Updated: Apr 13
Bought a hat yesterday, black felt with a brim - impulse buying - they call it in that Know Yourself , psychology book I also bought- on impulse - last week.
It’s different to the woolly hats I usually wear, more of a… statement hat. This morning after dropping the kids to school, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and felt like somebody else, decided to take the scenic route to work.
The tide was in along the Bay, looking like it had been painted by numbers: blue, green, grey, all in the right place, all filled in to the edges. I pulled over to watch it, which gave time for my row with the kids to surface.
They didn’t like my new hat!
“You’re not wearing that Mam?” Ellen said as we were leaving.
I kept my voice light, “Why not?”
“Not silly,” Aoife suddenly chipped in, as though she might be backing me, “but it’s … unusual Mam. You don’t see other mothers wearing hats like that.”
“So, what’s the harm eh?”
“Well, other parents won’t laugh at you, but the kids will slag us!” Aoife said, sounding older than her ten years.
“Yeh, that’s not fair!” Ellen jumped back in.
The girls had united.
Still breathing evenly, I said, “Well, they’ll get used to it.”
Luckily, Tommy, oblivious to my hat, intervened. “Mam which would you rather – fall into lava or get shot three times?”
Tricky. “Hmm, shot three times?”
“No Mam, lava’s better because the smoke kills you first!”
“Ah - a merciful end,” I said, and a merciful distraction from my daughters’ anger.
At the school entrance, only Tommy said goodbye, Aoife and Ellen stomped off without a word, leaving me annoyed. Why had a brimmed felt hat brought down such punishment?
Time to consult, Know Yourself, again?
Watching the silvery horizon it dawned that when I was a child everybody wore hats, for God’s sake you couldn’t go into a church without one. Christmas, Easter, Holy Communions, women went out and bought a new hat if they could scrape the money.
And my father never went out without his. “Where’s my hat?” he’d ask over and over.
“Wherever you left it, Sean,” my mother would reply, teeth gritted.
Auntie Phil always wore the latest in hats, my favourite was her pink Pill box with black lace covering her eyes, first one I’d ever seen outside of the cinema. Then I got that sweet blue hat for my Confirmation- soft straw with a velvet ribbon round it and… let’s not forget, those hideous grey berets we had to wear for school uniform, that we’d whip off as soon as we exited the gates. You never knew who you might run into - Tony Kinsella, Des, or on a lucky day, heart-throb, Sean Malone, until one day, the dreaded Sister Augusta, ambushed us along the road, her snaky voice creeping up behind us, “Where are yeer berets, girrls?”
Caught, bare headed.
Come to think of it, my new hat is a bit like Madge Devaney’s, Madge -the-hat- Devaney, local eccentric, who always wore a brown brimmed hat, rain or shine. Was it the same hat all those years? Someone said she had a bald patch and wore the hat to cover it, but Jenny’s mother said the hat gave her the bald patch. We scourged her one summer playing knick-knacks, banging on the knocker until her shadow was right behind the door before fleeing. Oh, the thrill of that fear.
Poor Madge - but she did outsmart us, wired up her front gate and went out the back way.
Then a different thought - yes - there was a backlash - hatless teens, flowing locks, flowers in your hair, let the scalp breathe. On that school trip to Paris, we were so shocked that French women went to Mass without hats. Sister Jude, quick off the mark, “The church on the continent is different girls!”
Yes, hair was in. Val, my American boyfriend, definitely wore no hat, just blonde hair to his shoulders, straight and shiny. We lay in the sun in Stephen’s Green on the days I escaped into town. Lessons in French kissing and seventh heaven when he’d kiss my bare neck.
“You should let your hair grow long Clare,” he said.
I did. But he went back to Chicago a week early without telling me. I waited all afternoon at the bandstand until his friend Gavin appeared and told me he was gone. I was broken hearted; I believed he loved me.
“She’s been crying in the bathroom Mam,” Stephanie, the little sister spy ratted.
“Liar,liar!” I belted her instead of Val.
Mam slapped me, “You should know better.”
It was all Val’s fault. I hope he caught his hair in a swivel door in Chicago.
To escape this train of thought, I decided to walk the beach, something I’d never managed before work - ever. I had fantasies about being that kind of mother –the one who walks the beach after the school drop and before work, while the dinner is slow cooking at home. Well, here I was… quarter ways there. It was cold, sharp cold but bright, my only company a small flock of birds who cheeped and nibbled, busy, busy, not bothered about headgear.
A jogger passed, barely nodded, concentrating on his bio-rhythm, then an older man with a dog and cloth cap gave me a friendly hello. Was it our hats?
Hadn’t there been a comeback for the hat after that era of flowing hair? Yes. It was shaping up now, History repeats itself, I could see that clearly. A wave of woolly hats took over. Ross always wore his blue one on our An Oige walks and I had that mauve Fair Isle - yes - hats abounded- white Bainins, velvet floppies, like Deirdre from the Drama Society wore, Reggae, ethnic, baseball caps, they were all tumbling out before my eyes. Even John Lennon seemed to move from the hair to the hat.
In fact, if you ask me, cycles of history may reveal themselves through hats. I was onto something here, maybe I could give up my job and write a book, The History of Hats …no… not catchy enough… Hats Off to History? Or ….Hatters Matters?
Jesus, do hats soften the brain, as in Mad Hatters?
Suddenly that large straw hat with floppy brim which I wore to Bray came back. Me and Ross walked up the Head and surveyed Wicklow, the sun and the view sealing our fate. Ross said I looked like Marianne Faithful, said he couldn’t imagine life without me. Did he mean me or Marianne?
Luckily, the sea breeze hit my face, slick and salty, pulling me back from what that book calls – emotional cul-de-sacs.
Across from me, Howth Head sat like a shoulder on the bay. That must have attracted the Vikings. Now, they were keen hat wearers, metal helmets, to protect from flying spears and falling rocks, I suppose. Or just bad weather?
I should tell my daughters that things could be worse, I could turn up at the school wearing a Viking helmet - which would definitely bring another custody wrangle. Still, the Judge could hardly lecture me about wearing strange headgear and causing mental torture - why should Judges have that right all to themselves?
Then I remembered that Na Fianna also hung out around Howth Head and they seemed to go hatless, hair streaming down their shoulders. Why? Better skulls than Vikings? Used to the inclement weather? Hmm, History was complicated, researching this book could take time.
No doubt the girls will tell Ross about my new hat when he collects them today. What will he say? Well he’d liked my Russian Cossack hat, the only bit of the wedding outfit which was a surprise. Perfect for a February morning with snow on the ground and it matched the long tweed coat I wore to cover the bump.
“Very unusual,” Ross’s mother said.
“Like Lara in Doctor Zhivago,” Auntie Phil said, hugging me.
“Very War and Peace,” Ross said.
More true than we could know.
I hope Ross will back me up with the girls, say it’s a form of self- expression. He was always big on that.
“But your class will clash with my football?” he said, voice injured, when I finally managed to pin a Yoga class down.
“So, who’ll look after the kids?” he demanded.
“How about you for a change? I look after them all week … I need one evening out.”
“Well I work my ass off all week, I need football to destress.”
“You don’t say? Well, guess what - that’s why I’m doing Yoga! Plus, you already play football on Tuesdays.”
Those grinding battles, leading to wobbly compromises, increased in frequency.
“Over nothing,” Ross would say after we made up.
I walked to the shoreline, stamping my footprints into the wet sand. A boat was heading away to Holyhead, the boat as much part of the scenery as the bay itself. Stephanie, Auntie Peggy, all coming, going, going, coming. The sight of it sometimes made me want to move - a hop across the water was a short distance, although three kids in tow was a complication, not to mention a furious father chasing after us.
I imagine Linda, Ross’ new girlfriend, wears hats to weddings and other events. She’s a sharp dresser. I know that from our one accidental encounter. A Saturday afternoon, I took Aoife shopping in Grafton Street and saw them coming before they saw us - holding hands. Always a big hand holder, Ross.
“This is a friend Linda,” Ross said, looking shaken.
“Hi Dad,” Aoife squealed, hugging him while Linda and I stood watching.
I stormed at him later on the phone, “Jesus Ross, if you’ve a girlfriend you could at least prepare your kids.”
“But you never take the kids into town on a Saturday.”
“Since when was there a curfew?”
“Anyway, Linda wants to meet them soon.”
“At least she has some sense.”
Maybe - just maybe- my new hat is a bid for attention, recognition that I’m somebody… with a future. Maybe? I mean a woman of forty, three kids, part-time job, failed marriage - not an advertiser’s dream.
“Why failed marriage,” my friend Aileen demanded the other night. “If you leave a job, you put it down on your CV as experience, why not a marriage? Think of all you’ve learned?”
Aileen is an original and very loyal. I sometimes thank God that I have her as a friend and …yes… she is a great hat wearer, daring hats, turbans, pork pies, fedoras. But I don’t have her flair, nor her optimism.
“What about Brian,” she continued, refilling our glasses.
“What about him?” I tried not to think about Brian.
Aileen swears she didn’t stage-manage it which I don’t believe. There he was, out of the blue, at her New Year’s party and Aileen topping up my glass all evening.
Ending up in bed with him was a shock and a blur. When I woke, I didn’t know where I was for a few seconds, then the painful truth - Brian’s apartment - where’d we’d gone for a nightcap. I slid out from beside his sleeping back, dressed in the bathroom and was halfway to the door, when he spoke.
“Making your escape?” he asked, propped on an elbow, bare shoulder above the duvet.
Ha, ha. “The kids, you know, got to get back.”
A lie, my mother had them for the day. I was a coward.
“You know, I always thought you and Ross would be together forever!”
Jesus. “Thanks a lot Brian!” I snapped.
I guess we’ve made progress since then, we never mention Ross, and we’ve been for meals out and to bed three times - soberish - at his place. I’m getting the hang of it, I mean I was hardly new to sex, but this feels different. Brian is an unfamiliar body, shape, smell, skin, it’s like being eighteen again… the anxiety… except you’re supposed to know better.
To be honest, I’m surprised every time he rings, he’s single, good looking, with a decent job in computing. He was in a relationship for ten years, but they’d - gone as far as they could go - he said.
I didn’t ask what that meant. Actually, he’s thoughtful, I realised recently, something Ross lost when our ship began to sink.
But what I really, really, need is a sensitive widower with teenage kids who can babysit. Or a Psychology course: Two hundred steps to self-belief?
I mean, how could I start all over again with somebody new? All that history, all those … well, damn hats?
Have I ever seen Brian in a hat? Actually he wore a baseball cap to Aileen’s birthday picnic at Portmarnock. It suited him.
Tommy was impressed, “Mam he’s got a BMW.”
I was getting bogged down in details, back to my book. Was that hat wearing a mark of individuality, of swimming against the tide, like Madge or James Joyce, say, or was it a sign of belonging to a group? Like the Vikings, the Clergy, the Gardai ….? Obviously arguments could be made on both sides.
Where did that leave me? Who’d have thought wearing a hat would do this? Then I recalled frustrated teachers: Put on your thinking caps girls! Perhaps a hat increased the flow of blood to the brain?
Or maybe not? Ross and I were wearing hats for our final showdown - crappy, Christmas cracker hats, our last Christmas of misery, the tension over dinner sharper than the carving knife.
“Sorry, the turkey’s a bit overcooked,” I said, trying to admit my faults that year.
“It’s delicious Clare,” Ross’s mother said, making the best of it, as always.
Not like her son, “It’ll go nicely with the sprouts.”
Even the wine recommended in the Irish Times didn’t taste right, though it didn’t stop me drinking too much of it. I hope to God the kids were ignoring us.
Later, I sat in the kitchen, the light shining down from on high on unwashed dishes, unable to stop the tears. “There’s no point, is there, Ross?”
He was stacking the dishwasher, and didn't turn, “No point in what?”
“Continuing on … like this?”
I’d practised saying it but it still came out like a death sentence and I still hoped he’d contradict me. Maybe there was somewhere we could take our marriage - like a Dry Cleaners - so it would come up fresh and new.
No; there was nowhere.
Jesus! Ten o’clock, I’ll be late for work again. Racing back to the car, it crossed my mind that history could be a burden too, the number of times I’d wished I’d known Ross less, done less with him, had less memories to wipe, possession to divide…. it also crossed my mind to take the damn hat off, throw it into the Irish Sea and be done with it.
But no, I had to decide: with the tide or against it – don the hat or doff it?
I arrived at work six minutes late, a queue of people waiting, Roisin chilly, and I didn’t blame her. Was that a disapproving glance she threw at my hat?
“Be there in a minute,” I said, rushing to the staff room, where I bumped into Jimmy, the Intern.
“I like the hat,” he said instantly, “very cool.”
“Thanks Jimmy,” I said, trying not to look surprised.
“My Da used to wear one like that when he was young, I’ve seen photos.”
“Really,” I asked, grabbing at today’s folders.
“I think he always wanted to act in a gangster film, you know, wearing one of them hats,” he added with a grin.
And that was it - that did it.
I saw now that it was all in the hat - the past, the films, the dreams. How else would Jimmy know his Dad longed to be a film star? I also knew that I had a duty to my kids to keep wearing my hat, so that they remembered it and wondered later about my secret dreams.
So, what were they, I asked myself, grabbing a tepid coffee to take to my booth.
Well, firstly … there was my fresh start, my new leaf… and secondly … there was my book, just waiting to be written.
And I knew exactly what I’d call it: If the Hat Fits - Wear it.