Before leaving Cornwall I bought a hat from a woman named Claire Francis. Claire has been making hats in Porthleven for seventeen years and does not seem in the least bit mad (presumably because no one has used mercury in making hats for a very long time, thus no more mad hatters), though Salt Cellar Hats is a deliciously eccentric place. The old net loft workshop is just that--a work place/shop--with row upon row of bolts of felted fabric in colours both lurid and discrete, the hum of a sewing machine and quietly purposeful discussion making it a place both whimsical and serious. In this shop reconstituted hippy meets potential fashionista (with any tendency toward madness confined to a whole section devoted to baskets up the appropriately rickety wooden stairs).
And so I bought my holy grail of hats--an unassuming little linen number, the grey-ish, taupe-ish cream of a sandy Cornish beach on a cloudy day--the sun hat par excellence. I discovered I have a small/small to medium head, as the delightfully detailed label on the inside crown of the hat informed me, which was interesting information as I have always thought more about the size of my hat (as in broad-brimmed, pillbox, etc) than the size of my head, if you see what I mean. But during the eleven hours it took me to drive home I remembered a woman who owned a hat shop once telling me that quite often, the smaller the person the bigger the hat (as well as the reverse), as if some curious skewing of perception takes place, turning a hat shop into a place of fairground mirrors. Which brought me back to mercury: one of the symptoms of mercury poisoning is, curiously enough, distorted vision. I spent a few miles wondering if there was any correlation between the number of tooth fillings and millinery dysmorphia.
It was a beautiful day for the drive north: warm and soft and blurred at the edges, with blackthorn blossom foaming in the hedges and the improbably green grassy banks starred with buttermilk-coloured primroses. I rolled down the car windows and loitered up the curiously empty motorways, watching the outside temperature reading climbing to 21 degrees, where it stubbornly stayed put until the sun extinguished itself somewhere over the left-hand side of Cumbria.
But just as I was rejoicing in the fact that there is a village named Lamancha in the Scottish Borders (and wondering if it would be possible to call your pub the ‘Quixote’--in a post-ironic sort of way), I drove into a wall of mist so thick you could have hung pictures on it. It did not so much swirl and whirl as hang like a net curtain, occasionally twitched aside for looming glimpses of vaguely familiar landmarks before falling back again in impenetrable folds.
Even in Edinburgh it had a curious effect--one navigates through cities largely by landmark. But near things were unrecognisable and the occasional sightings of points of reference were unreliable, looking either improbably close or impossibly far. My well- known route into the city had become a tunnel into a muffled, hallucinogenic world where every sense was intermittently undependable. I wondered briefly if the bottle of water I bought at the Westmorland Services might have said ‘Drink Me’ on the label.
As soon as I got home I took my new hat out of the bag and had a good look in the mirror...just in case.