Steve Noyes: The Member

 

Honourable Speaker,

Picture a motel corridor. Exit signs, arrows. Carpeting. Metal receptacles. We’ve been here. Door at the end of the corridor, propped open on light, pure, of the palest candescence peculiar to a Northern B.C. midsummer.

Our camera enters a room.

The recordist, his face cubistically altering, sits at a small desk writing on hotel stationery, which focuses: The Heritage Inn. On the TV there is a man in a kefya speaking passionately in Arabic. No translation is provided. There is a sense of danger, a different order kept at bay. Our recordist, though, is no more than bored. Comfortable. For those he records, the stakes are low.

Our point of view, then. Small hotel room. Light until the body tires. Over-the-shoulderness with the recordist and his taken-away face.

***

All that summer, when Your Party came to power after a decade in lusty opposition, I lived with the Member, in Victoria and all across this great province of British Columbia, whose travel posters bloom and flourish; I lived painfully non-stop with the Honourable Member, and it was not a particularly nice summer.

We were travelling. The Member was on a committee. I kept waking up in motel rooms overlooking a parking lot; no question, it was the same parking lot, its allotments and markings, the logical benevolence of the economy. I lay, fully awake in bed, clothed, eyes clamped. Already it was hot. The Member’s wakeup call trilled through the wall, opening me to the noise outside. Traffic, considerable. The angle of the sun smelled like an engine on a platform, tied down with greasy ropes and set throbbing to shake every flat surface. As if the cash bar jingled. The forces out there. The deficit.

A type of person began to show up at the hearings; there was a delay in recording their coagulated essence, for it lay not in apparel or office, but in anger. People whose personalities were so stilted and stunted, so universally shrill and retaliatory they reminded me grey and again of a cramped and sour-smelling laundromat under the Sky Train in East Vancouver. Was this the standing committee on disaffection and reaction or a polite inquiry into alienation, or what? Did we need this? No. We needed politically useful information for our fact-finding committee on electoral reform.

They showed up with file folders or with hastily scribbled notes. They read from prepared statements or spoke extemporaneously. They represented labour unions, anti-poverty groups, small business, national and provincial political parties, chambers of commerce, themselves. They tended to cancel one another out. Frequency and recall, duration, timbre. At length in their presentations there was always a time to depart from the text, to stare straight across the floor of the MacKenzie Room or the Salish Room in various motels at the Members as they sat in sympathetic receptivity, to threaten the Members whose faces were still as stucco, to threaten, and then, their time diminishing, to attenuate their tone and summon from their fatigue and general disgust a plea for action.

In Iverson’s Lake, in the smelly basement of a wartime boarding house, after what amounted to an All Party Congress about the cigarette burns in the carpets and the questionable locks, the Committee sat down to a preliminary harangue from a horse-logger with a metal brow, who yelled, “This is fucking bullshit. I’m three months in the bush with my guys logging an I come back some fucking Paki tells me I owe three thousand bucks in tax and the fucking roads are shitty an it’s not important my kids read an write. Fucking bullshit.”

The Member got up to take a call.

Harbinder Singh walked in from the men’s room, wiping his damp hands on his lapels, and took his place as Chair.

Harbinder said, “Excuse me sir, what changes would you like to see in the way you are taxed?”

And even the logger relaxed.

All they cared about was tax.

The Members were mostly nice people. I’m totally sincere. It wasn’t their fault that they had stumbled upon what charm or talisman they had to lead, inspire, or simply say things that people wanted. It was just that they perceived a fine and noble justness to our system the moment they became elected. Consequently, they evolved in attitude.

It was a sort of blessing on our happy Parliament to see the Members on the catwalk between the House and the Caucus, chatting and schmoozing, but I was always mindful that there might be others who would not enjoy the sight; then, too, there was always the slight embarrassment, a pulling away, when one of the Members had to stop being with you or talking to you or walking with you to become a Member. I guess they were enjoying the perquisites of power. They allowed themselves to gripe about their pay, or, more precisely, mentioned how much more money they could make if they had not chosen public service. In compensation, they relished public spending.  “Democracy costs money,” was a phrase not unoften uttered that summer.

So was, “We can do that? Oh. Well, let’s.”

Your Party was an information age conglomerate of networkers who, had they not been repeatedly recognized as “the Hon. Member from Salamakatawa–Iron Angel,” “the Hon. member from North Circle,” might have told you that they lived in the global economy.

The Hon. Member from Uplands, Toller McTavish, had to have aides explain to him several times why someone might want to have an illegal suite.

The Hon. Member for Maypole had a daughter who would yell, “Elephant legs! Elephant legs!” when her mother’s stockings fell down.  And the Member would go, “Oh, you, girl. Just you wait!”

And she said: “Isn’t this all a bit like school? I mean there are always bells going off. There’s definitely a dress code. Pencils are supplied. We have to bow before we leave the room and we have to stand up to say anything. For Christ’s sake, we have to have a note to leave the building.”

“Look!” the teenage daughter said, and stuck her face about an inch from her mother’s. “Notice anything different?”

“You get that thing out of your nose or you’re never going out again.”

“It’s my body! It’s my body! I can do what I want with it.”

On her wrists and from her ears the Member from Maypole wore bracelets and earrings wrought from heirloom forks.

***

Amid all this, outside the Legislature whose lawns were littered with AAA batteries from trinket tape recorders and cameras, there were clearer, less comforting voices to be heard. It may have been when we were sitting down to dine at Mario’s in Shushkapi or the Tastee-Freez in Scaler when I happened to scannice — a modest invention of mine, meant to symbolize fleeting intake — that Slobodan Milosevic had told the Serbian militia, “You will never be defeated again.”

Someone must have recorded that, a few rows back, in clothing that was shiny at the patches, beer on his breath, cheese beneath his nails.

There must be many others in the world who are not uneager to receive similar benedictions. Was I about to say, Alas, not here? I was not about to say, Alas, not here.

***

The-Party’s platform was so abstract, had the killer spin, was loosey-laissez so the Member’s words tesseractally disappeared into implications of each other in the very air. His was rhetoric of promises and stirring need. His constituents supplied essential services to a surprising degree.  The Member looked about his age. He had recently fallen in love and wore from time to time a freshly ruined boutonniere.

***

The banks of monitors in Your Party’s briefing room changed every seven minutes (empty legislature leather and oak, marble halls, brick tunnels in the basement) unless overridden. It was chill as chromakey. The Member from Marten, kept waiting, had shrugged on her shoulder-padded jacket. Last night she had made a speech in the House entitled “Our Children’s Children Challenged: The Decline of Values Among Our Youth.” Caucus had taken notice; Caucus had faxed Wolfgang and Smith a copy.

Who now entered, keystone-copping through the narrow door, found chairs, swiveled.

“What we want,” said Wolfgang,” is you to read your speech. Just the way you gave it last night.” His lapel button read, ‘Shameless.’

“Be natural,” said Smith.

Laughter. The monitors changed again. (A security guard on a stairway landing, rubbing his thumb along the cherrywood bannister.) The Member from Marten stood and, leaning on her black ashplant, read the speech. Wolfgang made notes; Smith listened. The Member had a way of regarding her audience from above her glasses and below her eyebrows that was primly instructive.

Wolfgang sent for tea before commenting, “Yes, very good, but I’m wondering, yes, I am, so it’s no good — wondering about that ‘I’m an urban Member and I never knew about the North’ shtick. Wondering if the appeal of that is in fact a broad-based appeal or maybe effective only in certain age-tiles?”

The Member from Marten grew immobile.

“You mean to say, ” she began.

“It’s not a question of content,” Smith put in. “We agree with what you’re saying.”

“Yes,” said Wolfgang.

“It’s a question of consolidating appeal.”

“You’ve got a lot,” said Wolfgang.

Her eyes changed (with the monitors) from wrinkle to crinkle. “What does that mean?”

The men rearranged their knees.

“Can we talk clothes?” said Wolfgang.

The Member from Marten bit her lip.

“Listen, I have to get back to the House. E-me.”

They watched her and her cane trundle down the hallway on the security screen.

“Her, we can work with her,” said Wolfgang. Smith nodded. Wolfgang continued to intone something into his clipboard.

All the monitors unified at an aboriginal chant over an ocean sunrise: they showed the House’s Christmas-light silhouette, thirtyfold; they showed the tuliped grounds; the Revolving Dome; The Shiny Scepter;  a Senior Clerk in a tricorn handling the Green Book.

In the recording room, far below the house, whirring under tons of concrete, the VCR’s Record display automatically began, its —, began to — — —.

On the microphone panel AMBIENT changed to SPEAK.

Maylene hit the buttons on the Sony twindeck with her fingerpads, swiftly, under her triangular flamingo nails.

“Is Committee A sitting? We don’t know yet. Oh God! There she is! Oh, sit down. Oh, shut up.”

THE SPEAKER: I call the House to order.

She continued, we continued, rapt. We, the Underlings of the Halls, the RANSAC[1] staff. We crept around the basement. We trooped in past stacks of discarded binders, telephone and government directories, blotters, scribblers, clipboards, folders and calendars. Our jobs left us minorly inconvenienced, but marvelously uncompromised.

Sustainable development.

“Him, I wish he’d up and get a new suit,” someone said.

The walls were covered with shelves, the shelves were lined with tapes. In Meditations on Hunting, Ortega y Gasset comments that the first plunder of the uprisen poor throughout European history has been hunting game — one of the promises of paradise, but also with its wicked cachet of sheer sport and privilege.

How gingerly we carried those tapes and how often we spoke about their provenance and serial order and told ourselves and others exactly where they were; they weren’t lost; there would be no break in our transcripts.

A man named Abu Haydar witnessed the storming of a Ba’athist Party police station in Iraq, 1991: “All police resistance inside the building collapsed and the rebels swarmed in, burning all the papers and files….Everything was destroyed: car records, property registries, police files, court proceedings.”

So it was written.

Maylene began recording the House in the 1950s, when she wore skirts and sweaters and smoked 35 per day. Coming down for lunch, carrying two boxes of tapes, she tripped on her heels and crashed to the bottom of the Main Stairs, breaking her jaw on a marble riser.

“Mr. The Party better watch that lover-girl of his,” Maylene said now. “He’ll wake up one morning and he’ll have nothing. She’ll have it all.”

***

Hon. J.M. Cooper: Don’t think I don’t understand the political game that’s being played here; I understand it very well. Yet it seems to me, Hon. Chair, that the Hon. Member gets so carried away with his role of opposition critic that he can’t even realize something that’s taking place that might actually benefit the people of British Columbia.

Hon. Leader of the Third Party: Point of Order.

(Where was the ambient microphone? The hours I spent searching the pressed tin ceiling for the ambient!)

Chair: The Member from Skalalakit–Qa’ash’asen on the Point of Order.

Hon. Leader of the Third Party: Well, it seems to me a character shift on the order of post-amnesiac assumed identity for the Minister to be lecturing my colleagues on the duties and practices of a responsible opposition member! I know well, Hon. Chair, that this is not the place to mention the consistently contrary and not particularly constructive ploys the Minister was fond of in his role as opposition critic. And it probably isn’t the forum to suggest here that the rights of ordinary working men and women in this province…

An Hon. Member: Of British Columbia!

Hon. Leader of the Third Party:…that the Minister is fond of attributing to his party —

Hon. J.M. Cooper: Government.

Hon. Leader of the Third Party: –were in fact brought about by the Third Party government.

Hon. J.M. Cooper: You know, Hon. Chair, I wasn’t going to mention the scandalous reign of that government, so I won’t.

The Speaker: The Member from Transmission on Vote 19.

Hon. K. Jason: Through you to the Minister: would the Minister confirm the exorbitant expenses allowed vis a vis the short-term Crown appointment of Your Party insider Miller Wolfgang?

Hon. J.M. Cooper: No.

***

For a long time I used to worry, What was the matter with the Member? Now I know what is the matter with him, and a lot of people in North America. He felt it was beneath him to speak his mind.

He tried to correct this by wardrobe.

He changed his software, his investments, his newspapers.

He tried to correct this by sophistication. At the hint of conflict he was on his feet, alleviator, no menace but a practiced polish in his eye.

Charismatic.

***

There was, of course, a level of all this that was predictable, cartoonish:

“…it’s the end of collective bargaining as we know it.”

The Minister shot to his feet when the Member from Glacier was finished. “My friend, Honourable Chair, it is really a very simple proposition of the algebraic persuasion: if, on the one hand, you would ask us, as a duly elected Government, to reduce taxes, and, on the other hand, also ask us to provide further services, you must admit that it is somewhat incumbent upon you to suggest where else we might tax or what other services we may cut if you should also have, and you have, the temerity to ask us to reduce the deficit.”

In Estimates it was one of the wonders of our age to see the Ministers falling and rising from their chairs after conferring with their people. Contingencies were so complex, so sidereal, that they could only be explained by ranks and ranks of dark-suited gentlemen and gentlewomen who at the Minister’s behest flipped through binders, made notes, craned to whisper in the Minister’s ear. The look of wonderment, of genuine glee, that things could be so complicated and yet so well-explained, that flitted across the face of the Minister, his hand tensed on the chair-arm, before he rose to tell the committee what he had only just learned.

I straightened the stacks of tapes and numbered the logsheets well ahead, humming a tune.

 

Players at the table,

                              Making eighty grand,

                              Ease the process,

                              Freeze the process,

                              Home and native land!

 

I think I know what the Member saw the day he spoke out: he looked up from his notes at the faces around the committee table. They weren’t there any more. In their place were roving, electronic cubes, like that graphics trick used to preserve anonymity on TV.  On their shoulders, above the school ties and the cufflinks of the Members, he saw but scrambled signals, geometric mess.

Is there a cure for symmetry when the bilateral governs?  When the polarized paralyzes? Mornings after trips the signs of motels flashed off and on and replaced. A weakness of sunrise, perhaps: their continuing signatures flickered palely in the texture-gaining tile floor of the House. The Hemlock Room with its painted colonial illustrative panels. The Birch Room. The Douglas Fir Room.

***

And so we left on our tour to gather the input of the populace, trimly disinterested, while, on the other side of the earth my shadow recorded his subjects, their honour and blood. There was a terrible silence in the North that sunned itself above the roadbeds and stared out of shadows and overhangs at entrances and drank the big screen, out there — not spoken of, unrepresented. The North made itself apparent to each of us differently. The Member from Marten was enchanted by types of manufacturing and enterprise hitherto unrealized; her notebook was full of notations such as RE-CHIP HOLDINGS NO. 3722 and BED AND CHORES or FERTILIZER DIAGNOSIS SYSTEMS. Others raved about the yarn barns and corny boutiques.

Myself, I saw a Wet’suwet’en boy asleep under a Chevron air-dispenser. Closed, he had the most beautiful eyes, almond-gated at their inner quillage by long, black lashes. They were eyes so sad, so unmoving and deep-locked. He slept face-deep in the unleaded stink and the wheels dinging and dinging over the rubber hose.

I knew we were North. A mechanic in Axwa’laka told me the time was near; the number of the beast shone from our credit cards.

I knew we were North. It was the battered vehicles, the illegible plates, the crazed and fatal windshields, above all the mud scattered in Atlantean patterns on side-panels of vans, and the winches and hip-high wheels.

North. Detroit was coming in on four channels. People sweated at the hearings, but seemed, mysteriously, sterile, because they froze the sweat back to their Sunday shirts in black-lit lounges, froze a thin armour of beer and toilet disinfectant to their irises, the better to sneak glances in the space-gracing mirrors at the Members in their more casual skirts and outfits.

I knew we were North, because there was no South.

Light till the body tires. Light on the foil-green algae in the pool. The painted mouths of Tikis in Kon-Tikiland Lounges. The Members at table, the glittering array of plates and glasses. The Member from Maypole spilling and plucking her pills from the Alaska Highway tablemat. After their day of hearings they used their mouths. Outrigger canoe above them, natively painted in animist emblems.

“If I won the lottery, I would fain pursue gentlemanly pursuits.”

Swiving. Lepidoptery.

“I don’t know, you know, I think I will be happy to do my time in the House, but I’d like to get back to the office and make some money.”

“Hey, Harbinder, did you see that documentary on nuclear accidents in Rajasthan last night?”

“I have seen that documentary no less than four times, and believe me, when the Western powers want to make a point, they have their very efficient ways of doing so.”

Freezepacked, airshipped, rooms from $29.

“Did I tell you about the time I came running up the stairs of the House with my goddamned pantyhose around my knees?”

I knew we were North because there was no south. Light in the wee hours of the map.

The Member in his bathing-robe stands in the hallway pressing and pressing the elevator button. He has returned disappointed from the drained pool and has missed his dip. The fire door bangs open. Two Gitxsan men enter, singing, bumping the walls. The one starts to hop like a frog down the hall, passing behind the Member’s back and shoulders. His friend cracks open a Kokanee.

“I told him not to fucken do that. He’s fucken pissed.”

I lift the Member’s gymbag, and we proceed.

I sit up late, and listen to the strange man speaking Arabic above the running newsreel banner. Someone is recording him; I know it.

 

When we returned to Victoria, the small city was a sort of sick richness after the North. There were pastries, overwhelming bookshops, creamy espresso. It was not a bad day along the Inner Harbor. I had a long lunch and walked past the professional beggars on the causeway, entered the House, and made my way up to the Douglas Fir Room, to relieve one of the Underlings from the microphone zone. I sat, I listened, I took frequent peeks out the small window. Relieve, from the Old French, relever, to raise again. I watched a raven unface a gargoyle gracefully and ride a wave of air. Record, from the Old French, recorder, rarely of humans, to sing a tune in an undertone, often of birds. I stared at the linens and silks in contestable gesture before my eyes; it was not as if, as I had read elsewhere, that words ceased to mean anything, or meant their opposites; no, it was simply that the ladies and gentlemen were at it again, debating, benevolently carving their endeavours through the four-channeled air, like a mirage of scarves. They talked and talked. The pleasure of a memory, a meeting where everyone or nearly dealt with their agenda in the splendor of raiment and refreshment, temperance and reason, oil and wine. In every missive spilled the shadow of another age.

The Member was on his feet in one of his better suits.

Rigmarole, I muttered. Look at that ragman roll.

The Member continued:

“…as I was saying, enumerating–I’m sure we all know about that. Ha, ha.”

Silence.

“Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted simply to point out that that attitude you display towards our colleagues in the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment, it’s hostile. It’s ungentlemanly. There’s no excuse for it. It reminds me of The Lion in Winter, Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, where O’Toole says to her, no, she says to him, ‘You’re still a marvel of a man,’ and he responds, ‘And you’re still my lady.’ I just thought I’d mention that.”

The Minister said, “I didn’t detect a question in the Member’s salvo. And my friend seems to have forgotten that he, too, is a Member of our Government! I wonder if he’d care to repeat at least the answerable part.”

The Member: “Yes. My God, yes. What I want to know about are the people. What about the people?”

The Sergeant of Arms was on the House line.

“The people. Well put, my friend. Well, I do believe the people are well served by my Ministry. That is, after all, our aim. Granted, there is a larger aspect to the Member’s comments and it is the case that we are challenged in this Ministry as in others by that challenge. We’re fortunate to be so well-equipped and able to effect that change howsoever it might be conceptualized by the people–”

The Member was now shouting: ” 1066. 1776. 1923. 1867. Decembrists. Ana Hegira. Black September cells. Year One!

“Stop the clock! We want to get off! The people I’ve met want off the clock!”

They had the Member in their arms and moved him swiftly through the door.

“But the people can still benefit under this Government from being the people,” said the Minister, since nothing had happened.

***

Someone is always recording. A man of slimness and medium complexion, a man of cooling tea, complexities. I have had cause to think of him. I saw his neatly labeled tapes on TV. He, like me, sets up his equipment, connecting each microphone to each channel-feed, and each feed into A, then B, the two decks he must surely use if there are to be no gaps in his record. He is quick at setting up, perhaps ten minutes, so he has a bite before the meeting starts. He plans ahead, like I do. Numbers his logsheets and tapes well ahead of time, waHd to ‘ishreen.

It is very hot. About an hour after the men convene, the recordist has oozed into his microphone zone in which he is only aware of the tapes and their changing as process, and the talk as a field in which he hovers, startled to deeper stillness by the mental apparitions he beholds: his wife’s lower back as she leaps from bed for the baby; the letters Khaa and Jiim chaining shapes in a brass table; the smell from his own body is like a copper bracelet, sharp, mineral-thin.

Tempers rise in the small room. There is drinking. Provoked, one of the men stands and fires a handgun into the ceiling.

The recordist tears his earphones from his head.

Fa’atabbahum ma:a ad-dababa Hatta laysa ‘uula’ika hum illa ad-damma’a![2] the man with the gun is shouting.

Yet a while before the recordist hears him.

The man is shouting, the men are shouting, but the recordist cannot hear them.

He pleads with them to stop.

They come for him. They want to comfort him.

They comfort him.

The Member continues.

***

I thought, having taped them, stored them, that we were done with them, but the presenters were relentless. They got into my hotel rooms and stood at the foot of my bed, asking for more water. An old man with a hearing aid: “We fought for this country and all this now is about money and power and you won’t even admit it.” A young woman with a two year old on her hip: “I don’t know why I came here, but I brought these articles and clippings from the Resource Centre, cause I got this job through the GAIN program. Can I read a bit from them?”

“Hey, I pay taxes too,” I said. Hid under the covers. Switched beds.

One morning, I stopped before the lactic bronze statue in front of the House. The plaque read “To Our Glorious Dead.” The grass was chaste of flashbulbs and batteries around the base, which was expected. The dead have shed resemblance. They are and are and are. How many insects in a cameo of amber?

There was another notable work of art in the House, in the heart of it. Concealed all summer by hoardings and scaffolding, it was revealed in autumn as a hologram in a projected clearing of trees.

This is under the cupola, near the security guards.

It floated a foot from the subdued tiles. It was a hominid figure in a fine Kwak’wala transformation mask, raven from salmon from otter from orca emergent, all the planes of the marvelous ramified animals seemingly glazed and shaded, such cumbersome, glorious shedding of self, enigma.

Indigenous.

 

 

[1] Recordists and Analysts of the Non-partisan Sessional Assembly Committee.

[2] I will flatten them with tanks until there is nothing left of them but blood.

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Steve Noyes has published nine books of fiction and poetry in Canada. His second novel, November’s Radio, just came out with Oolichan Books. Steve is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Kent.

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