The Panama Hat

 The Panama Hat

Walter Bobkin was an enigma, he disliked the name Walter so much he referred to himself as Bob. Just simply Bob. Bob Bobkin. That is unless he were to seek employment in which case he was determined to use Walter as he felt, even with his minimal qualifications, he would secure a much more professional position with such a title which is of course an incredibly snobbish attitude to have in this modern world. But then Bob is a snob, a person who lives in a superficial world on the periphery of reality. He is a man of independent means derived from his father's hard and industrious life so, barring investment disasters, it was unlikely that he would ever need to work anyway. A confirmed bachelor who had never really been interested in women, very set in his ways and a routine that was cast in stone. He was maybe about fifty, a tall man, perhaps as lofty as six foot four, but straight sided and spindly. He certainly did not have the physique or stature of a prize fighter, something that had never concerned him until now that is. 

With his usual nonchalant demeanour he was strolling down The High Street, which was not far from his home, heading for Pttigrew’s Hat Shop. His large feet pointed outwards as he walked, add the fact that he was also flat footed and it is easy to understand his strange bobbing gait that was so distinctive. The Hat Shop sat on the corner of The High Street and a side street with two curved windows, one on each street with the door between, facing at forty five degrees. He first looked in the High Street Window, and noted, with expectation, the splendid Panama with blue band sitting centre stage, then moved to the side street where he had to use his hand to shield against the glare from the hot summer sun to see an array of ladies’ hats draped in ice cream coloured bows and ties. He kind of huffed a bit then pushed open the door and entered the shop followed by the tinkling ding of an old fashioned, spring mounted bell. The ancient, well established Hatters was encased in dark wood and glass fronted cabinets and smelling of dust and a strange combination that might have been naphthalene, camphor oil and cheap repugnant perfume. It boasted a stock of over two thousand hats spread over two floors that extending out the back.

 He was greeted by a very chirpy, “Good morning Sir,” spoken with great emphasis by a greying, elderly lady wearing a bright blue cardigan and wire rimmed glasses that she peered over that could hang around her neck on strings. Her clasped hands were resting on a glass topped cabinet doubling up as a counter-top and displaying a range of colourful bow ties. Clearly a fixture and most likely Ms Pettigrew, the daughter or even granddaughter of the original owner. “How can I help you?” she continued. She emanated the perception she possessed an immense knowledge of hats.

Bob replied rather solemnly “Good morning to you. I’m off to the cricket next week and the weather forecast is for plenty of sunshine. I cannot abide the sun on my neck and require a wide brimmed, Panama hat. Oh, and it must have a mauve band. I only wear hats with mauve bands you see. The best you’ve got please.”

“Certainly Sir,” replied the lady but with a look of some doubt, “let’s go to the Panama hat room and see what we can find. Please follow me.”

She meandered around several display stands and an eclectic mix of all sorts as they disappeared towards the back of the shop to enter a large, bright room with a magnificent collection of the finest Panama hats. 

“This is one of the most extensive stocks in the country, Sir,” she said, “we’ve all sizes and styles. I’m sure there is something here to suit you.”

Well, over several hours, Bob tried on hats with wide brims with various band colours but no mauve, hats with narrow brims including ones with mauve bands. Tall hats, narrow hats and even moved on to non-Panama hats, but there was nothing that fitted his very exacting requirements.

Ignoring some apologetic final suggestions he left disappointed and more than slightly worried he would have to endure the cricket either with a sun drenched neck and the accompanying persistent headache or the indignity of a shady umbrella.

It was now after lunch, too late for anything formal, so he picked up a tuna mayo sandwich from the swish Deli’s sandwich counter and headed for the park, an expansive space with a large boating lake and woodland walks. He wandered to the water’s edge and sat on the new bench beside some woodland with “remembering Dougy Walters” carved on the back rail. He knew Dougy Walters well, they had boarded at an expensive public school together where they learnt nothing, other than how to sponge off others and stick together. A vintage e type Jag, driving too fast, drunk and a brick wall had done for him only a few months before.

He put the sandwich carton next to him on the freshly varnished slats of the bench, nearly knocking off a genuine Panama hat with a wide brim and excellent sized mauve band that was just sitting there. It was old, probably 1970’s but the Toquilla straw was in excellent condition. Obviously much loved and cared for. Picking it up he could not believing his luck, looked around the inside banding to see if there was any clue of ownership. Then furtively looked around. Double looked the couple, in the distance walking away and make sure no one was watching. Looked one more time. Fleetingly. With a quick double take here and there. A subtle nod. Then put it on. And another quick look. A perfect fit. Thank you Dougy so much. It felt like fate. He would not normally take something that did not belong to him but he was desperate. To kind of justify this appropriation he thought to himself he would try and search out the owner, but after the cricket.

He looked down at his feet. In the dust there were two sets of footprints, one larger than the other. The smaller obviously a woman. Quite a small woman he would guess. She was wearing stilettos. The small dents in the ground were very clear. Not wishing to risk the owner’s return he then left walking briskly to the top gate heading for home forgetfully leaving the sandwich on the bench in its carton. He did not notice the petite woman, with a tallish man slightly behind her, frantically waving and trying to sprint in her high heels towards the bench but did say, “Good day,” to the smiling lady with the pushchair coming down the path.

Arriving home about half an hour later he took off the hat and hung it on top of the oak coat stand to the right of the door. There it would be in full view of any visitors but he did not consider that in any way. By then it was nearly five o’clock. In the kitchen he filled the kettle, flicked the switch, put green tea leaves in the teapot and waited for the kettle to boil. Sipping the tea he pondered his luck. Although he did feel guilty taking the hat he convinced himself that someone’s carelessness was not his fault and concluded that this was a very fortuitous coincidence. And smiled, very happy that a problem had been solved. Then the doorbell rang. It was now about six o’clock.

He put down his teacup and made his way to the front door where, through the decorative frosted glass, he could see the outline of a reasonably built man with his back to the door. As he opened the door the man, who was wearing a T-shirt, joggers and trainers, turned, displaying a kind of flustered, aggravated look which Bob found a bit disconcerting. Quite quickly he could tell this was an extremely unhappy, angry man.

The man looked at the Panama hat then looked at Bob and, stepping closer, said in a very aggressive voice, “So, you are the one are you, the one with the hat? I’ve been trying to track you down.”

Bob replied in a kind of sheepish way, in a quiet, low voice, “I don’t think I know you do I? Anyway, how did you find me? You know you can have it back if you want. It’s not a problem.”

“I found you because you were stupid enough to leave your sandwich on the bench with the carton and the makers address. There was a lady with a pushchair sitting there feeding the ducks and she said you left through the upper gate wearing that hat,” pointing at the Panama. “I have been searching for that hat with its very distinctive band. The sandwich shop on the High Street knew you as a regular customer and told me where you lived. And I’ve been longing to do this.”

As quick as you like Bob was hit with a swift right hook connecting sweetly with his left eye. As he staggered back a straight left landed squarely on the side of his nose. Blood erupted everywhere and Bob went down flat on his back.

Standing over him in a very clear rage staring into Bob’s messy face and gripping the front of his shirt slightly lifting him off the ground the man shouted through gritted teeth, “Stay away from my wife. This is the only warning you’ll get. Just stay away and keep away.”

With that he dropped Bob, turned, stormed down the path, slammed the gate shut and sprinted down the pavement heading back to the High Street. 

Bob, somewhat stunned and dizzy, turned onto his side and swung himself into a kneeling position with his hands spread wide and flat on the floor supporting his weight with his head bowed forward. He felt sick. His eye hurt like crazy and he could feel his nose, that had stopped bleeding, swelling up. 

“What was all that about?” he thought, “I can’t remember ever being hit like that. Even at school. What the hell….”

He pushed himself up and, with the support of the coat stand, managed to stand. He struggled along the wall to the kitchen, ran a sink full of cold water, grabbed a new sponge from the sink cupboard and washed away the blood and cleaned up his face. Sitting at the kitchen table he boiled the kettle and made more green tea. Feeling somewhat better, about an hour later he went to the late night chemist and picked up a bottle of witch hazel for the swelling and pain killers. Then came home. 

About an hour later the doorbell rang. Understandably he was reluctant to respond but walked silently to the hallway and could see the silhouette of a short woman through the glass. Satisfied it was not the husband returning he opened the door to see the petite lady still wearing high heels frantically texting on her phone. 

She looked up at him. It was obvious she had been crying. He said in a startled tone but, at the same time, did note that underneath all the tears and distress she was really quite a stunner, “No need to guess who you are. You look terrible. You’d better come in.”

He sat her at the kitchen table looking at her red and puffed up cheek and said, “I see you’ve had the same discussion with your husband as I have. Are you OK? But how on earth did you find me?

“Oh I’m all right considering,” she said in a weak, depressed voice, “we had a terrible row, he slapped me and I walked out. I saw you leaving the park when we were coming back for Ronnie’s hat so I recognised your strange way of walking as you came out of the chemist and followed you. It’s all such a mess isn’t it? We were finishing it. That’s why we were meeting. Ronnie was not really interested and I…. well, I don’t know what I was doing. It was all over but had never really started anyway. It’s all such a bloody mess. Why’d he hit you?”

“Mistaken identity. He recognised the hat and made the wrong conclusion.”

“Could you not have argued with him.? He’s really not so tough.”

Bob shrugged and said, “Deficient in the pugilistic arts I’m afraid.”

“What?” she replied.

“Fighting. No good at it. I prefer the ammunition of words.”

“Uh. What do you mean?” she replied.

“I try to talk my way out of things. In this instance though, I’m afraid that did not work.” 

“Oh, I see,” she said.

He did find her naivety strangely endearing. “Why’d you come here and not go to…. Ronnie’s was it?” he said inquiringly.

“I did go to him but he wasn't in. Then I saw you and, well… know,” she said shrugging. 

“That’s all well and good,” he said, “but I’m not sure you're too welcome here considering the loose cannon on the prowl.”

At that moment the doorbell rang and Bob looked at her questionably.

“It could be Ronnie I suppose. I was texting him when you answered the door. I told him where I was and what had happened.”

The outline through the front door glass did not look like her husband but, as a precaution he attached the security chain. Then opened the door a fraction.

Not recognising the man standing there he said inquiringly, “Ronnie?”

“I’m Ronnie,” came the reply, “is Julie here?”

Bob removed the chain and swung the door open.

“I’m Bob,” he said and moved towards the kitchen.

“That’s my hat,” Ronnie said as he walked past the coat stand but did not remove it.

“Hello Julie,” he said as he entered the kitchen, “are you all right?”

“Not too bad considering,” she said in a resigned way, “feeling better than I did anyway.”

“I think you two are a real liability to have around,” Bob said, “I don’t really want another thumping. What do you intend to do?”

“I don’t blame you,” said Ronnie looking at Bob’s face, “I know that should have been me. Julie and I are not seeing each other anymore so really it’s up to her what she wants to do.”

“I don’t want to lose my marriage,” said Julie, “I don’t really know what I was doing. I was lonely I suppose. My husband works hard and is away a lot. I think I just lost my way. So, I will go home and see if we can talk it through. I don’t know but maybe we can sort it out. I am sure though if I go home and try to explain, things might calm down.”

“It’s late,” said Bob. “You can stay here tonight if you want and go back tomorrow. A new day. A fresh start and all that. Give him time to settle down as well. And you Ronnie if you want. Also if he comes back it’s your turn to take the flack.”

Drinking more than their share of scotch, Bob and Ronnie stayed up talking until the early hours while Julie slept. The next day, after a late breakfast, she left .

Ronnie then said to Bob, “My hat, Bob, what’s the story with my hat?”

“I am ashamed to say I took it out of selfishness. I’m going to the cricket next week and could not find a hat I liked. I hate the sun, you see, and the wide brim, the style and the mauve headband are….. well, they are just perfect. I’m not proud of it. I would have tried to return it though. Anyway, please take it back. At least I saved it from the hands of an unappreciative vandal.”

Ronnie then put his hand on Bob’s arm but in a quite familiar way and said, “If you want some company I would love to come with you to the cricket. You can use my hat if you want. I won’t mind. As long as I know it’s safe. I would just like it back sometime. It means a lot to me. It was my Dad’s and I don’t want to lose it.” 

“You’re so kind,” said Bob, “and I do think I would very much enjoy your company.”






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