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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

The bracelet wouldn’t be from Dan, anyway. Definitely not. Each year before Miriam’s birthday, Arthur phoned his son to remind him of the date. Dan would insist that he hadn’t forgotten, that he was about to go to the postbox that day and post a little something. And it usually was a little something: a fridge magnet in the shape of the Sydney Opera House, a photo of the grandkids, Kyle and Marina, in a cardboard frame, a small koala bear with huggy arms that Miriam clipped to the curtain in Dan’s old bedroom.

If she was disappointed with the gifts from her son, then Miriam never showed it. “How lovely,” she would exclaim, as if it was the best present she had ever received. Arthur wished that she could be honest, just once, and say that their son should make more effort. But then, even as a boy, he had never been aware of other people and their feelings. He was never happier than when he was dismantling car engines and covered in oil. Arthur was proud that his son owned three car body repair workshops in Sydney, but wished that he could treat people with as much attention as he paid his carburetors.

Lucy was more thoughtful. She sent thank-you cards and never, ever forgot a birthday. She had been a quiet child to the point where Arthur and Miriam wondered if she had speech difficulties. But no—a doctor explained that she was just sensitive. She felt things more deeply than other people did. She liked to think a lot and explore her emotions. Arthur told himself that’s why she hadn’t attended her own mother’s funeral. Dan’s reason was that he was thousands of miles away. But although Arthur found excuses for them both, it hurt him more than they could ever imagine, that his children hadn’t been there to say goodbye to Miriam properly. And that’s why, when he spoke to them sporadically on the phone, it felt like there was a dam between them. Not only had he lost his wife, but he was losing his children, too.

He squeezed his fingers into a triangle but the bracelet wouldn’t slip over his knuckles. He liked the elephant best. It had an upturned trunk and small ears—an Indian elephant. He gave a wry smile at its exoticness. He and Miriam had discussed going abroad for a holiday but then always settled upon Bridlington, at the same bed-and-breakfast on the seafront. If they ever bought a souvenir, it was a packet of tear-off postcards or a new tea towel, not a gold charm.

On the elephant’s back was a howdah with a canopy, and inside that nestled a dark green faceted stone. It turned as he fingered it. An emerald? No, of course not, just glass or a pretend precious stone. He ran his finger along the trunk, then felt the elephant’s rounded hind before settling on its tiny tail. In places the metal was smooth, in others it felt indented. The closer he looked, though, the more blurred the charm became. He needed glasses for reading but could never find the things. He must have five pairs stashed in safe places around the house. Picking up his box of tricks he picked out his eyeglass: every year or so it came in handy. Scrunching it into his eye socket he peered at the elephant. As he moved his head closer, then farther away, to get the right focus, he saw that the indentations were in fact tiny engraved letters and numbers. He read and then read again.

Ayah. 0091 832 221 897

His heart began to beat faster. Ayah. What could that mean? And the numbers, too. Were they a map reference, a code? He took a small pencil and pad from his box and wrote them down. His eyeglass dropped onto the bed. He’d watched a quiz program on TV just last night. The wild-haired presenter had asked the dialing code for making calls from the UK to India—0091 was the answer.

Arthur fastened the lid back onto the ice cream box and carried the charm bracelet downstairs. There he looked in his Oxford English Pocket Dictionary and the definition of the word ayah didn’t make any sense to him—a nursemaid or maid in East Asia or India.

He didn’t usually phone anyone on a whim; he preferred not to use the phone at all. Calls to Dan and Lucy only brought disappointment. But even so, he picked up the receiver.

He sat on the one chair he always used at the kitchen table and carefully dialed the number, just to see. This was just silly, but there was something about the curious little elephant that made him want to know more.

It took a long time for the dialing tone to kick in and even longer for someone to answer the call.

“Mehra residence. How may I help you?”

The polite lady had an Indian accent. She sounded very young. Arthur’s voice wavered when he spoke. Wasn’t this preposterous? “I’m phoning about my wife,” he said. “Her name was Miriam Pepper, well, it was Miriam Kempster before we married. I’ve found an elephant charm with this number on it. It was in her wardrobe. I was clearing it out...” He trailed off, wondering what on earth he was doing, what he was saying.

The lady was quiet for a moment. He was sure she was about to hang up or tell him off for making a crank call. But then she spoke. “Yes. I have heard stories of Miss Miriam Kempster. I’ll just find Mr. Mehra for you now, sir. He will almost certainly be able to assist you.”

Arthur’s mouth fell open.

The Elephant

ARTHUR GRIPPED THE receiver tightly. A voice in his head told him to put it down, to forget about this. Firstly, there was the cost. He was on the phone to India. That couldn’t be cheap. Miriam was always so careful about the phone bill, especially with the cost of phoning Dan in Australia.

And then there was the gnawing feeling that he was prying on his wife. Trust had always formed a great part in their marriage. When he traveled around the country selling locks and safes, Miriam had voiced her concerns that on overnight stays he might succumb to the charms of a comely landlady. He assured her that he would never do anything to jeopardize his marriage or family life. Besides, he wasn’t the type that women would find attractive. An ex-girlfriend had compared him to a mole. She said that he was timid and a bit twitchy. But, surprisingly, he had been propositioned a few times. Though it was probably because of loneliness or opportunism of the ladies (and once a man), rather than his own appeal.

Sometimes his working days had been long. He traveled around the country a lot. He especially enjoyed showing off new mortise locks, explaining the latches, snibs and levers to his clients. There was something about locks that intrigued him. They were solid and reliable. They protected you and kept you safe. He loved how his car always smelled of oil and he enjoyed chatting to his customers in their shops. But then along came the internet and online ordering. Locksmiths didn’t need salesmen any longer. The shops that remained open started to order their stock by computer and Arthur found himself confined to a desk job. He used the phone to talk to his clients rather than talking face-to-face. He had never liked the phone. You couldn’t see people smiling or their eyes when they asked questions.

It was hard being away from the kids, too, sometimes getting home when they were already in bed. Lucy understood, delighted to see him the next morning. She would fling her arms around his neck and tell him she missed him. Dan was trickier. On the rare occasion that Arthur finished work early, Dan seemed to resent it. “I like my time with Mum better,” he once said. Miriam told Arthur not to take it to heart. Some kids were closer to one parent than the other. It didn’t stop Arthur from feeling guilty about working so hard to provide for his family.

Miriam had vowed that she would always be faithful, no matter what hours he worked, and he trusted that she had been. She never gave him doubt to think otherwise. He never saw her flirt with other men or found any evidence that she might ever have strayed. Not that he was looking for it. But sometimes when he got home after working away, he wondered if she’d had company. It must have been hard being alone with the two kids. Not that she’d ever complained. She was a real trouper was Miriam.