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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

Arthur took a good look at Bernadette. He usually averted his eyes, but this time he took in her scarlet hair; her dark gray roots were springing through. The corners of her mouth drooped downward. She really wanted him to say yes.

He could take Miriam’s things to the charity shop. He could put the bracelet back in his wardrobe and forget about it. That would be the easy option. But there were two things from stopping him. One was the mystery of it. Like one of the Sunday afternoon detective stories that he and Miriam watched, finding the stories behind the charms on the bracelet would nag at his brain. He could find out more about his wife and feel close to her. And the second was Bernadette. In the many times she had called around with her pies and kind words, she had never once asked for anything in return—not money, not a favor, not to listen to her talk about Carl. But now she was asking him for something.

He knew that she would never insist, but he could tell the way she sat before him turning her wedding ring around and around on her finger that this was important to her. She wanted Arthur to accompany her and Nathan on their trip. She needed him.

He rocked a little in his chair, telling himself that he had to do this. He had to silence the nagging voices in his head telling him not to go. “I think a trip to Graystock would do me good,” he said before he could change his mind. “And I think me and Nathan will get along just swell. Count me in.”

On the Way

NATHAN PATTERSON EXISTED in that he had a body and head and arms and legs. But Arthur wasn’t sure if there were any thoughts inside him making his body operate. He walked like he was on an airport conveyor belt, looking as if he glided. He was reed thin and dressed in tight black jeans that hung off his hips, a black T-shirt with a skull on it and bright white training shoes. His bangs obscured most of his face.

“Hello, Nathan. It’s very nice to meet you again,” Arthur said brightly, and offered his hand as they stood together on the pavement outside Bernadette’s house. “We met at a coffee morning once, do you remember?”

Nathan looked at him as if he was an alien. His hands hung by his sides. “Nah.”

“Oh, well, it was only briefly. I understand that you’re looking at universities. You must be a very smart young man.”

Nathan turned his head and looked away. He opened the car door and got into the driver’s seat without speaking. Arthur stared after him. This could be a long journey. “I’ll sit in the back, shall I?” he said to no response as he got in the car. “Give you and your mum a chance to talk in the front.”

Arthur had wheeled his suitcase over to Bernadette’s house after lunch. He had given Frederica extra water and felt quite guilty leaving her behind. “It will just be for a couple of days,” he muttered as he gave her leaves a wipe with a damp cloth. “You’ll be fine. Me and you, we can’t just sit around any longer. Well, you can. But I have to go. I’m going to find things about Miriam that I didn’t know. I think you would want this for me.” He examined Frederica for a sign—a shake of her leaves or a bubble of water in her soil—but there was nothing.

He packed a spare shirt and underwear, his toiletries, cotton pajamas, an emergency carrier bag and a sachet of hot chocolate. Bernadette had booked him a single room at the Cheltenham bed-and-breakfast they were staying at that night. “It looks nice,” she said. “Some rooms have a view of Cheltenham Minster. It will just be like being in York, Arthur. So you won’t feel homesick.”

Bernadette bustled out of her house. She wheeled out a navy blue suitcase and then a purple one, followed by four Marks & Spencer carrier bags.

Arthur wound the window down. He assumed that Nathan would rush out to help, but the young man sat with his feet on the dashboard eating a bag of crisps. “Do you need a hand?”

“I’m fine. I’ll just load this little lot into the trunk, then we can set off.” She slammed the trunk door shut, then took the front seat next to Nathan. “Now, do you know where we’re going?”

“Yes.” Her son sighed.

“It should take us around three hours to get to our accommodation,” Bernadette said.

In the car Nathan turned up the radio so loud that Arthur couldn’t think. Rock music blared out. A male singer screamed about wanting to kill his girlfriend. Periodically Bernadette turned and gave Arthur a smile and mouthed, Okay?

Arthur nodded and gave a thumbs-up. He was already tense about changing his morning routine. He hadn’t shaved and he didn’t remember washing out his teacup. When he got back from the trip it would have a thick collar of beige gunk inside. Perhaps he had overwatered Frederica. Had he swept up the crumbs from the worktop? He shuddered at the thought. And he had locked the front door properly, hadn’t he?

To cancel out his worries he tucked his hand in his pocket and wrapped his fingers around the heart-shaped box. He stroked the textured leather and felt the small padlock. It felt comforting to have something that belonged to his wife so close to him, even if he didn’t know where it had come from.

As they drove along tree-lined roads toward the motorway, Arthur felt his eyes shutting. He widened them but then slowly they flickered and closed again. The shush of tires on tarmac lulled him to sleep.

He dreamed that he was on a picnic with Miriam, Lucy and Dan at the seaside. He couldn’t recall which town. Lucy and Dan were still young enough to be excited by a trip to the sea and an ice cream cone. “Come and have a paddle, Dad.” Dan tugged his hand. Sunlight rippled like silver sweet papers on the surface of the sea. The air smelled of freshly cooked doughnuts and vinegar from the food vans on the promenade. Seagulls cawed and swooped overhead. The sun shone hot and bright.

“Yes, come on in, Arthur.” Miriam stood facing him. The sun was behind her and she looked as if she had a golden halo in her hair. He admired the silhouette of her legs through her translucent white dress. He sat on the sand, his trousers rolled up to his ankles. Perspiration formed under his mustard sweater-vest.

“I’m a bit tired,” he said. “I’ll just have a lie-down on the sand and watch you three. I’ll catch up on the day’s news.” He patted his newspaper.

“You can do that anytime. Come on in with us. We can relax tonight when the kids are in bed.”

Arthur smiled. “I’ll just stay here. You and the kids go paddle.” He reached up and ruffled Lucy’s hair.

His wife and two kids stood and stared at him for a few seconds before giving up on their persuasion. He watched as they held hands and ran toward the sea. For a moment he almost stood up and raced after them, but they disappeared into a sea of beach umbrellas and colored towels. He took off his sweater-vest, rolled it up and put it under his head.

But because this was a dream, he was able to rewind events in his head. This time when his wife stood before him inviting him to paddle, he said yes. Because he knew he might never have this moment again. Because he knew that his time with the kids was precious, and in the future Dan would live thousands of miles away and Lucy would be distant. He knew there would be so many times over the coming years that he would long to be on the beach with his family again.

So this time, in his dream, he stood up and took Dan’s and Lucy’s clammy, sandy small hands in his own. They ran down the sand together, the four of them in a line, laughing and squealing. And he kicked the sea until it soaked his trousers to the thighs and made his lips salty. Miriam waded toward him. She laughed and trailed her fingertips in the water. Lucy clung to his legs and Dan sat with the sea lapping around his waist. Arthur wrapped an arm around his wife’s waist and pulled her close to him. He saw that freckles had sprung to life on her nose and she had pink sun circles on her cheeks. There was nowhere he wanted to be more than here. He leaned in toward her, feeling her breath on his mouth and...

“Arthur. Arthur!”