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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

With a tear in his eye, he looked out of the window onto the back garden. If he stood on tiptoe he could just see the tip of York Minster, its stone fingers seeming to prop up the sky. Thornapple village, in which he lived, was just on the outskirts of the city. Cherry blossoms had already started to fall from the trees, swirling like pink confetti. The garden was surrounded on three sides by a tall wooden fence that gave privacy—too tall for neighbors to pop their heads over for a chat. He and Miriam liked their own company. They did everything together and that was how they liked it, thank you very much.

There were four raised beds, which he had made out of railway sleepers and which housed rows of beetroots, carrots, onions and potatoes. This year he might even attempt pumpkins. Miriam used to make a grand chicken and vegetable stew with the produce, and homemade soups. But he wasn’t a cook. The beautiful red onions he picked last summer had stayed on the kitchen worktop until their skins were as wrinkly as his own and he had thrown them in the recycling bin.

He finally ascended the remainder of the stairs and arrived panting outside the bathroom. He used to be able to speed from top to bottom, running after Lucy and Dan, without any problem. But now, everything was slowing down. His knees creaked and he was sure he was shriveling. His once-black hair was now dove white (though still so thick it was difficult to keep flat) and the rounded tip of his nose seemed to be growing redder by the day. It was difficult to remember when he stopped being young and became an old man.

He recalled his daughter Lucy’s words when they last spoke, a few weeks ago. “You could do with a clear-out, Dad. You’ll feel better when Mum’s stuff is gone. You’ll be able to move on.”

Dan occasionally phoned from Australia, where he now lived with his wife and two children. He was less tactful. “Just chuck it all out. Don’t turn the house into a museum.”

Move on? Like to bloody where? He was sixty-nine, not a teenager who could go to university or on a gap year. Move on. He sighed as he shuffled into the bedroom.

Slowly he pulled open the mirrored doors on the wardrobe.

Brown, black and gray. He was confronted by a row of clothes the color of soil. Funny, he didn’t remember Miriam dressing so dully. He had a sudden image of her in his head. She was young and swinging Dan around by an arm and leg—an airplane. She was wearing a blue polka-dot sundress and white scarf. Her head was tipped back and she was laughing, her mouth inviting him to join in. But the picture vanished as quickly as it came. His last memories of her were the same color as the clothes in the wardrobe. Gray. She had aluminium-hued hair in the shape of a swimming cap. She had withered away like the onions.

She’d been ill for a few weeks. First it was a chest infection, an annual affliction which saw her laid up in bed for a fortnight on a dose of antibiotics. But this time the infection turned into pneumonia. The doctor prescribed more bed rest and his wife, never one to cause a fuss, had complied.

Arthur had discovered her in bed, staring, lifeless. At first he thought she was watching the birds in the trees, but when he shook her arm she didn’t wake up.

Half her wardrobe was devoted to cardigans. They hung shapeless, their arms dangling as if they’d been worn by gorillas, then hung back up again. Then there were Miriam’s skirts: navy, gray, beige, mid-calf-length. He could smell her perfume, something with roses and lily of the valley, and it made him want to nestle his nose into the nape of her neck, just one more time please, God. He often wished this was all a bad dream and that she was sitting downstairs doing the Woman’s Weekly crossword, or writing a letter to one of the friends they had met on their holidays.

He allowed himself to sit on the bed and wallow in self-pity for a few minutes and then swiftly unrolled two bags and shook them open. He had to do this. There was a bag for charity and one for stuff to throw out. He took out armfuls of clothes and bundled them in the charity bag. Miriam’s slippers, worn and with a hole in the toe, went in the rubbish bag. He worked quickly and silently, not stopping to let emotion get in the way. Halfway through the task and a pair of gray Hush Puppies lace-ups went in the charity bag followed by an almost identical pair of Clarks ones. He pulled out a large shoebox and lifted out a pair of sensible fur-lined brown suede boots.

Remembering one of Bernadette’s stories about a pair of boots she’d bought from a flea market and found a lottery ticket (nonwinning) inside, he automatically slid his hand inside one boot (empty) and then the other. He was surprised when his fingertips hit something hard. Strange. Wriggling his fingers around the thing, he tugged it out.

He found himself holding a heart-shaped box. It was covered in textured scarlet leather and fastened with a tiny gold padlock. There was something about the color that made him feel on edge. It looked expensive, frivolous. A present from Lucy, perhaps? No, surely he would have remembered it. And he would never have bought something like this for his wife. She liked simple or useful things, like plain round silver stud earrings or pretty oven gloves. They had struggled with money all their married life, scrimping and squirreling funds away for a rainy day. When they had eventually splashed out on the kitchen and bathroom, she had only enjoyed them for a short while. No, she wouldn’t have bought this box.

He examined the keyhole in the tiny padlock. Then he rummaged around in the bottom of the wardrobe, pushing the rest of Miriam’s shoes around, mixing up the pairs. But he couldn’t find the key. He picked up a pair of nail scissors and jiggled them around in the keyhole, but the lock remained defiantly closed. Curiosity pricked inside him. Not wanting to admit defeat, he went back downstairs. Nearly fifty years as a locksmith and he couldn’t bloody get into a heart-shaped box. In the kitchen bottom drawer he took out the two-liter plastic ice cream carton that he used as a toolbox—his box of tricks.

Back upstairs, he sat on the bed and took out a hoop full of lock picks. Inserting the smallest one into the keyhole, he gave it a small wriggle. This time there was a click and the box opened by a tantalizing few millimeters, like a mouth about to whisper a secret. He unhooked the padlock and lifted the lid.

The box was lined with black crushed velvet. It sang of decadence and wealth. But it was the charm bracelet that lay inside that caused him to catch his breath. It was opulent and gold with chunky round links and a heart-shaped fastener. Another heart.

What was more peculiar was the array of charms, spread out from the bracelet like sun rays in a children’s book illustration. There were eight in total: an elephant, flower, book, paint palette, tiger, thimble, heart and a ring.

He took the bracelet out of the box. It was heavy and jangled when he moved it around in his hand. It looked antique, or had age to it, and was finely crafted. The detail on each charm was sharp. But as hard as he tried he couldn’t remember Miriam wearing the bracelet or showing any of the charms to him. Perhaps she had bought it as a present for someone else. But for whom? It looked expensive. When Lucy wore jewelry it was newfangled stuff with curls of silver wire and bits of glass and shell.

He thought for a moment about phoning his children to see if they knew anything about a charm bracelet hidden in their mother’s wardrobe. It seemed a valid reason to make contact. But then he told himself to reconsider as they’d be too busy to bother with him. It had been a while since he had phoned Lucy with the excuse of asking how the cooker worked. With Dan, it had been two months since his son had last been in touch. He couldn’t believe that Dan was now forty and Lucy was thirty-six. Where had time gone?

They had their own lives now. Where once Miriam was their sun and he their moon, Dan and Lucy were now distant stars in their own galaxies.