THE TRILBY HAT
[Part 1 of 2]
It was a snow-laden Christmas Eve. Police Constable Paul Reeman was approaching the end of his shift and glad of it as he rounded the corner of Fenchurch Street.
Then he saw them. Two youths. Faces partly covered by woollen scarves, they were leaning threateningly over an old man in a snow-heaped gutter. Paul broke into an unsteady run, careful lest he slipped on ice. It looked like Alfred Munro, the loner.
Wisps of breath gushing out of his mouth, Paul lifted the cold whistle to his blue lips.
The two muggers froze at the shrill noise.
"The filth!" one of them yelled.
Paul was barely yards from them when his boots slipped. Although he retained his balance, the few seconds delay gave the two thugs time to scurry off.
He was tempted to follow, but Alfred seemed in a bad way. There was no blood or obvious injury, but the old man was sobbing.
"It's all right, Alfred," he said. "They've run off." He helped the frail old man up.
Alfred wiped his blood-shot eyes. "I - I'm all right," he wheezed, "But - it's my hat - they stole my trilby."
Thinking back, Paul did recall one of the youths had worn a hat. They must have been baiting Alfred. He flushed hotly. "I'll see what I can do," Paul promised, not holding out much hope.
But Alfred didn't seem to hear. "Must get it back… You see, I've had it nigh on fifty-two years. Christmas..."
The war was in its fifth Christmas. Alfred gazed at the 1943 calendar with its popular scene of skating on the Thames in the days of Queen Bess. He thought about Liz, his wife, who died six years ago. Thank God she missed this terrible war.
He looked around the cosy room: utility furniture, an embroidered pouffé, a whicker basket sewing box and a well-placed chintz-covered suite that concealed the thread-bare carpet's many patches, whilst the dining table stood cluttered with the remains of their frugal evening meal.
The tiny coal fire flickered warmly in the tiled fire-place, its firelight reflected from the far corner where stood the proud Christmas tree, a battered fairy perched precariously on top; sparkling tinsel was draped over the branches. The tub, tightly packed with fresh black soil was wrapped with brown paper, which had been painted by Connie, his grand-daughter.
The other decorations were sparse, but for all that the festive season shone from wherever Alfred looked.
There was a gaiety, a family warmth, an atmosphere here that no war could possibly destroy.
Beyond the shielding hills of their small Hampshire town, air-raid sirens wailed.
Alan, his son-in-law stopped playing with Connie on the hearth-rug. "They seem closer tonight, Pop," he said.
Denise, his daughter, paused from her knitting and her troubled eyes sought Alfred.
He forced a smile of reassurance. "We've nothing worth bombing." Accepting this, they returned to their own amusements, whilst Alfred smiled contentedly to himself and looked at his daughter.
She's grown into a fine woman, he thought. Liz would have been proud of her. A full- no, a comely - figure, married so young, with her mother's auburn hair and hazel eyes aglow in the firelight. But she possessed his stubbornness.
And the memories flooded back. With an effort he blinked them away.
Yes, and Alan made a good husband. Denise was lucky to have Alan home, in a reserved occupation in the dockyard. Alan stood by her side, his thick spectacles reflecting the fairy lights.
He just had to look at young Connie there, the best of both of them already noticeable in her. Precocious, certainly, with a will of her own at times, but a little darling with it. He spoiled her unashamedly. And Denise scolded him, but she didn't mind, not really. Surely all grand-fathers are the same.
In a few more hours they would be opening their gifts. But he couldn't face that yet; it still sorely reminded him of Liz and how they used to dote over Denise... Perhaps next year the wound would have healed sufficiently, though of course never completely; he didn't want to forget her, just to deaden the hurt at times like this.
Reluctantly he rose from his comfortable chair. "Denise." He cleared his throat. "Denise, I think I'll be off now. It's getting late for me - and for you, Connie - Father Christmas will want to climb down the chimney soon..."
Connie giggled excitedly at mention of Santa.
Denise bundled her knitting into an embroidered bag. "As you wish, Dad." She helped him on with his great-coat.
"Granda!" Connie shouted, crushing herself against his legs. "You can't go yet. You haven't had your present."
Alfred patted his coat-pockets, each filled with a package from Denise and Alan to open first thing tomorrow morning before his return here for lunch. "But I have. I wouldn't forget these."
Connie shook her head vigorously. "No, Granda! No, you haven't had mine!"
Alfred noticed a puzzled look between Denise and Alan. Apparently, then, their daughter had kept her secret well.
Perhaps their neighbour had bought the present. With great ceremony his grand-daughter walked to the under-stairs cupboard and tossed out two gas-masks in cardboard boxes then handed over a large brown-paper parcel. It seemed to be a gift-wrapped boot-box.
"Thank you, darling," he said and he leaned forward to kiss her.
But she backed away, lips pouted. "Aren't you going to open it now, Granda?"
"But it isn't Christmas yet." He pointed to the mantel clock. "A few hours to midnight, you see?"
"Please, Granda," she pleaded, face slightly pulled.
"Well... all right, but only if you promise to stop making faces."
She stopped almost at once, changing her grimace into a mischievous smile.
Slowly and carefully he unwrapped the gift.
It was an old boot-box. He lifted the lid and the sight took his breath away. Nestling amidst a bed of tissue paper was a brown trilby hat, its brim slightly bent so it would fit into the confines of the box.
"Put it on, Granda!"
He swallowed hard but the lump in his throat persisted. Alan and Denise smiled.
Removing the hat reverently from the box, he knelt in front of her. "No, you put it on for me, Connie."
She almost knocked him over as she dashed to do just that.
As it finally sat snuggly, a perfect fit, he held Connie at arm's-length and asked if she thought it suited him.
"Oh, yes! You look just like a Granda. Really important."
And they all laughed.
Then he suddenly lifted her high, almost touching her head to the ceiling. Connie shrieked happily.
Presently, he lowered her and kissed her flushed cheeks.
"Well, merry Christmas, everybody," he wished them as he walked to the door with Connie's small hand in his. He carefully wrapped his long woolly scarf round his neck, criss-crossed his chest then buttoned up his great-coat. "I must go now, Connie."
Denise opened the front door.
The cold air made them all gasp. The snow still fell silently, lending a bright peaceful glow to the otherwise drab street.
"I'll keep this hat always. I promise," he said.
Connie's little chest swelled and her smile seemed to fill the doorway. Alan held his daughter back. "Merry Christmas, Granda!" she said.
Shivering in the cold air, Denise whispered, "Is the hat all right, Dad?" He nodded. She then whispered, "It was a gift to Alan from his poor Mum, but he doesn't like hats... We didn't know Connie'd planned this - "
"It's all right, love. It's a smashing present. Now, go back in, it's cold out here. I'll see you tomorrow for Christmas dinner..."
Quickly he stepped onto the crisp snow. Flakes whisped onto his shoulders and the brim of his new hat. He waved. "Merry Christmas!" His voice echoed through the snow-filled night.
Far-off could be heard the crump of bombs and ack-ack, but not here.
At that moment a whistle shrilled. An ARP warden came running up the street. "Put that light out!" he called.
Turning, Alfred noticed the hall light on and his family silhouetted in the doorway. Hurriedly waving, they closed the door and the house darkened.
Further over to the east he spotted searchlights. The snow was like dust in a light-beam. Tracer and ack-ack blossomed, more reminiscent of Guy Fawkes than Christmas Eve.
He then took off his hat and wiped the snow-deposits away. It was a beautiful hat. Really good quality and hard-wearing. Yes, it would last for years.
The sudden whistling alerted him first. A terrible coldness clutched his heart. The bomb cluster was close and there wasn't an air-raid shelter near.
He froze fearfully to the spot, panic weakening his limbs.
Seconds later, the explosion's impact reached him, blinding yellow and red, the shock waves throwing him painfully to the sludge on the road.
… To be concluded tomorrow…
If you liked this short story, you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.