The President's Mansion- a short story
The long black sedan car had hummed its way to the top of the white-graveled drive, and finally stopped at the front door. After the chauffeur cut the engine, there was a long silent moment as the President gazed out of the tinted window at his retirement house. Yes, it had been a long time coming, but he was finally here. The chauffeur climbed out to open the passenger door for those last few steps of his final journey out of office. With a heave, the President lifted himself out of his seat to step out with a satisfying crunch on to the white, sun-bleached gravel that had been specially imported at his own request.
He smiled. At one time, the thought of retiring to a comfortable mansion like this would have been a fantasy. When he’d struggled in the township, first as a lawyer and then as a rising opposition politician, he’d never given much thought to retirement. There had been too many things to do – and of course, there had been The Cause. The People. Africa, free of Western colonial powers and their meddling. Yet now, he was here. All the politics, the handshakes in smoke-filled rooms, the devaluations of the currency, the foreign policy deals and the hidden contracts were behind him now. He paused, breathing in the warm dry air of the savannah. This house had been built on the southern foothills of a mountain, specifically to benefit from the best climates his country had to offer. But with air-conditioning too- just in case.
He had overseen the design himself. There was a swimming pool around the back, several bedrooms for guests, and plenty of accommodation for servants in separate buildings some distance away. And there would be an adequate supply of servants, he had seen to that. It was only right that Party funds be directed in this direction. After all, the Party owed him everything.
He listened to the stillness, punctuated by the gentle tic-tic of an engine cooling down and the distant clipping of a gardener’s shears trimming a laurel hedge. Then, in the distance, the squeal of a child, laughing. He smiled. Yes, his servants would have children, and he liked the idea of living in a house where there would still be young people. He could distribute presents at Christmas like the beneficent tribal chief that in some way, he still was.
The house front door opened, and a smartly dressed official came down the steps to greet him.
‘Welcome, Mr President.’
He didn’t know the young man, but the lad was well-groomed, his uniform immaculate.
‘Thank you. Where is Moses?’
‘He’s been called away, sir. My name is Michael.’
‘Well Michael, we’d better be getting in, hadn’t we?’ laughed the President, silently wondering why there hadn’t been more of a welcoming committee, with flowers, perhaps. Something to mark the occasion. He sighed, climbing the steps to his new home, turning when he reached the veranda, to take the view in. Yes. It was superb. They’d had to relocate a whole Masai village to achieve it, as their noisy herds of cattle and wood-smoke would have intruded on his privacy. They’d been allocated a new location near a road with significant fresh water, and he had stipulated that they would be allowed to visit the tribal burial grounds near his house by appointment and under supervision. So he had been fair. As a result, his view to the horizon was a great swathe of unspoilt rolling countryside dotted with occasional small farms occupied by his supporters, who had been encouraged to supplant those already there, unless they had experienced a quick change of heart and a sudden desire to contribute to Party funds. These arrangements would all serve to surround him with an extra layer of protection– just in case the political wind changed. Plan ahead, he thought. Never forget to plan ahead.
Yes. Everything had been prepared remarkably well. A polite cough from Michael brought him back.
‘Would you like some refreshment after your long journey?’
‘A beer, I think. With ice.’ A personal quirk of long standing.
‘Where would you like to take it, sir?’
‘In the garden, on the terrace. Oh, and please send my luggage to the Master Bedroom.’
Michael nodded and left. Was he smiling?
The President stepped through the open door into the coolness, enjoying the sound of shod feet on a cool marbled floor, and followed a corridor that would eventually open out to a paved and shaded garden area to the rear, with a magnificent view of the mountain. I’ll have to get used to this place, he thought, now I’ll be seeing more of it. No more visiting. This is my home. Once outside in the fresh air again, he settled his bulk into a wicker chair to face the mountain.
Hallo old friend, he thought. It’s Me. I’m back. He’d never, ever, grown tired of this view. The mountain had always been his reference point. Its dark red rocks lightened and deepened their shades as the sun rose and fell, and the shadows stretched first this way, then that. But the mountain was always the same. Strength. Survival. Continuity. Just like me, he thought. The nation needed a strong man who knew how to stand up to all the colonial powers who would use us, and abuse us. But I fought them and I stopped them. This land is ours, now. And mine.
He remembered childish dreams of having his face carved into the mountain like the Americans had carved theirs’ on Mount Rushmore. He had decided against it. Why spend your closing years staring into your face as it once was? Besides, the dynamite had been needed for other things.
Michael brought out the beer bottle on a silver tray with a chilled glass and ice cubes, to set them down on a nearby table, checked that nothing else was needed, and then disappeared again.
As the President sipped his beer, he studied the garden. It was well kept, and living up to the design of the man whose normal job had been the upkeep of the parliamentary gardens. (Whatever happened to him? Ah yes. Well, never mind.) All the trees and shrubs were in good proportion, balancing each other out, just as the Ancient Greeks had decreed. He remembered the words of his Classics lecturer at University, and smiled. If only she could see him now.
Balance. Proportion. Well, he now had a long time to consider them, just like those Japanese monks who spend years perfecting a painting or a garden. So much easier than trying to perfect a nation, he thought.
He knew what they’d all been saying about him around the world. Dictator. Murderer. Torturer. The man who took the continent’s bread-basket, and turned it into a basket-case. It was easy for them to criticise, of course. They weren’t the ones who had to make the decisions. All those hypocrites with their United Nations resolutions. He had survived them all, even if most of his allies hadn’t. Survival of the fittest, as Darwin nearly said, but didn’t. Others had come and gone, but he was still here. Was the Mount Rushmore idea so unthinkable here? He thought again as he gazed at the mountain, then decided to look into the matter tomorrow.
And there was the gardener again, with his shears. The President watched the man carefully working his way around the garden, removing a leaf here and a small branch there to achieve exactly the right line or curve. Just like I did, he thought. Removing this opposition supporter or that Party member with too many ambitions. A night-time visit from the security police. A smashed-up office. A seized printing press. Computer hard-drives confiscated. It’s what had to be done. The President had never been a gardener, but wondered if now was the time to start taking an interest. The tasks were so similar, after all.
A child’s laugh, nearer. Shouldn’t they be in school on a Friday? No matter. He finished his beer, put the glass down, then felt a stab of pain in his right hand. An insect. Something had bit him! There it was, crawling! He seized the glass, brought it down again with a smack, crushing the thing. That’s how you deal with irritations. The fist. Tell your voters, get behind the first. Except his fist was hurting now. Ah... He saw the two tiny pinpricks, stinging far more than they ought to. What was that bug? Venomous?
The servant reappeared.
‘I’ve been bitten by something. Is the doctor here?’
‘I’ll fetch her now.’
The hand was starting to throb. I thought they’d got rid of all the bugs round here. All the nests should have been found and destroyed. Didn’t that gardener know? What were they playing at? Someone should pay for this, he thought. Yes. Someone should always pay. But where was that doctor? The President tried sucking the wound, then extracted a remnant of the ice at the bottom of the beer glass, to hold it against the wound, easing things a little. Curious – so much pain for such a little bite. So out of proportion. Like the times when he had led his guerrilla army against the hated oppressors, making attacks here, and there, always retreating to hit them again where they least expected it. Tip and run. And also taking the legal route, demanding international sanctions. Finally, the white rulers had upped sticks and gone away. And as for his rivals, they were all gone now, leaving when they could, simply disappearing into the bush or finding themselves six foot beneath it.
Where was that Michael? The President was getting impatient, rising from his seat and now striding back inside to find some first-aid. Down the corridor, he was hearing the irritating sound of that child laughing again. Was somebody holding a party? Turn left – and into the main lounge. He’d furnished it with good solid stuffed-leather armchairs, decent lights, large pot plants and big picture-windows.
But it was full of children in blue uniforms, some lying on the floor with books and others sketching.
A tall woman was speaking loudly.
‘Finish your sentences and tidy up your pencils now.’ The class dutifully did so, then sat waiting for further instructions. ‘Line up at the door.’ With a little chatter, they did, some bumping into the President who stood looking rather bemused by the door. Who were...?
‘Excuse me?’ he asked. ‘Is Michael here?’
‘Michael?’ asked the teacher. A small boy raised his hand.
‘No’ said the President. ‘Michael, who works here.’ The teacher looked bemused. ’Sorry, no.’ And with that, she led her chattering class out.
What...who invited these schoolchildren? No, he hadn’t forgotten anything. He wasn’t losing it. And why hadn’t that teacher recognised him? Everybody knew him! He strode through the room, opened another door, the dining room. ‘Michael? Where are you?’
The stench hit him. It was like walking into a wall. The smell of rottenness and decay, of stale sweat and urine. There were no tables, just huddles of rags and bandages, children and adults lying on the ground sprawled on thin mattresses, some covered in blankets. Most of them quiet, a few whimpering, trying to breathe in the surrounding heat. A nurse was kneeling next to one, re-dressing a bandaged head.
The President turned, found another door and staggered out again into another corridor, thankfully empty of people. What... who was turning his house into a hospital... or a hospital ward? Who were all these people? Why hadn’t he seen them before? Someone was taking his retirement mansion and stolen it! Didn’t they realise who he was? This was... incredible! Then a horrible thought – was it all part of some strange plot? To get him out of the way? His mind raced. Bodyguards. Where were they? They hadn’t been there to greet him when he arrived, the security car had stopped at the end of the drive, leaving his own car to drive up to the house. It was a trick. He was defenceless.
He thought fast. Get to the study, the locked drawer where he kept a pistol, then cursed. The key to the drawer. In his luggage. In the bedroom. Need to get there. He turned left, through another room, and stopped.
More children. Just sitting, crowded together on the floor, staring at him. Thin. Malnourished. Big hungry eyes. Pot-bellies. Eyes, following him as he rushed through the room. What was happening?
The next corridor was lined with beds and patients, but there at the end, was a doctor, a real live doctor standing there in a white coat who seemed to know what she was doing. At last.
‘Doctor, I’ve been bitten by something. Can you help me?’
She looked up from her clip-board, put it down and took his hand, examining the wound which had puffed up. ‘It’s poisoned. You’re developing an allergic reaction. Follow me.’
The President was taken to another room which he remembered as a broom cupboard but was now lined with shelves holding medical supplies. She sat him down, pulled out a single-use syringe from its container, prepped it – and stuck it into the side of his neck.
‘Now stay there’ she said, and went out.
This is my house. My house. This is ridiculous. Who was this woman, stabbing him with syringes in a broom cupboard? I should be receiving specialist help. In a private medical centre. The one I set up ready for any medical emergencies. All the equipment flown in specially, from Europe. Only the best for the President.
But the injection had helped he was already, feeling a little better, breathing more easily. Time now, to exert some authority in my own house. He headed for the Study. Forget the gun, I don’t need it. Let’s make some phone calls and get some help. Clear this place out, then start asking a few questions. Crack a few heads. Get things sorted.
He opened the door to his study, strode in – and stopped, his feet scrunching on broken glass, the stink of smoke. There was nobody here, but everything had been vandalised. Where were his trophies? The photographs, the framed medals, the portrait with the Queen, all gone. Most of the furniture too, except for his prized oak table upended and broken. It was as if somebody had run wild with a sledgehammer and then removed anything of value. The carpet over there, scorched. Had there even been a fire? Had somebody actually... he saw a gleam of medal picked it up. A medal, awarded him by some institution for something, its inscription illegible. He threw it down, then bent to pick it up again. Who had done all this? Who was responsible?
He turned, retreated back the way he had come. Michael, he had to find Michael. Back to the terrace. Which was thankfully still as pristine as it was before, and deserted.
Except for the gardener, who was still clip-clip-clipping with the shears at a hedge, with his back to the house. He would know.
The gardener looked up, turned around. The President marched towards him over the lawn.
‘What’s been going on here? What’s been done to my house?’
‘Your house?’ The gardener looked puzzled.
‘Not your house’, said the gardener. ‘My house.’ He stared angrily at the President, accusing him with the glare of a million hungry children. ‘And you have no place here.’
And with that, he raised his shears, and began cutting the President into a thousand tiny pieces. Slowly.