More last things. Today, it was hats. A top cupboard had been opened to reveal a hitherto unperceived collection.
The hats rescued me. I went in to breakfast this morning on a rising tide of tearfulness. As I left the field where I had been tending the horses, a line ran through my head. It said: I am heartbroken. This packing up, this end of my mother’s house, this four days until the dear Stepfather leaves forever is breaking my heart. I feel as filled with impossible emotion as I did in the first days after my mother’s death. It is as if it is happening all over again, and it was bad enough the first time. I don’t know if I have enough heart left to feel this for a second time.
Butch up, butch up, I told myself, hiding my face as I made the eggs. People go through worse things than this.
And then there were the hats. And they were beautiful and eccentric and funny and I thought one day, if I ever get south again, I’ll wear them to the races and think of Mum looking down on me with delight. And I did not want to cry.
Among her lovely hats was a very smart topper. It was the Stepfather’s top hat, a proper article in deep black, made by Mr Lock. Mr Lock, like Mr Kipling, makes exceedingly good hats. ‘I don’t want it,’ said the stepfather. ‘I’ll never wear it again.’ I felt an absurd jolt of happiness. ‘Can I have it?’ I said.
He said I could have it. I put it on. It looked splendid. ‘It’s a bit too big,’ said the Stepfather, doubtfully. I took it off and examined the little leather band inside the crown, which acts as a small, circular pocket. ‘I’ll stuff it,’ I said. And then I opened the band and there, inside, were some folded pieces of paper. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘You stuffed it.’
The folded papers were pages from a racecard. The Royal Hunt Cup, at the Royal Meeting, from many years ago. I loved that it was the Royal Hunt Cup, one of the most impossible to solve handicaps of the entire meeting. It was won a couple of years ago by a dear friend of mine. We used to go and watch Desert Orchid together, when we were blithe twenty-somethings. He always loved racing with a burning passion, and one day he threw up his respectable day job and took out a training licence. I saw him a few months after that glorious victory, with his dear old handicapper, Belgian Bill, and congratulated him with fervour. He smiled all over his dear face. ‘I’m living the dream,’ he said.
The Stepfather said: ‘I went last with your darling mother.’ I thought of them at that storied meeting. I thought of the memories my mother must have had, of the days when she used to go and watch Nijinksy and Mill Reef and the great Brigadier. She saw so many of the great ones, and she remembered them all and talked of them as if they were old friends. Horses like that do feel like old friends.
So, I did not cry, in the end. I’m carrying a lot of tears with me just now, but this morning they did not spill over. The hats saw to that. I went home and wrote three thousand words of book and took a deep breath. This will be over soon, and I can start again.