If I hadn’t been transferred across town to the Fitzrovia shop in Foley Street, I’d never have met the Duchess. They shunted me over from the stall at Victoria Station without my say-so. But a girl needs a job, doesn’t she? It’s the blessing and the curse of being a barista at Cafe Augustus. They’ve got maybe three hundred branches in London, and they decided they needed me in Fitzrovia, afternoons and evenings.
“Got family?” asked a black-haired Italian girl named Clara, charged with getting me up to speed in the new location. When I shook my head grumpily, she hurried to explain, “Me, I’ve got little ones at home want looking after, so you may need to cover for me.”
Oh, I could hardly wait.
“You’d make a good mum,” she offered, as if that made up for it. I’m ashamed to say, it kind of did. I’d always wanted a family.
The tour continued. “That one’s a daily,” Clara warned. “You’ll earn your employee discount dealing with her.” She pointed at a hefty pensioner nestled up to a table like she lived there, surrounded by shopping bags from shops long since shuttered. She wore what my Gran would call a housedress, a simple cotton shift with pink flowers dotting the periwinkle. Shabby without the chic.
“Doesn’t seem so bad to me,” I ventured.
That earned a snort from Clara. “In here every day, all day. Must be at that table, or she carries on like we’d cut off her leg. I once saw her strong-arm a couple of young guys out of sitting there.”
That seemed unlikely. “How could she ‘strong-arm’ anybody?”
“Psychologically, I mean. Like she stands over ’em while they eat their croissants. ‘Take your time,’ she says, ‘only, I always sit at this table. Near the loo for an old lady, you know?’ And then she hovers about till they vacate to another spot.”
“Does she buy food and drink all day long?”
Clara shrugged. “Always the same. An espresso every few hours, two lemon poppy muffins in the morning, one chicken pesto ciabatta in the afternoon. We call her the Duchess, ’cause she practically holds court here.”
“Since it’s the court of Augustus, we should call her Senator, yeah?” My classical witticism fell flat, as they tend to do. Which is why I’m still single.
“Anyway,” said Clara, “we take turns with the counter and table-bussing.” She’d moved on, and I didn’t expect the Duchess of Fitzrovia to trouble me much more. Oh, God, was I ever wrong!
The weirdness started my second week at that location. My turn to bus, and one of the daily espresso cups sat empty on the Duchess’ table. “Take that outta your way, ma’am?” I asked, a courteous warning before I disturbed her typical trance state.
I glanced at her to smile and nod, just to prove I held no bias against the homeless or the elderly. And that’s when I saw her roll an eye toward me. Just the one eye. The other was busy looking at something else. I froze, staring at her face, a face that didn’t quite …fit. As in, fit within the normal definition of “face.” It had all the required elements, such as chin and cheeks and nose and so on. But something was, well, wrong. The texture of the skin, maybe? The shape of the skull?
“I been watchin’ ye,” she chortled. “Your hair’s like tiny coiled wires. Your hands like they’s made o’ chocolate.”
Was the naughty old thing coming on to me, I wondered? Not wanting to find out, I grabbed her coffee cup and bolted for the other side of the room.
“She fancies you,” Clara ever so kindly pointed out.
“Get stuffed,” I just as kindly suggested. It was all just a bit too disturbing to talk about.
After my break, I got hold of myself. Some harmless old bird, trying to relive the glory days that probably never even happened to her. What was the harm? But still, something about the Duchess set my teeth on edge.
That evening, just as I was going to shoo her out, I saw her messing with her left ear. Not scratching it or digging out the wax. She seemed to be untying her ear, like she was about to let the air out of a balloon. Her flesh pulled loose at first, then filled in, making her head the shape of a rugby ball. The opening where the ear used to be she kept pinched closed with finger and thumb. Her eyes were shut and her breathing deep; I got the sense that this ear business was giving her some kind of relief.
But then she opened one eye and caught me staring. Quick as you please, her head was its normal (if hideous) shape and her ear twirled back up in its proper place. It had all gone by so fast, and she looked so unperturbed, no one could blame me for doubting what I’d seen.
“Time to be moving on, Missus,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t shaking. “Closing for the night, okay?”
The Duchess waggled her deep-burgundy eyebrows. “Gonna see me babies soon,” she said. Her teeth were all capped in silver. Even the front ones, like an old pirate. But her smile was genuine, and I admit I was moved.
I wanted to know more. “They’re all grown, then?” I asked. “Do they come and visit often?”
She scrunched her brow. “Do who visit?”
“Your children, ma’am.”
One eye popped open wide and the opposite cheek twitched. “But I just said they was babies,” she snapped. “How could they be all grown? Are you impaired, girl?”
I decided she was crazy after all. Babies, at her age! I whisked her out the door and finished my tidying up.
Next afternoon she was there as ever, same table, the second espresso and the second muffin laid out before her. I stole up behind to examine her left ear. As I closed in she turned, ferocious as a wildcat. “They’re comin’ today! My babies!” she yelped shrilly while pointing downward. For one horrifying moment I thought she was indicating her own reproductive system. But then she leaned toward me and whispered, “Me nest is safe below ground.”
“Below, eh?” I chatted gamely. “Like, in the basement?”
“Course not, girl. Not very snug for one’s nest in a basement, eh?” She spoke like what she said was not just sane, but obvious to anyone. “I laid me nest six months ago, just under the floorboards.” She pointed under her chair with a finger two or three centimeters too long for her hand. “Just here, where the wizard’ll never find it.”
“Ah, good for you,” I replied. “Got to get back to work now.” I hurried off, trying not to picture squirming fetuses trapped under my feet.
It was Saturday, our busiest afternoon of the week. Soon I’d forgotten about untied ears and hoarded infants. There was a whirlwind of work. Lunch crowd turned to teatime crowd turned to pre-theater snack crowd. Then, finally, it was closing time. I could hardly stand and my brain was porridge.
“Got to pick up the kids.” Clara overdid her Italian accent, as if that would make me forgive her for ducking out before final clean-up.
It worked, of course, woeful wimp that I am. “You look after your tots and get some rest. See you for more of the same tomorrow, right?”
“You’re a love,” called Clara, waving her sweet little fingers. And out she went.
I waved goodnight to the two kitchen workers. That left just me and you-know-who, the Madwoman North of Thames, Countess of Muffins. She did not look ready to leave.
“Missus, I’m closing up.” I tried to sound kind but firm. With all the tables to wipe down, I didn’t take the effort to look at her as I spoke. In hindsight, I should have done. “Gotta clear out in five minutes,” I informed her on my way to the sink behind the counter.
Still I didn’t look at her. The clanking and rattling noises behind me as I wrung out my cloth sounded like traffic noises from the street. When I finally turned round, I was miffed to see her shapeless bulk still at the table. “Seriously, you need to…”
I never got that last word out. My tongue was deadened by shock. The Duchess had, shall we say, changed. Morphed. Seems I hadn’t imagined the rubbery ears after all. Only it was all of her this time. Every orifice, every crevice had come unfurled, had swelled and loosened. There was nothing human about her.
With a huge breath of panic I bolted past her to the front door. It was glued shut somehow. No matter how I rattled the handle or smashed my shoulder into the glass, it wouldn’t budge.
“I think you’re so pretty,” said a distorted, slurred version of the Duchess’ voice.
I had no doubt that, if I looked, I’d see her lips all distended. I stayed facing the door.
People! I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t really alone. There were always people on the streets of Fitzrovia. I waved through the glass with both hands. I shouted. I slapped and kicked and knocked.
Life in the big city, man: nobody notices when someone acts completely mental. All the tired Londoners, hurrying home or out to a party, had more important concerns than a flailing barista.
The Duchess, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to find a thing more fascinating than Terrified Tess. She waddled toward me. Or should I say slopped? Oozed? Sludged? She no longer had what one might call “legs,” only more like vast sacs of flesh bobbling out from under the hem of her housedress. Her side seams popped open and out she drooped.
“So pretty,” she sprayed. “My babies will love your pretty face.”
Time for reasoned argument, I decided. Using the tone that works with my Chihuahua, Paco Taco, when he attacks the sofa cushions, I cooed at the blob before me. “Now, now. Don’t you want to go home, Missus? You’ll want to hurry home to your babies, right?”
That shrink on the telly had never dealt with the Duchess. The skin around her eye sockets stretched even wider. “I told you,” she screeched, “me babies is under there!” On the last word, she splayed both her hands so they were wide as an undertaker’s spade. With a single motion she bent over and scooped up the wooden floorboards like they were sand. I had to shield my face with my forearms to keep from getting hit by splinters. I should’ve kept my arms there forever, but I made the poor choice to lower them and look where the floor used to be.
A nest of newly-hatched giant maggots writhing in a pool of vomit. That’s what was in the floor: dozens of mini Duchesses, flabby and shiny, ready to be raised to full size and distributed among all the branches of Cafe Augustus in the Greater London Metro area.
“I should probably be going,” I suggested, trying to sound nonchalant in a voice an octave higher than normal.
“Know them! Know them!” she wailed over and over. She must’ve had muscles like Ultra Man, the way she forced me to lean over the cluster of squirming slimeballs. I resisted with all my might, but couldn’t move an inch against her will without snapping my spine. So I bent.
My panicked hoovering of air coated my nasal membranes with a stench somewhere between rancid fry grease and toe jam. “Gonna upchuck,” I squeaked. Not sure who I was warning, since the kiddies would probably like it. Miraculously, my dinner stayed down. The Duchess pushed my face lower as the balls of skin reached up toward me. “What do you want?” I asked tearfully. “Are they gonna eat me?!”
The change was total and instantaneous. Somehow I found myself sitting up in a chair, halfway across the room from the maternity ward. Though I’d never have thought it possible, staring into the sagging belly of the Duchess was like enjoying a seaside vista compared to where I’d just been.
“Eat you? Why would they eat you?” The Duchess wobbled back and forth as she spoke. Her rubbery face pulsed in and out, up and down, and I realized with horror that she was crying.
“I didn’t mean it, Missus. Sorry if I offended you,” I said to the freakish wacko holding me hostage. “Why don’t you tell me what you want.” I confess, I actually cared. World’s fastest onset of Stockholm Syndrome, maybe.
Anyway, my kindness yielded good results. The Duchess pulled the big rubber mat from the store’s front entrance and draped it over the steamy hole in the floor. Then she dragged a chair near mine. She turned it backwards, like she planned to straddle it in a fit of Bob Fosse choreography. But, no. She heaved her legless self up onto the seat and rested her wide chin mournfully on the back of the chair.
“I’m goin’ away.” Her voice had a slight gurgle.
I tried to downplay my excitement over this good news. “Going home, then?” I asked, meaning Mars or wherever.
Her frown made her look like Mr. Toad. “I die today.”
Oh. “Now, now,” I assured her. “It’ll pass.”
That’s when her skin started peeling off, like a time-lapse video of a really nasty sunburn. “I been waitin’ for someone like you, ever since I slipped over from the other side.” Weird how she still had her East End twang with one lip missing. “I want me babies to be raised in your world. That way the wizard cannot take them from me, like he does all the Gooptroll youngsters.”
She was sobbing too hard to notice my question. “He’ll make them his slaves. Adopt them, pretty lady! Take care o’ me babies!”
“I don’t think the Border and Immigration Agency will allow…” I stopped when I noticed the Duchess’ chest caving in. Crumbling. Disintegrating. I ran around frantically, probably screaming, gathering napkins (although there was no blood), looking for the first aid kit, trying to dial 999 for an ambulance with shaking hands. But I’d only dialed one 9 when all her molecules came unglued and she sifted as powder into the crevices in the floor.
The Duchess of Fitzrovia was gone.
I don’t know how long I stood there, left knuckles white around my phone, right hand clutching a roll of bandages. I kept blinking hard, opening my eyes wider each time, as if that would make her reappear. The oddest thought crossed my mind: We’ll have to close the Fitzrovia shop. It won’t be the same without her.
The off-key polyphony of crabby gooptroll babies broke through my private memorial service. Gasping as I realized I hadn’t dreamed the whole damn thing, I refocused on the phone. “Ring the cops,” I instructed myself. “Ring J.K. Rowling. Ring Downing Street. Ring the Zoo. Ring somebody, you infernal idiot.”
But I didn’t. I powered down the phone and slipped it into my pocket. Then I walked over to the nest of fantastical infants and dragged away the carpet covering them. As they burbled and hissed at me, I was overcome with a feeling of pure…parenthood. A sense of calm, of welcome responsibility, settled on my chest. I was ready for this! This was what I’d wanted. My very own instant babies. No partner? No problem! All I’d needed was a nest of trolls under the bridge of my life. I’d have preferred the kind with feet, but never mind.
“Hi, kids,” I said in my most monster-friendly sing-song tone. “I’m your new Mummy.” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the biggest soup pot I could find, then came back out and scooped up all my adoptive progeny. “What do you lovelies eat?” I asked the squiggly baby on top. Instead of answering, it enrobed my finger in mucus. Its biological mother would’ve been proud.
That’s when it came to me. What did the Duchess order every blessed day? I pulled six double espressos and dumped them into a bowl. I grabbed the last lemon poppy muffin. The bowl and the pastry I lowered into the soup pot and watched my children gobble their dinner. Tears of pride clouded my vision.
So I took them home. There was some hubbub next day about the broken floor, of course. The cops watched the CCTV footage and concluded that some old homeless lady had gone bonkers. I guess the cameras weren’t at an angle to show what was under there. I surely didn’t feel like pointing it out.
Over the coming weeks, people stopped wondering about the Duchess. Other customers used her table. But her legacy lives on, even if only in my bedroom closet.
My babies, all eighteen of them, sleep most of the day in a huge toy box I bought at Marks and Spencer. They grow slowly, but they do grow. What will happen when they’re all as big as the Duchess? Who knows? Maybe they’ll take over a chain of cafes. Maybe they’ll take over the world. I really couldn’t say.
Until then, I bring home espresso and muffins for them every night. Eventually, when their stomachs become a bit less translucent, I expect they’ll want pesto chicken on ciabatta, too. I can’t think of a better use for my employee discount.