I first noticed the old fashioned tweed trilby he was wearing as I drove past him down the narrow lanes out of the village, because it reminded me of a similar one my beloved grandpa used to wear. Falling out of fashion many years ago now, it was the ‘titfer’ that my grandpa would raise in a gentlemanly manner to ladies in greeting, and that was never off his head otherwise. He had been a biscuit salesman for Carr’s, a small bakery and biscuit factory in the city of Carlisle, formed in 1831, which within fifteen years of being founded was the largest baking business in Britain. As a small child, I remember the iced, animal shaped biscuits I was given with a glass of milk when I visited. They came out of a brightly coloured tin, with a cartoon steam train pulling carriages filled with an assortment of the zoo animals to be found inside. All these thoughts and feelings, long buried, came tumbling back to me in that moment, and as the ‘titfer’ disappeared in my rear view mirror, I wondered where the gentleman was going, and what his story was.
My husband and I had moved into the village a few weeks beforehand, one of a triumvirate comprising Collingbourne Ducis, Collingbourne Kingston and Everleigh. We had come from the centre of Oxford, and it was a bit of a culture shock to start with. I never thought I’d miss the rowdy students spilling out from their colleges after exams, wearing different coloured carnations to denote what year they had sat, or the bedraggled ones in ball gowns and tails stumbling home from their May Balls after hearing the choristers welcome in May morning from Magdalene Tower. No longer allowed to jump from the bridge into the Cherwell below, they now head back into town for their morning after pick me up.
My husband was an Oxford man, and had stayed in the city after graduating, who had strangely fallen in love with a girl managing only a ‘Desmond’ in Film, Television and Drama studies at Winchester. We were privileged to be married in a miniature Westminster Abbey type chapel within his college; ‘Univ’, on ‘The High’ (University College on the High Street for us non Oxbridge types), where a life size marble sculpture of Shelly resides, and the likes of Hawking and Lewis have studied.
We had eventually become stifled by that busy, noisy, polluted, environment, which we once found so liberating and cultured, and the country life appealed to both of us; with bottle feeding baby lambs and keeping chickens for eggs to bake cakes with, high on my agenda.
We did manage a couple of dogs, but baby lambs and baking are still on my to do list. I was busy with work and renovating the house, and I would only wistfully remember my initial intentions when coming across the mysterious gentleman in the trilby as I drove the long, twisting country lane from our village across the Plain to the Collingbournes.
It eventually began to irritate me, that unlike my grandpa, he never raised his hat, in fact he never acknowledged me at all, or the fact that I always politely slowed almost to a crawl, to enable him to feel safe on the pavement less country lane, leading him to whatever assignation, (for that was what I’d decided it must be), that was enticing him to undertake such a perilous, lonely traipse with such frequency.
I would always approach wondering if this time he would return my most winning smile and enthusiastic wave as I drove slowly past, as surely we had become well acquainted by now, and a small neighbourly acknowledgement of that fact would be only polite – he was, after all, wearing the badge of a gentleman on his head.
But no, time and time again he would resolutely not only refuse to afford me that small courtesy, but actively turn his back to me, place the end of his walking stick into the grass bank that rose steeply either side of this winding lane, and stand like that, arms outstretched, one hand on top of the other, resting on the stick’s handle, until I had removed myself from his vicinity, when he would then stroll off focused once more on his destination, without so much as a backwards glance.
I began, subconsciously at first, to record my life by these passings; that time I had to rush the dog to the vets as it had got a grass seed stuck up it’s nose, I’d passed him (slightly less slowly this time!), at the bend just before the farm where the twitchers often stand with their long lenses hoping for a glimpse of the lesser spotted thingummyjig; & one of the (thankfully) rare times the mother-
Six years in, and my smile on passing the trilby had become slightly perfunctory, and I didn’t bother with the wave anymore, I was accepting of this performance, and his story got more embellished in my mind with every snub. He was definitely leading some sort of double life, possibly with an unsuspecting lady friend in each village! Until one day, out of the blue, as I approached he didn’t turn his back; he didn’t place his walking stick into the steep bank and stand in the ‘don’t mess with me’ position. In fact he raised his walking stick, touched the rim of his trilby with it, nodded and actually smiled at me. It was such a shock that I just kept driving, and as I looked back all I could see was his trilby, like the smile of the Cheshire cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
My brain finally processed the information and I slammed on my brakes, did a virtual hand break turn in the entrance to the Village Hall, and drove back with a million questions jostling in my head about ‘why now?’, ‘what would I ask?’ and ‘would he share his secrets?’, but more probably I’d just pretend my U-
However, when I got to the place he’d been standing when he finally acknowledged my existence, he was nowhere to be seen. I was scanning the road ahead when in the corner of my eye I saw the trilby, abandoned on the grass verge almost opposite where I had stopped. I quickly checked that the car was in a safe place to leave it for a moment, and stepped out into the narrow lane. I went over and picked up the hat, and noticed as I did so, a gap in the hedge leading off into a cornfield behind. I glanced through and saw him lying crumpled on the soil, inert and pale.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I vaguely registered that his hat was on the ground next to his head, and not in my hand anymore. I didn’t remember putting it there, but my shaking fingers were already dialling 999 from my mobile, and my mind otherwise occupied trying to remember my basic CPR from college.
The next few hours were a blur, with the emergency services arrival, trying to answer questions and not get in the way. It was obvious that we were too late and he was gone. Tears tumbled down my face for this stranger whom I felt so close to, whose story I would never now know.
When they finally took him away, and one by one left the scene, it was just me standing in the field all alone, and a calm descended on me, the wind dropped, and barely a noise could be heard.
I forced myself to walk back to the car, feeling numb and exhausted. I started the engine on automatic pilot and headed home. At the first bend I glanced in the rear view mirror and my breath caught in my throat, for there on the passenger shelf lay an old fashioned tweed trilby…