THE TRILBY HAT
[Part 2 of 2]
All around stark blasts deafened Alfred. Flashes of light and flames sprouted everywhere. Black smoke mushroomed into the wintry night sky.
Still giddy, he regained his feet. A sickly knowing feeling in the pit of his stomach gave strength to his ageing legs. Ignoring the dull ache of a bruised hip and shoulder, he rushed back to the ruin.
An ARP warden and a couple of neighbours were already sifting through the rubble, even though the dust cloud hadn't settled yet.
Mercifully the houses on either side had been spared, only their windows shattered, a few roof slates dislodged.
Alfred stood, unable to move, and his mouth felt very dry. Somewhere a fire bell clanged, and another.
A fractured water-main gushed high, sparkling in the torch-light.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, Alfred knelt by the debris where the front of the house had been. "Here!" he cried out to the frantic helpers. "They were here!" And he started heaving bricks to one side, gashing his knees and hands in his haste, heedless of the cold.
The ARP warden who shouted the warning earlier was soon panting by his side. "They won't have known what happened, mate. It'll've been over quick. A direct hit, you see?"
Two hours later Alfred collapsed, exhausted, after they unearthed the battered Christmas tree. Miraculously, the fairy survived intact. The ARP carried him to the doorstep next door. There, a kindly neighbour gave him a chipped metal mug of sweet tea.
Now, shakily, he got to his feet and shuffled over to identify them. His whole family, wiped out. He would never forget the joyous look on little Connie's face, he thought, gripping his trilby hat tight.
Paul Reeman was on his way home when he heard scuffling in the dark. He flashed the beam of his torch across the nearby waste-land and relaxed. It was only a fox.
Then he picked out the shape of a battered hat and he recalled the incident earlier with old Alfred. Could this be his trilby? It looked the same colour. But it was so timeworn, and crumpled.
The hat felt dry though cold and it was reasonably clean. It hadn't been lying here long, then. The label was faded but he could just make out GRANDA and LOVE. Might as well call round on my way home, he decided, and tucked it inside his overcoat.
The dawn light was streaming down the deserted street as Paul walked up to the door. A few curtains twitched in the neighbouring terraced houses even at this hour. He rang once, his eyes drawn to the flaking paintwork.
The door opened. A musty smell greeted him, of untended dust, of age. Alfred stood shivering in his worsted trousers, shirt sleeves and braces. In the weak hall light Paul noticed a bruise under the old man's left eye. "You all right?"
Alfred nodded, eyes questioning.
"I think I recognised those louts," Paul continued. "Would you come to an identity parade?"
Alfred's three remaining teeth shone as he smiled. "Yes, it'll be a bloody great pleasure." He hesitated on the doorstep. "It was good of you to call. Erm, come in."
"No, I can't stop. I'm expected home," Paul explained. He rummaged inside his coat. "Is this yours?" he asked awkwardly, handing over the aged trilby hat.
The expression on Alfred's face had Paul worried for a moment. Then the old man seemed to collect himself. "You've made me very happy, constable." Tears gathered around his weak grey eyes.
Feeling uncomfortable all of a sudden, Paul backed away and bid Alfred good-morning.
"Merry Christmas!" Alfred called after him. "Merry Christmas."
Paul waved. He couldn't understand it. It was as though he had bestowed some wondrous gift on Alfred. Then he remembered the label in the hat. Granda and Love. Indeed, it was sometimes easy to forget in this material world, Christmas was not only a time for giving but also a time for remembering.
"Merry Christmas!" Paul replied.
'The Trilby Hat' was originally broadcast on British Forces Radio, Malta, read by Reverend Ray Jones, November 1975. For the time transition, the production team used incidental music which proved effective. I jiggled the date-time for the printed version some years later…
Published in The Portsmouth Post, 2003.
Copyright Nik Morton, 1975, 2003, 2014.
Note: The hat's name derives from the stage adaptation of George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby; a hat of this style was worn in the first London production of the play. In the book the heroine is Trilby O'Ferrall; she is strongly influenced by a Jewish rogue, Svengali. The book has been republished under the title of Svengali; it was one of the first best-sellers in modern literature.
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.