I was sent out last night to the Tesco Metro for emergency supplies. I had to pass six charity shops on the way, most of which had left out their unsellable stock for the bin men – broken-backed pushchairs, spoutless teapots, copies of my second novel, etc etc. Then I saw through the murk a figure hunched beside one of the piles. It was a man going through the rubbish. He looked scruffy, but not quite a bum – perhaps one of the local psychotics enjoying care in the community.
Then my eye was caught by an object on top of the pile of garbage. It took me a second to work out that it was a lady’s hat. The sort of thing a divorced woman would wear to her second wedding in, say, 1963. A veil made of nylon netting. Some other sad decorative elements – a feather, a child’s finger bone, a teabag. And, as I watched, I saw the man stretch out his arm and take hold of the hat.
And then, as I knew he must, he placed the hat on his head, and tapped it down. At the same moment he looked up at me – I was only a couple of yards away by this time. Our eyes met, and I saw the spasm of shame pass across his face.
And then his expression changed, it became a look of recognition and understanding. He knew that if our places were reversed – if I’d been the person to see it – then I too would have taken the hat, and put it on my head. And then I looked down and saw that my arm had, of its own volition, reached out towards the hat.
I filled the gap in time with a throat clearing noise, and then we exchanged almost imperceptible nods, and I hurried on to buy the oven chips, a 3-pack of Mars bars, and a tin of Andrews liver salts. On the way back I saw that the man had gone, and so, of course, had the hat. That was probably a good thing. Not sure how I would have explained it to Mrs McG, coming home with a lay’s hat, i mean, in my hand, or on my head.