The cold water didn’t help; he still burned. With shame, with self-loathing, with a longing for her that had only been enflamed by their encounter…And she’d run away. There’d been a moment in which he thought he’d felt Assumpta react, arching her neck as her breathing turned short and shallow; but then she’d pushed him away and fled the kitchen, leaving him in turmoil. It was quite possible he’d imagined that moment of connection, for in those few seconds he’d scarcely been aware of anything except her warmth, her scent, the taste of her skin…
Meeting his own blank stare in the small bathroom mirror, Peter was too numb even to plan. What next? He had no idea. But he’d blown it, something had tipped, and whatever happened from here on, things would never be the same. If only he’d had a chance to explain himself…
There was a knock at the door, and Peter felt his heart thud with it. Surely that wasn’t…He moved as though on autopilot, hoping to attain some apparent composure by the time he opened the door.
“What are you playing at? What are you trying to do to me?”
It was her. And Peter wasn’t ready for this. Just the sight of her; she was blazing mad, and rightly so, but what could he say? He couldn’t even think clearly.
“Oh, that’s what it is, you’re worried about the neighbours now?”
She stalked past him into the living room, turning mid-stride to demand “Well?”
He followed, a mess of feelings swirling in his stomach. How on earth did she expect him to do this?
“Well, what? What do you want me to say?”
“I want y– What do you want?”
She’s interested in what I want? It’s not just that I took a liberty? If I wanted…would she…?
“It’s not that simple.”
“It is that simple.”
“Not from where I’m standing.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Peter, we have moved on!”
“I’m a Catholic priest.”
“Goes with the territory.”
“It’s the truth. For you and me, it’s the truth.”
With that, she made to exit. He couldn’t let her go, this was all going wrong, he didn’t want to fight with her; that was last thing he wanted.
She turned quickly, almost as though she’d wanted him to stop her, and her expression had softened to something like hope as she breathed “Yes?”
Just the way she said that one word, a little breathless, relenting…Peter wanted so much to take her in his arms, to kiss away those furies and hold her till she was calm. He hated to be the cause of this confusion for her. And she was waiting…but what could he say? I’m in love with you? I want you? It was the truth, God knows, but once he’d actually verbalized it, there could be no going back (not that he’d left much in doubt, with his behaviour in Niamh’s kitchen)…Still, no words came.
After a moment, she sighed, her expression hardening again.
“You know what you’re going to do now? You’re gonna go and discuss this in a wooden box with a grown man in a frock, and you won’t talk to me.”
“I will,” an attempt at assurance, and he meant it, “I just need to think.”
This obviously wasn’t the answer Assumpta was looking for.
“It’s not what’s in your head I need to hear.”
And she turned, striding out of the kitchen.
Peter felt as disappointed in himself as she seemed. Did she want to hear what was in his heart? Well, why couldn’t he just say it? He was already in far over his head, questioning his vocation at every turn, and the only thing that seemed never to change were his feelings for this woman he kept hurting. And he couldn’t let her storm out again; this time, he was going to get it right.
He caught her at the door, reaching out to catch her by the wrist.
The woman wrenched herself from his grip, but hesitated just long enough for Peter to close the door in front of her, and lock it. She looked a little startled by the suddenness of his movements, but kept her gaze firm and steely as she looked up at him.
“Assumpta, we do need to talk. Not later, now. Please, come back inside.”
Her expression was wary, but she nodded, and followed him back into the living room, then through to the kitchen. Needing to do something with his hands, Peter began to potter about putting a jug to boil. She leant against the kitchen table, and he finally turned to face her.
“I…I don’t know how to say this…I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything, but especially for this afternoon. I just…lost control. I’m exhausted and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I never meant to hurt you, or offend you.”
“You didn’t offend me,” she conceded, arms folded across her chest.
“And, well, now I’ve put myself in this situation…If only I could have told you before I went and…Assumpta, you must know how I feel about you?”
She scoffed. “And how would I know that?”
“…Assumpta…You’re all I ever think about. All day, I’m counting the hours till I can slip into Fitzgerald’s and see you, laughing with the regulars. Just a glimpse of you is enough. Well, no, it’s not, clearly…And for years now, I have wanted…I care about you…I…I’ve been wanting what I couldn’t have for so long, and it’s been killing me, and I’ve tried to do the right thing but…I’m sorry that I couldn’t tell you some better way, but…That’s it. The truth. Do you know what I’m saying?”
The kettle was boiling behind him, but Peter’s eyes were fixed on the woman leaning against his kitchen table. She was staring at him, her expression one of…not quite disbelief…It was difficult to read. When she spoke, her voice was low.
“I…think so. But, what does this mean for…Is anything going to happen?”
“That depends on what you want.” He hadn’t meant to put the ball in her court that way, he just said it. She drew a deep breath, dropping her gaze.
“I…Hah, this isn’t easy, is it?” Almost a laugh. Assumpta stood up straight, and suddenly the distance between them seemed much smaller. He could have reached out and tucked that wisp of hair behind her ear, the ear his lips had nearly reached this afternoon…
“God, what a situation we’ve got ourselves in!”
She was stalling as much as he had been, now. Peter could hardly blame her, but equally he needed to hear something; he’d made the leap of faith, clumsy as his words had been, and she couldn’t just leave him hanging…
Her eyes flickered upwards, and when they met his, her gaze deepened. For a moment Peter felt that he was going to kiss her, but then she lowered her gaze again, suddenly and decisively, as though she too had felt the impending danger.
“Well, you know I’m not normally hesitant to express myself…”
If it weren’t for the enormity of the moment, Peter might have smirked at that understatement. Assumpta frowned, rubbing her brow.
“I don’t know what to say either, Peter. The last few months…It’s a mess, and I’m sorry for my part in it. But I can’t take this much longer.”
She was regarding the bread bin with an open, vulnerable gaze that might have stopped Peter’s heart if she’d had the strength to raise her eyes to his own.
“Part of me feels that a solution - any solution - is required, just so long as I don’t have to wonder about it anymore. Finality. But the other part of me knows that there’s only one answer that will really do.”
It was then that Assumpta raised her eyes, then that she let him see her longing, not at all masked by fury or resentment, because she couldn’t keep that up any more. And those eyes said so much more than either of their stumbling words.
In the end, it was he who closed the distance between them. It was only right, after everything, that he should be the one to kiss her, freely and wantingly, hiding nothing. He felt the hitch of her breath against his lips, and then slowly – with a tentativeness that seemed unlike her – her hands found his arms, his shoulders.
And it wasn’t like you hear in poems and novels and sappy romantic films. Peter was still aware – particularly aware – of the dull ticking of the kitchen clock, and the chink in the lino underneath his feet, as well as the touch of her lips and the warmth of her slender hands through his shirt. Because he was still awake, and alive, and he was kissing Assumpta Fitzgerald, in his kitchen. Not in his dreams. It should have been surreal, and so the realness of it was startling.
He pulled back, and forced himself to open his eyes, and found Assumpta looking up at him with something far too close to uncertainty.
So he said what he needed to say.
“I love you, Assumpta. I...need you.”
Her eyes might have widened, but he didn’t see, because he was already bending to nuzzle into her neck, and wrap his arms around her properly, this time. He heard her gasp, felt it, as he pulled her up against the length of his body.
She needed to be told, and shown, and loved.
And as he felt her relax in his arms, Peter realized she was just getting used to the realness of it, too. But now her hands were sliding over his shoulders, up into his hair and down again, and it was right. Never mind the repercussions: he had wanted this for so long, they both had. And when she murmured “Peter,” against his temple, and he pulled back enough to look at her, she didn’t look tired and strained, the way she had for weeks. She looked flushed, and beautiful. So beautiful.
“ ‘Sumpta…” he murmured, low and adoring.
He didn’t need to say “I’ll leave the priesthood.” It was not the time for explanations, it was the time for simple truths. So, there in the curate’s kitchen, Peter held her, until the kettle had gone stone cold.