Brendan Kearney wished more than anything that he'd never put pen to paper, never opened his big mouth to Padraig O'Kelly, never agreed to have their messy, cobbled-together, controversial, anachronistic play produced - least of all by Brian Quigley. Now their lead actor was hobbled by a freak encounter with a ginger tabby, well out of commission. Now the leading lady and the understudy were behaving like petulant children at the prospect of one measly stage kiss. All right, several measly stage kisses. Fine - numerous stage kisses, carefully scripted to grow less and less measly over the last few minutes of the production.
But had they not already toned it down at Father Clifford's request? And for that matter, so the leads were in reality a priest and a clergy-despising publican. So what?! Brendan had met grammar-school pupils with more professionalism. He'd seen students fuss far less than this in their abridged production of Romeo and Juliet. At least those twelve-year-olds could hold it together for an awkward peck.
At this very moment, Assumpta Fitzgerald was throwing one of her legendary tantrums, "demanding privacy." Had it been so long since she was the foremost troublemaker in Brendan's class? Was he so out of practise that he could no longer get her to behave?
"To be honest, I'm not very comfortable with this, either," Peter Clifford now chimed in, every bit the sort of suggestible second-banana that a juvenile delinquent like Assumpta would have liked to have in the schoolyard. Brendan thought for a moment about acquiescing to the ridiculous demand of an unobserved rehearsal, but when he turned to Padraig, another notion struck:
Fine. They want to play like immature brats, I'll show them.
"There a cloakroom or something in this place?" he muttered. Padraig scowled for a minute, trying to parse this. Brendan watched with satisfaction as the penny dropped. Padraig had a teenager of his own.
"Are you suggesting...?" Brendan nodded.
"You can't do this!" Assumpta shrieked as her guardian steered her by the shoulders into the dark closet.
"You two want to act like children, we're happy to comply," Padraig retorted, shoving the curate in after her.
"Aren't we a little old for...'seven minutes in heaven'?" Peter said, incredulous, as the outside lock clicked behind them.
Brendan's voice came through. "You certainly are."
"That's why we're making it twenty minutes," said Padraig.
"Oh, bog off! What's next? Truth or dare? Spin the bottle?" Assumpta yelled. Peter couldn't see her standing a foot away, but he knew exactly the look she must have on her face now. Her jaw was dropped, her dark eyes were wide, and her brows were pushing toward one another in disbelief. A flush was creeping up her neck, moving over her ears. He'd seen it a thousand times, and though he'd never admit it to anyone, it made his mouth water every time. He grinned into the pitch blackness.
"And we'll reset that clock every time we hear either one of you speak so much as a word," Brendan added.
"Oh, for the love of-we are adults!" Now her voice had that delicious edge of fury in it. She couldn't possibly know how crazy it drove him. The whole setup was torture.
"That just set you back twenty seconds."
Peter hoped neither of them could hear the smile in his own voice. "Surely you're not going to sit out there with a stopwatch-"
An electronic beep was his answer. He sighed and leaned against what felt like a coat.
Assumpta couldn't resist making it worse. "This hardly counts as privacy, Brendan!" Beep!
"Be quiet!" Peter hissed. Another beep.
"I'm sorry, I'm just so-" Beep.
Outside, they could hear the exterior door opening, and Padraig telling Brendan he'd find out who it was. Brendan agreed to keep an ear on the closet.
No useful light came in through the top or bottom of the door; neither of the hostages could communicate in the complex facial expressions that had become their second language since the curate first arrived in Ballykea. So, Peter thought, we can't speak. We can't look at each other. I don't know Morse code... The usual defences of double-meanings and feigned indifference were stripped away.
The only thing at their disposal was the thing they had tried to do as little as possible, as if by tacit agreement, since the day they met.
They would have to touch each other.