Courtney stood outside the shop and stamped her feet. A crumpled newspaper caught up in the icy wind wrapped itself around her ankles. She peeled it off and read the headline about some old boat that sank one hundred years ago. Boring. She screwed it up and threw it into the gutter. Keeping her finger pressed on the bell she peered through the glass door for the third time.
The words Moffat and Son, Milliners were etched across the glass with the year 1834 in flaky gold lettering. Courtney wondered if it was real gold and scraped the edge with her fingernail.
That would please her dad, if she came back with a bit of real gold. He’d seen an episode of Antiques Roadshow which had featured a hat maker where they had valued her collection at hundreds of pounds. He thought he might make a quick few quid from Millicent, known in the town as Mad Hattie.
“C’mon Courtney”, he said pulling hard on his roll-up. She watched his top lip crease into a thousand lines. “Use yer noddle. What are they teaching you at school these days? Just check it out, then I can suss whether it’s worth making her an offer. I bet she don’t watch the telly—wouldn’t know if she was sitting on a goldmine or not.”
Courtney shrugged her shoulders. School? She hadn’t been for months—what was the point of school with a father like hers? And he never opened the post or answered the telephone, so her absence went unnoticed.
She’d seen Mad Hattie several times over the years, pushing an old shopping trolley through the town. And she always wore a hat. Never the same one twice. Courtney and her friends used to take bets on who could hit the hat with a stone as they hid behind a hedge in the park. Mad Hattie never caught them and never thought to take a different route.
Courtney continued to scrape until the door opened and she fell straight into the large bosom of Mad Hattie.
“How can I help you?” the milliner asked. She had one wonky eye that never stayed still and her lips, smeared with red, formed a jagged slit across her face. Today Mad Hattie wore a thin band of teal coloured felt around her forehead. A peacock feather, attached at one side, waved about like a third eye.
“Ah, Mad… I mean Miss Moffat. I’m doing a project at school. On hats, and I wondered if…” Courtney stuck her hands in her pockets. “I wondered if I could have a look at your collection?”
Mad Hattie stood for a moment, her fingers fluttering over her head as if trying to remember something. She turned and shuffled along the dark corridor to the back of the shop. Her thick tights gathered at her ankles reminding Courtney of a worm mould. “I’m just making tea, would you like one?”
Courtney closed the door and followed behind her. She sneezed, once, twice, three times. The air was full of dust and a dank smell crept over her skin. She shivered and sneezed again.
“Want to try some on?” Mad Hattie asked as they went through to the back of the shop. Rows and rows of heads stood on various tables and cabinets, each displaying a hat.
Courtney recognised a shiny black top hat, a rounded bowler and a small straw boater with a striped ribbon. She’d never seen so many different hats all in one place, apart from at her Aunty Joan’s wedding.
“Crikey, Mad—” Courtney bit her lip. “Sorry, Miss Moffat.”
Mad Hattie sniffed and passed her a mug with Mickey Mouse on the front.
“That’s fine. I know what they call me. But I’m not.”
Courtney scanned the long, silver-grey hair that hung around Hattie’s shoulders like rat’s tails. Rumour had it that mice occupied the unwashed mane.
“Not mad and not Hattie. My name is Millicent.”
Courtney sipped at the tea. It was worse than her dad made and tasted like dishwater. She smiled at Mad Hattie and put the mug on the counter.
“Come, stand by my mirror. You’ll see the hats better over here. Now what shall we try first?” Mad Hattie put a fat finger into her doughy cheek leaving a large dimple. “I know. The petrol blue cloche. It will suit your colouring. It’s had a lot of restoration.” She sighed. “One of my finest pieces.”
Courtney ran her fingers through her short hair. “How many hats do you have?” she asked, remembering her father’s words, “Could be sitting on a little gold mine with all them ‘ats.”
Mad Hattie paused over one display. “Two thousand nine hundred and forty-three.” She lifted the hat from the stand. “No, forty-four. You know, my grandma always used to say that there was a hat for everyone. Maybe this one is yours?”
Mad Hattie looked at Courtney. Her roving eye had stopped moving. Courtney swallowed.
“I’m not sure that I need to…”
She didn’t want someone else’s hat on her head. What if they had nits? Courtney scratched her ear. Before she realised, Mad Hattie stepped behind her and placed the hat on her head. As she stretched the edges over her hair, the peacock feather tickled Courtney’s nose. Mad Hattie turned Courtney around to face a long ornate mirror. A large spider, busy spinning a web from one corner of the gilt frame, stopped and turned.
Courtney gasped as her image changed in the glass. Her skinny jeans, crop top and oversized hoodie melted into a long cornflower blue dress that finished at her ankles, her trainers became a pair of small silk-heeled shoes and in her hand she held a slim gold cigarette holder.
“It’s from a lady who sailed on the Titanic, 100 years ago,” said Mad Hattie, as a band struck up a tune and the spider continued to spin. “But unfortunately, she never returned.”
* This story was published in 2014 on Storyshack