Cecilia the stork, carrying her precious package of kittens, leads Karen from Lundern Central Station.
The street outside the station was narrow and crooked. Dimly lit by gas lanterns, the odd angles of the adjoining walls seemed to change with each flicker. From what little Karen could see, the station was enmeshed in a nest of minor alleyways. The buildings here were more squat than those found in London; they rarely rose more than three stories high. What they lacked in height they made up for in proximity; all seemed to huddle close to one another, whether homes, or shops or other buildings whose purpose was difficult to discern. Some of the windows were lit up, but most were dark. The commercial businesses were all closed. Inhabitants of this part of town mostly lived above the place where they worked; sometimes Karen saw silhouettes moving behind their curtains. The gas lanterns sat in sturdy glass boxes, most of them hung from the eaves of the buildings that lined the street, though some were fixed atop black poles made of cast iron. Karen, who was always keen to look at everything around her, gazed up at these flickering lights, and at the slanted shadows cast across the irregular walls.
“We had better hurry along,” said Cecilia, “it’s not so far to fly, but a long enough walk. Curfew begins in less than two hours.”
“Oh, I won’t slow you down,” insisted Karen, who then bounded into the middle of the road, intent on demonstrating her speedy-heely-wheely abilities. She landed securely, rolled for a moment, then unintentionally jammed a heel-wheel into the gap between two stones. In the gloom, Karen had not noticed that the road was cobbled, and hence not suited to her heelys. Thrown off balance, Karen crumpled to the floor, falling to one side. She fell in the path of a severe-looking woman of straight gait and advancing years. Caught in mid-stride, the heel of the woman’s leather boot remained suspended above Karen’s face for a moment, and then was withdrawn. The woman, who wore an extravagantly billowing dress of a plush deep red material, leaned over Karen, holding her wide-brimmed hat to her head as she did. She asked Karen how she was.
“I’m fine,” said Karen, who was unhurt but embarrassed. She propped herself up on her elbows, and was about to rise to her feet, when the woman in red pressed the tip of her walking stick to Karen’s chest, gently pressing her down again.
“Don’t get up too quickly,” the woman commanded, “you might have injured your spine.”
“I’m sure I’m fine,” said Karen, but the woman’s walking stick still pushed her down.
“Nonsense, we must do this properly,” said the woman.
Karen turned and looked pleadingly at Cecilia, hoping her stork escort might come to her aid again. Cecilia had sidled up to the centre of events, and was perched by Karen’s feet, still holding the package of kittens suspended from her bill. However, Cecilia remained silent whilst the chatter of others blurred into an incomprehensible din. Karen looked from Cecilia to the ring of other faces that encircled her from above. Apart from the woman in red, the closest faces belonged to young women wearing white bonnets. Two of these young women looked of a similar age to Karen, whilst another two looked a few years older. Three of the four wore squarish dark sunglasses, just like those worn by some of the commuters in the station. Seeing them this close, Karen realized they were not conventional eyeglasses; they had no frame. The lenses were somehow attached directly to the face…
“You seem a little dazed, dear. Let me go first. I am the Dowager Duchess D’Nunzio, and these are my daughters, Darcy, Dierdre, Delilah and Maude,” the Duchess pointed at each daughter as she announced her name. In turn, they each nodded their head in response.
Some time passed. The Duchess and daughters looked at Karen. Karen looked back.
“Ahem,” the Duchess was not coughing, but prompting Karen to speak.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Karen. She was not sure what to say in this situation, but by now she was frustrated that the Duchess’ stick prevented her from getting off the cold and uncomfortable cobbles.
“It’s your turn to introduce yourself,” said the Duchess.
“Oh, forgive me. I am Karen Zipslicer and this is my acquaintance, Cecilia Down, the obstetrician,” Karen gestured toward Cecilia, who lowered her head in the Duchess’ direction.
“Good, now we are getting somewhere. I have undergone some psychological trauma as a result of this incident at 7.22pm in the evening, and I will instruct my insurers, Whittam, Whattle and Co., to contact your insurers accordingly.”
With this last statement, the Duchess reached into one gloved hand and pulled out a card. Meanwhile, one of the elder daughters, Dierdre, kept nodding excitedly at everything the Duchess said, almost as if she made a mental note of every word. Karen was confused; the Duchess described every detail of the scene and listed who was stood about. As she did, the Duchess extended her arm and held her card under Karen’s nose. When Karen did not immediately take it in hand, the Duchess waved the card frantically. Karen reluctantly took it whilst still in her recumbent position. Dierdre, meanwhile, had taken hold of Karen’s right foot, and was holding up the sole for all to examine.
“It has a wheel embedded within it,” proclaimed Dierdre, and her headed nodded again and again whilst looking intently at the sole of Karen’s heely, as if she was repeatedly confirming the truth of her own observation.
“That’s most unsuitable footwear,” said Delilah.
“These shoes are childish,” sneared Darcy. “It’s such a shame, as you’d be quite a pretty girl if your clothes weren’t so ridiculous. These shoes look like they belong on a silly five year old boy, and not on a young lady.”
What observation Maude might have made is unknown. She was the only D’Nunzio daughter devoid of dark glasses. Maude had a sensitive face and bright eyes, not unlike Karen’s. Though Maude was about to speak, her mother interjected: “please would you all be quiet? I’m waiting to hear Miss Zipslicer’s details.”
“My details?” asked Karen, anxiously.
“Yes, your insurance details. Please give me your card,” and with this, the Duchess held out her gloved hand, clearly expecting a card to be deposited there in return. At long last, Cecilia spoke up: “I don’t think that’s really necessary. Nobody has been hurt here.”
“How ridiculous! I’m in a positive state of shock. The psychological trauma could have lasting consequences. It’s not everyday that you witness a bizarrely-dressed girl literally breaking her back in front of you. I suppose I should consider myself lucky; I was fleet enough of foot to avoid being fettered by her self-fulfilling fracas.”
“Well said,” commented Darcy.
“Thank you, my darling. Now, what was I saying? Oh yes, anyone can see I’m barely able to hold on to my senses,” and as the Duchess said this, she looked to her daughters for confirmation. They each eagerly nodded their assent, except Maude, who glared back at her mother. “And this girl,” the Duchess pointed at Karen, “may have broken her spinal column, which adds to my distress.” At this, Karen wriggled, as if checking her back was still whole. The Duchess continued, “and it is all her fault, and her fault alone, for leaping out in the dark, wearing unsafe and garish footwear, and nearly causing me to trip and fall on this public right of way!”
“Mother,” began Maude testily, only to be shushed by the Duchess.
“Please Maude, don’t interfere,” and the Duchess turned back to Karen, “…well? Your details, now, please.” The Duchess leaned a little bit heavier on her stick as she said “please”. Feeling herself crushed, Karen raised her hands to the Duchess’ walking stick and pushed it aside, so she could roll out from underneath. Freed from the cane, Karen was as zippedy-quick as her name would make you think. She bobbed back to her feet in an instant, but with the Duchess’ stick pulled out from under her, the unbalanced old woman lurched forward. She would have fallen, had she not engulfed Karen in a ludicrous half-embrace that spared the Duchess some blushes, but only at the cost of other blushes.
“Excuse me!” trumpeted the Duchess.
“No problem,” responded Karen, who helped the Duchess to regain her equilibrium.
“I mean, how dare you!”
“How dare I what?” replied Karen, who felt surrounded by the Duchess and her daughters, except for Maude, who tugged at the back of the Duchess’ skirts.
“Mother,” said Maude, “let the poor girl be. She’s done nothing to hurt you.” The other daughters were now howling at Karen, and the mother carried on regardless, ignoring Maude’s protestations.
“I want your insurance details!” barked the Duchess, “you nearly sent me head over heels… for a second time.”
“You want my what?” said Karen.
“Your insurance, your insurance, your insurance!”
“She has no pedestrian insurance,” chipped in Cecilia. The mother and daughters D’Nunzio looked aghast, save for Maude, who just smiled. They each took a half-step of incredulity backwards, and were stunned into a moment of silence.
“No pedestrian insurance?” asked the Duchess.
“No pedestrian insurance?” asked her daughters Delilah, Darcy and Dierdre.
“Then how can she walk about the streets?” asked the Duchess.
“Fine enough,” replied Karen, who alternately shaked each leg, as if it demonstrate their inherent power for locomotion.
“Nor any other insurance,” stated Cecilia.
“Outrageous!” said the Duchess, “I don’t believe it. How can that be legal?”
“It’s true,” and Karen ran around to Cecilia to pull out the waiver which the Ticket Inspector had signed, and which was still nestled under Cecilia’s wing. Reaching for it, Karen accidentally tickled Cecilia, who could not suppress a little giggle, but the rest of the crowd was silent and serious. Karen unfolded the paper form and showed it to the amassed throng.
The Duchess perceptibly straightened still straighter, if such a thing was possible. From where she stood, she coolly surveyed the writing on the waiver held in Karen’s hands. Having read it, the Duchess turned and marched away, whilst bidding her daughters to follow. They all responded immediately, except for Maude. Maude hung back a little, giving Karen a broad smile before she turned and followed the rest of her family.
“What was that all about?” asked Karen of Cecilia. She could relax a little; with the D’Nunzios gone, the rest of the oddball crowd that had formed around Karen were now rapidly dissipating.
“She was probably going to file a false insurance claim. She would have said you nearly tripped her and that your behaviour had caused her emotional distress. It’s people like her that cause the insurance premiums to be so high,” explained Cecilia. “Come on, we really must go now,” she implored.
“But she’s a Duchess?”
“Hard times can come to all of us,” replied Cecilia, who was stretching her long stork legs to make good progress down the rickety backstreets surrounding the back of Lundern Central Station. “It’s late, and now we’ll have to make our way through some rougher neighbourhoods if we’re to arrive before curfew. Please hurry, and no more falling over!” Cecilia turned away and headed down a street, the parcel hanging from her bill swaying as she did. Karen blinked, and looked after Cecilia, and then hurried to catch up.