"Peter – a word, please."
Father Mac's voice stopped Peter in his tracks, thwarting his efforts to slip inconspicuously out of morning mass and down to the pub for a cup of coffee. Instead, he withdrew awkwardly into a corner of the narthex, hoping to avoid any confusion among the congregants over whether they were meant to greet the ex-curate on their way out of church.
When the last of the faithful few had been waved on their way, Father Mac's smile of benevolent piety relaxed into a more natural expression. He motioned to Peter. "Walk with me."
Peter followed him down the side aisle of the church and into the sacristy. He hadn't been inside the little room since his farewell to the congregation, and its familiar sights and smells immediately settled around him like old friends. Candles and incense and ancient paper and ink; St. Joseph's lovely silver chalice, with the light from the little window glinting off its rim; his own vestments still hanging on a peg as though he might simply slip back into them. He drew a slow, unsteady breath.
Father Mac, who was removing the stole from around his neck, glanced sharply at Peter and raised an eyebrow. "Not having second thoughts, are we, Mr. Clifford?"
Peter swallowed hard. "No," he said firmly.
Father Mac fixed a piercing gaze on him, then, seemingly satisfied with what he saw, nodded. "Well, then. The reason I asked to speak to you is that the bishop has asked to see us both on the matter of your request for dispensation. I have the impression that he wants to make sure your decision was not based on whatever disagreements may have lain between us in the past."
"You know that's not the case," Peter said.
"I do, yes," agreed Father Mac, "but it seems His Grace may have some doubts. And he has some standard questions he's required to ask of you before he can send your request on to Rome."
"We're expected in Wicklow at two o'clock this afternoon," Father Mac went on. He shrugged into his black jacket, buttoned it and walked back out into the sanctuary, standing back to let Peter pass before firmly closing the door to the sacristy. "Why don't you pick me up at the parish church and we'll go on from there?"
Peter groaned inwardly. Had Father Mac just received this news from the bishop, he wondered, or had he been holding onto it, waiting to pull a last power play on Peter? Not that it really made a difference; Peter had too much at stake to risk angering the bishop. He would have to go.
"I wish I could," he said, keeping his face carefully neutral, "but I'm without a car again. Padraig's had mine down at his place for close to a week now."
Father Mac rolled his eyes."Why doesn't that surprise me? All right, we'll take my car. I'll see you at a quarter past one."
Siobhan pushed open the door to her spare room and groaned.
Behind her, Assumpta craned her neck to peer over her friend's shoulder. "Good Lord, Siobhan. What is all this stuff?"
"Everything I didn't know what else to do with for the past fifteen years," Siobhan replied. She picked up a copy of the Irish Veterinary Journal from the top of the pile closest to her and tossed it down again, sending up a cloud of dust. "I don't see why I can't just put a cot in the corner of the kitchen."
"Well, you can't." Niamh squeezed past them, depositing Kieran in Assumpta's arms. "You'll need a place for all the baby's things." She picked her way among piles of books, odd pieces of furniture and shadeless lamps to the window and threw open the striped draperies allowing sunlight to stream in. "Look at that. It'll make a lovely nursery once it's cleared out and painted. Light blue, don't you think? Or yellow?"
Siobhan groaned again.
Niamh's eyes sparked with enthusiasm. "Don't worry. We'd love to help you get it fixed up. Wouldn't we Assumpta?"
"Em..." Assumpta looked doubtfully around at the dusty jumble filling the room.
Niamh glared at her. "Wouldn't we?"
Assumpta sighed. "Yeah, fine," she agreed.
Niamh was off, planning aloud. "Ambrose has a day off on Saturday. I'll get him to shift all this stuff into the barn. We'll get Brendan and Peter to paint – they were brilliant when we did Kathleen's house. It'll be a good chance for Brendan to feel involved."
"I doubt if physical labor is the kind of involvement he's looking for," Assumpta commented drily.
Niamh sniffed disdainfully. "If he thinks this is labor, wait until he sees..."
"Niamh!" Assumpta exclaimed, looking pointedly at Siobhan, who had located a bare spot on the bed and sunk down on it, looking hopeless and slightly green.
"Sees what?" demanded Siobhan, a note of hysteria in her voice.
"Next year's crop of fourth years," Assumta said firmly. She bounced Kieran in her arms. "You know, Siobhan, Peter might take some of this extra furniture off your hands."
"Why?" Niamh asked, successfully distracted from the subject of childbirth, "Is he moving out of Dad's place?"
"It's nothing definite," Assumpta answered, "but Padraig's offered to rent him the room over the garage."
"The one he built for Fionnuala's mother?" Niamh said incredulously. "I didn't think he ever set foot in there."
"Leave it to Peter," Siobhan remarked, with a touch of bitterness. "He's got some sort of special powers, that man, always getting people to do things they swore they'd never do." A glint of mischief appeared in her eyes. "Isn't that right, Assumpta?"
It was barely eleven as Dan left his favorite cafe and crossed Albert Square back towards Town Hall, but it already felt like quitting time. He'd been staying with his mother since she'd come home from hospital, which made sense, since Jamie had Ellie and the kids to worry about and he had only himself. But it was taking its toll. The commute to work was longer than the one from his flat, and he'd been sleeping fitfully, startling awake at every sound from Mary's room. And he hadn't talked to Rose since the weekend, a fact that bothered him more than it seemed like it ought to.
Balancing a paper coffee cup in each hand, Dan carefully nudged the heavy glass door open with his shoulder and crossed the lobby to the elevators. He pushed the button for the fourth floor, home to Manchester's Environmental Services department and his own small office, made even smaller by the presence of an intern named Libby with whom he'd been sharing space since her arrival three weeks earlier.
"There you are," he announced, setting one of the cups down on the only bare spot on Libby's desk. "Lots of milk, no sugar, right?"
Libby looked up from her computer screen, blinking as though coming out of a dim room into the light. She pried the lid off the cup and peered inside.
"Thanks," she said. "I'll need it if I'm going to get through these last two pages."
Dan nodded sympathetically. "Any calls?" he asked, squeezing around the end of Libby's desk to reach his own.
"Oh, yeah." Libby had already returned to the data she was entering into the computer, and her preoccupied tone told Dan he'd never have heard the phone message unless he'd specifically asked. "That guy from the Cycling Campaign. What's his name...White?"
"Woolf," Dan supplied, sipping his coffee. "We have a meeting later on."
"No... you don't," Libby said absently, her eyes still on the screen. "He's been sent to Ireland for work this week. He's going call when he gets back."
"Oh, yeah?" Dan felt an anxious twinge in his stomach. "Did he say where in Ireland?"
The intern glanced up, looking vaguely annoyed. "No. Does it matter?"
"No," Dan said quickly. "Just curious."
She sighed impatiently and returned to her work. Dan suddenly felt edgy. He carried his coffee to the window and stood looking out at the street below.
Don't be daft, he chided himself. Ballykissangel's not the only town in Ireland. He's not going to run into Peter.
What were the odds?
Assumpta switched off the new, obnoxiously bright fluorescent lighting in her basement storeroom and climbed the steps into the relative dimness of the pub, calculating the next week's order in her head. She had about a barrel and a half of stout left, and the way business had been going she'd need two each for Friday and Saturday night, plus three for the rest of the week...
Startled, Assumpta lost hold of the basement door and it fell closed with a bang. She whirled around, clutching a hand to her chest, and spotted a young man standing in the reception area. He was wiry with closely cropped dark hair and carried a backpack slung across one shoulder. "You just about gave me a heart attack!" Assumpta scolded.
"Sorry," the newcomer said contritely, glancing around the empty bar. "Is this a bad time? I can come back..."
"No, no," Assumpta responded quickly, coming out from behind the bar. "It's fine. What can I do for you?"
"I think you have a room reserved for me," the man told her. "Name's Woolf...Sam Woolf, but the reservation would have been made by Brian Quigley."
"Oh!" Assumpta exclaimed. She gritted her teeth. So much for making a good first impression. Recovering her professional demeanor, she smiled at the guest. "Right. For two nights, isn't it?"
"That's right." Sam looked around the pub as Assumpta pulled out her reservation book. "Nice place you've got here."
"Thanks," Assumpta pushed the book forward and handed him a pen. "I've just finished some unplanned renovations thanks to an electrical fire a couple of weeks ago."
"Oh yeah?" Sam paused with the pen in the air.
"Oh, don't worry," Assumpta said quickly. "The wiring's all been redone since then."
"Right." Sam gave her a quick grin and scribbled his name in the spot she indicated. "Well, the place looks great."
She selected a key from the row of hooks on the wall and handed it to him. "Unfortunately, you'll find that the renovations don't extend to the guest rooms, but I hope you'll be comfortable. You're the third door on the right."
"Thanks." Sam turned for the stairs, then doubled back. "Oh – do you know how I can get ahold of Mr. Quigley? I just need to let him know I've arrived."
Out of the corner of her eye, Assumpta glimpsed a figure in a tweed jacket and hat speedwalking past the window..
"No need," she told Sam, gesturing toward the door. "He's already heard."
Sam's eyebrows shot up. "That was fast."
Assumpta chuckled. "Welcome to Ballykissangel," she said.
The ancient white bus rattled to a stop in front of Hendley's shop.
Peter nodded his thanks and descended the steps, too tired to correct the driver's cheerful, "Good evening, Father." The audience with the bishop had left him feeling, as his mother sometimes said, as though he'd been through the wringer.
Assumpta was clearing a table near the door when he arrived at the pub. She looked up from her work and frowned, trying to read in his face how the meeting had gone. "You look knackered," she observed quietly. "Anything wrong?"
"Not really." He managed a half-smile he hoped would pass for reassuring. "I'll tell you later."
A jovial summons from across the room intensified the pounding in his head. "Peter...just the man! Come and say hello to someone from your old stomping ground!"
"Oh, no," Peter groaned. He'd forgotten that Brian's business associate would have arrived by now. He looked pleadingly at Assumpta, who shrugged in resignation.
"Your public awaits."
"Thanks a lot," Peter said drily.
The corner table, where Brian was holding court alongside his guest, was already well populated with locals. Peter crossed the room, pasting on a smile as he went. From the looks of things, Brian had interrupted Eamonn in the middle of a story. "As I was sayin'," the farmer went on, fixing a reproachful gaze on Quigley, "they were havin' none of it. They fell on the whole lot of 'em, and knocked one poor fellow's teeth clean out, and him a follower of Saint Patrick himself." Eamonn paused to cross himself before continuing. "And that is how it came to be called Cill Mhantáin." He nodded emphatically and addressed himself to the glass of soda in front of him.
Sam's brow furrowed in confusion and he looked around the table for help. Michael Ryan, seated across from him, came to the rescue.
"It means,'the church of the toothless one'," he explained helpfully. "Now better known as Wicklow."
"Ah," Sam's face cleared. "Well, I'm glad newcomers get a warmer welcome than that nowadays!"
"Speaking of which," Brian spoke up heartily, "Peter Clifford, meet Sam Woolf. Shove down, there, Padraig, and make a spot for Peter."
Peter held out his hand to Sam, who rose halfway out of his seat to clasp it. There was a general shuffling of chairs and Peter pulled a seat for himself into the ensuing empty spot between Brian and Sam.
"Clifford..." Sam mused, turning an appraising gaze on Peter as he settled in his chair. "You're not related to Dan Clifford, are you?"
"I actually do have a brother by that name," replied Peter, "but it's a fairly common one. I don't suppose he's the only one in town."
"What does your brother do for a living, if you don't mind my asking?"
"He works for the city." Peter smiled his thanks as Assumpta placed a glass of lager in front of him. "Environmental Services, or something like that."
"That's the one!" Sam's dark eyes lit with pleasure. "I thought I saw a resemblance. Dan and I have been working on a sustainable transit project together – promoting bicycle commuting."
Padraig nudged Brendan with his elbow. "Must be genetic," he said out of the corner of his mouth.
Peter cast his eyes upwards, shaking his head helplessly. "Here it comes."
"What?" Sam asked, looking from Peter to Padraig.
"Well,"said Padraig, eyes twinkling, "our Peter, here, came to Ireland expecting to get around by mountain bike just like he had in Manchester. Didn't even have a driver's license."
"For good reason," Assumpta commented, reaching past Sam's shoulder to clear the empty glasses and plates from the table.
"It worked out fine until he had a deathbed call at the top of the mountain in the wee hours of his first night here," Brendan added.
"A deathbed call?" repeated Sam. "That sounds serious. Isn't there an ambulance around?"
"There is," Michael replied, "but it comes from Cilldargen. It's not exactly rapid response."
"And it doesn't give last rites." Brendan's comment drew guffaws from Michael and Padraig and a scowl from Brian, who felt the conversation slipping out of his control. Assumpta delivered a sharp smack to the side of Brendan's head on her way back to the bar.
"Last rites?" Sam looked thoroughly confused.
"Only a priest can do that," Eamonn told him earnestly.
Peter shook his head and closed his eyes. Brian's scowl darkened.
"Peter was the priest, you see," Padraig explained,obviously enjoying himself. He looked around to make sure he was out of Assumpta's reach. "But he's recently come to his senses."
"The priest. Huh." Sam regarded Peter with interest as a second wave of laughter rose and fell. "Well, it really is a small world, isn't it? Dan and I actually had a meeting set for this afternoon that I had to cancel. I felt bad, because we'd already rescheduled once. We were originally supposed to meet last week when your mum was in hospital."
A sudden silence fell over the table. The only remaining sound was Peter's strangled gasp as he tried not to choke on his lager.