Art Pact 149

The mystery of the disappearing hat began one bright summer morning when the birds were singing in the trees and the mowers were droning in the gardens of Millaton. Missus Grady (for it was her that discovered the hat, and then later on the absence of the hat) described the day later to her sister as one of the darkest days that she had ever known, but if you could have seen her that morning coming out of her cottage on Tisabel Avenue you would have seen her scrunch up her eyes tight against the brightness of the sun and loosen the button at the neck of her dress to let some cooling air get at her skin. She paused in the doorway and fanned at herself and considered whether it might not be smarter to go back in and change into some lighter clothing. But the day was already underway and as she was on her way to the church fete, there to "person" a booth as the vicar put it, she decided to proceed ahead. Her dress was a patchy pattern of blues and violets and purples, exciting but not too exciting, sober but not too sober, a perfect balance and an indication of the ambiguity she felt towards her task today. On the one hand the thought of spending the whole day in the vicarage garden surrounded by the children of the village filled her with great dread, but on the other the presence of the new vicar, the young vicar with his blond hair and his ready smile, was enough to overcome any other considerations.

Missus Grady's cottage, a low but sprawling building with a false covering of thatch over a plastic heat-retaining roof of her own design, stood on the outskirts of the village near the blind end of Tisabel Avenue that had once led to the bridge across the river. She picked up her ancient bicycle from its resting place inside her front gate and walked that way, the bike's rear wheel tick-ticking gently to itself as they went. She weaved it between the bollards and up the little ramp of compacted rubble that Doctor Spellman had made at the end of winter, and turned onto the path beside the river that led into the heart of the village and the church.

She loved the river in summer time, particularly early summer time when the algea had not had time to grow too far across the bottom of the flow and there were still dark rocks visible down there, dark rocks struck through with shining veins of iron pyrite. In a month's time, when the heat became truly a force, the village children would cool off by diving for the fool's gold, carrying the lumps up to the surface and leaving them on the banks for Missus Grady to kick back in when they sun had crossed back down closer to the horizon and the young ones all called back home for their tea. Sometimes she would carefully pick up a piece of the false ore and stroke the little golden flecks, wondering perhaps if she might build a furnace in her back garden that could purify the iron within. Tools or jewellery made from the very river of Millaton might sell well, she thought, but her plans were never put into action.

Half-way to the church she met Mister Bannon coming the opposite way on the other bank. His dog, Charger, strained at the leash and every few moments threatened to bound into the water, pulling the frail frame of the writer to a wet doom, but somehow the dog's changing whims always conspired to just avoid this disaster.

"Good morning, Harmony!" Mister Bannon called, attempting to draw himself to a stop. He did not quite manage it, for Charger was much stronger than he and with four feet on the ground also had greater traction, but the two of them held a sort of motionlessness, as two stars orbitting each other at least maintain a common center of gravity somewhere between them.

"Good morning, Mister Bannon," Missus Grady called. "I'm afraid I don't have ti-"

She was too slow to halt Bannon's flow, though,

"Have you spoken to Johnson in the corner shop today?" he cut her off. "What a shame about the postman, isn't it?"

"I really must-"

"I mean, first of all there's no delivery on a Saturday and now this! It's not civilised, I tell you! The Germans would laugh at us. Imagine that, Germans laughing at us!"

Mister Bannon shook his head sadly, although the gesture was swallowed up in the random movement caused by Charger's enthusiastic circling. Between them the lead twanged taut and relaxed again, twanged and relaxed, and the day was so peaceful that even across the river Missus Grady could hear the soft note that it made.

"I imagine you have plenty to d-"

"I blame the Internet," Mister Bannon said. "Do you know who invented the Internet? Germans."

Missus Grady, who knew very well that the Internet was not invented by Germans (although she suspected that there were German people involved, since the world was small now and people from all nations were likely to hold patents on modern technology), simply nodded. She had learned in years past that it was better simply to humour Mister Bannon rather than to call him out on his more ridiculous pronouncements.

Nonetheless, she did find in that sentence excuse enough to continue upon her way, and waving politely to him she continued her walk. Mister Bannon began to say something but this time it was he who was cut off by a loud woof. She imagined an ally in Charger, or perhaps the bark was simply the dog's way of expressing jealousy of one who, free of a leash, could simply wander away from his master's gibberish.

Missus Grady, coming to a flatter part of the path, hopped onto her bike and began to pedal, thinking of the new vicar. He would be standing in the garden now, checking his watch, looking around him at the hustle and bustle of preparation and wondering where Missus Grady might be. Her heart quickened at the thought of his thought, at the idea of his idea of her.


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