Walter Flood checked his face in the mirror. It was the same face in the same mirror he’d looked at these past forty-nine years. He gave his head the once over. His hair was of a bizarre design, not that he would have said so after all he combed it that way. It was neither blond nor ginger but a toffee smudge of colour with a large centre parting, about six inches or so, leaving a centre dome of bare skin. Around his bald pate, a significant line was drawn from which a fence of bristle, no more than two inches tall, thrust up and out from his scalp. This gave his head and hairline the appearance of being a picket fence surrounding a pink patch of land. Below this, it laid flat to his head.
His eyebrows were thick and bushy resembling caterpillars retreating from a flock of starlings, two eyebrows that no longer communicated so instead had put distance between themselves hanging over the far corners of their master’s eyes at curious, slanted angles.
He creased his brow making said sad eyebrows dance an odd jig. By puckering his mouth his thin lips rose like a sea anemone. His teeth were large and long. His incisors sharp and fang-like yet his smile was not unkindly. He smiled now, more rictus grin than a smile, a grin that would have terrified children and small furry pets. He ceased smiling as it really didn’t portray his features well. Face reassembled he ran his hand across his smooth as silk, smooth as a baby’s bottom chin and then nodded to his reflection.
“You’ll do,” he said to his face. His face didn’t answer.
For more years than he’d care to remember, Walter Flood, hatter, had opened the family shop in Muckleford High Street every morning at eight. The shops opening hours were from nine to five thirty, but he always liked to open early. “A hatter is like a boy scout, best be ready.” His grandfather used to say.
Walter came from a long line of hatters with rumour having it that his forbear, Goodman Flood, born seventeen ten, was indeed the bastard cousin of one of the world-famous Lock’s of St. James Street, London. Whether this is true or not matters little for when selling hats to the public, a feather is as good as a fancy to a milliner.
The first shop was opened by Goodman and his sister Edith in the spring of seventeen twenty-eight. It was an instant success being only the second such shop in England, after of course, the aforementioned Lock’s, to sell hats of distinction.
The years passed and as they did so the reputation of ‘Flood & Co; hatters grew. By the nineteenth century folks for as far away as Winchester would visit the shop bringing with them additional trade to Muckleford. Some said it was Flood’s Hatters & Co; that put the town of Muckleford on the map. Of course, it wasn’t. That honour belongs to Niachasin Tip, a cartographer.
The shop was split in two following the natural design of the building – a central door with two bay windows – on the left of which was the lady’s department and on the right the gentleman’s.
By the outbreak of war in Europe which turned into what is now known as the war to end all wars, The Great War, Flood’s had reached something of a pinnacle or, if you’d prefer, a plateau. Selling Drab Shell’s, Town Coke’s, Bentley’s, Top Hat’s and Fez’s business was indeed booming. Then, as slow a rise and as steady a trade millinery had been, hats simply went out of fashion. By the time of the Korean War, few wore headwear any more. Each progressive decade saw a decline in the buying of hats. The fifties had clung on in flamboyant disregard, like Canute defying the tide, of how times were changing. The sixties raised a hammer to the nail that shut tight the coffin lid on the love of hats. The seventies, eighties, nineties and into the now did nothing to halt that trend. Hats were passé.
Walter was not a Flood. His mother’s surname had been Flood until she married Walter’s father, so the lineage would have skipped a generation or faltered entirely had it not been for Grandfather Flood’s dislike of his son-in-law. Barnet Fudge was a butcher. He knew nothing of hats apart from the one he wore upon his head keeping his skull warm. When he wed Flockheart Flood it was more for her money than anything else.
Oddly, it was always his father that Walter turned to when he required parental advice. It was his father that Walter loved even if it was his mother, or rather her name and fortune, that Walter benefited from. The truth was that Walter didn’t much like his mother. She was a domineering woman used to a life of privilege who saw it as her right to dominate those who were privileged by her wealth.
Walter had entered the family business, that is to say, his mother’s side of the family business, as a school leaver. There was no question of either choice or further education he merely did, as was the custom, what his mother instructed him to. He kept it secret that he’d have much rather been slicing bacon, cutting shanks of lamb rather than measuring people’s heads for hats. But beggars can’t be choosers as his father used to say and Lord knows he was one if not the other.
As a child, Walter had idolised his father. He had enjoyed watching his father engaged in his trade cleaving meat with, depending on the animal, a lamb or standard cleaver, skinning flesh with a skinning knife, halving dead animals with a bone saw. He admired the way in which his father had first stunned the animal, normally with the use of a captive bolt pistol, then witnessed as their legs gave way prior to having their throats cut. He had admired his father’s efficiency, the manner in which he applied his skills to the task at hand, first skinning or scalding and de-hairing if the beast were porcine, eviscerating the organs which he placed, steaming, into a large bowl, before splitting the carcass longitudinally in half.
The head’s removal was of a special fascination for young Walter. There was something sacred about decapitation.
His father’s trade, the skills he had, were of far greater inspiration to Walter than that of a milliner, a hatter, a man or woman who created hats for boneheads. Sadly Walter’s mother did not share his enthusiasm. She insisted her son follow the family tradition, her family tradition and anyway her husband was a butcher who worked for another; he did not own his own shop. It was just a case of practicalities, her practicalities.
The shop had been designed by her. Both interior and exterior. She had taken her father’s outdated style, inherited from his father and his father before him, and injected a sense of ‘less is more.’ She did this by having a set of displays fashioned Walter had hated the hat stands she had created. ‘Elegant minimalism’ was how she had described the atrocious mannequins with their elongated necks, and featureless faces. They reminded Walter of how every Atlantis fantasist, a growing number of individuals who believed an underwater race had lived beneath the sea for time immemorial in ancient cities and who now walked among us kept secret by successive governments, would have looked. Walter thought the idea an elaborate case of self-delusion dismissing those who believed in amphibian people from the depths as being bonkers.
He was equally dismissive of his mother’s ‘hatstands.’ This addition to the tradition of Flood Hatters had not been welcomed by all. Walter disliked the curious mix of old and new preferring the former to the latter.
Walter studied himself again in the mirror, a full-length cheval. What looked back at him was not an image reminiscent of his father but a male version of his mother. This had always bothered him. His father had been a good-looking man, his mother hadn’t. She had been neither attractive nor male but had facial features like a peeled banana – pale and stringy. Not only did he look like his mother he had many of her faults too. He wouldn’t have willingly admitted them but still, they formed part of his character.
As an only child, Walter had proven a huge disappointment to his mother. With no offspring, and none likely as Walter was not fond of females, less so males and had an asexual outlook, the family business was lacking the required inheritor. His mother had long chided him for his singular lack of sex drive. She had queried his predilections accusing him of being homosexual, bisexual and then, as words along with insults failed, of being deviant.
His mother had a way with words as she did with people and treated both in not dissimilar fashion to that of a cement mixer. Ballast went in, subsequently chewed up then spat out as small, lumpy chunks.
When his father died in the spring of two thousand and five his only shield from his mother’s rancorous rhetoric disappeared. His father had never been one to stand up to his wife’s unrelenting sniping but in the years prior to his demise had made it known his affection for his son was greater than even his disapprobation for his spouse.
His father’s death had hit Walter hard even if his passing went virtually unremarked by his mother.
Walter licked his little finger, ran it over the slope of his caterpillar bushy right eyebrow then adjusted the knot of his necktie. Turning to his bed he closed the lid of the suitcase that had lain open.
Some months before he, along with many others, had sold his family shop to Voxco. Apparently, Rupert Snatch-Kiss was building a new shop in Muckleford. To this end several shops in the block along with Flood’s Hatters &Co; were sold with the intent of knocking them all down then building a new, all singing all dancing, supermarket. They called it progression. Frankly, Walter didn’t give a damn.
The money he had received had been generous, so generous that he had purchased a property on the Isle of Wight and banked the remainder. He called that his pension plan. He now was waiting for the current incumbents to move to their new home before he could take up residence there.
A week ago, he had phoned the Micklethwaite’s, a family of farmers living in Fekenham Swarberry who ran a bed and breakfast establishment. He had booked a room there for the week with the intention of staying until his new home was ready for him to occupy.
He shut the suitcase lid then turned to the open hatbox by its side. He smiled at the content, touched his fingers to his lips in a mock kiss then patted his fingers on the item that sat within the box.
Locking the shop door, he placed the key to the premises into an envelope and walked to the nearest post-box where he mailed the letter, key and all to the estate agents. Then he ambled down the street to the bus stop. A new life beckoned. With suitcase in one hand and hatbox in the other he waited for the arrival of the bus bound for Fekenham Swarberry.
Upon entering The Frog and Radiator, a much-praised public house but one which he had never visited before, Walter was instantly taken in by the warm ambiance, the congenial conviviality of the place filled to bursting as it was with people. Faces turned towards him looking to see who the wind had blown in and each one smiled. Faces of all shapes, sizes and colours smiling at him as if in welcome.
Looking beyond the gathered folk all deep in different conversation, regarding a multitude of topics, Walter observed an attractive woman standing behind the bar. The woman was voluptuous, shapely yet fleshy with jet black hair that had a streak of white cascading down the left-hand side. She looked vaguely Latin as though she may have been born on the Mediterranean. She was polishing the recently washed glasses whilst looking, rather sternly it had to be said, at a gentleman who was also behind the bar now deeply engaged in gossip with a trio of young women. The man seemed to be an attraction to the lovely ladies who all hung on his every word. Walter found this obvious magnetism odd. The man, presumably the publican, was hardly attractive. He was balding with thick wavy hair brushed back from this follically challenged forehead, a nose which resembled a rotting root vegetable, pockmarked skin and with lips to swollen to carry the metaphor sensual. It was to this man Walter now advanced.
As he approached the bar, so the triumvirate of lovelies melted away. The publican looked up at Walter smiling. ‘Welcome Sir, always nice to see a new face. Not from around here I takes it?’
Walter returned the smile answering with a slight lisp. ‘I’m from Muckleford.’
‘Ah, I see. Lived there long ‘ave you?’
‘All my life. My family had a shop there.’
‘Really? Which one? I know’s Muckleford well. Does a spot ‘o business there meself.’
‘Flood & Co.’
‘Really? I’ll be buggered. The hat shop. Lovely old place. Never been one fer hats meself but spent many an hour window shoppin.’ Bit off the beaten track aren’t you?’
‘I’m looking to move to maybe Fekenham Swarberry or perhaps Birchtickle.’
‘What about the shop. Bit of a daily commute isn’t it?’
‘I’ve sold the family business. No one wants hats anymore. Sold it to that Snatch-Kiss fellow.
‘I see,’ said Arthur keeping his thoughts regarding that individual to himself, ‘what can I be getting you? Pint of ale? Widows Whiskers?’
Walter smoothed the skin around his chin with his hand. He placed the hat box he’d been carrying on the bar top and the luggage he held in his other hand down by his feet. ‘I missed breakfast this morning and am feeling rather hungry. Is it too late or too early to ask if I may have a plate of something to eat?’
Arthur Bentwhistle, for he it was, chuckled. ‘I’m sure we can rustle something up for you seeing the circumstance. What do you fancy?’
‘Full English with some ketchup if that’s okay?’
‘Lupini, that’s my missus over there, is a dab hand with a fry-up. Go settle yourself down at a convenient table, there’s one over there that’s just been vacated, and Lupini will bring yer grub as soon as yer likes.’
Walter waddled off carrying the hat box in one hand and the luggage in the other. He had to thread his way through the throng saying many an excuse me as he crossed the floor to the table Arthur had indicated. Occasionally lifting the hat box gingerly above the heads of those who he was passing. When he finally got to the table he sat down placing the hat box on the table and, again, the luggage bag at his feet.
Within fifteen minutes Lupini appeared at his side carrying a plate steaming with two fried eggs, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, two slices of toast, a black pudding along with a hill of beans. She placed the plate in front of Walter. Set a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin to the right of Walter then, with her other hand a bottle of ketchup in front of the plate.
‘Enjoy,’ she said, ‘Buon appetito.’
Walter smiled thinking what a nice head Lupini had.
‘Thank you, ‘he said as he generously splashed ketchup over his meal.
‘Anything else you would like?’
‘A cup of English tea would be nice. No rush though. After I’ve eaten would be lovely.’
Lupini smiled again and then sashayed away like a Wessex Gina Lollobrigida.
As he ate his food his eyes returned time and again to the hat box. He sometimes patted it lovingly. When all the food had been devoured he used the two slices of toast to mop up the sauce that filled the plate.
It was Arthur who brought the tea.
‘Lupini’s cooking – was it okay?’
‘Absolutely delicious. Please thank her for me.’
Arthur smiled before placing the bill in front of his guest then he walked away. Walter took a couple of sips from the teacup then looked at the bill. He pulled a note from his pocket which he placed in the saucer. It was a more than generous payment far exceeding the bill and a ten percent tip. Walter then rose from his seat, picked up the hat box from the table followed by the case and then left the pub.
When Arthur came to collect the money Ernie Stallworthy pointed to the table where a half circle of what appeared to be blood lay. Arthur wiped a cloth across the table top.
‘Must has spilt some ketchup.’ He said.