The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
by Phaedra Patrick
If Arthur had ever been asked to describe how he imagined Paris, he would say that actually he had never given much thought to the place. He had seen the Eiffel Tower on the place mats that Miriam had bought for half price in the Sainsbury's sale and once watched a program about a cruise boat that took tourists up and down the Seine, sailed by a captain who was both seasick and allergic to helping people. Arthur thought that the water looked rather murky and that if he had to sail anywhere it would be on one of those sleek white cruise ships with swimming pools on board, hopping off around the Mediterranean. Paris just wasn't one of those places that appealed to him.
Miriam, however, had a preoccupation with all things French. When it was on offer, she subscribed to a magazine called Viva! that featured lots of photos of chic women dancing through puddles while holding umbrellas, sipping tiny cups of coffee or carrying small dogs in the baskets on the front of their bicycles.
As far as he could remember she had never expressed a strong desire to visit Paris. She had said that the prices in shops were very expensive. He thought she knew this through reading her magazine. He himself had pictured a clichélots of people wearing striped tops, with strings of garlic and baguettes of bread poking out of their baskets.
His views were challenged yet again. It was as if everything he thought he knew, or even thought, was being rewritten. Paris was beautiful.
He stood at the side of the street and took in a picture-postcard scene. A skinny black cat slinked across the pavement in front of him. The white dome of the Sacré Coeur shone like an iced cake in the sunshine. The sound of a violin drifted from the louvered windows of an apartment over a coffee shop.
A man on a bicycle rode past whistling something melodic and beautiful. He could smell freshly baked bread from the patisserie, and his mouth began to water as he saw the flamingo-pink macaroons and meringues piled high on a cake stand.
Blossoms drifted from the trees as Arthur crossed the road to the boutique. Lucy didn't want to come into the little Parisian wedding dress shop fearing it would bring back bad memories of her wedding to Anthony. "I'll get a coffee and croissant at the café across the road and wait for you there," she said. Then she added, "Good luck."
In the window, one wedding dress lay draped over a white iron garden chair. A birdcage hung from the ceiling in which sat a feathered papier-mâché dove. The dress was oyster white with a bodice intricately adorned with tiny pearls in the shape of a clamshell. The skirt was embroidered with wavelike swirls. A dress fit for a mermaid. The sign read Le Dé à Coudre d'Or. In smaller letters underneath it said Propriétaire: Sylvie Bourdin.
As he reached up to twist the large brass doorknob, he caught sight of the back of his hand. His skin was translucent with blue motorway-map-like veins. His nails were thick and yellowing. In the glass of the door the young man who had married Miriam had vanished and in his place was an old man with too-thick white hair and wrinkles like a walnut. Time had gone so quickly. Sometimes he barely knew himself. He gave a wry smile and at least recognized his front teeth, which had always been slightly crooked.
A chain of small bells tinkled as he stepped inside. The shop was so cool that he shivered. The white marble floor glittered beneath a chandelier the size of a tractor tire. A row of wedding dresses hung on a rail down one side of the shop. There was a gold throne covered in blue velvet on which sat a Pomeranian dog. It wore a blue studded collar, the same color as the chair seat.
A lady appeared through an archway. She wore an immaculately cut cobalt blue suit and a wrist full of gold bangles. He estimated that she was a similar age to himself, though a good skin-care regime, lashings of black mascara and scarlet lips made her look fifteen years younger. Her hair was platinum and coiffed into a high bun and she had the lithe body of a dancer. "Bonjour, monsieur," her voice lilted. "Comment puis-je vous aider?"
Arthur felt like he was back in French class stumbling for words. He had never been any good at languages, telling himself that it was unlikely he was going to venture far enough away from York to put them to any use. "Bonjour," he said, but then any French words whatsoever evaded him. He smiled to make up for his ignorance. "I am, er, looking for Madame Bourdin, the owner of the boutique."
"I am she, monsieur."
"Oh, good." He sighed with relief. "You speak English."
"I try. Comme ci, comme ça." Her laugh tinkled around the shop like the silver bells hung over the door. "Sometimes, though, my words are not so good. Are you looking for a wedding dress, sir?" She waved her hand as if waving a wand over his clothes.
Arthur looked down half expecting to now be dressed like Prince Charming. "Oh, no," he said. "Not for me. Well, obviously not for me. But I came to see you. I think."
"Moi?" She held her hands to her heart. "How lovely. Take a seat." She led the way to a white desk and waved him to the chair oppositeanother throne with a blue cushion. "How can I assist you?"
Arthur took a photograph out of his pocket and placed it on the desk. It was one of Miriam and the children on the beach at Scarborough. "Have you owned the shop long?"
"Ah, oui. Many, many years now. I am the original owner."
"Then I think you may have known my wife."
She raised one eyebrow but then picked up the photograph. For a moment she studied it. She looked up at Arthur. Her eyes widened. "Oh, my. This is Miriam, non?"
She peered back at the photograph. "Could you be You are Arthur?"
"Yes." His heart did a small flip. "You know of me?"
"A long time ago, Miriam wrote to me. Not very often, but then I wasn't very good at keeping in touch, either. I am a good dress designer, but at letters, not so good. She told me that she was getting married to a lovely man named Arthur. I was invited to your wedding but unfortunately I had to stay in Paris to look after my mother. I offered Miriam a dress from the boutique but she wore her mother's dress, yes? So I sent her a present instead. It was a little charm that I found in an antiques shopa gold thimble. It is the name of my shop."
"My daughter and I found a slip of paper with the name on it."
"I enclosed a small note when I sent Miriam the charm "
Arthur took the charm bracelet from his pocket and held it out for her.
"But this is the charm!" Madame Bourdin exclaimed. "Miriam used to wear this bracelet all the time. That is why, when I saw the charm, I had to buy it to send to her."
"I am trying to find out the stories behind this charm and the others, madame."
"Madame. Tsk. You must call me Sylvie. You are asking me the stories, but can Miriam herself not tell you?" Her voice raised an octave with anticipation. "Is she here with you? It has been too many years."
Arthur lowered his eyes. "I'm afraid she passed away, a year ago."
"Ah, non! I am so very sorry, Arthur. C'est terrible. Many times I thought of her over the years. Many times I said that I must find her and get in touch. But then I am so busy with the shop and something else would pop into my head other than Miriam. But there are always some people that you keep in your heart, yes? That you never forget."
"How did you know each other?"
"We met through a man. He was named François."
"Yes. You know of him?"
"I was one of his girlfriends when Miriam worked for him. He did not treat either of us well. When I came to my senses and decided to return to Paris I suggested to Miriam that she join me. So we escaped together! We had no plan, no money. It was an adventure." She hesitated. "What happened to her ?"
"She died from pneumonia. It was a huge shock."
Sylvie shook her head. "She was a good person. When we met I spoke only a little English and she spoke only a little French, but we connected. Did you know that she helped me to set up this shop? I had always wanted to own a little wedding boutique. Me and Miriam used to sit on the benches at the side of the Seine and feed the swans with seed and bread. We talked about our dreams, or rather I did. I was always, how do you say it? A dreamer?"
"One day we walked past a wholesaler's shop. It was closing down. They were selling off the wedding dresses very cheaply, by the box. A van was parked on the road and two men were carrying the boxes and putting them in the back. We stood and watched. When it drove off one of the men, the owner, noticed that we were interested and asked if we would like to buy the rest of the dresses. Miriam did not understand much of what he was saying so I translated. The dresses were a good price but not cheap enough for me. I was very poor, surviving only on bread and cheese. But Miriam told me not to take no for an answer. She told me what to say to the man and I did as she said. I said that I was a young woman looking for an opportunity to sell wedding dresses, that he could help to change my life. Together, we charmed him.
"In the end I bought twenty dresses for half of what the man asked originally. So, now I had all these dresses and nowhere to sell them. I had no shop and my apartment was on the third floor over a launderette. Miriam shook her head and said, 'Of course we have somewhere!' We hung them from a blossom tree and sold them in the street. They looked beautiful hanging there in the sunshine like exotic birds. There were many chic ladies passing by and, even if they weren't getting married themselves, they told their friends. Word was passed on from lady to lady. At the end of the day there were only two dresses left. That is how my business started. Or I could say bloomed. We went back to the wholesaler and bought another box and did the same thing for the next three days. When we had finished I had enough money to put down three month's rent on this shop. Over the years the shop has grown. I have extended. I create my own dresses now, but it all started with me and your wife hanging twenty dresses from a tree."
"That's a lovely story." Arthur hadn't heard it before but he could picture Miriam and Sylvie as young women laughing and climbing in the blossom tree.
"When she traveled back to England, we wrote to each other for a while. I had the shop and then Miriam had her children. Time moves so quickly."
As she spoke, memories began to develop in Arthur's head. Miriam had mentioned a friend who owned a dress shop. He couldn't recall her saying if it was in France or not. So, she hadn't kept this part of her life secret. Occasionally she would use a French wordpourquoi or merci. Now he cursed himself for not paying more attention. It had been difficult to concentrate on anything other than his tea when he got in from work. When the kids were in bed, he had enjoyed time with his wife. They chatted about their day rather than about their past. He wished he had taken more of an interest.
"You must join me for a glass of champagne and a little something to eat in Miriam's memory," Sylvie said. "I will tell you more about how we met and what fun we had. We only knew each other for a few months, but they are memories that last forever. And you can tell me, too. Tell me about your life together and your children. I want to know more about my friend."
Excerpted from The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. Copyright © 2016 by Phaedra Patrick. Excerpted by permission of Mira Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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