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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

“Well, if you are ever in India, Mr. Pepper, you must look me up. I will show you the places that Miriam loved. And her old room. It hasn’t changed much over the years. You would like to see it?”

“That’s very decent of you. Though I’m afraid I’ve never left the UK before. I can’t see myself traveling to India anytime soon.”

“There is always a first time, Mr. Pepper. You bear my offer in mind, sir.”

Arthur said goodbye and thank you for the invitation. As he placed the receiver down, Mr. Mehra’s words rolled over and over in his head: next port of call...find out the stories of the charms one by one...

And he began to wonder.





The Great Escape


IT WAS STILL dark the next morning when Arthur woke. The digits on his alarm clock flicked to 5:32 a.m. and he lay for a while staring at the ceiling. Outside a car drove past and he watched the reflection of the headlights sweep over the ceiling like the rays of a lighthouse across water. He let his fingers creep across the mattress, reaching out for Miriam’s hand knowing it wasn’t there and feeling only cool cotton sheet.

Each night when he went to bed, it struck him how chilly it was without her. When she was next to him he always slept through the night, gently drifting off, then waking to the sound of thrushes singing outside. She would shake her head and ask did he not hear the thunderstorm or next door’s house alarm going off? But he never did.

Now his sleep was fitful, restless. He woke up often, shivering and wrapping the duvet around him in a cocoon. He should put an extra blanket on the bed, to stop the cold from creeping around his back and numbing his feet. His body had found its own strange rhythm of sleeping, waking, shivering, sleeping, waking, shivering that, although uncomfortable, he didn’t want to shake. He didn’t want to drop off and then wake with the birds and find that Miriam was no longer there. Even now that would be too much of a shock. Stirring through the night reminded him that she had gone and he welcomed those constant reminders. He didn’t want to risk forgetting her.

If he had to describe in one word how he felt this morning, it would be perplexed. Getting rid of Miriam’s clothes was going to be a ritual, to freeing the house of her things, her shoes, her toiletries. It was a small step in coping with his loss and moving on.

But the newly discovered charm bracelet was an obstacle to his intentions. It raised questions where once there were none. It had opened a door and he had stepped through it.

He and Miriam differed in how they saw mysteries. They regularly enjoyed a Miss Marple or a Hercule Poirot on a Sunday afternoon. Arthur would watch intently. “Do you think it’s him?” he would say. “He’s being very helpful and his character adds nothing to the story. I think he might be the killer.”

“Watch the film.” Miriam would squeeze his knee. “Just enjoy it. You don’t have to psychoanalyze all the characters. You don’t have to guess the ending.”

“But it’s a mystery. It’s supposed to make you guess. We’re supposed to try and work it out.”

Miriam would laugh and shake her head.

If this were the other way around and (he hated to think this) he had died, Miriam might not have given finding a strange object in Arthur’s wardrobe much thought. Whereas here he was, his brain whirring like a child’s windmill in the garden.

He creaked out of bed and took a shower, letting the hot water bounce off his face. Then he dried himself off, had a shave, put on his gray trousers, blue shirt and mustard sweater-vest and headed downstairs. Miriam liked it when he wore these clothes. She said they made him look “presentable.”

For the first weeks after she died, he couldn’t even be bothered getting dressed. Who was there to make an effort for? With his wife and children gone, why should he care? He wore his pajamas day and night. For the first time in his life he grew a beard. When he saw himself in the bathroom mirror he was surprised at his resemblance to Captain Birdseye. He shaved it off.

He left radios on in each room so he wouldn’t have to hear his own footsteps. He survived on yogurts and cans of soup, which he didn’t bother to heat. A spoon and a can opener were all he needed. He found himself small jobs to do: tightening the bolts on the bed to stop it squeaking, scratching out the blackened grout around the bath.

Miriam kept a fern on the windowsill in the kitchen. It was a moth-eaten thing with drooping feathery leaves. He despised it at first, resenting how such a pathetic thing could live when his wife had died. It had sat on the floor by the back door waiting for bin day. But, out of guilt, he relented and set it back in its place. He named it Frederica and began to water and talk to it. And slowly she perked up. She no longer drooped. Her leaves grew greener. It felt good to nurture something. He found it easier to care for and chat to the plant than to people. It was good for him to keep busy. It meant he didn’t have time to be sad.

Well, that’s what he told himself, anyway. But then he’d be going about his daily tasks, kind of doing okay, holding it together. Then he’d spy the green potpourri fabric leaf hanging in the hallway or Miriam’s mud-encrusted walking shoes in the pantry, or the lavender Crabtree & Evelyn hand cream on the shelf in the bathroom—and it would feel like a landslide. Such small, meaningless items now tore at his heart.

He would sit on the bottom step of the stairs and hold his head in his hands. Rocking backward and forward, squeezing his eyes shut, he told himself that he was bound to feel like this. His grief was still raw. It would pass. She was in a better place. She wouldn’t want him to be like this. Blah, blah. All the usual mumbo jumbo from Bernadette’s leaflets. And it did pass. But it never vanished completely. He carried his loss around with him bowling ball–like in the pit of his stomach.

At these times he imagined his own father, stern, strong: Bloody ’ell. Pull yerself together, lad. Crying’s for sissies, and he would lift his chin and try to be brave.

Perhaps he should be getting over it by now.

His recollections of those dark early days were foggy. What he did recall was like seeing it on a black-and-white TV set with a crackly picture. He saw himself shuffling around the house.

If he was honest, then Bernadette had been a great help. She had turned up on his doorstep like an unwelcome genie and insisted that he bathed while she cooked lunch. Arthur hadn’t wanted to eat. Food held no taste or pleasure for him.

“Your body is like a steam train that needs coal,” Bernadette said as he protested against the pies, soups and stews she carried over his threshold, heated and then placed in front of him. “How are you going to carry on your journey without fuel?”

Arthur wasn’t planning any journey. He didn’t want to leave the house. The only trip he made was upstairs to use the bathroom or go to bed. He had no desire to do anything more than that. For a quiet life he ate her food, blocked out her chatter, read her leaflets. He really would’ve preferred to be left alone.

But she persisted. Sometimes he answered the door to her, other times he wriggled down in the bed and pulled the blankets over his head or thrust himself into National Trust statue mode. But she never gave up on him.

*

Later that morning, as if she knew he was thinking of her, Bernadette rang his doorbell. Arthur stood in the dining room, still, for a few moments, wondering whether to go to the door. The air smelled of bacon and eggs and fresh toast as the other residents of Bank Avenue enjoyed their breakfasts. The doorbell rang again.

“Her husband, Carl, died recently,” Miriam had told him, a few years ago, as she’d spied Bernadette on a stall at a local church fete, selling butterfly buns and chocolate cake. “I think that bereaved people act in one of two ways. There are those who cling with their fingertips to the past, and those who brush their hands together and get on with their lives. That lady with the red hair is the latter. She keeps herself busy.”