Red Queen to White Queen, Part 24: Life in the Streets


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 xxx

xxx Click here for Part
Determined to follow the rules of behaviour set out by his benefactors, Dante did not inquire about the young woman. While curious, he had no desire to get closer. Instinct told him he would not emerge the victor in any contest between them.

He accompanied the brothers to the warehouse that very morning. The pace was leisurely, far more leisurely than in his father’s bakery: in Bologna, people walked in and out all day long. Sellers importuned and buyers haggled. Goods were piled at the door waiting to be shelved. Here, all was different. The goods the brothers had brought from Europe had been shelved by an army of workers while Dante was convalescing.

His first job was to walk up and down the rows with a clipboard, ticking off the goods against the bill of lading, written in Italian. Dante guessed this was a job the brothers would happily have carried out themselves, had he not been there. He could see them now, high above his head in the office overlooking the warehouse floor. Wreaths of cigar smoke floated above them as they chatted; or rather, as Claudio chatted and Cosimo listened. Every now and then, one or both of them waved fondly to their protégé.

Dante wondered why they had not married. Perhaps neither wished to disturb their perfect amity by taking a wife. As it was, their housekeeper kept them fed and clothed, while another woman came in daily to clean. Their baser physical needs were assuaged elsewhere.

At 11 a.m., all work stopped for hot chocolate and roscones. The snack was served by an ancient woman clad in the shapeless shift of the working class, an old pair of slippers on her bare feet. Afterward, she retired to a corner where she dozed until it was time for the workers’ next break. The few pesos she earned helped keep her family alive.

In Colombia, the easiest tasks were assigned to the aged or the very young. On the river, small boys had waved palmetto fans as their sole duty. Here in Bogotá, little boys raced to hold the horse’s reins as elegant carriages pulled up to the curb. Young girls struggled with multiple shopping bags as they trailed behind wealthy widows. Old men toured the neighbourhoods with scythes, offering to cut the grass. Woe to the unlucky newcomer who mistakenly hired one of these as a gardener: the homeowner was likely to be confronted with a line of straggling flowers that had begun their life as weeds.

The lowest position on the social scale fell to the gamines, abandoned to the streets at any early age. Branded as pickpockets, beggars, and thieves, they did not turn up their nose at petty theft. More often, they leapt to jobs that were entirely useless and mildly annoying to the citizenry of Bogotá. One might pop out of nowhere to shine a shoe with a dirty rag. Another would point to a gang of his dangerous-looking fellows then offer himself as a guard. The more desperate leapt aboard trolleys, lifting a shirt to reveal a jagged incision kept open for purposes of begging. Riders on the trolley also had to endure gamines singing loudly and tunelessly into their ear: a few centavos were usually sufficient to make the music stop.

This was the life Dante encountered when he strolled out into the street, to walk off his chocolate and pastry in time for lunch. Given the leisurely pace of the day, Dante half expected the brothers to announce a post-lunch siesta. But no one slept at mid-day in that cold climate: it was better to keep on one’s feet, even if it only meant moving up and down between the shelves.

Dante felt no sense of homesickness. The goods on the warehouse shelves were the same as in his father’s house in Bologna: jars of olives harvested from Italian hillsides, wheels of aged cheese, rolled anchovies, Turkish delight, canned artichokes, soaps made with olive oil, antipasto. Dante half expected to hear his father’s voice urging him to make haste.

It was not Dante’s father but Don Claudio who called out to him,

“That’s enough for today, Dante. We are expected for dinner at the house of our neighbour, Don Arturo.”

Check back on Thursday, May 19, for Part 25. 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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