Old Hat by Laura Solomon

Old Hat

Originally the hat had belonged to old Mrs Pembleton, a widow who lived at 3 Marshes Lane. It had been discovered at the back of the wardrobe where it had sat gathering dust and the wings of old moths. It wasn’t much to look at and nothing about it spoke of special powers. It was black velvet on the outside and purple velvet on the inside. It was plush in places but worn in others, like a well-loved teddy bear. Sophie’s parents had bought the house off Mrs Pembleton shortly after Mr Pembleton had died. Sophie had stumbled across the hat on a Sunday when she had been bored and exploring the nooks and crannies of the home.

Sophie tried on the hat in front of the hallway mirror. She turned to the left and then to the right, vainly admiring her own reflection. Sophie was nine and she was being bullied at school by a gang of older girls. She spoke aloud.

“Oh I wish I didn’t have to go to school tomorrow”, she said.

The tip of the hat twitched a little to the right.


That evening Sophie complained to her mother that she wasn’t feeling well. Her mother took her temperature and found it be 102 degrees Celsius.

“Gosh,” said her mother. “You’ve got a raging fever. Best you stay home tomorrow.”

It was the result Sophie had been hoping and praying for. Later, after she had changed into her pyjamas, she noticed that her throat was extraordinarily sore and in the morning her glands were swollen into large lumps on both sides of her neck. She ran to find her mother and showed her the offending swellings.

“Oh no”, said her mother. “It looks like you’ve got a nasty case of the mumps. You must’ve caught it off somebody at school. We’d better get you to the doctor.”


The doctor confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed bedrest, fluids and pain relief. Sophie went home and took to her bed. After ten days the mumps had subsided and Sophie was able to move freely about the house again.

Nobody thought too much about more about the hat until it was put into a garage sale. It was purchased by Clive Stevenson, a lawyer in the City who wanted it for a fancy dress party. He was going dressed as a wizard and thought that the hat suited the part. He had a matching purple wand with a lightning bolt on it to go with the outfit. The fancy dress party had been organized by his law firm as a special end of year event celebrating their financial success throughout the year. Clive was pretty fed up and jaded with the corporate world. It had lost its allure. The money no longer compensation for the stress. The work/life balance didn’t balance anymore. He had been secretly wishing for a life free from the rat race. He wanted time and space to pursue his passion for painting and sculpture. He was into post-modernist styles and admired the work of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Gabriel Orozco. He didn’t fancy that he could make great strides in the art world because he thought he was starting too late but he thought he might make some small contribution.

A month after the fancy dress party he was taking the tube home from work during what had been a particularly stressful week when he became suddenly overwhelmed by the maps, the flashing lights and the loudspeaker announcements. For two hours he tried and failed to board the correct train that would take him to his required destination, an activity he had successfully performed for over ten years. It was beyond frustrating. Unsure of how to proceed, he purchased a bottle of water and sat down upon the tube station floor, his briefcase on the floor beside him. Somebody approached to check if he was okay, then called him an ambulance.

Mr Stevenson was taken to Guy’s and St Thomas’ and the Maudsley psychiatric hospital was called. He was initially told he had a bad case of burnout and told to take time off work to rest and recuperate. His employer granted him leave, but when he tried and failed to use the London underground during his time off, further investigations were deemed necessary. He was interviewed by Dr Brandon, who listened carefully to his account of the symptoms, then ordered an MRI. A lesion was found on his brain and he was told that this was a low grade of brain tumour. Surgery was recommended. Clive went home and googled low grade glioma and came up with an article by Anders Whiterson. He contacted the author of the article who was a member of the Royal College of Neurosurgeons. The author put himself forward as a potential surgeon to do the craniotomy. After investigating his background, Clive took him up on the offer. He applied to his law firm for income protection insurance payments on the grounds of sickness and his claim was accepted.

The craniotomy was performed at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen’s Square, London. The operation was successful and an oligodendroglioma the size of three walnuts was removed from his brain. He woke up in the neurology ward. They checked that he could walk and talk, asked him to touch his finger to his nose and he was discharged two days after the operation had taken place. Clive thought it was all a bit slap-dash but what could he do?


After a week at home recovering from the surgery, Clive took the opportunity to throw himself into his artwork. He took himself to a store selling art supplies, purchased the requisite items and began to sculpt and paint. The NHS supplied him with support workers who helped him with day to day tasks and sometimes, when he asked them, with his art. After eighteen months, when he had completed a selection of mixed media pieces, he approached a number of the smaller galleries and asked them if they would hold an exhibition. He got three small nibbles and one bite. The bite was from a gallery in Peckham  – Isaac’s Space. They said he could hold his exhibition in the space for 50% of the profits. Knowing that this was the going rate, Clive took them up on the offer.

The exhibition was a moderate success and over half the pictures and two out of six sculptures sold. One sculpture was of an angel falling to earth; the other was of a bear with a salmon. It was more success than he had expected and he knew he had done well for a first timer recovering from a craniotomy. This inspired him to continue to follow his passion.


The hat was displayed in the exhibition and was purchased by Jacqueline Mills. Jacquie was a housewife who was married to a used car salesman. She was dissatisfied with her life and often dreamed of a better one which included moving to a better home. She had come to the gallery looking for a picture to hang on the wall at home and had fallen in love with the hat. She purchased it for $150 and took it home with her. That evening she was looking through the Property Press when she saw her dream home. It was located in the posh part of town, on the heights, and was going for half a million dollars. Cheap, suspiciously cheap, Jacquie should have thought, but she was too excited by the find to think that far.

She went to view the house the next day. It was on poles at the front and was on a fairly steep section. The real estate agent showed her around. It was a fresh modern home and she fell in love with the place. That night she talked with her husband about selling their old house and upgrading. Jacquie could usually talk her husband around to her way of thinking and on this occasion she was successful in her bid for a new home.

The requisite papers were signed and they shifted into their contemporary home two months later. The following night, at around midnight, there was an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale. The piles of the house shifted and the entire house became uneven and unable to be lived in. For the first time, the hat was blamed. Jacquie thought the hat was unlucky and took it to the local Salvation Army shop to get rid of it.


The hat sat in the Salvation Army shop for a week before being picked up by Earnest Dingleman who worked in the shop. He took it back to the rest home where he was also employed part-time. He walked into the dining hall that evening carrying the hat in his hands.

“Hey”, a voice cried out from the other side of the hall. “That’s my hat!”

Earnest looked over in the direction where the voice was coming from.

It was Mrs Pembleton, who had been in the rest home for only six weeks, a new recruit. Earnest took the hat over to where she sat. Mrs Pembleton took the hat from him gratefully, lovingly, and placed it on her head. It looked like it belonged there, as if it had finally come home.


Now that it had been reunited with its owner, the hat stopped playing the naughty genie. Mrs Pembleton, who had been been playing up in the rest home, not going to bed on time and waking at all hours of the night and early morning and waking other people up with her walking cane, also calmed down and eased more gracefully into life in the retirement home. She had also been refusing to eat properly, but once she had been reunited with the hat, all that changed and she began to consume proper meals. The hat settled down and began to grant people in the rest home their wishes without any dark twist. It listened into conversations and picked up on people’s dreams and hopes and did its best to make them come true. When Ms Clivedale wished for her son to come and visit her, the hat did its best to arrange this. Ms Clivedale’s son was a lawyer and she felt that he had no time for her, but when he visited just after Xmas some of her fears were erased. When Mr Bantam prayed for his son to return home safely from Afghanistan, the hat took care of it. Mrs Hilary dreamed of a third grandchild and her daughter gave birth to little Ingrid, a healthy baby girl, that June.


Mrs Pembleton died the following January and the hat was buried with her. If you walk in past the gates of the cemetery you can see where they are buried, just there on the right, next to Mr Pembleton, with their names engraved on the headstone.


Old Hat (Modigliani)


Laura Solomon has a 2.1 in English Literature (Victoria University, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer Science (University of London, 2003). Her books include Black Light, Nothing Lasting, Alternative Medicine, An Imitation of Life, Instant Messages, Vera Magpie, Hilary and David, In Vitro, The Shingle Bar Taniwha and Other Stories, University Days, Freda Kahlo’s Cry and Brain Graft. She has won prizes in Bridport, Edwin Morgan, Ware Poets, Willesden Herald, Mere Literary Festival, and Essex Poetry Festival competitions. She was short-listed for the 2009 Virginia Prize and the 2014 International Rubery Award and won the 2009 Proverse Prize. She has had work accepted in the Edinburgh Review and Wasafiri (UK), Takahe and Landfall (NZ). She has judged the Sentinel Quarterly Short Story Competition. Her play ‘The Dummy Bride’ was part of the 1996 Wellington Fringe Festival and her play ‘Sprout’ was part of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Laura is giving away free books here.


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Art by Amadeo Modigliani