ISSUE 2 · SPRING 2009




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Copyright © 2009 

Clare Goubin

Mrs. Piccola's Hat

CLARE GOUBIN

 

 

Mrs. Piccola kept a firm hand on her hat to stop it from flying off. She could feel when it wanted to go—first it trembled, tickling her head, then it lifted itself off altogether. Sometimes it stayed floating just above her, other times it shot into the air. She had secured it with a wide ribbon, but that meant that when the hat moved, it pulled the ribbon tight under her chin, or else against her throat, depending on its intended angle of take-off. It seemed to Mrs. Piccola that the hat chose the most inopportune moments for flight, as if it were intent on making her look ridiculous.

That morning, she was deep in conversation with Mme Robert, the baker’s wife, in the bakery. They were discussing the disappearance of Tracy Tomlin, who had last been seen on the weekend while out walking her Afghan.

“I really am most worried about her,” Mrs. Piccola said. “It’s been two days now.”

“Yes. But maybe we’re alarmed over nothing. She may have gone to visit friends.”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Piccola said. “It’s not in her nature. And I think she would have told me.”

“Then maybe she just wandered off and got lost. She’s always out looking for things.”

“But that’s exactly my point, Mme Robert. She knows her way around, and she’s not someone to be taken by surprise. Especially with Artie the Afghan at her heels.”

“Pain de campagne?”

“Oh. Yes please.”

“I suppose you are right, Mrs. Piccola. That dog does go everywhere with her. Or she with it. It is protection for a girl on her own.”

“They make an intelligent pair, I think.” Mrs. Piccola put three euros on the coin tray. “I suppose she must have gone off on a discovery mission.”

“Perhaps she came across some terrible secret,” Mme Robert said.

Mrs. Piccola felt the smooth straw of her hat rubbing her hair and before she could reach it with her hand, the hat was hovering a few centimeters above her head, the ribbon taut against her chin.

Mme Robert looked at the door. It was shut. “Do you feel a draft?” she asked.

“Ah,” Mrs. Piccola said. “No. No draft.”

She pulled the hat down on her head, then picked up her loaf from the counter.

“Your change, Mrs. Piccola.” Mme Robert was staring at the hat.

Mrs. Piccola held out her hand. She unclipped her purse and as she dropped in the coins, the hat escaped again, jumping up as far as it could, straining against the ribbon, then spinning half-turns in both directions, as far as the ribbon would allow it. “I’m so sorry, Mme Robert,” Mrs. Piccola said.

“What is that, Mrs. Piccola? What is happening with your hat?”

“Oh it’s nothing.” What could she say to placate her? “It must be something to do with static electricity, I expect. The change in the weather. Oh!” The hat was jumping up and down on her head. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll . . . oh . . . I do apologize . . .”

Mme Robert crossed herself twice and stepped away from the counter, reaching out to the bread shelves for support. Mrs. Piccola struggled to open the door, willing her hat to calm down. Why had it chosen Mme Robert as witness to its idiosyncrasies?

“It’s nothing, really, Mme Robert,” she said. But Mme Robert was already reaching for her phone.

.     .     .

Mrs. Piccola had always worn a hat. Her mother had provided the rule: Never, but never, go out without one. Being someone who followed good advice to the letter, Mrs. Piccola had used the habit to the extreme. She wore a hat, naturally, when doing the shopping and visiting friends, but also when wheeling her dustbin to the end of the path and closing the garden gate, which had a habit of opening itself and squeaking, whether the wind was blowing or not.

Until recently, her hats had not been problematic, but this latest one was getting quite out of hand. Something would have to be done.

Mrs. Piccola made herself a strong cup of tea and sat in her winter garden, concentrating on her friend, Tracy Tomlin, and what could be done to find her. But the hat would not leave her in peace. She had taken to wearing it in the house as otherwise it tended to wander off and get lost, costing her valuable time when she needed it to go out.

“Oh will you keep still,” she said to the hat. It wiggled. “I’m trying to think about Tracey Tomlin. It’s important. I can’t let a thing like a hat distract me, she needs to be found.”

The hat’s wiggling grew so insistent that Mrs. Piccola’s logical instincts took over. The hat was trying to tell her something. It made sense. A hat cannot talk, so if it did have something to say, it would have to find another means of communication.

“Right,” Mrs. Piccola said. “One wiggle for yes, two for no. Are you trying to tell me something?”

Wiggle.

“Oh my goodness me. Well I never.”

The hat started jumping up and down again. The movement became so frantic and multi-directional that Mrs. Piccola was scared she would be strangled. She loosened the bow.

“Is it about Tracey Tomlin?”

Wiggle.

“Do you know something about her disappearance?”

Wiggle.

“Do you want to take me somewhere?”

Wiggle.

“You do? Oh my, what a clever hat!”

The hat stayed still.

Mrs. Piccola stared into her tea and wondered whether she had been on her own for too long. Perhaps she should make an appointment with Dr. Bourgeouaille. But he might want to sedate her, or suggest she move into the old folks’ home at Groons. The one with the noisy pipe system and musty wallpaper. She wouldn’t last a week. And besides, this couldn’t all be down to her imagination. Could it?

“Will you show me?” she asked.

Wiggle.

The hat started shaking violently, then twisted itself as far as it could in each direction.

“Good gracious, will you please stop fidgeting. At this rate I’ll be bald by the end of the afternoon if you’ve not strangled me first. Let’s stick to one wiggle for yes and two for no. Do you agree?”

The hat calmed down and wiggled once. Mrs. Piccola abandoned her tea and the comfort of her winter garden and started down the path. She made sure that the gate was latched shut behind her, then tested the hat outside.

“Left or right?”

The hat didn’t move.

“Sorry, left?”

Wiggle wiggle.

“Right then?”

Wiggle.

“Good.”

So Mrs. Piccola and her hat set off down the lane in search of Tracey Tomlin and her Afghan. Any passer-by would have wondered why Mrs. Piccola didn’t tie her bow more tightly, to stop her hat flopping about so much, but the streets were empty. And Mrs. Piccola was, for once, oblivious to the outside world, not even returning Mr. Bellow’s “Good day” when she passed his garden. Although, as Mr. Bellow was both stone-deaf and senile, she might be excused for imagining that any affront he may have felt must have been short-lived.

.     .     .

While Mrs. Piccola set out on her personal search, word was spreading in the village. People were out looking for Tracey and most of those people passed through the bakery at one time or another.

“Bonjour, Marie,” Mme Robert said. “Have you heard about Mrs. Piccola’s hat?” She explained to her in great detail, then went to fetch the special batch of soda bread that she had put aside for her.

The door opened.

“Hélène,” Marie said. “Did you know that Mrs. Piccola’s hat was possessed?”

“Possessed? What on earth do you mean?”

The door opened again. It was André. “Any news on Tracey?”

“No,” Hélène said. “But have you heard about Mrs. Piccola and her evil hat?”

And so it went on until a mixed crowd had taken over the shop: those who were scornful of the rumor and those with a greedy desire for belief.

“Of course she’s English in origin,” Hélène said.

“Yes, that’s right,” someone said.

“And nobody really knows where her family came from,” Marie said.

“We all knew her mother, Marie.” André bit into a pain aux raisins.

“Yes, André, but not her father. And her mother was a little, well . . .”

“And she has always worn a hat, each one more ridiculous than the other,” Hélène said.

“And she has a black cat,” Marie said.

“A black cat,” André said. “What does that have to do with it? I have a black cat.”

“Yes, but you’re not a witch,” someone said.

“A witch?”

The door swung open.

“Bonjour, Messieurs dames,” said Michel. “André, are you coming?”

“Michel, did you know that Mrs. Piccola is a witch?” André asked his brother.

“What? Rubbish André. Come on, the car’s outside.”

“Have you never noticed how her gate swings backwards and forwards on still spring days?” Marie said. “And now her hat does the same.”

Mme Robert watched her whisper build and grow in the villagers from behind her counter. She sold out of patisseries for the first time ever.

When the gossip reached the mayor, he launched a counter rumor, hinting that Mme Robert had been hallucinating as a result of over-exposure to the rum babas baked that morning. As the idea was passed from mouth to mouth, the rum babas developed into a pre-breakfast drinking habit of an entire bottle of Pastis, until opinion in the village was split between Mrs. Piccola being a strange and magical spirit and Mme Robert a dangerous alcoholic on the edge of insanity.

If it hadn’t been for Tracey Tomlin’s disappearance, an enquiry party might well have been constituted and charged with the mission of confirming or denying the accusation against Mrs. Piccola’s hat. But as it was, more serious concerns were at large and the hat would have to wait.

A search party had been through the square, the well and the old washhouse, as well as the market buildings.

“Has anyone searched Guy Posset’s place?” the mayor asked. “Those damn cats are still causing havoc.”

Guy Posset’s crumbling outhouses had a habit of providing shelter to strays of every kind. Last winter Suzy Sproecket’s three cats had been found in one of the outbuildings, each with a litter of kittens. No one could bring themselves to drown them, and they had proceeded to overrun the village. While there was no suggestion that the same would happen either with Tracey or her Afghan, the outhouses were filled with nooks and crannies of every dimension and took some time to search. This time Mr. Posset refused to unlock his storeroom.

“They can’t be in there, I keep the door locked at all times,” he said. Those who knew the purpose of the storeroom diverted attention away, guessing that their diplomacy might lead to a taste of the illegal Posset firewater lodged behind the door.

“Clovis wants everyone in the square.” The message was passed and soon everyone was assembled for the mayor’s impromptu meeting.

“Where is Pierre?” the mayor asked.

“House-to-house search,” Michel said.

Pierre, who constituted the local police force, was indeed conducting a house-to-house search, but the task was proving difficult given that the villagers had complied with his request and were out searching for Tracey themselves.

“We need to double our efforts,” the mayor said.

“Hear, hear!”

“Quite right!”

“Good idea, for once!” Michel said.

“I propose that each of us contact one person from the neighboring villages to come and help us,” the mayor said.

“Yes. I’ll phone my cousin,” Michel said.

“Me too,” André said.

“Wait, André. Which cousin are you going to phone? Your cousins are my cousins.”

After some negotiation about who should contact whom, the plan was executed. Within the hour, the number of people looking for Tracey Tomlin had doubled and the mayor entered the new figure on his ledger. Martin, the proprietor of the village café, began to stack provisions behind the bar, ready for a forthcoming find party. His wife, Anne, took the inventory.

“If they find them this afternoon, we should be able to get all those extra hands and stomachs in here too,” Martin said.

“You’d better join the search, Martin. Spread the word,” Anne said. “I’ll finish up here.”

When the light began to fade, the villagers reassembled in the square and sent for the mayor and the police. The mayor climbed onto the wooden podium that had been erected on the occasion of the fifty-kilometer monocycle race that had passed through the village. He donned his sash to add an official note to his speech while they waited for Pierre, the policeman, to arrive.

Pierre, however, had been detained by Eve LeBlanc in her bungalow, assailed by butter biscuits and cherry liqueur while conducting a particularly thorough house-to-house search. The mayor finally began without him.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “Firstly, I would like to congratulate you, each and every one of you, on the magnificence of your attempts to find the lost parties. Secondly, and most importantly, you will all, I am sure, join me in thanking, indeed in praising most wholeheartedly, the efforts of our good friends and helpers from the neighboring villages. Such a combined effort is, I am sure you will agree, a most excellent example of the virtues of inter-village cooperation . . .”

“Get on with it Clovis!” Michel said.

“No, I really must insist on this point,” the mayor said. He raised both hands as if bestowing a blessing on his congregation. “It is this exact spirit of cooperation that makes our region so special. We, who are the children of the nation, we, who are the upholders of the true moral values of this country, we, the citizens, who—”

“Here comes Pierre!” Michel said, much to the relief of the other villagers who had been bracing themselves for an extended period of suffering. They had elected Clovis as their mayor more from a sense that he might stop pestering them with his doorstep monologues than from any real belief that he might be good at the job.

Pierre staggered onto the platform, red in the face, cap at an angle over untidy black hair.

“Thank you, monsieur le maire. Erm, thank you to the search party. Er, now, as no trace of Tracy has been found, I suggest you all go home to sleep it off, that is to recover from your efforts. But please be available for questioning in the morning. Yes, Mme Robert?”

Mme Robert had raised her hand.

“I was just wondering whether I should open up shop as usual in the morning or wait until our other mystery, concerning Mrs. Piccola’s hat, has been solved.”

A simultaneous mass of groans and cheers erupted from the crowd. Pierre frowned and removed his cap to smooth down his hair.

“Mme Robert, Mrs. Piccola,” he said. “I suspect I may regret this, but please come and explain yourselves.”

Mme Robert elbowed her way to the front of the crowd.

“Mrs. Piccola?” Pierre said. “Has anyone seen Mrs. Piccola?”

“I’m not surprised she’s hiding,” Mme Robert said. “After this morning. Her hat was dancing and reeling in the air like a wild spinning top. Of course I’ve always known there was something strange—”

“Nonsense,” said Michel. “You’ve been imagining things.”

“Are you calling me a—”

“Does anyone know where she is?” Pierre asked.

Apparently nobody did. More concerned about Mrs. Piccola’s safety than a hat that could do a jig, Pierre dispatched a second, smaller search party to locate her. But they found her house in darkness, the garden gate securely fastened and no sign of Mrs. Piccola, or her hat.

After brief consultation with the mayor, Pierre called the gossiping crowd to order.

“I hereby declare a local state of emergency,” he said. “One person and a dog disappearing from the village is one thing, but two people and a dog is approaching disaster.” He would need to seek guidance from his superiors.

Pierre’s good friend Martin stepped forward.

“I suggest we hold an advance find party. It might bring us luck. Help us find the lost ones, you know? What do you think Pierre? I’d be more than happy to hold it in the café.”

Pierre, Martin and the mayor withdrew to the back of the podium to discuss the situation in private.

“It would not be appropriate, Martin,” the mayor said. “We’ll organize the party when we’ve found them, not before.”

“But it could boost morale,” Martin said. “And it would be a way of thanking everyone from the villages around.”

“Good idea, Martin, but the mayor has a point,” Pierre said. “I think we should wait. But there’s nothing to stop us holding a logistics meeting, to plan the future find party, just the three of us.”

And so it was agreed.

The mayor spoke to the dwindling crowd.

“There will be no party tonight. Martin, Pierre and I shall meet to define the range of logistical complexities that will need addressing in order to plan such a party, in the hope that our lost ones will be back in the heart of our village by tomorrow evening,” he said. “Our local police force, in the person of Pierre here, has charged me to ask you to return home, being careful to lock your front doors. We must take all necessary precautions at a time like this. Many thanks once again to all our friends from the neighboring villages. Bonsoir.”

The villagers went home and locked their front doors as instructed, although the effectiveness of the security policy was somewhat questionable as many of them had long since lost the keys to their back doors, which always stood open.

Pierre and Martin, in the company of the mayor, subsequently spent several hours on an alcohol suitability survey, tasting an assortment of beverages to assess their appropriateness for sale at the future find party. The decisions were all the more complicated and important seeing as three disappearances would inevitably lead to three finds, and therefore three find parties, Artie the Afghan being just as much a part of the community as Tracey Tomlin. Martin was of the opinion that one combined party would not be sufficient to reward the villagers or to welcome back the found parties. The mayor and the policeman were inclined to agree.

.     .     .

Meanwhile, Mrs. Piccola and her hat had walked far across the fields and through the woods at the bottom of the hill. Mrs. Piccola’s legs ached. She had gone much further than any of the villagers would have ventured, but whenever she tried to rest, the hat jiggled about with such passion that she had no choice but to keep going. Perhaps she hadn’t been right to trust it. What if it contained a mischievous spirit intent on exhausting her to death?

She was close to the underground caves now. Nobody came out here. The caves were a recent discovery and a local mystery. It was said that the air around them left a coldness under the skin that lingered.

Finally, Mrs. Piccola stopped.

The hat started up again.

“Alright, alright,” she said. “I am exhausted. How much further is it?”

The hat didn’t move.

“Oh, sorry.” She sighed. “This really is most tedious. If it wasn’t for the thought of poor Tracey, stuck somewhere and in need of help, I would undo this bow and set you free, but I simply can’t take the risk.

It was Artie she heard first. A muffled sound. It was like listening to the neighbor’s dog barking from your bath, with your head underwater.

“Artie? Artie, is that you?”

She was quite familiar with the Afghan from the time she had looked after him. Tracey had gone away on a training course: Detecting the undetectable—Part one: owners only; Part two: with dog. She heard the bark again, then a human voice, dulled in the same way as the bark.

“Goodness,” Mrs. Piccola said. “Where are they? Are they under-ground?”

Her hat wiggled, then, using their now-perfected code, directed her to a large mound of mud.

“Hello? Tracey? Is that you?”

“Yes. Mrs. Piccola?” The words were muffled but distinct.

“Yes, dear. Are you alright? Whatever are you doing under there?”

“I came in after Artie. He found something in this cave. Then there was some kind of mudslide.”

“Yes, dear, I can see it.” She looked down at her brown lace-ups. They were caked in the stuff. Until about six years ago, when the climate went haywire, she had never seen a mudslide. Now there was no knowing when they would occur.

“Can’t Artie dig you out?” she asked.

“He’s hurt his paw.”

“Ah, well.”

Mrs. Piccola surveyed the mass of mud. How on earth was she going to get her out of there? It would take her a good few hours to walk back to the village to fetch help and by then it would be dark. There was no guarantee she would find the right cave again.

“What shall I do?” she said.

The hat jumped. Perhaps it had an idea. It seemed to have all the answers, after all.

“Are you trying to tell me something?”

“What’s that, Mrs. Piccola?” Tracey asked.

“No, not you dear. I’m talking to my hat.”

A yelp came from under the mud. Mrs. Piccola couldn’t tell whether it was Tracey or the Afghan.

The hat wiggled.

“I suppose I’m going to have to guess,” Mrs. Piccola said. “Do you want to take me somewhere?”

Wiggle.

“Oh dear, I do hope it’s not far. This way? No, this way? No, this way then? Alright. I’ll be right back with some help, Tracey.” Mrs. Piccola walked up to the top of the hill and the source of the mudslide. Hidden behind a clump of trees was a small digger. “Good grief. What’s that doing there? Is that what caused the mudslide?”

Under normal circumstances, Mrs. Piccola would not have tampered with agricultural machinery, but she had always tried to keep up with the times and times had definitely changed. She climbed on to the digger and started it with no trouble. She then spent a few minutes fiddling with the controls until she had worked out how to move what she thought of as the digger’s arm and jaw. She lowered the arm and set off down the hill, hoping that the arm was in the correct position so that the vehicle wouldn’t topple over sideways. At the bottom of the hill she left the engine running and shouted to Tracey through the mud.

“Go to the back of the cave! I’m going to dig you out!”

Whether Tracey answered or not she couldn’t tell over the noise of the engine. She climbed back on board, positioned the tracks at the edge of the mound and actioned the jaws before she had time to lose confidence. Several jawfuls later, the edge of a hole appeared. She used the jaw to widen it and soon Tracey and Artie were squeezing through. She switched off the engine and joined them in the mud.

“I didn’t know you could drive one of those,” Tracey said.

“Neither did I.”

“Where did it come from?”

“I really don’t know, my dear. It’s most peculiar.”

They stared at each other.

“Are you alright?” Mrs. Piccola asked finally.

“Yes.” Tracey knelt down to look at Artie’s paw. “You had a fright, though, didn’t you Artie, poor thing.” She put her arms round his neck and hugged him.

“Well. I’m pleased I found you,” Mrs. Piccola said.

“Yes.” Tracey nodded at Mrs. Piccola. “That was, well, lucky, I suppose, for me and Artie.”

“Yes, dear.” Mrs. Piccola knew that Tracey’s skills lay in communicat-ing with animals, not humans. But she didn’t need thanking. She was just glad that her hat had calmed down and that the ordeal was over for all of them.

.     .     .

They walked back across the fields, taking it in turn to carry Artie when he found it too difficult to limp. By the time they reached the village, it was deserted, the only visible light coming from the café, where they found Pierre the policeman talking to the mayor and Martin at the bar.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” Mrs. Piccola said.

The men stared at them.

“We must look rather a state I’m afraid.” Mrs. Piccola brushed a little more dried mud from her coat sleeve and straightened her hat. “We just wanted to let you know that Tracey and her Afghan have been found and are quite unharmed. They will need a good long sleep, as will I.”

Martin and Pierre nodded. The mayor looked at his watch and wrote down the time on a stained beer mat.

“Wait,” Martin said, as the two women made for the door. “Ask her, Pierre.”

Pierre slipped off his stool and held on to the bar to steady himself. He pointed at Mrs. Piccola’s hat. “Madame,” he said. “Accusesh . . . Accoosay . . . Accyoooo”

“Accusations,” the mayor said.

“What’s that?” Mrs. Piccola was impatient to return home and wash off the dirt.

“Your hat,” Pierre said. “Does it fly off on its own?”

Mrs. Piccola wasn’t sure whether his smile was out of friendship or relief at completing his sentence.

“Goodness me, Pierre,” Mrs. Piccola said. “A hat flying about on its own? Whatever next? Can you see it moving?”

Mrs. Piccola willed the hat to stay still as Pierre took three unsteady steps towards her. He peered at the hat, then rubbed his eyes.

“Well?” She winced at the sweet smell of alcohol on his breath.

He shook his head and turned back towards the bar, just as the hat gave Mrs. Piccola’s head a mischievous squeeze.

“Now!” she said. “Good night, gentlemen. Come along Tracey, time to go home.”

.     .     .

Mrs. Piccola walked Tracey to her door.

“You have a hot bath, my dear, and straight off to bed.”

“Yes, Mrs. Piccola, as soon as I have Artie’s paw bandaged. And Mrs. Piccola . . .”

“Yes dear?”

“I, well, it’s just, thank you.”

“Why you’re welcome, Tracey.” Mrs. Piccola smiled, but in the dim light of the hallway, she noticed the tight ball of Tracey’s fist, still clutching Artie’s lead.

“Tracey,” she said, “I forgot to ask. What was it that Artie found in the cave?”

Tracey’s fist pulled the lead in to her thigh. “Bones, Mrs. Piccola.” Her voice was metallic. “He found bones.”

“Bones? You mean rabbit bones?”

“No, Mrs. Piccola. I’m afraid not.” Tracey looked over Mrs. Piccola’s shoulder into the night. “They were human.”

“Ah, I see.” Mrs. Piccola could feel the ribbon pulling taut again. She stepped back out of the light. “Goodnight then, Tracey.”

.     .     .

Alone in the dark, Mrs. Piccola undid the bow, holding on to the hat so that it couldn’t fly away.

“That’s quite enough excitement for one day, thank you.”

She tucked the hat under her arm and went home to bed.