Authors: Jane Johnson
Tags: #Morocco, #Women Slaves
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Published in 2008
Copyright © Jane Johnson, 2008
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To the Right Honorable Lords of his Majestie’s most honorable Privy Council
Haste, haste, posthaste
Plymouth, the eighteenth of april, eight in the eve
Thomas Ceely, Mayor
May it please yr honors to bee advertized that this daie I have heard of certaine Turks, Moores, & Dutchmen of Sallee in Barbary, which lie on our coasts spoilyng divers such as they are able to master, as by the examination of one William Knight may appeare, whose report I am induced the rather to believe, because two fisherboats mentioned in hys examination were very lately found flotyng on the seas, having neither man nor tackle in them
I am also credibly informed that there are some thirtie saile of shippes at Sallee now preparing to come for the coasts of England in the begynnyng of the summer, & if there bee not speedy course taken to prevent it, they would do much mischeef
Hereof I thought it my dutie to inform yr honors
And so I rest
Yr honors in all dutie bounden
Thos. Ceely, Mayor
th daie of april
‘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 sceptical about anything that could even vaguely be termed ‘romantic’). He was a lecturer in European literature, on which he took an uncompromising 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; this meant that at the start of our relationship we had the most furious arguments, which hurt me so personally that I was brought to the edge of tears; but now, seven years in, we were able to bait one another 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 got 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 devoré 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 favourite 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 the 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 you’re under a tight deadline for some nervous girl’s wedding, or an exhibition, and you must not only design and plan but also complete a million stitches, I can tell you the pressure is palpable.
We were meeting at Enoteca Turi, near the southern end of Putney Bridge, a smart Tuscan restaurant which we usually reserved for celebrations. There were no birthdays looming, no publications or promotions, that I knew of. The last would, in any case, have been hard for me to achieve, since I ran my own business and even the word ‘business’ was something of a stretch for my one-woman enterprise: a tiny craft shop in the Seven Dials. This was more of an indulgence than a money-making 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 favour of one party, and I reckoned I was carrying seventy per cent 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, as we were: well off, well dressed, well spoken, if a bit loud. Snippets of conversation drifted to me:
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 one-time 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, amateurish 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 into 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 most likely to offer value for 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 shockwaves 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 any more,’ 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 linguini 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-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 sort of a
; 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.
– a reminder of death. The phrase ricocheted around my mind. I unwrapped the parcel carefully, feeling the crab and chilli 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 Crewell as takes your plesure
Published here togyther for the first tyme by Henry Ward of Cathedral Square
. And beneath this, in a small, neat hand,
For my cozen Cat
27th Maie 1625