At 1:30pm, I conclude that it has been a boring day.
Despite my attempts to focus I am constantly sinking into several-second dazes, during which my eyes drift lazily to the window. This monochrome office holds all the charm of a juvenile detention center, especially compared to the blues and greens which are screaming at me through that glass. From my adjustable fabric chair – the one that has never stopped reeking of death since Barbara spilled her kale and carrot smoothie over it – I can see County Park. Fat little blobs in clothes (likely children, on reflection) skip and slap their fat little toes on the daisies, while the adults sit on benches and nod knowingly over coffee; it doesn’t look like much, but at least they are free to… not do much.
My computer squeals like a captured pig before flashing its message on the monitor, wanting to make sure it has an audience for its melodrama.
This is a filing error. Please see your manager. File #345091.
I sift through the unstable mound of office supplies on my desk, graceful as a Jenga master, stoic as an ox, retrieving from its blackened depths a dusty post-it note. Using the pen which I had “retrieved” with equal skill from John’s desk only yesterday, I scribble down the file number, and stand up from my chair.
This is when I first see the human in the hat.
“Hat” is a word that I have seen in books, dating as far back as BC (the Birth of Canneloni, by my understanding – no other creation could be so exciting as to structure the planet’s calendar around it). “Hat” is a word that children are taught to fear, to loathe, to never to speak aloud when in honest company. “Hat” is an ancient word that separates the good from the evil, the young from the old, the demons of deepest hell from the gods that smite them from the heavens.
Yet, here it is. A real-life human, in a real-life hat.
It’s stood in the manager’s office, having what looks like an intense conversation. I almost feel sorry for Faye as her eyes dart in sharp saccades to her left and right, every member of staff compressed against her office walls like spectators at a zoo. Building an office of glass walls would show not only her transparency, she had argued at her campaign, but her unfaltering commitment to the position. I suspect that she might be regretting this now.
Silently, I draw out my elbows, and “negotiate” my way to the front of the crowd. Against hushed complaints and furious glares, I press my nose against the glass, intrigued by this mysterious figure. The walls must be sound-proofed – I can’t understand a single word that’s being said, though Faye has tucked her hair behind both ears and is leaning ever-so-slightly forward, as if to make sure that she processes each syllable.
It looks like the human in the hat is handing her something. Whispers are starting to build around me – I’ve never been one for rumours, but the others have no problems with using their imagination. Maybe she’s having a secret affair with a hat-wearer, I hear them mutter, we should report her to the higher-ups. Or maybe, more voices suggest, the stories about the Underground Beret are true. They’re all so caught up in their gossiping that they forget their temporary positions as spies; only I notice the human in the hat slipping out of the door. As it glances over its shoulder, we look at each other – its eyes are disturbingly beautiful, so pale blue that you’d never see them coming in a snowstorm (or in any other particularly pale kind of storm, for that matter). Then it steps into the elevator, presses a button, and disappears from my sight.
Liam is the first to notice the absence, straightening his lopsided tie as is his well-known nervous habit. Slowly, all of my colleagues realise that the subject of their investigation has disappeared, and attention turns to Faye. Her hands are clasped, both index fingers pressed against her nose, her eyes fixated on the most offensive puce-green rug you’ve ever seen. A minute or two passes before she opens her office door.
Now it’s me that everyone is staring at. I clear my throat, pull at my sleeves for no apparent reason, and smile.
“I have a job for you.”
She turns on her heel, and I follow her rather quickly into the office, trying not to notice the stares and murmurs. I shut the door behind me, and with a smile of mild amusement, Faye waves my disappointed colleagues away from her office walls. They patter back to their stations, pretending to tap away at their keyboards – but I can still feel their eyes burning into the sides of my head.
“So, Jo. Did you see the visitor that we just had? The human in the hat?”
Faye gestures to an orange armchair, which I sink into at the first opportunity; I can only describe it as a few soft blocks of sunset cloud. She sits down in her own seat behind her desk, remaining considerably more poised than me, and continues to talk after I nod my understanding.
“Well… As I’m sure you know, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen one of those.” I nod, again, more enthusiastically this time. “Our visitor’s name is Charlie, and Charlie came to warn us that they’re coming back.”
I frown, sit up straight, cross my legs. I look right into her eyes, and it seems that I did hear her correctly.
They’re coming back.
“So…” I shuffle around a bit in my chair, bite the inside of my cheek, and frown. “What do you want me to do about it?” Something exciting, but not too exciting, I hope.
“I need you to go undercover.” Faye lifts a wine glass as if enjoying a hot cup of cocoa by the fire, and takes a small sip. “Someone needs to shut them down, make sure they never see the light of day again. We are in office, so it’s our duty to do that. Do you understand?”
I nod, slowly. All at once a billion questions appear in my head, battling to get my attention – I’m not sure which one to ask first, but it seems that I have taken too long and I might not get the time. She reaches under her desk and pulls out a cardboard box, slightly damp at the corners and peppered with holes. It is fastened by a tatty, sky-blue blue ribbon, with a small insignia stamped onto its bow. Faye raises her eyebrows and nods at it, as if to suggest that now might be a good time to open the mysterious box. I do so with a great amount of care; I’m sure it won’t be some kind of pen that explodes on contact, but then again, I’m not so sure.
It’s a hat. A deerstalker hat. A thick stripe of cobalt blue runs around its hem, a striking contrast to the poppy-red colouring of the tweed. It is slightly heavier than I had imagined, with ear-flaps fastened together by a button on top of it.
I have never seen a hat in such close range, and never thought that I would. The sight of it sets my heart thumping faster than I knew it could go, and I find myself gripping the arms of the chair, almost as if stopping myself from running away; the gravity of the situation even seems to have hit Faye, who cannot help but stare at it.
In my peripheral I see movement, and slip the lid back onto the box – to the disappointed groans of my colleagues, who are no longer even pretending to work. Faye rolls her eyes but otherwise pays them no attention, pushing the box closer towards me.
“As much as I’d love a teary goodbye, no-one can know what you are doing. When you leave the office, I need you to tell the others that you are working on the Steven Stevens case, so you’ll be out of town for the afternoon. A car is waiting for you downstairs, and you’ll be provided with everything you need, so don’t worry about packing.”
She gives me a look that lets me know we are finished talking. We’ve never been close – she’s my boss, so that’s just the way it goes – but I know that she’s a big fan of my blueberry-white-chocolate cookies at the office bake sales. As I pick up my hat-box and walk towards the door, I wonder if she is softly mourning those cookies, or if the worried furrow of her brow is a sign of the dangerous things to come.
At 5:16pm, the car comes to a steady halt outside a factory. Though I try, it is impossible to count the number of windows that sparkle like jewels from its front side alone, set into a base of crumbling red brick. A few wilted strands of ivy creep up its sides, but unusually, they seem to have been defeated by the sheer majesty of the building; and, perhaps, the lack of moisture in the glass. I count out the coins for the taxi driver and step out onto the street, my new hat feeling like an enormous, blistering eye-sore on my head.
As the taxi speeds away, I revert to an old nervous habit, lightly tugging my coat buttons to ensure that they are fastened. My coat and I have been through many things, and to be blanketed in it makes me feel as if I am wearing a suit of armor – minus any actual physical protection. Two concrete steps lead me from the path to a double-door of oak, laced with gold inscriptions that are either in an unfamiliar language or no language at all. One of these doors is slightly ajar, but it seems terribly inappropriate to barge in; that’s not what an esteemed guest of the Underground Beret would do, and if that is the cover story I’m going to pull off, then I must act the part.
So I decide to knock.
It turns out to be rather anti-climactic. I stand there for a while, and the more I stand there the less intimidating it all seems, and the more I start to notice how cold my ears are, and how quiet the rest of the street is, and how much weight I’ve put on since the last office bake sale. After what feels like a decade, the sound of footsteps on marble brings my attention back, and I hold my head high as the door swings open. You can do this, Jo. Don’t fluff it up.
At the door is a human in a hat. It’s not the same human in a hat that I saw in the office, but without a doubt it is a human figure in a tall, fuchsia top-hat. Fiddling around in my pocket, I manage to retrieve the Underground Beret badge, and hold it up while elevated on the tips of my toes. The human takes it, snaps it in half, and peers at the inside.
“The Right Honourable Pompsky?” It casts a brief glance over me.
“Yes, that’s me. I’m terribly sorry I couldn’t come earlier, but Madam Pompsky has had quite the altercation with her dress. She’ll be along later on.” Each word had been laboriously rehearsed in front of my handheld mirror earlier that day – whether or not my delivery is convincing, I am soon to find out. The human seems skittish, with the shape, balance and general nerve of a broomstick. Fortunately, just as my fear-ridden stomach is running out of fight, it invites me inside with a wave of its skeletal hand. I patter in behind it, extremely aware of my stocky stature in comparison.
The floor, pillars, and ceiling are all composed of marble; golden-cream, with black marble veins creeping through. The space is littered with potted cacti and thick beige curtains, but otherwise it has been left somewhat neglected; even from the doorway I notice the small, silver dust piles collecting in the corners. The main decoration in the room seems to be humans, scattered about and lost in their quiet, thoughtful conversations. Some are wearing one hat, some might even be wearing two hats – but none are wearing no hats. Some of them chatter, some bicker, some make grand hand-gestures and others clasp their drinks nervously, but regardless, they all seem absorbed in their conversations.
My usher in the purple hat leaves me to my own devices, wandering over to a short human in a banana-laden bonnet, who seems relieved to have him back. The taxi driver had warned me that I might be left to find my own friends. This raises a whole new concern: if I am seen standing alone for too long before the conference, then people will grow suspicious. Fortunately, it is not long before Charlie enters the room from a door on the far right, donning the same black bowler hat that I had seen earlier on.
Just like in the office, we seem to find each other without trying. Charlie looks at me and I wander towards that right-hand door, lifting a flute of something fizzy from a table. I am acknowledged with a faint smile, but am unsure of what to say in response. I shuffle my feet backwards and forwards, unsure whether I’m going for a goofy dance to break the ice or just being a little bit awkward. I realise that either way, I’m being a little bit awkward.
“So… How’s it going?”
“It’s going good.” Charlie’s voice isn’t as shrill as the voices I’ve heard in video clips. Perhaps all humans sound different. “I’m actually a journalist, so…” It casts its gaze over its shoulder, lowering its volume. “I’m not a member of the Underground Beret either.” It gives me a toothy smile and I return the expression, although it seems to set it on edge a little. I look at the floor, and hold my paws together.
“Oh I’m sorry, were you smiling?” I look back up, and the human’s head is tilted slightly to one side. “It’s just that, in the videos – well, what they teach us in school, bears don’t really smile. They just sort of… grimace.”
I laugh, quietly, still painfully aware of my surroundings. “Well, it sounds like there’s quite a lot that we don’t know about each other!” Charlie smiles again, and nods.
A high-pitched trilling slices through the sound of voices, and everyone around us falls silent. On the other side of the room, I see a human tapping a spoon against a glass. In our best attempts to blend in, we turn to face the tapper.
“Ladies, gentlemen, and… esteemed guests.” At this point it gestures to myself, and to a few other animals scattered around the room. I see a mouse with a monocle, a stag with fairy-lights draped around its antlers, and an ostrich wearing a green silk waistcoat. They are peering at me, as if determined that they must know me; I’m relieved to see more animals, but pretend not to notice their interest.
“The conference is about to start. If you could please make your way through to the main room, we will begin proceedings.”
The tapper gestures to a large, golden archway in the wall, on the left-hand side of the entrance door. Everyone around us is extremely enthusiastic, filtering through it like fish over a broken dam. As I go to take a step Charlie holds out an arm, and I notice that the other esteemed guests are also hanging back. We begin to walk, slowly, once most of the humans have made their way through, meeting the other animals at the door. They nod, curtly, and I nod back, curtly.
Only the tall wooden stage signifies that we have moved into a different room; the marble floor, pillars, and ceiling are just the same. The stage is at the centre of the room, with thin wooden chairs thrown haphazardly around it at all angles – people seem content to grab a chair, position it properly, and sit down in what I can only vaguely describe as rows. Fortunately, there is a bit more order for us esteemed guests; precisely four two-seater sofas, rich purple velvet, two either side of the entrance door. I swap places with the ‘RESERVED’ sign on the sofa to my right, gesturing for Charlie to join me – but it shakes its head.
“Unfortunately, I’m not an esteemed guest – I’m off to get a seat at the front, I’ve got to be in prime position! You know the plan?”
I nod, and shuffle backwards into the sofa as Charlie storms to the centre of the room. I squeeze my toes in my shoes, suddenly aware of my legs aching, and wish I was tall enough to put my feet on the floor. The ostrich and the mouse choose the sofas on the other side of the door, so it is the stag adorned with light who sits beside me. I smile, and the stag smiles back.
“My name is Philip.”
“Oh, hello. I’m… My name is Pompsky.”
“Lovely to meet you, Pompsky. You an overground infiltrator as well?” He certainly doesn’t like to hold back. I falter for a second, but then nod. Philip laughs. “We’re doing God’s work here. Don’t you think, kid?” I nod again, and breathe a sigh of relief as the lights go down. There is a single spot of green light shining on the stage, and the human that climbs onto it is not the tapper from before. It starts to speak, and as it does so, the doors to the entrance room swing shut.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.”
I know what I must do, and I know exactly how to do it. Still, it seems far easier when the place, the people, and the task are all hypothetical.
I think that this speaker must have been speaking since the dawn of time. I attempt a subtle glance at my watch, fearful of appearing rude – yep, it’s been at least thirty-five minutes. The adrenaline of anticipation has kept me awake this whole time, but as the words keep coming and the sign does not arrive, it becomes harder to focus my attention. In fact, I can see quite a few nodding heads all around me, and I don’t think it’s a show of their enthusiasm. What will the sign even be? I start to worry that I won’t notice it; for all that I know, a human might take the billowing of a curtain as a ‘sign’.
By the time it does arrive, I am close to comatose in my seat. Fortunately, the horrific squealing of the mouse pierces through my near-sleep state, causing me to scramble madly about and launch myself upwards: the mouse has collapsed, and something tells me that I must be the first one on the scene. I rush towards it, where it lays with eyes open, a shred of paper curled up in its right fist. I place my paw over its hand, and the mouse releases its tight grip on the paper, allowing me to slip it discretely into my pocket. Its left eye twitches, which I choose to interpret as a wink – of course I’d never met it before this moment, but somehow it makes me feel extremely comforted to think that my comrade is alive and well.
A large human bustles his way through the gathering crowd to the front of the scene, all muscles and veins, with a sweetcorn-shaped head balanced on top.
“Who got here first? Who saw what happened?!” he booms, his words rebounding violently from the walls. Everyone looks at me, and I raise my paw, which has begun to tremble slightly. “Out the door, on your left. Get it what it needs from the med kit!”
I am more than happy to oblige, leaving my new associate in its fake unconscious state on the floor, and scurrying back into the entrance hall – then left – then past the medical kit hanging from the wall, and down a sprawling flight of oak stairs. The further I descend, the less the harsh LEDs of the entrance room are able to reach me, making way for tall, slim candles. They are settled into metal holders jutting out of the walls, and light the corridor with blood-red flames, casting charcoal shadows on the brickwork. I am beginning to feel as though I am centre-stage in a vampire novel; and no-one can say that I don’t play the unknowing, adorable victim well. I am a bear, after all.
The staircase ends quite abruptly, and without asking. I stumble awkwardly into the hallway in front of me. The floor continues to be oak, the walls continue to be brick, and the candles continue to make everything red – the only striking difference between the stairway and this hallway is the hat, hanging from the ceiling about ten feet ahead of me. It is a golden busby, suspended with string from a metal loop.. I walk towards it, with caution, my steps too muffled to break the ever-growing silence.
Inside the hat, there is a note.
“Left, or right?”
I look up, and I almost scream out loud.
I am not in the same hallway. Or rather, it looks like the same hallway – but instead of an infinite path forwards, the road forks off to the left and to the right. Everything is gold: the flames of the candles; the wooden boards of the floor; the ceiling’s peeling paint. As I take my first step I shudder and recoil, lifting my foot again almost immediately. It feels… furry. Almost as though I were walking on another bear. Still, it looks wooden, and I try to allow that fact to overpower the bizarre sensation of fur underneath my feet. Once I take my first step without violently shuddering, I begin to feel a little more confident, and am almost at normal pace when I reach the dreaded point of decisions.
Left, or right?
Both routes look identical. It’s impossible to say which will get me to the root of this organisation, to the most underground faction of the Underground Beret. I look in one direction, and see endless gold; I look in the other, and see infinite gold.
At this point, I remember my leftover change from the taxi. There is still a two pence piece in my coat pocket, and I hold it in the palm of my paw, staring as if I can bend it to my will – not that I know what my will is, at this point. Heads for left, tails for right. Heads for left, tails for right. Heads for… left. Tails for right.
I throw it into the air, catch it, and slap it onto the back of my other paw, a slight-of-hand technique passed down from previous times. I peer at it.
Tails for right.
Something about this makes me feel incredibly uneasy, and I immediately consider flipping the coin again; best of three, perhaps? But quite quickly, I puff a little air out of my nostrils, furrow my brow, and turn sharply to my right – the coin has made its choice, and I must continue with my duty.
As I take my first step, the floor falls away underneath me. This time I do scream, grabbing at the coin as if it might give me some stability, plummeting downward and feet-first.
I land on more fur, but this time it’s touching my arms, my legs, my face, I can feel it on every inch of me and I start screaming again – I try to run but I’m not on solid ground anymore, I’m swimming, in what looks like an infinite ocean of turquoise water. Still, as I resurface I can feel fur; another illusion, like the golden floorboards? Or is there something crawling through the water that I can’t see?
I turn around, and when I do, I see a hat. I am sick to death of hats at this point, and think that I might live the rest of my life in peace if I never even hear the word hat again. But the pinched campaign hat that stands before me is different to the others. It dwarfs me, standing at at least three times my height, with a great rim that hangs over its wooden platform and gently brushes the ocean’s surface. I swim towards it, trying desperately not to think about invisible monsters, and climb up onto its platform.
“Is this really what you want, little bear?”
The sound of myself screaming is starting to become pretty commonplace – automatically I hurl myself back into the water, then scramble desperately back out again as I relive its crawling sensation.
“Hats can’t speak,” I respond, trying to act as though this isn’t the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. “And… you’re a hat.”
Not the most intelligent response I could have come up with – and of course, it doesn’t go unnoticed. The hat emits a sound like thunder and laughter and clapping all stapled together, though where its mouth is I’m not quite sure. It quickly regains its cool, tan composure.
“Certainly, you are an astute bear – though I’m not sure that you’re the cleverest creature I’ve ever met. Still, it’s not long until I will be broken out of this place – and once I am, your hat and I will have a little chat. I’m sure we can convince you to do some good work.”
I pull the blue bowler from my head, and surprise myself by studying it wistfully. It is beautiful… and it does help to exaggerate the space between my ears. But I cannot help but think about how humans fell into this trap all those years ago, a trap from which they were never able to recover. I throw my hat into the ocean, and watch as it sinks.
“I won’t be controlled, Smokey. I won’t be told how to live my life.” I hold my head high as I make my bold assertion, but cannot help but notice how swiftly the blue sky darkens to black.
It’s now or never.
I pull the pocket-watch from – well, my pocket – and switch it to self-destruct. With my other paw I retrieve a fun-size stapler, and fasten the hat to the ticking accessory before it can persuade me otherwise.
Something tumbles from a candyfloss cloud above my head, and pools on the ground in front of me. It’s the rope ladder; I can only hope that Charlie is on the other end of it.
“No, I have waited too long for this. NO.”
I leap onto the swinging ladder and tug twice – it begins to reel its way smoothly back into the clouds. There is now real, rolling thunder, lightning tearing past me through the burning orange sky, so close that I can feel my ears burning. I close my eyes against the screaming wind, the choppy black ocean beneath me, and the final words of the most dangerous organisation known to modern society:
“This isn’t the end.”
I hear the watch bravely ticking its final salute, just as I am pulled through the clouds and out onto the wooden stage, where Charlie’s smiling face hovers above me.
At 1:30pm, I conclude that it has been a terrific day.
I can hardly move for all the wine and cake: dark molasses and ginger, carrot and cardamom, lemon and cranberry, among other sensational flavours that I have completely lost track of. Though of course, I remain the champion of all office bake days, having reclaimed my title for the fifth year in a row. Despite my earlier attempts to get on with some work, I couldn’t help but allow myself to get distracted – and so here I am, surrounded by colleagues and trying to sate their curiosity on my “top secret mission”. Because of course, nobody believed that I was simply working on a case. Yes, I tell them, my family are very proud, and yes, I tell them, the Underground Beret has been ripped out of existence by its very roots. Yes, the conference members will be away for a long time.
Excitement has blossomed in our little office; I could almost imagine school-children peering in with envy, their faces pressed against the glass, their mouths watering at the sight of so much food and fun. As I look around, I wonder if I ever could have imagined such a scene: laughter and joyfulness at every turn, a mouse in a monocle, and a human without a hat.