The President’s Choices
A Short Story.
The president is gliding his palm over a swathe of scarlet satin draped over Mario’s left arm. Mario hesitates, before tilting his head to the side. He arches his eyebrows, closes and opens his eyes in a forced, bored manner, before running his other arm underneath to cradle the fabric, shaking it out in a flamboyant fluttering movement.
“This would certainly be a marvellous choice, Mr President,” he lisps. He is looking straight at the president now, though he is conscious of the president’s wife; this was supposed to be about her, but she has hardly spoken.
“Yes, this feels right,” says the president. “I’d take something in this. Something low-cut. Yeah honey? ”
Her smile is restrained, line-free. She shifts a little, stretching rather awkwardly into a new position. She moves her legs, tucking her long feet underneath the stubby-legged Louis XIV chair chair. Mario recognises the piece. it’s a pretty enough little thing that has been a part of the house furniture for generations, one of those historical props that photographers have positioned in discreet corners at important moments in history. He is a little surprised to see it in use. He has seen pictures of other first ladies in the vicinity of this chair, never actually sitting on it though.
“The scarlet is fabulous, don’t you think?” says Mario, stretching the fabric towards her. She shrugs.
““I like red,” says the president. “She likes red too.”
The first lady looks too big for the chair; she moves her long, beautiful legs again, sweeping them to the side in another pose that might hurt her ankles were it not for the sumptuousness of the thick-pile deep-blue carpet. Mario twirls on one foot before gliding towards his assistant who is peeping around the dark oak doors that lead to one of the many side rooms. While the assistant is fumbling as he exchanges new samples of material, Mario conducts the hand-over with a balletic sort of pizazz. The president is watching as Mario twirls again, carrying a vibrant orange taffeta over one arm now, a chartreuse crushed velvet over the other. He turns to the first lady:
“If you like the scarlet, the red, I am certain you’ll just love these.”
The vibrant colours stand out against the dark panelling that lines the recessed area they are in. The other walls in this marvellous dressing room are lined in a mixture of floor to ceiling mirrors interspersed with marble pillars. From the open, communal space they are in now, another pair of ornate doors leads to the president and first lady’s private dressing rooms, which are located one at either end of the exiting corridor.
“Oh gosh,” says the president. “Isn’t that something, the way the orange sort of shimmers? It feels a little crinkly though, the colour is good, but maybe you’d have it in a softer material? Oh this one is very nice too, what a shade and it feels wonderful!” The president strokes the crushed velvet like he is petting a delicate dog’s head.
Mario turns back to the first lady:
“With your features, that skin tone?” He hesitates. Emboldened, hand on hip, he juts out his chin:
“That body? Honey, you could wear anything and look a million dollars!”
The president steps forward. He stares into Mario’s eyes. He looks stern. Mario tilts his head again, pouts a little as he folds his fabric-laden arms:
“Oh, Mr President, I’ve no doubt you’ve said the same thing yourself, sweetie!”
For a quivering moment the president seems nonplussed, then he breaks into hearty, tense laughter: “You’re a ballsy little fucker, but I like you. Isn’t he ballsy, honey? I don’t usually like them, but I’ll make an exception. You got more like this, funny guy?”
“Oh I’ve got all you need, Sir,” says Mario.
The president picks samples of different fabrics. He doesn’t offer much by way of design suggestions, just low-cut, low-cut. He seems to lose interest after a while, says he has lots to do. He leaves his wife with Mario and the assistant.
“Pick whatever you want, you know what I like,” he says to his wife, sweeping a hand in his wake in what Mario takes to be a goodbye wave. Mario waves too, feeling rather foolish as the president departs without looking back.
The first lady decides what she wants, now that her husband has gone. She picks very different fabrics to her husband’s choices: a raw silk teal, an indigo chiffon. She is torn between an olive-burgundy brocade and a damson velvet.
“This might be too pushy?” she says, pointing to the velvet, but she decides to try both samples anyway. Mario suggests a bolero style waistcoat for the brocade, the damson, he says, would be perfect for a long pashmina to go with an evening dress.
“A little tasteful beading would really enhance it. I could have it sent to my woman in Gujarat? She’s marvellous, works out of Porbandar. That’s the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi!”
“Yes, that sounds perfect,” says the first lady. She pauses though, quickly changes her mind: “No. Isn’t there someone closer to home, with similar skills?”
“Oh. Oh yes. Of course, I’ll look into that,” says Mario.
The first lady has a lot to say about dresses. She is opinionated and articulate about the sort of style she thinks appropriate for a first lady.
“Armani, Channel, Gucci, I do like them, but they’re everywhere don’t you think? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love them all, Giorgio especially, but I want to bring something different. I need to change my look. Be Classy, not too high street?”
“Yes Ma’am, I understand. I don’t do high street, so that’s not a problem.”
“I’m not saying everything needs to look like I’m going to a gala, but I want the cut to be flattering, sophisticated, more Hepburn than Westwood. Classical, well cut, chest but no cleavage, legs, but, nothing above the knee.”
“You’ll be needing day and evening wear?”
“Yes, this fabric here, the grey flannel, and that one. Oh, and that over there, the baby blue wool, they’re more daytime don’t you think?”
“Yes, absolutely. Nice choices, Ma’am.”
“These ones are for evening wear.”
“They’re suitable, though this gunmetal silk could be very elegant for, say, an informal luncheon?”
“Yes, I agree. So we’re good for now then?”
“Yes, Ma’am, we certainly are. Just one thing though. The fabrics that your husband picked out, will you still be requiring those?”
“Only, they seem rather different to your own choices.”
“The president picked them, I’ll be keeping them.”
“His suggestions in terms of the makeup, the design of the dresses I mean, you’re happy with those?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Alright, Ma’am, your wish is my command.”
“Well, those are my husband’s wishes.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I understand. We will make the dresses the way your husband would like them made.”
“Not all of them. Only the ones in the fabrics he picked.”
“Just one thing.”
“The dresses, from those fabrics?”
“Your husband’s choices?”
“Yes. Well. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they weren’t quite the right fit. They may be a little looser. Just not quite sitting right?”
“But Ma’am, my work is highly respected. The clothes I make fit perfectly.”
“Well, some won’t. Don’t worry, I’ve seen your work. You’ll be getting plenty of commissions from me. But, when you are making so much, a few mistakes are bound to happen?”
“We’re all human, Ma’am.”
Over the coming weeks and months Mario presents the first lady with one after another outfit. Daywear, evening wear, his work is flawless. Except, that is, for those dresses, the president’s choices. Mario is apologetic as he hands her the scarlet satin:
“I have to say, Ma’am, I’m not entirely comfortable with this.”
“Thank you for your discretion, Mario.”
The first lady and Mario, who is now her official designer-dressmaker, are developing a comfortable, easy bond. Of course she wears many other designers, but Mario just seems to know what she wants, his clothing works for her, her body, the public image she is keen to foster.
“You’ve been getting very favourable coverage Ma’am,” says Mario one day, as he is running through some new sketches with her.
“What do you mean?”
“In the press. They like you. And they like your image, your elegance.”
“Don’t you mean they like you? Your work, the way I look in your creations?”
“Well yes. Yes I suppose I am saying that! We’re a good team Ma’am.”
“Do you know, I think you might be right.”
“Ma’am, I don’t mean to overstep the mark, but could I ask you a question?”
“You can ask.”
“Has the president, well, asked to see you wearing the scarlet dress?”
“That hasn’t been an issue. It won’t be a problem. Don’t worry.”
“Only, I do worry. What if he asks you to put it on? I don’t feel so happy to stand over that work. The chartreuse is almost ready. I’d rather like to burn it!”
“I said don’t worry. I’ve been married to the president for fourteen. Oh look, let’s not talk about the president. Everybody wants to talk about the president.”
“Honey, everybody wants to talk about you!”
When Mario gives the chartreuse dress to the first lady, he is equally uneasy at the thoughts of handing over deliberately inferior work. The first lady hushes him. She opens the shoulder bag she is carrying and pulls out the scarlet satin dress.
“I want you to make some adjustments to this please.”
“You’re going to wear it!”
“Oh no, gosh no. But I had an idea. If you would make it bigger, wider. And the neckline, maybe not quite so plunging? I’ll give it to my mother. The president loves my mother, he won’t mind.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Only I hate to see it go to waste. I may be the first lady, but I wasn’t always the first lady. I don’t see these as throwaway.”
“And the chartreuse?”
“Yes. You could do the same with the chartreuse. Another couple of inches would be good, I see you’ve double hemmed the seams, there’s enough fabric to let it all out. Actually, maybe more than a couple of inches, say, six inches? Is that possible? You could put in an extra panel if you need to. My mother is an elegant lady, but big. She would love to have some pieces tailored by the first lady’s personal designer.”
The public love her. While the president’s ratings shoot up and down like runaway fireworks, the first lady’s place in the people’s hearts is on a steady incline. Of course, unlike her husband, she is very photogenic, which helps. She has certainly become the iconic champion of style she had wished to be. She is hailed as a woman of class and good taste, a role model for young women, the epitome of simple, unadorned elegance with a sporty twist. Gone are the tacky adornments she once loved. Nowadays it is a bouncy Labrador named Luther (after Martin of course) who is her go-to accessory.
It’s more than just image though, of course. The press and the public seem to have taken it upon themselves to frame their own, imagined narrative around her. Of course she works hard to keep them on the wrong track, referring, often, to her humble origins. Whilst it’s true to say her early days were spent in modest circumstances compared with her life today, by most markers her family have always done just fine. The press doesn’t delve too deep, there’s no indication of anything sinister or morally corrupt in her background. They extol her every virtue: the dedication she shows as a mother to the twins; the causes she stands behind; her down-to-earth manner; the keen interest in the arts. A cursory search would show just how new this range of interests is to her. It’s not long since the first lady’s sense of style stretched about as far as fur coats and skimpy lingerie; it’s only recently that her taste in art has stepped beyond an obscenely large collection of particularly tacky pieces by De Rigaldo, the current target of every scoffing art critic this side of the equator. The fur coats did a sudden disappearance once she took up office, as did the De Rigaldos and a certain weakness for foie gras. She gets away with a lot, this first lady. For now, at least, the public are eating up all the Mom’s-apple-pie she can bake. There’s an unspoken agreement in press ranks not to let those finer details of the truth ruin the public’s enjoyment of a good old-fashioned fairy tale.
While the first lady slips into her roles – representing the office and country with pride and poise; her ease in the public arena seems in stark contrast to her husband’s growing persona as a walking, talking PR disaster.
At the rate the first lady’s star is rising, the president’s reputation seems to be sinking ever deeper into the mire. The president is a daily, ever-hurtling asteroid about to crash. He is hated; he is vilified; he is held in disdain by a vocal public at home and throughout the world. He is a national embarrassment, a political non-starter. If dinner party and barroom chatter is to be believed these days, there is not a single citizen who actually voted for this bullying buffoon. Far from Making My Land Magic, as his campaign slogan claimed he would, he has turned his country into the laughing stock of the world.
“You should do us all a favour, President Magic,” a well known witty talk show host says: “You should wave that wand of yours and make yourself disappear!” The clip goes viral, of course, reaches every corner of the globe. Savvy commentators are having a field day. If health, education, immigration and any other vaguely social policy is collapsing like a hacked down rainforest, the comedy and satire industries are flourishing with his constant feed of bluster and hyperbole. And for every note of criticism that comes his way – every negative observation, every step and banner-waving gesture of protest and objection, the president seems to sink further and further into petulant displays of irrational anger. His ferocity seems to grow alongside a catalogue of alarming political decisions. It all sweeps along like a rolling snowball, seeming to gather momentum as it barrels down some ever-growing mountainside.
It is a relatively simple incident that triggers the catastrophe. The president is being his usual blustering self as a press briefing on climate change is at full tilt, when out of nowhere, an unknown reporter, who, in actual fact is not even a reporter yet, is invited by the president to ask the question which will lead to his own downfall. Dodging a heated exchange with some of the media heavyweights, the president points to a timid young woman amongst the gathered press, who is sitting without expectation of being addressed.
“You,” says the president, pointing to her. “I’ll take a question from you.”
“Me?” says Leen Van Der Mark, whose name will soon be known the world over. “Well that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” he says, curtly.
“Oh. OK. Leen Van Der Mark here. Em. Mr President. I would like to ask. Em.
Well, it seems to me Mr President, that you are not behaving in a very respectful or loving manner towards the environment? Em. You don’t show much love, Mr President. I think the world would like to know: did your Mom and Dad love you?”
The president is, for once in his life, struck dumb. But not for long. Words fill his cheeks, building into a blushing rage which erupts in a fist-shaking onslaught:
“Who the fuck are you? Asking me a question like that? I am the president. The president of this country. How fucking dare you!”
The president stops, sways, is breathing deeply. His eyes seem to glow in rage. He hauls in a huge breath and reaches forward. As the assembled world press watch in disbelief, the president grabs a large crystal vase of flowers from a podium to his right. The camera bulbs flash. Salivating TV cameras roll into action like bears. He takes the vase, hoists it aloft like a football prize, then hurls it through the air at the young woman, who stares, unmoving.
TV stations will show an image of this woman in the days and weeks to come. It is a close-up of her face. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyes are wide and focussed on the airborne object before her. The image will feature on the front page of pretty much every newspaper the world over.
The flying vase has suddenly shifted to slow motion. It tumbles towards her through a chaos of dodging heads and screams, suspended waterdrops held singly in the air, as sunflowers and baby’s breath, daisies, forsythias and who knows what cartwheel through the air towards her. The featherlight blossoms are cast aside as the hurtling glass vase barges through the air like an earthbound rocket.
The vase bounces off her astonished head before hitting the marble floor, where it shatters into the million tiny pieces that might reflect the status of the current, soon to be fired, President. Flowers scurry along in the wake of the broken vase. They rain down through the air, a burst of rebellious colour, landing on top of the crumbled glass like broken funeral wreaths.
Leen Van Der Mark, the uncertain young intern with Environmental News Weekly, will decide to pursue that journalistic career after all. Journalism is a competitive world, money couldn’t buy this start. Seventeen stitches along her hairline leave the lasting scar she will decide not to treat with plastic surgery; front page worldwide coverage; a certain lucky knack for asking the right question: these, along with some ability and tenacity, will see her on to her journey towards becoming BNN’s youngest ever Chief Political Correspondent.
The first lady’s phone is ringing as she makes her way along the corridor. Mario’s face comes up on the screen. She swipes his call aside, switches the phone off.
When she walks into the president’s dressing room, she is moved to see him sitting in front of the mirror with his back turned to her. It is a while since she has seen him like this, she had started to think that maybe, since becoming president, he had come to a decision. She likes to see him this way, it stirs something in her – a sort of poignancy. She likes to believe it is about trust, that the level of openness he displays at these times is something she should not take lightly.
“Darling,” she says, gliding towards him. He remains seated, keeps facing forwards. As she moves through the dark panelling of his dressing room, he lifts his head to the mirror before him, so that it is the reflection of his face which greets her. The theatre lights around the mirror illuminate his distorted features.
“I’ve cancelled our engagements for this evening,” he says quietly.
“Yes, I know. I asked the staff to leave us alone.”
“Selena and Marcus?”
“The nannies will make sure they don’t disturb us.”
The first lady reaches forward to massage the president’s shoulders. She kisses the top of his head, then continues massaging. His shoulders are tense. After a few moments she slips the straps, watches the red satin dress slide down to his waist. For a few minutes she moves her hands up and down along his back, before lifting the dress-straps back over his shoulders and turning his swivel chair to face her as she moves down onto her knees. She opens her arms and he tips forward, resting his forehead on her shoulder. She pats his back, rubs it, gently pushes him upright again. She picks up the pack of cleansing tissues. She plucks out a few and reaches forward to wipe his face, noticing that his mascara has already started to run.