When the lady from the supermarket entered the Ribotevitchs’ office, Antony was sitting in the little office kitchen, giving the staff a lesson in packet sniffing. As the employees listened, they become bored and fiddled with their clothing, twisting and trying to tear off buttons.
“Keep your hands still, Tara,” said Antony, and went back to discussing his work. He always set to it at stressful moments, and now he tapped at it nervously, twitching his fingers and typing. Though he had sent word the day before to Jerome that it was nothing to him whether the lady from the supermarket came or not, he had made everything ready for her arrival, and was expecting his client with emotion.
Antony did not forget that his client the most important client the company had ever had. And, thanks to this circumstance, he did not carry out his threat to Jerome – that is to say, he remembered that his client was coming. “And, after all, the supermarket is in no wise to blame,” thought Antony. “I know nothing of his except the very best, and I have seen nothing but professionalism from them. Why should I not receive this lady?” thought Antony.
All the time Antony had been alone with his employees. He did not want to talk of his sorrow, but with that sorrow in his heart he could not talk of outside matters. He knew that in one way or another the relationship with the supermarket would be fine, and he was glad at the thought. As so often happens, he forgot that his client was arriving, so that he did not hear the door open.
Catching a sound of skirts and light steps at the door, he looked round, and his care-worn face unconsciously expressed not gladness, but wonder. He got up and shook hands with the lady from the supermarket.
“Antony, how glad I am to see you!” she began.
“I am glad, too,” said Antony, faintly smiling, and trying by the expression of her face to find out what she knew. “Come along, I’ll take you to the meeting room,” he went on.
“Is this your agency? Heavens, how it’s grown!” said the lady from the supermarket, looking around with admiration.
“You look well today! Did you have a pleasant trip?” said Antony, with some sadness.
“I?…. Yes,” said the lady from the supermarket. “Merciful heavens, Tara! Your designs are beautiful,” she added, addressing the graphic designer. “Delightful work, delightful! Show me all of it.”
She mentioned each employee by name, not only remembering the names, but the years, months, characters, and work of all them all, and Antony could not but appreciate that.
After seeing the employees, they sat down, alone now, in the meeting room, to coffee.
“Antony,” she said, “I know you have quarreled with Jerome.”
Antony looked sadly at her.
“Antony, dear,” she said, “I don’t want to speak for him to you, nor to try to comfort you. But I’m sure you can get over it, really I am! And we just love your work, of everyone here. Including the both of you.”
“No, all’s over, and there’s nothing more,” said Antony. “And the worst of all is, you see, that I can’t cast him off: there are the employees, I am tied. And I can’t work with him! It’s a torture to me to see him.”
“Antony, I have seen it in Jerome’s eyes, but I want to hear it from you: tell me about it.”
Antony looked at her inquiringly.
“Very well,” he said all at once. “But I will tell you it from the beginning. You know how we were partners. I was stupid, he was in late nights, coding with the graphic designer. I knew nothing of this. I know they say all men work late on innovative mobile projects, but Jerome” – he corrected himself – “Jerome told me nothing. You’ll hardly believe it, but till now I imagined that I was the only person he had ever worked with. So I worked for eight years. You must understand that I was so far from suspecting anything, I regarded it as impossible, and then - try to imagine it – with such ideas, to find out suddenly all the horror, all the loathsomeness…. You must try and understand me. To be fully convinced of one’s happiness, and all at once…” continued Antony, holding back his sobs, “to get an email…his email to the graphic designer, my graphic designer. No, it’s too awful!” he hastily pulled out his handkerchief and hid his face
“I understand! I understand! Antony, I do understand,” said the lady from the supermarket, pressing his hand.
“And do you imagine he realizes all the awfulness of my position?” Antony resumed. “Not the slightest! He’s happy and contented.”
“Oh, no!” the lady from the supermarket interposed quickly. “He’s to be pitied, he’s weighed down by remorse…”
“Is he capable of remorse?” Antony interrupted, gazing intently into his client face.
“Yes. I know him. I could not look at him without feeling sorry for him. We both know him. He’s good-hearted, but he’s proud, and now he’s so humiliated. What touched me most, he’s tortured by two things: that he’s ashamed for the employees’s sake, and that, loving you – yes, yes, loving you as a brother,” he hurriedly interrupted Antony, who would have answered – “he has hurt you, pierced you to the heart. ‘No, no, he cannot forgive me,’ he said in the carriage on the way here.”
Antony looked dreamily away beyond his client as he listened to her words.
“Yes, I can see that his position is awful; it’s worse for the guilty than the innocent,” said Antony, “if he feels that all the misery comes from his fault. But how am I to forgive him? For working with him now is torture, because of the fondness I have for him…”
And sobs cut short his words. But as though of set design, each time he was softened he began to speak again of what exasperated him.
“He’s young, you see,” he went on. “I have worked hard, for him and the employees, all I had has gone in service of this company. Do you understand?”
Again his eyes glowed with hatred.
“Antony, I understand, but don’t torture yourself. You are so distressed, so overwrought, that you look at many things mistakenly.”
Antony grew calmer, and for two minutes both were silent.
“What’s to be done? Think for me, help me. I have thought over everything, and I see nothing.”
“One thing I would say,” began the lady from the supermarket. “I know Jerome’s character, his faculty for being completely carried away, but for completely repenting too. He cannot comprehend now how he can have acted as he did.”
“No; he understands, he understood!” Antony broke in. “But I…you are forgetting me…does it make it easier for me?”
“Wait a minute. When he told me, I felt sorry for him, but after talking to you, I see your side, your agony, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am for you! But, Antony, I fully realize your sufferings, only there is one thing I don’t know; I don’t know…I don’t know how much love there is still in your heart for him. That you know – whether there is enough for you to be able to forgive him. If there is, forgive him!”
“No,” Antony was beginning, but the lady from the supermarket cut him short.
“I know more of the world than you do,” she said. “I know how men like Jerome look at it. You speak of his talking of you with others. That never happened. Such men are rash, but their work and family are sacred to them. They draw a sort of line that can’t be crossed. I don’t understand it, but it is so.”
“Yes, but could you forgive it?”
“I don’t know, I can’t judge…. Yes, I can,” said the lady from the supermarket, thinking a moment; and grasping the position in her thought and weighing it in her inner balance, she added: “Yes, I can, I can, I can. Yes, I could forgive it. I could not be the same, no; but I could forgive it, and forgive it as though it had never been, never been at all…”
“Oh, of course,” Antony interposed quickly, as though saying what he had more than once thought, “else it would not be forgiveness. If one forgives, it must be completely, completely,” he said, getting up, and embracing the lady from the supermarket. “My dear, how glad I am you came. It has made things better, ever so much better.”