To my non-Canadian readers: the Prologue to this story gives a brief civics lesson on Canadian politics that may help to explain some of the unfamiliar terms used in this chapter.
I had a moment of disorientation as I gradually surfaced from a deep sleep. What day was it? Was I late for school? Sunlight was seeping into the bedroom through the closed curtains, and I could feel Dan’s naked body stretched out beside me, radiating warmth, his arm casually draped over me. Through the fog of sleep, I realized that it was Saturday and I had two days of freedom to spend with my boyfriend. Maybe we’d start with some slow, lazy love-making. I rolled over to face him, gazing at his handsome face as he lay sleeping beside me, his dark black hair dishevelled, his whiskers shading his pale white skin. I snuggled up to him and reached my hand down between his legs.
“Good morning, beautiful,” I whispered.
“Mmmm, that feels nice,” he murmured. He opened his brown eyes and gazed at me. “Why don’t we just stay in bed today?”
“I’d like that,” I said softly into his ear, stroking him gently.
The cell phone on my nightstand rang angrily.
“Don’t answer it,” Dan said.
The ringing continued, insistently. The romantic mood was quickly evaporating.
“No one ever calls me at this time of day,” I sighed. “Let me just check who it is.”
The screen displayed the name of Bob Daley, president of my Riding Association. Ontario politics at 7:04 in the morning? This was certainly unusual; there must be some development in the Scott Matheson situation.
“Sorry, babe,” I said to Dan. “I should probably answer this.” He moaned in disappointment.
I picked up the phone. “Hi, Bob. What’s up?”
“Sorry to call you so early on a Saturday,” he said. “I know we’re meeting today at 10:00, but I’ve been on the phone most of the night with the party’s top brass about Scott. They’ve come up with a plan for me to present to the board, but I’d like to talk to you first about it.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly.
“I’d like to discuss it in person; can we meet for breakfast before the meeting? Say 8:30 at the Wagon Wheel in Kelso?”
“Why does this involve me?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you all about it when I see you,” he said. “Can you make it?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess so,” I answered.
“Great, see you then.”
I turned to Dan. “Bad news. I have to meet Bob Daley for breakfast at 8:30 in Kelso. Something to do with Scott Matheson. Then we’re meeting with the board at 10:00, so I’m going to be gone for a while.”
“I’ll make it up to you when I get back, I promise,” I said, and leaned over and kissed him.
“Mmgmmphh,” he mumbled, and buried himself deeper in the duvet. I reluctantly climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
At 8:35, I walked through the door of the Wagon Wheel, Kelso’s only diner. It shared one block of Front Street with the bowling alley and the government liquor store. The place was crowded with people eating breakfast: farmers in overalls and ball caps, retirees who met here every Saturday morning, a few families on their way to hockey games at the nearby arena. I spotted Bob in a booth near the kitchen and made my way through the room to join him. A few people who knew me greeted me as I passed their tables, mostly former students who smiled and said, “Hey, Mr. Nielsen! How’s it goin’?”
I greeted him as I slid into the booth. “Good morning, Bob.”
“Morning, Mark,” he said as he reached out to shake my hand. “Thanks for coming.” He looked like he hadn’t had much sleep; he was unshaven and had dark circles under his eyes.
“Is everything OK, Bob?”, I asked. “You look like hell.”
“Thanks a lot, buddy,” he said. “I was up most of the night talking to Mike Pierce about Scott Matheson and his wayward dick.”
Things were obviously moving fast. Michael Pierce was the leader of the Ontario Conservative Party and officially the “Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” in the Legislative Assembly. If, as recent polls suggested, the Conservatives could unseat the Liberal government in the upcoming election, he would be the next Premier of Ontario. For him to be directly involved in the Scott Matheson situation meant that the party considered this a serious crisis and wanted it resolved quickly.
At that moment, the waitress arrived to take our orders. “How you doing, Bob?” she asked him. Being the former mayor of Kelso, everyone in town new Bob Daley. “Your usual?”
“Yes, thanks, Jenny,” he said.
“And what can I get you?” she said as she turned to me, her pen poised over her notepad.
“Two eggs, sunny side up, sausage, rye toast, and coffee, please,” I responded.
“Be right up,” she said and hustled off to the kitchen.
Bob waited until she returned with two big mugs of coffee before he continued. “Pierce is directly intervening in our problem,” he said. “He’s trying to limit the damage this is causing the party, and with only two weeks to go before the election, we don’t have much time. The party is suspending the usual process for selecting candidates and allowing our board to directly appoint someone. He wants a replacement within three days, in time to get ready for the all-candidates debate next Saturday.”
I whistled softly. “Jesus, Bob, how are we going to pull that off?”
“Pierce says to go with someone we know, someone with a good reputation in the community, someone squeaky clean. Hopefully, someone who can drop everything and swing into campaign mode immediately.” He was looking at me intently over his coffee mug.
“I take it you have someone in mind,” I said.
At that moment, our breakfast arrived, and our conversation was interrupted by a few minutes of bustle as plates were set down, condiments fetched, and mugs refilled. When Jenny finally left, I asked, “OK, who is it?”
I thought I had misunderstood. “Me?” I said incredulously. “You’re kidding.”
“No, I’m not kidding,” he said. “I talked it over with the rest of the executive board on the phone last night. We think you’re a good candidate.”
I was floored. “I can’t run in the election. You must be crazy.”
“OK, hear me out,” he said. “You’re relatively young for a politician, which is a big asset. You’re a popular teacher at Milfield High with a good reputation in the community; you’ve taught the kids of hundreds of families in Selkirk County, and you are highly respected. You’ve been working hard with the Riding Association for five years now, and you know every policy plank in the platform backwards and forwards. You’re a social liberal and a fiscal conservative; you fit in perfectly with Mike Pierce’s plans for the party.”
“But I already have a job that I love. I can’t just leave Milfield High in the middle of the semester.”
“I called your superintendent, Rick Holland, last night to ask him about that,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind. Rick says there’s a clause in your contract that allows employees elected to public office to take a leave of absence without penalty. If you win, your teaching job will be held for you at your existing level of seniority until you decide to either come back or resign permanently.”
“Well … I … but …” I stammered. “I don’t have any experience. Granted, I’ve been working behind the scenes for the party for years, but I’ve never held any kind of elected position before.”
“These days, that’s a bonus,” he said. “There’s a lot of anti-incumbent feeling in the province right now. An outsider with no political experience might just pull it off, especially since you’d be running against Madeleine Pereira, the ultimate Liberal insider. She’s accumulated a lot of political baggage in her eight years in office.”
I sat quietly for a few moments. I slowly ate a piece of toast to give me time to think.
“OK, Bob. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”
“I’m gay. I know you and the rest of the board don’t have a problem with that, but is running a gay candidate going to fly in this riding? Especially up north around Jarvis Falls?”
“Look, Mark,” he said. “I’m not going to lie; that’s going to be an issue for some people. But, you’ve been a teacher for almost twenty years at a rural high school in a small town, and you’re not in the closet. You don’t hide the fact that you and Dan are a couple, but you don’t go out of your way to advertise the fact. You’re private and discreet with your love life, and that’s the way people around here like it, be you gay, straight or otherwise. I think if you avoid campaigning as the ‘gay candidate’ and just be the ‘Conservative candidate’, it won’t be a problem for most of the people in the riding. Some of the evangelical churches up around Jarvis Falls won’t like it if the subject comes up in the campaign, but they represent a small segment of the electorate; we can probably win anyway without them. And besides, you’d be replacing Scott Matheson, an adulterer and exhibitionist. That’s got to count for something.”
“Does Mike Pierce know I’m gay?” I said.
“Yes, I told him last night. I hope you don’t mind.”
“And he’s fine with it. In fact, he said having a gay MPP in the party would be an asset, not a liability. He’s been trying for years to shake the party’s image as the party of rural, straight, white men. He thinks if we’re ever going to make inroads in cities like Toronto and Ottawa, we’ve got to present a more diverse, tolerant face to the public. Remember, he’s the one who pushed for the party to drop its opposition to gay marriage at the convention two years ago. You’d fit right in to his plan. He actually asked me to encourage you to consider running.”
I shook my head, trying to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t know, Bob. This is a huge decision. I’ve got to think about this. And I’ll have to talk to Dan first.”
“Of course.” He tried to sound reassuring, but his next comment betrayed how anxious he was. “We don’t have a lot of time, though. You’ll have to decide tonight. If you say yes, a team from party headquarters is going to come out from Toronto and interview you tomorrow to make sure there are no skeletons in the closet that will embarrass the party like Scott Matheson did.”
In the closet – an interesting turn of phrase. I wasn’t as optimistic as Bob that my being gay wouldn’t be a big issue in an election, especially for a Conservative in a rural riding. Although I didn’t lie about my sexuality if anyone asked, I didn’t discuss it much, either. Dan and I were obviously a couple, but we were careful in public; we never kissed or held hands when we were out in Selkirk County together. One never knew who would be watching, and old homophobic attitudes still persisted here. Living in a small town like Ravenbridge meant that everyone knew what everyone else was doing; in an election campaign, I would be under intense scrutiny. I wasn’t prepared to go back in the closet and hide my relationship just for political gain. Was I ready for this? Would Dan accept it?
“Look, Mark,” he said, trying to put me at ease. “I know you very well, and I think you would be an excellent candidate and a great MPP. The campaign team is already in place, the fundraising has been done, and everything is ready. Our polling suggests that we have a real chance of unseating Madeleine Pereira this time; well, we did until Scott Matheson fucked up. Just come to the board meeting with me this morning, and let’s talk about it. We’ll just say you’re considering it, no firm commitment. Let’s see what happens.”
“I guess I can at least do that,” I said.
In the parking lot after breakfast I called Dan.
He greeted me warmly; it was nice to hear his voice through my cell phone. “Hi, babe, what did Bob want to talk to you about?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” I answered, “but they want me to step in and take Scott Matheson’s place.”
“They want me to run in the election.”
“Bob seems to think I would make a good candidate.”
“I think you would, too,” he said, “but is this what you want? What about your job?”
“I have the same questions,” I said. “I’m going to a meeting of the board in a few minutes. I haven’t committed to anything, and I won’t make a decision until I’ve talked to you about it.”
He paused a moment. “I don’t know what to say. This is completely unexpected.”
“I know. Let’s talk about it when I get home. In the meantime, I’m just going to go to the meeting and hear them out.”
“OK, let me wrap my head around this,” he said. “We’ll talk later. Love you.”
Later that afternoon I sat down wearily on the sofa in my living room with Dan. He poured me a glass of wine.
“Well, what happened?” he asked.
“Long story short, we’re in a desperate situation with this Scott Matheson problem,” I said. “The election is in a little over two weeks, and we don’t have a candidate. We don’t have time to find a replacement through the usual process, so the board is appointing someone. They want me to step in.”
I filled him in on the details of my breakfast meeting with Bob and the discussion around the table at the board meeting. The other directors had agreed to my appointment, but it wasn’t a unanimous decision.
“Two of the directors voted against the idea,” I said. “Elaine Sanderson was particularly agitated. She’s a Deacon in the Baptist Church up in Greenlaw. She’s never been too happy to have a sodomite – her word – on the board, but she’s generally been at least polite to me in the past. She gave a big speech about hating the sin, loving the sinner, that kind of thing. She quoted Leviticus and said she didn’t think it was appropriate that someone with my ‘lifestyle’ should sit in the Legislative Assembly and that she would pray for me.”
“That couldn’t have been easy,” Dan said quietly. I could tell he was angry.
I sighed as I recalled having to sit quietly listening to her rant. “No, I was seething inside, but I held my tongue. Bob came to my defence. He said that everyone knew that I was an upstanding guy, and that I had taught the children of some of the people sitting at the table. He told them he figured that what I did in my private life should be nobody else’s business. He then called for a vote on whether or not to explore my candidacy further. I was supported 16 to 2.”
“Did you accept?” he asked.
“No, I told them I had to discuss it with my partner first. That really made Elaine wince.”
There was silence while Dan thought about this for a few moments.
“What do you want to do?” he said finally.
“I’m not sure. You know, I’ve always wanted to get involved in politics, but I always figured it would be after I retired. Now this has been dropped in my lap. It’s so unexpected.”
“What about your teaching job?”
“I can take a leave of absence if I’m elected and come back to my old job if I leave office at some point in the future. There’ll be minimal impact on my teaching career if it comes to that. Plus, the election is in only two weeks; Bob thinks I should be able to juggle my job with the campaign.”
“Do you want this?” he asked.
I hesitated a moment.
“I think I do,” I said.
“Then I think you should do it.”
“What about you?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want this? If I win, are you prepared for the publicity of being the partner of the only openly gay MPP in the province – and a Conservative one at that? This is going to be a big change for us. Are you OK with having a politician as a boyfriend and all the attention that is going to come with that? We’re not going to be spending many quiet weekends here in Ravenbridge anymore if I’m elected.”
Dan put down his wine glass and turned to me. He took my hand. “I want you to be happy and fulfilled. If this is what you want, then I’ll support your decision.”
“I love you,” I said and leaned forward to give him a long, passionate kiss.
“And besides,” he said, catching his breath, “if you’re an MPP, you’ll be in Toronto most of the time anyway. You’ll move in with me, and we’ll be together more than we ever have been before. Toronto’s a big city; it should be possible to live there anonymously if that’s what we want.”
I took his head in my hands and stared into his dark brown eyes. “Thank you,” I said. “I can’t do this without you.”
“Well, you’re going to have to do it without me on election day, unfortunately,” he answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you remember? I’m representing the foundation at that big NGO conference in Switzerland. I’m leaving in ten days. I’ll be in Geneva on election day.” Dan was the CFO of the Moffat Foundation, a large non-profit organization involved in international development, and his work occasionally took him out of the country. In all the confusion of the last few days, I had completely forgotten about his upcoming trip.
“Dammit,” I muttered.
“I’m so sorry, Mark. I want to be here to help you through this, but I just can’t get out of this commitment.”
I reached out and stroked his cheek gently. “That’s OK. It’s enough for me to know that you’ll support me if I decide to do this. If it comes to it, you can talk me in off the ledge over the phone.”
“Deal,” he answered.
Later that night, after a quiet dinner with Dan, I called Bob Daley.
“I’m in,” I told him.
Thanks again to Parker Owens for beta-reading and to rec for his editorial advice.