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 uncompro mising 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 devore 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.
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.
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."
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 window 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 outre 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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson. Copyright © 2008 by Jane Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.