My Disguise Was Also My Announcement
I knew the hat immediately when I saw it there on the side table in Miss Jackson's sitting room. I had never seen it before, or anything quite like it, but it looked somehow familiar. I hadn't even realized until that moment that I would need a hat for the misty English winter ahead. It was of practical, thick wool with a plain crown and narrow brim. The brim and the band were gray tweed, and matched - sort of - my coat. The crown was a patchwork affair, in muted shades of green, blue, brown, and maroon. It was beautifully lined and the label read "Made in Ireland."
Miss Jackson, whose flat I shared, explained that her sister-in-law, Mrs. Jackson, had sent it to her as a present, but it looked rather common for someone like her. She would think about it for a while.
The next day, the hat still sat on the side table. Miss Jackson admired the quality of the hat, and it fit her. Mrs. Jackson, she said, had bought it on holiday in Bournemouth. But if she decided not to keep it, then I would be allowed to buy it from her. Did I have 11?
For the next eight days, the hat rested on the side table, but I didn't worry. I didn't think the hat suited her at all. From time to time I would say, "That hat sure looks warm," or, "Too bad it flattens your hairdo."
Finally, one evening over our fish pies, she announced that I could buy the hat.
I suddenly felt very British. My American accent even seemed less harsh, and it masked my severe haircut. Miss Jackson had joked with me about her being able to spot an American in London from a mile away. And she could, which made me feel a bit like a UPS truck at an antique car show. The hat was, to me, part of a costume. In it, I looked like a true Englishwoman, even if I didn't sound like one, and I could blend inconspicuously into the local cast of characters.
At work it was a sensation. I recall returning to the newsroom after a lunch break and finding a crowd around the coat racks. "Whose hat is this?" they wondered aloud. "Is it a man's hat or a woman's?" "Where was it made?" "Could one get a hat like this in London?" Journalists working the other shifts soon got word of a remarkable plain tweed hat, which (could it be believed?) belonged to an American.
I was able to travel through the city incognito. Locals asked me for directions and were surprised to find that I was a Yank. And everywhere - in the shops, on the tube, waiting in endless queues - strangers remarked on its understated but striking beauty, its outstanding subtlety, and its quintessential Englishness.
One evening, Gwyn, a senior editor in the newsroom, invited me and a co-worker to his private club for supper. Gwyn had an errand to run and would arrive later than my friend and I, which presented a difficulty: The club enforced strict rules regarding admission of guests. He would have to get special permission for our entry, which normally would not be granted unless the member entered with us, and then only with previously issued guest passes.
Miss Jackson was impressed to learn that I had been invited to a gentlemen's private club for supper. I confess that whatever there was to be impressed about was lost on me.
By this time, I had been in England for several months, and although I had picked up a bit of the lingo, I did not fully understand the meaning of the word "private." Private schools, I'd learned, are private, but so are public schools. Public schools are called state schools, even though Britain is not made up of states. And, according to Miss Jackson, the Royal Academy in London isn't a school at all.
I did not appreciate the distinction between a "pub" (public house) and a "club" (private). Yet as I reflect on it now, it is possible she was simply impressed with how effective a venue an international newsroom could be for getting dates.
Gwyn phoned his club and spoke with security. Security would consider relaxing the rules, but only with detailed descriptions of us. I said, "Why not tell him that one of us is American?"
BUT then Gwyn was interrupted by a minor crisis in the newsroom. He "ummed" and "ahhed" a little, then finally simply said, "... a man and a woman ... you'll know them when you see them." He hung up and ran off.
When our shift ended, my friend and I walked along the Aldwych and down the Strand, splashing through shallow puddles past the parade of theater traffic. We found the club, descended the few steps below street level, and knocked on the outer door. My friend was angry with Gwyn for leaving us to our own devices to gain entry to his club. It would be embarrassing, he said, to be denied admission, as was sure to be the case. How would we possibly be identified? He recalled a pizza place down the block and decided on an alternate plan for supper.
A pair of watery eyes scrutinized us through a tiny barred window. Suddenly, the door was flung open and the guard ushered us in.
"You're Gwyn's friends!" he exclaimed. "I knew the hat immediately!"