'Peter, what's wrong?'
The mood in the room had changed completely. A moment ago they'd been teasing and joking together, Peter doing his impressions, but now his back was turned, his shoulders hunched, and she could feel waves of anguish radiating from his body. He half-turned and leaned back against the work surface, not looking at her, but staring into the kitchen without really seeing.
Assumpta's eyes searched his face, as he mumbled 'It's very hard for me. I don't know where to start.' He took a deep breath, then finally meeting her eyes, asked 'Have you heard the polar bear joke?'
She blew out a small breath of exasperation and gave a shrug as her eyes followed him across the room, trying to find something in his face that would let her know what was happening, what he was feeling, how she could help him.
'Okay. There's a baby polar bear, and he's in the sea, and he climbs out, runs across the ice up to his mum, and he says "Mum, are you sure I'm a polar bear?" She says "Don't be silly, course you are. You've got white fur, you eat fish – you're a polar bear. Don't be daft. Get back in the sea." So he does, but he's not content.'
Assumpta watched him carefully as he told his joke, never taking her eyes from his face. He only glanced up once or twice, and never met her gaze for more than a second.
'So he jumps out and this time he runs up to his dad and he says "Dad, am I really a polar bear?" He says "What you talking about? Of course you're a polar bear. You've got white fur, you eat fish, you're a polar bear." He says "Why do you ask?" And the baby bear says "Because I'm freezing."'
He looked carefully at her now, willing her to understand. She knew exactly how he was feeling, and her heart ached for him. It was the way she had felt so often, like she didn't belong, she was living the wrong life, different from everyone around her, with no-one to understand and no-one to share things with.
Peter was fighting to stop his emotions from getting the better of him. Now that he'd started this, he had to make sure she understood. He stepped closer. Not as close as he wanted to, but as close as felt safe at the moment.
'Why am I always thinking of you?' He bit his tongue to try to hold back the tears. Assumpta's heart was racing and she couldn't quite seem to catch her breath. A hundred thoughts and feelings were battling with each other inside her mind, but the one thing that mattered more than any other was that he was in such pain - this wonderful man, her best friend - and she had to comfort him.
'Peter, come here,' she whispered. As he laid his head on her shoulder, he began to sob, finally unable to stand it any longer. She wrapped her arms around him, rubbed his shoulder, and stroked the silky hair at the back of his neck. His breathing began to steady.
She pulled him in closer, and he turned his head to rest his cheek on her shoulder. She felt his lips gently brush the side of her neck as he inhaled slowly. As he breathed out, his mouth came to rest against her neck again. He could feel how soft her skin was, smell her hair, almost taste her, and her fingers were moving slowly across his back.
She had tried to assume that it was merely an accident the first time he brushed against her neck and then pulled away. But he leaned in again and stayed there, not really kissing her, but with his mouth touching her skin ever so lightly, moving so slowly. She stayed completely still, hardly daring to breathe, scared by the thought that this might really be happening; scared by the thought that it might not.
He kissed her properly this time; gently, tenderly, but definitely deliberate, his lips pulling softly on her skin. She felt her breath catch in her throat; her eyes fluttered closed as she gave in to all the feelings she'd been trying so hard to suppress, for so long. As his lips came into contact with her skin for a fourth time, she knew. He kissed her right below her jaw-bone, his mouth wide open, full of passion and longing. He kissed her again, moving to the front of her throat.
She knew that if she was going to stop this, it had to be now, before she lost control completely, before she simply gave in to what they both wanted. She slid her hands to his shoulders and gently pulled away from him. She forced herself to draw a deep breath, enough to be able to actually speak, at least.
She didn't get the chance. As she opened her mouth, he leaned forwards and kissed her on the lips, keeping up the pressure until she began to respond. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and pulled her towards him, sliding her off the work surface on which she'd been sitting.
She slowly guided him backwards, kissing him all the way, towards a kitchen chair in the middle of the room. She pushed him down onto the chair by his shoulders, then sat herself on his knee, her legs straddling his. They kissed fiercely, her hands pulling gently at his hair, his hands sliding up under her t-shirt, stroking the delicate skin on her back. They broke apart, both completely breathless, and unable to stop staring into the other's eyes, totally mesmerised. She slid her hands down the sides of his neck to the collar of his shirt. The top two buttons were already unfastened. Her eyes flicked down to his shirt, then back up to meet his eyes in a question. Fortunately, a large part of their relationship so far had been conducted through meaningful looks across Fitzgerald's bar, and Peter knew exactly what she was asking. He met her eyes and gave an almost imperceptible nod. She moved to unfasten the next button on his shirt.
'Assumpta, you're shaking,' he murmured, as she struggled to force the button through the button-hole with her unsteady hands.
'I know,' she replied, as she finally succeeded. She ran her hands over the bare skin of his chest, and bent down to kiss the hollow at the base of his throat. He let out a soft groan, and she felt the vibrations pass through his skin and into her lips.
A loud wail broke the tension in the room. They both looked towards the baby monitor on the window sill.
'Kieran,' Peter stated with regret.
'You know, someone really needs to teach that boy about timing,' Assumpta responded, still dizzy and breathless.
'I'll go see to him.'
'No, let me.
Assumpta climbed off Peter's knee, and dashed out of the kitchen, up the stairs. Peter heard the baby monitor click off as she reached Kieran's room. The poor little chap was obviously going to get that lesson about timing then! He smiled to himself, and started pottering around the kitchen, finishing the preparations he'd been in the middle of earlier on, before Assumpta had arrived. He could hear her pacing across the room upstairs, obviously trying to calm Kieran down, and get him back to sleep. He couldn't stop grinning.
The baby monitor clicked back on, and Assumpta's footsteps moved to the staircase. Peter busied himself with the cooking, deliberately keeping his back to the kitchen door as she came in.
'Are you hungry? I can have the starters ready in about ten minutes, if you want?'
She shifted uncomfortably in the doorway.
'Peter, I'm not sure this is a good idea.' He quickly spun round to face her, looking puzzled.
'We got a bit carried away before; you said things you didn't mean. I should go,' she continued.
'What things?' he asked angrily.
'What do you mean?'
'Which bit of all of that do you think I didn't mean?'
'Peter, you're a priest! You can't mean any of it.'
A look of relief flashed across Peter's face as he realised why Assumpta was so worried. 'Yeah, you're right. I am a priest. But only for another…' he looked at his watch '… fourteen hours.'
'What?' She couldn't quite believe what she'd just heard.
Peter was calm and spoke patiently now. He knew she needed to hear the full story. 'Assumpta, I'm not just rushing into this. I told Father Mac months ago that I wanted to leave. I told him why. He suggested I go on retreat, try and see if I could find enough reason for me to stay. I went, then my mother became ill. I came back and you were married! I thought that was a sign, a sign that I should stay a priest. But it wasn't. It just made it clearer that you weren't the reason I wanted to leave.' She gave him a 'look'. He smiled back sheepishly. 'Okay, you weren't the only reason I wanted to leave. I realised I couldn't carry on anyway, whatever you might do. So I went to Father Mac again this morning, and he said to give it twenty-four hours. Think, pray, do whatever I had to, to make sure this was the right decision.'
She grinned at him. 'I think maybe you did what you had to, about half an hour ago?' He shook his head. 'No. I would never have done anything until I was sure. I wasn't about to start something with you if I couldn't finish it. And I want you to understand that I made this decision because of how I feel about the church, and my place in it. You are not responsible for me leaving. You're free to make up your own mind about what happens next.' He blushed slightly as he continued. 'I hope I've made it clear what I'd like to happen though.'
'Erm, yeah, I'd say that was fairly obvious.' She smiled shyly, walked across the room, and leant up against him. The side of her face pressed against his chest, and she wrapped her arms around his waist. He stroked her hair with one hand and held her close with the other. They stood like that for a few minutes, in quiet contentment, before Peter broke the silence.
'I hadn't planned on telling you like this, you know?'
'No? What were you going to do? Climb up on the bar at Fitzgerald's and declare your love for me in front of all the regulars?' She grinned.
'Erm, no. Not quite. I was going to go tell Father Mac tomorrow, and then wait till you closed after lunch. I was going to come in looking all miserable and forlorn, and say that I needed to talk to a friend, and would you come for a walk with me? I was going to take you up into the hills, and then just hold your hand, and wait for you to ask me what the hell I was doing, which I know you would have done. And then I was going to tell you exactly how wonderful and beautiful and amazing you are.'
'Well, I don't think I have any plans tomorrow afternoon, so, you know, if you feel like dropping in, and pouring your heart out to a sympathetic friend, I'm sure I could find time to go for a walk.'
'Hmm. I'll bear that in mind.' He stepped away from her, and they grinned at each other again.
'So, that's tomorrow sorted out. What about tonight?'
A look of panic flitted across his face.
'Ah, Peter, would you relax? I don't mean anything like that. This is a big step for both of us. Let's just take it slowly at first, yeah?'
'Ok. How about I cook you dinner?'
'I thought it was for the food fair?'
'It's a practice run really. There's plenty here to feed us both now, and to cook a plate for tomorrow night.'
'All right. What can I do to help? – but not the washing up. I have enough of that at the pub.'
They worked together organising the meal. Assumpta searched through the cupboards and found cutlery and candles, while Peter put the finishing touches to the food. They sat opposite each other, their feet entwined under the table, discussing plans for the future; Assumpta's divorce, Peter's job prospects, whether to tell everyone about them, or just let them find out in their own time.
'Peter, can I ask you something?'
'How did you know that this was what you wanted?'
He was thoughtful for a moment. 'I don't know. I mean … I spent so long trying to convince myself that this wasn't what I wanted. I think within about three weeks of arriving here, part of me had realised that I looked forward to seeing you more than anything else. And even though it was much more innocent then, I still felt that I was heading down a slippery slope. So I prayed and asked God to show me that this was where I was meant to be. Time after time, I saw that I was doing good here, helping people. So I accepted that I was meant to be here. So then I prayed and asked God to show me what He wanted me to do, how I could be most useful.' He paused.
'I heard this story a long time ago, and it kept coming back to me.' Assumpta watched him quietly while he told the tale.
"There was a man who loved God. He tried to live his life in a good way, to help people, to serve God and his community. He loved his wife and his children; he took good care of his home and all those around him. One day, he heard on the news that a terrible storm was coming, and that the rivers were going to flood. His home might be washed away. But he said 'I trust in God. He'll keep me safe, because I'm faithful to Him.' So he and his family stayed where they were. But then the rain started, and the winds blew down trees. He was worried about his children, so he sent them to stay with their grandparents in a different part of the country. That night, the river burst its banks, and the streets flooded. A neighbour floated by in a boat and offered to take him and his wife to safety. He told his wife to go, and help some of the other neighbours, but he told the friend with the boat 'I trust in God. He'll keep me safe.' The rain continued to fall, and the water rose around the house. He had to move into the upstairs rooms to get out of the water. A rescue boat came around, but he sent it on to help other people, saying 'I have faith on God. He won't fail me.' Eventually, he had to crawl out onto the roof, while the water swirled around him. A rescue helicopter hovered over head, with people shouting down, trying to convince him to climb up. But he told them 'Go help someone else. I trust in God, and He will keep me safe because I have faith in Him.' Finally, the surging tides washed him off the roof and he drowned."
Assumpta raised her eyebrows, but let him continue.
"The man found himself in Heaven. He knew he should be happy, but he couldn't help feeling cheated. He went to ask God what had happened. 'Ah!' said God. 'I expected to see you. You're miserable. What's wrong?'
The man explained. 'I tried to live a good life. I was always faithful to you. I prayed for you to save me, and you didn't.'
And God replied 'My child, I gave you two days' warning, sent two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want me to do?'"
Peter smiled slightly sadly.
'So the moral of the story is…?' asked Assumpta.
'The moral of the story is that no matter what I prayed for, how I worded it, it always came back to the same thing. I asked where God wanted me to go, what I should do, how could I best serve God, what was the right thing. Whatever I did, it always seemed to lead back to you. So I tried to phrase it a different way, because I didn't think that that could be right. It wasn't what I expected to hear.'
'God works in mysterious ways,' she mumbled.
'Yeah. If I hadn't been a priest, I would probably never have met you.'
'If you hadn't been a priest, I probably wouldn't have given you half a chance, and frightened you off before I got to know you.'
'Like you did with Enda Sullivan?'
'Well, good job I was a priest then, isn't it?'
'Come on, we should clean up. Niamh and Ambrose'll wonder what happened to their kitchen if they come back to find this.'
She got up and started moving dirty dishes to the sink. He stood up to join her. Another cry echoed from the baby monitor.
'Ah now, you see, he obviously paid close attention when I gave him that little talk about timing earlier. I'll let you get on with the washing up, and go and sort him out.' She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried upstairs. Peter dried his hands and surveyed the kitchen. It would have to wait until later.
He quietly slipped out of the kitchen and up the stairs into the living room. He looked around and in a corner found Ambrose's impressive record collection. He searched through the titles, discarding most of the immediately - this wasn't really the occasion for heavy metal. He finally found an old LP of soft, gentle music and put it on the record player in the corner. He closed all the curtains, and turned on a small lamp in the far corner of the room. He heard Assumpta's footsteps once more descend the staircase, and pause outside the closed door. She gently pushed the door open, looking slightly puzzled.
'I thought you were washing up?'
'Sorry, but I couldn't resist spoiling you for just a little bit longer. Miss Fitzgerald, may I have the pleasure of this dance?' He held out his hand to her.
She blushed, but stepped forward to take his hand. 'Peter, of course you can. This is lovely.'
He entwined their fingers, and slid his other arm around her waist. She placed her hand lightly on his shoulder, and they moved slowly together, gazing into each others' eyes.
'You know you don't have to keep on spoiling me, don't you? I mean, you're setting yourself quite a standard tonight - it might be hard to keep it up.' She smiled lazily up at him.
'Assumpta, every waking minute, of every day, for the last three years, I have longed to be able to take you in my arms, and hold you - show you how much I love you. Every sleeping moment has been filled with dreams of you, walking hand in hand through the hills, dancing together, wrapped up warm in front of a blazing fire. I fully intend to live out every single one of my fantasies, and when I find out what they are, every single one of yours.'
She stopped moving and held him still. 'It won't always be like this though, Peter. I mean, what's going to happen to us?'
He sat down on the sofa, and pulled her down to sit next to him. She leaned back against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, taking hold of her hands in front of her.
'Well, tomorrow I'll speak to Father Mac. I'll ask to be released from my vows.'
'How long will that take?' She looked worried.
'It could be years. It doesn't matter though. I know that this is what I should be doing. I have to ask to be released from my vows, but as far as I'm concerned, after tomorrow, I'm not a priest. I'm sure that my life is supposed to be with you.'
She hesitated. 'But what about… marriage and… you know?'
'Well, I'm not married now. Soon, you won't be either. Your divorce from Leo is already under way isn't it?' She nodded. 'So we can get married whenever you want really.'
'But not in the church?'
'You want to get married in church?'
'I don't mind. But I thought that you would.'
'Assumpta, I just want to be with you. We can have a civil wedding and be legally married even if the church doesn't agree. I've thought a lot about this, and I know you'll need some time to think about it too, but I'm sure that this is the right thing. I don't feel guilty. I don't feel like I'll be breaking my vows.' He lifted his legs up onto the sofa, and laid back; Assumpta did likewise.
'Okay, so we'll get married. What else is going to happen?' she asked dreamily.
'Well, we'll live at Fitzgerald's.' He spoke softly, as if telling a fairy story to a child. 'I'll get a job that I can do during the day, then at evenings and weekends I can help you out behind the bar.'
'What about children?' she murmured.
'Erm, four I think. Yeah, a girl, then twin boys, then another girl. Niamh and Ambrose and Brendan and Siobhan will be godparents. The kids'll all go to the National School, and Brendan will teach them. They'll be his favourite pupils, because you were always his favourite.'
'What will we call them?'
'I don't know. You'll have to tell me some interesting Irish names.'
'Wouldn't you want them to have English names?'
'No, they'll be Irish, they should have Irish names. Unique and individual names like yours.'
'Thank you Peter.' There were tears in Assumpta's eyes, and Peter could hear them in her voice as she spoke.
'I've never dared to dream about the future before. All I could see was me, behind the bar at Fitzgerald's, getting older and lonelier.'
'Well, I can't stop either of us getting older, but I can promise you two things.'
'Firstly, we may get older, but you will always be the most beautiful and wonderful thing in the whole world, as far as I'm concerned. And secondly, neither of us need ever be lonely again.'
They held each other tighter. 'Tell me more about our children. What will they be like?' she whispered.
Peter talked on gently, winding tales about their future life together. They were warm and comfortable; arms around each other, fingers laced together, legs in a tangle. The gaps between his stories and her questions got longer, their breathing became gentler, and they gradually drifted off into a contended sleep.
* * *
Outside, two car doors closed gently, and a key scraped in the lock. Ambrose entered with a red wine stain down the front of his shirt, followed by Niamh, whispering 'Would you go take that thing off and check on Kieran for me? I'll go and say goodnight to Peter.'
Ambrose headed upstairs, while Niamh tiptoed down to the kitchen, careful not to make too much noise in case she woke Kieran. She walked in to find no Peter, but two plates, two wine glasses, candles burnt right down and a sink full of dirty pots. Confused, she turned the light out, and headed back upstairs. Noticing the faint glow under the living room door, she pushed it open and stood in the doorway with a look of horror on her face. There on the sofa was Peter, laid on his back, half of his shirt buttons unfastened. Laid half on top of him was Assumpta, her head on his shoulder, her arm stretching across his bare chest, her hand at the other side of his neck, fingers stroking his cheek in her sleep. Their legs were still tangled together, Peter's arm was wrapped around her waist and his hand was resting on her hip. They both had a look on their faces – Niamh couldn't quite place it – something like pure bliss.
She quickly pulled the door closed again, as Ambrose came down the stairs in his pyjamas.
'Has Peter gone? Are you coming up to bed love?'
'Erm, yeah,' she replied distractedly.
* * *
The sun shone hazily through the curtains, and fell across the sleeping pair. In the early morning quiet, a car drove past the window, causing Assumpta to stir slightly. She wasn't in the most comfortable position, and she was a little cold. She reached out to pull the covers closer around her, and quickly realised that she wasn't at home in her lonely little bed. The events of the night before came back to her quickly, and she felt little butterflies of excitement flitting around her stomach at the thought that she'd just spent the night curled up here with Peter.
She lifted her arm to look at her watch. Just before 7.00am. She lay still, but began tracing patterns with her fingers down Peter's neck, across his shoulder and down under his open shirt across his chest. She pushed herself up slightly with her other arm, and placed a light kiss on his cheek, then another, and then one on his lips.
'Can I wake up like this every morning, please?' he mumbled, before gently kissing her back.
'What? Half dressed on Niamh's sofa? You'd better not!'
'That's not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking more of the bit where I wake up in the arms of the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, after a night of unbroken, contented sleep.'
'Well, last night you were planning on us having four children, so I can't see the night of unbroken sleep happening all that often either,' she teased. Then, becoming serious she added 'but I do like the sound of waking up next to you every morning.' She snuggled back down onto his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her.
'No, come on,' she said firmly. 'We can't do this now. Niamh and Kieran could be down at any moment. You need to go talk to Father Mac and sort things out. And I have a pub to run.' She sat up and started to straighten her clothes out.
'Okay, okay. Oh God! What about Niamh?! She must have come in and seen us last night! She wouldn't just have arrived home and gone to bed. She would've tried to find me to say goodnight. We have to talk to her!' He jumped up and was trying to dash to the door when she caught his hand and stopped him.
'Peter, have some sense! You're half-dressed, and she's asleep. You need to go and talk to Father Mac. I'll deal with Niamh,' she added with grim determination.
'Alright.' He fastened his shirt and searched around for the shoes he'd taken off the night before. 'I'd better go.' He pulled her into an embrace. 'I'll see you after lunch? About two o'clock?'
'Yeah. I'll be counting the minutes. Good luck.' She kissed him on the cheek.
'You too,' he replied, casting his eyes upstairs to where Niamh would be sleeping. He grinned and kissed her slowly and passionately as he backed out of the living room.
Assumpta waited until she heard the outside door softly close, then finished straightening her rumpled clothes. She ran her fingers through her hair, remembering the feel of Peter's hands there the night before. She padded softly down to the kitchen in her bare feet to make herself a coffee before having to deal with Niamh. She walked in to find her already sitting at the kitchen table.
'Er, morning Niamh,' she started hesitantly.
'Morning. Sleep well?' she asked angrily.
'Erm, yeah, fine thanks. You?
'No, I've been up most of the night actually. Assumpta, what the hell do you think you're doing seducing the priest in my house!' she hissed.
'I wasn't… I haven't…' she stammered. 'It's not like that!' She felt exhausted, and unprepared for this argument.
'Oh really? So I come home to find the remains of a romantic candlelit dinner for two all over my kitchen, and the two of you wrapped up together on my sofa, half dressed, but you didn't seduce him.'
'We weren't "wrapped up together". We just fell asleep.' She knew she probably looked very guilty. She could tell she wasn't fooling Niamh.
'He had his arms all over you, you were lying on top of him, and you were …' she whispered the next word '… stroking his face in your sleep. I saw you Assumpta. Don't tell me it was all completely innocent.'
'Okay, okay. Well, I mean, it was innocent in that sense; we didn't do anything. And actually, I think technically he seduced me, rather than the other way around.' She couldn't help a smug grin escaping her lips at the memory.
'What!?' Niamh almost yelped. 'Assumpta, he's a priest. He wouldn't!'
'Well, he did. And he's not going to be a priest after today. He's gone over to Cilldargan now to talk to Father Mac. He'd already asked to leave; he just had to go today to make sure he was certain. And before you ask,' she jumped in, seeing that Niamh was about to interrupt again, 'I didn't know anything about it until after he kissed me.' She knew that would get Niamh's attention.
'He what?' she whispered, now hanging on Assumpta's every word. 'Tell me every single thing that happened!' she demanded.
'Well, I came around to babysit Kieran, but you'd already gone, and Peter was here. We talked for a bit, and he got upset about how lonely he was. He was obviously struggling with a lot of things. We ended up hugging, and then he kissed my neck, and we got a little bit carried away.' She looked sheepish. 'And then he cooked for me, and we talked about what we were going to do. I went up to see to Kieran, and when I came down, there was music playing, and we danced. Then we sat on the sofa and talked some more. He told me these stories about our future and how wonderful it's going to be.' She was staring dreamily into the distance now.
'Like what?' asked Niamh softly. She was obviously starting to adjust to the idea.
'You know, marriage, children, grandchildren. About how we'd retire to a little cottage up in the hills, and go for walks, and sit by the fire. How we'd dance together every evening, just the two of us, and wake up in each others' arms every morning.' She was smiling through tears in her eyes.
Niamh got up and walked around the table and gave her friend a hug. The love in Assumpta's eyes was so obvious, and it was something Niamh hadn't seen for such a long time. 'I'd hold him to all of that if I were you,' she said.
'Oh, don't worry Niamh. I will.'