Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Hat Lady

I think about you, every now and then. Probably not often enough. You deserve better.

I first saw you on the platform at Southampton Parkway station. It was early morning, you were waiting for a train, and you were wearing a hat. Not just any hat or a cap - one of those tricorn style hats made fashionable by Diana in the 80s, white with lots of feathers and a bit of netting. I think I sniggered. It looked incongruous for the time and the place; some of your fellow passengers stared at you. They couldn't help it. It looked like you were off to Ascot or somewhere else on the social circuit. I came to know you weren't.

I soon came to realise that that is what you did every day. You wore hats. In my twenties, I thought it was ridiculous but now I'm older, I understand. Wearing hats gave you pleasure, so wore hats you did.  You had the confidence of maturity not to worry about the opinions of others. You wore hats every day and it marked you out. The regular commuters didn't stare, they were used to seeing you. I didn't see you every day, but every time we got the same train, there you were, with a hat, always slightly over the top, feathery but not outlandish - just different. It stayed on whilst you were on the train. To the regulars, you were the Hat Lady. I didn't know your name. I am not sure anyone did. Long distance commuting is often more sociable but I don't think you ever spoke to anyone.

And then, one cold December day, I wasn't on the train but at home. I was listening to the radio when there was a newsflash. A crash between two trains at Clapham. Our trains went through Clapham! After a while, as more information became known, I worked out that one of the trains involved was one I could have been on, that stopped at our station. Some of my commuting friends would be on that train. It was impossible to get information quickly as it was before mobile phones were commonplace. I had to go away on business without knowing if they were OK and it became apparent there were many fatalities. The pictures on the news and in the papers were terrible, awful. That particular service was always an old style train and the trains involved just crumpled like concertinas.

Later that week, I received news of my commuting friends. Lots of them were on different trains, behind or ahead of the crash. Two women that I knew by name died on the train, in the buffet car. The person that told me also said "And remember the Hat Lady? She was a victim too". You had gone. I can't imagine the horror of those moments at the point of impact nor do I know whether anyone suffered. I hope that you didn't. I hope no-one did.

Dying gave you a name other than Hat Lady. I still don't remember it exactly but I was looking at a list of the victims' names once and I could pick out your name, knowing it was definitely you. It may have been your name but it meant nothing to me and to many others. In my head, you are the Hat Lady, simple as. I can only vaguely remember what you looked like. Over time, you have come to resemble, in my head at least, someone else I know who has broadly the same features as you - slim, dark-haired, smiling.

A long time has passed since you died. They've even stopped commemorating the anniversary although there is a permanent memorial to the 35 people that died as a result of the disaster overlooking the crash site. I try to mark the date every year in any small way I can because you all deserve to be remembered. Against other tragedies, you feel pushed aside, forgotten. It seems unfair that your deaths seem to have counted for less. Hell, it made me angry when I read they were letting the memorial gardens get overgrown. So wrong and disrespectful - and ironically, by the people that let you down in so many ways and allowed it to happen.

You would probably be a pensioner now if you hadn't died. I don't know anything about your life, but I can imagine the happy retirement you could have had. Life playing with grandchildren, perhaps. Foreign travels to far-flung places, maybe. All topped off with fantastic hats. I like to think your taste would be more up to date now, but no-one will ever know for sure.

I knew nothing of your life, and I never spoke to you. I think we may have smiled and nodded once or twice, but that's it. And yet, to me, you are the symbol of the events of 12th December 1988, because of the expression of joie de vivre you exhibited by wearing those hats, plus the pointless and avoidable events that led to your death.

I think about you, every now and then, Hat Lady. Probably not often enough. As I said, you deserve better. But I know that wherever you are, you're wearing a hat, loving it and brightening the day of those around you.

(Note: this post was prompted by the 5th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. Every time there is a big commemoration of a terrible event, I think back to Clapham because it was so close to me personally. Events to mark the passing of 20 years were held in Lockerbie, which happened just 9 days afterwards and somewhat overshadowed it, and in Liverpool to commemorate the Hillsborough disaster. And yet, they officially ended the public commemoration of Clapham after a decade. I wonder how the families remember their loved ones now - turning up to a memorial with overgrown gardens down an embankment left to run wild by Network Rail. It feels somehow wrong to me, that their deaths apparently matter less than others. We need to be reminded, both of the events and of those who are no longer with us.

And if you are too young to remember that day, you can read more about what happened here.)

This post was submitted to The Boy and Me's ShowOff ShowCase on 30th April 2011. Click the badge to see some other entries.
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  1. what a moving post, brought a tear to my eye

  2. Hi! Very moving, poignant post.
    Don't doubt your writing ;-)

    I will now replace the follower that you lost :-) x Jazzy

  3. Brilliant, I have tears in my eyes...

  4. What a wonderful post. I make up names (& lives!) for people I see regularly. Perhaps I should speak to them1

  5. very sad, but beautifully written.

  6. Have just shed a tear. Beautifully written - and reminds us of the meaning and memories we can find if we take the time to just observe.

  7. What a sad post. I have shivers and tears in my eyes reading it. How tragic it all is. I'm glad she wore her hats and you remembered her x

  8. Thanks ladies, your comments mean a lot to me. I appreciate you all taking the time to post.

  9. That is a wonderful piece. The people we see every day, travel with, work with, collect our children from school with, are not really strangers. They're friends we don't yet know.

  10. Thanks, G, for your lovely comment. It's v true what you say. Most people are fundamentally nice, but we don't always get the chance to find out such things. I long distance commuted from there for 2.5 years and made some great friends just by sitting in the same carriage with these people. I missed the camaraderie when I stopped (but not the bloody early starts ;) )

  11. Hi thank you for your lovely comments, michelle 'the hat lady' was my step mum. She would no doubt be wearing a hat and drinking a large gin. Xx

    1. Hi Sally, thank you so much and apologies for delay in replying - Christmas has overtaken much of life recently. I'm glad you like my post. Was thinking of them last week for the 25th anniversary. I'm sure it's a difficult time for you so I hope you are OK.


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