Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gammon, Part 4

For part 1 of this post, see Gammon. Or go to Part 2 or Part 3.

The following post is a fictionalization of the story about 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. Most of the dialog is almost word for word.


"Roland, we're so glad you're here. There's someone we want you to meet." It had been several weeks since I had last been in the pub and the enthusiasm from the regulars piqued my curiosity.

And then brought on a moment of sheer panic.

"There's a guy here that we want you to meet. He's from Scotland."

I had been speaking as Roland in the pub for a couple of years at this point. I had Roland's voice down pat. Roland speaks more softly than I; he chooses his words carefully. He uses a vocabulary that is much more formal than mine. He had a sense of humour of which I was envious—he said things that my shyness keeps me from uttering everything I think.

Not Roland.

And I was comfortable using a Scottish accent. It would take me a couple of minutes to get up to speed: I'd practice on my way to the pub, damn what people thought of me—there were plenty of crazies in the Byward Market. Once I had Roland's voice and accent, I could speak with it for hours. So much so that it was hard for me to switch back to my own voice.

But speaking with a Scottish accent to a bunch of Canadians who had never stepped outside their home country was one thing: using Roland's voice with another Scot was quite another.

I fought the knot in the pit of my stomach, tried to breathe evenly. This was going to be the night I was discovered for the fraud that I was. The game was up. I figured that from the moment I opened my mouth, Roland would have a life expectancy of 10 to 30 seconds.

I knew this day would come. I just wasn't prepared, wasn't ready to say goodbye.

The gentleman was portly, with grey hair and a long, bushy white beard. His nose declared to all around that he enjoyed a drink. The measure of Teacher's and the Rickard's Red told me it didn't matter to him what kind of drink was in front of him.

Being late summer, and a cool, wet one, he wore a knitted sweater; a faded-blue wind breaker was draped over the back of his chair. He was sitting at the bar: everyone sat at the bar. Seldom would tables begin to fill before the worn, faux-leather-backed high chairs at the long bar. Luckily, for me, he was sitting on the corner, closest to my seat. I liked sitting at the end of the bar, on the short end that looked down the bartender's side of the bar. A consummate, dirty-old man, I liked to see the bartender's butt, the bartender always being an attractive woman.

"Roland, this is Connor. Connor, Roland." We exchanged handshakes.

"Folks tell me you're from North Berwick," said Connor. I knew that their pronunciation had a harsher R, more like Berrick with no rolls.

"Aye," I replied, determined to hold the charade as long as possible, to speak with absolute minimalism. "And you?"


"Ah." I knew this town, had been to it. When I had flown to Scotland in 1988, I landed at the Prestwick Airport. It wasn't far from Ayr: Robert Burns territory.

"When were you last home?" asked Connor.

"A month." Lie: when I needed to take a break from visiting the pub, I explained that I was travelling back to Scotland. Roland often commuted between his home, which was now his parents' old cottage on Big Rideau Lake, and North Berwick. He had a good friend who worked in the Byward Market, and after A) having a late lunch with his "friend" or B) meeting him for drinks, Roland would swing by the pub for a drink or two before either A) driving back to the cottage or B) crashing at his friend's place (Roland never drove after having more than a couple of beers, even though I always took the bus from the pub to my house).

The last time I had been to the pub, I told them I was visiting my sister, Siobhan, who lived in Edinburgh. This was my first time back at the pub since my "trip."

"You go there often?"

"Often enough."

"Roland has his sister in Edinburgh," explained Tanya, who was behind the bar this time, "but he also has a house in North Berwick."

"North Berwick," repeated Connor, "lots of money in North Berwick."

"Uh," I grunted, careful to sound acknowledging without sounding rude.

"Owned the house long?" quizzed Connor.

"It belonged to my parents. They held onto it when we came to Canada, and I bought it from them about 15 years ago." I was sure that Connor would see through my fake accent, but he said nothing.

"I wonder how much it's worth."

I eyed him suspiciously. What was it to him? Perhaps it was a cultural difference that I wasn't aware of. I shrugged. "Never thought of it." My pint of Keith's came to me. I never had to ask. Even though I loathed the stuff, I drank it. Roland was never the beer snob that I was. Or am. "What brings you here?" I asked.

"Family," he said. "Daughter lives here. I'm a new grand da'."

"Congratulations." We raised glasses to one another.

"Slainte," said Connor.

"Slainte Mhath," I responded in kind. We sipped.

"Where d'ye say you were from?" he asked, one eyebrow raised, the opposite eye squinting. He was on to me.

"North Berwick," I repeated. I knew my pronunciation was spot-on. When I had gone to Scotland, I had made the mistake of mispronouncing the town. A native corrected me, and then had me repeat it until I had it right. "East Lothian."

"I know where it is," he said, sounding perturbed. "You just don't sound like you're from there."

"I've lived in Canada a long time," I offered, vying for more time. Any second, now, he'd call "bullshit."

"Aye, just so," he said, "just so." He took a sip of the cheap whisky.

He stayed another hour or so. I listened to his accent and tried to remember his inflections. His voice was nasal, more so than mine. As we drank and talked, he seemed less critical of my accent, was more accepting. We talked about the Scottish lowlands, the area around his town. I told him I had been to Culzean, but that the castle was too modern for my liking. It lacked the history and rustic charm of Tantallon (the pronunciation of which I was also made to repeat and repeat until I said it right).

We talked about Siobhan and how she had returned to Scotland to attend Glasgow University. How she met her true love, her husband, and how they moved to Edinburgh. He was an architect, she was an administrative assistant who worked for the Lord Provost (luckily, Connor didn't talk about names, didn't seem keen on talking about the new Scottish parliament).

I made my family's background up as I went along, making mental notes to remember it so that I could add it to my story. My friends at the bar were learning something more about Roland. As was I.

I wasn't exposed that night. Somehow, I had convinced a native Scot that I was one too. The experience had given me the confidence to freely speak with Roland's softened brogue.

A couple of years later, I met Ian Rankin and heard him speak. And I was amazed at the sound of his accent: he's from Fife but lives in Edinburgh, and his accent closely matched Roland's (Ian's was better).

I have an ear for languages. When I was in Korea, teaching in Chŏnju, I once walked through the halls of my language institute and was trying to get past a crowd of my students. I came behind one of them and said "shillye-habnidaexcuse me," and when the student turned to face me she screamed out in surprise, explaining that when she turned she expected to see a Korean: my accent was that convincing.

I fooled a Scot. For years, I fooled a handful of people in a Byward Market pub. That was the plan.

But what I hadn't intended was that I was going to hurt people. And yet, that's exactly what happened.

To be continued...

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