12/20/12

A Council Christmas Carol – part 1


STAVE ONE.

Winter driving

It was one of those long winter days. I was back in town late, that Thursday, well after dark, driving down the main street watching the heavy snow cover the road and sidewalks. I’d been out of town almost the whole day, entombed in various meetings. Too much time spent driving to and fro, too much coffee, junk food, and not enough exercise. I was tired, hungry, cranky and not at all in the holiday season spirit. All I wanted to do was get home and get into bed.

But first I had to pick up the agenda from town hall. The weather over the next few days was going to be rough and I didn’t want to venture out again until the storm cleared up. I pulled into a parking space nearby and got out. Stumbling over the snowbank, I walked through ankle-deep snow to the entrance. Humbug to the snow, humbug to the cold, humbug to the decorations that graced the downtown. I flashed my key card and opened the locked door.

Damn, it was dark inside. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and flicked the switch. Nothing. Power must have gone out. Well, there were still streetlights on, so it wasn’t pitch black. Except in the stairwell, of course. Nothing I could do about it. I knew the lay of the building well enough that I could feel my way upstairs and to the council room with no problem, if I was careful and slow. I stumbled a bit, but soon reached the second floor and was pawing through the piles of paper in my mail box.

The agenda was there, and it felt to be about 200 pages thick. I groaned. That defined what I’d be doing all weekend: reading and making my notes for Monday’s council meeting. That and shovelling my driveway.

In the feeble light from the street, I could barely make out a the dense type on the front page of the agenda. It promised to be a long meeting. They’d been getting that way, of late. The thick brown envelope under the agenda told me a lengthy in-camera meeting would follow. I sighed and gathered up the paperwork.

I was just about to leave and work my way back downstairs when I heard an odd sound. Metal on metal, a dull but substantial clinking, followed by a dragging sound. What the hell? There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night, aside from the odd councillor coming to check his mail box. Intruder? I patted my pocket and realized I had left my Blackberry in the car. Couldn’t even call the police. I quietly slipped into the hall, listening to hear the sound again.

Clank, clank. There it was, coming, it seemed, from the council chamber. Something being dragged across the carpet. That puzzled me. There’s nothing valuable in there, not even a mayor’s gavel. Maybe a bottle of well-past-its-best-before-date hot sauce in my drawer, hardly worth breaking and entering for. We all take our computers home – what’s there to steal? I decided to confront whoever it was.

Clank, sssscrape…. clank…. sssscrape… clank….

Now I’m not a superstitious guy, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at that sound. It was just too weird. An odd, eerie sound that brought goosebumps.Like someone was dragging heavy chains across the chamber. Or maybe the special effects sounds from a George Romero movie. And then I heard the moan, a low, rasping sound, forced through the tortured lungs of something not quite human. My thoughts turned rapidly from fight to flight.

The Ghost of VOTEBut it was too late. To my shock and horror a luminous shape oozed into the hallway, right through the closed door, barely two meters from where I stood. I dropped my jaw and my bundles of papers as I stood, transfixed. A ghost! I had actually encountered a ghost! Man, did I have a lot of apologizing to do to those psychics I had humiliated in so many blog posts.

The figure coalesced slowly into a ragged spectre of a man, manacled hand and foot and dragging what seemed to be metres of heavy chain. But since I could see through him, I suspected those chains weren’t heavy in my world, just in his spiritual plane.

He was short. Not very imposing for a denizen of the spirit world, and he was wearing a white turtle-neck sweater under a faded blue sports jacket that sported a prominent lapel button with the words, “Harper: 2008″ written on it.

Coun…sssssilorrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Chadwickkkkk…..,” the apparition hissed as he pointed a scrawny hand at my chest.

“Wh… wh… wh….” I stammered, struggling to remember those meditation exercises about deep breathing. Wasn’t working very well. Must have missed a lesson. I gulped some air and tried to calm down under the chilling influence of his death-cold eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Muchhhhhhhhhhh!” It was a vaguely familiar voice, no doubt about it. Even the face was almost, but not quite recognizable. Was this the spirit of someone I knew? Or was I imagining the likeness to someone living? It was hard to tell, with all that glow-in-the-dark makeup.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Assssk me who I wassss…ssss….sss.”

“What?”

Assssk me who I wassss!

“Uh, look, I’m sorry, but it’s hard to understand you. I think it’s the reverb in your voice. Can you tone it down a bit? Otherwise we’ll be here all night, you saying something, me saying what, you repeating yourself.”

“Ask me who I was. Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a bit odd, for a shade, you know. I expected someone… taller. Okay, I’ll bite. Who were you?” I raised my voice, feeling a little more confidence.

“In life, I was your conscience, Councillor Chadwick. These days I am the ghossssst of… councilssss passsst….” the spirit said.

“There’s that reverb thing again. I’m losing you.”

“Sorry. It’s part of the package. Can you hear me now?”

“Perfectly. Look, I don’t think my conscience has died.I clearly recall using it recently in a vote over a casino.”

“Gaming facility,” the spirit corrected. “Slot barn. Hardly a casino.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m pretty sure I still have mine and even if it’s buried deep in this black heart of a politician, It wouldn’t leave me without a significant bribe, and to date I haven’t managed to get as much as a cup of coffee from a developer. So who are you really?”

“I am the ghost of many who kept our councils on the straight and narrow. We held you accountable, we held your feet to the political fire. We made public your sins. We could have been your salvation, had you heeded us.”

“Ah, a ratepayer’s group. You mean VOTE, don’t you? Humbug. Weren’t you simply a special interest group created to get a slate of politicians elected to council one year?”

“That, too,” the spirit admitted with a small shrug, then raised a crooked finger towards the ceiling. “But we served a loftier purpose as well. Good governansssssssss… was our true mandate”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that point. Okay, so spirits walk the earth. Why come to me?”

“It is required of every politician,” the Ghost returned, waving his chained arms over his head and rattling them, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to due process!”

“I think you’ve got the wrong politician. I’m on municipal council. I don’t have the expense account to travel far and wide. Ottawa is as far as I’ve ever gone. I think you want our Member of Parliament. MPs get to go to China and India. They buy fighter jets.  We buy buses. Let me give you her address.” I patted my pocket for my missing Blackberry.

Again the spectre raised a cry; it shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“Okay, okay. Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, still trembling a bit at that soul-searing sound. “Listen, what’s with the chains?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?

“Well, it kind of looks like the mayor’s chain of office, if you bought it in the dollar store that is. But every link has the letters O, A and T on  it. Some sort of cereal?”

Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!

“They stand for Openness, Accountability and Transparency” replied the Ghost. “Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!”

“Ponderous. I like that word. reminds me of a public planning meeting. So you were you a politician in your past life. From a former council, perhaps? Did you ever donate $100 to cover a ratepayer’s group’s legal bills when they were suing the town? Or maybe you were a real estate agent? They’re always caught up in conflict of interest and haunting the halls while council debates a land sale. ”

“I have at sat the table,” the Ghost replied. “I have served the public interest, but served my own agendas as well. And for that, I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. Weary journeys lie before me!”

I put my hands in my pants pockets as I pondered what the ghost had said. “You must have been very clumsy about it,” I observed,” Sounds like you got caught with your hands in the cookie jar. Or maybe the voters realized who you were and chucked you out of office. Pursing personal agendas too aggressively will do that.”

At that, the spirit cried in anguish and rattled his chains so loudly it made me step back. “You’re not making me feel good about this meeting, spirit. Haven’t you got anything positive to say?”

“I have none,” the Ghost replied, shaking his head. “I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.”

“Ex-politicians have that effect on people,” I answered. The spirit nodded glumly.

“Well, you certainly took your time about it. Haunting town hall, I mean,” I observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference, in case the spirit had something more than just noisy lamentations for me.

“Took me time!” the Ghost repeated with an edge to his voice.

“Well face, it. VOTE imploded four or five years ago,” I responded. “Pretty much everyone left; just a half-dozen of diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. I don’t think anyone around here even remembers them by name these days. A few of us recall the police investigation, of course. Gets a chuckle when you’re swapping stories at the AMO conference.”

“The whole time since,” said the Ghost. “I have had no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“I get that remorse thing if you’re talking about last term,” I said. “But it must have been pretty quiet this term. We’re behaving well at council.”

“You wish,” replied the Ghost. “Why do you think I’m here in the dead of winter? I could be haunting someone in Florida, you know.”

“Come on,” I said. ”You can’t have that many issues to raise with us. We’ve been sticking pretty close to the procedural bylaw. Hardly an in-camera meeting worth mentioning. Oath of office is still shiny and nary a spot of tarnish on it. Not like last term. Not a single incident of spying on council emails has raised its head.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the bylaw officers, should they have been present, would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed! You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread

“Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of your kind is developed. Not to know that any councillor working in your own little sphere will find your mortal life too short for your vast avarice. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s dedicated to self-interest!”

“You remind me of someone who set council’s gold standard for personal agendas.” I said. “Can you imagine putting political junk mail from your party of choice on the consent agenda? Gotta be a low, even for a politician. Immoral creatures that we are.”

“Personal agenda!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my agenda. The common welfare was my agenda; I lived only to educate the masses in the higher meaning of wholesome ideologies.”

“Uh, yeah. I read the party platform. It came in the mail. Went right into the blue bin. Sorry.”

The spirit held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” I said. “But get to the point! Don’t be so flowery!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell,” the spirit said with a slow sigh. “I have sat invisible beside you, beside all of council, during many and many a meeting.”

It was not an agreeable idea. I shivered, thinking of those dead eyes peering at my laptop screen while a meeting progressed. At least I wasn’t caught playing solitaire during a council meeting. “Even the in camera stuff?”

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A slim chance.”

“Ever wonder how a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?” I asked.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by three spirits.”

“Come on! What sort of chance is that? I need to get home and get dinner. Besides I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Downton Abby. Can’t it wait until next weekend?

“No way, José. This weekend it is. Time of the year for epiphanies, and all that.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” I picked up the papers from the hall floor and tucked them under my arm. “There are eight others at the table, surely one of them isn’t planning anything tonight. What about the DM? He deserves a good haunting, don’t you think?”

“Without their visits,” continued the Ghost, ignoring my protests, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls one.”

“The bell tolls? Where do you get this script? Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and get it over with?”

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.”

“I have a digital clock. It doesn’t vibrate. Unless you mean my Blackberry. Look, that’s three late nights. I’m not a spring chicken any more. If I don’t get my full eight hours of shut-eye and I’m cranky for the rest of the day. These friends of yours won’t like me if I’m cranky.”

“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost answered. “For your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”

“Like I could forget a memorable evening like this.”

“You think the public will re-elect a smart-ass? Keep it up and I’ll write nasty things about you on my blog.”

When it had said these words, the spectre walked backward from me; and at every step it took, the door to the council chamber opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned me to approach, which I did. When we were within two paces of each other, the Ghost held up its hand, warning me to come no nearer.

I stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of that hand, I heard a babble of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated into the dark Chamber.

I followed to the door, desperate in my curiosity, and looked in.

The air around the room was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like the Ghost who had spoken with me; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Some I personally recognized as former mayors and councillors; others I knew only by their photographs that line the hall near the mayor’s office. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good or worse, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

I knew that feeling. I had served on  council long enough to know what impotence meant, in a metaphorical sense anyway. Was this my fate? To forever haunt the council chambers quoting lines from the Municipal Act? I left the door, hurried down the stairs, and out of doors, not caring if I tripped in the dark. I really needed to get home. And get a stiff drink once I arrived.

To be continued…