The President's Man

A short story (2003)

When Shodo came in from the cumquat grove his wife said there had been a strange call. The President had phoned and said he would ring back.

– “The president of what?” Shodo asked, scraping pruning tar from his fingers with a blunt knife.

– “THE President. The President of our country….” Fayzullah said, her voice tailing off and her eyes starting to plead at the same time.

In the silence as they looked at each other, the irrigator went slowly mincing by.

– “Tell Fuaz to shift the candelabra” Shodo said rapidly “and take the bid price for the wall paper” he added to his wife’s patterned back.

That night they ate their dinner in their best clothes and silence. Shodo fingered his prayer beads as he ate and rolled the food from one side of his mouth to the other, as though each bite was one of the events of the day. It was hard to swallow that evening.

With the fruit they began to bicker.

– “You should never have crossed Rutello over the garage” his wife said for the fortieth time. “I told you. I knew it would come to this”.

“You knew it would come to this. You knew it would end in a phone call from the President. Don’t be ridiculous ” Shodo scorned. 

But he did wonder, and began rolling bread into a small grey ball with his free hand.

The phone rang as his wife was clearing the plates. She sat down heavily, and Shodo jumped up, biting his tongue as he did so. He limped in a circle, speechless: the pain at the tip of his tongue was white and his legs began to give way. Fayzullah took the phone.

It was Shodo’s sister from the next town. There was election fever in Issyl. There was bunting in the main street. Loudspeakers on the lamp posts. Two sorts of cheese in the shops. Wallpaper had appeared in the department store.

Later that night, when his sons were back in the house, Shodo emerged from the sauna and walked slowly through the rooms, thinking. The arc light from the orchard spilled across the floor of the lounge, bending on his heavy sideboard of glassware and up the green carpet on the wall. He was pleased with his home; content with what he had made from his father’s yard.

He rounded the arch into the kitchen, where even in the half-light he could make out purple paint against the dark brown wall. Fayzullah was colour-blind, which was a pity at a time like this. The paint would have to go. As he stood, she appeared with her hair down; on her way to bed but dressed in a summer house coat and carrying a cloth in her hand. 

– “I thought I would give the phone a little clean”, she said tentatively, as though fearing he would be angry.

Fayzullah, my partner in life, mother of my sons. He looked at the pale triangle of her face, bleached by the orchard light, and decided to leave the paint until the morning.

– “Good idea”, he said gently.

***

– “Shodo Habobov?” the soft voice enquired two days later. – “There are a lot of foreigners in the country”.

– “In our province we are being vigilant, sir” Shodo said quickly, then as an afterthought “while welcoming the international approach that our country is taking”.

– “Oh, really?” the fluent voice asked softly. Shodo stopped. He didn’t know what to make of that oh really? Oh really?

– “Are you in an election frame of mind?” the voice continued.

– “Preparations are going forward.” Shodo could hear the thud of his heart in his voice and thought it must be audible down the phone.

A pause. Shodo decided to take a risk.

– “The people are being mobilised and assessing the achievements of the past seven years. I think it is obvious to all where their wellbeing lies and many would be happy not to have an election. I would gladly.…”

– “Shodo Habobov, would you want to stand as President?” the voice interrupted, like a flick of satin.

Shodo’s cry was quite genuine. A cry of fear and astonishment. 

– “Sir” he said, struggling to hold his voice steady. – “The President is my father. I am as his son. And what son would pit himself against his father? Sir? I sound shocked, but I feel I have been asked to raise a knife to the heart of our country. Raise it with my own hand.”

– “Calm yourself, Mr Habobov” the voice said.

“Who would even suggest that?” Shodo continued, his shock turning to cold suspicion and anger the more he thought about it. “Which two-rouble tyke in platform heels would spread a rumour like that? Like a layer of donkey dung for decent people to tread in, and trail through their homes, and even dirty our dear President’s office…?”

– “Shodo Habobov, we want you to stand as President. The President wants you to stand against him. The foreigners want to see an opposition.”

Shodo slumped against the wall. This was worse. Fayzullah put down the aubergines she was holding and eyed him anxiously. “I obey of course” Shodo said weakly. “Tell me what I must do.”

One week later a black car ploughed up the orchard drive, spewing clouds of dust on the cumquat groves, right and left. Shodo’s son Fuaz took delivery of election posters that showed Shodo as he had been twenty years ago when he was a lecturer in philosophy at the railway institute, standing in a suit and checked shirt under a tree in the town. The picture must have been taken at long distance with a zoom lens. Shodo and his family had never seen it before.

Four hundred election pamphlets were unpacked from their brown paper in the back seat of the limousine. They were called “Yes! But…” and showed Shodo alone with his head bowed and right hand on his chin, evidently thinking. Fayzullah recognised the picture. It was taken on the day of the baseball gloves, when he had stood behind the goat shed, calculating a price to shift the load. 

Shodo and Fayzullah knew what they must do. They took scissors and cut borders off the posters so they were half their original size, and pinned them in a row on the inside of the goat shed door. If the man came from the president’s office they would leave the door open and show they were electioneering. The pamphlets, they put at the bottom of the cumquat crates that were heading for market up north; twenty per crate, giving protection to the plump and aching fruit. Seventeen crates were loaded and hammered shut ready for trucking, the “Yes, Buts…” they hoped, soaking down soon into paper pulp. Fuaz drove the crates down to the fruit and vegetable depot himself and supervised their loading.

Shodo decided to go to a sanatorium in the run-up to the election and stay with his sister in Issyl for a few weeks after, until the fuss had died down. He looked in need of a sanatorium. His cheeks had sunk with strain since that first telephone call and straight black bristles sprang out of them, like the muzzle of an unattractive dog. He sat in the corner with his leg over the chair arm, watching the vast monochrome TV. Tall ladies in traditional costume rolled on tiny feet to greet foreign visitors, who were landing in the airport daily. 

Next morning Fuaz came back with the local newspaper and passed his hand over his face while Shodo and Fayzullah leaned over the table, reading it. There was an interview with Shodo on the inside back page called “A Stream Addresses the River…”. It explained he was standing against the President to help him move the country forward. It was all in the language of the President’s men so difficult to make out, but Shodo felt distinctly uncomfortable to see words like “evaluate” coming from his own mouth, and words like “Yes, But…”. Times could change and then where would they be? He looked round the room he loved and shuddered. On the TV, trainloads of troops were shown arriving in the city to do pre-election repairs to the pavements and flowerbeds. “Here come your voters” Fayzullah said, as she rose to go to the kitchen.

***

After the interview was published, no one came near them. A neighbour was supposed to return a sieve; Fayzullah found it by chance with no message in the grass at the top of the dirt drive. The district committee was supposed to discuss amenity- provision for houses in their micro-zone. Fuaz found an anonymous note pinned inside the fence saying “No amenities”. 

Shodo prepared for the sanatorium with relief. It was in the mountains and no newspapers were there. As their truck left the house to take him to the railway station they came across a thin young soldier in brown fatigues hammering a post into the ground at Shodo’s gate and attaching a large picture of him to it as they watched. It was the photograph from “Yes, But…” The soldier turned flat shiny eyes from the picture to Shodo with no change of expression, then packed his tools into a hold-all and turned away down the dusty road. The soldier’s glance really did make Shodo feel sick. It was the look of someone whom life could not surprise. He continued the drive in silence.

Election day in the town dawned bright and sunny. Bunting fluttered at the main polling booth in the primary school. Bunting was visible too behind muddy green palings that fenced the barracks off from the street. Foreign observers were out in force and responding to questions on TV. Fayzullah watched a man in a flak jacket say he was encouraged by the election bid of Mr Shodo Habobov, campaigning to the last amid the mountain peoples in the east of the country. Fayzullah thought she recognised him. He had been round to their house 18 months before to buy carpets.

***

When the results were in and the President’s mandate extended for 13 years, four votes for Shodo Habobov could not be accounted for. They had been put in ballot boxes in suburbs where no soldiers were stationed. An investigation began at the highest level. In the north of the country a man called Leftie Oinikhand was charged with “sabotaging the electoral process” after he had reported finding a piece of election pamphlet stuck to his lip and the words “Yes, But…” on the bottom of a cumquat he had stolen. He couldn’t be blamed. There were no newspapers in Khaland and no one had read “A Stream Addresses the River…”

Shodo came home from his sister’s house in Issyl to find a Summons on his sideboard. He was being investigated for handling stolen goods and speculating in building materials. After the strain of the previous few weeks Shodo felt relief wash over him as he read the letter. This was something he understood. This was something he could handle.

– “Tell Fuaz that first choice of the candelabra goes to Inspector Ballodo’s wife” he said to Fayzullah as he disappeared into the sauna. She nodded, glad to have him home. She was comparing swatches of curtain cloth for the kitchen, and decided she would go for tawny whorls. 

2003