London was the Mecca of hats for my mother and a shopping trip with her meant something for me too. Our last outing together to ‘town’, as Mother called it, was in the late sixties. We walked the short distance from our house in Egham to the station, a pillbox hat at a tilt on her newly-done hair, the seams of her stockings ruler-straight. She strode ahead like a pretty soldier at the start of a campaign.

On days like that it was as if nothing was wrong, as if my mother did not scare me almost to death with her violent outbursts, both physical and mental. We never spoke of this and the silence was like the locked door to a dungeon. If you had dared open it, Mother would have pushed you down the steps into the darkness.

The week before our day out, on a Sunday afternoon, she was drunk in her bedroom. Father was asleep in his room. ‘For goodness sake stop drinking, can’t you!’ I yelled at her. Half-dressed, she stumbled off the bed. Her right hand jerked out at me and she raised her first and little fingers like the horns of the devil. ‘Stop drinking, please. Please,’ I cried. She shouted, ‘You pathetic little boy!’

There was an old china figurine of a boy and a dog on the side-table. She strangled it in her hands, then hurled it against the wall. The fragile china smashed – the body of the dog and the head of the boy in separate pieces on the floor.

We reached the station entrance. ‘Mustn’t miss the 10.10,’ she said cheerily. Her Blue Grass perfume embraced me and I ran like a puppy to catch her up.

The train click-clicked across the nowhere land between Staines and Clapham Junction. ‘You’re very quiet, darling.’ She stared at me through the short veil of her hat. The train arrived at Waterloo. ‘Do you see that, darling?’ Mother pointed to a well-dressed woman on the platform. ‘There could be birds nesting in that hat, looks very dangerous.’ The first joke of the day lifted the barrier between us. Then the swirl of platforms and guards, the smell of trains, whistles, and that Waterloo whiff. I squeezed her doeskin-gloved hand. Perhaps this mother would stay and the other one would never return. Perhaps if I loved her more, I could heal her? At the taxi rank she raised her arm and we were off.

I sat on the flip seat and examined her: the beige hat was cube shaped, with a grey circle on top; the light grey two-piece was discreet, with bold stripes of red; grey and black shoes; a small black patent-leather handbag. She created a kind of perfection. At times like this I wished my father could come out with us. But he was ill with a mild form of arteriosclerosis, and he was an alcoholic too, albeit a gentle one. No one spoke about that second illness, which should have been put first. These were Home Counties secrets, hidden where no social worker would dare to pry.

I adjusted my psychedelic pink kipper tie that we had bought at Carnaby Kids last summer. We caught each other’s eyes and I prayed I could hold that look, and that love, for ever. You can read a woman by her hats: I heard Aunt Emily’s voice in my head. Not this one. So we played our dressing-up games and became, as we looked to the world, the perfect mother and son, a handsome couple.

Mother wanted something ‘really special for Ascot’ as she put it, and then said more loudly, so the taxi driver, who had flattered her already, could hear, ‘Brims are in this year, big brims, with swirly, bandy stuff all round.’ I knew that we weren’t that upper-class, and with father having to stop work, our income had declined. But Mother’s circle of friends was wide, and we mixed with some county people, who took to her with enthusiasm. Now one of them had invited Mother to join her in a box at Ascot.

My dark mood lifted as she bantered with the taxi driver. I said to her, ‘My cover drive has really come on since Bulmer gave me a few tips. Will you come and watch me play again?’ She smiled. Days out with Mother were better in performance mode. A ‘something special’ hat was Fortnums or Simpsons. More everyday was Swan and Edgar or John Lewis. ‘Country hats’ – I forget exactly how they were different – meant Aquascutum.

The taxi took us across the Thames, where an old, anchored battleship had its guns pointed towards us. Further on, the soft greyness of the London streets made the shops bright. Shadows stretched up a narrow road near Holborn; a tramp was squatting in a doorway. He gulped from a quarter-bottle of whisky. His resigned face reminded me of my father.

Outside Fortnums the doorman smiled broadly and shared a joke with Mother as she pressed a coin into his hand. I loved these moments when our class position was recognised. It made me secure – all pain could be forgotten – and the symbols of our status, and our complicit belief in them, made us invulnerable. Have a lovely day, madam,’ said the doorman. ‘Are you going somewhere nice for lunch?’

‘Veeraswamy’s perhaps,’ Mother replied, smiling back.

She walked up the stairs and her pillbox hat bobbed like the movement of a girl’s bottom trotting on a horse. I followed at a respectful distance, and almost forgot who she was. I felt floaty, high up in bubbly clouds. Then I remembered. You bitch, I thought, you fucking selfish bitch and it was the first blood-red anger I had ever felt for her. I was horrified. I imagined strangling her, or pulling her back down the stairs and screaming: ‘How dare you treat me like that? How dare you behave so horribly when you’re drunk?’ I didn’t, of course. But planted in my mind was hate that threatened to overcome my unquenchable love and need.

I practised a few forward-defensive strokes to restore my equilibrium. We entered the cool space of the hat department. Mother used to say that the place was ‘always full of old dowagers’, and last year she had chatted to a real live one, trying on hats next to her, who gave us afternoon tea in the Fountain Room. The old lady dolloped clotted cream onto her scone and enquired about my school, ‘He’s there, is he?’ she purred to my mother. I wasn’t as I had run away in my first term but Mother and I lied so instinctively that no one would have known. Our social double-act was so smooth that we could have become a good team of fraudsters. I learnt from Mother, as I watched and copied, that charm could get you most things. The old dame gave mother her phone number and wanted us to visit her in Gloucestershire. ‘I haven’t ridden for years,’ Mother said, ‘but I should love to.’

I sat behind Mother as she tried on hats, and avoided her eyes in the mirror. The back of her head had no pull over me. But not to be within the sphere of her aura felt empty. I saw her dressing-room at home, which was like a cocoon. There were layers of shelves all round: shoes at the bottom, then a shelf for bags, then one for jumpers and scarves. The top shelf was devoted to hats, in boxes of every style and shape, colour and size.

As you walked in, the hat of the moment was in front of you. Around the time of the shopping expedition, it was a beautifully-boxed hat from Saks on Fifth Avenue in New York, ‘a cloche hat, darling, an utterly perfect, American, thirties- style cloche hat.’ She clapped her hands together. ‘Just so you for that boring old Bishop’s garden party…’ A male friend had bought it for her last spring. The party was being given by a rural dean, and she had been invited because my father had advised our parish church about rateable values, and not charged anything.
I would sometimes be summoned into her dressing-room to inspect a hat, or a new outfit, and the door would shut. I became no particular age, and no particular person. The place was a lavender-scented cave.

A pretty Fortnum’s shop assistant, with blonde hair and breasts that strained the buttons of her thin blouse, held out another hat. ‘Do you like it, darling?’ Mother asked me. ‘Darling!’

Mother’s eyes caught mine in the mirror. ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘don’t know.’ I wrenched my eyes away; I was in the ‘hate field’ again, and all her finery peeled off. I saw a witch, who could wear as many faces as she wished. And all her different looks could make you this one day, that another, and then sometimes nothing at all. Beneath her ego were the flesh and fibres that made her and would one day become a skeleton, when I would be free from her love-and-hate field. The hat she was trying on was propped on a skinless head of bones.

Nothing could be trusted. The massive window at the end of the shop opened on to the grey-white world beyond where only the sky showed and there were no people. I rushed across the sales floor and my idea was not to stop but to jump out.

Staring down at Piccadilly I tried to connect the few bits of London I knew, but nothing linked up. From the other side of the sales floor I felt Mother’s eyes staring at me. I walked quickly round the edge of the shop, down the stairs and out into the street.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.