Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gammon, Part 2

For part 1 of this post, click here.


Have you ever gotten away from everything, even from yourself, if only for a short time?

I have. I did it for a couple hours at a time, every few weeks or so, for six years. I stopped being myself and was somebody else.

I was Roland Axam.

When I decided that Roland was going to be the main character in my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, I needed to give him a reason for being in South Korea, for teaching English. After all, I had written a handful of short stories with Roland as a spy, following people, tricking people into giving him damning information. Of running away from people who wanted to do him harm because they found out he was spying on them.

I had written a trilogy, entitled The Spy's The Limit, where Roland goes to Berlin, West Germany, as an observer for an operation where a top Soviet politician is escaping to the West through the last undiscovered tunnel from East Berlin. Everything goes wrong, the Americans accuse the British of having a Soviet mole, and vice-versa, and the Canadians are the only ones that either side trusts.

At the climax of the story, Roland flees to his home town, North Berwick. But the bad guy is able to track him down and nearly succeeds in getting away with liquidating the only one who knows who he is.

It was a good story but needed lots of work. Someday, I may dust it off. If I can find it, that is.

But now, Roland was in Korea, teaching English. His days as a CSIS field agent are over. But why did he leave his old life behind. What moved him to abandon all he knew for a life that was alien to him?

In the third book of the trilogy, Roland found love. But I never really pursued that story line after, even though I still wrote short stories about Roland.

I had some ideas, but I needed to see if these ideas were plausible. I also wanted to give Roland as much depth as I could. I wanted his character to be as real as possible.

To me, the best place to strike up conversations with strangers is a pub. Sitting at the bar. Once the bartender and servers get to know you, they are more likely to spend time chatting with you. And if there are other regulars sitting at the bar, you get to know everyone.

I found a small bar in the downtown core. A modest-sized bar, a few tables. I usually went between five and six o'clock, but I sometimes went later, around 8:30 or so. The earlier hour always had the same regulars sitting at the bar. There was Paul, a government employee; John, who was on disability; and Michelle, the self-described cougar, a financial advisor by day. The manager of the pub, Steve, worked mostly behind the scenes and rarely showed his face. He left the running of the bar to his bartenders—at first, Shannon and later, Naomi—and server, Tanya.

At first, I almost walked out of the pub as soon as I had walked in. It was dark, with lots of neon light. The furnishings were dated. On tap, they only poured Bud Light, Labatt's Blue, and Keith's. The best whisky they had was Teacher's. And the pub smelled old.

But I wasn't there for the decor. I had a character to create. If it didn't work, I would move on.

The first hurdle was to be believed as a Scot. Roland had moved to Canada with his parents when he was in his mid teens, but his East-Lothian accent was still prevalent. Not strong, but noticeable.

Sitting at the end of the bar closest to the door, where I could make a hasty departure if need be, I asked in my best Scottish brogue, "A pint of Keith's, if you please." Shannon nodded, picked up a clean glass, and began to pour. "Cheers," I added, when my pint was delivered.

I stayed for two pints and was largely left alone. I didn't expect much on my first visit. It would take at least two more visits, I thought, before they would take me as more than a passer by.

It took three or four visits before Shannon asked me my name and gave me hers. She also asked me where I was from and what brought me in to her establishment: did I work nearby.

"I'm Roland," I said, answering her first question with a handshake. I wasn't expecting the second question, so I threw out, "I'm working a contract, nearby."

"What do you do?" she asked.

"I'm a writer." I didn't mean to give that answer. The truth was, Roland was still a couple of years behind. I had no idea what he would be doing after Korea, back in Canada.

"Would I know your writing?"

It was not the line of dialog I had anticipated. But it was a natural line of enquiry. "No," I said, thinking fast. "Actually, I'm helping a friend create a Web page for his company. It's an information technology company. My writing is pretty limited."

"Where are you from?" Even I noticed that my accent got stronger, the more I spoke.

"Scotland. Not far from Edinburgh." I noticed that Paul was also listening, though trying to look like he wasn't eavesdropping.

It took a few more visits to become the new regular. I sat closer to the residents, often joining in conversations related to whatever the television was showing. They were all an engaging bunch of people. In another time, they could be friends. But I had to focus on being Roland. So far, I had established myself as a Scot, named Roland. But Roland's story still had to be told. Had to be sold.

My chance came about two months after I first walked in. It was quiet in the pub. No one was sitting at any of the tables and only John was at the bar, busy playing the the electronic poker game.

The question was asked with a tone that sounded like only mild curiosity. She was just making conversation. But with my answer, the tone changed dramatically.

"Are you married, Roland?" she was putting clean pint glasses away, drying the last remains of water drops with a towel.

I hesitated. It was the question I was hoping for for a long time. It was time to sell Roland's tragic tale. "I was," I said, "but she died."

"I'm so sorry," she said, putting the glass down and coming closer to me. "Did you have any children together?"

I took a deep breath and my voice dropped. "We did, but she died."

"What?" she said, flipping the towel over her right shoulder and moving right across the bar from me. She leaned on the counter, standing only a few inches from me, her eyes locked on mine. "Oh, Roland, what happened?"

"An automobile accident. My father was driving. All three of them, gone."

"Oh, God, I'm going to cry," said Shannon, her voice cracking. "When, how? How old was your... did you say 'she'? Daughter?"

"Aye," I said, "she was three. It was years ago." Even my voice had gone dry. The thought of so much death so close to me... to Roland... was hard to swallow. I didn't have any more details about the accident, so I said, "It's not something I talk about much."

"I understand. I'm so, so sorry. I hope I didn't make you uncomfortable. I was only curious, only wanted to make casual conversation. Here, let me get you a drink."

"No, that's okay, I'm fine. I have to go anyway." I finished the last mouthful of my beer and left, my 10-dollar bill left on the bar counter.

I'm sure that she thought I was upset, possibly offended, at her prying into my personal life. In truth, I thought that by staying, I'd be exposed for making the story up. I needed to collect my thoughts, to think of what I would say next.

The premise for Roland moving to Korea was set. Now I had to build on it.

To be continued... 

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