Red Queen to White Queen, Part 25: Dinner with Don Arturo

imageOver 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

Click here for Part I.xxx

***************
The brothers Romano rarely dined at home. Among their wide circle of friends was a small, dedicated group of women who took pity on the bachelor brothers, inviting them to dine at their table week in, week out, year in, year out. So it was that four nights of the seven were accounted for. On any fifth night, they could be sure of a random invitation from their extended circle of acquaintances.

On the nights when they were not expected at the house of a neighbour, the two men dined at a favourite house of prostitution, where the food was good and the cigars better.
Only one house remained closed to them.

“I can`t imagine what has accounted for the invitation,” said Don Claudio, as he stood before the mirror fussing with his tie. “Ìn all these years, we`ve never once seen the inside of Don Arturo’s house.”

Dante stepped forward to help the older man with the garment. Don Claudio rattled on.
“We’ll be dining en garcon, of course. Don Arturo’s daughter is unlikely to appear, as she is very closely kept. The girl is his…ah…treasure.”

After shaking hands at the door, Don Arturo led the three men into the drawing room. There they found the young woman perched on the settee, her duenna nowhere in sight. Clearly surprised by her presence, the brothers
seemed uncertain how to salute her. In the end, it was Magda herself who took the initiative, extending a cheek to each brother in turn. She paused when she reached Dante, who extended his hand. At first, the girl seemed uncertain what to do with it. Instead of clasping his fingers in hers, she slid her hand along his inner forearm, stopping just before his elbow.

During his time on the riverboat, Dante had seen ladies offer each other this graceful salute, which they preferred to grasping each other’s hands like a man. He was, however, unprepared for the slight tingling he felt on the skin beneath his jacket. Dante had not thought Magda attractive the first time he saw her in the garden; this evening’s encounter did not change his opinion. She was too dark, too large-boned, too intense. Nor had there been anything remotely seductive about the handshake, which had been entirely perfunctory on her part. Still, it rattled the young man.

They were not a loquacious group. Dante blessed Don Claudio’s ability to wade into all conversational waters, no matter how deep. Even he, however, struggled to find a suitable topic of conversation. Politics were off limits: Don Arturo was a committed Conservative, while the brothers were Liberal. According to neighbourhood gossip, Don Arturo had recently been awarded a comfortable sinecure as a health inspector, in return for his years of party loyalty. As Don Claudio described it, his job consisted of making the rounds of the city’s eating establishments and collecting the ñapa, or bribes, from the owners. This had been a normal part of city life since it was founded by the Spanish in 1538. It was not, however, something one discussed over dinner.

Eventually, Don Claudio settled on the new electrical tram system being built in Bogotá’s streets. This was no mean achievement for a city situated so high in the mountains. The various components had been brought in on the backs of mules, then reassembled upon arrival. While the business people applauded the innovation, the poorer classes found it challenging. Another death had occurred just that week, when a vendor stepped in front of the newfangled contraption. City workers were complaining about having to clear the rails of injured donkeys that had wandered into the path of the oncoming tram. Gamines dared each other to remain on the tracks until the very last moment, before jumping clear. It was only a matter of time before one of them was killed.

“Perhaps there should be a fence of some kind,” Dante ventured, “at least on the busiest intersections.”

“Too expensive,” replied Don Claudio. “The cost would fall entirely on the business community. There was barely enough to finish the tram as it was. It’s the same with all municipal projects, the politicos are too busy stuffing their pockets to…”

He stopped aghast, fearing Don Arturo’s reaction to this slur on his party. But the older man was impatiently tapping his spoon in anticipation of the next course, paying little attention to the discussion.

Dante noticed that Magda was closely following the conversation that Don Claudio was struggling to keep afloat. It was not Dante’s place to address her or include her directly in the conversation. Out of politeness, however, he shifted his body slightly toward her, to include her in their circle.

With Magda now in his peripheral vision, Dante noticed a detail he had not captured before. When listening intently, she drew her brows together until they formed a dark, unbroken line. The young man was fascinated.

He was far less interested in the food, which was exceedingly heavy. Like many Italians, Dante took his food seriously: it was, after all, the family business. Though raised on pasta in all its forms, even he was shocked at the amount of starch now on his plate: rice, potato, and half a corncob jostled for space beside a small piece of boiled meat. The soup boasted three different kinds of potatoes, in addition to the corn. Dessert was a heavy cream puff drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Maize, potatoes, and chocolate: these were the gifts that the country’s original monarchs had left behind, before disappearing forever into history. Don Claudio claimed, with sparkling irreverence, that these gifts were far more valuable to the world than gold, frankincense, and myrhh.

By the end of the meal, Dante was struggling to stay awake. Things would be different in his own house, he decided. Dante sat straight up in surprise at the thought. It was the first time he had admitted to himself that he was likely to stay here forever. The life suited him.

In Bologna, he had been part of a large family of artisans. Though the eldest, Dante had had no assurance that he would one day take over the family business. In all likelihood, the company would have groaned—perhaps broken—under the weight of so many children and their families. It was the reason he had set out for Australia. in the first place.

Set out for, but never arrived, he thought wryly. There, he would have begun his career as a miner, hoarding his cash until the day he could start his own business. Here, he was immediately catapulted into the upper class. Doors that had been closed to him in Italy were suddenly flung open. It was just a matter of time before the city’s residents began presenting their unmarried daughters. He would have his own house, where the food was far superior to that set before him. There would be only two children, he decided, a boy and a girl: the boy to take over the business and the girl to marry into the country’s economic and political ruling class. It was at that point in his thoughts that Dante looked up to see Magda gazing at him, black brows drawn together in a determined line.

Check back here on Monday, May 23, for Part 26. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.

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Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

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

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