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U3A Writing: The Beaver Hat

Barbara Tregonning tells a heart-warming tale of a girl who had to endure the giggles and gossip of heartless, snobbish schoolgirls.

Kitty dragged her feet on the way to school, her heart heavy. She wished, as she always wished, that Father hadn't left and gone away with the elegant lady. She'd wished that her mother didn't cry so much. She wished that she lived a thousand miles from St Kilda, if it were possible in that era soon after Federation when high-stepping two-in-hands were still to be seen alongside the much admired but noisy new motor cars, the envy of all.

They didn't live in the big house any more, but in a meaner, narrower street on the fringe of the still fashionable suburb. So now it was a long walk each day for the young girl, past the Chinese herbalist’s, the cheaper small goods shops, and the sixpenny tea room.

Kitty went over it all in her head. Mother should have enrolled her in another school, less grand than The Towers, after Father left. Almost overnight, it seemed, the other girls in her class heard the news. Whispers spread rapidly. By the end of morning playtime, skipping ropes forgotten, heads together in gossiping huddles, her shame had been thoroughly broadcast.

"Yes it's true. Kitty Sinclair's father has set up house with his mistress. Just fancy!" The Oohs!, followed by high-pitched giggles, had a heartless ring.

At the end of that terrible week Kitty's isolation was complete. She begged her mother to allow her to change schools.
Mother tossed her head. "Your father is paying the fees, and will continue to do so," was all she said.

Not long after that the carrier came with his dray, and all their furniture was transferred to the more lowly address. Kitty was left to map out her own route to The Towers. Her mother was too busy rearranging things, and crying.

The term crawled on, Kitty daily taking her way past the Chinese herbalists, the little shops, and the sixpenny tea room run by an elderly Jewish gentleman and his wife. Mr Abraham was always on the doorstep as she went by, sweeping diligently. At first she wouldn't raise her eyes, but after a time she felt he was noticing her. A daily ritual was established.

"Morning, Missie," his deep, foreign voice would greet her, sounding strange to her ears. Shyly she smiled, and he would beam. Sometimes his plump wife was also to be seen, out on the footpath polishing the window with its lace curtain and curly legend. She would look over her shoulder, perplexed. It was unusual to see a young girl in neat blue serge on their street, unaccompanied, and the child's demeanour looked so sad.

So she too would greet Kitty, and watch her round the corner at the end of the street, as she went on towards the school that was now one long misery to her. Home was not much better, mother and daughter living like separate islands in a sea of heartbreak, each isolated in her own misery.

The winter break finally came, and afterwards, the return to school again. It had always been such a happy time of reunions. "What did you do in the holidays?" and "What do you have new?"

For this was a school where income and status meant everything. The majority of the fathers held positions of authority in the City. Pity the poor child whose parent was simply 'in trade." The very phrase was spoken with scorn. In self defence these unfortunate girls were forced to make their own little group, ignored by the others. Kitty's plight left her even lower - an Untouchable.

There were other factors that were against her. Her change of address was also noted. She was no longer escorted to school, as befitted young ladies.

Men could be jolly about her father's peccadillos. Not so their wives and daughters, who felt the whole fabric of their existence threatened. The pampered girls clung tightly to that top rung of the social hierarchy they had constructed for themselves at The Towers, artificial though it was - even in the junior school. Their headmistress gave them no better guidance. Subtly pressured by her board members with their gold watch chains and impeccable tailoring, she looked always to where the most generous bequests came from, closing her eyes to all else. Indeed, her sitting room with its crystal decanters always available for the Board's comfort was her major concern.

Vanessa Forsyth was the reigning queen of her class, more affluent, more privileged than her nearest rivals. After holidays, Vanessa always had something new. Proudly she led her coterie to the cloakroom where a long row of wooden pegs held their outdoor garments. There, alongside the demure felt hats was one of beautiful dark fur. The approbation was vocal, as the other girls crowded around. The very latest for grown-ups in the world of fashion - but for the younger generation it must have been a first.

Kitty was excluded from the viewing, but in that brief space after the bell rang she slipped unobtrusively into the cloak room, now empty. Her fingers touched the shining, soft fur for a brief moment. She savoured the feel of it right through morning lessons, and somehow didn't feel quite so left out.

When the Forsyth motor car came to pick Vanessa up after school, her friends all waved her departure as if she was royalty. Being on foot, Kitty had no reason to leave by the front carriage drive. She took the lesser pathway through the still wintry garden and out the side entrance. There was a suspicion of rain. It seemed to her as if the whole world wanted to weep.

Walking home, she came abreast of the sixpenny tea room. Old Mr Abraham, always a courteous gentleman, was just bowing out a departing client. Usually he was busy inside his establishment after school with the teacups and scones, and seldom visible.
But this day, seeing her, his wise old brown eyes lit up warmly in his seamed face. Spontaneously, he spread his hands in a gesture of welcome.

"Good afternoon, Missie, and Hello!" He paused, then added: "Look now. Would you like to come in and have a warm drink with us? My wife has just finished. My last customer has gone, and we are going to sit down for a few minutes ourselves."

Kitty thought quickly, her heart beating a little faster. This was such an unusual happening. But how she would love to say yes, and Mother would not yet have returned from the milliners where she sometimes helped for extra income.

So it was that a happy relationship began to flourish, unbeknown to anyone but themselves. One afternoon a week Kitty was able to slip over the doorstep into the tea room and play ladies with Mamushka and Papa Abraham - as those were the special names by which she was encouraged to address them. As the friendship progressed, her heart began to mend. It wasn't the special Russian sugar cakes they sometimes gave her that caused her such happiness, but their transparent warmth and affection.

It was quite some time before she discovered the true reason for this. They had had one daughter themselves. There had been a tragedy when they were fleeing from their homeland in the steppes of that far away country, and so they arrived in Australia bereaved, and childless. No matter how many candles Mamushka Abraham burned to the saints over the years, they had not been given another little daughter.

Until Kitty.

Being honourable people, eventually they enquired if they could meet her mother. Kitty pondered over this. But surely it would make Mother less sad? As the child was isolated at school, so was her discarded parent from her former acquaintances.

"Before Christmas, maybe?" suggested Papa Abraham as Kitty nibbled a piece of sponge finer, light as thistledown. "May I give you a note of invitation?"

So it was that Kitty's school case carried home the envelope addressed in copperplate handwriting, with curly capitals. And Mother, though tentative, accepted.

It was a festive occasion, on a sunny Saturday afternoon after early closing. The two Sinclair ladies were ushered into a modest but tasteful room behind the curtain that separated the living quarters from the shop. Mamushka produced a fine china tea service, quite unlike the thicker cups and saucers used in the tea room. There were fresh flowers in a vase on the pretty embroidered tea cloth. A miniature samovar stood on the sideboard, and a little coloured bird hopped in his cage by the window, trilling at the bright sky outside. Kitty could see her mother was relaxing, and her heart had a bursting, happy feeling.

When the next winter term came around again, Vanessa Forsyth still reigned supreme, preening in a new overcoat with a double cape, satin lined, to complement the beaver hat. Kitty noted from a distance, but it had no effect on her. She had been accepted, by this time, into the circle of lesser girls whose fathers were "in trade." Just for being herself. To her surprise she found them more fun. It was a good feeling.

Then something most unexpected happened. She had been drinking cocoa in the sixpenny tea room after school, as usual, when Mamushka turned to her. You know, Kitty," she said. "Papa Abraham and I have been speaking together. We had a little daughter once. I told you. When we packed to leave our homeland, we included some things we thought she would like when she grew older - to remind her of her heritage. Now it is time to give you something, as the weather is becoming cold again."

Kitty sat mystified, as Mamushka disappeared out through the dividing curtain and returned with a parcel wrapped in tissue paper.

"Open it," she encouraged. Kitty did so, and there lay a beautiful fur hat - the kind she had seen in pictures of Russian people riding on sleighs in the snow. She lifted it from the tissue, and held it against her face, cheeks pink with emotion.

"I think it will fit you now, dear Kitty," said Papa Abraham. "Try it on."

She saw the glitter of tears in the corners of his old brown eyes. Mamushka was blowing her nose.

"Perfect," she exclaimed, pocketing her handkerchief in her apron. Rising to her feet, she smothered Kitty in a huge, motherly embrace.

"See, you must look in the glass." And she led her to the sideboard with its samovar and tall, mirrored back.

Kitty stood, and looked and looked and looked at this new person, her face framed by the silken fur that glowed red brown in a shaft of thin sunlight.

Yes, she was indeed a new person. She felt the last of the old hurts draining away. After a space, she spoke thoughtfully. "This is far too nice for school. I shall keep it for more special outings."

She clapped her hands together. "Most special, I will wear it to church on Sundays." She paused. It was Mamushka's turn to feel the tears pricking her eyes. Her mind went back to all those candles, lit in hope. "And also," Kitty laughed as she continued, "I shall wear it when Mother and I walk out on the pier on Saturday afternoons. I will feel so honoured. And it will be cosy and warm as well as so beautiful."

They all laughed. The tiny bird in his cage in the window added his own obbligato, just to complete their happiness.

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