The icy gust of wind left his head abruptly bare and he stood forlornly on the busy pavement, his hands belatedly clutching at his balding pate. Raindrops splashed against his already-cold fingers. Passers-by stared curiously at him from within their tightly-fastened high-collar coats as they hurried by. Arthur turned stiffly on his heel and tried to catch sight of the fleeing hat, but the swell of bobbing heads made it difficult to see more than a few yards.
There! A gap opened up, giving him a fleeting glimpse of the water-rippled road. Something had just fled behind a clattering red sports car. He stared intently, hoping to catch sight of his errant hat as the car moved forward, but his hopes were dashed by a black, wind-shredded umbrella. It flapped in his face like a trapped raven, narrowly missing his eye. Impatiently, he swept it aside, leaning over towards the road in his desperation to catch sight of the sports car.
But it had already moved on, creeping slowly up the traffic-choked street, signing the air with blue smoke that swirled briefly before being torn away by the freshening breeze. The tarmac it left behind was momentarily empty, devoid even of Arthur’s headgear. Then a hard-driven white van devoured the space greedily, cutting off all sight of the road. And Arthur’s hope of locating his hat.
It’s gone! He stared down the street in dismay, his raincoat flapping manically against his legs. Unconcerned passers-by brushed against his back and bumped into his elbows as they squeezed past, but he was oblivious to them as they hurried past in a river of pale faces. A sudden wave of loneliness washed over him. Tears sprang into his eyes. The hat had been his final link to the past. Unbidden, his mind washed up the memory of the day he had found it; or rather, the young lady who had found it for him. He glanced up at the frantic clouds. It had been a very different day to this one; warm, bright and full of optimism.
Just like I used to be.
He smiled through his pain. He’d been leaning against a plate glass window, peering into the milliners shop, wondering why on earth anyone would want to strut about with such ridiculous garments balanced on their heads. As he’d turned away, shaking his head, a polite cough distracted him. Frowning slightly, he turned to peer with sun-dazzled eyes at the young woman before him. She perched uncertainly on fashionably high heels. Her youth-blessed face smiled back at his weather-worn one. Her strawberry blonde hair flowed over her shoulder, curling inwards to touch below her throat. Maverick strands brushed her cheeks, teased gently by the bright morning breeze.
“I think you might have dropped this, she said cautiously. “It was on the ground right behind you.” He found himself staring down at the workers flat cap, displayed on her upturned palms as if it was her first pie at a WI meeting. Arthur found himself entranced by her contralto tones.
“It is yours, isn’t it? she asked, her smile fading. He lifted his eyes to gaze into hers. They were blue, just like his own. Her eyelashes fluttered nervously. The polite smile was melting quickly from her face. He risked another glance at the hat. It was almost identical to the ones littering the shelves only a few feet behind him. Why would anyone want to strut about – ?
“I’m sorry, she began, her foot already lifting to draw her away from him. Her smile was gone.
“I’ve made a mistake. Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. She was leaving! He stared at the offending headgear once again, tightened his jaw and made his decision. If it gets her to stay, then so be it! In a sudden flurry of motion, he plucked the hat from her hands and pulled it into place over his dark hair, one hand at the peak, one at the back, just as the men at the mill had done a thousand times. The tops of their heads beneath him had been a rushing river of flat caps heading for the steel gates. The glass in his lofty office had fairly vibrated to their siren-driven stampede. She started at his sudden action, then smiled at him, white teeth contrasting her ruby lips. She smiled at me! He grinned back at her for a moment, then remembered his manners.
“Thanks – for the hat, I mean.”
“That’s quite all right. It was yours, after all.”
“Of course, of course,” Arthur muttered absently, glancing quickly up and down the quiet street, nervously. Someone’s lost this… monstrosity. What if they see me wearing it? Was the owner, even now, stamping towards him with furious eyes?
“I’d like to thank you properly,” he said quickly, suddenly anxious to get off the street. His nerves tripped his tongue mischievously.
“Can I b-buy you a tea, or a cup of cake?”
The young lady stifled her giggles with a lace-gloved hand. Arthur found the gesture deeply endearing. He offered his arm, and after only a heartbeat, she took it. Together they had stepped lightly towards the nearest Tea Shop, grinning broadly at each other.
From that instant the pair had been just like Arthur’s lost hat, rolling along in the winds that drove their lives. Their relationship had breezed along. Their engagement had been described by their friends as ‘whirlwind’ and they had married in a sudden, impromptu flurry one autumnal morning. Despite his initial misgivings about the hat, Arthur had pulled it onto his head every day since their first meeting – except for their wedding day. She had been firm on that and he had acquiesced gracefully. Still, he had managed to steal it onto his head for one final photograph, having secreted it into his jacket pocket on his way to the church. She hadn’t noticed the mischief on the day but when the proofs had come back she had laughed with delight at the sight of him in his dinner jacket, sporting the cap which had brought them together. That photograph had been lovingly pasted into the last page of their album.
Now the album lay somewhere in his attic, buried beneath years of stored detritus and the odd unwanted wedding present. He sighed. Note to self: Must clear out the attic before the new buyers arrive. I don’t want them to find poor Ellen’s clothes. I should have cleared them out years ago. They’d probably wonder at the way the clothes were organised into their little boxes. He ticked off the bundles mentally. Ellen’s size 10 clothes, Ellen’s size 12s. Ellen’s brief urge to buy maternity clothes – that she never got to wear. Ellen’s large box of size 14 when she had subsequently become depressed. Then her newer clothes; size 12, size 10. The 10s were brightly coloured and decorated with bright floral patterns, ostensibly to hide her fear and pain. A tear stung his eye. There were very few size 8s, almost all of them coloured black. She hadn’t lived very long after her weight had nose-dived.
“Damn cancer!” he barked, startling a young couple who were hurrying past, arms entwined. Morose, he turned away from the busy road and heading into the teeth of the biting wind. Behind him the past seemed to rush away, never to be seen again.
It’s time I moved on. He nodded absently to himself. Losing that hat… it was probably for the best. He fought his way through the thronging crowd with narrowed eyes, a small scowl creasing his brow. Icy raindrops pattered against the top of his head. He shivered miserably. The beginnings of a headache prickled at his temples. His head felt cold. Absently, he reached up to adjust his hat and found his fingers clutching only frigid air.
Maybe I need to think about getting another one. Then he smiled grimly. Poor Ellen. She would have marched me straight to the nearest shop, telling me it was for my own good. A sudden flurry of icy raindrops found their way into his eyes, watering his vision. He stopped, trying to blink his eyes clear and realised he was almost level with a camping equipment shop. The familiar green logo swam before him. He stared at the shop for a moment, imagining that a crowd had gathered on the inside of the shop window, staring back at the man with no hat. He blinked – and realised that he was seeing nothing more sinister than the shop’s display of hats. Blank-eyed, dismbodied heads stared back at him over the bobbing heads of the crowd. Buy our hats! They seemed to call.
“But that hat was everything,” he muttered in reply, shaking his head. “I can’t replace it just like that”! Then he straightened, his back stiff with resolution. No, it’s time for a new start… and a new hat. He began to struggle towards the shop, battling to cross the current of the bustling crowd, trying to avoid being swept away by their single-mindedness. Elbows, bulging bags and wind-bowed umbrellas tried to deny his passage, but he persisted and it was with a great sense of relief he finally pressed his palms against the cool glass. A dozen different types of headgear vied for his attention, but none of them remotely resembled his comfortable old flat cap. Brightly coloured woollen hats, adorned with ear flaps, peaks and plaited pigtails littered the haphazard window display. Other, plainer hats, accessorised with iridescent goggles glowered darkly back at him. He felt discouraged. Maybe they wouldn’t have what he wanted. He began to turn away, then chastised himself for giving up so easily. He turned and stared into the shop doorway, determined to quiz one of the nonchalant-looking staff who lurked inside. But his feet were reluctant to carry him within. Maybe another day… He turned away and almost walked straight into the woman who had been standing directly behind him. His hands automatically grasped her upper arms to steady himself. Embarrassed by this unexpected intimacy, he released her and stepped back, bumping into the shop window.
She broke into a smile at his clumsiness. He stared at her in surprise and then in wonder. Smartly dressed, a few years younger than Ellen had been, her green eyes entranced him. Her hand moved jerkily in his peripheral vision, belatedly attracting his attention. With some difficulty and a degree of reluctance, he managed to draw his eyes downwards. Her hand proffered a brightly coloured woollen hat, slightly damp from its contact with ground. Brightly coloured stripes circled the knitted garment. He shuddered. What a ridiculous hat! Why would anyone …? He shook his head and met the woman’s gaze once again.
“Is this yours?” she asked uncertainly. “I think you might have dropped it.”