The Pheasant Feather Hat

by Sarah Hilary



She wore white, of course. A vision, isn’t that what they say? She was a vision.


Her bouquet complemented his buttonhole. Lemon blossom for fidelity, sorrel for affection. She provided little cards so we would know exactly what was signified by the arrangement she held to her bosom. A marble shelf, her bosom, thanks to the frock. Sepulchre in satin.


‘All flowers and plants,’ she divulged, ‘have special meanings.’


Fidelity and affection. Lovely copperplate printing in the card, very black and emphatic.


When it came time for the tossing I stood aside, taking refuge beneath the brim of my hat. All you could see of my face was the smile I’d painted there in lipstick: Rum Kiss.


A bridesmaid grabbed the bouquet, leaping for it like a cheer-leader; I saw the bunting of her knickers under hitching chiffon.


The hat was my camouflage, and my extravagance. I was giddy when I bought it, on a spree.


I found the shop in St James’s, one of those Last Bastion places, withering gilt signage and a window where sun-bleached boaters sat with studied frivolity on frowsy cushions. A brass bell rattled when I pushed at the door.


Inside the light was sallow, the place perfumed like a street market in Marrakech. The walls on one side were papered with old posters curling caddishly at the corners: Victorian pop-art images of Havana, Mexico, India.


The shop was wood-lined, like being inside a box, and dry as tinder. One spark and it would all go up. I saw fedoras and sou’westers rocketing into a sky seething with smoke, a monstrous ‘Hats Off!’ punctuated by an endless confetti of grosgrain and tamped navy felt.


My hat was on a wooden podium high, high up. All-over pheasant feathers, a tickly brim down to my chin, amber and orange and peacocky blue.


Dogs followed me home through Green Park, sniffing at the hatbox, suspecting a treat. A red setter, dopey thing, kept frisking at my heels. I suppose he could smell the bird that once was. Poor pheasant, plucked and pie’d, but I was ruthless that day. Reckless.


I wanted to free the damn hat, throw it like a three hundred pound frisbee for the setter to fetch. He’d have torn it to shreds in seconds, looking for the carcass which wasn’t there.


Into the attic it went, after the wedding. In its box, lavish with tissue paper, a dun-brown bonnet without the sun to strike a bright note from its feathers.


The groom wore grey, the same soft shade as the doves they released after the wedding service. Up they flew, wings clattering like football rattles, whirring, purring in their breasts. I wondered how often they’d performed this pantomime of freedom, tempted back each time by crumbs to the hotel’s dovecote.


No distinguishing features, the groom. I should like to report, with proper compassion of course, a wall eye or club foot. Nothing like that. A perfectly nice man.


The happy couple took the honeymoon suite. Made love all night, as happy couples do.


I’d fucked the bride in a Travelodge in Slough. Skin and teeth and the kiss of sweat like a promise in my palms.


‘You like this?’ she said.


‘I do.’


They’d hired a marquee, as an investment against rain. She’d bought two pairs of the same shoes in case a heel broke, and spent hundreds on hair extensions to make the best effect of her chignon. French manicure, St Tropez tan to set off the white satin. The works.


At the reception they served nut-free wedding cake in case of allergies. She told everyone she was having her bouquet professionally preserved, and his buttonhole.


What else, I wondered? Her eggs and his sperm frozen as a contingency against sterility? You can’t be too careful in this day and age, with hormones in the fish and what have you. It was money well spent, in any case. The last I heard she was having the baby’s feet cast in bronze, miniature handprints set in plaster of Paris. Time standing still, if a bit shakily, on one leg.


Not a day has gone uncelebrated. Not one. Does she have, sandy in a drawer somewhere, the cut-out keyhole from Room 71, Travelodge, Slough? It was shaped so you could hang it on the outside of the door: Do Not Disturb. It tore easily, being only paper. On the back you were supposed to tick boxes saying what you’d like for breakfast. We didn’t stay that long.


I did contemplate, as the champagne was pinging in the crystal flutes and the doves were returning one by one to their cote, making a grand statement with the trout parfait. But where would’ve been the point, really?


It was her Big Day. I’d had mine, in Room 71.


Mice have found the pheasant feather hat in my attic and nested there, fucking contentedly, raising little knuckled clutches of brown babies.


Isn’t nature astonishing?






Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and was a Fish Prize Winner in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Her work has been shortlisted by Biscuit Publishing and the Cheshire Prize for Literature, highly commended by Aesthetica and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A non-fiction column about the wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books. Sarah blogs at