Short Story: Black Straw Hat

By Emma Neale

Silhouette of lonesome cowboy riding horse at sunset
She was always running, but one story of Granny’s stopped this girl dead in her tracks ... the day the man in the straw boater arrived.

I first heard my granny’s story about the smart young visitor in the black straw boater when I was about 11. This was the age of running. I ran in chain tag at school; through the local park with my sister; in games of horses during the holidays, when a friend and I galloped around and around her back garden, jumping hurdles, tossing our ponytails.

We were the riders and the rides: leaping trestles, whinnying, snorting, issuing the fillies of our bodies instructions: Faster, Stormy; Higher, Chestnut; Whoah there, boy! In corduroy trousers, turtlenecks and hand-knitted jerseys, we were girls who were horses who were boys. Categories, what were they? Spaces to be slid between, or even blended; roles that felt as open and available as different equipment in a playground.

Some days, too, moving and hunger felt almost like one thing. Wanting to run, or skate, or dance, was an urge deep in the muscles and bones, and when we sated that, its sister appetite grew. One thing became another and wasn’t that fine?

Afternoons, after school, I’d switch between amble, canter and trot home, across the big local football and cricket fields, arriving sweaty and thirsty, stomach hollow and bubbling for food.

So when our granny came to stay the treats she offered were events: small sugar-festivals within the main occasion of her visits. She brought fruit cakes, or lamingtons, or cream buns, raspberry buns, Sally Lunns or Boston Buns. The icing and the fluffy centres were surprise parties for our mouths, bursts of love and comfort: but, on her visits, there was also an awful lot of sitting. And tea drinking. And sitting and tea drinking again. I’d eat, listen, get restless before long, eventually following that other hunger: hurtle out to the park again, to leap and gallop, cartwheel, whirl, or swing.

Yet there was one story that caught me in its arms, and kept me snuggled up against Granny in her heavy woollen tartan skirt, thick pantyhose, peach cardigan with its matching buttons like plasticky pearls. I heard the story more than once.

I had always assumed my grandmother, too, was a girl, when the incident happened. Imagine. Granny with her grazed knees wearing medals of mud. Granny running until the glossy red ribbons loosened and flew from her plaits, skidding along and down through the air like fireworks.

My granny, whose skin was crumpled as stockings pushed off after a night of waltzes, Gay Gordons; my granny with knuckles swollen big as acorns; my granny with the most interesting bottom lip: a narrow, flat, pinkish-lavender shelf, perfect to drowse a teacup rim against. My Granny with her jewellery of marcasite and imitation pearl, the chain of thin silver trickling in kinks as it caught on the bumps and grain of her muslin-soft neck. My granny, once my age: what a wonder!

But now, one quick look at the facts says Granny wasn’t even born when the visitor appeared. The story is really about her mother, and her nana, 1909. The year sits over the anecdote like an arched transom over a house’s front door. The story starts with a knock. Rappa-tat-ta-tat! It had the pep of a tap dance step: ball and heel, flam and spank.

My great-grandmother, Alice, and my great-great-grandmother, Franny, both went to answer. A polite, rather short young man stood there, in a smart black straw boater hat. He introduced himself: “Percy Leonard Carol Redwood.”

Four names, like four stamps, pressed down, clear and square, as if in extra proof of identity. The young man asked, with a light, constrained, modest laugh, if it would terribly inconvenience the ladies if he availed himself of, ah, their conveniences.

Of course not! His shirt cuffs and collar were sharp-cornered as calling cards; his overcoat buttons gleamed like polished conkers; his eyes were deep and soft as a Huntaway dog’s, and his hair sat in a handsome side part, neat as King George VI on a new coin.

They showed him through the enfilade; the shotgun hallway that would take him directly to the backyard privy. The young gentleman shot through, just as the hallway’s name encouraged.

“Thank you kindly, good ladies!”

The poor thing was in quite a rush. Alice and Franny waited in the kitchen, Franny sifting dry baking ingredients; mother and daughter both perhaps wondering whether, upon his return, they should offer a glass of water?

Or a measured spoon of lemony wit about the weather?

A generous serving of advice on where to promenade in the town’s tawny autumn light?

When rappa-tat-ratta-TAT! Another knock at the door. The charming young man must have finished. How very mannerly, not to traipse his boots back through the house, but to use the side gate and come back around to the front, where they thought he must have intended to tip his hat and take his leave.

Alice went to the door, smoothing the side of her hair in its loose swooped-up bun; Franny following, trying to wipe off finger-gloves of johnny-cake batter on a tea cloth.

Two police officers stood there, solemn as Sunday yet brisk with out-of-breath.

One stepped up to the threshold. “In pursuit of a felon, Ma’am.”

“About this tall?” The other lifts a palm to his own chin level. “Wears a black straw boater. Neighbours saw the individual knock and enter here. Goes by the name of Percy Redwood.”

Perhaps there was a gasp, or a scrap of prayer – “My God!” –  a pinch of fear like the sudden tightening of a corset; a hand at a high-necked blouse, Irish lace unwittingly smutched with flour. “Oh! But he was such a polite young man!”

Did the police hare off right then, whip down the front steps (the house was on a street corner: the felon must have slipped out that side gate)?

Did the coppers race separately along the choice of two streets, leaving it to the neighbours or the newspapers to explain to my relations?

Or did the cops know they’d been bested, take off their shako caps, dandle them, rub at the red brim marks branded on their brows, accept an offer of iced tea and shortbread as they seized a chance to recuperate and explain?


Percy Leonard Carol Redwood was in truth the swindler-impersonator Amy Maud Bock, already a notorious, and frequent, fugitive from the law. Soon, unbeknownst to the police, she would marry one Agnes (Nessie) Ottaway, using the false persona of a wealthy gentleman sheep farmer. Once, in the middle of Granny retelling this family anecdote about the infamous Amy, my grandfather hooted, with a whisky-amplified laugh, “She was on the lam! Baaa-yooty!

Granny said Grandad’s name like a cuss. “George!” and slapped him on the knee. Grandad blushed, single malt and delight a-mingle.

He winked, pointed to his cheek, twisted his lips to the side, in a Popeye the Sailorman pucker-up. “I take my women strong. Like my kisses.”

Granny ticked him off, using just his name again, yet Grandad grinned, because on some complicated internal score card, he thought he’d won. Granny came from a line of women who’d fallen for a woman! Did we see the clincher in it? The evidence? Of the bewitchment that took hold, that could turn a man’s knees weak as water?

No matter, from Granny’s perspective. In her own careful internal tally, the victory was hers. Her mother, her aunt – and Amy Bock – had all proven that sometimes, you simply cannot tell the difference between a lady and a gent. Meaning one is as good (or as shoddy) as the other.

I was on her side. Why couldn’t women wear jackets and trousers, do the same work as men, even marry whoever they wanted, assuming the other person wanted it, too?

I did wonder about Nessie Ottaway, though. Did she love Percy? Or did she love Amy? Or did she not mind which was which, and loved the person who was both? When the wedding was shown to be a sham, was she heartbroken that Percy-Amy was taken away, or did she feel terribly fooled? Such adult mysteries.

Yet at eleven, as a girlhorseboy who didn’t really understand how just changing your clothes could be such an effective deception (were olden-days people really so easily conned by trousers?), the thing that tickled me most, the thing I relished and dwelt on, was how, without anyone even so much as picking up those heavy, Edwardian, bell-shaped skirts, my ancestors Alice and Franny had helped Amy Bock run.


Author: Emma Neale

Emma Neale was born in Dunedin, and has lived in Christchurch, San Diego and London. She works as a freelance editor and is the mother of two sons: one works as a musician and percussion tutor in Wellington, the other, still at home, turns 14 soon and is a keen basketballer. Emma has been married for 30 years. Her husband once worked as a mountain guide, but now researches and teaches quantum physics. Emma enjoys writing – everything from short stories and poetry, to scrappy to-do lists.


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