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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

He took the box from his pocket and opened it up on the windowsill. Even though he was used to seeing it now, used to handling it, he still couldn’t relate the bracelet to his wife. He couldn’t imagine something so chunky and bold dangling from her slender wrist. She had taken pride in having elegant taste and was often mistaken for being French because of her classic way of dressing. In fact, she often said that she admired the way that French ladies dressed and that one day she would like to go to Paris. She said it was chic.

When she began to feel ill, feel her chest growing tight and the shortness of breath, she changed the way she dressed. Her navy blue silk blouses, cream skirts and pearls were replaced by the shapeless cardigans. Her only aim was to keep warm. She even shivered when the sun beat down on her skin. She wore her anorak in the garden, her face bravely tilted toward the sun as if she were confronting it. Ha! I can’t feel you.

“I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell me about India, Miriam,” he said aloud. “Mr. Mehra’s story was unfortunate, but there was nothing for you to be ashamed of.”

A magpie stood on the other side of the window and stared in at him, and then it seemed to look at the bracelet. Arthur tapped the window. “Shoo.” He held the box to his chest and squinted at the charms. The flower was made of five colored stones surrounding a tiny pearl. The paint palette had a tiny paintbrush and six enameled blobs to represent paint. The tiger snarled, baring pointed gold teeth. He looked at his watch again. There was still an hour and forty-five minutes to go before dinner.

If he was at home he would have eaten by now. He and Miriam always dined at five-thirty prompt and he carried on the tradition. He set the table while she cooked. After eating, he washed up and she dried the pots. Their only day off from this routine was Friday—chippy tea day when they sat in front of the TV and ate fish, chips and mushy peas straight from the polystyrene tray. He lay back on the bed with his hands behind his head. Food wasn’t the same without his wife.

To fill his time he started to think about the next day. He doubted that he’d get his cup of tea and breakfast at the usual time. He read through the train times he had scribbled down on a piece of paper, and memorized them. He imagined Lord Graystock striding toward him with his hand outstretched and greeting him like an old friend. Then he tried to picture Miriam kneeling in the dust, playing marbles with young children in India. It was too hard to comprehend.

Time had only ticked on ten minutes, so Arthur picked up the remote control for the miniature television, which hung wonkily on the bedroom wall. He switched it on, flicked through all the stations and began to watch the last twenty minutes of an episode of Columbo.

Lucy and the Tortoise

LUCY PEPPER STOOD on the doorstep of her old home and looked up at her old bedroom window. Each time she returned, the house seemed to shrink in size. It had once seemed so spacious with her and Dan running up and down the stairs and Mum and Dad reading in the sitting room. They were always together, like those porcelain dogs that sat on the opposite ends of a mantelpiece.

Her father, once strong and upright, now seemed so much smaller, too. His back curved where once it was straight. The black hair she used to love pulling on and watching spring back into place was now wiry and white. It had all happened so quickly. The innocence of being young and thinking that your parents would last forever had been broken.

All Lucy had ever wanted was to be a mum. Even since she was little, when she used to pretend that her dolls were her babies, she had pictured herself with two kids. Whether that was a boy and a girl, two boys or two girls, she didn’t care. At the age of thirty-six, she should be a mother with toddlers by now. On Facebook one of her classmates was even a grandmother. She longed to feel the planting of small, sticky kisses on her cheeks.

These days it felt like a strange thing to admit to. Shouldn’t she be striving for a glittering career, or wanting to travel the world? But she wanted to be like her mum, Miriam, who had been so happy raising her children. She and Dad had the perfect marriage. They never argued. They laughed at each other’s jokes and they held hands. Lucy found this something of an embarrassment when she was younger—her mum and dad strolling around with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists as if they were teenage lovers. It was only when she started dating herself and couldn’t seem to find someone who would put their hand on the small of her back when she crossed the road, as if she was precious, that she realized what her parents had. She didn’t, of course, need protection, as she had a brown belt in karate, but it would be nice to feel that way.

Her brother, Dan, had never shown any interest in becoming a parent. He was focused on setting up his business, of making a life for himself overseas. It seemed unfair that he and his wife, Kelly, had managed to pop out two gorgeous kids as soon as they tried. Dan always seemed to land lucky whereas Lucy felt she had to struggle to achieve anything, whether that was in her marriage, her relationship with Dad or her job.

When she lay in bed at night and thought about her ideal life, she saw herself at the park with her husband and kids, laughing and pushing the swings. Her mum would be there, too, with a ready supply of tissues and kisses for scuffed knees.

But Mum wasn’t here and she never would be again. She would never see or hold the grandchildren that hadn’t yet been born to Lucy.

As a schoolteacher at a local primary Lucy had noticed that the mums dropping their kids off at the school were now younger than she was. She grimaced when she thought about wasting so much of her time on Anthony. He’d insisted that they should have just one more foreign holiday before she threw away her contraceptive pills. They should treat themselves to a new sofa before they started baby-making. They had differing priorities.

She came off the pill, anyway, without him knowing. In opposition to her usual cautious self, she knew she had to become a think-now-act-later person in this situation. If Anthony had his way, then he would be still musing about whether to have kids or not when he was fifty. Anyway, within a few weeks she was pregnant, and then a few months later, she was not.

Anthony was gone now and Mum had gone, too. And with them, Lucy’s dreams of family had evaporated like perfume spilled in the sun.

She still beat herself up that she hadn’t been to her mum’s funeral. What kind of daughter did that make her? A crap one, that’s what. She should have been there to say goodbye. But it was impossible. She hadn’t even managed to tell her dad why she couldn’t be there. The note she wrote and pushed through his door said, Sorry, Dad, I can’t go through with it. Say goodbye to Mum for me. Love, Lucy xxx.

Then she had gone back to bed and hadn’t got up for a week.

Her father had settled into a routine. His life was regimented and together. When she did call she felt like an inconvenience. He constantly looked at his watch and carried on tasks around her as if she wasn’t there, like the two of them existed in parallel universes. The last time she called, she put the kettle on and made two cups of tea. Her father then refused to drink it, saying that he only took his tea at eight-thirty in the morning, eleven and sometimes a cup at three. It was like visiting Howard Hughes.

She wished her mum was still here to sort him out. Lucy still expected to find her sitting at the kitchen table or pruning the rosebushes in the garden. She found herself reaching out into thin air to place a gentle hand on her mother’s diminishing shoulders.

Lucy wanted her brother to show more of an interest, in her life and Dad’s. Dan and Dad’s relationship always had an edge to it, as if the two men couldn’t quite embrace each other’s ways and personalities. They were like two jigsaw pieces with the same bit of sky on, but which didn’t fit together. It was more evident now that Mum was gone, when Lucy had to remind Dad and Dan how and when to communicate.

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