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Under Your Hat: A Short Story

The problem is that no one wears a hat anymore. People don’t know what to do with their hands these days. There is nothing to whip off your head in a temper. Jump on in a fury. There is nothing to doff anymore. Nothing to fiddle with. No velvet brim to run through your fingers when relaying bad news. Nothing to wave goodbye with, to fling in the air and catch in moments of unbridled joy. When did you last see someone in a tight wind, one hand clutching the brim of their hat, as the last train puffs its way into the station?

I still wear a hat. I even sleep in one. Admittedly, I don’t need it. I’m not an Edwardian maid in a poorly heated house. I don’t scrub the hearth, empty chamber pots and wring my chilblained hands. Imagine the excitement of being told an eligible bachelor was about to come calling for you. The frenzied ripping-off of your lowly mop cap. Taking the stairs three at a time to dig out your best bonnet. Imagine believing that a hat could change who you were. That a hat could make someone love you.

My favourite hat is my old Homburg. It feels like a friend. Smells like felt and dust and sour pickles. It's the longest relationship I’ve ever had, me and my hat. Sure, it has been steamed and reshaped, glued a little here and there, but haven’t we all in one way or another? Over the years, I have reached for that hat the way other men reached for whiskey, a woman. A whip, their gun. Once, an acquaintance at work asked to try it on, one hand already rising to take it from my head. “A man would no more wear another man's hat than he would their socks or their shoes,” I told him. "It's simply not cricket.” He didn’t understand of course. Hadn’t seen Indiana Jones. Didn’t know the lengths a man would go to for his headwear. “I’d prefer you took my wife than my hat,” I told him. I wasn’t joking.

I buried my wife in a hat. It was bright purple and had a red netted veil that took me hours to find and hid her frightening eyebrows. I wasn’t scared of them by then of course. Forty years of marriage and her now being a corpse will do that to a person.

The lady at the funeral parlour didn’t think it was right. The hat. She said it didn’t seem proper. She talked about curlers, but I told her that my wife’s hair was resistant to all styling and softening. Even the rain couldn’t penetrate it. It was the reason she married me. I was the only person who didn’t think it odd that she always wore a hat. I thought we were kindred spirits. Two old souls dropped in the wrong century. I thought her the height of fashion. She thought me a fool.

I tried to bring her joy through headwear. Straw boaters with wide ribbon bands. Pink pillboxes with chiffon bows, and once a plaid deerstalker with fur-lined ear flaps. She scowled at me and pulled the sagging brim of her brown cloche hat further down over her hateful ears. How I loathed that hat of hers. It sat on her head like a mean hissing cat. Her shadow was the thing of childhood nightmares. She even wore it at our wedding. A brown two-piece to match and square ended shoes. My mother sighed. My father blanched. Nodded his head towards the doors but I shook my head no, said I do and kissed her cold shrivelled little lips.

The first time I saw her hatless (our wedding night, a small hotel in Blackpool) I reared back in horror and knocked the water jug off the nightstand. I spent the rest of our married life trying to make up for it, but it never worked. Every night when she served my dinner, she offered me a glass of water like it was a dare. I have been thirsty for forty years. Me and my wife were never truly alone. Her hat slept next to her bed with one eye half-open. Mine clung onto the hook on the back of the door in horror.

The lady at the funeral parlour had tight pin curls and said she would show me a folder of ‘looks’ she could offer my wife. Hair and makeup. My wife thought make-up was for fast women and pantomime dames. I was briefly entertained by the idea of giving her whiskers, but the hat I choose was enough. It even had plastic fruit on it. I will not tell you what I did with her brown velvet number. Her deceitful, beastly cloche hat. The hat that ruined my life. I will never speak of it to anyone. It was between me and the hat.

I buried my wife in a purple and red hat and pink driving gloves. Even though she wasn’t driving. That said, had she woken in her coffin and made a wheel from whatever was in her bottomless handbag and steered her way back to me, it wouldn’t have surprised me. If she ever found out what I did to her hat, she would have murdered me. That is why I didn’t bury my wife with her handbag. I still don’t put anything past her. Not even in death.

You’d think I’d have been put off. That hats had let me down, but I’m not done with them yet. I even bought a new one for the funeral. An admiral's hat like Napoleon wore on the battlefields, braided on each side in gold. Had I not survived a war after all? Avoided the barbed wire of my wife’s hair, the machine gun of her stare all those years? The proper name, I told people, was a Bicorne. They were stunned into silence by the beauty, the majesty of it. Some shook their head in wonder. I understood. When I first saw myself in the mirror I welled up too. There are not many times in a man’s life when he can wear whatever he damn well chooses. When it happens to you, I sincerely hope you make the most of it. As Frederick The Great said, a crown is merely a hat with a hole in it. Go big or go home, and remember too what Frank Sinatra said, Cock your hats, angles are attitudes. My wife probably turned in her coffin at the sight of me. My wife didn’t think a man needed more than one hat and two shirts. One to wear and one to wash. Why she then complained about yellow stains on my collars is anyone’s guess. She’d rub her scouring brush over and over with such agitation on her face, I’d feel it on my neck.

My wife wore a housecoat, hat, and a pinny at all times. A tea towel over her shoulder, ready to strike at any time. I buried her in it with a stiff starched collar. As white as all the snow that ever fell. That’s a line from Moby Dick. My wife didn’t like Moby Dick. She said it was a load of fanciful nonsense. She only watched the film because Gregory Peck was in it. She didn’t like his fake leg though. Said it was unnecessary. I told her it was the whole point of the film. Vengeance and retribution. The madness of man! She said he was better in Roman Holiday. I said all he did in that film was drive around on a moped and lie about his job. Audrey Hepburn looked wonderful in it though. She wore a half-hat with a halo-effect brim. I knew better than to mention this to my wife of course. Once I stupidly told her that a chef hat has a hundred folds to signify all the ways they could cook an egg. She could only cook them badly, so they tasted like regret and sexual frustration.

We sang Nearer my God to Thee as my wife went down to the crematorium, because she liked the Titanic. What there was to like about it I’ve no idea. I said it was a tragedy. She said it was romantic. I offered to take her on a cruise. She told me I was uncouth. I tried to make her happy. I really did. I went to hair salons and bought expensive shampoos and setting sprays. There is a small scar on the side of my head from the hairbrush I bought her. I tried to tell her it didn’t matter. Once I even offered to wash it for her. She called me a deviant, spent the night on the phone to her mother, muttering curse words. I bought hat after hat after hat for her. The woman at the Milliners would sigh at me and clasp her hands in wonder at my dedication. Told me that my wife was a lucky lady indeed. And I couldn’t bear to take them home to her. They went to the charity shop instead.

‘Another hat?’ the woman would ask, eyebrow raised. They thought my wife had ideas above her station. ‘Do you even get a hot dinner with all the time she spends gallivanting about in fanciful headwear? And can’t she wear the same thing twice? You must be down to brass buttons. Take a lolly you poor man. Take two.’ I read a love poem out at my wife’s funeral. One of Shakespeare’s finest. ‘My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Not a dry eye in the house after that one.

Shakespeare wore a Friar Tuck style beret, complete with a feather. Shakespeare knew how to look good. He knew the importance of headwear. Of having something to pull down over your eyes, to wring out in excruciating moments of anxious tension. Hats could give you a certain je ne sais quoi. Yes, hats are what is wrong with the world today. This hatless populace. No one wants to look their best anymore. London understands. Black taxis still have a tall roof so that bowler hats can fit in. Not that anyone wears hats anymore except me and foolish tourists. People walk about naked now. Big ears out for everyone to see. Receding hairlines and bald patches. Flaking scalps and hairy necks. There is no mystery anymore. Nothing left to discover about each other. Paddington bear kept a marmalade sandwich under his red bucket hat. The royal guard kept a thermos of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake under his bearskin. My wife kept the ugliest hair you ever saw under her hat. Under my own I kept so much; all the names she called me, all the contempt, all those years.


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