Last weekend I experienced one of those awful moments of panic, when you can almost feel your bowels turn themselves inside out. It happened on the Paris Metro.
My wife and I had travelled up on the 9 o’clock train from Brive en provenance de Toulouse. Leaving nothing to chance, we got to the station at least half an hour before the train was due – only to find that the train was 40 minutes late. This is fairly exceptional here. Brits accustomed to the vagaries of British Rail and its privatised successors wax lyrical about the punctuality of French trains, forgetting that they run only about a third of the number that they do back in the U.K. Given the enormous subsidies that SNCF receives, one has to say that if they can’t run a few trains on time, what hope is there for the country? (Not much – particularly in the face of the cowardly criminals who stole the copper cable that delayed the train.)
We’d come up for a long weekend to stay with The Daughter in her new digs, give her whatever practical support we were able to, visit the big Edward Hopper retrospective at the Grand Palais, and meet up with friends from Sheffield to celebrate a 60th birthday in a swanky restaurant on the rive gauche.
So I was feeling pretty buoyant and walking along the platform with a spring in my step until… that heart-stopping moment when you realise that you’ve left something important behind and it’s too late to do anything about it. Not my credit card or my life’s savings or a manuscript of unrepeatable brilliance, but my hat. I left it in the luggage rack when I retrieved my coat and our bags.
Oh that’s a relief, you might say, but it was a particularly nice hat. I’ve always had a soft spot for hats and have often sported a titfer during my life, even though I admit that there have been times when I’ve probably looked a dick as a result. But, almost out of a sense of duty, I’ve felt the need to make a stand for the common hat. If I don’t do it, then who will? Really, I should have been born in a time when hats were de rigeur. Ideally, I would have been a Bopper, jamming with the other cats after hours at Minton’s Playhouse. Every one of us in a fine felt hat and double-breasted suit.
I’d had this particular hat for over 20 years. I bought it in the sportswear department of the Co-operative Stores in London Road, Brighton. It was a tan-coloured cotton golf hat – the type that Sam Snead might have worn in the days before Arnie Palmer went bare-headed – but I could wear it as the kind of pork-pie hat that Dexter Gordon sports on the cover of Dexter Blows Hot And Cool. Fashions have changed in golf, so I knew that I would never see its like again. Alas, poor hat, I knew thee well.
Tilley’s landlady persuaded me to go straight back to the Gare d’Austerlitz and fill out a déposition. Lost property is not what it used to be. These days the service has been outsourced to a company that charges you €9 minimum to re-unite owner and missing object. The woman at the Acceuil looked in the next room, where anything found on a train sits until the end of the day before being taken off to the out-sourcers, but no… My hat was probably travelling back to Toulouse at that very moment. I filled in the form in the hope that it might be found by a responsible member of the community, who didn’t want to wear someone else’s dirty hat in a misguided attempt to look like Dexter Gordon blowing hot and cool.
Strange how it goes, though. The next day was Saturday and there was a big bi-monthly vide grenier in the nearby Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where the Canal Saint-Martin flows underneath the wide central reservation. It was my kind of attic sale: dozens of stallholders charging sensible prices in an effort to sell rather than continue to hoard their bric-a-brac. I found a DVD boxed set of rugby world cup highlights for a buck, a semi-rare LP for three, a little je ne sais quoi for our neighbours to thank them for feeding our cats and… a hat! A light-grey felt hat sufficiently malleable to shape into a pork-pie like the ones that Wardell Gray used to wear (before he was found dead, dumped in the desert near Las Vegas). I offered the woman a crisp ten-euro note instead of the €12 on the ticket. She agreed, but pointed out that it was a Lanvin. It might have been a Johnny Stompanato for all I know about hat manufacturers, so I smiled and gave her my best Gallic shrug.
When I returned to our daughter’s new quarters, an elegant fin de siècle third-floor apartment miniaturised by her landlady’s clutter, Tilley was so excited by the fact that I’d come back with a Lanvin hat that you would have thought I’d won the Lottery. She pogoed on the parquet and clapped her hands like a performing sea lion. Clearly, the boy had done good. The landlady was so impressed that she went out to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir and, a woman after my own heart, came back later with more clutter for the apartment.!(upload://4Gh0pgd9lbqEwnSiM77G50ZNRlx.jpg)
And so my new hat was to serve me well over the course of our long weekend. On Sunday morning, Debs and I queued in the persistent drizzle for two and a half hours for the Edward Hopper exhibition. My hat kept my head dry. Tilley and her landlady came to join us just before we reached the head of the queue. The exhibition was worth the wait and the price of admission. And I was elated to find the famous self-portrait, in which Hopper depicted himself wearing a particularly fine brown trilby.
That evening, I wore my hat to the swanky restaurant on the left bank. Only, I surrendered it at the door, so our friends from Sheffield who were already à table couldn’t admire it. Which meant that I wasn’t able to announce, It’s a Lanvin, you know. Never mind, we had a nice meal and a lovely time in the company of eight friends from our old stamping ground. Debs wanted to walk across the river afterwards and catch a bus back to République, but we didn’t know where it left from, so we all ended up walking to the same Metro station, where we sat on opposite platforms, waiting to travel in opposite directions. She and I did a little dance for the others, because we’re not afraid of making a spectacle of ourselves, and I doffed my hat to acknowledge the applause.
On the Monday evening train back to Brive, I checked the luggage racks in case I found an old hat lurking in the shadows. I didn’t. I sat with my new hat on my knees all the way to the end of the line, for fear of failure to learn from experience. It now sits atop a standard lamp in my ‘office’ on the mezzanine. I like my new hat, but I miss my old one from the London Road Co-op. It will take me a while longer to get over the loss.