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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

Swallowing a lump that formed in his throat as he thought about his family, he began to move his ear away from the receiver. His hand trembled. Best just to leave this be. Hang up. But then he heard a tinny voice calling out to him. “Hello. Mr. Mehra speaking. I understand that you are phoning about Miriam Kempster, yes?”

Arthur swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. “Yes, that’s right. My name is Arthur Pepper. Miriam is my wife.” It felt wrong to say that Miriam was my wife, because although she was no longer here they were still married, weren’t they?

He explained how he found a charm bracelet and the elephant charm with the engraved number. He had not expected anyone to answer his call. Then he told Mr. Mehra that his wife was now dead.

Mr. Mehra fell silent. It was over a minute before he spoke again. “Oh, my dear sir. I am so sorry. She looked after me so well when I was a boy. But that was many years ago now. I still live in the same house! There is little movement in our family. We have the same phone number. I am a doctor and my father and grandfather were doctors before me. I have never forgotten Miriam’s kindness. I hoped that one day I might find her again. I should have tried harder.”

“She looked after you?”

“Yes. She was my ayah. She looked after me and my younger sisters.”

“Your child-minder? Here in England?”

“No, sir. In India. I live in Goa.”

Arthur couldn’t speak. His mind went numb. He knew nothing of this. Miriam had never mentioned living in India. How could this be? He stared at the potpourri-stuffed leaf in the hallway twirling and hanging by a thread.

“May I tell you a little about her, sir?”

“Yes. Please do,” he murmured. Anything to fill in some gaps, tell him that this must be some other Miriam Kempster they were talking about.

Mr. Mehra’s voice was soothing and authoritative. Arthur didn’t think about his phone bill. More than anything he wanted to hear from someone else who might have known and loved Miriam, even if this man was a stranger to him. Sometimes not talking about her made it feel like her memory was fading away.

“We had many ayahs before Miriam joined us. I was a naughty child. I played tricks on them. I put newts in their shoes and chili flakes in their soup. They didn’t last long. But Miriam was different. She ate the hot food and didn’t say a word. She picked the newts out of her shoes and put them back in the garden. I studied her face but she was a fine actress. She never gave anything away and I didn’t know if she was annoyed with me, or amused. Slowly I gave up teasing her. There was no point. She knew all my tricks! I remember that she had a bag of wonderful marbles. They were as shiny as the moon and one was like a real tiger’s eye. She didn’t care if she knelt in the dust.” He gave a throaty laugh. “I was a little in love with her.”

“How long did she stay with your family?”

“For a few months, in India. I was very brokenhearted when she left. It was my entire fault. That is something I have never told anyone before. But you, Mr. Pepper, deserve to know. It is a shame I have carried with me for all these years.”

Arthur shifted nervously in his seat.

“Do you mind if I tell you? It would mean a great deal to me. It is like a secret burning a hole in my stomach.” Mr. Mehra didn’t wait for a response before he carried on his story. “I was only eleven but I loved Miriam. It was the first time I had noticed a girl. She was so pretty and always wore such classy clothes. Her laughter, well, it sounded like tiny bells. When I woke up in the morning she was the first thing I thought about and when I went to bed I looked forward to the next day. I know now that this was not true love like when I met my wife, Priya, but for a young boy it was very real. She was very different to the girls I went to school with. She was exotic, with her alabaster skin and hair the color of walnuts. Her eyes were like aquamarines. I probably followed her around a little too much, but she never made me feel foolish. My mother had died when I was very young and I used to ask Miriam to sit with me in her room. We would look through my mother’s jewelry box together. She loved the elephant charm. We used to look through the emerald and see the world in green.”

So, it is a real emerald, Arthur thought.

“But then Miriam began to go out on her own twice a week. We spent a little less time together. I was old enough not to need an ayah but my two sisters did. She was there for them but not so much for me. I followed her one day and she met with a man. He was a teacher at my school. An Englishman. He came around to the house and he and Miriam took afternoon tea. I saw that he liked her. He picked a hibiscus flower from the garden to give to her.

“Mr. Pepper. I was a young boy. I was growing and had hormones roaring around my body. I felt very angry. I told my father that I had seen Miriam and the man kissing. My father was a very old-fashioned man and he had already lost one ayah because of similar circumstances. So there and then he went to find Miriam and told her to leave. She was so surprised but she acted with dignity and packed her suitcase.

“I was devastated. I had not meant this to happen. I took the elephant from the jewelry box and ran to the village to have it engraved. I pushed it into the front pocket of her suitcase as it stood by the door. I was too much of a coward to say goodbye, but she found me hiding and gave me a kiss. She said, ‘Goodbye, dearest Rajesh.’ And I never saw her again.

“From that day, Mr. Pepper, I swear I have tried never to tell a lie. I only tell the truth. It is the only way. I prayed that she could forgive me. Did she say that to you?”

Arthur knew nothing about this part of his wife’s life. But he knew this was the same woman that they had both loved. Miriam’s laughter did sound like tiny bells. She did have a bag of marbles, which she gave to Dan. He was still reeling from astonishment, but he could hear the longing in Mr. Mehra’s voice. He cleared his throat. “Yes, she forgave you long ago. She spoke of you kindly.” Mr. Mehra laughed out loud. A short ha, ha! “Mr. Pepper! You have no idea how happy your words make me feel. For years this has felt like a huge weight for me. Thank you for taking the trouble to ring me. I am so sorry to hear that Miriam is no longer with you.”

Arthur felt a glow in his stomach. It was something that he hadn’t felt for a long time. He felt useful.

“You were a lucky man to be married for so long, yes? To have a wife such as Miriam. Did she have a happy life, sir?”

“Yes. Yes, I think she did. It was a quiet life. We have two lovely children.”

“Then you must try to be happy. Would she want you to be sad?”

“No. But it’s hard not to be.”

“I know this. But there is much to celebrate about her.”

“Yes.”

Both men fell silent.

Arthur turned the bracelet around in his hand. He now knew about the elephant. But what about the other charms? If he didn’t know about Miriam’s life in India, what stories did the other charms hold? He asked Mr. Mehra if he knew anything about the bracelet.

“I only gave her the elephant. She did write to me once, a few months after she left, to say thank you. I’m a sentimental fool and I still have the letter. I always told myself that I would get in touch, but I felt too ashamed about my lie. I can see what address is on the letter if you like?”

Arthur swallowed. “That would be most kind.”

He waited for five minutes until Mr. Mehra returned to the call. He reached out to stop the potpourri leaf from twirling. He flicked through the leaflets Bernadette had posted through the door.

“Ah, yes, here it is—Graystock Manor in Bath, England, 1963. I hope this helps with your search. She talks in the letter about staying with friends there. There’s something about tigers in the grounds.”

“There is a tiger charm on the bracelet,” Arthur said.

“Aha. Then that might be your next port of call. You will find out the stories of the charms one by one, yes?”

“Oh, this isn’t a search,” Arthur started. “I was just curious...”