My Year of Living Backwards: Red Queen to White Queen, Part 10: The Candy Arcade


Tamarind pods. The sweet fruit within is used in a variety of Colombian dishes.

Over the next year, on Mondays and Thursdays, I will introduce consecutive passages from my new novel, Red Queen to White Queen. The book explores how a Colombian matriarch came to exert a lifelong dominance over her family, until a newcomer threatens her reign.
At the end of each chapter, you will find a recipe from the book.

Cast of Characters:
Magdalena (Magda): Already in her 80s when the book begins, Magda is the most powerful figure in her family. Flashbacks explore the life that made her who she is.
Rosalba: Magda’s daughter, who has devoted her life to the care of her mother.
Immaculata (Imma): Magda’s lifelong servant
Dante: Magda’s husband
Seňora Moreno: Family friend of long standing
Desiderio: Magda’s son xxx
Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the familyx
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor
Téodoro, or Téo (TAY oh): A young man of Magda’s own age, from Cartagena

Click here for Part I.

“Téodoro Gaviria Restrepo, at your service madam. You can call me Téo.”

Resting his hat on the wide railing, the young man held out his free hand and confidently waited for her to take it. Ignoring the hand, Magda looked anxiously down the street. Her father was not due back until dinnertime, but anyone might see and report the incident to him.

“Please leave, it’s dangerous.”

“Don’t worry about me, this balcony is barely three metres from the ground.”

Still gripping the railing with one hand, he leaned far to the left, gazing at something over Magda’s shoulder.

“Is that a chess board?”

In her eagerness to escape the heat of her room, Magda had forgotten to return the set to its hiding place.

“I’m rather a good player, myself. I’ve won one or two tournaments here in Cartagena.” Clearly, the young man was blessed with an overabundance of confidence.

Not waiting for an answer, he spoke again.

“Is that your opening move?”

“One of them.”

Glancing over her shoulder to the board, Magda was horrified to see the silk stockings she had removed only moments before, now draped over the back a chair. Cheeks aflame, she appealed to the young man:

“Please Señor….Señor..?”

“Gaviria, on my father’s side. My mother is a Restrepo, from Barranquilla?” His voice rose in a slight question, as though he expected a reaction. She had none. Undeterred, the boy continued.

“I myself was born here in Cartagena, the cradle of the revolution. It was just over there, in the plaza, that the patriots were stood against the city wall and shot by the Spanish tyrants. General Morillo, ‘The Pacifier,’ murdered them in cold blood. But what can you expect from a Spaniard?”

“My father is Spanish.”

The boy had the grace to look embarrassed. “Please forgive me, Señorita. Sometimes I …”

“Señorita Magda, donde está?” Where are you?

Magda pitched forward, placed two hands on the boy’s shoulders and pushed. Seizing the balcony rungs just in time, he lowered himself to the street below and stood grinning up at her.

“Catch,” she mouthed, throwing him his hat.

His own voice dropped to a whisper: “Magda…”

The girl’s breath escaped in a hiss. She had that old cow, Señora Rodriguez, to thank for the fact that he now knew her name. Furious, she put a finger to her lips. He would not be silenced.

“Knight to Nf6.”

She froze. Here was a player of her own calibre.

“Tomorrow, at 2, in the small park at the end of Tumbamuertos Street,” he said. “I’ll bring my board.”

And then he was gone.

“Whose voice was that?” asked Señora Rodriguez, suspicious.

“A fruit seller. You know how insistent they are. I’m sure he was trying to cheat us. Seven centavos is far too much for a pineapple, don’t you think?”

The old woman rose to the bait.

“Robbery,” she mumbled, launching into a diatribe about the wickedness of steet vendors. Ignoring her, Magda sat at her chess board and rearranged the opposing pieces.

The challenge was irresistible. Immediately after dinner with her father, Magda fled to her chess board. Long into the night, she sat experimenting with one move after another, always planning three moves ahead. The best riposte continued to elude her. It was only on waking that the answer came.

Magda had gone to bed certain of one thing—she would not be in the park the next afternoon. At the same time, she was curious to at least see the location where the proposed battle was to take place. The difficulty was convincing Señora Rodriguez, who loathed walking in the heat.

“I thought we might go to the Portal de los Dulces, to buy more coconut sweets for Papá. He loves them so.”

It was a strategic move. Señora Rodriguez had a passion for the candy made by the market women in the arcade. To reach it, the two had to cut across Tumbamuertos Street.

“Oye, chica!”

Appalled, Magda slowly turned to face the speaker. To her relief, she saw a tall woman, a descendent of slaves, gesturing toward a long line of glass jars. Each was filled with succulent sweets: tart tamarind balls, milk wheels, deep fried mango preserves, and Magda’s own favourite—sugar babies. She purchased a small bag of sweets for her father than pulled hard on the arm of Señora Rodriguez, who was lingering greedily in front of the delicious array.

It was almost lunch time when they finally reached the park. Men were already setting up the chess boards in preparation for the afternoon’s game. Fearful that the young man might arrive early, Magda prodded and poked Señora Rodriguez. But the old woman refused to be hurried. Her appetite heightened by the sweets, she was determined not to eat another inferior hotel lunch.

“Señorita Magda, let’s stop at a kiosk for a bite. These carimañolas are far tastier than anything we can get back in that hotel.” The old woman loved these hot, puffy pastries filled with cheese.

Magda could have screamed in frustration. She knew from experience that the more she pushed, the slower the old woman would move. The prospect of advancing more than a few steps beyond the park grew more and more remote. Far better to feed her now, in hopes that they could depart in plenty of time to avoid her opponent.

The vendor sat up a small folding table for the two women then called his children to hold the ladies’ parasols while they ate. Señora Rodriguez insisted on folding a napkin around the handle of each parasol, as a guard against small, sticky fingers. Magda pulled off her long gloves then set them down beside her plate. It would not do to return with grease spots: her father would grumble at the expense of laundering, even in a city where launderesses plied their trade in every back patio.

“You’ve come!”

It was he, chess board under his arm and fully two hours early. Magda cursed the curiosity that put her in this situation. She was furious with herself and even more furious with Señora Rodriguez.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Señor,” she replied, looking pointedly at her duenna. To the boy’s credit, he understood immediately.
“You misunderstand, Señorita. I was addressing the child. He promised to save a space for me in the park. Here you go, gamin.” The young man tossed a coin to the boy, who blessed the hand of fate without delving too deeply into the particulars.

Moving to the edge of the park, Téo began setting up the board. His eyes dared her not to escape, something Magda had every intention of doing.

Magda wiped her mouth with her napkin, then put on her gloves. Satiated and drowsy, Señora Rodriguez was eying the shade of the nearby trees. Magda rose abruptly to her feet.

“Come, we must leave. Father is expecting us,” she said, gathering up her guardian’s parasol, gloves, and reticule. She considered leaving a coin for the small boys who had held the parasols above their heads, but concluded they had received quite enough recompense from Téo.

“You know your father will not be back until the dinner hour,” her duenna replied. Magda recorded the betrayal in the ledger of her mind.

Heaving herself to her feet, the old woman headed for the trees. At once, Téo was at her side, to offer a supporting arm.

“Thank you, young man. We have walked a long way this morning, and I do not feel quite up to the return trip just yet.”

Magda cursed the woman’s stupidity. Avoiding conversations with young men who appeared out of nowhere was surely the first tenet in the duennas’ rule book.

Reluctantly, Magda followed them to the park bench, located just inches away from Téo’s table. She kept her gaze averted.

A man in his early 30s approached.

“Buenas tardes, señor. Are you waiting for someone, or can anyone join in your game?”

“I am waiting for a lady.”

The man scanned the park, which held only a handful of women, mostly young matrons and grandmothers with children. It was too early in the day for the prostitutes who reigned over the parks at night.

“One lady in particular?”

“Yes, a lady who will agree to be my partner in a game of chess.”

The man laughed.

“Then you will be waiting a very long time, Señor. Ladies do not play chess. They do not have the mind for it.”

“Nevertheless, I shall sit here until one appears.”

Raising his voice, the man appealed to the other men in the park:

“Oigan.” Listen.

“This youngster is waiting for—you will not believe this—a woman to join him in a game of chess. In the whole of Cartagena, there is not a single woman capable of understanding the intricacies of the game. Look at the pieces on this board. No female could be expected to grasp such complexity. Why, she would…”

Magda rose and seated herself in the chair opposite Téo. The boy smiled.

Check back on Monday, March 28 for Part 11. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.


Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.

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