After the misadventures of the day, it was a merry Christmas night that they spent in Fitzgerald’s. It was just past eleven when Donal and Liam decided to head home, but when they stepped outside, they uttered shouts of excitement.
“Hey, get out here you lot! It’s snowing!”
The rest of the patrons hurried out in a flurry of excited shouts and giggles, Peter and Assumpta bringing up the rear of the group. And sure enough, lovely white flakes were falling from the sky, settling on the sleepy town. Some of the younger ones twirled about in it, while Brendan just grinned. Smiling up at the sky from where she stood in the doorway, Assumpta murmured to Peter, “Now it’s really Christmas…”
With fond hugs and friendly waves the patrons slowly made their way home through the falling snow. When Assumpta closed the door, only Peter remained, sitting at the bar and picking at the remains of their communal Christmas dinner.
“Don’t you have a home to go to?” she teased, wiping down the bar with a cloth.
“Well, at my home I have young Timmy and Dustin waiting, and I’m sure they can take care of each other, but I thought here I might be of some use.”
“Get to work then,” she grinned, tossing the cloth at him and moving to clear the tables. “Who’s Dustin?”
Peter’s expression did not alter as he stood up and made for the kitchen. “Dustin is my turkey.” Assumpta blinked, then chuckled. She was glad of his company tonight, after such a lousy sort of a Christmas Eve.
They worked at a comfortable lazy pace, exchanging their usual banter, and when they finally made for the door it was just past midnight.
“Well I’ll be…” breathed Peter, as he stepped out into the night. Assumpta had been about to close the door, but when she caught a glimpse of the world outside her pub she dashed after him. Ballykissangel was blanketed white, snow glistening on every surface, and flakes were still falling. At such a sight, the publican couldn’t help reverting to the girlish state she usually kept hidden; she scampered past Peter to stand in the middle of the road, her arms spread and her face up to the heavens.
“Just look at it!”
He chuckled, endeared by her excitement. “It’s beautiful.”
Assumpta had been twirling about in the snowfall, but halted, fixing him with a stare.
“How can you just stand there? Are you not at all excited?”
“Oh, forgive me for behaving like an adult,” he replied, then laughed as she poked her tongue out at him, and continued to twirl, trying to catch snowflakes on her tongue.
In truth, the reason Peter still leant in the doorway was that it was the best position from which to observe her. She was beautiful; snowflakes in her hair, face aglow, eyes sparkling in the night…
“I can’t go to bed now,” Assumpta announced, breaking his reverie. “Whenever it snowed when I was kid, I’d always go for a walk, no matter what the hour.”
Peter was not at all surprised to hear this. He could just imagine her as a girl, frolicking and terrorizing anyone within a snowball’s range.
“But I can’t enjoy it half so much by myself,” she continued, “I need someone to throw snowballs at. Join me?”
“Well, how could I resist an offer like that?” Peter replied, straight-faced, and she laughed. “You can’t. Come on.”
And though the curate felt that he probably should resist her offer (innocent as it was), she was right; he couldn’t. Not when she smiled like that.
The valley was completely white; it felt like a whole new world from the everyday. As they crossed the bridge Peter began to be glad of his scarf. Assumpta, however, seemed impervious to the cold, strolling along just ahead of him with a spring in her step, gazing about at the beauty of winter. Peter was fascinated and very much enjoying a glimpse at this side of her; this excitable, un-cynical Assumpta. She was just gorgeous like this.
“Hurry up, slow poke,” she called, then snorted when Peter slipped on a patch of ice, just righting himself in time. The priest grinned mischievously, and stopped walking altogether. The next thing Assumpta knew was a snowball hitting the back of her cardigan. She gasped and spun around, to find Peter smiling innocently and looking about, as if wondering who might have thrown it.
“Alright mister, you asked for it,” she warned him, sweeping a handful of snow from the side of the bridge, and packing it into a ball. Peter grinned, not taking his gaze from her as he bent to gather more ammunition. Her eyes sparkled with amusement as they approached each other warily; who would break this cold war?
Assumpta faked a throw, and Peter flinched. She laughed at him, pointing her finger in scorn. “Haha!” He aimed his at her feet, and she squealed, leaping aside. He was just grinning in victory when she launched hers, hitting him square in the chest. Assumpta cackled and ran away off the bridge, into the nearby trees.
“Here we go,” Peter sighed, following her, but he couldn’t help the grin spreading across his face. He hadn’t felt so light-hearted since…well…
“Assumpta?” he called, at the edge of the trees. “You’ll freeze to death in there…Oh, alright: ready or not, here I come!”
Peter tread warily, peering around the nearest tree and tensing himself for the moment she would leap out at him. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Just as he began to fear (perhaps she’d slipped and fallen), the branch above Peter’s head began to shake, and before he knew quite what was happening, a branchful of snow had been offloaded onto his head and shoulders. As he spluttered and tried to brush it off, Assumpta stepped out from behind the tree, one eyebrow raised in an apparently quizzical expression. “Oh dear, now how on earth did that happen?”
With snow melting down his neck, Peter replied, “Oh, sort of like this,” and knocked the branch again, sending a flurry of snowfall down on them both. Assumpta’s squeal of surprise quickly became a laugh, and when she reached to brush him off a play-fight ensued.
It all happened very quickly, but when he caught her by the wrist and her hand came to rest on his shoulder, the two became aware that a boundary had been crossed. The smile on Peter’s face faded slowly until he was simply gazing at her. Snow had begun to fall around them. The valley was entirely still; suddenly all Assumpta knew was the sound of their breathing, and the thud of her own heart. She couldn’t help her eyes dropping to Peter’s mouth. His breath came in clouds of mist, as did her own. They stood so close that those wisps of breath were mingling, and she could feel the heat of his body radiating against hers.
She looked into his eyes. His expression was difficult to read, as usual, but she perceived in that gaze a fear and a longing inextricably entwined. Which would he act on? There had been moments like this before, moments that had passed them by. But this time was somehow different; they had never been quite so alone, and the warmth of his mouth had never offered so delicious a contrast to the frozen air…
But Peter seemed able only to stare; he did not pull away, nor did he lean in. Assumpta’s heart fell slowly, she was sure now that this was just another of those ‘almost’ moments. Foolish of her to even hope, really. She dropped her gaze, and made to step away. But he still held her by the wrist, and she felt him pull her back.
“Assumpta…” he managed, then stalled for a moment to brush a strand of hair from her face. She felt her pulse quicken as he traced a finger down the side of her face. She wanted to save him any explanation, spout a quip to lighten the moment, but she could only stare. Then, he kissed her.
It was too easy not to think. In that moment, Peter ignored the niggling voice reminding him of the inevitable repercussions of such an action; all that existed was the heat of her mouth under his, the incredible warmth of her body up against him. Then oh, she put her hands to his face, and ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck; between that and the soft noises she was emitting at each caress Peter felt he might never stop kissing her.
When they finally drew apart, Assumpta’s breathing was shallow, her lips red and her eyes wide. She was stunned. Peter had kissed her, kissed her so thoroughly that she still tingled. After so long, to finally know how he would kiss her…She couldn’t quite believe that it had happened.
Peter knew it had happened. There she was before him, beautiful and breathless, with snowflakes falling in her hair, on her eyelashes. He could still taste her, feel her hands on his face. He had given in, he had yielded to temptation, and the worst thing was that he wanted to do it again. He hung his head.
“I’m sorry, I…”
He turned away.
Assumpta felt cold, her temperature dropping by the second. Of course it had been a mistake, what he would regard as weakness on his part. He would never act on, or acknowledge those feelings again. In fact, after this he would probably make a real effort to distance himself from her. Foolish of her to even hope. She folded her arms.
“It’s alright, Father.”
Peter cringed to hear the woman he had just kissed call him ‘Father’. How could she sound so composed, so cool, when he was in turmoil? He turned back to face her. She wasn’t looking at him, but at the snow-covered valley.
“Snow changes everything. The whole world looks different, feels different, and the usual rules don’t seem to apply. But that’s the thing about snow; it melts. One minute it’s there and it’s wonderful, and then suddenly it’s gone, and the world is ordinary again, the way it always was. And later it all seems like a dream; there’s not a sign of it anywhere, and it’s as though nothing ever happened.”
Peter could have cried. To have such a moment, and then for it to be gone. Not that it could possibly be any other way…But he still grieved to have lost the open, carefree woman he had laughed with just minutes before. She was carefully locked away once more.
She didn’t seem to have anything more to say, her eyes fixed on the distant hills. He came to stand beside her, his footsteps crunching uncomfortably loudly in the snow.
There was a moment in which he could have said many things, in which he could have opened his heart, and maybe hers. But Peter Clifford was a priest, and so all he said was “Merry Christmas.”
And then he walked away.