It’s 2020, and ex-president Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza has just been released from prison on medical parole, with a dangerously infected ingrown toenail. Now he’s back home with his two remaining wives, a skinny dog, a rapidly dwindling entourage, and a fire pool to maintain. Plus the municipality is demanding he pay a vast outstanding rates bill.
But Muza has plans – big ones – that include a memoir of alternative facts being ghostwritten by disgraced journo Matthew Stone. Will Stone meet his deadline, as publisher, agent, and drug dealer all breathe down his neck? Will Muza pay the money in time and succeed in his plans to conquer the world? Will his long-suffering parole officer stay one jump ahead of him? And which side is he limping on today?
30 DAYS TILL DEADLINE
‘Writer, did you type up all those words I gave you yesterday?’ The ex-President asks as he lumbers into the room without apology. I shouldn’t complain, he’s only forty-five minutes late. Better than yesterday, when I stared at the four walls and a damp-stained ceiling for an hour and a half before he and his entourage deigned to grace me with their presence.
‘I did, sir, but I need to discuss this with you…’
‘Excellent. Read those words back to me now, comrade, so we can hear how it sounds before we proceed with Chapter Two. I think this is going to be a very, very great book, a bestseller definitely.’
His gang all nod and two of them high-five each other. I try again, forcing respect into my tone: ‘Yes sir, but the thing is…’
‘Ah, you are intimidated by me, Mr Stone. And I understand, I know it must be unnerving being so close to a living legend, but remember, I am still just a man who is made of flesh, bones and blood.’
‘No sir, actually, that’s not it…’ I begin again.
‘And you don’t have to call me sir. You can call me Mr President.’
‘Ex-President,’ I mumble.
‘You can begin reading now, Mr Stone. I’m an important man, with a sore toe, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste any more of my time.’
Trying to reason with him appears to be useless. I roll my eyes so far back in my head I can see the wall behind me. When they roll back around again, I tilt my laptop screen to offset the glare, clear my throat, and read as un-sarcastically as possible. Which isn’t easy.
‘Chapter One,’ I begin. ‘It was a beautiful day outside, but I had to be patient when I was released from prison, because it took forever for the gates to slide open so I could step into freedom, wearing my expensive suit. Even from behind my tinted glasses, I had to blink away the glare of the sun and cameras. It would take me a while to adjust back into the world after my time away.
‘With all eyes on me, I overcame great pain from the considerable injury that resulted in my medical parole, and limped to the podium. I am from the people of the sky – amaZulu. We are warriors, and a great man does not allow something as inconsequential as a life-threatening physical injury to hinder him. It takes more than a small axe to fell a great tree.
‘During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with this lean, agile physique I have now. When I finally got to the podium…’
‘I believe it was “of a boxer”,’ Muza interrupts me.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘The line you just read out, comrade writer: it’s supposed to say that I replaced my bulk with the lean, agile physique of a boxer. You said the words, “lean, agile physique”, but you must also include the boxer bit. It’s a very important detail.’
The ex-President’s men grunt. I type in his changes, bashing at the keyboard with two reluctant fingers, then reread the revised sentence in a monotone.
‘…During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with the lean, agile physique of a boxer.’ I look up to see if he’s satisfied. His double chins wobble as he nods, and his gang add their bobble-head-dog-on-the-dashboard nods, so I continue reading.
‘In the glare of hundreds of thousands of camera flashes, the first thing I saw from the podium, with my tireless lawyer, comrade Zwelani, by my side, was the massive crowd. In their excitement to be near their idol, thousands of people surged forward, roaring my name, “Muza, Muza, Muza!” The men were dancing, the women ululating. Some of the people in the crowd were even crying – with happiness, of course!
Fans threw flowers at me as the press jostled to get the best shot for the world’s newspaper covers the next day. They had to be pushed back by the police! I waited for the crowd to settle, so I could be heard over the cheering. Then I spoke directly to my people for the first time in three years, eight months and twenty-seven days. It is a triumphant moment I will never forget. In prison, not a day went by that I didn’t visualise my great resurrection! My holy revival! Viva Muza, viva!
‘The crowd hung on my every word. History will report that I am a great orator. And so, in this historic speech that will be quoted until the end of time, I did not shy away from the truth! I recalled the contentious circumstances of my detainment, outlining how my opponents and adversaries colluded and abused the ends of justice to bring me down! The crowd roared! They saw before them a man who could not be kept low! A man who would soon lead them once again!
‘Then other VIPs came to the podium. A preacher spoke of how I made this country great while I was President. Then a community leader bore witness to my charity and intelligence. Of course the press will not report on these things, comrades, because they are out to get me, spreading hateful propaganda. But believe me, I heard and saw these events with my very own eyes and ears.’
I peer over my screen as I come to the end of the chapter. The ex-President’s eyes are closed, and he’s mouthing the words as I read. When I’m done, he starts clapping, and everyone else joins in.
‘Very good, Mr Stone. Very, very good. You are clearly a talented writer. This is rousing, powerful stuff, don’t you agree?’
‘I would agree, sir, except … except, I didn’t write a word of it, and none of it is really true, is it?’
Muza glares at me as the room goes quiet.
‘What are you saying, writer?’
‘I’m saying, sir, Mr ex-President, sir, that what you dictated to me and instructed me to type up, isn’t exactly how things really played out on the day.’
‘How do you know what happened on that day, Mr Stone? You weren’t there from what I understand.’
‘No, you’re right about that part at least, I wasn’t there on the day you were released from prison.’
‘And neither were the millions of people who will be buying and reading this book, were they, Mr Stone?’ says the ex-President as he sips from one of the Cokes his men have handed round. I note that nobody has offered me one.
‘No, sir, once again you’re right, the people who will buy this book probably weren’t there on that day, but you see, the press were there, and they had cameras. People tweeted and Facebooked and Instagrammed about it. And from everything I saw, the events on the day were vastly different to the ones you’ve had me write down here.
‘For example, there were no speakers, and the crowd had to be held back because the police were concerned for your safety. You say people were throwing flowers, but there are only reports of some rotting fruit and veg flying around. And the bit about how much weight you lost, well, I don’t know how to put this delicately, sir, but many have referred to your parliamentary pillow…’ I say, noting his massive bulk. He’s wearing a grubby leopard-print vest with a hole just under the armpit and a pair of faded black tracksuit bottoms. His boep stretches the fabric of the vest to its limits. Boxer’s physique, my foot. Maybe in the heavyweight category. Float like an elephant, sting like a buzzard.
‘Comrade Stone, clearly you have a lot to learn about politics,’ Muza booms. ‘Just because the press says something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we believed everything the press have accused me of in the last twenty years, where would I be today?’
‘Probably still in jail,’ I mutter.
‘Exactly!’ he shoots back. ‘And I’m not, am I? I am here, back in my majestic, magnificent Homestead, where I belong. Working on some very big business plans and preparing to lead this great country once again. So you see, you can’t always believe what the press prints.’
‘Weeeeeell…’ I say.
‘And whose memories are these anyway? They are mine, not yours, Mr Stone. Mine,’ he snaps.
Muza’s veneer of charm is thinning. Not that I care. What’s he going to do, call SARS and have me audited? Fire me, hire someone else to do the job, fire them, and then hire someone new all in one weekend? Complain to Cyril? Set The Hawks on me? Hardly. He’d be lucky to find the power or the airtime to set a budgie on me. Although I don’t like the looks I’m getting from his heavies.
‘First of all, it’s a memoir, not memories, sir. And secondly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that you’re under contract with my publisher. We have a month in which you’re contractually obliged to tell me your story: the truth as it really happened, not a bunch of alternative facts that you’ve whipped up.’
‘And let me remind you, comrade Stone, that you TOO are under contract with MY publisher. You are supposed to write down everything I tell you.’
‘Yes, but right now there’s a rather big difference between everything you tell me and the truth.’
‘Are you calling me a liar, comrade Stone?’
We glare at each other, neither wanting to look away first. Until he starts his trademark chuckle, and everyone else in the room starts laughing too. I’m thrown; it’s not a reaction I was expecting.
All challenge leaves his eyes as he changes tack: ‘You must relax, comrade Stone. You worry too much. You will have your stories, and the publisher will get their book in time.’
‘Are you sure? Because we only have a month, and I’ve already been here for three days, and all you’ve done so far is keep me waiting, and then dictate a bunch of fake news, and make me write it down with a lot of exclamation marks. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to use any of it, unless the publisher decides to put this title on their fiction list instead.’
‘So, Mr Professional Writer, you don’t like the way I work. Why don’t you tell us all how you would like to do this instead?’
‘Well, for one, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time together if we’re going to get your story down in the time we have left. And you’re going to have to allow me to write it for you. What’s the point of having a professional writer if you don’t let me actually write anything? If your idea is to dictate your version of the story to me, then let’s rather just get a typist. But I think you’ll find I’m a damn good writer, if you give me half a chance.’
‘Perhaps you’re right, comrade.’
‘Sure,’ he says.
‘So you’ll agree to meet with me every day for a few hours, and if you’re going anywhere or having any meetings, perhaps I can shadow you?’
Muza nods, and his entourage domino-nods.
I’m flooded with relief. I press record and place my dictaphone on the coffee table between us.
‘That would be brilliant. Why don’t we start with how it really felt to come back to the Homestead that day, after being away for so long? Did you know that three of your five wives had left you while you were in prison, and that you would be coming home to a much emptier Homestead than the one you left three years, eight months and twenty-seven days earlier?’
Muza stares at the dictaphone. He shifts in his seat and winces.
‘Those are interesting questions, comrade writer. You have given me a lot to think about and I need to consider my responses carefully. So I think that is enough work on the memories for today, don’t you?’
‘But it’s only eleven,’ I say as Muza makes a few false starts at getting to his feet, rocking backwards and forwards. Finally he clutches the armrest to heave himself out of the leather couch.
‘Can we talk again later?’ I ask.
‘I have a phone call with the Minister of Finance now, and then an important meeting with my campaign manager that I need to prepare for, so regrettably I will have to cut our work on the memories short today.’
‘Can I sit in on the calls?’
‘I would invite you, comrade, but it’s sensitive business. Top secret, in fact.’
‘Sir, Mr ex-President…’ I begin, my voice stern.
‘Alright, alright, I have a meeting with my parole officer in a few days. You can join us for that. One last thing before I go, comrade Stone.’
‘Yes?’ I say, hopefully.
‘You wouldn’t have a couple hundred I could borrow? A bottle of Johnnie Walker Black would definitely help me get my creative juices flowing, so we can write these memories together in time.’
‘That’s the point I was trying to make before, Mr ex-President. Please don’t flow with creative juices. I don’t want your juices. The creativity part is my job. I just need you to tell me the truth in your own words: how you feel and what you’re going through. People want to hear about the real man behind the legend.’
‘Precisely, comrade Stone, you are right of course. And I think a bottle of Johnnie Black would definitely help me find that man for you.’
‘Didn’t you just get a massive advance from the publisher?’ I ask.
His jaw sets. ‘Do you have any idea how much it costs to run a place like this?’ He indicates the mouldering ceiling and stained walls.
‘I think most of South Africa has some idea,’ I murmur. ‘Not to mention the legal fees from my early parole.’
Legal fees: that’s a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one, I think, as the ex-President puts his hand out, palm up. And he’s not waiting for a high five. I take cash out of my pocket and he grabs a corner of the wad. I grip my end of it tightly.
‘If I give you this, do you promise we can do some more work together later today, after your calls?’
‘Of course, comrade, you have my word,’ he says.
I let go of my side of the wad, and the cash is secreted in his tracksuit pants in under a second.
‘And if not today, comrade, we’re definitely on for tomorrow,’ he adds as he waddles out of the room, followed by his crew. He’s quick on his feet for a man with such a dangerously infected ingrown toenail that he’s been released from prison years early on medical parole.
I look around for something to punch, but everything in this room looks like it already had the life punched out of it ages ago.