She would always help to carry
All the things that weigh me down
~Bread, ‘she was my lady’
Peter stood in the doorway of Fitzgerald’s kitchen, staring at the boxes piled high on the table with loaves and other food spilling out of them. Assumpta stood in the middle of the chaos, hands half raised, frozen in place.
“Dare I ask?” he said, bemused; then she turned about, and he spotted her expression. Peter got himself into the room and closed the door to the bar. There was at least one person in the bar not (yet) familiar with Assumpta’s temper; a Priest had a duty to protect the innocent, after all.
“You're looking at the final straw that's going to put me out of business.” she said, her words wrapped about a snarl he’d heard directed at the Church, at the taxes on alcohol, and at himself on occasion. “This is the mistake which is going to cost me a whole month’s budget!” She gestured violently at the piles. “Look at it all! My supplier had a 'mix up' with their new database, and thinks I’ve ordered all this! But their blasted computer says that I ordered it, so that’s that, apparently; they’ve taken their money out of my account and run off. Never mind the fact this is five times as much as I ever buy from them, or that I’ll never manage to sell a quarter of it by its use-by dates. Cake and bread! I’d need to make sandwiches for all of Ballyk for a week before I got through all these loaves!”
“They’ve taken the money?” Peter said, frowning. “Is that legal, if it’s their fault?”
“No.” she snapped. “I’ve had the manager on the line for nearly an hour, and all he says is that he’ll start looking into it. That old coot’s still looking into the five quid they owe me from three years back! By the time I get anything, it’ll be far too late to keep me out of the red. I’m close enough as it is.”
“…Ah.” He struggled to find something useful to say; Assumpta wasn’t going to welcome empty platitudes. “I don’t suppose- would Ambrose would be able to do anything?”
Assumpta moved her glare from the offending bread to the apparently offensive priest with a short laugh. “I don’t know how they do things in Manchester, Peter, but throwing policemen at people doesn’t lead to harmonious relationships, around here. I need the discounts they give me.” She glanced darkly back at the table. “Not that they haven’t just taken enough to wipe out all I saved from them in the past year.”
“Sorry.” Peter said, reflexively. He managed to get around her towards the kettle. Tea. That would be a safe gesture. (Unless it got thrown at him.) “I didn’t think of that - I guess there’s no one else who could supply you?”
Slumping into a chair, Assumpta watched him wield kettle and mug. “It might not have occurred to you, but not that many people are prepared to deliver to Ballyk. Dwyer’s are the only one who seem able to find their way here on time each week, though we’re hardly in the middle of the alps. Even Kathleen has to share the association.”
Peter swirled the teapot to hurry up the steeping. (His mother would sigh if she saw him right then.) “Right, yes. Of course ...I don’t suppose Kathleen would buy some of it off you?”
Assumpta shook her head. “No. I asked, and they had an extra box for her as well. Nothing like this, though. What am I going to do?” she wailed, and he held out the mug of tea, answerless. Assumpta took it automatically, wrapped her hands about the body of the mug and rested it on her knees. After a moment, she looked at him, with a pause which was about as close as he’d seen Assumpta Fitzgerald get to apologising. “Thanks, Peter.”
“No problem.” He pulled a chair out for himself, shifting an incongruous bag of potatoes. “I’m from England, making tea’s an ingrown reflex.”
It won something like a smile from her, at least, and his own shoulders relaxed. “You say that like it’s any different here.” she muttered.
There was a knock, and the door opened. Peter leaned back in his chair, sitting up straight, as Michael stuck his head around the frame. “Ah, sorry to interrupt, but Brendan and Padraig said you were back here, Father. I’ve a sticky problem I need your advice on. Or, rather, to hand over.” He took in the table. “…Are you planning a party, Assumpta?”
“I might as well go out of business in style, I suppose.” she sighed, and stood up, taking a long drink of the tea before setting the mug in the sink. “Come on, then. This lot can just stay here for an hour or two, until I see if I can think up something better to do with it than celebrating my oncoming bankruptcy.”
She ushered them out into the bar. Peter settled on the end of it, Michael beside him, and both of them ordered coffee. “What’s this problem, then?” Peter asked, as Assumpta got back to work. “You need a Priest’s opinion?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’ve a patient – Niall Tremayne, you may know him. Moved in to one of the houses just outside the main village a few months back, has a little girl at the school.”
“I recognise the name, but I don’t think we’ve ever spoken.” Peter said, slowly.
“Well, he’s been having stomach problems for a while, and I’ve just had the results back; turns out he can’t have gluten.”
“Yes. I hoped you’d have heard of it.” Dr Ryan nodded. “It means no rye, barley, oats, or wheat. Not a trace of it. That’s why I said I’d talk to you. He’s inclined to be bullheaded about it, but he must, under no circumstances, have the wafer at mass.”
Peter sat back. “I see.”
“Yes. I don’t know if the church has any alternatives it allows? There are rice flours and so on which can be used to bake with. He’ll also need a separate chalice, to stop any cross-contamination.”
“So far as I know, the bread has to be wheat bread, the same as at the last supper, or else it’s not valid for Mass.” Peter said, slowly. “I’ll look into it, though. I know it’s possible to have something like grape juice, if it’s necessary. But if he can still have the wine, he doesn’t actually need to receive the wafer; either is enough on its own.”
“I’ll tell him so, but... let’s just say I get the impression he was worried about taking both.”
Peter looked sideways at the Doctor. “...I take it you think he’s going to try to ignore our advice?”
“Not necessarily. He’s been feeling like hell for too long to make himself worse again, if you’ll pardon the expression. But belligerence, that I can see.”
Assumpta set their coffees down on the bar before them. “Doesn’t it ever bother you that the Church insists on weekly cannibalism?” she asked. “I mean, what kind of message does that send, really? Come and eat this flesh and drink this blood?”
“It’s a bloodless re-enactment of the sacrifice our Lord made for us.” Peter told her, pretty certain she already knew, and was just trying to get a rise from him. “Hence the gory undertone.”
“And then you put the blood back into it, I know.”
Her eyes were bright, and he was struggling to feel anything like irritation at the needling when it made her forget to worry for a moment. “Then again, if you think about it, wasn’t Jesus the first ever zombie?”
Dr Ryan smiled. “I can’t see that going down too well with the congregation. Though if you ever do decide to give a sermon on Night of the Living Dead, warn me beforehand? I’ll need time to set up a camera and stock up on heart medicine.”
“Somehow I think I’m the one who’d be wandering around like the living dead, if Father Mac caught me doing any such thing.” Peter said, wincing at the thought. “Still, it might liven up some of those school talks I end up giving. I’ll see what I can find out about the wheat thing, though.”
Assumpta turned away as Brendan and Siobhán started calling for service. She murmured “that’s one less person who’ll be ordering sandwiches this week.” as she went, just loud enough for him to hear.
A quick phone call told him Father Mac was out somewhere and not expected back before evening; the man who picked up was one of the other curates under his hand, apparently stuck at Father Mac’s place doing something about the curtains. (Peter hadn’t noticed anything wrong with them, but apparently they were being replaced.) He didn’t want to know how someone ended up with that duty – as he told the other curate, he was just glad to have avoided it himself, which won him a laugh, and some interesting speculation about where the money was coming from to repaper and have new ones made up.
None of that was particularly helpful, though, when he was just as vague as Peter on the subject of the exact stance of the Vatican on non-wheat wafers; they both thought wheat probably had to be involved somehow, but more than that, neither could say. It certainly wasn’t enough to help Tremayne.
Chasing up on that was going to have to wait, anyway. He was due over at the Hospice, and much though he loved the Javelin, it wasn’t the fastest of cars. (Just the most gorgeous. If he was honest, he should probably have sold it, and bought something more practical with the proceeds, but... no.) He grabbed his books and rosary, and headed out.
As he opened the car door, a voice hailed him from behind, low and faintly familiar. “Father Clifford! Do you have a moment? Doctor Ryan sent me to see you.”
The man approaching swiftly was a little taller than Peter, and rather broader – not stout, merely stocky. Bull-headed seemed likely to be apt. “Hi. Niall Tremayne, is it?” They shook hands. If Peter remembered rightly, he had been a farmer over on the other side of the country before coming across with his daughter. The wife was missing – gossip said she had either run away or abandoned her family to take a high-paying job in London, but either way he’d only ever seen Niall collecting his girl from school. “I did see Doc Ryan earlier…”
“Did he tell you? About this wheat thing?”
The words were thrust out aggressively, and Peter did his best to look reassuring in return. “He did mention it, yes. I understand that you’ve been concerned about what this will mean for the Eucharist-“
“Surely there’s some way I can still take it, Father? Take it properly, with bread and all?”
“Well, I haven’t had time to research the possibilities yet,” Peter prevaricated, already suspecting this wasn’t going to go down well. “But we need to put your health first, of course. In fact, the sacrament is just as valid if you only take the wine-“
“I want to take both parts, Father.” He insisted, adamant. “Like the Lord instructed us to. I won’t have people wondering why I’m refusing to eat with them! Like an alcoholic afraid to touch the chalice? No, thank you!”
Peter tried not to let his wince show. “But if it’s going to make you ill-”
“No. You go do your research, Father, and you find me some way of doing this. I will not be made a freak!”
With that, Tremayne stormed away down the road, leaving Peter to call after him. He didn’t turn back.
Sighing, Peter got into his car, resting against the steering wheel for a moment. Why were people always so stubborn? He wasn’t – well, he didn’t think he was stubborn. He wouldn’t back down, if he thought he was right, but that was different. Probably. Either way, he was determined to chase Father Mac down today.
Only, of course, when he eventually managed to chase Father MacAnally down, it was no real help at all.
“The Vatican is very clear on this matter, Father Clifford. Cardinal Ratzinger sent out a letter on this very subject only a few years ago. I have a copy of it somewhere; a rising pillar of the Church. Anything made with ingredients other than wheat and water is unfit to be used in the Sacrament of the Mass. Telling your congregation that anything else can be representative of Christ is not merely a lie, but a sin.”
“Surely there must be some other option? There is for wine, I’ve seen grape juice used before.”
“Not plain grape juice, I hope. Mustum is allowed, under extreme circumstances, which is grape juice which has merely begun to ferment into wine, and is therefore low in alcohol. In the same manner, low-gluten forms of bread made from wheat would be permissible, but so far as I have heard, there is nothing yet available, and it is far more convenient – and just as religiously sound – to take bread alone, or, in this case, wine.”
Father Mac cut him off, sitting back in his chair and picking up a letter to open it, a clear dismissal. “Your job is to explain the reasons to this man, and help him accept them. Now, if you would like to get on with it…”
Peter unfolded himself, slowly, but there was no more advice forthcoming. Once more, Father Mac expected him to work things out alone. Well, then.
On his way out, Peter glanced through an open door, and caught sight of rolls of wallpaper set out ready to be pasted up, dust sheets covering the carpet. He shook his head, and walked quicker.
Brendan caught him on the road down to Fitzgerald’s that evening. “Father Clifford! How are you?”
“Fine, thanks, Brendan. And yourself?”
“Thirsty, Father. Definitely thirsty. Teaching is tiring work, so it is.”
“You had a new girl a few months back, I think. Called Tremayne? How has she been settling in?”
“Brigid? Well enough, Father. She’s a bright kid, that one; she has her nose in a book a lot, but she’ll join in when she’s not reading. Not like Sean Bryson, now. There’s a shy child, if ever there was one – and we’re here. Are you coming in, Father?”
Peter wound up in the pub enough that Father Mac would disapprove volubly if anyone ever worked out the numbers, but then the entire community of Ballyk – church goers and otherwise – seemed to end up in Fitzgeralds at some point. Judging by attendance, it served as the heart of the community far more than the Church did.
Brendan abandoned him for Padraig and Siobhán as soon as they were in the door, and Peter let the issue drop. He glanced about in bemusement - the pub was, unusually, almost packed; there was a crowd of people wearing heavy coats and muddy boots which were tracking dirt across the floor. (He stifled an uncharitable grin at how mad Assumpta was going to be when she had to clean it. Maybe he should stay behind and help clean up tonight.)
Assumpta herself was just coming back from the kitchen. Peter craned his neck to see over the beer taps, but the pile of food was still high on the table. “Where’d you summon this lot up from?” He called out, and she turned to smile at him.
“Are you accusing me of witchcraft, Priest?”
“Would I do such a thing?”
“Perhaps not. You’d have to draw your own pints then. You want one now?” She was already reaching for the glass, standing in front of him as he climbed onto one of the bar stools. Someone knocked into Peter’s back, and he folded down over the bar, his lips ending a hairsbreadth from the back of Assumpta’s hand, and both of them froze a moment. Then Peter shoved himself upright.
“Sorry, Father!” someone called out, anonymous in the throng.
Peter shook his head as Assumpta started moving again, reaching for the taps. “I mean it. Where did they all come from? There was barely a soul in town this morning.”
“And you would be the one to count souls. They’re on a ‘walking tour’, being shuttled about from place to place, but their coach broke down a couple of miles back, and the replacement’s meant to be coming down from Dublin. They’ve come in here to get out of the weather while they wait. Now, do you want this pint, or not?”
“Well, yes, but I was hoping that you and I could-”
“Not now, Peter.” She dismissed him, eyes on the crowd. “I need to get as much as I can out of this lot before they walk on out. It won’t get me out of trouble, but I’ll take what I can get.”
“...Fine, then.” Peter took his pint and slapped the money down harder than he meant to, making his hand sting. Assumpta took no notice, moving on to the next raised hand. He pushed his way to the end of the bar, looking for Brendan again; he, Padraig, and Siobhán had colonised their usual corner, drinks and a deck of cards between them.
“Good evening, Father!” Siobhán called, and the three of them shifted so there was room for him to join them.
He nudged his way in, feeling relieved, and turned to Brendan. “Actually,” he began, “I wondered if you could-”
“Do you play crib, Father?” Brendan asked him, cutting across his words. Peter blinked.
“Cribbage.” Padraig put in, tapping at the crib board Peter had missed sat behind the cards. “D’you play?”
“Not since I was a child, but-”
“You can be on Siobhán’s team, then. Even things up a little.” Padraig picked up the cards and shuffled them while Siobhán objected, and Peter felt lost, pushed along by the conversation. All three were set on their game, he realised, and determined to be so.
“This isn’t what you normally play.” Peter said, and if he sounded miffed, none of them seemed to hear it.
“We fancied a change, Father. It’s as good as a rest, apparently. Doc Ryan suggested it, but he was called out a while back, so you’ll have to make up the numbers.” Siobhán told him. Peter deflated somewhat at the news. “Unless there was something else you were after doing this evening?”
“You wouldn’t abandon your parishioners in a time of need, now, would you?” Brendan said. It wasn’t as thought there was anything else he could do, though, if Micheal was also unavailable to talk to, so Peter accepted with a sigh.
Padraig held the deck out. “Will you cut first, Father?”
“Fine. Ace high, low deals.” Peter shot back at him, lifting nearly half the cards away, turning them over to reveal the two of hearts.
“I thought you said you’d barely played?” Padraig protested, as Siobhán beamed.
“I said I hadn’t played since I was a child.” he corrected. “It was Nan’s favourite. Your turn, Brendan.”
He felt a short burst of mean pleasure as the other men grumbled, then felt bad about it and ducked his head again. It wasn’t their fault Assumpta was too busy to talk, and he had no right to demand they listen to his troubles. That was his role, not theirs.
Quarter of an hour passed on the first hand, and Peter was deciding what to discard from his second when there was a lull in the noise along the bar, and Assumpta came across to them. “Hey, Peter. If you hang about until closing, I’ll make you a deal - help me clean up, and you can talk all you want.”
“Thank you, Assumpta.” he said, meaning every syllable.
“Yeah, yeah. It’ll give you a chance to practise wriggling your arse.” she said, and turned away again, and his grumpiness faded.
In the end, though, the coach turned up less than an hour later, while it was still relatively early, and Siobhán was summoned by Eamon to a sheep which was either lost or losing its wool - he’d been in too much of a hurry to clarify before he dragged Siobhán out with him. Peter left Padraig and Brendan to a two-man game and drifted along to sit opposite Assumpta as she wiped down the bar.
“I take it Father Mac was no help with your problem, if you’re worried enough to want to talk to me?”
“I’m to encourage him in the direction of alcohol.” Peter told her, nursing the glass in his hands.
“What would happen if he was an alcoholic as well?” Assumpta said, indignant – not at him, but at the Church, and it was a relief, in a way, to let her be angry for him – someone was saying it aloud, and he didn’t have to. He understood where the idea came from, that they needed to keep alive the connection with the original meal to keep the meaning of it alive, and as close to the original as possible. But at the same time he felt that surely, surely, neither Jesus nor God cared so much about the bread as the belief of those taking part. After all, if they were transforming it anyway, what did it matter if it was made from corn, or potato, instead?
“I don’t know how I’m going to tell him.” he said, quietly. “He was really worked up about it, earlier. I can’t blame him; if I ever stopped being able to have wheat, I’d probably lose my job.”
Assumpta leant back against the coffee machine, facing him. “If he came to see you this morning, then I’m not surprised he was upset. He’d have only just heard the news himself.”
“Yes, but he seemed to really, you know, care about it. Wouldn’t hear about taking wine alone.”
“So he doesn’t fancy being a vampire.” Assumpta shrugged. “It’s what he’s used to. Most of us are brought up to it, around here – In school, even. You’ve the latest class coming for their first confirmation soon, haven’t you?”
She nodded, slowly. “…If he’s the man I’m thinking of, then doesn’t he have a child about that age?”
Peter stared at her, sitting up straighter. “You know, I think you’re right, she is one of them.”
“Well, then. Maybe you can get him to tell you what the problem really is – and you’ll want to think fast, he’s, ah, coming in the door.”
A moment to process that, and then Niall was stood beside Peter, hadn’t recognised him, all his attention fixed on the possibilities of the bar. Niall nodded to Assumpta. “A pint of – no. No beer. Give me a …a brandy, please.”
“Let me get that, Niall. I’ll have one, too. Here.” Peter said, putting the money down. Niall started back, but didn’t manage to refuse before Assumpta had claimed the money. It wasn’t his favoured drink, but it was a small enough sacrifice to make, if it might help Niall feel more at ease. “Come on, we’ll go sit down, shall we?”
Niall followed him, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets. “You’ve no good news for me then, Father.” he said, his voice flat, still looming over the table as Peter sat down in the corner of the room. However publicly visible Niall’s condition was going to be, it was still worth giving him what privacy he could have, especially for an awkward conversation.
“Father MacAnally has confirmed what I thought; your best option at the moment is to take Communion by wine alone.”
For a moment, he thought Niall was going to bluster up about it again, as his shoulders went stiff, but a moment later he was sagging where he stood. Peter held the other man’s drink up, just low enough Niall had to sit to take it. “But the same thing is done every day, by thousands of people all across the world.”
“There really isn’t anything else?”
Peter shook his head firmly. “They’re working on making versions of it so low in gluten that even people like you might be able to eat it, but nothing’s there yet.” Now, he decided, was not the moment to mention separate chalices to him. “Niall… if you don’t mind my asking, why does it matter to you so much? There really is no difference, religiously.”
Niall shrugged. “It’s what I’ve always known, Father. The last few months, moving here, feeling rough all the time, and then the Dr telling me I should avoid mass until he had my results back - I was hoping today would be an end to all that. And then…”
“…Does this have anything to do with your daughter? She’s about the age to take communion, isn’t she?” said Peter, carefully.
“My Brigid, yes.” Niall sighed, and looked Peter straight in the eyes. “I just – I wanted to be able to take part, you know? In her first communion, to share that with her.”
“But you still can. That’s what I’m trying to tell you – the sacrament is full whether you take just wine, just bread, or both. In fact, if people are unable to drink the wine, the Vatican prefers them to just take the wafer.”
“You might understand that, father, and I might believe you. The congregation even might, though I doubt some of them will. But how about Brigid? She’ll see everyone else’s Ma and Pa taking their share of both, and here I am, standing here for both of us while her Ma’s away, making her eat what she don’t want, and not taking it myself!”
Peter watched Niall carefully. “So what you’re actually worried about is how your daughter will take this? You don’t mind so much for your own sake?”
“Well, to be honest, I’ll miss it, but I never did really see why we call those strange cardboard slivers ‘bread’. I’d lay odds the Lord had a more substantial mouthful at his meal!” And here he shot Peter a grin. “But Brigid, well. With her mother gone to England this past year and a half, she’s not taking to joining in with people. Changing schools hasn’t helped, either, and she hasn’t kept in touch with any of her friends from before. She’s got a white dress for it, but it’s nothing fancy like all these other children seem to be wearing, and she doesn’t even want that. Was downright rude to her grandmother when she wanted her to stand still for a fitting.”
“Some children don’t like a fuss being made about them.” Peter suggested.
Niall shook his head. “When she was smaller she was out at all hours dashing about the farm, but now she’s always trapped in a book. She’s changed.” He sighed, and stared into his pint, like the answers might be hiding in the dregs. “I’m worried, Father. Her mother… she has a quiet way about her, but my Bri seems to be all inwards somehow.”
“…How about I talk to her, and see if I can explain about the bread, at least? She’s a bright girl, from what I’ve heard. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
He sighed. “Thank you, Father. I suppose that’s all I can ask of you.” He saluted Peter with the last of his drink, drained the glass dry, and set it down. “I’ll be off now, I’ve got to go fetch her from her grandparents before the lot of them confuse each other worse than the tower of Babel, for all they speak the same tongue. Night.”
“Good night, Niall.” Peter watched him out, then turned and raised the last of his own glass to Assumpta. “You were right.”
“That’s lucky for both of us, then.” she said, with a smile for him, dark eyes glittering in the warm light. “More for you than for me; it’s going to take more than the cost of two drinks to cover the cost of all this food I’ve still got out back.”
“You’re sure you can’t sell it all?” he asked hopefully, then winced; it was a stupid question, he knew she couldn’t. Not if the crowd beforehand hadn’t put so much as a dent in it.
“With this crowd?” She waved a hand, and Peter looked about – aside from Padraig and Brendan at the end of the bar, there was only Liam nursing a very slow drink and one rather elderly couple who had finished theirs about half an hour ago, and were still in the process of getting ready to head out, delayed by a half-dozen arguments which had the ring of well-practised rituals. He carried his glass and Niall’s over to the bar. “Even that lot before hardly wanted any of it. There’s a full meal waiting at their hostel, apparently, when they eventually get there. Whatever happened to the tourist season, that’s what I’d like to know! I’ll be out of business before the week’s out, at this rate, never mind anything else.”
“It should start picking up soon, though, surely. It’s not exactly summer yet.”
“Summer seems to be getting shorter every year.” She sighed, and then pushed away from the bar, taking his empty glass along with Niall’s. “Go on, then, unless you’re ordering another? And maybe you could try putting in a good word for us on the weather front. Tourists like the sun, or so I hear.”
“I turned up in the rain, it didn’t frighten me off.” Peter pointed out, and at least she laughed as she went to clear the couple’s table.
”I meant it, Peter. You don’t have to hang around now.”
”I agreed to help you clean up, didn’t I?” He said, and settled himself down to wait for closing.
Next morning, in a break in the rain, Peter dashed down into Kathleen’s and found himself being accosted on the subject of the Tremaynes yet again. “It’s these books she reads, Father! I’ve seen the covers of them – one of them had a mouse on it!”
“Well, mice are one of the creatures God created, Kathleen.” Peter said, trying not to smile as she shook her head.
“No, Father Clifford, you don’t understand. It was holding a sword!” He did pause a little at that image – was the sword full sized? How could you tell if the mouse was holding it, or just leaning? “Violence! At her age! Worse, I think – there may have been magic involved! Children these days, is it any wonder they grow up with so little respect for the world when they’re reading all sorts of unnatural things as they do so? Can you not do anything about it, Father?”
“Surely reading is still better than a lot of things she might be doing…” he prevaricated.
Shaking her head, Kathleen bustled back to her till, and Peter walked out, bemused. He glanced automatically down towards the pub – Assumpta was outside, taking out the empty barrels while the weather let up. Peter was halfway across to lend a hand when he spotted the small figure sat by the mounting pile of barrels, a colourful book in her hands, and smiled.
“Good afternoon, Assumpta, and you’re Brigid, aren’t you.” he called out, waving a hand. Brigid looked up curiously, eyeing him up.
“Ah, Peter, just the man – would you mind sitting with these barrels for a minute while I sort things out in the kitchen? I’d ask Brigid here, but being able to see over the pile is probably a help. Besides, she’d have to stop reading. I told Brendan I’d keep an eye on her until her father arrived to pick her up.”
Peter tried to look as thankful as he felt. From the look he got in return, he was probably overdoing it a tad, but Assumpta made her way back inside and left the two of them alone on the street.
“So, Brigid. I’ve been talking to your father, and I hear you like reading a lot.” The girl looked up at him over the top of her book, and gave him the kind of look only a child can give an adult stating the obvious. “…And it looks like rumour was right. What are you reading?”
After a moment’s consideration, she held the book up for him to see, fingers carefully keeping her place – the cover did, indeed, have a picture of a mouse on it holding a sword, though the sword appeared to be mouse-sized. As did the castle it was in. He blinked a little. The spine was creased into a curve, and the corners were bent. “You know, I think I’ve seen these about before. This one looks well loved. Is it one of your favourites?”
“Yes.” She pulled it back into her lap and looked down, feet swinging below her. “Mammy likes to read this one best. She likes it when a girl gets to hit things and be in charge.”
“Does she, now.” He couldn’t help smiling, thinking of Assumpta’s likely approval.
Brigid continued, legs swinging freely now. “Da says she always wanted to be a knight. That was why she got on so well with the horses, on the farm. But she liked all of them.”
Peter settled on the edge of the bench. “Did she read to you a lot? Before she left for London?”
“Every night. Only sometimes I read to her.” Brigid looked up, eyes bright. “I tell her what I’ve been reading in my letters, and she tells me about her books, too.”
“I see. Does your father like reading, too?”
“He says it gives him a headache. He doesn’t mind us reading, though. Says at least it’s quieter than swordfighting.”
“Do any of the other children at school like reading, do you know?” Peter asked, casually as he could. He probably wasn’t fooling her – she shot a dark-eyed glance up at him, but she answered easily enough.
“Dunno. Some, maybe. There’s a boy I see in the library, in Cilldargan, sometimes, when we go over to see Nanna and Grandpa.” She shrugged. “I think he was reading The Black Cauldron last week. I like that one, too. Elwionny doesn’t get to hit things as much as Mariel does, though she does get to have magic.”
Peter picked his next words very carefully. “Maybe you could ask him what he’s been reading sometime, then. It would give you more to write to your mother about, wouldn’t it? And… I think your father’s a little worried that you’re lonely. He’d like it to see you talking to some other people. Who knows, they might even have a book or two you can borrow.”
She considered this, too, and he held his breath – then she nodded, flashing him a mischievous grin which she hid behind her book a moment later. “I’d like to read Prydain again. We had to leave it behind when we moved, our house here doesn’t have many bookshelves yet.”
“Well, that’s perfect, then. Brigid, about your father… Has he told you that he’s having to stop eating some foods, because they make him ill?”
Brigid nodded slowly, looking down. “He can’t have Grandma’s pie anymore. Or bread or anything.”
“That’s right. That means, when you come to Church this weekend, he won’t be having the bread with the rest of you, and he’ll drink from a different cup to the rest of the congregation, in case anyone has crumbs on their lips. But he’s still just as much a part of the Mass as the rest of you.” Peter told her. “We’re just being careful to keep him from being ill.”
“Good.” she said, suddenly as fierce as a small child could be. “I don’t like him being ill. That’s why we had to come away from the farm, I want him to get better! Maybe we can go home then.”
“Maybe.” Peter hedged. “Well, then. We’ll both do our best to look after him, then. Deal?”
Brigid nodded, perfectly serious. “Deal.”
There was a rattle of a large engine as the bus came down the road and pulled up opposite. “And here comes your father now, I think.”
“That’s him.” Brigid nodded, as Niall came into view about the vehicle. “Bye, Father!”
He watched her bounce up the road to Niall, raised a hand in greeting to the man, and watched him lean down to hear his daughter’s description of something which she’d done – or, possibly, read – during the day. He was still smiling at the two of them when Assumpta set another can down beside him with a clang. “They look happy enough.”
“She seems to be, anyway.” Peter sighed, and leant back against the wall of the pub. “I’m not so sure about him.”
“Well, his wife away in London working, setting up house somewhere new, a little girl to look after – I’m not surprised he’s struggling. His ingrained sense of the manly ideal must be taking a beating-“
“Assumpta.” Peter said, with a sigh, and she quit with a hint of smile, which probably meant she’d been needling him rather than meaning it, though she probably meant it as well – and he was staring at her, spaced out. Peter looked away, only to see Kathleen skirt Niall and Brigid, and then make a beeline for him. Again. “…Ah.”
“Best get to work, before Father Mac starts hearing about how you spend your days loitering about the pub.” Assumpta said, with a grin Kathleen couldn’t see, and left him to face whatever was bearing down on him with a disapproving frown for the second time in an hour.
Once more, it was closing time at Fitzgeralds, and Peter was doing his barmaid impression again. When most of the problems facing him were frustrating tangled things full of Father Mac and other kinds of strings, it was soothing to be faced with a dirty room, and set it to rights. He was collecting up the empty glasses and bottles onto the bar, wiping down the tables, putting the chairs up on top of them so the place could be swept later, and Assumpta was listening to him turn over the problem out loud while she sorted behind the bar.
That was, she had been listening to him. She hadn’t said anything for… well. He looked about at the amount of room left to go, and found one lone table. He must have been rambling for at least ten minutes; embarrassed, the turned to Assumpta, planning to apologise.
She spoke before he could. “So what you really want isn’t anything to do with Brigid at all, it’s Niall who needs to be, what, calmed down?”
“I think so. Brigid’s quiet, but she doesn’t seem unhappy. Not everyone needs a great crowd of friends about them, and if her reading is something steady while she settles down here…”
“You aren’t worried about her reading about magic and evil curses and all that then?” Assumpta said, smiling.
“Half the adults who read seem to spend their time reading about murders or sex, Assumpta, and it doesn’t seem to make them go out and kill anyone, or – well, you know.” She snickered at his evasion. “I don’t think it will do her any harm to be reading about the triumph of good over evil. Even if good happens to be a mouse with a sword.”
“I think it was a rat, actually. And one of the bad guys.”
“…You know what I meant.” He smiled, sudden memory kicking in. “I knew a priest back in Manchester who had written his dissertation on the Christian symbology in Tolkien.”
Assumpta stared at him. “What, they let him qualify as a priest with that?”
“No, English. But he used it in sermons a lot. ‘The Gospel according to Peanuts’, too.”
“Try that in Ballyk and I’ll take bets on how quickly Father Mac can implode.” she said, eyebrow raised.
“I don’t think it’s precisely the kind of approach which would… best suit this congregation, no.” He said, and set the last of the chairs up onto their table. “But like the zombies, it might be good for schools. I’m done, I think.”
Assumpta picked up the final tray of dirty glasses, and pushed the kitchen door open with her foot. Faced with all the food still on the table, she sighed. “I don’t suppose you want a sandwich or ten?”
“I’m sure you’ll find something to do with it, Assumpta.” He smiled. “I have faith. In you, even.”
“I could feed your entire congregation on this lot and still have some left.” she said, with a sigh. “You could give them each an entire loaf, not just a little wafer.” Peter stilled, straightening. Assumpta spotted the motion; “I know, I know, it’s not suitable – yeast and all that. I was listening. But-“
“No!” He cut her off, so excited he could have kissed her. Could certainly have hugged her, but there was a bar and a tray between them, and anyway, it wouldn’t be- “That’s it!”
“Feed the whole congregation! We’ll solve your problem and mine in one – a celebration, afterwards. A breakfast together, all the parish, Niall included – he can’t have the sandwiches, but there’ll be things he can have, too. Make it long enough, and he can’t help but feel included, and maybe if he sees Brigid actually with the other children, he won’t be so worried about her, and will actually get better.”
“Where are you planning to hold this meal? And who will pay me for the food?” Assumpta said, slowly, still hovering in the doorway. “I don’t think Father Mac will want it taken out of Parish Funds.”
“I don’t see why not, when we’ve met our Parish Share for the quarter, for once, and there’s enough to cover it – and I’m sure he will agree with me that it will be more benefit than new curtains for his place.”
“Well, if you’re going to put it to him that way…” Her lips curled up, a mixture of mischief and relief which lit her whole face, and Peter grinned back at her, the joy singing between them for a long moment in the quiet of the bar, just the two of them.
Peter… dragged himself together, and headed for the door. “I’ll get on it right away. Don’t throw that lot out, whatever you do!”
Leaning on Father Mac got the money, and Brendan got them the use of the School Hall – more family-friendly than the pub, but also with more room for tables so people could sit down together. Peter stood with Assumpta behind the trestle tables and doled out orange squash in chipped school mugs, watching as Brigid led her father over to talk to one boy who was certainly trying to hide behind his book. (Sean Bryson, probably.)
“If that contrast doesn’t calm him down, nothing on Earth will.” Assumpta muttered, from her post manning the hot water urns.
“I’m just glad to see Niall talking to someone else.” Peter murmured back, watching the boy’s mother hold her hand out, and draw him into conversation.
They were interrupted by Father MacAnally, holding his cup out to Assumpta with a sharp-edged smile. “I never thought to see you celebrating a Mass, Assumpta, even if you didn’t join us in Church. Isn’t catering a little out of your usual line?”
“It’s just business, Father.” she shot back, refilling his tea. “Here. Mind you don’t burn your tongue.”
“Thank you. Well, Father Clifford, it seems your idea has gone down better than I feared.” He looked about with satisfaction at the long tables of people talking to each other, when normally the parents who were sat together now would barely meet each other picking their children up from school. “Who knows, perhaps if they make enough connections, we might see an increase in regular attendance this year. Not that this is an invitation for you to go throwing any more parties. The Parish cannot afford such luxuries. In fact,” and there was suspicion in his voice, “I am surprised you had the supplies on hand to cater for it? Surely it must have been a hassle, going to all this length.” He waved a hand at the rapidly diminishing buffet.
Assumpta just twisted a smile at him. “It’s my business.” she repeated.
“Well, at least this luxury is being enjoyed by the community as a whole.” Peter said, and he could see Assumpta biting her lip and looking away from the corner of his eye. Father Mac puffed up indignantly and stalked away, and he tried not to grin at the laugh which escaped Assumpta’s control. “New curtains.” he muttered, rolling his eyes.
Whatever she might have said was cut off by Siobhán, leaning past to reach the sausage rolls with a grin. “First a baby, now a little girl and her Papa – you two need to find a boy to look after now, and you’ll be well provided for in the family line.”
“Sure, they’re caring for the lot of us already, Siobhán!” Brendan stated, following her across the room. “Father Clifford here sees to the comfort of our souls, and Assumpta to the comfort of our spirits!”
“I’ll drink to that.” Siobhán raised her coffee in a salute.
Assumpta was shaking her head but smiling brightly, and Niall and Brigid were both doing the same, across the room – and outside, the sun was breaking through the last of the rainclouds.
Peter grinned, and raised a cup of squash to Assumpta. “So will I.”