The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson

CHAPTER 1


“THERE ARE ONLY TWO OR THREE HUMAN STORIES, AND they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they have never happened before, like larks that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years”

I had scribbled this down in a notebook after reading it in a novel the night before I was due to meet Michael and was looking forward to slipping it into our conversation at dinner, despite knowing his likely reaction (negative; dismissive—he was always skeptical about anything that could even vaguely be termed “romantic”). He was a lecturer in European literature, to which he presented an uncompromising post-structuralist stance, as if books were just meat for the butcher’s block, mere muscle and tendon, bone and cartilage, which required flensing and separating and scrutiny. For his part, Michael found my thinking on the subject of fiction both emotional and unrigorous, which meant that at the start of our relationship we had the most furious arguments, which would hurt me so personally as to bring me to the edge of tears, but now, seven years in, we were able to bait each other cheerfully. Anyway, it made a change from discussing, or avoiding, the subject of Anna, or the future.

To begin with, it had been hard to live like this, on snatched moments, the future always in abeyance, but I had gotten used to it little by little so that now my life had a recognizable pattern to it. It was a bit pared down and lacking in what others might consider crucial areas, but it suited me. Or so I told myself, time and time again.

I dressed with particular care for dinner: a devoré silk blouse, a tailored black skirt that skimmed the knees, stockings (Michael was predictably male in his preferences), a pair of suede ankle-strap shoes in which I could just about manage the half-mile to the restaurant and back. And my favorite hand-embroidered shawl: bursts of bright pansies worked on a ground of fine black cashmere.

I’ve always said you have to be an optimist to be a good embroiderer. A large piece (like the shawl) can take six months to a year of inspired and dedicated work. Determination, too; a dogged spirit like that of a mountaineer, taking one measured step at a time rather than panicking at the thought of the whole immense task, the crevasse field and headwall of ice. You may think I exaggerate the difficulties— a bit of cloth, a needle and thread: How hard can it be? But once you’ve laid out a small fortune on cashmere and another on the silks, or there’s a tight deadline for some nervous girl’s wedding, or an exhibition, and you have not only to design and plan but to stitch a million stitches, I can tell you the pressure is palpable.

We were meeting at Enoteca Turi, near the southern end of Putney’s bridge, a smart Tuscan restaurant that we usually reserved for celebrations. There were no birthdays looming, no publications or promotions, that I knew of. The latter would, in any case, be hard for me to achieve, since I ran my own business, and since even the word business was something of a stretch for my one-woman enterprise: a tiny crafts shop in the Seven Dials. The crafts shop was more of an indulgence than a moneymaking concern. An aunt had died five years ago, leaving me a decent legacy; my mother had followed two years later, and I was the only child. The lease on the shop had fallen into my lap; it had less than a year to run and I hadn’t decided what to do with it at the end of that time. I made more money from commissions than from the so-called business, and even those were more of a way of passing time, stitching away the minutes while awaiting my next tryst with Michael.

I arrived early. They do say relationships are usually weighted in favor of one party, and I reckoned I was carrying seventy percent of ours. This was partly due to circumstances, partly to temperament, both mine and Michael’s. He reserved himself from the world most of the time: I was the emotional profligate.

I took my seat with my back to the wall, gazing out at the other diners like a spectator at a zoo. Mostly couples in their thirties, like us: well-off, well-dressed, well-spoken, if a bit loud. Snippets of conversation drifted to me:

“What is fagioli occhiata di Colfiorito, do you know?”

“So sad about Justin and Alice … lovely couple … what will they do with the house?”

“What do you think of Marrakech next month, or would you prefer Florence again?”

Nice, normal, happy people with sensible jobs, plenty of money, and solid marriages; with ordered, comfortable, conforming lives. Rather unlike mine. I looked at them all embalmed in the golden light and wondered what they would make of me, sitting here in my best underwear, new stockings and high heels, waiting for my onetime best friend’s husband to arrive.

Probably be as envious as hell, suggested a wicked voice in my head.

Probably not.

Where was Michael? It was twenty past eight and he’d have to be home by eleven, as he was always at pains to point out. A quick dinner, a swift fuck: It was the most I could hope for, and maybe not even that. Feeling the precious moments ticking away, I began to get anxious. I hadn’t allowed myself to dwell on the special reason he had suggested Enoteca. It was an expensive place, not somewhere you would choose on a whim; not on the salary of a part-time lecturer, supplemented by desultory book-dealing, not if you were—like Michael—careful with your money. I took my mind off this conundrum by ordering a bottle of Rocca Rubia from the sommelier and sat there with my hands clasped around the vast bowl of the glass as if holding the Grail itself, waiting for my deeply flawed Sir Lancelot to arrive. In the candlelight, the contents sparkled like fresh blood.

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