Melanija

This piece was originally published by a great online literary magazine called The Wild Word

Nobody believed that I pushed Irena into the Sava. But I did. I didn’t even feel anything as I watched her flounder. I knew one of the boys would jump in to save her.

Her shorts and t-shirt were sticking to her as she scrambled back up the bank.  The boy who’d pulled her out tossed her a dry shirt. She draped it around her shoulders and stared at me. She was one of those people who looked prettier wet.

No one said a word at first. Then one of the boys spoke. “Melanija, what did you do that for?”

I could feel their eyes boring into me. Wondering what could have possessed a creature as delicate as me to perform such a brutal act.

She’d called me stupid. In class beforehand, under her breath. For insisting Milan was the capital of Italy. But anyone could have made that mistake. My mother was always talking about the shows there. All the magazines she brought home from work had spreads from Milan. It was a logical thing to assume. Why wouldn’t the center of fashion be the capital too? It was for Paris.

I shrugged. “I guess I’m too stupid to know.” The boys looked at me like they never had before. Some of them were impressed, I think. And others a bit afraid. Their worlds were opening up.

I was younger than my son is now when I threw Irena into the Sava. A good bit actually, now that I think about it. Definitely no more than ten. The memory came flooding back earlier when I got another invitation to our school reunion. Last time, in 2014, they’d sent it to my agent’s address. This time, the envelope was presented on a silver tray, along with some fan mail from schoolchildren in Uganda and a letter of appreciation from a group of women who support my husband. They put a lot of effort into curating my mail and even go the bother of resealing the envelopes after they’ve been checked. I appreciate those little touches. More than they know.

Dear Melanija, Please join us for an afternoon of reminiscing about our time at Sevnica national school. No special mention of my current situation, or of the logistical challenges attending would present. I folded it and slipped it back inside the envelope.  Surely, this must be the first time an invitation to a Slovenian school reunion had been screened by the US government.

Irena’s never spoken to the press. As far as I know anyway. But even if she did, what evidence would she have of what happened that day? There were no phones, then. And it would be easy to deny such a story. Most of what they write about me is a lie anyway.

I might even do it again, if I were back there, in the same circumstances. Irena was one of those annoying children who had lots of knowledge but no instincts. It was infuriating for her to think that she was cleverer than me. Especially when I knew that it was her destiny to be ordinary, and that it was mine not to be.

When I think back to that day, I realize that I’ve always been allergic to humiliation. It’s something I have in common with Donald. Even a glimmer of it makes us both ruthless. I think we recognized that in each other early on. Part of the attraction, probably.

But there are differences in our antipathy. These days, I can cope with ridicule. Let them paint me as vacuous. You don’t get to where I am with nothing between your ears. Where is Irena now? Teaching math in dingy classroom somewhere? Auditing accounts for a financial services company? I couldn’t care less how stupid she thinks I am. Let her mock my improbable fate.

Donald has no such composure. To him, laughter is as dangerous and foreign as Slovenian is. The principles of both languages are impossible for him to understand. He’d rather bathe in victimhood than be ridiculed. I’m the complete opposite. To me, nothing stings like pity.

The media is at its cruelest when it pretends to show compassion. The moment I batted Donald’s hand away, in slow motion. The way I stopped smiling when I thought we were out of shot. Miserable Melania, they say. She cried on election night.

People who think I’m sad or lonely have a mistaken view of what marriage is. A simplistic one, based on ideals they’ve read about in fairytales. The truth that the small-minded fail to acknowledge is that every relationship is a transaction. And when you have an instinct for business, like Donald and I do, you can see the beauty in the way marriage enables an exchange between equals.

And that is what we’ve always been.

Of course, there are power struggles. They exist in all equal transactions, including in ours. But in this particular, peculiar situation, I have the upper hand. We both know that. I would have no trouble walking, if the humiliation became too great.

I’m not like the other, dispensable members of his administration. Those who woo him with adulation, then anger him with gentle reason. For Donald, there is only deference and defiance. Anything in between he files under treachery.

Not with me though. Through the marital bond, I am afforded the freedom of thought. My husband’s brilliance, like that of many powerful men, resides in his simplicity. FLOTUS, he knows, can’t be easily replaced.

When the grab-‘em-by-the-pussy tape came out during the campaign, I called him disgusting and told him I was leaving. “You can’t,” he said. His face was red. His voice was soft. The words came out like a question.

I looked him right in the eye. “I will.” And he believed me. It’s why he married me. Power has nothing to do with following through. It’s about having the courage to craft a noose and to hold it around the necks, even of those you love.

Since then I’ve been calling the shots. New York until Baron finished the school year. My own schedule. Interviews, only at my whim. No more snatching migrant children from their parents. What is he, a monster?

The liberal media’s too blinded by my beauty to see my brains. But since they insist on painting me in their own image, I’d rather be ornamental than oppressed.

Ornaments are powerful. It doesn’t matter whether they are diamonds, wives, husbands or handbags. All are accessories with the possibility to harness the most powerful currency in the world: attention. To be looked at, feared. Envied, adored. Only hypocrites say the surface doesn’t matter. Even the ugly duckling turns out beautiful in the end.

It maddens me when people say I have been lucky. Implying that I drifted listlessly to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I have done is a calculation. I had the looks. But if it had been something else, I would have capitalized on that. I don’t understand people who don’t make the best of themselves.

If you think I’m heartless, you’re wrong. Only the jealous would jump to such a conclusion. I would do anything for those who brought me here. My mother, who spent her evenings sewing me dresses from the excess fabric she picked up on the factory floor. Who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment unless I was looking smart. She knew what it was to be best. My father, who worked and worked so we could move up and out. From Sevnica to Ljubljana all the way to New York City. Never look back, he said. He, who came from nothing.

I remember once, when Baron was very young, my parents came to Manhattan. I’d been out with my mother for the afternoon and when we came back, the sitting room door was ajar. We tip-toed down the hallway and peered inside.

Baron was curled up on my father’s lap. They were reading from a book. Kaj je to?  – what’s that? my father said, pointing at a picture. And Baron babbled back at him in Slovenian. Then my father said something I didn’t catch. But whatever it was, it made Baron giggle and dig his nose into my father’s chest. And as my mother and I stood hidden in the doorway, she caught the tear falling down my cheek with her freshly painted nail.

Former classmates of mine have complained in interviews that I never answer their invitation to the school reunion. They’re held every five years in a restaurant in Sevnica, just around the corner from where our school once stood. They have always invited me, they said. Even before I was First Lady. But she never comes, they say. She doesn’t even bother writing to decline.

Well, here’s what I have to say to them. Not everyone in life gets stuck. Some of us move up. Some of us make the best out of ourselves.

And maybe there are times when I would sacrifice everything I have now to be back there. Among the timbered houses that line the hills along the Sava. Breathing in the dewy air I remember from my childhood. Re-walking the trail where I once twirled proudly in the skirt my mother sewed.

I’d go, you know. I really would. If only they could guarantee that Irena wouldn’t be there. But how on earth, could I, FLOTUS, get away with making such a demand?

* This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and situations as represented in this story are the product of the author’s imagination, and should not considered to be true or a statement of fact.

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Melania

This month, I’ll be publishing the first of a regular fiction feature at Berlin-based online literary magazine The Wild Word. My column’s called The Other Half and will consider the lives of those allied to people in the spotlight. The idea came from a story I wrote about how I imagine life for Theresa May’s husband, Philip. You can guess from the title of this post whose perspective I’ll be imagining this month.

Will post and link to the piece here once it’s up.

 

 

Brexit drama: weak characters, no romance and a dull plot

Read this post on DW Business here.

I get it. Writing a drama is hard.

There are so many things to think about. Characters. Plot. Pacing. Dialog.

And when you’ve got a following as large as Brexit does, the pressure to deliver must be huge.

But I can’t hold back any longer. The last few episodes have been woeful! It’s got to the point where I can no longer bear to watch the show.

Don’t get me wrong. It started off brilliantly. I remember literally holding my breath as the votes were being counted in the middle of season one.

The writers had done a fantastic job of building up tension. I was totally emotionally invested when the referendum came around.

I mean, just think back to the first episode where David and Nigel play cricket. It’s clear from their angry batting that they hate each other. At one point, Nigel hits a six. His teammates go wild, waving Union Jacks stuck on cocktail sticks around and shouting “take back control” like hooligans do when their team’s losing.

David throws his bat down in rage and Nigel starts taunting him. “Can’t take it Davey, can you? Too afraid to lose?” David scrunches up his face until it’s redder than the Labor party and goes: “I’m calling a referendum!” Nigel’s mouth drops open in surprise, then quickly contorts into triumph. “Bring it on,” he says and sticks the Union-Jack-on -a-cocktail stick behind his ear just like Violet Beauregarde does with her gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When the vote happens a few episodes later, it’s super gripping TV because you’ve no idea which way it’s going to go. All I remember thinking is that regardless of whether David or Nigel wins, there’s going to be some amount of drama ahead.

The first plot holes begin to emerge around the end of season one when both David and Nigel disappear. Their country is on the edge of an abyss because of their cricket game and they don’t have a backbone between them to stick around? How credible is that?

But whatever. Maybe the actors had other commitments. It happens. Besides, I was actually pretty glad when Theresa came along in season two. It’s not many political dramas that have a female lead.

And to be fair, season two does feature some pretty interesting psychology. For one, Theresa chooses to lead the country in a direction she fundamentally opposes.

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Theresa May and David Cameron walking on the pavement together. The early seasons of Brexit were far more compelling. Picture source: UK Home Office Wikipedia Commons License here

Granted, it’s a weird thing for a character to do but I was willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she just really wants the job. Like, more than absolutely anything.

At first, things go okay. After egomaniacs David and Nigel abscond, the British people embrace Theresa as a refreshing alternative. A safe pair of hands.

And here I have to commend the writers for luring us into a false sense of security. I for one did not see those initial approval ratings going to her head like that. I remember gasping in surprise when she calls a general election in the finale of season two.

Season three opens with Theresa in bed smoking a cigarette and googling “Arlene Foster,” “Good Friday Agreement” and “Who owns Northern Ireland?” A Polish cleaner comes in quietly to remove the empty whiskey bottles strewn under the bed.

And honestly, if you ask me, they should have wrapped up the show around there. Because beyond season three, Brexit is practically unwatchable.

After Theresa’s election disaster, the show just falls to pieces. Maybe it was a case of writer’s block but the whole “Northern Ireland” thing just comes out of nowhere.

As viewers, we’re expected to believe that the UK’s most seasoned lawmakers and commentators have no idea of the history of their own country and that of their neighbor, the Republic of Ireland.

It gets worse. Season four and five basically just feature Theresa bickering with Jean-Claude and Michel about something called a “backstop” which the writers don’t even bother to explain.

There’s not even any simmering romantic tension to distract from the tedium.

Things don’t even get better after a deal is reached.

In fact, this season, Brexit really has hit rock bottom.

The writers, evidently completely burned out, have tumbled to the very bottom of the barrel where they scraped frantically and emerged with the “backstop.” Again.

And hey, ho: suddenly this flimsy plot device is all lawmakers care about. Especially those only vaguely aware that the Republic of Ireland has been independent almost as long as their family’s name has appeared in Burke’s Peerage.

It’s got to the point where the episodes just blur together into some version of the following:

Theresa begs parliament to approve the deal she made with Jean-Claude and Michel after one too many cocktails courtesy of the EU commission. (At the time, they teased her, accusing her of being a scrounger).

Parliament says “no way.”  Theresa puts on her tough voice and facetimes Michel and Jean-Claude who are busy measuring the curvature of a Hungarian banana.

“You’re right, it’s leaning too far to the right,” Jean-Claude says. “Oh hey, Theresa. Do you know what time it is?”

“It’s time-to-talk-tough-on-the-backstop o’clock,” Theresa says.

“No offense,” says Michel. “But would you mind calling back? We’re kind of busy.”

So Theresa goes back to parliament and says: “Now do you like my deal?”

“The nays have it,” says the speaker of the House.

“Fine,” Theresa says, as visions of a glorious retirement flash before her eyes. “If you don’t approve of my deal, do you even approve of me?”

“The ayes have it!” says the speaker of the house.

And so it goes on. And on. Ad nauseum.

Let’s be frank. Brexit is a drama that began with real promise. But like Friends did about three seasons in, it’s run its course. Passed its peak. Exceeded its sell-by date.

For the sake of fans and critics around the world, it’s time to face the truth. Brexit seemed like a great idea at the start. But having failed to deliver on its promise, the time has come to scrap the drama.

Not every show must go on.

Gillette ad cuts deep into male ego

The following piece was published by DW Business. You can read it here.

Gillette’s latest ad featuring men behaving badly has sparked a furious response from commentators. Men have every reason to be upset. They should be encouraged to express their feelings.

Some men are so upset they’re throwing their razors away. Anything to avoid sissy stubble! Even if it does mean looking like a Neanderthal.

Speaking of Neanderthals, they had it good, didn’t they?

In the cave, the scripts were crystal clear. Men hunted and women gathered. Nothing to be ashamed of there. And the cave ladies always had a smile for you when you returned from the kill.

Oh, but those were the days! When the biggest threat to your ego came from a bear and not a blade. When women used their creativity to make jam out of juniper berries. Not ads based on their everyday experiences.

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Attribution: Wikimedia Commons User: Crisco 1492 Picture features Gillette Mach 3Razor blade

It’s almost enough to make you well up like those effeminate men in the Gillette ad.

What’s their problem anyway? What reason have they to contemplate their identity while a montage of sexual harassment from the real world and film plays in their minds?

The enlightened commentator Piers Morgan, himself on the brink of growing a beard, has it right. “Let boys be damn boys & men be damn men – and stop this damaging war on masculinity,” he tweeted.

 

Hear, hear.

And, truth be told, this is a war. Not the traditional kind for which our bodies are routinely sacrificed. They’re the good ones. At least they feature real tanks. The PC brigade steered by hairy feminists howling “sexism” is far more pernicious. And Gillette, by allowing it to pass into the exclusively male world of grooming, has gone too far.

There is no safe space left.

The least they could have done is issue a trigger warning. Even a gun, which is far less threatening to masculinity, has one.

“The following ad may force you to contemplate yourself in a negative light,” it could have said at the beginning, allowing you to skip watching and cut straight to the comments section.

But no, just as you’d man-spread yourself out on the couch expecting your favorite razor blade producer to offer the usual suggestion of a connection between a good shave and sporting prowess, they delivered something truly heinous: an appeal to your conscience.

It’s these architects of reflection who are the real enemy in the #metoo era.

Those who dare to examine our fragility. To point out our weaknesses. To call us out for our misbehavior.

Because, you see, it hurts!

It hurts to realize that you might be complicit in a culture of degradation not just of girls and women but of boys and men.

It hurts to think that the time you whistled at a girl or made a suggestive comment to a waitress might have been inappropriate. It hurts to think that you’ve spoken over your female colleague, or taken the credit for her ideas. That you may have belittled boys who didn’t conform to your ideal of what a man should be. Or tried to mold them into a mini version of yourself.

It hurts to see yourself as a villain.

So allow yourself to hurt. Be like a snowflake and have the courage to reflect on the world around you.

Let that anger melt away. Turn it into the best it can be. And remember that no matter how well you wear that beard, the Neanderthals who inspired it are now extinct.

My right honorable wife Theresa May

Everyone always talks about how Benazir introduced us. As if she were the catalyst that ignited a fire destined to burn in our bellies as soon as our eyes locked. But it wasn’t like that at all. Especially not for Theresa.

I remember watching her on the dancefloor that night and thinking she moved a bit like a pump. Expanding and contracting, carving out her own space. Graceless but full of conviction.

She conjured associations I found reassuring. Girls playing tennis with their socks pulled up to their knees. Hymns in church. But also, a schoolboy’s desire to be put in his place.

She was holding a glass of orange juice when Benazir pulled her towards me and said: “Theresa, do you know Philip?”

“No.” Not a hint of expectation in her voice. Neither impressed nor disappointed by the sight of me. I felt immediately at ease.

“I suppose I quite liked him,” was what she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs a few years ago. I had to laugh when I heard that. It was only marginally better than the truth: that I was neither especially desirable nor particularly objectionable.

But those traits stood to me. Theresa has always been a pragmatist. And I suppose she figured I was as good a catch as any other.

On our wedding day, I watched her tuck a blanket round her mother’s knees. She even insisted on pushing the chair from the church to the parish hall. She’d have made a good matron, if she wasn’t so clever.

Our early years together were shaped by her mother’s decline. At university, we would spend our Saturdays stuffing envelopes for the Conservative Association. In the evenings, we would drive down to her parents to deliver the beef casseroles she’d made the night before.

It seemed to me at the time that the prospect of her father being left alone was more painful to Theresa than her own grief.

But even in that regard, fate wasn’t kind to her. The more pragmatic she is, the more the universe conspires to smite her.

One evening, a year into our marriage, I came home from work and found the lights in the hallway off and the telephone hanging loose. Strange – Theresa was almost always home before me. Back then, the Bank of England wasn’t the tight ship it is now. I called her name but there was no reply.

I raced upstairs and found her on the bedroom floor, crouched in the fetal position.

I thought she’d been attacked. Violated. I looked stupidly at the bedroom window for signs of an attacker’s escape.

“Theresa?”

I squatted beside her. “Theresa, are you alright?” I took her hand. It was bone dry and cold.

“Theresa, what’s happened? Answer me.”

Her breathing was shallow. She didn’t move.

I wanted to shake her. But I managed to keep my voice gentle. “Theresa. What’s happened? You need to tell me what happened.”

“Daddy’s gone. Killed in a car crash.”

It came out matter-of-fact. Like she was reporting the death of a dog.

“What?”

But that was all she said that evening. It was only as I made one excruciating phone call after the other that I discovered the rest.

SONY DSC

Attribution: ukhomeoffice [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She stayed on the bedroom floor and barely moved all night. In the early hours of the morning, she let me pick her up and bring her to bed. When I put her down, she drew me towards her and clung to me with a ferocity I had never before encountered.

There was no gradual decline like with her mother. No opportunity to pre-emptively fill the holes left by grief with stews and custard tarts. It was just a case that one day he was there, and the next he was not.

On Desert Island Discs they talked about how she has 100 cookbooks. She name-dropped Ottolenghi and dismissed Delia as too precise. The future prime minister, Theresa told the country, in no words at all, is more of a handful-of-this-and-a-handful-of-that kind of cook.

But really she cooked her grief away. For two whole years. First for her father as he watched his wife decline. Then for her mother as she waited, unaccompanied and in need of constant care, for her own early death. Afterwards, out of habit, for me.

“You just get on with things,” Theresa told Kirsty.

You get on with things and then you die. That has been my only guiding principle for the last two years as I watch our lives and country.

Last night I got a drink with my friend Richard. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like I was living in a dystopia where nothing except doom was a certainty.

I could tell he wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.

“How is Theresa?” he asked.

“I think she might be dying.”

“What?”

“There’s no other way to describe it.”

“She’s been very courageous,” Richard said, carefully. “There aren’t many who would have kept going.”

Richard voted to remain, obviously. But he, like I, wished he’d never been given the choice. There is nothing in the world that unites us more than our shared hatred for David. The man who did this to my wife.

“Nothing feels real anymore.”

“It’s too much for a single person, isn’t it?” he said. “Those pricks have left her out to dry. It makes my blood boil.”

I said nothing.

“Do you talk about things?” Richard asked.

“Never.”

“Never?”

“When we’re together, I carry her to bed, then I switch off the light and we just lie there. The only thing I ever ask is if she’s had her insulin.”

We pretended to ignore the TV screen behind the bar. But there she was again, locked in the car. Angela Merkel waiting outside. The puddles on the ground glistening in anticipation. Ready for my wife’s next humiliation.

That was just over 24 hours ago.

Now my wife is sitting across from me on the couch. Even in the flesh, she no longer seems real.

We’re in a back room of Downing Street, waiting for Sky News to deliver the Conservative Party’s verdict on her leadership.

We both know she’s survived well before the vote is in.

An aide has made a pot of tea. The cups sit absurdly in their saucers.

Empty vessels one of us should fill. But neither of us makes a move.

Finally, the tally comes in.

200 to 117 in favor of our lives continuing to slip away from each other.

“She’s survived but that’s a whole lot of Tory MPs who want her out. And don’t forget Chris, she still needs to get that deal through parliament.”

“That’s right Sam … She’s certainly not out of the woods yet. Plenty more turmoil to come…”

Theresa’s eyes are closing. Her chin falls to her chest. Like a mouse spat out of a bored cat’s mouth.

I want to lean across the cushions and take her hand.

But there is something sacred in the chasm between us.

The space wehre words have been dispensed of. Where we both dared to hope that this might indeed, by some miracle, have been the end.

Please note: This is a fictional piece written from the imagined perspective of Theresa May’s husband and inspired by current political events. It is not intended as political commentary.

November update

It’s been a busy few weeks! LSH and I had a wonderful belated honeymoon in Cuba, which I’ll definitely be writing about at some point. It’s such a beautiful, fascinating country and I can’t stop thinking about the people and places we encountered there.

I also began writing an economics column for Germany’s international broadcaster, DW. You can read the first two installments here and here.

And – most excitingly in a way – I was shortlisted for a writing prize! I didn’t win but I got to read my short story at the Irish embassy in Berlin. It was such a wonderful feeling afterwards when people in the audience spoke to me about my characters as if they were real people.

 

The story of Stella Goldschlag

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It tells the story of Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

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Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.