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An Ass's Headgear

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Police Constable Roderick Alleyn adjusted his helmet, a trifle self-consciously. A trickle of sweat ran down his neck as he tugged the chin strap back into place. Many of his more experienced colleagues eschewed the strap altogether, but Alleyn hadn’t dared present an appearance that was anything less than regulation. He was well aware that he was perceived as an oddity at best and an interloper at worst, this aristocratic Oxonian who had taken it into his head to become a policeman, who would inevitably receive his transfer to the C.I.D. and his promotions up through the ranks at the appropriate times while most of his colleagues had already risen to the highest rank they would achieve in the force.

He didn’t think himself at all above his present job. His father did, of course, and his elder brother, George, and even his mama, who had taken his abrupt resignation from the Diplomatic Service in stride and was as supportive of his choice of career as any son might wish, thought it rather unfortunate that he should have to work his way all the way up from a lowly constable. “Well, if they make no exceptions I suppose there isn’t any way around it, my dear,” Lady Alleyn had said quite cheerfully, but in a way that made it clear that she would have preferred that there was a way around it.

Alleyn found it quite a difficult job, in fact, and not just because it extracted a physical toll. He was glad of the helmet; he could not say how much protection cork sandwiched by felt would afford in a extremity, for he had yet to test its protection, but its distinctive shape and device went a long way towards disguising the individuality of the wearer, rendering him an iconic, interchangeable figure: the bobby on the beat. Few members of the public looked closely at the face beneath the helmet, with its cool grey eyes and its rather fastidious mouth, and remarked that he didn’t look like their idea of a policeman, which was more than he could say when he was dressed in his plainclothes.

He had only to curb his tongue to complete the illusion, eschewing the ever-ready stream of irony, whimsy and quotation that was wholly inappropriate to his present station. To this end he wielded the ever-present notebook tucked into his tunic; the physical act of penciling his painstaking policeman’s notes helped him avoid breaking his role as an arm of the state.

Quite a lowly arm, tasked with inglorious matters such as keeping the peace as a crowd of fashionable young revelers crowded the streets on Boat Race Night, but he remained unshaken in his conviction that he had rather apply his talents to openly convicting some drunken young idiot before a magistrate than continue in the Diplomatic Service, where nothing was to be spoken of and everything was his to bear alone. His police career would be quite public, and though he did not relish the special attention that he drew, he preferred it to the alternative.

“Hi! You!” a young man accosted him. Alleyn judged that he was nicely sozzled and accustomed to it; he crossed the street to intersect Alleyn’s path with scarcely a misstep.

“Sir?” said Alleyn, who had been called far worse things beginning on his first day on duty and by now thought “Hi! You!” a rather respectful address.

“I’d like to report a crime,” said the young man, who was wearing lavender spats which had presumably been immaculate when he had been helped in to them but which were now looking rather the worse for wear.

“And what might that be, sir?” Alleyn inquired. He had already produced his little notebook and a stub of a pencil, sharpened and ready.

“A very serious crime,” the young man continued. His attempt at a matching solemnity was owlish, and quickly dissolved into hilarity. “Ha!” he chortled, fairly dancing with glee.

Alleyn’s pencil was poised, but without anything to write down, his exasperation came to the fore. “Can you give me any details of this alleged crime?” he asked.

“Yes,” the young man said at once, “it happened precisely here, on this exact spot.”

Alleyn looked around him, ready to make a note of the address as a starting point for his report, when the young man added, “Now!”

He became aware of the presence of a second person when he felt a pair of hands clapped on either side of his helmet. This person did not make the mistake of an amateur, jerking on the helmet only to be thwarted by the chin strap, which, when employed as intended, maintains the helmet in its proper position atop the policeman’s head. He freed the chin strap with a jerk, and only then whisked the helmet off of Alleyn’s head.

Roaring his displeasure, Alleyn turned to seize the miscreant and retrieve his stolen helmet. He stumbled over something which proved to be an empty crate, which the young man’s accomplice had stood upon in order to reach Alleyn’s helmet, which added inches to his already impressive height. Alleyn stumbled to his knees, crushing the crate, which in turn inhibited him from intercepting the thief or his confederate, who were already disappearing into the crowd by the time Alleyn leapt back to his feet, their raucous laughter blending with a crowd of similarly-inclined young men.

Inquiries, no matter how sternly Alleyn put them, garnered no leads for a constable minus his helmet. One young man expressed his regret that Alleyn’s helmet was already missing, as he would have liked to have stolen it himself, and Alleyn heartily wished that he could arrest him under the meaning of some act, but none came to mind.

Ultimately, he was forced to return to the station sans helmet, and sans any helmet thieves, as well. The frustration of his futile pursuit, once the perpetrators had wriggled free of his grasp, had been exquisitely sharpened by his expectation of the humiliation that would be heaped upon his ignominious defeat. He’d actually allowed these callow young men with their low cunning to steal his helmet.

“O, that he were here to write me down an ass!” Alleyn muttered to himself, reserving his quotations for an audience that he knew would be appreciative of them.

Yet, when he explained matters—in the approved police manner, the bald facts unrelieved by literary flourishes, and with precious little cover for his own abject failure—to his sergeant, one Filbert by name, the man warmed to him as he had never done before.

“Two of them, of course!” he chortled. “And the second one managed to get it up over your head, rather than nearly yanking your head off on account of the chin strap. That was what happened to me,” he added. “Collared the young idiot at once, of course. He hadn’t the sense to get away and was fined five pounds for his trouble. If he’d planned ahead and removed the helmet properly, he might have had a chance, although not much of one, seeing as how he was, as I say, an idiot.”

He favored Alleyn with a grin, which Alleyn was uncertain if he ought to return. He settled for a weak smile, and received a thunderous clap on the shoulder.

“Wait until the other fellows hear about this one,” Sergeant Filbert told him, with a sort of glee, and yet Alleyn did not feel that it was wholly at his expense.

Indeed, it seemed that this preposterous episode had at last obtained for him access to a police brotherhood that had until now been withheld from him, for now that he had been made to look ridiculous everyone was that much happier to have him in their midst. In spite of his exquisite embarrassment—his cheeks, he was certain from the heat, were still scarlet—Alleyn rather wished that he had made a complete idiot out of himself sooner.