And then finally, he went back.
He recognized this feeling—these feelings. He'd felt something similar as a growing lad; at university; with Jennie…he'd run away from her, but when she followed she was the one who left again, so he thought perhaps he was safe now, stronger now.
Well, obviously he was wrong there.
And no matter what Father Mac said, and no matter that he'd had feelings something like this before, though not really like this, he was right. There was only one Assumpta, and only one Peter, and it'd almost certainly been a lost battle since she picked him up in her blue Renault in the pouring rain that first day he'd come to Ballykissangel. Something about Assumpta's own unexpected philosophy regarding love, and two people meant to be together, no matter what.
His last act as priest was Kieran's christening.
Peter Clifford walked out of Ballykissangel and kept walking. Eventually he got on a bus, and a train, and an airplane. He kept moving, getting what work he could where he could (he still didn't know what he would do for a living once he stopped being a priest). He didn't go back to Manchester, and he couldn't stay in Ireland, and he spent more time in the States than he thought he ever would have cared to. He travelled through Australia, and he found his way to continental Europe, speaking bastardized Italian (gained from his Latin) and stumbling French when he was absolutely desperate.
For years, he couldn't think about BallyK, or Assumpta, or the church. For the first year he was in lockdown, practicing iron control in ways he never had before. He carried the same pack on his back that he'd walked out with, and he never, ever wore any kind of black. After a while, he stopped remembering he used to be called father by many.
He never stayed anywhere for long, never long enough to stop and think. Thinking was too much right now; he didn't want to contemplate mourning Assumpta (he hadn't even finished mourning his mum), or questioning his faith, or if reacting like this was a wise decision; some days, thinking about what to have for dinner was too much for him so he didn't bother.
He smiled politely at strangers, and everyone remained a stranger. He kept his head down and didn't get involved. Whenever he had to walk or drive (he'd never gotten used to the Americans driving on the wrong side of the road, but he didn't let his license expire these days) past a church he speeded up, hurried away without looking. He spent as much time as he could walking city streets, just being an anonymous person in the crowd going about his business.
Three years later, about the time he hit Chicago, he started to think again.
It was entirely against his will. He didn't want to think; he was quite content to go on being numb for the rest of his life (he knew that if he had a friend, and his friend had heard him say this, he'd be given a stern lecture). But he was sitting down in his current flat (rent paid up for this month only), staring into nothing, and suddenly he had a physical memory of kneeling down in front of a statue of the Virgin, black robes whispering about his feet (it'd taken a while to learn how to stand back up without tripping).
He found himself making the sign of the cross sitting in the recliner in the living room and stopped himself, horrified.
And then he was horrified at himself for being horrified.
He didn't think anymore for the rest of that night, he was too shocked, but the next night was a different matter.
Peter kept travelling, moving further and further into the States, but now he paid a bit more attention, now he saw a bit more of what was going on around him. Now he was thinking again, and remembering, and feeling.
He felt he'd been right for the past few years. It hurt a lot less not to think. But then he'd mentally slap his own wrist and get back to thinking.
He thought about love, and faith, and God, the feel of a dog collar around his neck and white robes falling to his feet.
He wasn't quite ready yet to think about Assumpta, or BallyK, or how it all tied together in his life, but it was a start.
And eventually, he found his way back into a church. He didn't confess his sins, he didn't light a candle, he didn't sit through a mass, but on a bright Tuesday afternoon he hesitantly walked through the vestibule (no holy water, no sign of the cross), he entered the church proper (no kneeling, no whispering robes), and he sat down on a pew, somewhere toward the middle, hands folded in his lap, and stared into nothing.
Peace and quiet was all he was after.
A tear fell down his face, but he had a sudden unbearable longing to hear an Irish accent.
He kept smiling politely at people, and they never got near him. His accent was considered exotic in most places he went (he always found this absurd and would have laughed, but he hadn't laughed in a while), and most people he met found him reserved but nice enough. Sometimes, they wanted to talk to him, wanted to tell him about their problems (was he a counsellor or just a good listener? they wondered), but he drew back, hastily made painful excuses, fled.
One day, walking on a quiet street in Topeka, Kansas, he came across a young woman crying, and found himself asking her if she were alright.
Peter still never wore anything black.
He thought about love and death, he thought about acts honestly and truly meant and acts done only for show or reward. He thought about meaning, and vocations and callings, and how much people change. He thought about faith bringing hope, and hope giving faith, and he thought about what it meant to have a home.
Peter thought about his mum's death, and the fact that he could think about that meant that he could finally separate her death from Assumpta's, because he still couldn't think about that.
"Life goes on," Niamh snapped at him one day on a street in a small town in Idaho, and he whirled around to stare at the back of the woman's head as she walked away. But she was too tall, and her hair was blonde, and she hadn't really spoken to him.
"Live it," was supposed to be his response, he recalled with great difficulty, but he hadn't lived in a very long time.
Peter conducted a spartan life; engrained habit was all he'd had when he left Ireland and it was something he could cling to without having to think about it.
It also made moving on from one place to another extremely easy.
Sometimes, he found himself lurking in what Americans affectionately liked to consider Irish pubs, getting a pint and sitting in the darkest back corner he could find, listening to the chatter around him.
Perhaps not so strangely, pubs were easier for him to enter than churches.
And one day, he became so frustrated he slammed the door shut on his flat and ran out onto the street. He didn't know what he wanted to do, and he'd forgotten his coat, and it was beginning to storm.
"Gooooood!" he roared, his body shaking with the force of the word, staring up at the sky with more rage than he'd felt even that night in the rain on the bridge, tearing his white collar off and throwing it into the water.
His fists were clenched so tightly against his sides that he could feel the nails biting into the skin, the joints almost popping out of place, the knuckles stinging in resentful pain. His entire body was clenched, and for the longest moment he wasn't sure he could remember how to relax, release the tension.
Everything was mixed up in everything else, and all thoughts of God and faith and humanity and love and death and hope were tangled with thoughts of Assumpta. All thoughts of Niamh and Ambrose and Father Mac and Siobahn and Brendan and Padraig were wrapped up in thoughts of Assumpta. All thoughts of his life before going to Ballykissangel, of his parents and friends and football and school were threaded with thoughts of Assumpta.
Living or dead, he couldn't stop thinking about Assumpta Fitzgerald.
"God," he whispered in the pouring rain in the middle of a street, tears streaming down his face as he stared down at the road. Anger and pain and grief and remorse and regret and love and Assumpta.
He just wanted a little peace and quiet in his own head. He wanted to remember how to believe in God and Heaven, so that he could hope and possibly even have faith that Assumpta was there. But every time he tried to consider it, Assumpta jeered at him in his head, and he wanted to curse God and curse all the priests and bishops he could name. Starting with himself, even though he hadn't felt or acted like a priest in years.
But oh, how he was tired. Tired of questioning, and tired of asking, and tired of thinking, and tired of trying to avoid thinking. He just wanted some answers. Any answer.
He stared up at the sky again, squinting through tears and rain. He stared for so long and so hard he began to think maybe his face would freeze that way, and when he thought that it for some reason almost made him want to laugh.
He was thoroughly soaked, and he was shivering so hard he thought he could hear his bones rattling against each other, and tears were still leaking out of his eyes at a steady if somewhat leisurely rate, and he would either have to go in soon or catch pneumonia.
Once, he'd been a Catholic priest. He'd cared for an entire community, but it had been an almost dispassionate love—a generalized, sincere commitment to all those individuals. He would have given any of them a cup of tea, a listen, last rites. Assumpta had been a flaming fire of an individual, and once that love turned personal, passionate, he could no longer remain a priest. And every day since, he'd wondered if it was possible still at least to have faith.
"God," he said, staring up at the sky.
"Sir?" a woman, she looked barely out of her teens, was staring at him warily. He wondered how long she'd been watching him. There was no-one else on the street; he wondered how long he'd been standing out here himself. "Are you okay, mister?"
He stared at her intently for a long minute. "Have you ever heard the joke about the baby polar bear?" he asked her. She blinked, shook her head, looked like she was seriously considering backing away, running into her apartment, and locking the door before phoning the police.
Peter looked back up at the sky and laughed as the rain poured down on him. "I'm freezing," he said, and kept laughing.
Thoughts of Assumpta came easier now, more gently, and sometimes he even managed to think about things and people other than Assumpta. He found himself staying longer in a place sometimes, shyly talking to co-workers or getting into conversations at pubs.
He almost felt—human—again. Fit for human society, at least. Sometimes he felt lonely, and sometimes he found he wanted to find ways to help his co-workers, the other people he came into contact with.
He remembered people used to call him father.
He thought about happy endings, and more importantly, happy middles. He imagined a life with Assumpta, and sometimes it was the fairy tale come true, and sometimes it was a dimmer fantasy, where he pushed too much and she pulled away too much, and things didn't quite always work out the way either of them had hoped or planned (what if he couldn't stop being a priest? What if she couldn't stop hating the church long enough to leave him room for his faith?). He thought about disappointments, and honesty, and promises, and love.
If Assumpta had lived, it would have been no fairy tale. But they would have loved each other.
"Will you be back?" Brendan asked him, sitting down across from him at the kitchen table in Corona, California.
Peter blinked, shut his eyes and shook his head a little, setting down the paper next to his mug of tea and looking across the table again. An empty chair regarded him innocently in return.
"Never say never," he told himself aloud, with a shrug, and picked up his paper again.
And then finally, he went back.
It's hard to slip into a small town unnoticed, but for once Peter Clifford managed it (it helped that this time he hired an inconspicuous car, rather than arriving by bus or on foot in the pouring rain). He drove up the main street and parked by Fitzgerald's and stared for all too long at the yellow-and-blue facade.
Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.
He climbed out of the car slowly, slowly, as if the road were an untamed beast ready to attack him if he made any too sudden moves. He could hear noise from inside the pub, lots of voices overlaid with music, and he relaxed slightly. Perhaps he could just slip in quietly and take a look around before fleeing.
Coward, the thought in Assumpta's voice mocked him, but he only grinned slightly to himself in response.
And so he walked into the bar, in his blue jeans and light green button-down shirt (he still didn't know if he'd ever feel comfortable wearing black again) and smiled politely when somebody he didn't recognize turned to look at him as he carefully closed the door behind him. The place was busy, almost overflowing with people, so he pulled into an inconspicuous corner to watch, almost hungrily.
Brendan was in his usual corner with Michael the doctor and Liam and Donal, in the middle of some animated conversation, and Niamh was behind the bar taking orders. Father Mac stood with another man, young in black trousers, black shirt, black jacket, white collar; the fellow after him, or had they gone through more than one since his leaving? Peter felt intensely curious but didn't let himself approach the pair.
Brian was nowhere to be seen, nor Ambrose nor Padraig, and Siobahn had a little girl sitting with her at a table, eating lunch. Peter smiled at that, almost painfully, and watched as Brendan glanced over at them, calling to the girl to eat her vegetables on her sandwich.
None of them had seen him. There were many faces here he didn't recognize, and too many faces missing from when he had lived here, from when they had all made this place a home for him, and he heard Niamh say again in his ear, "Life goes on."
"Live it," Peter Clifford, ex-father, told himself gently, and slipped out the door without being recognized by anyone.
He thought he'd make a stop by the church on his way out of town.