The mist still hung over the River Aingeal as Assumpta Fitzgerald stepped through the bright blue front door of her pub with a barrel her customers had emptied only a few hours ago. The air was so thick she almost did not notice the solitary figure sitting on his backpack, waiting for the early bus to Cilldargen. Peter. She had thought he'd be leaving later in the day, after early mass, would not have ventured out of her kitchen if she'd thought he might be about.
Assumpta very nearly ducked back inside, but instead she drew herself up and set her chin firmly. She'd be damned if she'd let Peter Clifford – Father Clifford – keep her from going about her day as usual. Although, truth be told, she was getting rather an earlier start than usual, due to not having slept at all well. Every time she was about to drift off, that last real conversation with Peter would start to echo in her head – the one where he told her he was going away. On retreat. To renew his vocation, become a better priest. Assumpta's mouth twisted just remembering.
She kept thinking of all the biting things she could have said, beginning with, "Go to hell" or "Why should I care?" Why, of all things, did she have to go and cry? But the truth was that, whether she should or not, she did care and thought Peter did, too.
"Stupid!" she chided herself for the millionth time and set the barrel on the curb with a clang.
The young priest's eyes, which had been closed in an attempt at prayer, flew open at the sound. His head turned involuntarily toward the pub, and he caught a glimpse of dark red hair and a bit of green sweater before the door swung shut. He heard the bolt slide into place. Clutching at the rosary in his long fingers, he desperately tried to quell the familiar quickening of his heartbeat.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…
The feeling drained from him, making way for others, equally familiar: guilt, doubt, grief.
The drone of the ancient bus pulled his attention back toward the street. You're doing the right thing, he repeated to himself as he shouldered his pack and boarded the bus. He forced his eyes to stay on the beads in his lap until the buildings of the village were out of view, but his lips refused to form the words to any of the prayers he knew so well.
The stones under Peter's bare feet were beginning to feel quite warm from the late morning sun. He shifted his weight on the rocks, suddenly aware of having sat in the same position for too long. How long he wasn't sure. He'd walked down to the sea directly from matins and had been idly watching the waves and the gulls and letting his thoughts float around as they would. It was the most at peace he'd felt since he arrived on retreat…or for some time before then, really.
The peace came from not trying to accomplish anything, he decided. Not trying to know what was right, what God wanted of him, what he himself wanted. He stood and stretched the stiffness from his muscles, put on his shoes, threw his black jacket over his shoulder, and started the hike back up the hill to the retreat center.
The front room of the main house was so dim after the bright seaside morning that Peter had to pause inside the door to let his eyes become accustomed to the low light. The first thing he saw clearly was one of the resident nuns approaching him.
"I've a telephone message for you, Father," she said, not quite hiding her disapproval as she handed him a small piece of paper. Outside contact was not expressly forbidden for priests on retreat, but it was certainly discouraged.
"Thank you, Sister," said Peter.
When she had returned to her work in the office he read the neat script on the paper, which simply said, "Mr. Kearney, Gallagher's, Abbey Street." Brendan? How strange. Was something wrong at home in Ballykissangel? How had Brendan found him? Only Father Mac, the parish priest, knew exactly where Peter had gone. Peter turned on his heel and was back out in the sunshine, headed for Gallagher's Pub, which he had passed not twenty minutes earlier on his way back from the waterfront.
Inside Gallagher's Brendan Kearney sat nursing his second pint of stout and wondering exactly how long a priest on retreat might take to come back from his morning walk and if Peter was likely to get his message at all. The nun he'd spoken to had been a bit icy on the phone, particularly after he'd given the name of a local pub as his contact information. A slice of light fell across his newspaper as the door opened. With relief he looked up to see Peter step through.
Peter's eyes automatically went to the far end of the bar, Brendan's customary spot at Fitzgerald's. Brendan's chuckle drew his attention and he headed towards his friend's table with a slightly sheepish look that soon returned to the expression of concern he'd been wearing when he came in.
"Force of habit, eh Father?" said Brendan, clapping Peter on the shoulder.
"Brendan, what are you doing here? Are you all right? Is…something wrong at home?" Is Assumpta all right? he wanted to ask, but didn't.
"Fine, fine." Brendan had not expected Peter to be so alarmed and began to wonder if he should have come. He heaved a sigh and sat down, motioning Peter into the chair across the table. "I just need a bit of advice."
Peter sat, looking calmer, if a bit confused. "Did you try Father Mac? I'm really supposed to be off the job at present."
Brendan's face reddened. "For God's sake, Peter. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not exactly what you'd call a regular at confession! It's a friend I'm wanting, not a bloody priest!"
Peter held up his hands, laughing. "All right, all right! In that case, I think I'd better have a pint of lager. The strongest thing I've been able to get here till now is coffee." He walked to the bar and returned with his pint, which he sipped appreciatively. "So, since we've established that you haven't spoken with Father Mac, how on earth did you find me?"
Brendan grinned. "Lucky guess. I only know of two retreat centers that the Church runs nearby, and I figured that, finances being what they are, Father Mac wasn't likely to spring for Fiji or the Riviera."
"So, I decided I'd just try calling and found you on the second try." His face turned apologetic. "I hope I'm not out of line. I sort of had the idea you weren't completely sold on the whole retreat idea in the first place."
Peter sighed heavily. "To tell the truth, it's great to see someone from home. And to take a bit of a break from all the deep thought and soul searching. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels."
Brendan nodded. It was the second time Peter had referred to Ballykissangel as home. "I see they make you wear the uniform even at the seaside," he commented with a nod towards Peter's black suit and collar.
Peter shook his head. "No. I'm just trying to dress the part."
Brendan's sharp eyes took in the slump of his shoulders. He took a pull on his stout. "Reminds me of my days as a poet," he said after a moment.
Peter looked up. "Poet, eh?"
Brendan nodded again. "After I graduated university I was determined to be the next great Irish bard. Moved to Dublin, lived in a garret, dressed all in black, tried to find a new way to say all the things all the poets before me had already said."
"Well, it turns out they still make you pay rent, even for a garret, so I started tutoring. Loved it. Pretty soon I realized that all the time I was writing I was looking forward to when I'd be teaching instead. A position opened up at the National School in Ballykea and I jumped at it. The rest is history."
Peter considered this for a long moment. Then he shook his head, as if to clear it, and said, "Some friend I am! You come all the way here to ask advice and I've got you counseling me instead! What's going on?"
"Ah," said Brendan, "That. Well, it's about Siobhan, I suppose."
"Pregnant?" Peter repeated stupidly. He couldn't quite grasp why this news, while surprising, warranted a trip across the county for a heart to heart. Then the pieces fell into place. "Ohhh. And you're the father."
Brendan nodded. "You never know when a night of passion's going to come back and bite you in the arse."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "Is that how you feel about it?" He was trying mightily not to sound like a priest.
"I don't really know what I feel. She's shut me out, says she doesn't want anything from me."
"That doesn't sound like Siobhan."
Brendan sunk his head in his hands. "It's my fault. I reacted badly at first – it was a bit of a shock, after all. Now she's hurt and she's got her temper up – a bad combination in an Irish woman, you may have noticed."
Oh yes, Peter had.
"She's planning to have the baby though, to keep it?"
"Brave decision, especially in Ballykea."
"She's a brave woman."
"And what do you want?"
Brendan looked miserable. "Damned if I know. Next to Padraig, Siobhan's my oldest friend. Apart from this we've never been romantically involved, but there's no doubt I love her. I'd do anything for her…not to mention this baby. I'd about given up on having kids of my own." He looked up at Peter desperately. "I guess I do know what I want. I want to be a part of it. I don't deserve it, God knows, but I have to be a part of it."
Peter smiled. "Then you know what you have to do."
"She's going to chew me up and spit me out," Brendan groaned.
"That she will. But it may be worth it in the end."
"Thanks, Peter." Brendan drained his glass and stood. The men walked out of the pub back into the sunlight. At the train station they shook hands.
"Lucky kid," Peter commented.
"To have you and Siobhan for parents. There'll be none better."
"I hope you're right." Brendan turned toward the platform, then back again. "Peter, it's not my place and it's not why I came, but…whatever you're going to do, do it quickly, will you?"
Peter looked at him blankly.
"Oh, come on, man. I've known Assumpta Fitzgerald all her life. She can take a lot and come back swinging," Brendan gave Peter a wry smile, "sometimes literally! But something's got the both of you at the breaking point and I don't care to see either of you broken."
He laid a hand on Peter's shoulder, then walked off to his train, leaving Peter standing dazed and shaken on the sidewalk.