the autogeography of a no/body
Dec 21

Les Chapeaux

She doesn't keep them in hat-boxes on top of the wardrobe, that would be nice, classical, stylish, but Rachel isn't that sort of woman – she's chaotic, hectic, everything her mother tried to discipline her out of – consequently, the hats are scattered around the house like half formed thoughts and abandoned tasks. Fairy lights, laughter, empty champagne flutes, discarded books, shoes, a clutter of make-up, the towel she used to dry her hair this morning, three lighters, a chewed pencil …

The brown felt hat, hanging from a nail above her headboard, was bought from a charity shop when she was sixteen. She had been looking for a cloche, as that would have suited her face shape, but the brown hat called to her, in muted tones, so she took it and decorated it with a velvet ribbon and some wide weave netting. Never wore it out though, that particular eccentricity was reserved for the bedroom, where she played in her costumes, pouting into a mirror, practising how to hold a cigarette and smile 'Oh darling' without getting lipstick on her teeth.

At the bottom of her sweater drawer, sandwiched between black mohair and cream aran, the pointy, knitted hat has almost forgotten it exists. Her father laughed when he saw her wearing it for the first time. “You look like a Mexican yak herder,” he said.

“No I don't. Anyway, it keeps my ears warm.”

They kissed each others' right cheeks. Sometimes he used to take hold of her hand at these initial greetings. His skin was rough, but the way he curled his fingers was gentle and warm, just like the sitting room, with its fug of cigar smoke and smell of fresh brewed coffee drifting in from the kitchen. He always sat in the same place. She always sat next to him.

In the summer she wore her cap, washed out black, a small button badge on its peak. It irritated her father, as did her shaved head, pierced nose and “Fucking!” attitude. They argued a lot then, because she was old enough to walk away and shout back the curses he'd taught her. “Get here,” he stormed, pointing to a spot on the carpet. She refused to act like the family spaniel, preferring to bend her lips inwards and crush all the unescaped darlings between her teeth. Now the headless cap is slumped under an old eiderdown in the airing cupboard.

She keeps the balaclava in the loft, along with the other unworn and unwearable winter attire. Five black bin liners. One day she'll find it all over again, the way she found him, by accident. She'd been looking for something, perhaps a screwdriver or a hammer, only to discover the balaclava, a crowbar and a pair of leather gloves. “What are these for?” she said.

“Mountain climbing,” he replied.

“There aren't any mountains 'round here.”

“Don't ask questions you don't want the answers to darlin'.”

Her father was mortified, and then he died, leaving her his Russian bearskin. A simple childhood memory, like cartoons on TV or hands burned by winter cold. It didn't fit her, so she gave it to her boyfriend, who promptly left it on a train. “Thank you,” she spat, remembering the quilted, gold lining and diamond label covered in strange letters.

“I didn't do it on purpose,” he said.

“You never do.”

“I'll buy you another one.”

“Forget it,” she said, and did her best to.

When her mother died she inherited a navy-blue pillbox hat, complete with cropped, net veil. This did fit her, all too well. Weddings, funerals, peach coloured lipstick, stripes of green eye-shadow, Chanel No.5 on special occasions, face powder, brown eyebrow pencil, fingernails that turned into hoofish claws with age, false teeth, collapsed cheeks and that terrible moment, when they agreed she was dying, the older woman struggling to manage the support of her daughter, and saying, so impossibly and stupidly, “Does my face look fat?”.

“No Mum, just a bit pale.”

Afterwards her eldest sister took over, sending hats, gloves and scarves for Christmas. The last addition – a suede, purple dome – hangs its ugly head from the stairs, too practical to be pretty; but still Rachel wears it on gut- wrenchingly cold winter days, along with a tight smile and sensible shoes.

Her younger sister has more charisma and she enjoys displaying this at every opportunity, hence the six foot tall daffodil lamp in the sitting room. Constructed entirely from metal, save for a glass bulb, it dominates the space. Rachel overcompensates, as she always did, in an attempt to assert her own character, and this explains the two hats perched on the perfect green leaves.

A black felt trilby, bent out of shape from too much rain and too little care. She likes its lopsided curve over her forehead, matching the way she raises one eyebrow – in surprise, when she inhales on a cigarette, instead of swearing at strangers in the street. Arch. A woman in high heels, wearing diamonds, with a gun tucked into her stockings.

And a bowler hat, old now, half its trimming hanging off. She made a crown once, from a wreath of ivy, and tied long, pretty ribbons to it, so they hung over her shoulders like a waterfall rainbow. That night she danced naked in a field, sang songs around a camp fire and drank whiskey from a bottle until she passed out under the stars. On arriving home she realised she'd never wear her crown again. She slid it onto the brim of the bowler hat, where it sits, gathering dust.

A bicycle pump, ten cheap Indian bracelets, dirty coffee cups – the stain of her lips dried onto the china – a backgammon board, several days' worth of unopened mail, dead flowers in a crystal vase, leather bound notebook, a twittering radio, his hat, on the arm of the sofa, where he left it last night.


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