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A Pale Blue Felt Hat

by Ian Dorking-Clark

Everything is relative in this World and beyond; from the grandest plans of the Great and the Good; from the eternal symmetry of the planets of the solar system, nestled comfortably within the magnificence of the Milky Way; to the irrefutable simplicity of the Decalogue.  All, each and every part, moves in perfect synchronisation, down to its smallest fragment.  And one of the immutable parts of that whole is the set of rules that apply to all of the inhabitants of that entity.  In this instance I refer to Millicent.

Millicent is a Long Standing Resident at Twilight Lawns plc (Residential Home for Persons of Better Class).  If you were to pass Millicent in the street, you would probably not think that she is remarkable in any way because she is quite ordinary.  She is a lady of advanced years, of average height, of average weight, with that average dotty expression of most of her kind.  She tends to wear grey or beige and also, as with a lot of ladies of advanced years, she is never seen without a hat; in Millicent’s case, a Pale Blue Felt Hat.

Now, if so far you’ve been a little inattentive, or felt your mind wandering, this is the time to perk up.  This is where the story really begins.  Millicent’s hat went (as they say) missing.  The powers that be at Twilight Lawns were informed almost immediately . . . In fact, they were notified within seconds of the loss being noticed.

It was at breakfast on Friday morning when Millicent began to wail uncontrollably.  She had been partaking of her second or third plateful of kedgeree and seemed to be enjoying herself as much as any of the old dears do at Twilight Lawns, when Nurse Smythe did one of her random dress checks.  As you will be aware, Twilight Lawns likes to maintain all the decent standards that are expected of an establishment of similar good name and civilized repute.  In accordance with this, as you also may know, there is a very strict dress code which must be adhered to at all times, and standing out fair and proud amongst the other regulations is the following:

“Ladies are required to wear hats at all time – at breakfast, at luncheon, at dinner time, at supper time, and when out and about in the grounds or on the way to and from the bathroom and/or lavatory.”

Nurse Smythe, as I have said, began a spot check and, Horror upon Horrors, Millicent was discovered to be hatless.  How this could have occurred, one cannot imagine, but the truth stood out like the nose on Clementine Purst-Lyppe’s face.  (Poor Dear Clementine.  One wonders whether a couple of slices from the plastic surgeon’s knife wouldn’t help just a little).

Regardless; the truth stood out quite clearly:  Millicent was not wearing her customary Pale Blue Felt Hat; or any other hat for that matter.

Millicent began to wail, and Millicent’s wailings have been known to cause Ocean Liners, Pleasure Boats, and even Harbour Tugs to run aground.

A Small Digression:  A Little Family History

When Millicent was just a slip of a girl, the family lived in Hampshire, directly opposite the Isle of Wight, close to the environs of Portsmouth.  But, one must hasten to add, not in the more Lower Middle Class areas.  It was an altogether nicer, and certainly more Upper Class area.  Her siblings (now defunct) took no little pleasure in telling the young Millicent horrendous tales concerning lost kittens and lame puppies, all of which would cause Millicent to burst into tears and then commence to wail.

Many a Cunarder or Steam-Driven Pleasure Boat or Fishing Smack had been known to be driven off course by the less-than-dulcet tones emanating from the young girl’s diaphragm.  “Vocal chords to which one could harness a team of dray horses,” as her father would say.

So Millicent’s sensitive nature became legendary.  Fluffy kittens and puppies may have been high on the list of stimulants for her lachrymose glands and vocal chords, but her range of sensitivity to hurt, anguish, and tragedy rapidly broadened to enfold most of her immediate environment, including, specifically, her Pale Blue Felt Hat.

That Pale Blue Felt Hat has been a garment close to her heart and never far from her head during the previous fifty years.  The original piece of millinery had been bequeathed to her, indirectly, by a Lady-Who-Does who had worked for her family off and on throughout Millicent’s childhood.

The old dear had handed in her dinner pail, so to speak, one day when she came to clean.  The family found her feet up in the larder where she had been giving the oilcloth shelves their Spring wiping.  Please note:  she was only half-way through the task.

Of course the family were most distressed to discover that this charlady person had snuffed it, as they say, so early in the season.  As I have already pointed out; Spring cleaning was afoot, and it seemed most inconsiderate of the old woman to die before the job had been completed.  There had long been a suspicion that there was very little recognition of the I’ve started, so I shall continue ethic in the Lower Classes, particularly the serving orders (menials and the like) and it was felt that this case just proved the point.

She was replaced post haste and life went on until the new charwoman, on one of her early visits, discovered an old and somewhat threadbare black coat on the back of the scullery door, along with a Pale Blue Felt Hat which was in remarkably good condition.  These had belonged to the previous incumbent of the post; the defunct Lady-Who-Does.  The coat, being worth little and somewhat the worse for wear, was given to the Sisters of Selective Charity but Millicent took a fancy to the Pale Blue Felt Hat and wore it the very next day when she accompanied her siblings on a visit to a Maiden Aunt who was, at that time, living on the Isle of Wight.

The Maiden Aunt was inordinately near-sighted, extremely vague, and frequently sluiced to the eyeballs in Madeira, Sherry, Port, or whatever came to hand.  But she was also inordinately rich, and the family were trotted out before her on a regular basis in the hope that she would leave at least part of her enormous wealth to at least one of the children when she passed on.

So, as I have been leading you to appreciate, on that memorable day, Millicent (wearing the pale blue felt hat) and her siblings were herded into the Maiden Aunt’s presence and made to curtsey or bow, according to their sex, in the hope, as explained, that the Maiden Aunt might be persuaded to show a modicum of affection towards at least one of her blood which would result, beneficially, in an eventual annuity.

The Maiden Aunt was already in her cups when they arrived and vagueness hadn’t lifted, but fortuitously, as the Young Millicent stood compliantly in her place in the queue (the heirs-in-hope had been arranged according to age) a ray of sunshine burst like the Angel Gabriel through the window and lighted on the young girl’s head.

Drunk the Old Lady may have been, vague, of course she was, but the combination of Pale Blue Felt Hat and bright golden sunshine were enough to pierce the near-sighted gloom for the Old Duck.

“Now don’t you look lovely in your pale blue hat . . . err . . . What’s your name, child?” asked the Old Bird.

“Millicent,” said Millicent, and she beamed.  No one had ever said a complimentary word to her in her whole life.  It wasn’t that her friends and relatives were unkind.  It was just the honest truth that she was a rather plain and awkward child, and her family and friends, being economical in speech and sentiment, thought that compliments to, or concerning, the child were wasted, dishonest, or both.

“Now doesn’t Millicent look lovely in her nice blue hat?” said the Old Lady.  All those present agreed.

Whereupon, the Maiden Aunt drifted off into inebriated sleep.  The interview was over.

Whether an annuity resulted or not has been lost to history.  But what is certain is that from that day forth (since habit may be acquired over long stretches of time or it may be born in an instant – in the present case, it happened to be the latter) Millicent was never to be seen in public or in a domestic situation unless she was wearing a Pale Blue Felt Hat.

Over the years, many Pale Blue Felt Hats came and went, but not one of them differed in the slightest from the hat that Millicent had worn to her Aunt’s home on that Spring afternoon.

At this point, one adds an interesting footnote to the day’s outing:

On the return ferry journey from the Isle of Wight, Cedric, one of Millicent’s younger brothers, noted that Millicent was watching with great interest the flight of a seagull.  She of the plain little face stood gazing as it swooped and circled the boat.  Elegantly it soared and plunged, and Millicent gazed, enraptured.

“Seagull,” observed Cedric, never one to waste words.

“I know,” said Millicent.  “Isn’t it lovely?”

“They look nice,” said Cedric, and then added darkly, “but they’re nasty really.”

Millicent turned towards her brother, tears were starting to form in her eyes.  She knew that Cedric seldom had a kind or compassionate word for anyone or anything and the inevitable cruelty of his next statement made it no less harrowing.

“Seagulls wait until baby seals are all alone and then they peck their eyes out so they can never see their Mummies ever again,” said Cedric, and with a nasty smile on his equally-nasty little face, he turned away from his sister and, veering away from the plausible, he added, “Especially if the baby seals are wearing silly Pale Blue Felt Hats.”

A wail even more deep-throated than usual, more plaintive than usual, plangent but voluminous, emanated from Millicent with such force that even young Cedric realised immediately that perhaps, this time, he had gone too far.  Millicent wailed.  She bellowed.  Tears streamed down her plain little cheeks.

The seagull, being sensitive to noise, returned to his mate complaining of a headache.

It had been a pleasant evening with only a slight swell and a soft evening mist.  But the wail that sprang from little Millicent was so horrendous that none could credit that it came from the small, lumpish child in the pale blue hat standing on the deck and clutching the rail with her small hands.

Suddenly the ferry and all souls on board were believed to be in extreme danger.  The reason?  The Captain, sensing that all was not well, imagining that he was hearing an unfamiliar fog warning on a gargantuan scale, in fact, assuming that his vessel, with passengers and crew, were in extreme peril, panicked and gave the order to abandon ship.

Within minutes the crew were lowering the lifeboats and scrambling over passengers to take prime place in them.  Chaos reigned (as chaos does during these situations) but only briefly as the ferry came to a juddering rest on a sand bar where she stayed until next morning.  The Captain had forsaken his post, the wheel was unmanned, the wheelhouse was empty.  The passengers and all the crew who had managed to reach the lifeboats refused to return on board as long as Millicent was still there.

N.B. All these details have been catalogued in “Strange Tales from the Ocean Main” by Captain Harry Whores de Light, that Jolly Old Sea Dog known for his ripping yarns of life on the ocean wave.

Returning to the disappearance of the Pale Blue Felt Hat of the now much older Millicent:

As you can well imagine, when the hat was discovered to be missing, Maude (a Resident of Long Standing. a Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh, and the Epitome of the Rock on which the British Empire is founded) would have been all too ready to organise a search party, and all would have gone to plan.  However, Maude had been called away unexpectedly, as a mini-crisis had arisen. She had been summoned to Bournemouth, there to assist the Reverend Hugh Halitosis with the Cub Scouts, East Surrey Pack.

The Cub Scouts, East Surrey Pack, along with the Reverend Hugh Halitosis, had booked rooms for a week at ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House (Lovely Views) which is situated just off the Esplanade.

However, by serendipity (or otherwise), Sister Mary Perpetua’s Little Friends of Jesus were also in Bournemouth and so were the Fourth Battalion Brownie Pack, Streatham-on-Sea, who had arrived all by themselves, having lost their Akela, Baloo, or Grey Owls on route at Victoria Station.  All three groups of discordant youngsters had converged on ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House at approximately the same time.

An explanatory note to our Dear Transatlantic Cousins: The former group of animals: Akela. Baloo and Grey Owl, etc., are all characters from the Jungle Books written by Rudyard Kipling.  These names are taken by the women who run and organise Brownie Packs, the smaller version of the Girl Guides Movement.

So to lose one’s leaders if one were a Brownie, would be tantamount to mutiny, or shooting one’s commanding officers… or worse, throwing tea into Boston Harbour to annoy an Overseas Monarch.

Maude (who had managed to organise most of the Home Counties Refugees during that nasty episode with Mr Hitler, and simultaneously, almost single-handedly, set up one of the most efficient Battalions of Land Army Girls the War Effort had ever known – thus emerging as that Stalwart of the British Empire, Maude Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh DCMG (Dame Commander of The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George), an honour awarded her for her sterling and fruitful work by a Grateful Monarch and Country) seemed to be the only person in Post War Britain capable of sorting out the mess.

If anybody could separate and find suitable billets for over sixty mobile phone-carrying, fractious, and enuretic young children and prepubescent teenagers, Maude was the one.

So the search for Millicent’s little Pale Blue Felt Hat fell on the less-than-capable, and, initially, not-particularly-enthusiastic shoulders of Sharon.

Cook had given Sharon the day off from her kitchen duties, and as Raj was away with his little friends at a Bollywood Bonanza and Shisha weekend in Southall, Dear Sharon had some time on her hands.

What she lacked in expertise, she made up for in force.  Unfortunately, as usual, Sharon had been texting a message to Raj as her instructions were being carefully outlined, and she paid no attention to the details.  She got it into her head that she had to find as many Pale Blue Felt Hat wearers as possible, when, in fact, she had only been told to locate Millicent’s Pale Blue Felt Hat

Sharon wandered off to look for Tom Mould our Head Gardener; found him; commandeered Tom and our all-purpose vehicle, Charlotte, the old Twilight Lawns char-à-banc.

Sharon was somewhat precipitate in organising her search.  She forgot that Raj had been keeping his Black Orpington Hens in Charlotte and had, in fact, left them there when he went to his Bollywood Bonanza and Shisha Festival, as the weather had been a trifle inclement.

Regardless, the Black Orpingtons were up for a ride.  Sitting indoors all day with nothing to do and nothing much to look at can be quite boring, so the thought of a drive through the countryside outside the main gates of Twilight Lawns appealed to the hens enormously.  Black Orpington hens, given the chance, rather tend to live in the fast lane.  They are a breed of poultry noted for having a hedonistic attitude to life.

Waving a fond goodbye to his beloved sheep, Betty, Tom Mould joined Sharon on her search for Pale Blue Felt Hat wearers.  In the space of four hours they scoured the streets and alleyways of rural Surrey (actually the environs of Norbury-sur-Mer and the charming little hamlet of Thornton Heath and the equally pretty Olde Worlde Village of Streatham).

Between them, they rounded up between twenty-five and thirty Old Dears, all wearing Pale Blue Felt Hats, all looking remarkably like Millicent; but as is usually the case with the elderly, it was: Try to divest them of something that they hold dear, and there is all hell to pay. Each Old Dear wore her Pale Blue Felt Hat with pride, and not one would be divested of hers.

Sharon and Tom Mould returned to Twilight lawns – Tom driving Charlotte, the old Twilight Lawns char-à-banc, and Sharon trying to prevent any of the Old Dears from escaping.  As they swung through the main gates of Twilight Lawns, Sharon was hanging onto the leg of one old woman who was squawking loudly that she wanted to go home and in the other hand, Sharon was holding firmly onto the leg of one of Raj’s Black Orpington Hens.  The Hen and the Old Dear seemed to be in competition as to who could squawk the louder.  The Hen came second… but only marginally.

As Charlotte came to a skidding halt in front of the main doors, Nurse Smythe looked in horror out of one of the windows, having heard the cackling and complaining.  The latter came from the Old Women.  The Black Orpington hens weren’t complaining at all.  They’d had a lovely time.

Much ado and great confusion ensued until Nurse Smythe was able to assert her view that the expedition had been a disaster and explain that the objects of the search should have been only Millicent and her Pale Blue Felt Hat.  She further complained that the genuine Millicent and her Pale Blue Felt Hat remained, noticeably, among the missing.

Tom Mould looked at his feet, muttered something about having missed Betty, and sloped off.  Sharon said, “It’s not fair.  I did my best, innit.” and went to her room to send some texts to Raj.  The Black Orpingtons settled down in Charlotte for the night, happy and fulfilled.

Meanwhile, all the Old Ladies had begun to wander aimlessly around the unfamiliar grounds; chattering, chattering, chattering.  We rounded them all up, had a head count – well, a Pale Blue Felt Hat count (it all amounted to the same), herded them into the Queen Alexandra Amenities and Day Room, filled them with tea and Battenberg cake, and waited for the Police to come and sort out the problem.

The Police arrived a couple of hours later, but it seemed apparent that they were grossly unfit for the task.  All they could offer was the suggestion that Kidnapping on a Very Grand Scale had been perpetrated, and there could be dire consequences.

After some heated and very earnest consultation, all sotto voce, it was decided that a couple of phone calls should be made to some Very Important People.  These calls were made, and eventually it transpired that One Person, and One Person Only, would be able to untangle the Gordian Knot that Sharon and Tom had presented to the Management of Twilight Lawns.

A discrete telephone call was made to a certain number in Bournemouth.  The Chief Police Inspector, who had been called in to assist, had the call transferred to Nurse Smythe’s Office where he spoke in hushed tones to a Personage on the other end.

He then returned to the Queen Alexandra Amenities and Day Room where he had a hushed conversation with his Sergeants and Constables.  Several more phone calls were made and within half-an-hour the sound of police cars and several other vehicles were heard on the gravel drive leading up to the main doors of the Home.  All the Old Dears were escorted out the front door, hardly a word was spoken, and then, as if by magic, there wasn’t a Pale Blue Felt Hat in sight.

Or so it seemed at first.  As it turned out, actually there were two.  Suddenly, and almost ethereally out of the blue, Millicent came downstairs wearing hers.  She had accidentally worn her Pale Blue Felt Hat in the shower that morning and had left it on the radiator in her room to dry.  It was generally believed that it must have been the first time that she had been so careless.  Or hatless.

But there was another Old Dear sitting in a corner, sipping tea and eating Battenberg cake, without, or so it seemed, a care in the world.  Nurse Smythe asked her where she came from.  She didn’t seem to know.  Cook asked her what her name was.  This detail also evaded her.

The last policeman had gone and it seemed unwise to make another telephone call to Bournemouth so late in the evening.  And the VIIP (Very Important and Influential Personage) was in the process of making sure that sixty young people and a couple of adults were being properly billeted at ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House, Bournemouth.  So we decided to keep this new Millicent look-alike until we could decide what to do with her.

She fits in nicely, and no one seems to notice that there is what looks like another Millicent at Twilight Lawns.  Same Pale Blue Felt Hat, same soppy gaze.  So we call her Millicent as well.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  She’s almost house-trained and doesn’t eat much, unless there is Battenberg cake to accompany afternoon tea.

If we ever need to know who the real Millicent is; the original Millicent, whether they are both wearing Pale Blue Felt Hats or not, we just bung them both into a room together and start telling sad stories about fluffy kitten, or canaries being taken down coal mines, or little birdies having fallen from their nests.  That always works.  One of them starts to wail, and as nobody in the history of this planet has ever wailed like that, we know which one is the real Millicent.

But as the seagull said, “It gives you a headache when she starts.”

Thank you for listening so attentively,
Your obedient servant,
Mrs Hilda Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh (Matron)


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