Almost a year ago a friend was in hospital, undergoing treatment for cancer. It was a harrowing few months as hope gave way to despair and finally resignation. Gary had a great sense of humour, the more ridiculous and irreverent the better. I took it upon myself to make him laugh as often as possible. It wasn’t easy. He was depressed and he was literally withering before our eyes. The healthy, fit man was replaced by an emaciated facsimile. With yellowed skin and hollow eyes, he resembled the proverbial death warmed over, yet his gorgeous children told him that he looked great. I’d walk in to his room and say, ‘You look shocking. What have you done with Gary?’ He laughed. Then we’d hold hands and cry.
One day I was in Savers, a second-hand goods store, to drop off unwanted books. In the dump bin was an anomaly. Amid the discarded clothes, shoes, kitchen appliances and so on was an extraordinary concoction. I lifted it out and gasped. A magnificent hat — if you could call it that. It looked as if John Carpenter’s The Thing had absorbed the camouflaged brim of a military cap and decided to stay there because it was safe for the time being.
Being a hat fetishist, I put it on and checked myself out in the mirror. It looked as if a cat merged with a crab sat on my head. Four peculiar ears stuck out the back. It wasn’t a hat at all. It was an extraordinary sculpture for the head. Five dollars and it was mine. Gary, I thought, will definitely laugh when he sees me wearing this.
I couldn’t go to the hospital that day, so I took a selfie and posted it on Gary’s Facebook page, knowing he’d spot it before long. It was his way of keeping in touch with a receding world. He didn’t see it; he went into a coma that day and died shortly after (probably because he saw me with my head stuck up a cat). That picture is still up there, forever afloat in a digital world, while an extraordinary human being is no more.
A couple of days after Gary died, I happened to look inside the cap and noticed the Bernhard Wilhelm tag. I could’t believe my eyes. I’d inadvertently purchased a Bernhard Wilhelm for five dollars in a trash and treasure joint. It was worth at least two hundred in the boutiques. Someone had obviously bought it, realised he couldn’t possibly wear it outside and got rid of it pronto. All to my benefit.
Gary was the older brother I never had. One could rely on him for a sage word. The Bernard Wilhelm hat now represents him. I wear it when I sit at the computer to write. It’s my mojo. The secret weapon. The comfort blanket. It stops my thoughts from floating away and channels them down to my fingertips, from where they are transferred to the computer keyboard. Wearing the hat makes me feel powerful, creative and slightly ridiculous. It keeps Gary close. I talk to the hat and sometimes the hat answers back. When I’m not wearing the hat, it sits atop an alabaster bust of Eros, a reminder of a friend who is gone but hardly forgotten.