The Tenth GiftBy: Jane Johnson
At last he burst through the revolving door with his hair in disarray and his cheeks pink, as if he’d run all the way from Putney Station. He shrugged his coat off impatiently, transferring briefcase and black carrier bag from hand to hand as he wrestled his way out of the sleeves, and at last bounded over, grinning manically, though not quite meeting my eye, kissed me swiftly on the cheek, and sat down in the chair the waiter pushed forward for him.
“Sorry I’m late. Let’s order, shall we? I have to be home—”
“—by eleven. Yes, I know.” I suppressed a sigh. “Tough day?”
It would be nice to know why we were here, to get to the nub of the evening, but Michael was focused on the menu now, intently considering the specials and which one was likely to offer the most value for the money.
“Not especially,” he said at last. “Usual idiot students, sitting there like empty-headed sheep waiting for me to fill them up with knowledge—except the usual know-it-all big mouth showing off to the girls by picking a fight with the tutor. Soon sorted that one out.”
I could imagine Michael fixing some uppity twenty-year-old with a gimlet stare before cutting him mercilessly down to size in a manner guaranteed to get a laugh from the female students. Women loved Michael. We couldn’t help ourselves. Whether it was his saturnine features (and habits, to boot), the louche manner or the look in those glittering black eyes, the cruelly carved mouth, or the restless hands, I didn’t know. I had lost perspective on such matters long ago.
The waiter took our order and we were left without further excuse for equivocation. Michael reached across the table and rested his hand on mine, imprisoning it against the white linen. At once the familiar burst of sexual electricity charged up my arm, sending shock waves through me. His gaze was solemn: so solemn that I wanted to laugh. He looked like an impish Puck about to confess to some heinous crime.
“I think,” he said carefully, his gaze resting on a point about two inches to the left of me, “we should stop seeing each other. For a while, at least.”
So much for discussing larks. The laugh that had been building up burst out of me, discordant and crazy-sounding. I was aware of people staring.
“You’re still young,” he said. “If we stop this now, you can find someone else. Settle down. Have a family.”
Michael hated the very idea of children: That he would wish them on me was confirmation of the distance he wanted to put between us.
“None of us are young anymore,” I retorted. “Least of all you.” His hand went unconsciously to his forehead. He was losing his hair and was vain enough to care about it. For the past few years I’d told him it was unnoticeable; then as that became a bit of a lie, that it made him look distinguished, sexy.
The waiter brought food. We ate it in silence. Or rather, Michael ate in silence: I mainly pushed my crab and linguine around my plate and drank a lot of wine.
At last our plates were cleared away, leaving a looming space between us. Michael stared at the tablecloth as if the space itself posed a threat, then became strangely animated. “Actually, I got you something,” he said. He picked up the carrier bag and peered into it. I glimpsed two brown-paper-wrapped objects of almost identical proportions inside, as if he had bought the same farewell gift twice, for two different women. Perhaps he had.
“It’s not properly wrapped, I’m afraid. I didn’t have time, all been a bit chaotic today.” He pushed one of these items across the table at me. “But it’s the thought that counts. It’s a sort of a memento mori; and an apology,” he said with that crooked, sensual smile that had so caught my heart in the first place. “I am sorry, you know. For everything.”
There was a lot that he had to be sorry for, but I wasn’t feeling strong enough to say so. Memento mori; a reminder of death. The phrase ricocheted around my mind. I unwrapped the parcel carefully, feeling the crab and chili sauce rising in my throat.
It was a book. An antique book, with a cover of buttery brown calfskin, simple decorative blind lines on the boards, and four raised, rounded ridges at even intervals along the spine. My fingers ran over the textures appreciatively, as if over another skin. Closing myself off from the damaging things Michael was saying, I applied myself to opening the cover, careful not to crack the brittle spine. Inside, the title page was foxed and faded.
The Needle-Woman’s Glorie, it read in bold characters, and then in a fine italic print:
Here followeth certain fyne patternes to be fitly wroghte in Gold, or Silke or Crewell as takes your plesure.
Published here togyther for the first tyme by Henry Ward of Cathedral Square Exeter 1624.
And beneath this, in a round, uncertain hand:
For my cozen Cat, 27th Maie 1625.
“Oh!” I cried, ambushed by its antiquity and its beauty. An intricate pattern filled the verso page. I tilted it toward the light in a vain attempt to examine it better.
Michael had just said something else, but whatever it was flew harmlessly over my head.
“Oh,” I exclaimed again. “How extraordinary.”