October 5, 2018

THE DUKE OF ALBION by Rebecca Katz

The girls were still at the window,
pale faces fixed on the Duke of Albion.
"What's wrong?" Fran asked breathlessly...
The Duke of Albion had rave reviews on social media – whatever that meant. They had opened in a former Chinese restaurant, on a street which once had plenty of parking. Now, the drivers battled for every spot. The traffic around the bakery was so thick that horns blared all through business hours. Meanwhile, the line of would-be customers coiled around the block like a determined snake. In a city known for its food, the Duke’s success was unprecedented.

Fran had not tried the Duke, despite living next door. It annoyed her: the lineups. The customers traipsing about all day. Their foolish expressions, and their hunger for the latest fad. The neighborhood had gotten much too crowded as a result; someone should do something. There was hardly room on the sidewalk to walk to the bus stop. It was unfair to an old woman. Fran was still spry enough to take the bus, thank you, but she'd rather not get trampled steps from her apartment. Besides, the hype around the Duke was absurd. It couldn’t be that great, despite being famous on the Internet. Her oldest granddaughter had taught her to use the computer, and to find recipes or weather forecasts online. Olivia loved technology. Her sisters did, too, even little Laura, whom Fran babysat twice a week. It was the way of the future, and it had its uses, but you couldn’t always trust it. Everyone could write whatever they wanted, with a computer.

Still, it wasn’t only people on the Internet who were under the Duke’s spell. The newspapers also heaped lavish praise on the place.

“Named for a fictional region of Britain,” the latest review said, “the Duke of Albion offers exquisite desserts at astounding value. Their marzipan will transport you to the almond groves of the Mediterranean; you can almost taste the graceful white blossoms in each bite.” Nonsense on stilts. Worse, the writer made equally silly claims about the Duke’s Turkish Delight, their baklava, and their afternoon tea ($14.95 per person). Fran rolled her eyes. Nothing tasted of English rose gardens, or like the sun-drenched bazaars of some ancient city. That was like saying Fran’s strudel would transport her to the village where she’d lived as a child, or the peddlers’ routes along the river where her late father once sold his wares.
Fran looked at the columnist’s name. She recognized it. He'd gone to school with her daughter and had seemed such a sensible boy. How disappointing. Was he writing a review, or a commercial?
He continued: “I was doubtful, at first, but after visiting the Duke, I’m now a zealous convert. It’s no wonder Montrealers keep going back for more.”
“No, thank you,” Fran said, discarding the paper. She would stick with her own cooking or with the nearby kosher bakery she had always patronized.
But living beside the Duke wasn’t easy. There was the constant noise of customers, far more than the Golden Dragon had attracted. The scents – of nuts and chocolate, pastries and candied fruits – were tempting, too. Sometimes sales girls in crisp aprons stood outside, offering samples. Fran saw them as she ran her errands. She had to keep a chocolate layer cake in her kitchen, a sort of consolation prize. Each afternoon she found herself cutting slices so large that she had little appetite for supper.
It was also hard for Laura to pass by without getting agitated. She would tug at Fran’s sleeve, hopping up and down.
“Mom won’t take us there,” Laura said. “She thinks the line’s too long. Can we go in, please? It's right here.”
Fran eyed the shop’s fa├žade. A shudder ran through her, like a cold touch on her back, disturbing and inexplicable. She collected herself and humphed. Her daughter was quite right not to follow the crowd, she said aloud. There were too many followers in the world.
“But they’re so good,” whined Laura. “Everyone brings their cookies to school.”
That seemed unlikely. Who let kindergarteners bring lavish pastries to school? The kids would make a mess. It was hard enough keeping Laura tidy when she ate a slice of strudel, sitting down with a proper plate, fork, and knife.
“If everyone at school jumped off a bridge,” Fran replied, “would you do that, too? Of course not. Now, hold my hand, and let’s go inside.”
But her granddaughter had a pinched, longing look on her face as they passed the Duke. It would take a great deal of strudel or layer cake to placate her.
Fran had a system for the nights when her granddaughters slept over. It was like a fine-tuned machine, or an art she had long practiced. She just hoped the chaos next door wouldn't disrupt things.
Olivia, the oldest, always grumbled about needing a babysitter. Fran could handle that. She would tell Olivia that she didn’t need a babysitter; she was one. After all, Fran couldn't look after so many children herself, not anymore. Olivia was invaluable. The speech would make her feel important, and she would boss her sisters around good-naturedly. Emma, the middle child, was the easiest. She was happy as long as she had books. Already she was a better reader than Olivia, despite being two years younger. Laura was content to watch Disney movies on the ancient television and VCR. (Olivia would work the machines, quipping that they belonged in a museum. Fran would chide her for sarcasm.) After the film, Fran would read Laura a bedtime story. Her eyes weren't what they used to be, but she could manage the large print of a children's book. There would be liberal amounts of cake and chocolate for all the girls. It was tiring, but Fran wouldn't miss it. Besides, her daughter and son-in-law were never gone for more than a night at a time.
Of course the Duke of Albion interfered with their routine. The crowds got worse every day, meaner, shouting or cursing at each other on the sidewalk. Fran was rather worried about getting the girls into the apartment. Later, the endless traffic and noise distracted Emma from her homework and Olivia from helping with the soup. Laura, too, stared out the window.
“Why don’t we go there for supper?” asked Olivia. The pot was boiling over.
“They’re a candy store, not a restaurant – now turn that down.” Fran sounded more snappish than she had intended. “And move the pot, will you? Anyway, they close soon, thank goodness. You’d never get through the lineup in time.”
Olivia banged the pot onto a back burner. Hot liquid sizzled on the stovetop. “But they’re right next door.”
“I don’t care. We’ve plenty of clean, healthy things here, and that’s all I’ll say about it.”
But the girls remained restless and sat glued to that infernal window. Neither supper nor cake interested them. Fran bit her tongue to keep from muttering as she cleaned up afterward. Perhaps she was getting too old to host the children overnight.
Eventually, the Duke closed its doors, turning away late patrons while the girls watched. To Fran’s relief, some level of normalcy returned. Laura asked to watch a Disney movie. When it was over, Olivia pointed out everything silly about the plot. Fran knitted, listening as the two girls bickered, and as Emma piped up from her book to make peace. Soon they grew tired. That meant Fran could go to bed, too. She wished them goodnight and shut herself in the bedroom.
Their chatter woke her hours later. No: she realized at once that this was no petty squabble, like their argument about the film. She heard real fear in the hushed whispers and staggered out of bed as fast as her body allowed.
The girls were still at the window, pale faces fixed on the Duke of Albion.
“What’s wrong?” Fran asked breathlessly.
Even quick-witted Olivia, the spokeswoman for the family, fell silent. All she could do was point at the bakery below. Fran noticed that the streetlamp, which had broken months ago, had been fixed at last. Then her eyes focused on the shop’s interior, and she gasped. Gone were the friendly sales girls. Instead, strange creatures bustled about the shop, setting delicacies into the display cases. One was a satyr who might have stepped out of Emma’s mythology books. He was leaning on goat legs by the window, and holding something colorful in his – hands? Hooves? Fran could not describe them, though she thought she recognized bright marzipan fruit, even at this distance. Behind the satyr stood a twisted thing with black wings and horns. He looked like the demon Mephistopheles in a silent movie Fran had once seen. There were several others, too, shadowy, inhuman forms. Some flitted about with moth’s wings. Others stood motionless, letting the light of the street lamp catch on glistening scales or gleaming eyes…
For a moment Fran thought her heart would burst. Then she summoned up her courage, and forced the curtains shut with icy hands. She wondered if those creatures explained the shop’s success. All those customers drawn to the place like drug addicts, heedless of everything but the Duke’s pastries… Had they sold their souls for sweets? Could anyone else see what she and her girls had seen? Perhaps they would. Perhaps the game was up, now that the streetlight was fixed.
But she could not worry about everyone in town. She pulled her granddaughters away from the window.
“You are not to go in there,” she said, with all the force she possessed. “Do you understand?”
She thought, based on the girls’ grim nods, that they would listen, for a change. Nevertheless, when her daughter returned from Toronto, she would give her the same orders and the same stern warning.
Rebecca Katz was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. She is currently completing her PhD at McGill University, set high on a hill in Montreal’s historic downtown. She has been passionate about writing ever since childhood, and has published in the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology as well as several online archives. Rebecca has recently grown skeptical about social media, and is striving to engage more with the real world than the world of screens.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff 

No comments: