DEATH OF A MAD HATTER
“Take it off, Scarlett. You look like a corpse.”
My cousin Vivian Tremont stared at me in horror as if I had in fact just risen from the grave.
“Don’t hold back,” I said. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“Sorry, love, but pale redheads like you should avoid any color that has gray tones in it,” Viv said. Then because calling me a corpse wasn’t clear enough, she shuddered.
I crossed the floor of our hat shop to the nearest free standing mirror. Our grandmother, Mim, had passed away five years ago and left her shop Mim’s Whims in London to the two of us. Viv was the creative genius behind the hats, having grown up in Notting Hill just down the street from the shop, while I was the people person, you know, the one who kept the clients from running away from Viv when she got that scary inspired look in her eye.
Being raised in the States, I had chosen to go into the hospitality industry. Things had been going well until I discovered my rat bastard boyfriend, whose family happened to own the hotel of which I was assistant manager, was still married. At Viv’s urging, I escaped that fiasco and came here to take up my share of the business. So far London had done quite a lot to take my mind off of my troubles. Viv in particular kept me on my toes, making sure I didn’t lose my people skills.
In fact, just the other day she’d gotten swept up in an artistic episode and tried to convince the very timid Mrs. Barker that wearing a hat with two enormous cherries the size of beach balls connected by the stems and with a leaf the size of a dinner plate would be brilliant. It was -- just not on Mrs. Barker’s head.
It had taken me an afternoon of plying Mrs. Barker with tea and biscuits and yanking Viv into the back room and threatening to put her in a headlock to get them to an accord. Finally, Mrs. Barker had agreed to a black trilby with cherries the size of golf balls nestled on the side and Viv had been satisfied to work her magic on a smaller scale.
I ignored my dear cousin’s opinion of my complexion and stood in front of the mirror and tipped the lavender sunhat jauntily to one side. It was mid-May and summer was coming. I’d been looking for a hat to shade my fair skin from the sun and being a girly-girl, I do love all things pink and purple.
“Oh, I can just see the headstone now,” a chipper voice said from behind me. “Here lies Scarlett Parker, mistakenly buried alive when she wore an unfortunate color of sunhat.”
I glared at the reflection of Fiona Felton, Viv’s lovely young apprentice, glancing over my shoulder in the mirror.
Viv laughed and said, “I can dig it.”
“In spades,” Fee quipped back.
“Fine,” I said. I snatched the hat off of my head. “Obviously, the hat is a grave mistake.”
They stopped laughing.
“Oh, come on, that was a very good quip,” I said. They shook their heads in denial.
“You need to bury that one and back away,” Viv said. They both chortled.
“I still think you’re being bit harsh,” I said. I replaced the pretty hat on its stand and shook out my long auburn hair.
“No, harsh was that hat on your head,” Fee said. She smiled at me, her teeth very white against her cocoa colored skin. Her corkscrew bob was streaked with blue, she was always changing the color, and one curl fell over her right eye. She blew it out of her face with a puff of her lower lip.
“But I need a sunhat,” I complained.
“Plain straw would look very nice,” Viv said. “Perhaps with a nice emerald green ribbon around the crown.”
“I’m tired of plain and I’m sick of green.”
I knew I sounded a tad whiney but I didn’t care. I was jealous of Fee and Viv. Fee’s dark coloring looked good with everything and so did Viv’s long blonde curls and big blue eyes, both of which she had inherited directly from Mim. I only got the eyes. So unfair!
The front door opened and I glanced up with my greet- the-customer-smile firmly in place. It fell as soon as I recognized the man who walked into the shop.
“Oh, it’s you, Harry,” I said with a sigh.
Harrison Wentworth, our business manager, raised an eyebrow at my unenthusiastic greeting.
“Harrison,” he corrected me. “Pleasure to see you, too, Ginger.”
I felt my face get warm at the childhood nickname. Yes, Harry and I had a history, one in which I did not come out very well.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said. “I was just hoping you were a customer so everyone could stop telling me how gruesome I look in lavender.”
“I didn’t say you were gruesome,” Viv corrected me as she rearranged the hats on one of the display shelves. “I said you looked like a corpse. Good morning, Harrison.”
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
“Now that’s a proper greeting,” Harrison said, giving me a meaningful look.
“Hello, Harrison,” Fee said. She also kissed his cheek and smiled at him. He returned the grin. I glanced between them. They seemed awfully happy to see each other.
Harrison was Viv’s age, two years older than my modest twenty seven years, but Fee was only twenty, entirely too young to be considering a man in his advanced years, in my opinion. And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that Harry and I had a history, if you consider me standing him up for an ice cream date when I was ten and he was twelve and breaking his adolescent heart a history. I did mention that I didn’t come out very well in it, didn’t I?
As Fee stepped back, Harrison looked at me expectantly. Before I could stop myself, I found myself looking at him from beneath my lashes and giving him my very practiced, secretive half smile. Sure enough, the man looked as riveted as if I had just propositioned him.
Ugh! Honestly, I am a dreadful flirt. It’s like breathing to me and I don’t discriminate. I flirt with everyone, kids, pets, old ladies, men, you name it. Probably, that’s why the hospitality industry was such a natural fit for me. I am very good at managing people.
I blame my mother. After thirty years of marriage, she still has my dad wrapped around her pinky and it’s not just because of her charming British accent either. My mother is an incorrigible flirt and my dad a complete sucker.
After my last relationship disaster, I made a promise to myself that I would go one whole year without a boyfriend. So far it had been two months. Prior to that the longest I’d gone was two weeks. Shameful, I know.
I shook my head and forced myself to give Harrison my most bland expression. He looked confused. I really couldn’t blame him. I was probably giving him emotional whiplash.
Mercifully, the front door opened again and this time two ladies entered. I charged forward, relieved to escape the awkward moment.
“Good afternoon, how may I help you?” I asked.
“You’re not Ginny.” The older of the two women frowned at me.
“No, I’m Scarlet and this is my cousin Vi—“
“Ginny!” The older lady shot forward with surprising speed and hugged my cousin close.
Viv looked startled, but she hugged the woman back obviously not wanting to offend her.
I quickly examined the two ladies. The older one had gray hair and wore a conservative print dress that had Marks & Spencer all over it, while the younger woman, a pretty brunette who looked to be somewhere in her twenties, was much more fashion forward wearing a tailored Alexander McQueen chemise.
“You haven’t aged a day,” the older woman exclaimed. She cupped Vivian’s face and examined her closely. “How have you managed that?”
Viv gave an awkward laugh as if she was quite sure the woman was teasing her but the woman frowned. “No, really, how have you managed it?”
“Um, my name is Vivian,” she said. “I think you might be confusing me with my grandmother Eugenia, everyone called her Ginny.”
The older woman stared at her for a moment and then she laughed and said, “Oh, Ginny, always such a joker. Didn’t I tell you, Tina?”
“You did at that, Dotty,” the other woman said as she stood watching.
“Oh, heavens, where are my manners?” Dotty said. “Ginny, this is my daughter-in-law Tina Grisby. Tina, this is my friend the owner of Mim’s Whims, Gi—“
“Everyone calls me Viv,” Vivian interrupted as she extended her hand to Tina. “This is my cousin Scarlett, our apprentice Fiona, and our man of business Harrison.”
“You changed your name?” Dotty asked Viv. “How extraordinary.”
Viv stared at her for a second and then clearly decided that it did no good to insist she wasn’t Mim.
“Yes, I feel more like a Viv than a Ginny,” she said.
“Huh.” Dotty patted an errant gray curl by her temple. “Maybe I’ll change my name. I always fancied myself a Catriona.”
Tina gave her mother-in-law an alarmed look. “Dotty, we really should explain our purpose so that we don’t keep these kind ladies from their business.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Dotty said. “But I do love the idea of a new name.”
“Are you in need of a hat for a specific occasion?” I asked, thinking to get the conversation on track. “Fee, would you bring us some tea?”
“Right away,” she agreed.
“I’ll just go and attend the books,” Harrison said. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies.”
I watched as he and Fee shared a laugh as they left the room and wondered what they could be discussing that was so amusing. I suspected it was me in my lavender hat.
“Don’t you agree, Scarlett?” Viv asked. She was seated in our cozy sitting area with the Grisbys and all three of them were watching me.
“Um,” I stalled and when I glanced at my cousin, she had her lips pressed together as if she was trying not to smile. I sat down quickly.
“The Grisby family is hosting a tea in honor of Dotty’s late husband and they are planning to have an Alice in Wonderland theme,” Viv said.
“Oh, I like that idea,” I said. “How can we help?”
“Well, it’s to be a fundraiser so that we can name a wing of the hospital after my late husband,” Dotty said. “Each family member will host a table and we’d like them to wear a hat that can be tied to a character from the book.”
I glanced at Viv. Being the creative quotient in the business, this was really her call.
“When would you need these by?” she asked.
“We’re hoping to have the tea in late June,” Tina said. She gave us an apologetic look. “I know it is short notice.”
“Ginny doesn’t mind, do you, dear?” Dotty asked. She patted Viv’s hand as if they were old friends.
I tried to remember Mim mentioning Dotty Grisby, but I couldn’t bring the name up in any of my memories. Of course, given that I was only here on school holidays, I wouldn’t have as broad a frame of reference as Viv would. Judging by Viv’s surprised expression when Dotty had hugged her however, I was betting Viv didn’t remember her either.
Fee came out with a tray loaded with tea and biscuits, some cheese and fruits. The Grisby ladies enjoyed a cup each and nibbled some of the food. It was agreed that Viv would work up some sketches and they would come in to see them next week.
Dotty took Viv’s arm as we walked them to the door. The older lady looked so happy to see her dear friend that I was glad Viv had decided to go along with Dotty’s faulty memory. I fell into step beside Tina.
“Your cousin is being very kind,” Tina said. “Please tell her that I appreciate it.”
“I will,” I said. “It must be hard to watch Dotty struggle with her memory.”
“Honestly, she’s been like this since her husband left her thirty years ago. Her reality is different than everyone else’s and as my husband explained it to me, it is just better if we go along with her.”
“Thirty years ago?” I asked. “I’m sorry, but did I understand that she wants the wing of a hospital named after him?”
“Yes, well,” Tina lowered her voice. “They never divorced. He lived in Tuscany with his mistress until he died a month ago. She always told everyone that he was away on business, and I think she managed to convince herself that was the truth. One does wonder though…”
“What?” I asked.
“That if that’s why she is slightly addled,” Tina said. “She never got over him leaving her.”
A driver was outside waiting for them and Viv and I waved as they drove away.
Harrison came out from the back room. “The books are done for this week and I’m pleased to announce you’re still in business. How did it go with the Mmes. Grisby?”
“They want a tea party a la Alice in Wonderland,” Viv said. “It’ll be tight but I think I can get it done.”
Harrison made a face.
“What? I think it will be great fun,” I said.
“You would,” he retorted. I was pretty sure this was an insult but I didn’t press it.
“What about you, Viv?” Harrison asked. “How do you feel about it?”
She was quiet for a moment, staring out the window as if contemplating something. When she turned around she gave us a wicked smile.
“If it’s a mad hatter that they want then it’s a mad hatter that they’ll get,” she declared.
I exchanged an alarmed glance with Harrison. Between Mrs. Grisby’s dottiness and Viv’s Cheshire Cat grin, I was beginning to feel as nonplussed as Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole. Oh, dear.