Some people said it must have been so romantic. Windswept, passionate, like a film.
(Of course some people said they were both going to hell. But then most of those people already thought Assumpta Fitzgerald was destined for hell in the first place.)
Instead their first kiss was as awkward as their previous embraces had been tender and natural. His forehead hit the bridge of her nose and she saw stars. And they returned to Fitzgerald's to find Padraig spitting mad behind the bar in the dark.
"Where the hell have you been?" was the prosaic greeting that welcomed them after the biggest jump of both their lives. "I couldn't find a torch, I couldn't find the bloody fuse. The electrician's on the way."
"I can't afford that!" Assumpta complained, that quickly a landlady again rather than a lover.
"You can't afford the place burning down around your ears, either," Padraig retorted. "Sooner or later there'd have been a disaster. And I drink in this pub."
"Daily," Assumpta said.
"What about hourly," Peter mumbled, behind her.
"Too right, and I don't plan to die in it." Something damp hit Assumpta in the face; Padraig had tossed her the bar rag. "You'll have the extra business from the food fair. Pay him from that."
"It's a fundraiser," she protested.
"And they won't buy a pint while they're here?"
"Someone called for an electrician?" The strange voice, from the stranger silhouetted in the doorway, paused. "Then again I can see for myself this is the place."
"I didn't -" Assumpta began, but Peter clasped her arm in the dim.
"Don't take the chance," he said, quietly.
Peter sat in the bar while she waited, and held her hand, and thought it was safe in the dark. But the door opened to let Brendan in, and someone on the street saw something (he never knew who), and in an evening it was all 'round the town. And by morning Father Mac was on the phone.
Or at least, Peter assumed it was Father Mac. He actually fled the house the second he heard the ring.
Kevin O'Kelly found him standing by the bridge, poorly hidden by a tree. The boy greeted him cheerfully, as if the whole town weren't talking about his scandal, then leaned against the piling and loitered a while. Torn between excusing himself and worrying that Kevin had some deep question of theological import, Peter waited.
"You're English aren't you?"
Of all the possible questions, Peter had definitely not expected that one. Best of all, he knew the answer. "Yes."
"Aren't they all Protestants there?"
"Obviously not." Hands in his pockets, Peter faced his young questioner, finally curious enough to be lured out of what might have been a sulk. "What do you mean?"
"I just mean, if you're English anyway, can't you just be a Protestant like the rest of 'em? They can get married." Kevin looked earnestly as though Peter might not have understood the full import of this proclamation. "Their priests can. Can't they? If you became a Protestant you could marry Assumpta and all."
"Miss Fitzgerald," Peter said, on autopilot.
"But couldn't you? Everyone says you're going to and you'll have to stop being a priest. But -"
Peter held up a hand before Kevin could repeat his explanation. Though, really, if the gossip was that he was planning to marry Assumpta then it certainly could have been worse. "I can - I could marry Miss Fitzgerald without becoming a Protestant, Kevin."
"But not and still be a priest."
"No," he conceded.
"But you're a good priest."
". . . thank you, Kevin. But people don't just leave the church on a whim because they want to get married."
"Henry the Eighth did."
"Henry the Eighth beheaded his wives."
"Not all of them."
"I -" Peter stopped to laugh. "Thank you, Kevin. I will take it under advisement."
"Kevin O'Kelly wants me to convert to the Church of England."
Assumpta blinked. "What has Brendan been teaching them?"
"Enough, apparently. He tells me their priests aren't celibate."
"Well, they're not. May as well consider it." Assumpta was laughing, but then she put down the glass she was wiping and winced. "God, I don't know what would be worse. A priest or a Protestant."
"Both, if Kevin gets his way."
She paused. They were alone except for a couple of farmers nursing their pints at the far end of the bar. "Would you consider it?"
"Assumpta, I'm a Catholic."
"And I'm Irish, you can't say I don't understand the issue."
"But you're . . ."
"I may be the worst Catholic in Ireland, but I'm not a Protestant." She wrinkled her nose. "Though, if you're looking for parishioners who can afford to give you more vintage cars, Protestants are your man."
"I'm not considering it."
"I'm saying maybe you should." Assumpta dropped her rag onto the bar. "In all this, you've never once said you didn't want to be a priest anymore."
"Isn't it sort of implied?" Peter asked, incredulous.
"No it isn't. You've said you want -" She broke off abruptly and almost blushed. "You haven't said you want to stop celebrating Mass or counseling people, or that you don't want to christen any more babies. You can't tell me you really want to take up an entirely new career."
"It's a vocation, not a -"
"Yes. It is." She looked at him meaningfully. "All I'm saying. Don't discount it. If there's a way you can still be a priest . . ."
"It's a sin!"
She raised her eyebrows.
"A mortal - an excommunicable sin!"
The eyebrows went higher.
"Fine, I know."
"Ah go on, Father, you wouldn't be the first to have a girlfriend."
That was from one of the farmers.
Father Mac, evidently tired of calling, surprised him in the church.
"Father Mac -" Peter began.
"This time," said Father Mac, "I'm afraid I don't really need to ask if the rumors are true. I doubt anyone in the village has the smallest question."
"Suppose not." Peter dropped into the pew heavily. "I haven't decided. Exactly."
"Do you remember when we first met, I told you about your predecessor?"
"He only came for the suit," Peter recalled, his voice heavy with the judgment he knew must be coming.
"Well no one could ever say that about you. That's not a fashion statement, Father. You're a good priest. People tell me, and they can't all be wrong. You're not my kind of priest, but then there aren't many of my kind left." Father Mac paused. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't -"
He did. At least, he knew he wasn't going to do what Father Mac wanted of him, which would be to leave the scandal (and Assumpta) behind him and allow himself to be sent somewhere else, to be a priest somewhere else. The similarity to his leaving England put a sour taste in his mouth.
"I can't carry on as I have been," he said.
"You certainly can't," said Father Mac.
"No, I mean - I won't give her up. Whatever I decide - whatever we decide - it won't be that."
"And how long before the next . . . moment of truth?" Father Mac asked.
"You think . . ." For a moment all Peter could do was open and close his mouth. "You think I'd give up the priesthood without being sure?"
"I think you haven't spent much time outside Ballykay."
Of all the things a seething Peter expected, Assumpta agreeing with Father Mac was not one of them. Not that she agreed with him exactly, but -
"Isn't there somewhere you can go?" she asked.
"A retreat or something."
"I just went - "
"Not one where you're going to lie to yourself." They were walking by the water again, and Assumpta stopped to pull up her shawl. "I mean - oh I don't know, Canterbury or something. Someplace you can tell somebody the whole truth and not be judged. Someplace they might even understand. Tell you all your options anyway."
"I know my options."
"But there's no one you can talk to about them."
"Who better than you?" He stopped and turned around to face her, hand cupping her cheek.
She leaned into his touch but said, "About matters of theology? Almost anyone."
"It's not about theology, it's . . ." His face heated. He still wasn't used to saying it. Maybe he never would be. "I love you."
"I love you too. That's why I want you to be happy."
"I will be happy with you."
She slid a hand behind his neck and pulled him - slowly - down to her level. Though they hadn't had much time for practice, their kisses were going much more smoothly. "I can't be your whole happiness," she said softly. "That can't be what this is. We're not in a film, Peter. We're two adults. Realistic, practical adults."
"How romantic," he scoffed.
"It is," she said, leaning up to kiss him again. "It is, because we love each other enough to do things right. So we can have a real future."
He exhaled and leaned his forehead on the top of her head. "I don't want to be realistic. I want to run away."
"We'll save that for later." Her fingertips stroked against the back of his head. "Go, and find out what you want to do. Anyway do you really want to say Mass this Sunday?"
"All I have to endure is bawdy remarks while I'm pulling a pint. But you -"
"Will anyone come?" Peter asked in dawning horror. "Or will they show up only to see the spectacle? I'd say Kathleen will, but I don't think she'd risk receiving the Eucharist from a fallen priest."
"So go." She kissed him. "Go. You made me pay the bloody electrician. Let me keep your life from burning down around your ears."
Assumpta was right, he supposed. He was sitting in an office across from a Church of England priest in a green jumper and the wrong sort of collar, and after several moments of being unable to say anything at all, what he finally said was, "I should be here saying that I'm doubting my vocation. But I'm not. I'm -" He couldn't say "doubting my celibacy"; that was just tawdry. "I'm a priest. I still - feel - like a priest. But . . . there's a woman." Peter watched, but the other man's expression didn't change. "I don't mean we're - having an affair. We're not - it's not - but we've known each other for a few years now, and I can't ignore anymore that she's - that being with her is what I want." He stopped himself there. "No. That being with her is right. It's . . . who I am supposed to be."
"One of your parishioners?" the other man asked.
"Sort of. She's not really - she says she doesn't believe."
"And yet you've -"
"We've become friends." Peter said it firmly, because it was true. "And then - after a while I realized I was lying to myself." He took a deep breath. "I'm not treating this as an easy way to get everything I want. It's not easy."
"I don't think you're here to do anything easy," the other man said gently. "But maybe you will find out what God has planned for you."
Can this possibly be what God has planned? was what Peter really wanted to ask, but he was afraid of offending his host, so he didn't.
He came back a week later - the air and the mist and the smell of Ballykay cutting to his gut, as it did every time he went away and came back - and waited until after closing to knock at the door of Fitzgerald's.
"I haven't decided," he said when Assumpta opened the door.
"Wasn't asking," she said. "Want a drink?"
She poured him a Jameson's, and he sat at the bar to drink it.
"There's one thing," he said. "I didn't - I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I don't know how long it's going to take. But the one thing that happened while I was there, is - I'm completely sure about us. Not that I wasn't before, but now it's - it's just a complete and absolute certainty. You and me. Whatever else happens."
"Good," she said quietly. She'd set down the bottle after pouring his drink, but now she picked it up again and poured one for herself.
"Will you marry me?"
Assumpta choked; pressed the back of her hand to her mouth; and then grabbed the bar rag to wipe the whiskey from her chin. "You waited on purpose," she accused.
"I didn't." He really hadn't, but he was laughing. "I just - realized I'd never said it properly."
"I'm married, you remember."
"I'm a Catholic priest. And Ireland has divorce now."
"There's something you don't hear a Catholic priest advocating every day." She poured herself another whiskey. "Your friends, the other fellas, I hear they see it differently."
"I do need - Assumpta."
Hearing the serious note in his voice, she set her glass down, brow furrowing. "All right."
"We're both good at - getting our blood up. You know what I mean. I have to know - I have to ask - can we promise, can we promise each other that we'll give the other one a chance to explain or apologize, or - whatever's needed, before flying off? I just, I need -"
"You can't blow up your whole life, only to have me walk out the first time there's a fight," Assumpta said.
"I don't mean -"
"No you're right. I see that. You've made a commitment already and I have to do the same."
She held up a hand. "Not have to. Want to."
"If you're sure."
"I'm sure . . . that I refuse to accept your proposal with that collar on."
Maintaining eye contact, Peter removed his clerical collar and set it on the bar. "I don't have a ring," he said.
"Might as well put that back on then," she said, but she was smiling. Then she came around to his side of the bar, put her arms around his neck, and, after a moment of awkwardness, leaned into his lap.
"You look tired," he said.
Her eyes briefly closed, but not in tiredness. "Peter Clifford. Here you've been treating me like a regular person this entire time, and now you're going to have to start treating me like a woman. It's going to be very trying for you. Lesson one, never tell a woman she looks tired."
"I never -"
"If you're about to say 'I never saw you as a person,' spare us both." She kissed the side of his jaw. "I am tired. I don't suppose you'll stay."
"Assumpta," he groaned.
"Just living up to my reputation." Hand holding his chin, she met his eyes carefully. "Never, by the way? Is that - are we - until the wedding?"
He hadn't known the answer until he said it. "Until I'm no longer a Catholic priest anyway."
"Fair enough." She kissed him deeply enough that he definitely suspected her of trying to change his mind, but then she stepped back. "Go on then. I'm sure your virtue will keep you warm."
"It'll have to." He stood, but made no move to leave. "I've never - by the way. I've never been able to . . ." While she waited for him to find his train of thought, he traced both sides of her face with his fingertips and trailed them down to her collarbones. "You're so, so beautiful. I've had to think that for - eons, and not say it."
"I think I've known for eons that I wanted you to," she whispered back. "Now get out and let the village watch you walk home."
Not romantic, at least not the way everyone assumed. But it was true.