mon chapeau préféré

“I didn’t want to become one of those legions of old men looked upon affectionately, who wear the same hat for the last twenty-five years of their lives, it becoming ever more grimy and ragged by the year.” This, the opening statement by a stylishly dressed gentleman sat opposite me on the train to London today. In actuality, this is a translation of what he’d said, as the conversation directed my way had been entirely spoken in French. With a fair-to-middling grasp of the language, I found myself able to understand most of what I was hearing. With my replies spoken in English during our short exchange, it appeared he understood me too.
“Forgive me,” he said, laying his hand flat across his chest, “I saw you admiring my hat earlier.” He happened to be right, I had been admiring his hat. For me, it displayed all the qualities of magnificence. “Would you believe me, if I told you I came across this in a simple high-street clothes shop? When I tried it on in front of a full length mirror, it had felt like a coronation.” Providing a re-enactment of the scene, both raised arms descended slowly from above his head in synchronisation, while his hands and outstretched fingers encircled an imaginary crown. “Do you know the feeling Monsieur, when something  fits so wonderfully? Such great fortuity.” I slowly nodded my head in agreement and smiled.
“The problem is…” he paused and leant forward over the table separating us, “having found the perfect hat, what happens in three or four years time when it becomes worn out and unfit for use?” A good question posed, I thought. Having experienced this myself, I understood exactly the predicament. Images flashed through my mind, as I recalled the endurance required for those long and fruitless searches, the obsession of trying out new hats, only to discard them as unsatisfactory shortly afterwards. “Well, I found a solution my dear friend, the answer is to buy several copies of the same hat.” With a look of deep satisfaction upon his face, he stiffly reclined back into his seat.
“Of course what I could not do, I could not buy several identical hats all at once from the very same store. Would not the sales assistant think me mad, what do you say?” I scratched the short growth of beard under my chin and adopted a thoughtful expression. As a few minutes of empty silence passed inside the train carriage, he turned his gaze to outside the window. I tried to come up with something to say, but nothing came forth. So, I looked out across the rain-sodden fields we were being carried past and waited.
“No, it is unacceptable, I cannot have myself thought of as insane!” He said finally. “Instead, on the very same day of this purchase, I promptly returned home and visited the shop’s website. After trawling through numerous pages of little interest to me, I located the hat in the same style and colour and ordered five. All, of their available online stock.”
“Ah!” I said, changing my seated position slightly while raising my hand swiftly to form a hand-sign symbolising ‘perfection’.
“Now, with six hats in my possession, each having a life expectancy of four years with good care, this makes twenty-four years. Six hats should see me through until I am eating dandelions from the root up.” Surreptitiously, I studied the lines of wrinkles across his face and made a quick estimation of his age. Then, I added 24 and after several revisions to my final figure, I nodded my head in agreement once more.
“However, what if I were to lose a hat? Such an outcome would surely result in a period of being hatless. This, would also be unacceptable!” My eyes widened a little, as the thought struck me. Yes, of course, he was right! And, what if he lost one of them ten or twenty years from now? Surely, there would be no way to locate an exact matching replacement.
“This is why,” he said, while extracting a tiny piece of lint from the knee of his trousers by use of his thumb nail, “you meet me today, travelling on this train. I intend to visit a store they have in London, located on Oxford Street and buy one more hat, as an insurance policy.”
“Will you enter the shop with your hat on your head?” I asked him. He quickly made the connection I’d been considering.
“Ah, but no! The embarrassment!” Drawing an inward deep breath of contemplation, followed shortly afterwards by a slow exhalation, the answer suddenly came to him. His hand raised and a straightened index finger pointed up into the air. “I will enter the shop without my hat, having previously entrusted its safe-keeping to a nearby street vendor of newspapers, for an agreed sum.”
At this and with a smile upon his face, he closed his eyes, leaned back into his seat and drifted off into sleep. The remainder of the journey could be described at best as uneventful. The countryside views gave way to suburbia, which in turn blended into the greyness of the city. By the time we’d arrived at Paddington station, he had been snoring loudly for half an hour. As the brakes of the train engaged bringing us to a final stop at the platform, his head rolled forward gently and the hat slipped onto the floor of the carriage’s central aisle.
Instinctively, I reached down and retrieved it. It was a fine hat indeed and in wonderful condition. I held it between my hands turning it around several times to admire the design and workmanship, inside and out. My eyes flicked over to the French gentleman, who remained engaged in a deep, dream-ridden sleep. Triggered by the sound of a triple-snort of a snore and movement to re-position himself more comfortably, I whipped off my beige and white coloured Alabama baseball cap and silently placed it sideways onto his head.
I stared at him for several seconds, concluding that what sat before me was indeed, an incongruous match. Undeterred and without ceremony,  I slipped his hat on, rose from my seat and swiftly alighted from the train carriage.

Angelina and Ben, a short story (2,877 words)

The soles of his feet felt sore at each point of contact with the ground and with every step taken. So far, the pain was being transmitted at a sustained, tolerable level of discomfort. However, his pace had begun to slow during the course of the day, with the strong heat of the mid afternoon sun beginning to take its toll. He could feel he was tiring, becoming dehydrated and in certain need of finding a seat to rest a while.

“I need a change of life.” Ben muttered miserably under his breath.

He’d decided he would walk rather than use the underground trains, although stations were located near all the destinations he had planned to visit during his day trip. Conceding some shame for the sense of fear as motivation for his decision, it was nonetheless inescapable; the potential threat of getting caught up in a terrorist attack on an underground train platform, or worse, a moving carriage, to Ben seemed a risk not worth taking. After all, there was no ambiguity, the security level in the city was coded red and this was known and understood. Although many people went about their business and got on with their lives in a normal fashion, as a visitor to the city, Ben had felt touched by a profound sense of caution.

Earlier in the day, having left the coach station, Ben navigated himself to his first destination using a map application on his phone. It’d taken longer to reach than expected, the streets seemed to stretch out further than suggested and his progress had been slow. The gallery visit had been worthwhile; he found the mix of artwork on display appealing, modern, colourful and large in scale.  Wandering through the gallery, he pondered on the themes connecting them. Ben rarely read notes provided at exhibitions.

Afterwards, food was needed. However, a glance at the gallery restaurant’s menu determined the prices were beyond his tight budget. A search ensued to find a cafe where he could afford to eat, without it being quite so much of a strain on his wallet. After an unsatisfactory meal, Ben set off, following the guidance provided by his phone. For the next leg of the journey, he accepted a more realistic expectation of the time it would take to cover the next one and a half miles.

The next stop-off point was a museum, which Ben had found fully satisfying. It’d been busy and crowded with visitors, which he viewed as a minus, but much of what he saw was of interest to him. During the visit, he was busy with taking photos using the camera he’d brought along. Later, he would regret not spending more time here. It wasn’t that he’d missed much out, but the grand scale of the museum meant there was no time to dawdle if he was to make his next destination in good time.

The penultimate stretch of his trip, proved punishing. It was a clear blue sky and the sun was beating down. He’d folded up his light-weight coat and stored this in his shoulder bag, tying his cardigan around his waist. As he walked, a mild burning sensation began to tingle where the strap was rubbing against his shoulder.

Traffic was heavy, with more cars on the road than people walking on the pavements. When coming upon a kiosk selling waffles and hot drinks, Ben decided to take a break. Sat at a table, he felt enveloped by a familiar sense of isolation, watching people and listening to conversations spoken in languages only identifiable to him as not English. He observed, as a holidaying family approached an information noticeboard nearby, the mother and father both studying the map illustration showing the area they now found themselves in. With a son and two daughters in tow, it seemed possible one of the daughters had been the cause of some disharmony, earlier. The father looked angry with her and disinclined to receive the apology, which the daughter was desperately trying to convey.

Folding up the cardboard tray, cup and tissue serviette, dispensing with them in a bin which buzzed from the sound of a dozen wasps, Ben set off again, feeling better from the intake of sugars and liquid. Soon afterwards, it was necessary to navigate crossing the busy road and in what seemed a typical situation for him, the section at which he’d chosen to do this, proved difficult to judge. Cars seemed to sweep around the curve in the road with extra acceleration, as if being propelled by a giant sling-shot. Momentarily drawing on the extra energy he now felt coursing through his blood, Ben jogged across the carriageway, finding himself stood immediately opposite the next destination on his list.

Still recognisable as a small underground railway station, long fallen from the intention of its original design, the gallery stood in isolation from any other buildings. Inside, both the bright lighting and ambient temperature were pleasingly cool; his first impressions of the exhibition however, were considerably less so. While walking through the gallery, his thoughts became preoccupied with the numerous installation pieces featuring discarded items of rubbish. The rhyme and reason for their creation must lay buried deep within the artist’s own subconscious, he’d concluded. Or, perhaps the growing sensations of fatigue were affecting his appreciation. Ben felt an increasing level of impatience and annoyance, rapidly building up inside him. To add to this, he felt absolutely no inclination to find out or understand what meaning might lay in this collection of carefully arranged junk, seemingly gathered from roadside skips and charity shops.

Having completed a successful circumnavigation of the building, Ben was able to exit the gallery through the same door he’d entered. Back outside in the sun, he glimpsed a woodland and park directly ahead. He crossed the busy road again, without incident or any significant expenditure of energy. On reaching the edge of the park, he studied a dark green coloured sign post, containing information to inform visitors of attractions nearby and the route required to reach them. Unfortunately for Ben, none of the destinations noted were where he wanted to go and his limited knowledge of the city meant he didn’t have much of an idea where he was, in relation to anywhere else.

He decided upon simply walking straight ahead, underneath the shade of the trees and into the park. As he did so, a check of his phone revealed an announcement informing him of low battery power. Acknowledging this with a tap of his finger on a touch screen button, he proceeded to quickly absorb the details of his location according to the map. There weren’t many facts he could establish from the device, a few paths were shown on the map and zooming in or out shared the same disadvantage of providing less than adequate information. He exited the map and clicked off the screen to preserve what remaining battery power there was, before returning the phone to the front pocket of his brown chinos.

I’ll use my instinct, he thought to himself. His instinct told him to walk ahead, taking no turnings away from the path.

Few people could be seen in the immediate area visible to Ben. Occasionally, runners were sighted, their approach announced by the sound of gravel crunching and scraping under their feet. They passed by breathing heavily, dark shades of sweat dampening the backs of their t-shirts. There was also a sprinkling of people walking dogs. Owners and pets in different shapes and sizes strolled past, the owners usually deep in thought, while the dogs seemed unfettered and carefree.

Shortly, an iron framed, wooden seated bench located underneath the shade of several trees, came into view. Although split off onto a smaller path, Ben could see how to re-join the main route by cutting across the grass and through a thin line of shrubs and trees. He carefully calculated a return to the original path, so as to encounter minimal deviation and avoid the need to retrace his steps.

Sat on the park bench, Ben laid his shoulder bag across his lap and retrieved his camera. Switching on the back screen, he browsed through the images taken in the museum and art gallery. Some of the photos were taken outside too, but he’d not felt brave enough to get up close to people. Nearly all the images showed only the backs of people, certain evidence of the surreptitious method he couldn’t avoid when feeling small and too much in himself.

How do people succeed with street photography, he wondered, gazing skywards, could it be a carefree, confident attitude, buckets full of charm, would it be easier if I was better looking and had a pleasant, engaging smile?

Everything in life would be easier, he concluded, if I was better looking, confident and wore a pleasant, engaging smile.

The peripheral vision of his left eye was caught by a slight movement and Ben was brought out of his thoughts by the awareness of somebody sitting down, on the bench next to him. By his estimations, the approximate distance of an arm’s length lay between them. By reflex, his reaction was to steal a furtive glance, combined skilfully with the motion of returning the camera back into the bag.

The amount of detail the brain can process from the information gleaned in a hurried look lasting little more than a second, is truly astounding. Ben’s brain had quickly assembled several facts he knew to be true. This was a woman sat near him, a young woman aged in her early thirties. She wore her blonde hair short, was of a fair complexion, while her bright blue eyes sparkled behind oval-shaped glasses in tortoiseshell coloured frames. Her clothes were casual, with Ben able to ascertain she was wearing a light grey t-shirt and dark grey, three-quarter length leggings, loose-fitting and turned-up at the hem. With her hands laid flat on the seat of the bench, she’d straightened her legs out in front of her, displaying white, lace-topped ankle socks and classic tanned leather sandal shoes complete with buckles. With the details absorbed, an involuntary blink returned Ben’s scrutiny to the inside of his shoulder bag.

“Hey, what’s up?”

Both the accent and the wording of the greeting informed Ben the young woman was an American. Many years ago, while Ben was still at secondary school, a new boy had joined one of his science classes. Angus had been brought up in America, his parents emigrating from Scotland when he was just two years old. Fourteen years later, they moved to England and Angus – dropping a school year and therefore appearing in Ben’s classes, sounded about as American as you could get.

“Hey, what’s up Ben” was his customary greeting.

Initially, Ben had found this greeting confusing; despite being an avid watcher of American import TV shows, he’d never heard it before. To Ben, it sounded like a question seeming to assume something was up, that something was wrong. Initially, it would draw a frown onto Ben’s face, as he’d look up from the doodling he was adding to the cover of an exercise book.

“What do you mean what’s up? Nothing is up.” Ben would reply.

Periodically, people would ask Ben why he often looked miserable and he was occasionally assured sarcastically by passers-by in the street that it might not actually happen. Due to these experiences, Angus’ enquiry irked Ben. That is, until Angus explained the meaning as something akin to what’s happening? Or, to rephrase in a more English manner, how are you doing? Although he couldn’t bring himself to adopt the phrase, once the understanding had been reached, Ben came to find he quite liked hearing it.

Angus wasn’t popular at school. The kids disliked him, just for being an American. He was a tall lad, middle-class, sensible and intelligent, not qualities appreciated by the rough lads in the same school year. However, Ben liked Angus.

Angus liked the music of The Clash, as did Ben, although he complained of seeing them play live in America with a poor sound system accompanying their performance. Even so, he found Angus likeable and interesting, providing him with a unique insight into a culture he was only familiar with from television, film and books.

Based on this experience, Ben was unusually prepared to receive this particular, transatlantic style of greeting.

“Hello.”

Hello?” the young woman repeated, with raised intonation balanced somewhere in the middle of her pronunciation, “Edison’s greeting?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“The advent of the telephone,” she continued, with a sense of confidence in her tone, “at the start, no one knew what to say after they picked up the receiver. They just weren’t used to talking to people, while not seeing them. It seems ‘Hello’ was adopted around then, as an initial greeting used when answering the phone. Alexander Graham Bell wanted ‘Ahoy’ while his rival Thomas Edison suggested ‘Hello’. Usage spread into everyday life and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“That is an amazing story.” Ben said, genuinely amused.

“It is. I only recently learnt this on the interweb.”

Interweb? Thought Ben, a bemused look indicating puzzlement flickered across his face.

“It’s customary to exchange names isn’t it, after a greeting?” Allowing a pause to follow the question, she continued “I’m Angelina, but not named after the actress, I think she was about 11 years old when I was born and had not yet established her film career. Do you live here?”

Here?”

“No, not here, I don’t imagine you live in a park. Or do you? What’s your name?” Angelina enquired.

“I’m Ben.”

“Ben?” Angelina stroked her index finger across her chin and raised her eyebrows.

“I don’t live here in the park, or even in this city.”

“Oh, where do you live then, Ben? Not your full address, you understand, just an approximation of where you live?”

“Hah! No, that would be strange to give out my full address to someone I’ve just met.”

“You’ve never done that before, Ben?”

“Hah! Well, no, although maybe to a policeman once or twice before, possibly.”

“Oh, you’ve been in trouble with the police?” Angelina cut in quickly, with a mock look of shock across her face.

“Hah! No, well not really, I think it was for speeding. It was a long time ago, years and years back.”

Adopting a whisper, Angelina stared into Ben’s eyes. “Could you please stop repeating ‘Hah at the beginning of a sentence?” She paused, allowing adequate time for the request to be processed and then continued, “So Ben, where do you live?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not aware I’m even doing that!” Ben made a mental note of the first question and then turned his attention to the second. “Well, I live in the next city along from here,” he jutted his thumb in the air indicating a wildly inaccurate direction, “it’s a university town.”

“Oh, I love university towns! Full of students wobbling around on bicycles they haven’t ridden on since they were twelve years old!”

“Hah! Yes, that’s about right,” said Ben, forgetting himself, “sorry, I really don’t know why that keeps popping out.”

“Why what keeps popping out Ben? What are you trying to tell me?”

Ignoring her questions, Ben pitched his own. “Whereabouts in North America do you come from, Angelina?”

That’s a very diplomatic way of phrasing your question Ben, I’m impressed!” Angelina displayed an admiring look upon her face. “You’re not a gambling man are you Ben? I might be from Texas, California or Alabama maybe, or someplace up there in Canada? You can’t be sure, can you Ben?”

“This is true,” Ben smiled, “I have trouble accurately placing people based upon their accent, even if they are English.”

“That’s alright, I admire a kind of blindness towards categorisation,” Angelina smiled back at Ben, “and we probably now know enough about each other sufficient for a life-time.” Her gaze slowly shifted away and she gave a short sigh as she looked at the ground in front of her.

“Ben,” she turned her face back towards him to be sure of his attention before continuing, “let’s spend the rest of the afternoon together, let’s spend the night together, stay up all night and in the morning look forward to the rest of our lives together.

“What do you think, without any doubt in your heart, could you commit to us forevermore?” Angelina touched the top of his hand, her two fingers shaped like ice-skater’s legs spinning small circles upon his skin. “You know there is no room for doubt, no questions and no answers, only true acceptance of what is. Whatever has come before has no place here now, Ben. What this is only happens once in a lifetime and rarely happens for most other people. Our experience of love is of you and me becoming one and also remaining two at the same time. You understand me, don’t you?”

In his mind, he was anticipating a verbal stumble over the words contained within his reply. He could see his face reflected in Angelina’s glasses and behind the image, those sky-blue coloured irises of her eyes.

“Yes, I do.”

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