The Tenth GiftBy: Jane Johnson
Michael had stopped talking. I was aware of a heavy silence, one that demanded a reaction.
“Have you heard any of what I’ve been saying?”
I gazed at him wordless, not wanting to answer.
His black eyes were suddenly almost brown. Pity welled in them. “I’m so sorry, Julia,” he said again. “Anna and I have reached a crucial point in our lives and have had a proper heart-to-heart. We’re going to give our marriage another go, a fresh start. I can’t see you anymore. It’s over.”
I LAY ALONE in my bed that night, curled around the book, the last thing in my life that would carry a connection with Michael, sobbing. At last, sheer exhaustion overtook me, but sleep was almost worse than being awake: The dreams were terrible. I surfaced at two-thirty, at three; at four, retaining fragments of images—blood and shattered bones, someone crying in pain, shouts in a language I could not understand. Most vivid of all was a sequence in which I was stripped naked and paraded before strangers, who laughed and pointed out my shortcomings, which were many. One of these onlookers was Michael. He wore a long robe and a hood, but I knew his voice when he said, “This one has no breasts. Why have you brought me a woman with no breasts?” I awoke, sweating and shamed, a creature of no account who deserved her fate.
Yet even as I loathed myself, I felt disoriented, detached, as if it were not me suffering the indignity, but some other Julia Lovat, far away. I drifted back into sleep, and if I dreamed again, I do not remember it. When I finally woke up, I was lying on the book. It had left a clear impression—four ridges, like scars, on my back.
THE DOORBELL RANG. MICHAEL CROSSED TO THE WIN dow and looked down. In the street below a man stood, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot as if in dire need of a visit to the lavatory. He was dressed too warmly for the weather, in an old wool Crombie and cord trousers. From his bird’s-eye vantage point, Michael could see for the first time that the top of Stephen’s head was almost bald, save for a thin covering of comb-over which looked almost as if it had been glued down. He looked comically out of place in this part of Soho, where young men paraded up and down in muscle shirts, ripped denim or leather, and knowing smiles, and tourists got vicarious thrills by entering, if only for an hour or so, the cruising scene.
Old Compton Street hadn’t been quite so outré or lively when Michael first moved into the flat: He felt now, watching the tide of young life passing by outside, as if he were looking through a window into someone else’s party, one to which he was too old and straight to be invited. Especially now that he was back on the narrow path, playing the good husband.
“Stephen!” he called down, and the balding man lifted his head, shading his eyes against the sun. “Here!” He threw his keys out of the window. “Top floor.”
Not just his keys, either, he thought ruefully as they left his hand, but Julia’s, too. He supposed he should return them to her now that it was over. But it just seemed so … final.
The arrival of Stephen Bywater interrupted his thoughts.
“You could have come down to the shop,” he said accusingly, wiping the sweat off his forehead. Four flights of rickety stairs, and he wasn’t a young man. “It’s not as if Bloomsbury’s more than ten minutes’ walk.” He struggled out of his Crombie as if to emphasize his discomfort.
“I didn’t want people interrupting us,” Michael said quickly. “You’ll see why in a moment. Sit down.”
He pushed a pile of newspapers and textbooks off the threadbare sofa to make space for his visitor. Stephen Bywater looked at the stained canvas dubiously, as if he didn’t want to risk his trouser-seat on it, then balanced himself uncomfortably on the edge, his bony knees and elbows sticking out at all angles like a praying mantis.
“It’ll be worth your while,” Michael went on excitedly. “Just wait till you see this. It’s quite extraordinary, a real gem, unique. Really, there’s no point in my wittering on. Take a look and see for yourself.”
From a black carrier bag on the coffee table he extracted a small, brown-paper-wrapped parcel. This he handed to Bywater. His visitor opened it gingerly, removing a little pale, calf-leather-bound book with flecks of gold tooling on the spine. He murmured appreciatively, turning it to examine the back board, the rough paper edges, the binding.
“Very nice. Sixteenth, seventeenth century.” He opened the front cover with infinite care, turned to the title page. “Sixteen twenty-four. Remarkable. The Needle-Woman’s Glorie. Heard of it, of course, but never actually laid my hands on a copy. Very pretty. A little light spotting and some old handling marks, but generally very fine condition.” He grinned up at Michael, showing teeth as yellow as a rat’s. “Should fetch a few quid from a specialist collector. Where did you say you got it from?”
Michael hadn’t. “Oh, a friend. Selling it on behalf of a friend.” This wasn’t the entire truth, but it wasn’t too shy of it. “Look inside, look properly,” he urged impatiently. “It’s a lot more extraordinary than you might think at first glance.”