I don’t often do the writing challenges from the WordPress Daily Post but I saw this one and felt the need.
Kim gently caressed the battered black tophat as she put it back on its shelf and closed the glass door. She locked it carefully and sighed, before turning back to her persistent customers.
“Not today, sorry.”
“Are you sure?” The youngest looking customer asked. He had a hopeful, false smile hovering over his lips. The young-looking man rested his head on his companion’s shoulder, a handsome, dark, rather androgynous dandy who leaded against the counter, staring intently at the hat.
“I’m sure. I won’t sell it today.”
“Such a shame, we’d have paid well for it.” Her third customer, a lady tall and gaunt, all hard edges and sparks, tapped her gloved fingers on a silver fan, punctuating her displeasure.
“I’m sure you would, ma’am, but I won’t sell it today.”
“It’s only an old hat, why cling so tightly, my dear? Sooner or later, you’ll have to sell it, by the looks of things.” The dandy looked around the shop, indicating with his cane the emptying shelves, gathering dust with no chance of being refilled soon.
“It has … sentimental value.”
“I’m sure it does. And not just for you.” The woman looked Kim in the eye, a snarl-smile on her face,
“Goodbye.” Kim walked past her ‘customers’ to open the door.
“Come along my dears, we’ll make no progress today.” The young man sighed and turned to lead the group from the shop.
Kim locked up for the night, checking her locks twice and pulling her shutters together firmly. With the shop as secure as possible she returned to the cabinet containing the battered hat. Retrieving an item so coveted by so many, Kim debated the wisdom of removing it from public display. The three vampires weren’t the first to demand she sell it to them; they probably wouldn’t be the last. On the other hand, it had a great deal of sentimental value to herself and her community. The sole remaining artifact of her sister and the rebellion they inadvertently led ten years before, it had become an ikon and symbol of resistance. Kim brushed dust of the silk scarf tied around it and returned the hat to it’s cabinet.
Time, as it does, passed. A slow trickle of visitors to see the hat grew with every passing week. They emptied her shelves but the increased custom meant she could restock a little. The produce she specialised in, fresh fruit and veg from the countryside, had become scarce and prices high. She did her best for her visitors but struggled. the stream of customers brought interesting news. One evening in early winter an old friend brought particularly interesting gossip.
“Not much in today.” A repeat customer, by the name of Prudence Stnot-Burkit, perused the shelves.
“No, well, somethings are hard to get. I should have more in on Friday.”
“I’ve heard from my cousin out in the East Marsh.”
“Oh?” Kim asked hesitantly, not wanting to be drawn in to Pru’s gossip.
“Yes, she says they’re leaving half the crops in the fields to rot.”
“It’s true. The gate tax is so high no one can afford to bring anything in to the city.”
“I’d heard the tax had gone up.” Kim was cautious, of being dragged into another rebellion, of being trapped by a false plot. She’d heard a rumour that the ruling council had been setting people up and arresting them. disturbingly, it had been a while since she’d heard from some of the other principle survivors of the last rebellion.
“And, have you heard, Sam Winston disappeared two weeks ago. I saw Constance at the market on Monday. She’s terrible worried.”
“Terry told me last week. Francis was arrested a week before that.”
“Aren’t you worried they’ll try to arrest you next?”
“I’ve done nothing to be arrested for; I sell vegetables.”
“You keep your sister’s hat on display in the shop.”
“It has sentimental value to me; this was her shop as well.”
The shop was getting darker; Kim stepped out from behind her counter and started lighting the lamp in the front window, and then the candles on either side of the cabinet.
“But people come here to see it.”
“That’s there business. It’s not here for public gawping but private remembrance.”
“Kim, this is me you’re talking to, not a Watchman. You can tell the truth.”
“I am, Pru. I tell everyone the same thing. What others want to believe is their business.”
“Alright, alright. Half a pound of cherries please.” Pru had a disgruntled expression as she ordered and placed her cash on the counter, staring at the hat. “Polish that cabinet, dear, and the shelves, you’ll make a better impression on customers.”
“I suppose I should.”
The bell clattered; Kim and Pru looked around. The dandy had returned. He perused the stock dismissively. Pru gasped, stuffed her paper bag of cherries into her shopping basket and hurried out of the shop.
“Quiet in here today, though busier than my last visit. I don’t think the lower city rats like me.”
“We don’t like being called rats, it might improve things if you refrained from that. What can I do for you my Lord Councillor?”
“That hat.” He poked at the cabinet with his cane, “I want it.”
“It’s not for sale.”
“Sell me it, or I’ll take it and everything else.”
“Don’t threaten me my Lord Councillor, you are in my home.”
“Your home? Really, I had the impression this was a place of business.”
“It’s both, and that hat is all I have of my sister. I won’t sell it ever.”
“Sell it, or join your co-conspirators in the Cave.”
“Conspirators? What conspirators?”
“Why, the conspiracy to overthrow the ruling council of course. Surely you aren’t denying your part in it? We have ample evidence.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kim paled, Pru had been right.
“Are you sure? Turn in the ringleaders and confess, and I’ll do what I can to save you some time in the Cave.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I know of no conspiracy.”
“We’ve been watching you, you’ve had an awful lot of visitors recently.”
“Not buying anything?”
“Very little to buy. Perhaps I didn’t have what they wanted?”
“Perhaps what they wanted couldn’t be bought?”
“Look, you can speculate and accuse all you like, but until you have proof of a conspiracy all you’re doing is fishing. Get out of my shop.”
“Really, you’re being uncooperative. We’re keeping an eye on you.”
“Enjoy wasting your time then, there’s nothing to see.”
The dandy turned to leave. Kim heard the whistle of his cane just in time to duck. There was a crash of glass and the hat fell to the floor. He left, sweeping the cane along the shelves as he went, knocking the produce to the floor as he went.
Conny Winstan arrived a few minutes later. Kim stood stunned, staring at the mess; she’d jumped when the door bell clanged.
“Dear, are you well? Prudence said you’d had a visitor.” Conny touched her arm, trying to bring her back to the moment.
“I have. He left such a pleasant impression.” Kim felt hollow, she knew this was the start of something, and it wouldn’t be good.
Conny surveyed the damage, “Well, lets get started, this mess isn’t going to clean itself up. Where’s Amy’s hat? Did he take it?”
“No, it’s here.” Kim bent down to the hat, picking it up and shaking off the glass shards; a sliver stuck in the scarf. Kim stared at it, then carefully picked it out.
“Where is the broom?”
“In the back”
“Well, then go and get it.” When Kim didn’t move Conny poked her shoulder, “Kim! Concentrate!”
“I am, I am, I just.” The tears started and wouldn’t stop, “It’s starting again isn’t i?”
“And did crying change anything last time around?”
“No.” Kim gasped through her tears.
“Well, then. Let’s get this mess cleared up.”
Kim, shaken by Conny’s harsh attitude, scowled, “I can manage, thank you.”
“Really? You look terrible. Now, stop looking at me like that, you aren’t the only one who’s scared.”
Kim felt ashamed. Poor Conny hadn’t seen her husband in two weeks, and here she was helping Kim. ‘I’m an ungrateful wretch.’ Kim berated herself.
“I think Sam is alive.” Kim whispered.
“Sam, I think he’s in the Cave with Francis and Terry.” her voice was a little stronger. “The Councillor said something about conspirators being in the Cave. He threatened to send me there.”
“I see.” Conny looked slightly vacant for a few seconds, then shook herself, as though throwing off her hope, and walking purposefully through the door into the back passage. She came back red eyed a few minutes later, carrying a broom and dustpan.
“Find a bin.”
When they’d finished and Kim had thanked Conny with a small meal, she saw her friend out in to the night, shuttered the windows and then locked the door. She blew out the lamp and then the candles. Kim looked around one last time and then went through into the back passage, locking the interior door behind her.
She was halfway up the stairs when she heard the glass window shatter and the whomp of an explosion.
Kim turned and ran back down the stairs. She fumbled with her keys, dropping them as she tried to find the correct key. Breathing heavily she found the right one and finally opened the door. She pushed it open, and was confronted by a scene from her worst dreams. The hot air blasted into the passageway, searing her skin. Kim covered her face and hurried into the shop, ducking behind the counter quickly to grab her precious hat.
She ducked back out of the room and slammed the door shut behind her. Kim ran down the corridor, pulled open a storage cupboard and slipped inside. A long time ago, after the civil war she’d prepared for a return of hostilities. She kept a back pack of essentials – clothes, dried food, water skins, identity papers and some cash – and a thick cloak hung above a pair of solid boots. She took a few precious minutes to pull on the boots and cloak, check the backpack over and sling it on her back.
Smoke started to drift through the gap below the door. She pulled it open and coughed as the smoke and heat hit her throat. She pulled the cloak over her mouth and nose and ran for the back door. The key was already in the lock, Kim unlocked the door and ran out.
The Councillors waited for her outside. Kim skidded to a halt.
“Well, how unexpected.”
The three Councillors grinned, and moved towards her, in choreographed precision. Kim perched the hat on her head, bent down and grabbed a stick to defend herself.
I suppose I’d better tell you where this came from. Every morning I wake up and see my top hat. It sits on top of the television at the end of my bed. My best friend bought it for me for my 30th birthday while we were at Download Festival, last year. At Christmas my grandmother gave me a blue and white silk scarf. I don’t wear those sort of scarves; after an experiment wearing it as a tie and a hair ribbon, I tied it around my top hat to make an unusual hat band. I rather like the effect. I don’t have a photo on my laptop or I’d show you it.
This is an object with very specific emotions attached to it for me. It’s associated with family, love and good memories. I’d wear it everywhere if it was practical to; I don’t want to ruin it. So the thought of anything happening to my hat is awful. I probably would try to save it (and my oldest copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’) from a fire.
And thus was born my little fiction.
I must go now, bye