The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson



He watched avidly as the book dealer blew on the pages and separated them gently, making faces as he did so. “Well, it’s all there,” he said at last. “The patterns and slips and all.”

Michael looked deflated. “Is that all you can say? Come on, man, it’s unique, a … a palimpsest! Can’t you see the secret text, written in the margins and between the patterns? It’s not easy to make out, I’ll admit, but you can’t have missed it!”

Bywater frowned and reapplied himself to the book. Eventually he closed it and looked at his friend oddly. “Well, there’s certainly no palimpsest here, dear boy. This is paper, not vellum: There’s no sign of scraping, no scriptio inferior, nothing that I can see. Marginalia— well, that’s quite a different matter, as you should know. Now, marginalia in the author’s own hand, that would add some value, possibly double it—”

“It’s not in the author’s hand, you idiot. It’s written by some girl. It’s a unique historical document, and it’s probably priceless! You must need glasses.…”

Michael snatched the book roughly from the dealer’s hand, opening it at random, flicked through it frantically as if the writing he had seen the previous day might magically reappear.

After a minute, he put it down again, his face like thunder.

Then he ran to the phone.





CHAPTER 3


I KNEW ANNA, MICHAEL’S WIFE, FROM UNIVERSITY. THERE, we had been the Three Amigos, me, Anna, and my cousin Alison, as unlike from one another as you could imagine. Where Anna was petite and doll-1ike, Alison and I were of solid Cornish stock, raised on rich dairy products and pasties. When I let it down, I could sit on my blond hair, while Anna’s was short and black and model-perfect; and Alison’s shoulder-length hair was chestnut brown, then red, then black, then scarlet, and back to brown again, depending on whether she was teaching English or Drama. Together we made the perfect symbiotic unit for getting through the trials of university and our first post-degree jobs—Anna in a bookshop, Alison teaching, me in an endless series of café s and bars.

Alison and I messed around, took drugs, got drunk, got laid, had fun, but Anna made shapes with her life: She took the threads of her experiences and wove them into something purposeful. She worked hard, and it showed. She was now a successful fashion magazine editor, earning a small fortune, although ironically, she was the only one of us who never really needed the money. Her family was, from what I could gather, though she was quite secretive about her background, and a bit shy around Alison and me and our noisy and frequent financial crises, really rather rich.

After college it was, I suppose, inevitable that we should drift apart. Alison met and married Andrew, for a start. I have to admit I was never that keen on Andrew. He was one of those ruddy, sweaty rugby-playing men, hearty and overconfident, with a tendency to grab your knee, or something else, in the middle of a conversation, depending on how drunk he was. But he had a wicked sense of humor and no facility for embarrassment and he made Alison happy, for a while at least, so I did my best to make friends with him. They took me in time after time when I got my heart broken by one unsuitable man after another, poured drink down me, and Alison would look on indulgently as Andrew flirted clumsily with me while I laughed and wept and choked on my wine. When he cheated on my cousin and caused her to come running to me in tears, feeling that her life had come apart and could never be put back together again, I was livid with him and did not speak to him for the best part of two years.

How ironic. For shortly after that I met Michael.

How well I remember it all. Anna, a little breathless, flushed, embarrassed. “Julia, come and have a drink. There’s someone I want you to meet. My fiancé, in fact.“

Well, she’d kept that quiet. I was astonished, and rather hurt by the secrecy and suddenness of it all. She’d never even had boyfriends at college. When the rest of us were making the most of our newfound freedom, Anna was writing essays, researching, revising. While I was cheerfully experimenting with sex, Anna stayed focused and celibate. She took life a lot more seriously than the rest of us. After college she had plowed her energies into her career: She had a plan, she said, and it certainly seemed to be working for her. “I’ll marry in my thirties,” I remember her telling me, “once I’m properly established at the magazine and can take time off to have children.” And at the time I’d scoffed and reminded her how John Lennon had said that life was what happened to you while you were making plans. So there she was, at thirty-one, announcing her engagement, the next step in her life scheme.

“Are you pregnant?” I’d teased her.

She was indignant, but went very pink. “Of course not,” she said.

I wondered if she had even slept with him.

There had to be a flaw, since there is no such thing as perfection, in life or art or anything else. Perfection tempts fate. I remember reading that ancient Japanese potters always worked a tiny flaw into each pot they created, for fear of otherwise angering the gods, and Anna must surely have tempted some impish spirit somewhere in the pantheon, to have been punished for her hubris with Michael. And in having me for a friend.

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