As the sun rose above the Wicklow mountains one Thursday morning, it took with it the last of the previous night's rain. The air was full of the aroma of damp earth, everything fresh and new. Another new dawn was beginning in the lives of two residents in the small town of Ballykissangel.
Peter Clifford woke early, unusually refreshed, as if the retreating storm had lifted his troubles with it. It took him a moment to register why the familiar morning sinking feeling had failed to kick him in the guts today, but as the memories of the previous day flooded back, a broad smile spread slowly across his face and used muscles that had lately been out of use. Situated as he was, most uncomfortably, on the couch where he'd been sleeping since Brian Quigley had appropriated his bed, he felt the need to stretch and iron out the kinks that had taken residence in his neck. There was no incentive to stay in bed on such a morning as this when the day, and life, held so much promise.
Having made himself tea, he looked over at the telephone. Some big calls were going to be necessary in the near future. Then an idea came to him. Should he? No. Would he do it anyway? He chewed his lip as he considered, then grabbed the receiver and dialled the familiar number before he had time to think better of it. Peter's days of resisting temptation were done.
Further down the street, sleeping comfortably buried among white bedclothes, Assumpta Fitzgerald was not yet in the land of the living. She was deep in a much needed dreamless sleep. So deep, in fact, that the phone rang several times before its persistent hectoring, dragged her forcefully into the waking world. She glanced blearily at her bedside clock: 06:45. Who the hell calls at that hour in the morning? Groaning, she made an attempt to pick up the receiver but only succeeded in knocking it onto the floor. A tinny voice was whispering upwards...."hello? Hello?"
She made no attempt to hide her displeasure. "This had better be good!"
"Good morning!" said Peter, far too brightly in her opinion.
"Oh my God," she said " you're a morning person aren't you? The relationship is doomed, the deal is off..."
"No wait! I've got it! Someone needs the last rites and you need a lift again, nothing ever changes..."
In spite of her words, she was actually smiling. Peter could hear it in her cadence.
"I do have a good reason." he said "I missed you and I wanted to hear your voice."
She was gratified but unwilling to let him know it. "Oh come on, you'll have to do better than that if we're..." she tailed off.
"If we're what?" He was grinning.
She side-stepped, "You were far more poetic yesterday. Sure didn't you have a job that involved composing long monologues?"
"I still do. I have to say mass at 8."
They were both silent for a moment. It wasn't just reality hitting home, and it hadn't really occurred to Assumpta before that Peter's decision couldn't take instant effect, but it was an echo of a conversation they'd had over a year ago, late at night, after clearing up the bar, over two glasses of wine. If Peter hadn't gulped his down, he'd have been re-christened with it. The memory if it lingered in the ether between them. Unspoken. But understood. Like so many of their conversations had been.
Peter broke the silence. "I'm sorry I ran away that night. Maybe you were right. We should have talked. If we had, perhaps things would have happened differently. We could have saved ourselves a lot of anguish." He was thinking of Leo as well as themselves. Guilt had largely displaced the unbidden jealousy in Peter's mind as he thought of Leo now. Leo's crime had not been to love the woman that Peter longed for. How could he not. How could anyone who knew her not? No, his crime was to be hers when Peter could not. To be loved by her, to know her in every way that Peter could not. But Peter knew now, that Leo had not had it all, the greatest prize, her heart, was his alone. How must Leo feel now. Used? Cheated? Betrayed? Peter and Assumpta were both responsible for his hurt. Their good intentions had certainly paved Leo's path to hell. And what had Assumpta told him?
She broke his reverie now. "Or you might just have left the parish to save yourself from temptation! There's no use worrying over what might have been, especially when we're so happy now."
A wave of pleasure broke over Peter. She was happy, and he had made her so.
"Seriously though," she continued, curiosity getting the better of her "if you'd given me a real answer that night instead of fobbing me off?..."
Peter blushed and then heard Brian stirring overhead. "I'd love to tell you, but I can't risk being overheard. I hear my landlord awakening." he said by way of explanation.
"OK, I'll let you off for now. Will I be seeing you later on?"
"Try keeping me away! But after mass I have to have a word with Fr Mac."
She knew what conversation that would be and it made her nervous. She tried not to make it obvious though.
"That'll be fun for you. How d'you think he'll react?"
"He won't be surprised, but I doubt that'll prevent him from venting his spleen in my general direction one last time."
"You tell him from me, that if I don't get you back in one piece and if he even thinks of sending you on retreat again I will personally hunt him down and shove that collar down his throat! Better still, I'll shove your collar down his throat, since you won't be needing it again."
"Thanks Assumpta, I'm sure that will help to smooth things over."
"My pleasure, and if you need any more training in diplomacy, there's much more where that came from."
"Don't I know it!.... Don't worry, it's only a formality really, we spoke yesterday afternoon and he's probably guessed what side of the fence I've landed. I suspect he's not the only one either."
Assumpta didn't like that. "What d'you mean? People know? Who knows?!!"
"The dogs on the street.... Morning Brian, hope I didn't wake you."
Brian Quigley approached down the stairs. Dressed in a large, luxurious dressing gown, somewhat incongruous with his modest surroundings, he wore a stern expression but had a twinkle in his eye. He suspected he knew what he was overhearing. The curate was looking a bit shifty and rather red in the face. And hadn't he been looking pleased with himself last night? Surely it wasn't just his delight at winning the cup at the Chinese food fair! This kidder was not to be kidded.
The object of Brian's interest was now smiling a very un-priestly, self-conscious smile as he listened to some sort of tirade on the other end of line. "Yeah, yeah OK... I'll remember that... yeah I will, that was all I wanted to say.... later. Bye."
"How is she?"
"Who?" Slightly alarmed and blushing furiously.
"Have it your way." Brian hid his twinkling eyes by turning his back. If there was going to be change in this village, so be it. Change may be bad for business but in compensation there was some entertainment to be had from torturing the Priest in the mean time.
Assumpta wriggled with delight. Most unlike herself, and then buried her face in her pillow to let out an excited squeak. It had been worth being awakened that early! She still couldn't believe it. He loved her.
He loved her, and he loved her enough to give up being a priest, to sacrifice his vocation. She had never expected it, dreamed of it, certainly, but only idle dreams of the impossible, like winning the lottery or discovering a long lost relative has left you a castle in his will. But, like winning the lottery, this life changing event brought a whole new set of troubles with it.
She had "seduced" the Priest. That's what people would think. And not just any Priest, Father Peter Clifford, everyone's best friend, well loved, trusted, relied upon. It was selfish of her to want him for herself. But, she reasoned, she would have been willing to share him, it was the church that was not, and she had never encouraged him to quit, it was his own decision. Even now, after he had bared his soul, she had only hinted to him how she felt and she had yet to kiss him. Both could wait until Father Peter was just Peter. Just hers. She wondered anxiously how long that would take
She got out from under her covers and went over to the mirror and looked at herself for a long moment. She looked tired but slightly flushed. She wondered if anyone would notice the change in her demeanour or if they already had. How had she become this person? When had she fallen so totally in love, with a priest of all people, that she was absolutely reliant on him for her happiness? That was a truth she recognised now. How much of her bad temper, her sniping, her baiting of Peter in particular, since he arrived in the village, had been due to her frustrated ardour? And how fervently would she have denied it had anyone dared to suggest it to her.
Peter sighed, today was not going quite according to plan. He'd been waylaid by a string of parishioners after morning mass, each with a question or request more bizarre than the last. Eamonn was after a repeat blessing for his pigs and, for some reason, wanted to know if there was a patron saint of sheep. Liam and Donal had each been in, looking shifty, asking criptic, hypothetical questions about some telephone in the shape of a bag of fries. And to cap it all, Kathleen had cornered him in the street and launched into a long and overly complex discussion of the politics of St. Joseph's flower arranging rota.
As he stood, helplessly trying to placate the aggrieved shop keeper, he thought how this was really only par for the course for a morning in Ballykissangel, but he was more than a little preoccupied this morning, and a little voice in his head was whispering that this really wasn't his problem any more. As his thoughts drifted and Kathleen's voice droned on.... no, droned wasn't quite the word, it was more of a persistent rattle.... he caught sight, in his peripheral vision, of a familiar figure stepping out of the doorway of Fitzgerald's. For once she wasn't working, just standing, soaking up the sunlight, her hair moving gently with the breeze...
"...Father, Father! Are you even listening to me? I want this taken seriously. I'll have a word with Father MacAnally about this..."
Father Mac. The name brought Peter swiftly back to attention. He needed to have a word with the man himself. With a sense of unease, Peter noted Kathleen's eyes dart to Assumpta and then back to himself. The woman had a sixth sense for gossip and he could see two and two being put together behind her eyes. He started to wonder exactly what "this" she was planning to report to Father Mac. A mixture of righteous indignation and something like glee were now jostling for position on the woman's face, reflecting the distinctly guilty expression now registering on the curate's. 'The cat that got the cream', thought Peter, remembering Padraig's dig at him the night before. Kathleen's appetite for gossip would soon be feeding on the juiciest morsel imaginable, the scandal of the Priest and the Publican.
"I'm sorry Kathleen, will you excuse me, I need to...." he gestured aimlessly in any direction that wasn't Fitzgerald's... he seemed to be pointing at the post office. Thank goodness, that was plausible, just about. "I need to.....buy some stamps!"
Kathleen raised a sceptical eyebrow at him as he retreated towards the post office's green facade and then looked again at where Assumpta had been only a moment ago. She'd be having a word with Father Mac alright!
Assumpta sighed as she stepped back into the relative gloom of her bar. The lights were still playing up. No amount of messing about with the damn fuse was going to fix it and she'd had a bit of a fright when she saw the electricity arc in the dark of the cellar last night. She had an uneasy feeling she'd had a narrow escape.
It wasn't actually the fuse that was making her sigh, it was the tall Englishman currently getting an ear bashing from Kathleen Hendley a short distance up the street.
She couldn't get him out of her head. Not that she was actually trying to any more. And he was out there this minute, still wearing that damn uniform. She felt like running to him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him soundly for all the world to see. Instead she leant back on the door and closed her eyes. He'd be here later. She'd waited more than 2 years, what was a few more hours, possibly even only minutes?
She was startled by a knock on the other side of the door. Delighted, she whirled around and opened it flashing the most radiant smile at.... Niamh. Unconsciously, her face fell.
"Well that's nice! Don't look so pleased to see me." Said Niamh, a little indignantly.
"Expecting someone else were we?" said Niamh pointedly and she threw a look at her friend, one designed to look casual but poorly covering her attempt to read Assumpta's expression.
Assumpta turned around to hide her face and wandered over to the bar. "Oh you know me, just hoping for a stray electrician willing to fix the lights in exchange for nothing more than a glass of stout and a sandwich."
Niamh was frustrated. She just knew Assumpta was being evasive about something. Assumpta being evasive was nothing new, of course, but she'd been getting harder and harder to read lately and increasingly erratic in her behaviour. That whole debacle with Leo and the instant wedding was a case in point. And Niamh was hurt, very hurt, that her best friend would not confide in her and she was worried, too, that there might actually be a good reason for it. She decided to let it drop, for now, again. Mind you, Assumpta did seem different today, and that brief smile had been more than a little unusual.
Assumpta was a little unnerved at Niamh's silence. Did she suspect? Had she come to carry out an interrogation? She took hold of the bar behind her as if it offered moral support.
"What can I do for ya Niamh?"
"I just wanted to check we're all sorted for Saturday."
"Oh, yeah, yeah of course." Oh God, she'd forgotten. Kieran's christening, the event of Niamh's year, the occasion that she had so specifically wanted Peter to officiate at, that she'd had planned, for months, in regimented detail. Christ, she was even naming the child after said priest! The soon-to-be-ex-priest.
Her face must have been giving her away because Niamh began again, "You do understand don't you? About not being the God mother? It's just with the way you feel about the church..."
"It's fine Niamh, really, like I said before, I'd make a lousy God mother. You made the right choice."
"You're sure? You're not just saying that? Only from the look on your face..."
"I'm sure, I fully intend to be a thoroughly bad influence on him and being his Godmother would cramp my style."
"It's nothing. Honestly."
Niamh was not convinced. She looked searchingly at Assumpta. There it was again, that brick wall, closing her off. Assumpta hadn't always been like this had she? She racked her brain for a memory of when Assumpta had become so secretive. It must have been a couple of years at least.
Assumpta shifted uncomfortably under Niamh's contemplative gaze. "Anyway, this christening. Want to go over the details for the catering again?"