AT THE DROP OF A HAT
I stood at the counter of Mim’s Whims, the hat shop I inherited from my grandmother, Mim, along with my cousin Vivian Tremont, and I gazed out the window. All I could see was gray.
Gray clouds, gray sheets of rain, gray fog filling the streets and alleyways, gray, gray, gray. Or as the Brits like to spell it grey.
Our shop is nestled in the midst of Portobello Road and takes up the bottom floor of the three story white building that our grandmother bought over forty years ago. I’ve always loved it and found the bright blue and white striped awning and matching blue shutters on the windows above to be cheerful, but even they couldn’t defeat the never ending gloom that seemed to descend upon our section of London.
Being raised in the States and hailing most recently from Florida, this weather was pushing me just to the right of crazy.
Three solid weeks of rain will do that to a girl. Besides, I was quite sure I was going to sprout mold if I didn’t get some sunshine and soon.
“It’s the last one,” Fee said. “You should have it.”
“No, no, I insist you take it,” Viv said. She tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder as if the gesture added weight to her argument.
Fee is Fiona Felton, my cousin Viv’s apprentice. She’s a very nice girl with a tall willowy build, a dark complexion courtesy of her West Indies heritage, and a bob of corkscrew curls that she liked to dye new and different colors. Currently, she was rocking green streaks, which I thought was pretty cool but would look hideous in my own auburn shoulder length hair.
Viv is my cousin Vivian Tremont. She’s the mad hatter of our little trio. Growing up down the street, she trained to be a milliner beside Mim. My own attempts at millinery were encouraged, but it became readily apparent that I did not have the family gift for twining ribbons into flowers or shaping brims or anything artistic or even crafty.
Viv and Fee were standing on the other side of the counter, taking a break from their current creations in the workroom. They were pushing a plate back and forth between them which contained one rogue piece of Walker’s Toffee, which was the last of the package we had been nibbling on all day.
“After such a large tea this afternoon, I couldn’t eat another bite,” Fee said.
“Fee, honestly, I insist you take the last piece of toffee,” Viv said. She sounded very bossy about it.
“No, you absolutely must have it,” Fee said. She blew a green curl out of her eyes.
“Oh, for goodness sakes,” I said. “I’ll eat it just to end this.”
I scooped up the last piece of toffee and popped it into my mouth. Viv and Fee both turned to look at me with wide eyes.
“What?” I asked while chewing.
“Nothing,” Fee said and glanced away.
“It’s fine,” Viv agreed.
I stopped chewing. I knew the stone sinking sensation of committing a social gaffe when I felt it.
“Aw, man,” I said. “I messed that up, didn’t I?”
“It’s fine, honestly,” Viv said.
Which is how I knew it really wasn’t.
“What did I do?” I asked. “Did I not force it on you two enough?”
“You’re making fun of us,” Viv said.
I swallowed the last of the toffee. “No, my American brain is just trying to figure out how pushing something that you apparently really want onto others makes sense? If you want it, take it.”
“That’s not our way,” Fee said. “There are just certain things we do out of politeness like saying ‘Cheers’ when you step off the bus.”
“The toffee push could have gone on all day,” I said.
“It probably would have,” Viv agreed.
“See? You did us a favor,” Fee said.
“And now you’re trying to make me feel better for being a clumsy American,” I said.
“You’re half British,” Viv reminded me. Like I could forget my charming mother, Viv’s mother’s little sister, that easily. The woman had all but demanded a vow of celibacy out of me after my last relationship implosion went viral on the Internet and had my dad, a pacifist, looking into buying a gun to shoot the rat bastard who hurt his baby girl.
“I still don’t get it,” I said.
“It’s just one of the many idiosyncrasies of being British,” Viv said. “You indicate you’re longing for something by rejecting it. Repeatedly.”
“Now I see why you’re both single,” I said.
“Was that nice?” Viv asked. “We’re just very polite.”
“One might say cripplingly polite,” I said.
“Huh, enjoy that toffee, yeah?” Fee said.
I smiled. Maybe I was too brash and forward for my cousin’s sensibilities, but at least I didn’t spend my time pining or pretending I didn’t want things that I actually did.
The doors to the front of the shop opened and in strode Harrison Wentworth. My heart did a little toe tap against my ribs but I refused to acknowledge it. Okay, so maybe I did pretend I didn’t want something that I really did want just a little.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he greeted us as he stood in the door and shook out his umbrella.
“Hi, Harrison,” Viv and Fee greeted him in unison.
“Hiya, Harry,” I said.
His bright green eyes glittered when they landed on me.
“It’s Harrison, Ginger,” he corrected me.
Little did he know I liked hearing him call me Ginger, especially in that swoon worthy accent of his. Although I had tried to get everyone to call me Ginger over the years, Harry was the only one who’d kept it up from childhood. Yes, I’d known him that long.
Most of my school holidays had been spent in Notting Hill in Mim’s hat shop. My mother had insisted that I be well versed in all things British and paling around with Viv was never a hardship. She was two years older than me and given that we were both the only children in our families, she was the sibling I had never had.
Harry had been one of our brat pack, the kids whose families lived or owned businesses on Portobello Road, who ran amuck in the neighborhood. His uncle had been Mim’s bookkeeper just as Harry was ours. Of course, I had recently come to find out that he had bought a share of the business and was now technically my boss. Yeah, I was still chewing on that one.
I couldn’t fault Viv, though. She’d gotten into financial trouble over a haul of Swarovski crystals, yes, like me she has impulse control issues. Unfortunately, I’d been so caught up in the drama that was my life at the time that she’d forged ahead and had Harry save the business when I should have been there to help. I still had guilt about it, but I was working through it.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Harry.
He raised his eyebrows at me and I realized my American rudeness was rearing its ugly blocky head -- again.
“Sorry,” I said. “Was that too abrupt?”
“One does generally start with a comment about the weather,” he said. “Then you slowly segue into a softly pedaled interrogation.”
I glanced at the window. “After three weeks of gloom, I am thinking any conversation about the weather would be redundant, but if it makes you feel better…ruddy wet out there today, isn’t it?”
He grinned and then looked at Viv. “There’s hope for her yet.”
Fee snorted. “Not if there’s toffee involved.”
I was about to protest when the bells on the door jangled and a woman in a blue hooded raincoat entered the shop carrying a large plastic bag.
She stood dripping on the doormat, and I took it as my opportunity to escape the discussion of my manners or lack thereof. I left the group at the counter and crossed the shop.
“Hi, may I help you?” I asked.
“Oh, I hope so,” she said.
She opened the dripping plastic bag and pulled out an old hat box. It was white with thick blue stripes and a blue satin cord. On the top of the box in a swirling script were the words Mim’s Whims.
I heard a gasp and realized that it came from behind me. I knew without looking that it was Viv and I knew she was reacting to the same thing that I was. This box was an old one of Mim’s before Mim had updated the shop’s boxes in the nineties.
“Is there a hat in there?” Viv asked as she joined us on the mat in front of the front door.
“Yes, it’s an old one that belonged to my mother,” the woman answered.
She pushed back the hood on her raincoat and I was struck by how dark her hair was. It was an inky black color, thick and lustrous, the type you’d expect to see on a model. After I recovered from my spurt of hair envy, I noted that she was quite pretty with big brown eyes and an upturned nose. Mercifully, she was spared from being perfect as her lips were on the thin side and she wore glasses, a nerdy rectangular pair with thick black frames.
“I don’t want to drip all over your shop,” the woman said.
“No, worries,” I said. “Here I’ll take the bag and your coat.”
She handed me the dripping bag and shrugged out of her coat freeing one arm at a time as if afraid to let go of her hat box. I hung her coat and the bag on our coat rack by the door. Usually we kept it in the back room, but so many people had been coming in with wet coats that we’d moved it out front for the interminable rain fest we had going.
I hurried after them as Viv led the woman over to the counter where Fee and Harrison were watching the happenings with curious expressions.
“Ariana, is that you?” Harrison asked. He looked delighted to see the young woman, and I felt the prick of something sharp, like the spiny point of jealousy, stab me in the backside.
She looked up at him in surprise and then laughed. “Harrison, fancy meeting you here!”
He stepped around the counter and swept her into a friendly embrace. “I wondered why Stephen asked me about this place? Was it for you?”
This place? I turned to exchange a dark look with Viv but neither she nor Fee was looking in my direction. Did they not see that Harrison had just insulted our shop?
“Yes, I knew you did the books for a hat shop on Portobello and was so hoping it was the same one, and then Stephen said that you bragged that it was the best in the city and that the girls who owned were—“
“Yes, well,” Harrison interrupted her by coughing loudly into his fist.
He glanced at me and I narrowed my eyes at him. What had he said about us? I opened my mouth to demand to hear it when Viv spoke first.
“Do you know what year your mother purchased the hat?” Viv asked Ariana.
“I do, it was 1983, in fact,” she said. “The hat was a bridal hat for her wedding.”
“1983? Oh, that was a very good hat year. John Boyd was designing for Princess Diana. I loved the turquoise hat he made for her first foreign tour to Australia. It was a cap framed by matching ropes of silk with a net over the top and a matching flower at the back. I tried to recreate it during my apprenticeship but I could never match his artistry.”
“He is a genius,” Fee agreed. “I adore the red boater that she wore perched to the side with the matching jacket.”
“None of us were even born in 1983,” I said. “How is it you know what the hats looked like back then?”
“Every milliner studies John Boyd and Princess Diana,” Fee said.
“That and I did an apprenticeship in his Knightsbridge shop,” Viv said. “Mim loved his work. They were friends, you know.”
I didn’t, but I didn’t say as much, mostly because I was too embarrassed to admit that although the name John Boyd sounded familiar, I wasn’t really up to speed on his work. The truth was I didn’t know much about the millinery business. I had studied the hospitality industry in college and my gift was more with people, which brought my attention back to the woman in our shop.
“I’m sorry, Ariana, I didn’t catch your last name,” I said. I glanced meaningfully at Harrison but he didn’t look embarrassed in the least.
“Oh, of course, forgive me,” he said. “Ariana Jackson, these are the owners of Mim’s Whims Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont and their apprentice Fiona Felton.”
“Ariana, what a pretty name,” I said. I gave her my most winning smile. “It suits you. Do you and Harrison go a long way back?”
Harry raised his eyebrows, no doubt surprised that I hadn’t used his nickname. Well, just like he didn’t know that I liked the name Ginger, he also didn’t know that I considered Harry my personal name for him and I really didn’t want to share it.
“Not at all, just a few rugby seasons,” Ariana said. She and Harrison exchanged a smile. “My fiancée Stephen plays on the same league team and when I said I wanted to get my mother’s hat fixed for our wedding, Stephen asked Harrison about Mim’s Whims. I was thrilled to find out you’re still here.”
She put the old hat box on the counter. “I was hoping you might be able to help me. My mother’s hat needs some refurbishing and since it originally came from this shop…”
“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” Viv said. She gestured to the box. “May I?”
Ariana gave her a quick nod and Viv eagerly pried the lid off. Nested amidst layers of pale tissue paper, was a wide brimmed white confection. Viv carefully reached into the box and gently pulled the hat free.
I gasped. It was beautiful; a wide brimmed, white silk hat swathed in tulle with a large silk bow and a lush organza rose nestled in the center. As Viv lifted it, a long organza train fell down from beneath the bow and spilled over the brim. Fee reached out and pulled the train free it was long and delicate with embroidered edges. Even I could see our grandmother’s handiwork all over it.
“Oh, Mim,” Viv said. Her voice sounded wistful and I knew just how she felt. To hold something our grandmother had made over thirty years ago brought her right back to us.
The sweet scent of Lily of the Valley filled my nose. I glanced at Viv at the same moment she glanced at me. Mim. It was the distinct scent Mim had always worn. I glanced around the shop as if expecting her to appear, but of course she didn’t. Still, she was here or the essence of her was here. I was sure of it just as I was sure she wanted Viv to restore the hat.
“I’d be happy to try and fix the hat,” Viv said. “No, I’d be honored.”