To the regulars, it seems the same lady owner has always been in charge. She dusts the shelves, restocks the glass jars, shovels sweets into paper bags as she weighs them on metal scales and rings up sales on the antique cash register, punching its raised keys and pulling its slot machine arm. To grandparents, parents and kids, her outward appearance stays much the same as does her age.
She speaks only when necessary, and her hair, now a faded grey streaked copper red, remains coiled on top of her head; her muddy cat-like eyes are still cold and the thin closed-lip smile she gives is still chilling. She wears inappropriate figure-hugging dresses in shades of green with a rope of freshwater pearls and dark brown stilettos, which although ill-suited to the job make her ample and pillar-like stature enticing. Her customers agree that she was probably never beautiful, but she's certainly striking.
Taffy, the most popular shop on the block charms people with its antiquated look, but there are a suspicious few who point out that whenever a child goes missing, they're last seen here, and each year one or two mysteriously disappear. Runaways, residents said, from the west country could have gone anywhere. However, every year the same rumour starts and so the locals affectionately call the proprietress Aunt Crocodile: She, with the engaging smile.
But a middle-aged man nicknamed Fib maintains this is not a lie, he'd narrowly escaped being made into a pie when he was a run-away boy. “What rot!” People exclaim when they hear his far-fetched tale, “Lost boys have such wild, over-active imaginations!” To which Fib replies, “One day, the truth will out.”
And the truth, according to Fib, is that this woman is in actual fact an enormous crocodile. She lures children to the back of the shop with poisonous candies and chocolate and then slowly roasts them whole in a clay oven. Her teeth, he said, are razor-sharp like jagged glass embedded in a brick wall, and when he saw these he squeezed through the bars of his metal cage before he too was further drugged, oiled, stuffed with herbs, and salted.
Some adults think Fib is harmlessly fanciful, while others egg him on to even wilder exaggerations until he tells them how his cousin Charlie once witnessed an obese boy drown in a chocolate factory's chocolate river. On moments like this, Paddington residents rib Fib with stupid questions, so that his patience runs out and he spits his last words in their creased-up faces: “This stuff isn't just the stuff of nightmares or fairy tales – it happens!”
While Fib himself is always rejected, his comic tales only increase Taffy's popularity; the shop bell jangles repeatedly with large groups of school age kids, and even when, now and again, posters are put up with those suddenly reported missing, hardly anyone suspects the cleverly concealed woman termed Aunt Crocodile.
*Inspired by the world of Roald Dahl and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal