Peter Clifford needed a coffee. In fact, he was victim of a cruel paradox; he needed a coffee because he had hardly slept a wink the night before, but to get the coffee that might keep him awake today, he would have to see the woman who was the very reason he could not sleep in the first place.
Of course, muttered an accusatory voice in his head, you could make a coffee at home.
The curate had to concede that fact; but it’d never be as satisfying as a real espresso from Fitzgerald’s…besides, he couldn’t deny that he actually wanted to see Assumpta. This torture was mostly self-imposed. But what was he to do?
He entered Fitzgerald’s, to find the usual scene of Assumpta behind the bar while Brendan, Siobhan and Padraig chattered in their corner.
“Father! Come and join us.”
Peter grinned, taking a seat alongside Brendan, and smiling to Assumpta, whose expression was one of amusement.
“Padraig’s just been telling us,” Siobhan explained, “how his garage used to be the local dance hall, a few years back.”
“In the Bronze age,” Assumpta cut in, with a grin. Padraig shook his head.
“It was called the Starlight Ballroom, Peter. Bit of a wreck now of course, but I found the old glitter ball last week, still intact.”
The curate was grinning, fascinated. “I bet there’s a fair few memories for the folks of Ballykea in those dusty corners. Especially the older generations.”
“Well, it was before my time,” smiled Siobhan, with a hint of pride at that fact, “but I bet there’s a fair few ‘d like to see the place again.”
“There’s an idea; why don’t you hold a party there? Clean the place up a bit, and give an open invitation for an evening of reminiscence. Get out the old records.”
“And Fitzgerald’s could do the catering,” suggested Peter, at which Assumpta suddenly became more interested and less sceptical.
“Ya know, I could even break out some of my old wardrobe, from the 70’s,” Padraig mused.
“God forbid,” muttered Assumpta, but she was smiling.
Assumpta felt unusually light-hearted as she closed up. It had been a good day, with everyone excited about Padraig’s party. Just having an event to look forward to seemed to brighten everyone’s mood, which in turn brightened hers; the publican sometimes wondered how her temperament might settle if she wasn’t subjected to pushy customers all day. And if certain other stresses were removed…
There was a knock at the door, and Assumpta looked up to find Niamh in the doorway, unusually attired in a calf-length dress in floral-print; a dress that belonged in decades gone by. Mrs Egan looked lovely, actually, but her friend laughed all the same.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Niamh giggled, doing a little twirl. “It was a party dress of my Mammy’s. Thought I’d wear it to this do of Padraig’s.”
“Good idea,” grinned Assumpta, tossing the bar towel aside, looking her friend up and down.
“What are you going to wear?”
“Oh, just this,” sighed the publican, gesturing to the skirt and cardigan she wore. “No point in me dressing up; I’m just there to see I get paid for the crates of beer consumed. And to see Padraig dolled up in his vintage rags.”
Niamh smiled, but persisted. “Ah, come on; put on your party dress, and we can go together, like the old days when we used to go out.”
Assumpta couldn’t help but smile, and relent. “Just so long as Ambrose doesn’t mind me stealing his date.”
“And why should he?” the woman scoffed, “He’s only my husband!”
The Starlight Ballroom was not quite restored to its former glory, but it still presented an inviting scene; coloured fairy lights adorning the walls, the glitter ball sparkling from the ceiling, and the air filled with laughter, the faint smell of drink, and the music of days gone by.
Two lovely young women entered, arm in arm, followed by a lanky man. They gazed about in laughing wonder at the scene before them.
“I swear we just went through a time warp!” laughed Assumpta.
“Oh God, look, there’s Padraig!”
Niamh pulled her friend across the floor, to where the host was dancing, his hair combed with bryl-cream, his outfit authentically 70’s.
“Hello girls! You’re lookin’ lovely this evening, if I may say so.”
“You too,” Niamh smirked, ‘admiring’ his attire.
“Have a drink on yourself,” the man offered, nodding towards the table where cans and bottles were laid out. Unsurprisingly, Brendan and Siobhan were also located in that corner of the hall.
“Hello you two,” Assumpta smiled, clinking bottles with Siobhan.
“Hello yourself,” smiled Brendan, looking his ex-student up and down approvingly.
“We just got here,” Siobhan replied, “but it’s shaping up to be a fine evening. Good music, good memories…a good beer or two…”
“And good company,” finished Brendan, placing down his bottle, and approaching Assumpta with exaggerated gentility. “May I have this dance, madame?”
“That’s Miss Fitzgerald to you,” she teased, but took his arm and let him lead her to the dance floor.
Niamh chuckled, scanning the crowd for her husband as she stood with Siobhan.
“There’s quite a good turnout. Lot of people remember this place, it seems.”
“Sure do,” the vet agreed, “and everyone’s having a great time; even Kathleen is smiling! I feel sorry for Father though.”
Following Siobhan’s nod, Niamh spotted Father Peter caught in conversation with one of the older parishioners, and looking as though he’d much rather be on the dance floor. Though he probably didn’t feel as though he could ask anyone to dance, it might not be appropriate for a priest. Ah, what harm could a dance do?
With a smile to Siobhan, Niamh made her way across the ballroom.
Peter always made an effort with the more elderly parishioners, but this evening he just struggled to concentrate on whatever it was Mr. Flaherty was saying. Maybe it was the twinkling lights, or the music, but his focus kept drifting to the floor; to where Assumpta was dancing with Brendan to a jazzy tune, her eyes sparkling as she laughed with her old teacher. Peter could make out the lyrics, and found a grin spreading across his face.
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She loves the theatre, and never comes late
She never bothers with people she hates
That’s why the Lady is a Tramp
And that wasn’t a bad summary, really. The behaviours for which some people took exception to Assumpta, and considered her too different from the ‘right kind of woman’, would in fact prove to be merits upon closer inspection. Maybe Ballykissangel wasn’t quite ready for a woman so fiery, so broad-thinking, so firm in her opinions, but that didn’t make these qualities any less admirable…
There she was, dark hair bouncing over her shoulders as she and Brendan danced swing-style. Assumpta had obviously dressed for the occasion; the cocktail dress in a velvety dark green accentuated her figure subtly, the graceful curve of her shoulder revealed as the cut went down in a slight V-neck. Occasionally Peter would find himself wondering how it was that the publican dressed more modestly than all city women and most country ones, and yet she caught his eye - and his imagination - far more than should be.
Even now, he couldn’t help but watch her dance. That was an opportunity he didn’t often get; to see Assumpta light-hearted, laughing unreservedly as she moved to the up-tempo beat. Observing her, Peter searched for the right word to describe her dancing self…and, try as he might to banish it, there seemed to be no other word than ‘sexy’. Well, ‘adorable’ too…How did those even go together?!
Oh, this was bad. Could he perhaps leave, slip away unnoticed? He couldn’t bear to stay in this patently romantic environment…
Peter turned, flustered. “Oh, Niamh, hi. How are you?”
“Grand, and yourself?”
“Oh, fine. Err, you know Mr. Flaherty?” He gestured to the old man, and Niamh nodded, smiling politely.
“I was wondering, actually, if I might steal you away for a minute, Father?”
With an apologetic smile to old Mr. Flaherty, the two turned away, towards the dance floor.
“I thought perhaps you needed rescuing,” Niamh murmured, with a conspiratorial smile. Peter had been about to deny it, but at her knowing expression he could only heave an admitting sigh and chuckle gratefully, “Thanks.”
“Well, one good turn deserves another…Dance with me, Father?”
The man blinked. “What?”
“Ahh, come on. You can’t refuse a parishioner in need. And I doubt you’ll get a similar offer from Mr. Flaherty there.”
Shaking his head laughingly, Peter offered Niamh his arm, just as a gently lilting tune began.
They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me
Peter tried not to hear the lyrics: but he was after all a man of words, and the irony was potent as he danced so platonically with the one woman it was appropriate for Father Clifford to dance with - a safely-married parishioner. In fact, the appropriateness of even that seemed dubious, under Kathleen Hendley’s righteous gaze. It definitely wasn’t appropriate for his eyes to meet Assumpta’s over the shoulders of their respective partners… But Niamh was a good friend and it was kind of her, to pull him into the party like this. He managed an indulgent smile around the room: at Brendan bravely teaching Siobhan the foxtrot, at Padraig playing grand host, at the pair of teenagers flirting in the corner…
I’ve never been in love before
I thought my heart was safe, I thought I knew the score
Why did every song have to be a love song? Probably because love was the single most affecting experience a human being could know…
Those not currently involved in an internal conflict of the heart were, by contrast, having a great time of it that evening. A little circle had formed near the drinks table, and Assumpta wended her way over, a somewhat puffed Brendan following her towards the beer. But between themselves and the refreshments stood a pair, an elderly couple, who appeared to be the reason for the little crowd in the first place. The man, his thinning hair combed over neatly, was waving the can of beer in his hand demonstratively as he spoke.
“Yes indeed, we met at this very hall…More years ago than I care to remember, haha!”
“Sixty years,” the lady put in, with a little smile that barely concealed her pride. She was a sweet old woman, dressed in her best for the occasion, clip-on earrings and all.
“Really now?” Siobhan raised her eyebrows. “I bet that’s a story worth tellin’.”
“It is to be sure, young lass,” the man chuckled, and Siobhan glowed a little to be referred to as ‘young’.
“I can’t remember which band was playin’ back in those days, but-”
“Oh Tommy,” his wife shook her head, and the chuckling audience turned their attention to her. “I was seventeen, and it was my very first dance: I’d a new dress for it and everything…”
As the story went on, with not-infrequent interruptions from one spouse or the other, Assumpta leant against a table, a little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. It was turning out to be a nice evening, and as she glanced round the friends gathered, she felt a surprising warmth. It was probably because she could see plainly that the old love story they were being treated to was bringing everyone’s romantic sensibilities to the fore…even Siobhan was smiling softly, and Niamh had laced her fingers with Ambrose, sighing gently.
“And so I let him walk me home, all the way up the hills, and he slipped over in the mud trying to pick me a flower!”
“They didn’t need to hear that bit, love!”
“Well, you would go for the one right in the middle of the bush!”
More soft chuckles rippled through the group, and, cradling her wine glass, Assumpta couldn’t help but share in them. She should have found all of this Romance with a capital ‘R’ stomach-turning – or should have pretended to, anyway – but against her will and for no apparent reason, she found herself being turned over in quite a different way. Only she mustn’t let anyone see, particularly not Brendan, or she’d never hear the end of it…
The sound system was still crackling away, a nostalgic tone. Assumpta turned her attention away, only to land on Peter, standing awkwardly and alone behind Niamh and Ambrose, his shoulders hunched and his head tilted in that boyishly endearing, distinctively Peter-ish way. ‘He looks about twelve’, she’d once said. Ha…
Assumpta turned, slipping past Brendan and making her way out of the little group. She needed to extricate herself from this circle of romance. She hardly belonged in it, her single self…
Ah, there was an escape, the back door: nearly blocked off by the little crowd, but she could slip through… She somehow didn’t notice who it was she’d have to slip past, until he was fixing her with the deliberately-casual, faintly-nervous smile which lately had been working its way between their easy banter with increasing frequency.
“Evening, Assumpta. Err, can I get you a drink?”
“Well, there’s a change,” she tried, shaking her head with a smile.
“Ha. Not a bad party, though, is it?”
“Not at all.” Assumpta joined him, leaning against the opposite doorpost.
“This place is quite the historical gold mine, with live retellings” Peter nodded toward the nostalgic group.
“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it,” the publican grinned, turning her head to peruse the wooden doorpost behind her. “This place is riddled with old graffiti, some of it from back in Kathleen’s day, I wouldn’t mind betting. One year at school some of us were sent to fetch some tools for a working bee, or something…Anyway, we ended up sneaking around here reading what people had carved over the years, and giggling our heads off…”
She shook her head, chuckling, and Peter grinned, turning too to inspect the walls.
“Here we go…‘Peggy + Connor’…”
“Told you there was heaps. Worst spelling mistake wins. I’ll race ya…”
Assumpta shot him a wry grin with her challenge, turning back to the wall and reading aloud whatever her eyes happened to light upon. He did the same.
“‘Diarmuid loves Catherine N’…”
“Michael + Grainne forever…”
The woman’s expression softened with each inscription she read. Had it been another wall they’d found, she and her schoolmates, years ago? Was she so young then, or so old now? There seemed nothing ridiculous or embarrassing in these crudely-carved declarations of adoration, not anymore. Even the couple of lewd rhymes made her smirk in an entirely different way than her adolescent self had used to.
And there she’d thought she was handling his company well, for a minute…
“This one’s different,” pointed Peter.
“Wicklow – Free Spirits!”
“Not in my bar!”
“That’s for sure and certain,” he deadpanned, teasingly.
“Watch it! No, that’s the motto, of County Wicklow. ‘Free Spirits’.”
“Ah,” Peter nodded, with a smile. “Apt.” And he smiled at her, in that way of his which was inclined to make her heart-rate quicken.
The moment was shattering by a loud and offensive sound from the speakers.
“I’m gettin’ it, I’m gettin’ it…Let’s play somethin’ different…That’s better.”
“Is it?” Assumpta muttered wryly, as ‘Achy-Breaky-Heart’ filled the hall.
But Padraig was quite in his element.
“C’mon now, why don’t we try a little line-dancing?”
He didn’t appear to be taking no for an answer, tugging on the arm of a bewildered Eamon, and it took little more than a quick glance between Assumpta and Peter for a silent agreement to form between them. They had slipped out the back door before Ambrose had even realised what mortal danger he was in.
The old Starlight Ballroom backed onto a wooded field which had served as a makeshift car park in the hall’s heyday, but since most of the villagers had walked there tonight, it was largely empty. It was also dark, and comparatively peaceful: music just spilling out of the door ajar.
“That was close,” said Peter, shuddering at the thought of enforced line-dancing.
“Tell me about it,” Assumpta shivered a little: she’d left her cardigan inside, and the night air was chilly on her bare arms. He shuffled over, making room for her to lean against the back wall, as some sort of windbreak against the light breeze. A silence fell upon them, and for a moment Assumpta was terrified. She was in no state to manage her feelings tonight: she was just a little too tipsy and a lot too sentimental.
But once again Fate intervened, providing a point of focus, as the music changed within the building. The obnoxious country sound was replaced by a smooth jazz-quartet sound: a mixed blessing.
“Sounds like Kathleen got her way,” she began, smiling.
“For once I’m grateful,” Peter replied, and she had to chuckle at his honesty, the kind that he seemed to show more often to her than anyone else.
She sighed, in what she was surprised to find was contentment. Perhaps she’d had just the right amount of wine, or perhaps it was simply that she didn’t have the energy to be concerned any more. Perhaps she’d just have to give in to the warmth that kindled in her stomach whenever they were together like this, the two of them… Nothing dangerous, mind. But surely a girl could relax a little around a close friend without the world falling to pieces…
“Ya know, I think you’re the only man I haven’t danced with tonight.”
“Do I count?” He was masking his surprise.
“You’ve got two legs on ya. Just let me check my dance card…”
“Right then,” Peter shrugged, and started a few joking steps of a line dance, made all the more ridiculous by the slow music. Assumpta actually laughed.
She moved to stand opposite him, and as he realized that she wasn’t joking, she expected Peter to bolt, to suddenly remember an important conversation he had to have with some parishioner. Instead, he stepped forward, nodded “As you wish”, and reached for her hand.
As her other hand came up to rest on his shoulder, Assumpta wondered to find it felt surprisingly natural – well, maybe that wasn’t a surprise. Being with Peter always felt natural, until she remembered his collar. Actually, being out here with him felt…felt like they’d read the fine print, and found a loophole. Not a very good one, and certainly not one that would last beyond that night…but for now, it would have to do. The alternative, the idea of a conclusion – of losing all hope – seemed unthinkable in that moment.
Instead, she just let herself float along, memorizing the feel of Peter’s hand in her hand, his other hand at her waist…
Someday, when I’m awfully low
And the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight
Assumpta was so caught up between the soft music and the fact that Peter was touching her that it took her a moment to realize that they were already dancing, and they hadn’t tripped over each other’s feet.
“Hey, you’re not bad at this.”
Peter smiled. “Mum taught my brothers and I: enforced lessons in the kitchen.”
She grinned at the image. “And there I thought Father Mac had been giving you pointers…”
They both chuckled, thinking of the parish priest’s scowling face in the corner of the ballroom: he had been deserted by that usually-dependable paragon of virtue, Kathleen, in favour of the big-band dance tunes of her youth.
You’re so lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheek so soft
There is nothing for me but to love you
And the way you look tonight
Peter had to fight every instinct in order to keep from inching closer. The soft music, their seclusion in the night, the fact that this beautiful woman had been the one constant in his life for, what, three years? She was always there, as his publican, his friend, his sparring partner, his… And now, although the Ballykissangel community was just beyond the door not five feet away, it somehow felt like their own little world…Was he drunk?
With each word your tenderness grows
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose
Touches my foolish heart
This was torture – blissful torture. If only they’d had a token dance inside earlier, to some upbeat tune: they might have received glares from Father Mac, but at least it would have been less dangerous than this tantalising slow dance, alone. A weaker man than Peter Clifford would have given in long ago: he didn’t seem able to escape these situations, no matter what he did.
“That was a nice story, the old couple in there,” Peter began, before realizing that it wasn’t such a useful ‘change of subject’ to distract himself from things romantic. Assumpta nodded, offering a little smile.
“Apparently some people do stay together all their lives.”
The man was silent, unsure how to reply, given his limited knowledge of her parents’ difficult situation. In the end he didn’t need to reply, because she added, “And in Ballyk, of all places!”
Peter stepped back, and twirled her gently under his arm.
“Well, it’s like I said…you can find it anywhere.”
Assumpta almost managed a casual, joking tone as she replied, “Oh, I dunno…Those Koreans took quite a shine to my bar: I might move on to greener pastures…”
“Greener than Ballyk and its forty shades?”
Peter’s quip hid his fear, but only for a moment, for when she shook her head in silent laughter, he couldn’t help adding, “What would I do without you?” If he was trying to sound casual, he failed.
Assumpta’s eyes darted up to meet his. She too, recognised that they now teetered on an all-too-familiar line. In the hall behind her, the music blared brassily all of a sudden, but she barely blinked. A shaky breath was drawn…and she dropped her gaze.
“Well, you’d drink a lot less, probably.”
Recovering himself, Peter managed a bitter chuckle at the multi-layered implications there. They both knew, didn’t they, that it wasn’t the lager which kept him at the bar till late. But still she was providing him with an escape, a chance to get himself back under control, if that was what he wanted…and he was grateful. If only he could convince himself that safe control was what he really wanted…
But he must have done a convincing impression, because Assumpta took his silence as her cue.
“We’d better be heading back inside before Padraig notices we escaped.”
“Mm,” Peter nodded, relinquishing his hold on her, and feeling colder instantly. “They’ll be missing you in there, and not just the Koreans. I hope I’ll be forgiven for monopolising you.”
Again with the double-meanings.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry: I wouldn’t be half so popular if it weren’t for the stout.”
Peter couldn’t safely give the reply he wanted to, so he just shook his head, smiling, as she stepped forward to open the door. But Peter loitered back.
“Err, I might head home, actually.”
“Setting a good example for us revellers, are we?” she glanced over her shoulder.
“Something like that. To be honest, I need my sleep: I haven’t been getting much of it lately.”
Neither acknowledged the fact that it wouldn’t do for them to be seen re-entering the hall together: they didn’t need to. So Assumpta just cocked her head, and offered a “Sweet dreams, then,” which sounded more empathetic than sympathetic, and slipped back inside the ballroom.
Alone in the night, Peter Clifford breathed out slowly, then set off homeward through the moonlit countryside.
The day after a party is always a strange one. The excitement is over, there’s a mess to clean up, and there’s tiredness, if not a hangover. Padraig O’Kelly managed to rope in a few of his friends to help put his garage to rights: Brendan and Peter being the most helpful.
The school teacher had something of a headache that morning, but not enough to render him unobservant: indeed, he was the only one who noticed Peter whistling an old love song. He was the only one who noticed that Assumpta was also humming that same tune, at closing time. Brendan Kearney was an intelligent man, but also a good one, and he never said a word.