Disclaimer: Not mine. Not yours. DC's.
Millinery shops are quite out of fashion in Gotham City these days, as they are in a great many other places. The single surviving purveyor of fine hats is called Miss Davenport's Imports and it's a business in serious trouble, though you will not notice that when you enter the shop through its ornate glass and cherry wood doors. The walls are lined with butter cream and olive striped wallpaper, the ceiling sunshine yellow and the floor faux, scuff free, white marble tile.
The hats on display are new, yet still relics from another time. Pastel hat boxes hang from the walls in shades of faded rose and powder blue. Miss Davenport insists that the air be perfumed--and to open the door to her shop is to release a cloud of gardenia and lily into the smelly, dirty air of the city. Mirrors and vanity tables clutter what little space isn't taken up by hat displays, but it is a comfortable kind of clutter--not the claustrophobic sort. Instead, it is much like your grandmother's attic or grandfather's study. Comfortable.
It is this comfortable atmosphere that keeps Miss Davenport's few customers coming back to her when they could just as easily go to a bigger, better, more upscale shop in the fashion district. It is this comfortable atmosphere that keeps Miss Davenport herself here--despite the constant guilt trips of her elder sister, begging her to return home and get away from this ugly, dirty, corrupt city.
It's true, the dangers of Gotham lurk right outside its doors--while once, this neighborhood was the height of fashion, in recent years it has started to fall into disrepair. The shop is like a breath of spring; sunlight and fresh air where both are not so much a rarity as an impossibility. Gotham is not a place where sunlight makes a point to linger. Sunshine is simply…out of place. Gotham is still gloomy, even on the best of days, yet here, on eighty first street, is a place of bottled springtime.
Miss Davenport herself, a forty something with salt and pepper hair and an impeccable sense of fashion, continually talks about moving the shop to a more appropriate location--safer, cleaner, more profitable--but she knows she never will. Though the vagabonds that occasionally sleep at the bus stop become more numerous with each passing year, the neighboring shops go out of business with rather disturbingly predictable regularity, and her customers themselves become both older and fewer, Miss Davenport, on some level, understands the value of having the place here. Without her pastel shop, the entire street would be gray, and that prospect makes her heart ache. Gotham is dark enough as it is; eighty first needs her shop.
And so, here it is. The last surviving millinery shop--one of maybe fifty in as many states--a last bastion of old fashioned aesthetic in a dark, broody, modern world. And here, Miss Davenport sells things that no one buys anymore. Half a century ago, when the first lady's pillbox hats were all the rage, this was a good business to be in. Now, in the age of micro-miniskirts and the hyper-casual, not so much.
But, this is what she wants to do and Miss Eliza Davenport was never one to not get her way. She doesn't even really mind the fact that the gap between the money coming into the shop and the money going right back out again is starting to close to the point where her profits and expenses are numbers that are easily interchangeable. She doesn't mind the vagabonds (most of them, at least) and she doesn't mind the decrease in business. This is what she wants to do, and by God, she is going to do it.
With this mentality, she remains in business another six months, until everything changes. Everything changes and she closes the doors for good, a short six weeks after the very first time a homeless man on the corner informs her quite cheerfully that hatters--in spite of their best efforts--have a tendency to go mad.
Six months she keeps her head barely above the muddy waters of bankruptcy, before this new down-and-outer stops her on her morning stroll down the street towards her shop. His face is dirty and he's quite, quite old, but his smile is bright and it reaches his eyes.
His teeth--cartoonishly large things--overhang his bottom lip by an absurd amount, even more so when he grins. If Miss Davenport were just a few years older, she would recognize that this old face belongs to one of the city's more fearsome criminals, even though it's been several decades since Jervis Tetch's face graced the news.
"Hatters go mad. Mercury poisoning, you know," he says conversationally upon their first meeting, his tone cheerful as though he'd said something as innocuous as 'lovely morning, isn't it?'.
Miss Davenport doesn't bother to hasten her strides, as some others might in her position, but instead pauses to study the strange little old man in rags, curled up and leaning against the only empty building on the street. She had a mad uncle, she knows the look of detached senility when she sees it. This man is not a threat to her any more than a fork is a threat to a bowl of soup.
"They haven't used mercury to cure felt in a good many years," she replies and he blinks, as though he hadn't been expecting a response other than her disappearing a little bit faster.
"You own the hat shop," he states somewhat unnecessarily.
"I do at that," she answers dutifully.
"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" he asks, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
Miss Davenport smiles ever so slightly. "Poe wrote on both. Now if you'll excuse me…"
She starts again for her shop, heels clicking daintily on the pavement, and doesn't look back to see him staring after her with interest and unconcealed curiosity.
She doesn't need to.
The Mad Hatter has gone a little funny in the head. Funnier than he was to begin with. The sort of funny one goes when the ravages of madness are not so much an issue as the ravages of age.
He is living in the streets now, a man of seventy eight, for whom insanity is not so pressing a problem as senility is. Crime is no longer his concern, and he can no longer remember a time when it was. In truth, he can't remember much of anything these days. His name--his alias, his criminal conquests--all long forgotten, lost to a haze of memory, wiped clean by a cancer eating away at his mind in a way that no psychiatric drug could ever possibly hope to cure. All his brilliance, all his technology and hard won knowledge, is gone and cannot be recovered.
Some days he remembers things; snippets of a life he can't recall living--but for the most part, he drifts on seas of confusion, vaguely sensing that he's forgotten something important and just can't think of what it might be. The same sort of sensation one has upon leaving for the airport, trying to recollect whether one left the iron on or not.
He carries with him a nylon wallet--worn from years of use and given to him upon his last release from Arkham Asylum, three decades prior when there still was an Arkham Asylum--and in it, he carries a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photograph of himself in handcuffs, almost four decades earlier. On the days when he has the presence of mind to wonder who he is, he looks at it, but the words become a jumble that he can't make sense of and the letters tangle like an overfull bowl of alphabet soup.
He's forgotten how to read.
Other days, the photo in his wallet is to him as a family portrait in a thrift store is to a random patron. The frame is lovely, but who's the stranger staring back at you? You don't know…you have no idea what their life may have been like. The old man in front of the stately manor could have had skeletons piled in his closet hip deep--figurative or literal.
Though his own identity is a mystery to him, his mind still retains bits and pieces of his former life--after a fashion. He may not remember being the Mad Hatter, but if the wind is blowing right, he can grasp a verse or two of Carroll. Though he doesn't remember his own collection of high class chapeaux, he is drawn to eighty first street and its hat shop.
The hat shop escaped his notice for the longest time…probably because every time he ventured towards this side of town and noticed it, he forgot its existence almost immediately. But, by chance, he fell asleep in an alleyway half a block away and when he woke and found the place again, decided to loiter.
It is on this day that he meets Miss Davenport and finds himself pleased with her answer to his riddle…a riddle that had been written without an answer…and so, he comes to the conclusion that he should make eighty fifth his new home. She interests him; not in the way that Alice once did, but in the way a new toy interests a child.
His choice to stay does not disappoint.
The next morning, Miss Davenport strolls down the sidewalk in front of him and offers a smile in answer to his reciting the first bit of 'Jabberwocky'; and the day after that, offers a cellophane wrapped tuna salad sandwich in answer to his asking what her hat size is.
It's a week later when she asks him if he has any family she could call for him, a question to which he unsurprisingly replies in the negative, though he thanks her very kindly for her concern--and oh, she needn't bring him any more tuna sandwiches, he can manage quite well on his own.
He isn't the least bit surprised when she starts bringing him chicken salad instead.
For another week and a half, his memory holds enough that he can recognize her when he sees her, but the streak is broken, three weeks in. She walks in front of him and he asks once more, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
Miss Davenport doesn't mention that he's already asked her that, as someone else might've done; instead, she answers again and things continue as they had before.
Jervis Tetch--when he can remember how life has been going lately with the kind Miss Davenport in it--likes it this way.
And so it goes.
The fourth week of her association with the strange little old man who's deemed the front of her shop to be his new favorite place in all of Gotham, she closes up shop on a Friday night and, on her way down the street, is struck by the most unusual--and to be perfectly honest, not exactly the smartest--idea.
She invites him home.
It takes a bit of convincing--since he's a little bit foggy on this particular evening--but she manages it, and, as she only lives a few blocks away, they arrive well before sundown. His gait is wobbly--as the gait of a man of his age ought to be--and she must slow her pace so he can catch his breath, but it takes less than twenty minutes for them to enter the eighty first street walkup. She lives on the first floor, for which the old man is obviously grateful--the look on his face when confronted with the iron spiral staircase that shoots up three floors is comparable to that of a man faced with a disgruntled bull--and she unlocks the door, pulling off her scarf in the process and hanging it on the blind valet that stands to the left of the doorway.
He crosses the threshold behind her, slightly wary, and studying his surroundings intently before stepping inside fully. Miss Davenport's apartment is spotless, but with the same friendly air that her shop has and she immediately offers him a seat. He eyes it with some suspicion, but weariness outweighs paranoia and he plops down at her modest kitchen table.
The first few minutes are awkward, neither knowing quite what to say, but the conversation flows easier once Miss Davenport greases its way with the question, "Tea?"
The first cup is jasmine.
(The conversation is halting. Stilted. Clumsy. But fraught with obvious effort on both their parts.)
The second is Darjeeling.
(The weather is discussed at length.)
The third is Earl Grey.
(Literature. Culture. Poetry. She recites Antony's speech from Julius Caesar; he responds with The Walrus and the Carpenter.)
The fourth is chamomile.
(And at last they are speaking like old friends.)
She offers the spare room.
He refuses. Politely.
He returns to his street corner.
The sun goes down.
For a week, Jervis Tetch follows Miss Davenport home and they have tea coupled with a lively debate that touches on any and all topics that catch their fancy.
Sometimes she gives him sandwiches.
(He always accepts.)
Other times she offers him the spare bed.
(He always declines.)
On the eighth day of this friendly little routine, she locks up the hat shop at five o'clock sharp and approaches his corner, smiling at him. "Are you ready?"
He looks up at her dully, eyes glassy, without comprehension. "And who are you?"
She doesn't stop smiling…
But it doesn't reach her eyes.
In the fifth week, the glassy eyed, despondent old man once again becomes the bright eyed, smiling old man. He smiles at Miss Davenport on her walk to open the shop on Monday morning as though he's sitting on the greatest secret in the history of the world. He shifts his eyes from side to side and leans forward when she pauses in front of him to give him a small container of potato salad.
"I know you," he says, taking the Tupperware without hesitation.
Her eyes crinkle and her counterfeit smile becomes much more genuine.
"Better yet, my dear," he wiggles his fingers--all ten of them--in as lively a fashion as his arthritis will allow, before bringing up a single digit and pressing it to his lips in a motion that says 'hush', "I know who I am. But I shant tell you."
Her brow furrows and she's taken by a very potent sadness. If he would tell her who he is, she could find his family…he must have someone, somewhere.
"Won't you at least give me a hint?"
He winks at her, grin growing even more. "Hatters go mad…"
Their teatimes resume.
The next Monday, Miss Davenport notices that his corner is empty. At first, she is saddened, but not to any great extent. The chances of a vagrant staying in one place for any length of time is rather slim. She's mildly surprised he stayed as long as he did.
Her thoughts are cut off as she approaches the alleyway between her shop and the now vacant salon next door.
The toe of a worn leather shoe is in her field of vision and its position suggests that it's attached to something.
Her steps quicken and then, she freezes at the mouth of the alley.
He lies dead at her feet, a senile homeless man, stabbed for money that he didn't have.
She is compelled to check for a pulse, though she knows she won't find one and as hard as it is on her joints, she drops to her knees near his head.
His skin is waxy and cold where she presses her fingers to his throat. On contact, she knows he's already gone, but she doesn't shrink away instantly. A pulse is not forthcoming, but she reaches for his hand and gives it a squeeze, even though he can't feel it.
The flesh under her palms is already stiffening--it no longer yields to her touch as it had when her fingers would brush his as she passed him a cup of tea--but she holds on anyway. It takes a bit of effort, but she pulls him up a bit, almost into her lap.
She cradles his head against her chest.
No one else will mourn him…even if he did have family, they'll never know.
She doesn't realize she's started crying.
Miss Davenport locks up her hat shop for the last time a week after she finds his body. She hasn't closed for good, exactly, but she has finally decided to do that which she's talked about for so long. She's going to move Miss Davenport's Imports to a classier part of town.
Her sunny little shop will be lost amongst the other colorful competition--she estimates the place will last three months before she's completely broke and has to close--but she's not ready to let go of the hat shop yet.
But she can't continue to walk past his corner every morning, knowing that she'll never see him sitting there ever again…hence the move.
She jiggles the key in the lock until the mechanism turns with a final click and as she slips the key ring into her purse, turning towards home, she notices a long, white town car pulling up to the curb. It's neat as a new pin, marred by not so much a single water spot, and when it comes to a stop, the driver's side door opens and the chauffer gets out. He's younger than Miss Davenport, but not by much, and he has a slightly athletic spring in his step as he rounds the car and opens the back door.
She is tempted to just go along her way, but the sound of a silver walking stick slamming down on the sidewalk gives her pause.
One of Gotham's most well known citizens climbs out of the back of the town car, a single rose wrapped in green tissue paper in the hand that isn't occupied by the walking stick.
Bruce Wayne, reclusive billionaire and secretly the former stalwart protector of Gotham in the guise of the Batman, starts for the mouth of the alley where Jervis Tetch was found.
He has a rather pronounced limp, but he hides it well, and he walks to the alley. He stops in front of it and his gaze lowers, his chin pressing against his chest in a motion that would ordinarily be accompanied by the removal of one's hat.
He leans over as far as he can (with some difficulty) and drops the flower to the pavement.
He nods at the rose once in recognition and starts again for the car.
Miss Davenport looks on.
For the first time in seven days, she smiles.