Miss B didn’t want to be at the garden mourning party at all and her mind was a million miles away. She was standing alone far behind the groupings of twos and threes and fours who had slowly clumped together in a slow motion solemn dance of inevitability. She had hardly known the man they were mourning and cared even less to acknowledge his passing. He had been a thousand years old and he didn’t even have the decency to pass away in an interesting manner. He died in the same manner that everything happened in Belchendary . . . boringly.
Miss B was only at the garden mourning party because her daddy had asked her to go. She wanted to support her daddy. She hadn’t seen him this sad since his second wife had passed. And old man—crap—thought Miss B, I forgot his name. The deceased had been Daddy’s best friend in the whole world for over thirty years and Miss B suddenly realized she couldn’t place his name. He had sat two seats away from her at church every Sunday for the last five years. Shit, she thought, it would come back to her in a moment. For the moment, Miss B thought his name was Your Bud because that’s the way she’d always referred to him.
There was a silver lining to going to a funeral and a mourning party however, and that was Miss B got to dress to the nines. Miss B hoped that everyday would provide an opportunity to dress up and funerals were the coup de grace. Most of the UK had gone through a fashion revolution after the war and Victorian era clothing was back in style. A few holdouts had stayed in modern clothing, but they were ridiculed in magazines. For this day, Miss B had pulled out all the stops.
Miss B wore a long dark purple Victorian dress with many ruffles and a large bustle in the rear. Black lace trimmed the edges of the dress and a black lace veil discretely covered her chin and neck. Her silk gloves were dark purple as well. Her boots, hidden by the dress, were black lace up boots that nearly went to the knees of her short legs. Everything she was wearing had been handmade by her, except of course for the hat, which was also exceptional.
Miss B sighed deeply and looked west, her mind wandered away. Her mind wandered to what it mostly went to when she drifted off. To the auto-models, well to an auto-man specifically. What would it be like to have one? Miss B wondered. A mechanical man that could wrap its arms around you and lie with you in bed at night. She wondered if the artificial skin felt anything like a real person. That would be a deal breaker for her if—
“Did you know Mel well?” asked a loud voice suddenly next to her.
Miss B jumped slightly and jerked her head to the right. Standing next to her was possibly the most unpleasant man she’d ever seen. He was short and scrawny. He was barely five centimeters taller than she was, which was very short, and his frame looked like it would lose in a fight against a moderate autumn gust. She thought he might have been a leprechaun except his face was perfectly English and not Irish. But that hat, WOW!
The plain looking little Englishman introduced himself and apologized for startling her. Miss B was staring at his hat. The hat was gorgeous and the texture of it was awesome. Could it have been some type of well-made polyester? Miss B would know if she could touch it. It would be so soft. She had to touch that hat.
Miss B realized the strange little man was still talking, well gibbering, on about something so she decided to wake up and listen; not because she cared to hear what he was saying, but because she is a proper English lady. Proper English ladies do not ignore strangers when spoken to. Even if that was a rare occurrence. So Miss B opened her ears and focused on what the little man was saying.
“You’d say so wouldn’t you?” asked the hat nerd.
“Eh . . . um . . . what?” Miss B stammered.
“Well I asked if you’d say so. You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I would what?”
“Well what I just asked you. About the ceremony.”
“Oh, the ceremony, the funeral for Old Bud.”
“Old Bud? You must have known him well. Pet names and all.”
“No! No, I didn’t know him well . . . Eh I mean I did know him well. My dad knew him well, for years, decades actually.”
“Ah,” replied Hat Nerd, “your dad knew him that makes sense. It would have been weird you knowing him, well, and you, him being a million and you being thirty, thirty-five, forty . . .”
Hat Nerd clucked his tongue and raised up on his toes while raising a single eyebrow. He wanted Miss B to tell him her age. That seemed off and impolite. Is that what people were doing nowadays in London and in Cornwall and in other English cities where life still existed? Did men just go around asking single women their age?
Hat Nerd scrunched his face as if he was confused by something he saw. Of course he was staring straight at Miss B and then Miss B realized she was doing the same face. She inhaled and forced her face to relax. She smiled at the Hat Nerd as if to apologize and then she asked him about, what she really wanted to know.
“That’s quite a nice hat.”
Hat Nerd became animated smiling broadly. He pulled the hat off his head and ran his finger along the length of it. He turned the hat over in his hands twice, admiring it.
“It’s quite nice isn’t it?”
“It is a wonderful hat. What’s the material?”
“Silk?” Miss B wanted to touch it.
“Silk over a cotton canvas.”
Miss B bit her tongue slightly to prevent herself from saying that she thought pork pie hats were ridiculous looking and that she didn’t realize anyone on Earth still wore them and that she thought the last respectable person that looked good in a pork pie hat was Buster Keaton and Buster Keaton had been dead a few years.
Instead she said, “Fascinating,” for the second time.
Hat Nerd, she was really going to have to figure out his name somehow, raised both eyebrows, smiled and announced,
“I made it myself.”
“Wow, fantastic,” Miss B’s first genuine words.
“Only took me a couple of days. A custom design I made up myself. A traditional, forest green, pork pie hat, with a cotton canvas base covered in silk, custom measured to fit my head,” Hat Nerd crowed proudly as he flicked it back onto his head. Miss B wanted to touch it.
“Are you a milliner? I work with textiles!” Miss B blurted out excitedly.
“You do. Well we are in related fields. Two feathers from the same bird, if you know what I mean?” Hat Nerd said looking at her in a way a butcher might look at a fresh steak.
“Oh,” puttered Miss B, but inside she was recoiling. Hat Nerd was attracted to her. Her heartbeat quickened slightly and her breathing became shallow. She swallowed hard.
“And you have a product of my industry on your head. Although I can tell it’s not one of mine.”
“Your hat of course.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot I had it on.”
“It’s a chiffon, tiny top hat, with a custom turquoise dye and sheer lace netting, quite well made.”
Hat Nerd leaned in closer to get a better look at Miss B’s tiny turquoise top hat. This made Miss B nervous and then Hat Nerd stepped closer and peered at the hat intensely. His beady eyes grew in size and Miss B wanted to jump back, but as he got closer so did that marvelous hat. The silk texture of it was one of the finest things on Earth and it might be worth it, if she could touch that hat. Hat Nerd jumped back and scrunched his face.
“Spectacular, not a flaw on it. Being a hat maker myself for nearly twenty years, I know how they’re made and designed and sometimes a good eye can find small imperfections in a hat. Especially one so tiny and delicate, those are a lot harder to perfect than one can imagine, but yours, it’s . . .”
“Well I did pay more than a few pounds for it.”
“I bet you did, I bet it set you back a bunch.”
“Well not too bad.”
“Did you purchase it in London? Or Cornwall? You don’t get quality like that out here.”
“London,” Miss B said proudly.
“Ah,” Hat Nerd nodded.
“I lived there for fifteen years.”
“Strange coincidence, so did I,” Hat Nerd said plainly.
“Really?” Miss B thought he was having a trip with her.
“Yes, but then I came back here. To Belchendary, God only knows why. I moved back five years ago when my mom died.”
“I moved back five years ago when my daddy’s second wife died. What a strange coincidence. I didn’t know there was another person under the age of fifty living here in Belchendary.”
“Oh I don’t go outside much,” Hat Nerd muttered.
“That’s terrible, are you too busy making so many hats?”
“No, it’s the trees,” Hat Nerd grimaced and scanned the surrounding trees.
“Oh my, you’re allergic,” said Miss B.
“Allergic? Oh no. I just don’t like them.”
Miss B recoiled physically.
Hat Nerd continued, “I’m afraid of them.”
“How odd,” Miss B blurted out uncontrollably.
“I mean look at them, they’re like rrrr. Those branches look like the spiny fingers of a venomous spider reaching down to claw at you,” said Hat Nerd as he put his hands up by his face and wriggled his fingers.
Miss B sighed and looked west. She thought about whether she could ever imagine having sex with Hat Nerd. She couldn’t picture it, he being so scrawny. She thought if she sat on him, her big bottom might break all his bones. Of course she could lie underneath him, that would make more sense, but for the fact that he was so plain and boring looking, so Belchendary, so – Oh crap – he was talking again. Miss B cleared her throat and her cobwebs and turned to Hat Nerd.
“I’m sorry,” apologized Miss B.
“You drifted off again.”
“Because you’re a grown man who is afraid of trees!” Shit, did I just say that out loud? Oh no, it’s okay, Miss B thought. She had only imagined saying it. The sound waves had not actually moved out of her mouth, the words had simply floated around in her head. She had imagined speaking them aloud, but she hadn’t, at least not here in this dimension. Maybe out there, beyond the sky, in some other dimension, an incalculable distance away, another Miss B, that looked just like her, had said it aloud, but not here.
“I am sorry,” Miss B started, actually speaking this time. “I’m a bit distracted today, with old man Mel dying and all.”
“No worries. I was asking you what you do, in textiles?”
“I’m a fashion designer consultant. I work with all the major clothing companies in the UK choosing the fabrics for their clothes.”
Hat Nerd scrunched his face again and tilted his head to one side.
Miss B continued, “Designers bring their fabrics to me and I consult them on how to best utilize their materials into new designs. What clothes to make, how much stitching will be needed, how the fabrics will crease and hang on the body, things like that.” Miss B finished with a smile.
“I beg your pardon?”
“How do you know what the material will do?”
“Through an analysis.”
“My own custom analysis.”
“Like under a microscope?”
“How?” Hat Nerd insisted.
“I touch it.”
“What? You touch it with your hands?”
“Yes, I’m a tactile specialist.”
“Miss B, you’re having a trip with me.”
Hat Nerd didn’t believe her, but this was no surprise. No one ever believed her, never at first anyway. Then when they saw her in practice, and their awestruck faces revealed that they believed. How am I going to convince Hat Nerd? she wondered.
She could tell him the story, or at least the abridged version of the story. She had been seven years old and her dad was teaching her how to ride a bike. Down a bumpy country road, not far from where they were standing actually. Daddy wasn’t in very good running form, he was fat and generally drunk, but since she didn’t have a mum or any siblings, he had resigned himself to teach her how to ride a bike. Just as she got the balance herself, Daddy stopped running and she obviously kept pedaling. When seven-year-old Miss B realized Daddy wasn’t holding the bike, she went down. She hit her head quite badly on the ground.
When little Miss B woke up in the hospital she had a bit of kit about her head and her eyes were shielded. She had a heavy dark shield over her face. Daddy was informed any light could overload her synapses and lead to permanent balancing issues. Little Miss B began to scream in fear, “I am blind!” but daddy took her hand and, not being much of a talker, told her, “Your hands can see anything your eyes would have.” For the next six hours they held hands silently, then little Miss B began to explore.
Little Miss B spent the next three weeks, one in hospital and two at home, touching everything. The skin on her hands thinned and became hypersensitive. Big, grown up, Miss B could tell you the exact compositional makeup of any material just by touching it for a few seconds. Skeptics sprouted like dollar weeds from every part of the UK. Scientists studied her skin and made her perform all sorts of funny stunts. She passed every test. After the last test in which she had to identify the proportions of cotton, wool, polyester, and bamboo in a synthetic material specially designed from all four materials, little Miss B was declared a wunderkind. She was put on the cover of Extraordinary People magazine and was, and has remained, the youngest person to ever grace the cover of the magazine in its eighty-one year history.
Miss B didn’t want to tell Hat Nerd that story. It was only for special people. She’d only told the story three times in thirty-two years and she thought that maybe three times was enough for this lifetime. Or at least in this lifetime for this Miss B in this dimension.
“It’s not a trip, sir. It’s true. I have the gift of touch.”
“Well I’m just a plain old milliner, no superpowers here.”
“Well your hat is quite fantastic. I bet it has a wonderful texture,” Miss B said, trying to lead him on. “It is a real shame hats for men are going so common. Rare to see one as nice as yours.”
“Six,” Hat Nerd said loudly.
Miss B suddenly didn’t know what they were talking about. Six, was a number, was it the number of hats he sold a week, or in a month. Surely he wouldn’t be able to support himself if he only sold six hats a month. He was looking down and looking dejected like he wanted Miss B to cheer him up.
“This year,” he said.
“What?” asked Miss B.
“I’ve only sold six bloody hats this year.”
“That’s not particularly lucrative.”
“It’s true, no point in trying to deceive you. I’m broke.”
Miss B had no emotion to this news. She herself had only a little money and honestly couldn’t care if she had more or not. Of course, if she was filthy rich, she could buy an auto-model, a male one, a heavy muscular male one. But Miss B knew she’d never be that rich.
“Aren’t the two of you cozy!” yelled Daddy from their right. Hat Nerd and Miss B both turned quickly and saw Daddy approaching slowly towards them.
That man’s voice can really carry, thought Miss B.
Miss B thought that everyone in Belchendary felt sorry for her and that she was embarrassed by her father’s appearance. He was fat and generally drunk. However, Miss B wasn’t actually embarrassed at all, she knew what he had done in the war. Of course everyone knew what he had done in the war. She had never gotten a first hand account, but second hand accounts by the dozen. She had read the letters the liberated Jews had written to him in the 1950s and she had seen the hideous scar on his left calf.
Hat Nerd and Miss B stood patiently as Daddy arrived, slowly and silently, to join them. His belly arrived first and a few minutes later the rest of him followed. He shuffled in on Miss B’s left, pushing her physically closer to Hat Nerd. Daddy and Hat Nerd swapped introductions, but somehow Miss B still missed Hat Nerd’s name.
“You should invite my daughter to the pub for a pint. She could use one,” Daddy said to Hat Nerd.
“Daddy!” yelled Miss B. “No, besides I think you’ve already had one or two on my behalf already.”
Daddy looked down at his right hand, which held a mug of brown ale, and scratched his head.
“I don’t think I have, B. I didn’t drink any on your behalf. Well I did have a couple on ole Mel’s behalf, but he’d want it that way.”
“My condolences on losing your close friend, sir,” announced Hat Nerd.
“Thank you, sir,” replied Daddy tipping his head slightly.
“My daughter’s quite a wunderkind if you don’t know,” announced Daddy proudly.
“Is that right?” asked Hat Nerd.
“Indeed, invite her into your home and she can tell you the quality of all your fabrics. Hell, she can tell you the thread count of the sheets on your bed.”
“Oh,” replied Hat Nerd. “Just by touching it?”
“That’s right,” bellowed Daddy with a startled tone.
“Yes, I’ve heard, magic hands.”
“Magic hands, yes, B has magic hands,” Daddy grumbled giving Hat Nerd a chuckle and a raised eyebrow.
“Daddy!” cried Miss B.
“Okay, okay,” Daddy started. “It never hurts to make new friends, B, especially in a town like this.”
Miss B turned to Hat Nerd, who was undressing her with his eyes, and put her hands out in a defensive manner.
“I have to apologize for my daddy, he is drunk. Which is to be considered on a day when your best friend of a million years has just passed away,” said Miss B.
“Oh, it’s okay, just a little fun,” replied Hat Nerd, now his eyes looked like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Miss B wanted Hat Nerd to suddenly die, not painfully, just quickly.
“You will have to excuse us,” started Miss B. “I’m afraid my daddy is quite drunk and I need to tend to him. If you could please leave us.”
Miss B repeated the command, politely, several more times in various forms, but Hat Nerd wouldn’t leave. He didn’t have any legitimate reason for staying. Well he may have had, but Miss B finally resorted to physically pushing Hat Nerd a step or two away, which finally initiated compliance. Miss B exhaled deeply when she was finally alone with Daddy.
“Why’d you go and do that then?” asked Daddy.
“I didn’t like him.”
“What? Didn’t like him? I thought you’d be arse over tits at a man ogling at you after five years with no sex.”
“What?” he blurted drunkenly.
“How would you know I haven’t had sex in five years?”
“You never go out at night.”
“Well maybe I have male friends come over while you’re asleep. You’re always piss drunk, I could have wild sex orgies and you wouldn’t know.”
“Oh really, maybe I had five large black men in my room last night and I forgot I’m a proper English lady and they did terrible, naughty things to me.”
“No used rubbers. Remember I take your trash out,” Daddy said smiling. He suddenly didn’t seem drunk. Miss B stood gobsmacked, the lump in her throat immobile. Daddy, very proud of himself, looked west. A silent moment passed.
“Well,” started Daddy, “come on then, Beatrice. Take your old man to the pub. Cheer us both up.”
Daddy started off towards the pub without saying goodbye to the other mourners. Of course half of them had already left anyway. Miss B stood silently, still brewing from the argument, unsure whether to follow or not. She had a few minutes to decide to move or not. Daddy didn’t move fast and she could catch up to him in five steps.
Miss B turned a three-sixty and realized, to her relief, that no one had heard their argument. People didn’t often eavesdrop in Belchendary. Not because they were proper English folk who wouldn’t do such a thing, but because nothing ever heard was worthwhile. Miss B exhaled and turned to the pub. Daddy had made some progress in that direction and now some of the other groupings of threes and fours from the garden mourning party had begun to follow him.