For part 1 of this post, click here.
As you may have figured by now, the following post is a fictionalization of the story of how I created a character and then became him in order to make him as believable as possible for my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary. The following recount is based on actual events, though some of the details have been altered to protect identities.
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING POST DESCRIBES MUCH OF MY NOVEL AND REVEALS SOME SUSPENSEFUL ASPECTS OF THE STORY. IF THAT'S COOL WITH YOU, READ ON.
I returned a couple of days later. I didn't want Shannon to think she had offended me. I wanted her to feel that she hadn't done anything wrong: after all, it was I who was doing something underhanded, was about to deceive in every possible way. To gammon. Everything I was going to say and do was not going to be me.
Everything I was going to say and do was going to come from Roland Axam.
When I returned to the pub, Michelle and John were in their usual seats. Michelle was laughing uncontrollably: she had an infectious laugh and John, always a twisted wit, had a talent for bringing it out of her. She faced away from me, but John saw me as soon as I walked in, made eye contact, and gave a solemn nod. Michelle turned her head, recognized me, and her laugh dissolved.
Shannon wasn't in the room, but the sound of empty bottles ringing as they were being disposed of in a recycle bin told me that she wasn't far.
I nodded to the two regulars and took my seat at the far end of the bar. It seemed strange to lay claim to this seat at such an early stage. I had only been there a handful of times and there was no guarantee that this charade would work, that I would be able to return much longer. Perhaps, after sharing the news that my wife, child, and father had perished in an automobile accident would be exposed as bulllshit, hard to swallow.
Shannon emerged from the back room. Time to tell.
As soon as she spotted me, she gave a sheepish smile, seemed shy to approach me. I maintained eye contact, tried to show her with my face that it was okay, we were on good terms.
"How are you, Shannon?" I asked, my Scottish lilt soft, comforting, yet solid.
"Good," she replied, "you? A pint of Keith's?"
"Yes, please. I'm fine. I hear the weather is going to improve."
"We could use a break."
"Aye, that's for sure." I smiled at her. Awkwardness had become a memory. Her own smile almost made me cry. It was so sincere. It didn't deserve the emotional headgame I was about to inflict.
When my pint arrived, I thanked Shannon and then nodded towards the other patrons. "So, they know."
"They told you?"
"It doesn't take a mind reader. Their faces, and now the subdued voices speak volumes. It's okay. I need to move forward. It's been a long time."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"It's not something I talk about much. Of course, my friends all know. My former coworkers. A handful of others."
"As I said: car accident. Freakish. A bad storm. Obscured the road's visibility as my dad was approaching a transport truck. He clipped it and his vehicle was pulled under the trailer. They were all killed instantly."
Shannon's hand was over her mouth, as though she was holding back an emotion that would spill out if she took it away. Her eyes were teary.
I saw Michelle and John across the length of the bar. They could hear. Their heads were bowed. There was no chance of Michelle sharing her laugh.
My story evolved over the months. I gave details in pieces: I wasn't in a rush to spill it all. When questions were asked, I answered frankly.
And it took more than a year to get all of the details out. Once, when I told them that my child, Laura, died instantly, didn't make a sound, but looked like she was asleep in her car seat, I was asked how I knew this. "When I said that they all died instantly," I said, "that wasn't exactly true. Kristen was crushed by the dashboard. She was conscious, but she had suffered massive internal damage. She hemorrhaged internally, but before she died she was able to talk to the driver of the truck and to the firefighters who were trying to cut her free. She kept asking the rescuers when our baby would wake up. 'She's just sleeping, isn't she,' she asked. But she knew."
More terrifying details emerged as I made them up. "We were all at the family cottage--slash--my parents' retirement retreat. Kristen, Laura, and Dad went into town for errands while my mum and I relaxed at the dock, looking out onto the lake."
"Big Rideau," I made up on the spot. I had just been there the weekend before, visiting friends. Real friends. I had to be careful: I couldn't give any details that were associated with Ross Brown. I was Roland Axam. But it was a big enough lake; the cottage could be anywhere.
"You must have been worried when they didn't come back."
"Very worried. The storm also hit the lake, had caught my mum and me by surprise."
"How did you find out about the accident? Did the police come to the cottage?"
"I went looking for them. There's only one direct way from the cottage to Westport. I came across the accident scene after they were all extracted from the wreck."
"Oh my God, Roland, what a nightmare."
I told them of the five stages of grief and how they affected me. Almost word for word, I rewrote what I said in Chapter 9 of my novel. I had an audience: Shannon, Michelle, John, Paul, and Tanya. When I was finished, there wasn't a dry eye or drawn face among them. I wrote that account down and then gave it again as a Toastmaster speech, as part of a dramatic speaking objective I had (the dramatic monologue): again, there were tears shed that evening too, and everybody in the room knew who I really was.
Over the years, I created my story and even told my friends at the pub that I had decided to write my story, that I had created a blog in which I was going to write the rough draft. They were welcome to read it. (I had no links to my personal blog on this site: I was anonymous to any stranger who happened upon it.)
And so became my Songsaengnim blog.
In 2006, Shannon left the pub and Tanya worked the bar and the floor (there were too few customers to replace her). In 2008, Tanya left, to be replaced by Naomi.
Naomi heard Roland's story almost immediately. She was eager to meet and make friends with her new-found regulars, who had existed long before her.
And she and Roland hit it off immediately.
To be continued...