Linda Svendsen's Sussex Drive: An Excerpt
Torn from the headlines, Sussex Drive is a rollicking, cheeky, alternate history of big-ticket political items in Canada told from the perspectives of Becky Leggatt (the sublimely capable and manipulative wife of a hard-right Conservative prime minister) and just a wink away at Rideau Hall, Lise Lavoie (the wildly exotic and unlikely immigrant Governor General)—two wives and mothers living their private lives in public.
Set in recent history, when the biggest House on their turf is shuttered not once, not twice, but three times, Becky and Lise engage in a fight to the death in a battle that involves Canada’s relationship to the United States, Afghanistan and Africa. The rest of the time, the women are driving their kids.
From Linda Svendsen’s sharp and wicked imagination comes a distaff Ottawa like no other ever created by a Canadian writer, of women manoeuvring in a political world gone more than a little mad, hosting world leaders, dealing with the challenges of minority government, and worrying about teen pregnancies and their own marriages. As they juggle these competing interests, Becky and Lise are forced to question what they thought were their politics, and make difficult choices about their families and their futures—federal and otherwise.
The next morning, Ottawa was a winter wonderland. It was so cold that, on the school ground, Becky’s nose hairs seemed to freeze like stiff trees in a mini-forest. She hadn’t been aware she had so much new growth. Later, while she exercised and overreacted to the breakfast shows, a speedy anchor checked her Skatecam and marvelled at the seniors steady on their blades, the toddlers toe-tripping, with their pompom toques and pockets full of bonbons, along the frozen Rideau Canal.
Other than the endless fascination Canadians displayed for their weather, and wreath-making tips, the main event was coalition. The anchor pronounced it first as coercion, then corrected herself and said the opposition was forming a collision.
Becky met Greg at his Langevin office and took notes as he conducted ten-minute phoners with Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel and finally with his stepbrother in Australia. Berlusconi didn’t call back, which wasn’t unusual; Putin, out of the blue, rang up but Greg didn’t take it, had Firstname Somebody- Hyphenate tell him that he was in the can. Greg had mentioned that Vladimir often gloated because he was able to use force and corruption transparently. Lucky stiff.
The executive assistant stammered as he announced each caller on the intercom. “Mr. Prime Min-Min-Minister, are you in-in-in for President Bush?” Bush, in his final weeks in office, was sending Alexander Manson, the fixer Becky and Greg had met at Harrington Lake last August, up by private jet. By now, Becky had ensured that Greg had reneged on every threat in the fiscal update, buttressed by plenty of scrummy chit-chat from Cabinet lackeys about opening the vaults.
And then, a surprise opposition press conference on the Hill, covered, unsurprisingly, by all the broadcasters. Greg sent everybody out of the room but Becky, Doc and Chief, and told the assistant to hold all calls. He actually locked the door.
On the TV screen, a tiny, nondescript table and a plethora of Canadian, provincial and territorial flags. A veritable plantation.
“Count the chairs, boys,” Becky tasked.
“Three,” Greg snapped. “Oh, praise the Lord, three.
They’ve brought the Separatist!”
Tai Chi, the earnest Liberal, strode into the shot with stapled papers in his shaking hand. Handily defeated in his run for prime minister just shy of two short months ago, he was joined by the Socialist, with his super posture, and—yes, yes, yes—the grim and self-righteous Separatist. They sat down together and faced the press.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, God,” Greg gushed. “The three musketeers. The three stooges. The three fat ladies fucking sing.”
While Tai Chi explained the guts of the agreement—that the Liberals would join a coalition with the Socialists, and the Separatists would support this coalition for two years on any confidence votes—Greg sank to his knees on the Capital Commission carpet and commended God the Father. His arms waved in holy motion, his eyes shut, and Chief hit the floor as well, to show his great respect. It was harder for Doc to do this, because of some injury incurred during a visit from his Vancouver girlfriend, but he was finally down with Greg and Chief, chin punched into his chest.
On screen, the Socialist added his two red cents: that the coalition would vote non-confidence on the fiscal update and then, since the recounts from the last federal election had barely been tabulated and turned into history, they would present themselves to the Governor General, Her Excellency Lise Lavoie, as soon as she returned from abroad, as a worthy alternative to the current ruling party. Greg, Doc and Chief, heads still bowed, now curved around the TV and gripped hands.
Becky rejoiced too, but there was no time to coast on enemy blunders. She stepped around them and picked up the phone to Larry Apoonatuk. It had been a while. He’d in fact been token fired after the “do-over” Opposition leader incident, and was now with the 24-hour cable news outlet Can TALKS. Failing upward!
“I know,” he said. “I’m on deadline. Call you back.” He hung up in such a way that she knew he wouldn’t.
“Demagoguery isn’t a dirty word,” Alexander Manson said.
His private jet had been grounded in Buffalo, a wicked blizzard, and Greg was on the phone with him. Becky was conferenced in.
“Isn’t a dirty practice. If it’s for the public good. Now take you Canucks. Take your own Declaration or Constitution or whatever. How familiar with it are your Joe Blows? Your Sikhs? Your Chinamen?”
“Not very,” Greg stated.
“My point,” Manson bit. “What do they know? They get their green card. Evade taxes. Rat on terrorists. Hook up cable. And that’s it. The average person doesn’t want to be bothered with the shit we deal with. That’s why they elect us. Appoint us. Anoint us. ‘You deal, and let me get on with le sex. Le church. Le hockey.’ We’re doing a fucking favour—”
“I hear you,” Greg said.
“My man’s president for a few more weeks. We don’t want these Communists. We don’t want Hail Mary pass crap.” He paused. “Demagoguery’s a long word. Because demagoguery takes a long time. And it pays long term.”
“I hear you,” Greg said again.
“Good man,” said Manson. “Now take care of that lovely wife, Greg. Or I will.” He chuckled lustily.
Greg glanced at Becky, then away.
“More importantly, tuck that colicky country of yours into bed with some Happily ever after. Think Reagan. Works like spit in a pinch.”
Becky watched Monday’s entire Question Period on CPAC. Her husband made it sound as if the socialist hordes were descending upon Ottawa to eviscerate the organs and eat the heart of the country. Or that the coalition was a conspiracy nurtured by Quebec sovereignists who wanted to cut off the testicles of Parliament. He referred to the coalition press conference repeatedly—pointing out that there were no Canadian flags. An election had been held only days earlier, yet they intended to force an unelected Liberal eunuch loser down the throats of Canadians as the new prime minister. That violated federal law. He didn’t say coup d’état, because it was French and would confuse the lowest common Conservative denominator. He added that citizens would flood the streets. Armies would get involved, closing borders, and perhaps even malls and liquor stores, which would hit citizens where it hurt.
The press jumped on board, of course. The Corpse knew which side its bread was truly buttered on. Can Vox, with its demands for more specialty channels to the CRTC, cast mild Tai Chi as Genghis Khan. Can TALKS, ditto. The party’s own Conservative pollster was working overtime, phoning citizens in staunchly loyal ridings in every province, and asking red-flag questions, framed with barely perceptible Becky finesses.
Becky couldn’t have been more pleased.
The media, however, couldn’t be completely controlled, and she and Greg were becoming very concerned about academic creep. The constitutional scholars at campuses across the country had been dragged by the media out of their tome-ridden research tombs, particularly the emeritus tribe, whose outspokenness wouldn’t necessarily impact research dollars awarded to their institutions. Legal beagles, former Governors General, who in their own minds hadn’t really left the throne yet, and Privy Council diehards with an axe to grind flooded the op-eds, letters to the editor, call-in shows, or bought half-page ads to print their unreadable petitions. In one voice, they were on the record stating that the Governor General, Lise Lavoie, could not possibly agree to prorogue Parliament simply because a minority government would be voted down on a confidence motion. It went absolutely against the ingrained grain of the Canadian Constitution.
It didn’t matter that Greg was brilliant in Question Period, and that his ministers had been coached by American pros, every inflection rehearsed and key words repeated until they were programmed into the national psyche. On every TV channel, in every newspaper, on every radio station and partisan blog, a pundit harped and harked back to basics: A minority government could only rule when it had the backing of the opposition. If it didn’t have the confidence of the House, the opposition could approach the Governor General, or vice versa, re the formation of a new government. In fact, Greg Leggatt had asserted the exact same principle himself, one short Governor General ago, when he led the opposition. The principle started to take hold, amidst the Tory hysteria.
“We need to change the conversation,” Becky told Greg.
Becky had Greg’s aides check with csis, CSE and the RCMP to see if any terrorist investigations were ripe for arrests, charges, revelations—any big-ticket headlines. It was a no go; even rogue organizations had been impacted by the financial meltdown. A meteorological boss was pressed for imminent natural disasters such as ice storms, tsunamis, the arousal of a dormant volcano or the mass starvation of wild horses due to blizzard conditions. Only scattered flurries.
The deputy minister at Foreign Affairs insisted that on his turf it was still the economy, economy, economy, and the constitutional crisis had given him a chance to catch his breath.
The prospect of a convenient avian flu epidemic had flown the coop.
From the book Sussex Drive, © 2012, by Linda Svendsen. Published in 2012 by Random House of Canada. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.