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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

“Do you know her?”

“She works at LadyBLovely, the boutique in the village. I bought a navy dress from there. It has tiny pearl buttons. She told me that, in her husband’s memory, she was going to help others through her baking. She said that if people are tired, lonely, heartbroken or have simply run out of steam, then they need food. I think it’s very courageous of her to make it her mission to help others.”

From then on Arthur noticed Bernadette more—at the local school summer fair, in the post office, in her dressing gown tending roses in her garden. They said hello to each other and not much else. Sometimes he saw Bernadette and Miriam chatting on the street corner. They would laugh and talk about the weather and how strawberries were sweet this year. Bernadette’s voice was so loud that he could hear the conversation from inside the house.

Bernadette had attended Miriam’s funeral. He had a hazy memory of her appearing beside him and patting his arm. “If you ever need anything, just ask,” she said, and Arthur wondered what he might possibly ever ask her for. Then she had started to turn up unannounced on his doorstep.

At first he felt irritated by her presence, then he began to worry that she had set her sights on him, perhaps as a potential second husband. He wasn’t looking for anything like that. He never could do after Miriam. But in all the months she had been knocking on his door, Bernadette hadn’t ever given him cause to think her attention was anything more than platonic. She had a full roster of widows and widowers to call upon.

“Mince and onion pie,” she greeted him as he opened up. “Freshly made.” She let herself into the hallway, pie-first. There she ran her finger along the shelf over the radiator and nodded with satisfaction that it was dust free. She sniffed the air. “It’s a bit musty in here. Do you have air freshener?”

Arthur marveled at how impolite she could be without realizing, and dutifully fetched one. A few seconds later and the cloying smell of Mountain Lavender filled the air.

She bustled into the kitchen and put the pie down on the worktop. “This is a mighty fine kitchen,” she said.

“I know.”

“The cooker is wondrous.”

“I know.”

Bernadette was the polar opposite to Miriam. His wife had sparrow bones. Bernadette was fleshy, cushioned. Her hair was dyed postbox red and she wore diamanté studs on the tips of her nails. One of her front teeth was stained yellow. Her voice was big, cutting through the quiet of his home like a machete. He jangled the bracelet nervously in his pocket. Since speaking to Mr. Mehra last night, he had kept it with him. He had studied each charm in turn several times.

India. It was so far away. It must have been such an adventure for Miriam. Why had she not wanted him to know? Surely Mr. Mehra’s story wasn’t enough for her to keep it secret.

“Are you okay, Arthur? You’re in a dreamworld.” Bernadette’s words broke his thoughts.

“Me. Yes, of course.”

“I called yesterday morning but you weren’t in. Did you go to Men in Caves?”

Men in Caves was a community group for single men. Arthur had been twice to find a group of men with gloomy expressions handling chunks of wood and tools. The man who ran it, Bobby, was shaped like a skittle with a tiny head and large body. “Men need caves,” he’d trilled. “They need somewhere to retreat to and be at one with themselves.”

Arthur’s neighbor with the dreadlocks had been there. Terry. He was busy filing a piece of wood. “I like your car,” Arthur said to be polite.

“It’s actually a tortoise.”

“Oh.”

“I saw one last week when I was mowing my lawn.”

“A wild one?”

“It belongs to the red-haired kids who wear nothing on their feet. It escaped.”

Arthur didn’t know what to say. He had enough trouble with cats on his rockery without a tortoise being on the loose, too. Returning to his own work, he made a wooden plaque with the number of his house on it—37. The 3 was much bigger than the 7 but he hung it on his back door, anyway.

It would have been easy to say yes, he was at Men in Caves, even though it had been too early in the morning. But Bernadette was standing and smiling at him. The pie smelled delicious. He didn’t want to lie to her, especially after hearing Mr. Mehra’s regret over telling lies about Miriam. He would do the same and try not to lie again. “I hid from you yesterday,” he said.

“You hid?”

“I didn’t want to see anyone. I’d set myself the task to clear out Miriam’s wardrobe, and so when you rang the doorbell, I stood very still in the hallway and pretended not to be at home.” The words tumbled off his tongue and it felt surprisingly good to be this honest. “Yesterday was the first anniversary of her death.”

“That’s very truthful of you, Arthur. I appreciate your honesty. I can see how that would be upsetting. When Carl died...well, it was a hard thing to let him go. I gave his tools to Men in Caves.”

Arthur felt his heart dip. He hoped that she wouldn’t tell him about her husband. He didn’t want to trade stories of death. There seemed to be a strange one-upmanship among people who had lost spouses. Only last week in the post office he witnessed what he would describe as boasting among a group of four pensioners.

“My wife suffered for ten years before she eventually passed away.”

“Really? Well, my Cedric was flattened by a lorry. The paramedics said they’d never seen anything like it. Like a pancake, one said.”

Then a man’s voice, breaking. “It was the drugs, I reckon. Twenty-three tablets a day they gave her. She almost rattled.”

“When they cut him open there was nothing left inside. The cancer had eaten him all up.”

They talked about their loved ones as if they were objects. Miriam would always be a real person to him. He wouldn’t trade her memory like that.

“She likes lost causes,” Vera, the post office mistress, had said to him as he took a pack of small brown manila envelopes to the counter. She always wore a pencil tucked into her round tortoiseshell glasses and made it her business to know everything and everyone in the village. Her mother had owned the post office before her and had been exactly the same.

“Who does?”

“Bernadette Patterson. We’ve noticed that she brings you pies.”

“Who has noticed?” Arthur said, feeling angry. “Is there a club whose role it is to pry into my life?”

“No, just my customers having a friendly information exchange. That’s what Bernadette does. She’s kind to the hopeless, helpless and useless.”

Arthur paid for his envelopes and marched out.

He stood and switched on the kettle. “I’m giving Miriam’s things to Cat Saviors. They sell clothes, ornaments and things to raise money to help mistreated cats.”

“That’s a nice idea, though I prefer small dogs myself. They’re much more appreciative.”

“I think Miriam wanted to help cats.”

“Then that’s what you must do. Shall I pop this pie in the oven for you? We can have lunch together. Unless you have other plans...”

He was about to murmur something about being busy but then remembered Mr. Mehra’s story again. He had no plans. “No, nothing in the diary,” he said.

Twenty minutes later as he dug his knife into the pie, he thought about the bracelet again. Bernadette could give him a woman’s perspective. He wanted someone to tell him that it was of no significance and that, although it looked expensive, you could buy good reproductions cheaply these days. But he knew the emerald in the elephant was real. And she might gossip about it to Post Office Vera and to her lost causes.

“You should get out more,” she said. “You only went to Men in Caves once.”

“I went twice. I do get out.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Like to where?”

“Is this Mastermind? I don’t remember applying.”

“I’m just trying to take care of you.”