Evening had fallen on Ballykissangel, and Peter made his way homeward down the main street. It had become a habit of his (perhaps an unwise one, but unbreakable now) that, if he had not spent the entire evening in Fitzgerald’s, he would usually stop by for a little while. It was closing time now, and as he passed that familiar blue door a few straggling punters left with a nod to the curate. He glanced in the doorway, intending to smile a brief goodnight to the landlady; but he soon paused. Assumpta was alone except for the daunting pile of glasses before her, and though she had her back to him, he could sense her despairing exhaustion in the way she leant against the bar. Peter felt a wave of empathy overwhelm him, and his logical sense that tonight it would be wiser to avoid her company was overruled. So he stepped inside.
Once Assumpta was aware of his presence, she put up her usual brave face; and though her sarcasm sometimes irritated him, in another way Peter admired her strength. Things were tough, but she still hadn’t bowed under the pressure. He only noticed because he looked so closely. Too closely, at that.
He enjoyed their banter, as always, as he stacked glasses for her – especially when he managed to make her laugh. Peter always felt a glow of pride when he could make those eyes dance with laughter. And he knew the last thing he needed right now was a glass of wine – the landlady’s smile was intoxicating enough – but he couldn’t refuse her.
Assumpta seemed different tonight, somehow. Maybe it was the combination of wine and exhaustion, but she was more open, less guarded. Vulnerable, even; he found himself wanting to make her smile, to look after her, but of course the only way Father Clifford could do that was through keeping up light banter. However, while she wasn’t reluctant to talk, Assumpta kept steering their conversation into areas that he felt to be distinctly dangerous; especially considering the combination of wine, soft light and her beauty, all of which were beginning to affect him.
“So, what was this terrible thing that Niamh said to you?”
“When? Oh, that. Just, erm, something about me always wanting what I couldn’t have.”
There really was something different about her tonight; Peter had grown fond of her biting wit, but here she was less self-assured, seeming almost embarrassed. Girlish. And beautiful, so beautiful.
“Ahh, the human condition.”
“Yeah, but you’re human…”
“Ha, I’ve been promoted!”
“Do you ever want what you can’t have?”
How could she ask that question? She must know the answer, surely. Peter had a quiet dread that the dogs on the street knew how much he wanted what – who – he couldn’t have. And there she was before him, gazing at him intently. He only just managed to hold his tongue.
Peter pretended to examine his wine, desperate for any escape from her burning gaze. But Assumpta wasn’t letting up.
“What stopped you?”
“What stopped you?”
Peter set down his glass, considering that question. What was stopping him from going to her and taking her face in his hands? Loving her, looking after her? There was nothing tangible stopping him; it would be all too easy to let himself go. What was stopping him was guilt, protocol, fear…sheer strength of will.
“Why, what are you afraid of?”
Peter took another sip of wine, racking his clouded brain for a suitably vague answer. But then he made the mistake of looking up.
Assumpta was sitting there at the bar, looking at him so intently, her eyes so soft…He felt suddenly weak, as though some muscle he’d held tensed inside him had finally let go. He met her eyes.
“I’m afraid…I’m afraid that even if I try, I still won’t be able to have what I want; that the odds are piled against me, and I’ll ruin everything and lose everything that I love. Everyone. And I’d rather have an aching heart than a broken one.”
Assumpta was taken aback by this frank admission. She gaped for a moment, struggling to find suitable words.
“Peter, I…I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had…Can I help, at all?”
“You can tell me whether or not my fears are justified.”
She had steered them down this lane, but now Assumpta seemed almost afraid of what she realized they must be talking about. She looked to her glass, then pushed it away.
“Peter, I…I…I don’t know if this wine has really gone to my head, and I don’t know if you mean what I think you mean – what I hope you mean – but all I can say is that… if it were up to me, you wouldn’t have a fear or a want in the world.”
Her eyes said everything that she hadn’t quite, and Peter released the breath he’d scarcely been aware he was holding. He got up from his seat, and came to stand beside her. Assumpta was looking up at him, completely still. He wanted to kiss her, God he wanted to kiss her…
Peter bent down, and pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek. She simply stared at him as he stepped back. His eyes radiated a warm appreciation, longing, and regret. Assumpta’s heart thudded as he gazed at her, but quite suddenly he seemed to pull himself together.
“Now, you’re tired, and you probably don’t need any more wine…Have a drink of water and go to sleep, eh?”
“I…Peter, do you know what I want? I want…”
But then she saw in his eyes a desperation, pleading her to let it go; to cause him as little pain as possible. Didn’t she see it couldn’t be any other way?
Assumpta shook her head. “Never mind. Goodnight. And…thanks.”
She really meant it, he could tell.
“Anytime. Goodnight, Assumpta.”
And before this precarious control could slip, the priest hurried out of Fitzgerald’s.
Assumpta sat at the bar for a long time, toying with the empty wine glass in her hands. She couldn’t go to bed yet, she was too…There was a physical feeling, a tightness in her stomach, a weakness in her limbs…This was shock, she supposed. Shock that, although she hadn’t lived any of her secret fantasies, they had come so close. They had actually discussed it, acknowledged the situation in a roundabout way, and Peter had been so…open, yes, open, even though his words were never precise. She could be sure, now, that he felt it too, wanted it.
And though their conversation had not sparked the passionate embrace Assumpta so often and unwillingly dreamed of, she really felt they’d had an intimate moment at last, so much less hiding than usual. Where to from here (if anywhere), she hadn’t the foggiest. But tonight would tie her over for a while, until he was ready to talk again; she couldn’t push him too far too fast. In the mean time, she’d just try not to think too much about the warmth of his lips on her cheek.