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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Author:Phaedra Patrick

He felt a hand on his knee. “Miriam?” He opened his eyes. His time with his wife and children vanished abruptly.

Bernadette was leaning over from her front seat. Her door was open. He could see expanses of gray tarmac. “You dropped off. We’re at the services. I need to spend a penny.”

“Oh.” Arthur blinked, readjusting to the real world. He could still feel Miriam’s hand in his. He wanted to be with her so badly, to kiss her lips. He wriggled out of his slump. “Where are we?”

“We’ve almost reached Birmingham already. The roads are quiet. Come on out and stretch your legs.”

He did as he was told and got out of the car. He had been asleep for two hours. As he walked toward the gray slab of a building, he wished that he could slip back into his dream to be with his family again. It had seemed so real. Why hadn’t he appreciated those moments when they were happening?

He meandered around WHSmith and bought a Daily Mail and then a coffee in a cardboard cup from a machine outside. It tasted of soil. The lobby rang with the sound of amusement machines, their colored lights flashing and piping out jaunty electronic music. He could smell fried onion rings and bleach. He carefully placed his half-drunk coffee in the bin and went to the restroom.

Back at the car he found himself alone with Nathan.

The boy was sitting with his feet on the dashboard again, displaying an expanse of milky ankle. In the back Arthur opened up his paper. There was going to be a heat wave over the next couple of days. The hottest May in decades. He thought of Frederica’s soil and hoped it would stay moist.

Nathan took a yellow curl from his packet of crisps. After taking the longest time that Arthur had known anyone to eat a crisp, he finally said, “So are you and my mum, you know...?”

Arthur waited for the next part of the sentence, which didn’t arrive. “I’m sorry, I...”

“You and Mum. Are you, y’know, getting it on?” He then affected a posh accent as he turned to face Arthur. “Are you dating?”

“No.” Arthur tried not to sound aghast. He wondered how Nathan could possibly have got this idea. “Definitely not. We’re just friends.”

Nathan nodded sagely. “So, you have a separate room at the B and B?”

“Of course I have.”

“I was just wondering.”

“We are definitely just friends.”

“I’ve noticed that she makes you the savory stuff—pies and shit. Her others only get sweet things.”

Her other lost causes, Arthur thought. Mad Mr. Flowers, housebound Mrs. Monton and Co. “I really appreciate your mother’s efforts for me. I’ve been going through a tough time and she’s been a great help. I prefer savory to sweet.”

“Oh, yeah.” Nathan finished munching his crisps. He folded up the packet, tied it into a knot, then positioned it beneath his nose and wore it as a mustache. “My mum gets off on helping people. She’s a real saint.”

Arthur didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or not.

“Your wife. She died, didn’t she?” Nathan said.

“Yes, she did.”

“That must’ve been pretty shit, huh?”

For a second, Arthur felt like jumping over the seats into the front of the car and ripping the crisp packet out from under Nathan’s nose. How easily young people could dismiss death, as if it was some far-off country that they’d never get to visit. And how dare he talk so casually about Miriam like that. He dug his fingernails into the leather seat. His cheeks burned and he stared out of the window to avoid catching Nathan’s gaze in the vanity mirror.

A woman wearing a black T-shirt printed with a badger was dragging her screaming toddler across the car park. The little girl clutched a Happy Meal bag. An elderly lady stepped out of a red Ford Focus and began to shout, too. She pointed at the bag. Three generations of family arguing over a McDonald’s hamburger.

Arthur had to answer Nathan because it would be rude not to, but he couldn’t be bothered to describe how he felt. “Yes. Pretty shit,” he responded, not even realizing he had sworn.

“Here we are, then.” Thankfully, the front door opened and Bernadette maneuvered a series of stuffed carrier bags into the foot well of the car. She then tried curving into her seat to fit herself around them. “Are we ready to go?” she asked, fastening her seat belt.

“What have you got in there, Mum? There’s only a Maccie D’s and a WHSmiths in that place,” Nathan said.

“Just some magazines, drinks, chocolaty things for the journey. You and Arthur might get hungry.”

“I thought you had food in the trunk.”

“I know, but it’s nice to have fresh stuff.”

“I thought we’d be getting tea at the B and B,” Nathan said. “We’ll be there in an hour.”

Arthur felt uncomfortable. Bernadette was only trying to please. “I’m a little peckish actually,” he said, trying to support her, even though he wasn’t hungry at all. “A drink and snack would be just the ticket.”

He was rewarded with a warm smile, a king-size Twix and a two-liter bottle of Coke.


His bedroom at the B and B was tiny, with just enough space for a single bed, a rickety wardrobe and a chair. There was the smallest sink he had ever seen in the corner with a wrapped soap the size of a Babybel cheese. The toilet and bath (the landlady informed him) were on the next floor up. No baths after nine at night and you had to give the toilet a firm flush or else it wouldn’t get rid of all the contents.

Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he had slept in a single bed. It seemed so narrow and confirmed his status as a widower. The bedding was bright and fresh, though, and he sat on the side of the bed and looked through the sash window. A seagull strutted along the windowsill and there was a pleasant view of the park across the street.

Usually the first thing he and Miriam would do when they got to a room in a B and B was to have a nice cup of tea and see what type of cookie graced the courtesy tray. They had devised a rating system together. Obviously, receiving no cookies at all scored a big fat zero. Digestives scored a two. Custard creams were a little better coming in at a four. Bourbons he had originally rated as a five but he had grown to appreciate them, so upgraded them to a six. Any cookie that tasted of chocolate without containing any had to be admired. Farther up the scale were the posh cookies usually provided by the larger hotel chains—the lemon and ginger cookies or chocolate chip, which came in at an eight. For a ten, the cookies had to be homemade by the proprietors, and this was very rare.

Here, there was a packet of two ginger nuts. They were perfectly acceptable but the sight of them in their packet made his heart sink. He took one out and munched on it, then folded over the packet and put it back on the tray. The remaining ginger nut was Miriam’s cookie. He couldn’t bring himself to eat it.

There was still two hours before he had arranged to meet Bernadette and Nathan for their evening meal in the restaurant downstairs. He and Miriam would usually put their anoraks on and go for a walk to explore and get their bearings, to plan what they would do the next day. But he didn’t want to go out on his own. There didn’t seem much point in discovering things alone. Out of the window he watched as Nathan sloped out toward the park. He had one hand dug in his pocket and smoked a cigarette. Arthur wondered if Bernadette knew about this bad habit.