niamh replied.
"On what?" Peter asked.
"On whether you've brought anymore wine. We've ran out."
"You're in a pub!"
Niamh giggled and stood with a slight wobble.
"I best be going home to my husband and baby. You've no doubt got a few things to talk about."
She turned to Peter and Assumpta could almost feel his apprehension.
"I like you Father, I mean Peter. I may not like the circumstances of all this, or what's going to happen but I like you and I love her. Okay?"
Peter nodded, "Okay."
"And Ill try to forgive you for leaving me with Fr. Mac to christen my child."
"Niamh, I'm sorry."
"Shush. You just…look after her." Niamh asked with a tremor. Peter nodded and Niamh threw her arms round her best friend before leaving out the back door.
"You okay?" Peter asked.
"I heard you got through quite a bit of wine and brandy."
Assumpta shook her head, "I think Niamh drank more than me."
Peter nodded at her, a silence ebbing between them.
"Fr. Mac sorted the paperwork. It's done, well the first part at least."
Assumpta nodded back, "The annulment too."
"How was Leo?" Peter asked and Assumpta could not believe this man. His question pure of sympathy rather than relish.
"Sad but, he knew it was for the best. We left on good terms."
"Good." Peter said and Assumpta knew he meant it.
"Brian knows." Peter said simply but didn't elaborate. Assumpta could guess, he was probably worried about the impact on business.
"So does Brendan." He added.
Assumpta raised an eyebrow. "Brendan knows everything," she replied and Peter grinned.
"Its only a matter of time before everyone else knows." She said without emotion.
"Yeah, the bars pretty full, like they were all waiting for me to explain to them." Peter looked at the door, uncertainty crossing his face and Assumpta fought down the fear it produced.
"We could make a run for it." Assumpta said lightly, only half joking.
"Where would we go?" Peter asked.
Peter shook his head, "There may be a time when we have to, it all depends on what they do." He nodded towards to the bar. "But I'm not running anywhere unless it's towards you."
Assumpta smirked, "You're pretty corny with the one liners."
Peter smirked back, "You love me for it."
"Yeah. I do."
He walked towards her and pulled her lightly to him.
"Niamh couldn't believe that you hadn't kissed me."
Peter grinned, "No?"
"No. Although she was pretty shocked when I told her you pounced on my neck in her kitchen."
Peter pulled away in shock, "You didn't tell her?"
"You should have seen her face."
"What? You did."
"Yeah but did you have to tell her. I'm never going to be able to look at her again."
Assumpta pulled him back to her amused at his shyness, particularly when that event had proved that he was well practised in certain rituals.
"Oh shush, I didn't tell her every detail." She said as she wound her arms around his neck and he lowered his head towards her.
"No?" Peter asked softly. "What did you leave out?"
"The way it made me feel." Assumpta whispered, her breath caressing his.
"How did it make you feel?" Peter asked with a smile, his lips brushing hers.
Assumpta answered him the only way she knew how, by showing him.
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