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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

She saw him as a lost cause, just as Vera had implied.

He didn’t want to feel like this, be treated like this. An urge swelled in his chest. He needed to say something so she wouldn’t think him helpless, hopeless and useless, like Mrs. Monton, who hadn’t left her house in five years and who smoked twenty Woodbines a day, or Mr. Flowers, who thought there was a unicorn living in his greenhouse. Arthur had some pride left. He used to have meaning as a father and husband. He used to have thoughts and dreams and plans.

Thinking of the forwarding address Miriam left on her letter to Mr. Mehra, he cleared his throat. “Well, if you must know,” he said hurriedly, “I’ve been thinking about going to Graystock Manor in Bath.”

“Oh, yes,” Bernadette mused. “That’s where the tigers roam free.”

Bernadette was a one-woman almanac of the UK. She and Carl had toured everywhere together in their luxury camper van. The back of Arthur’s neck bristled as he prepared to hear where he should and shouldn’t go, what he should and shouldn’t do, at Graystock.

As she busied herself in his kitchen, straightening his scales and checking that his knives were clean enough, Bernadette recited what she knew.

No, Arthur didn’t know that five years ago Lord Graystock had been mauled by a tiger, which sank its teeth and claws into his calf, and now he walked with a limp. He also didn’t know that, as a younger man, Graystock kept a harem of women of all nationalities, like a hedonistic Noah’s ark, or that he was renowned for hosting wild orgies at his manor in the sixties. He also didn’t know that the lord only wore the color electric blue, even his underwear, because he had once been told in a dream that it was lucky. (Arthur wondered if he had been wearing electric blue during the tiger attack.)

He also now knew that Lord Graystock tried to sell his manor to Richard Branson; however, the two men had fallen out and refused to speak to each other ever again. The lord was now a recluse and only opened up Graystock Manor on Fridays and Saturdays and the public were no longer allowed to look at the tigers.

After Bernadette’s tales, Arthur now felt well-informed about Lord Graystock’s life and times.

“It’s just the gift shop and gardens that are open now. And they’re a bit tatty.” Bernadette finished cleaning Arthur’s mixer taps with a flourish. “Why are you going there?”

Arthur looked at his watch. He wished he hadn’t said anything now. She had taken twenty-five minutes to regale him. His left leg had grown stiff. “I thought it would be a nice change,” he said.

“Well, actually. Nathan and I are going to be down in Worcester and Cheltenham next week. We’re looking at universities. Tag along if you like. You could head off to Graystock on the train from there.”

Arthur’s stomach felt fizzy. Going to Graystock had only been a mild consideration for him. He hadn’t actually planned to go there. He only went on outings with Miriam. What was the point of going alone? He had only mentioned going to Graystock to show Bernadette that he wasn’t useless. Now apprehension nagged him. He wished he could turn back the clock and not have pushed his hand into the boot and discovered the bracelet. Then he would never have phoned the number on the elephant. He wouldn’t be sitting there discussing Graystock Manor with Bernadette. “I’m not sure about it,” he said. “Another time, perhaps...”

“You should go. Try to move on with your life. Small steps. An outing might do you good.”

Arthur was surprised to feel a tiny kernel of excitement taking root in his stomach. He had found out something about his wife’s past life and his inquisitive nature was compelling him to find out more. The only feelings he experienced these days were sadness, disappointment and melancholy, so this felt new. “I like the idea of tigers walking around an English garden,” he said.

And he did like tigers. They were strong, majestic, colorful beasts, prowling around with the key purposes in life of hunting, eating and mating. Humans were so different with their lives of meekness and worry.

“Really? I’d have you down more as a small-dog person—you know, a terrier or something. Or you look like the kind of person who would like hamsters. Anyway, why don’t you come with us in the car? Nathan is driving.”

“Are you not taking the camper van?”

“I’m selling it. It’s too big for me to handle and I’ve been paying for storage since Carl died. Nathan’s got a Fiesta. It’s a rust bucket but reliable.”

“Shouldn’t you ask him first? He might have other plans...” Arthur instinctively found himself trying to get out of the trip. He should have kept his mouth shut. He couldn’t carry out his daily chores if he went away. His timings would be up the shoot. Who would care for Frederica the fern and stop the cats crapping in his garden? If he went down south, then he might have to stay overnight. He had never packed his own suitcase before. Miriam did that kind of thing for him... His brain ticked away trying to find excuses. He didn’t want to pry on his wife but he did want to discover more about her life before they met.

“No, no. Nathan doesn’t really do thinking. I do it all for him. It will do him good to have some self-responsibility. He won’t have remembered that he has to look at universities. I know he won’t need to apply for a few months but I want to start early. I will be so lonely when he goes. It will be strange being on my own again. I dread to think how he’ll cope away from me. I’ll visit him in his student digs and find his skeleton because he’s forgotten to eat...”

Arthur had been about to say that, now he thought about it, he might go later in the year. He already knew that he didn’t want to go on a trip with Bernadette and her son. He had met Nathan briefly once before when he and Miriam had bumped into Bernadette at a coffee morning. He seemed like a monosyllabic kind of young man. Arthur really didn’t want to leave the security of his house, the smothering comfort of his routine.

But then Bernadette said, “When Nathan leaves, I will be all on my own. A lonely widow. Still, at least I have you and my other friends, Arthur. You’re like family to me.”

Guilt twisted his gut. She sounded lonely. It was a word he would never have used to describe her. Every cautious nerve in his body told him not to go to Graystock. But he wondered what connection Miriam had there. It seemed a highly unlikely address for her. But then so was India. Lord Graystock sounded an intriguing character and his family had owned the manor for years, so there was a possibility that he might know or remember Miriam. He might know the stories behind more of the charms. Could Arthur really expect to be able to forget all about the charm bracelet, to put it back in its box and not discover more about his wife as a young woman?

“Do you mind if I’m honest with you?” Bernadette said. She sat down beside him and wrung a tea towel in her hands.

“Er, no...”

“It’s been difficult for Nathan since Carl died. He doesn’t say much but I can tell. It would be good for him to have a little male company. He has his friends but, well, it’s not the same. If you could give him a bit of advice or guidance while we’re traveling...I think that would do him good.”

It took all his might for Arthur not to shake his head. He thought about Nathan with his runner-bean body and black hair that hung over one eye like a mortuary curtain. When they’d met, the boy had hardly spoken over his coffee and cake. Now Bernadette was expecting Arthur to have a man-to-man talk with him. “Oh, he won’t listen to me,” he said lightly. “We’ve only met the once.”

“I think he would. All he hears is me telling him what and what not to do. I think it would do him the world of good.”

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