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My first thought on being invited to the prime minister's home: Oh crap, now I have to pack a skirt
The invitation from 24 Sussex Drive, black script on thick cream paper, read “Business Attire.” Laureen Harper was welcoming a group of B.C. artists visiting Ottawa into her home, a rather brave act considering her husband’s recent, much-reported comment about artists swanning around rich galas. My first thought: Oh crap, now I have to pack a skirt. For this writer, business attire means a stained bathrobe—“real” clothes make me feel too constricted and self-conscious to go about the work of words—but surely that wasn’t the interpretation they were seeking.
Sometimes it’s hard being a writer; you do not turn down invitations to events you would rather not attend on the off chance you will see or overhear something interesting, some odd gem that sets a poem or story in motion. For years I masked social shyness with alcohol and misbehaviour, but antics that are forgivable in youth are pitiful in approaching middle age, so I now attend receptions stricken with nerves, mineral water fizzing in hand, blushing with the effort of small talk. It is the greatest luxury to say no to an invitation, as I thought of doing to this one, imagining instead an afternoon sprawled on the bed at the Holiday Inn surrounded by various convenience- store snacks in crackly bags, while the other artists stood around the prime minister’s house trying not to spill their drinks on the carpet.
But curiosity won out, and on the appointed day I walked up the driveway of 24 Sussex, past a flock of pink plastic flamingos gathered on the lawn. Coinci- dentally, it was also Stephen Harper’s fiftieth birthday, and later the fifty flamingos would appear on the news and leave me with a vertiginous feeling, the sensation of having been somewhere where news was unfolding.
The wife of the prime minister was noticeably attractive, with a girlish smile and a mischievous glint in her eye. She had bright blond hair, wore a short, snug dress that bared her arms, and seemed someone men would flock to under different circumstances. Rather than the grim marble and stone interior I was expecting, the house burst inside with sun-drenched colour—there were flowers everywhere, fresh ones in lavish bunches and patterned ones on the furniture. It was difficult to picture Harper lounging among the pastel cushions, his stiff grey hair tight as a helmet on his head, but who knows how people are in their leisure moments?
The reception was much like any other party, with better food—tiny, exquisitely formed and somewhat confusing morsels presented on gleaming silver spoons and miniature wooden paddles. And photographers—for the length of the reception, photographers circled the room along its perimeter, clicking away, while we carried on as if we were accustomed to this paparazzi existence. A group of artists in the prime minister’s home, all of us on our best behaviour! There was a restlessness in the air, a whispering underfoot—some literary types had planned to present Mrs. Harper with a letter urging increased funding for the arts, but it turned out they had grown bored composing the letter and spent the day shopping instead.
Still, maybe someone would do something outrageous; even the servers seemed hopeful. On the first couple of passes I had turned down a tray of viscous red liquid in what looked like glass test tubes; on the third pass I lifted a tube and eyed it skeptically, at which point the server said, in a tone that almost bordered on glee, “You don’t know what that is, do you?”
It was a shooter with a raw oyster nestled in its depths, and the server waited to see how I would navigate this challenge—perhaps the briny creature would stick in my craw, and I would jettison it into someone’s lap across the room—but I liked raw oysters, could slurp them back by the bucketful. He retreated in disappointment. No, nothing would happen today. We behaved ourselves in our dark suits and long skirts, sang happy birthday to the absent birthday boy, confined ourselves to the hall and parlour though we longed to peek into every room and climb the curved staircase to their private quarters.
When it was over, a group of us trudged down the driveway, out through the iron gates, past the security guards, into the public street. The fifty pink flamingos had flown from the lawn; there was no evidence they had been there just two hours ago, as if we had hallucinated them. On our arrival, spotting a line of cars at the entrance, our driver had asked if we should circle the block. The policeman directing traffic said, “No, we’ll stop traffic for you.” I suspected we would not hear those sweet words again anytime soon.