The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson

Unfortunately for all of us, the attraction between Michael and me was instant. We made electric eye contact, and at one point during that first evening at a crammed little bar in Covent Garden, he brushed his hand, quite deliberately and with devastating effect, against my bottom. Three weeks later, after a lot of meaningful looks and some furtive touching, we slept together.

“I can’t tell Anna,” he said to me that same afternoon, as if it was a foregone conclusion, and I, missing my first and best opportunity to unravel the developing tangle, lay there concussed by sex and guilt, and agreed. After that it became increasingly unthinkable to admit our treachery.

I was maid of honor at the wedding.

As we lay together on snatched Wednesday afternoons in Michael’s Soho flat when he wasn’t teaching, summer sunlight slipping through the louvered blinds, slicing our bodies into lit and shaded slivers, he would confide to me, “She’s not very physical, Anna. I always feel I’m imposing myself on her.” At the time I felt triumph, but my confidence was misplaced. Anna’s cool distance intrigued and challenged him: She remained an unseized prize, an elusive country he had only fleetingly glimpsed but never claimed as territory. Whereas me he had staked out, explored, tied down—often literally. Sometimes when we made love, Michael would wind my long, pale hair in his hands, using it like reins. Once he tied me to a hotel bedstead with it. We had to use the pair of miniature sewing scissors I kept in my handbag with my embroidery kit to cut me free, he had made such a mess of the knots.

I recalled that particular incident now, four years later: It seemed an apt metaphor—an omen perhaps—for how things had turned out. Michael had knotted my life into a vile tangle and then cut me free. I was angry with him, furious in fact, before admitting to myself that I had to take at least as much of the blame for the situation. Anna was, after all, my friend. I had felt ashamed of the affair, my betrayal of our friendship, from the start. But shame is an uncomfortable emotion, one we don’t much like to confront. The pressures of Anna’s work made this easier than it might otherwise have been, and I had become a master of excuses in avoiding dreaded tête-à-têtes and dinners à trois. Racked by the knowledge of how I was betraying her, day by day, hour by hour, I found I could not bear her company. She was so happy, and only I knew the truth that would render that happiness rotten and hollow.

Now that Michael and I had come to an end, I wasn’t sure I could ever endure to see her again.

The day after our breakup, exhausted by weeping, I took myself out of London for a week to walk the cliffs of the south coast, feeling much of the time like throwing myself over them, but never summoning the courage. I left my mobile phone behind in the Putney flat, to ensure I did not weaken and call him. Instead, in the time when I was not stalking mechanically along footpaths, impervious to the magnificent scenery, I devoted myself to a new embroidery design I had been meaning to start for some weeks.

It was for a wall hanging, and therefore to be worked on stout linen twill, in colored wools rather than silks. Ever since the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, this type of work has been known as crewel work, from the old Welsh word for wool. Which seemed fitting. I would spend many bitter hours playing on the unfortunate pun in my head as I stitched. Crewel world, crewel fate, crewel to be kind, crewel and unusual … I could go on but won’t. I had already marked out on the fabric a coiling monochrome pattern of stylized acanthus leaves picked out with flares of color where flowers burst through the foliage. Very traditional in style, after the Flemish Verdure tapestries I’d seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the delicate in-filling of the leaf design inspired by the filigree of Venetian needlepoint lace. It was a large piece, and would easily cover the space where the beautiful, framed black-and-white photograph of Michael had hung in my bedroom. This, I had ceremonially burned in the back garden before leaving the flat, but the wall annoyingly retained its ghostly shape, and it would be a constant reminder of the absence of both man and picture.

Embroidery is an improbable hobby for someone as disordered as me, but it’s the very precision of it that attracts me, the illusion of control it offers. When engaged in stitching a new pattern, I can’t think about anything else. Guilt, misery, longing all flee away, leaving just the beautiful little microcosm of the world in my hands, the flash of the needle, the rainbow colors of the thread, the calming exactitude of the discipline. It was the wall hanging that saved my sanity in the days following our breakup.

I returned to London a week later, somewhat restored to myself, to find my answering machine flashing crazily. You have twenty-three new messages, the digital voice informed me. My heart thumped. Perhaps Michael had had second thoughts about finishing the relationship, perhaps he wanted to see me. I pushed this possibility firmly away. He was a bastard and I was well rid of him. Before I could backslide, I deleted all the messages. If there had been anything crucial, the caller would phone again, I reasoned. I knew that if I so much as heard Michael’s voice, my resolve would crumble.

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