For part 1 of this post, see Gammon. Or go to Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, or Part 7.
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.
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. IF YOU ARE READING MY BOOK OR ARE PLANNING TO AND YOU LIKE SURPRISES, COME BACK TOMORROW.
It had to happen eventually. All things must pass, be they good or otherwise.
In the long run, what I did, I truly believe, was good. I made friends, I provided good company. I provided support, I helped when and where I could. I provided laughs, I participated in the basics of humanity. I gave and never took selfishly.
But I was false. I was deceitful. I pretended to be someone that I never was. I lied.
The worst thing that I did was to allow someone to fall in love with a person who didn't exist. I toyed with a real person's emotions, using my fictional character as a wax carrot.
I think that deep down, I wanted the "experiment" to come to an end. I had been running it since early 2004. By 2009, I had developed Roland into someone who was nearly as real to me as he had been to the people in that pub. I knew him better than some of my closest friends. Sometimes, when I was walking somewhere, or waiting for a bus, or just killing time, I would be thinking about Roland, imagining what he would be doing right now.
Maybe I was developing a split personality. Many times, I questioned my mental health.
"There's something wrong with you."
For the first five years, only I knew that I was pretending to be Roland Axam. During that time, I was building the character, making him as real and believable as I could. I used what I created in my novel, and I think that Roland is as complex a fictional character as I could ever create.
But by 2009, I was only going to the bar because I liked the people there. I enjoyed going there. And if I wanted to continue patronizing the place, I had to continue being Roland.
And so Roland had to live in the present more and more. I had to create occupations for Roland. He had to be able to tell the people what he had been up to since they had last shared company.
I had to arrive at the pub, armed with lies.
Nothing that Roland did in his own time had anything to do with me and my family, with my job, or with my friends. Most of the time, Roland was writing his story, writing about living in Korea. He would make trips to Kingston with about the same regularity that he drove up to Ottawahe lived in the family cottage on Big Rideau Lake, deciding to seclude himself there.
In 2009, when Roland was showing up in the pub at least once a week, he had moved to Ottawa, living in an eighteenth-floor condo that overlooked the Byward Market.
"I can see the pub from my living-room window," he once told Naomi. "I think I saw you standing out front, on Wednesday, having a smoke."
"I'll look for you next time and wave," she said.
Maybe the real me was becoming tired of the constant deception, tired of creating stories to tell, tired of trying to make Roland sound like he was living a real life.
In March of 2009, I was a member of Centretown Toastmasters and I entered a speech contest. In this contest, I decided that I would tell the story of how I first invented Roland, how I went to North Berwick, Scotland, to research his home town, and how I used him as my central character in many short stories, in a spy trilogy, and now in a dramatic novel.
And I told my audience about how, for five years, I pretended to be Roland in a pub, complete with Scottish brogue. As I told the story, I changed from my voice to Roland's, letting my Rs roll softly off my tongue.
I didn't win the contest, but the speech was well-received, especially by one of the club members, who loved the speech so much that he went home and told his girlfriend all about it.
His girlfriend was an associate producer of the CBC Radio 1 afternoon show, All In A Day.
I distinctly remember telling my Toastmaster audience that "what happens here, tonight, stays here." So much for that. And yet, I wasn't really upset.
When Robyn Burns called me, she wanted to know about my novel and Roland, but she was most interested in knowing about how I had pretended to be my character in a pub. She was interested to know how I had pulled it off. We talked about the Scot who visited the pub and was convinced by my accent; we talked about the meeting of two worlds at Big Daddy's, where someone who only knew Roland, met someone who only knew me.
We talked about the future of Roland Axam, and I hesitated. I didn't know how much longer I'd be doing Roland, how much longer I would be frequenting the pub.
"Would you be interested in coming into the studio and talking about your character on air?"
"Sure," I answered hesitantly. I knew that there was a chance that Michelle, Paul, and John would hear the interview, in which case I wouldn't be able to return to the pub. It was a slim chance: they were usually in the pub by the time All In A Day hit the airwaves, and I knew that they didn't usually listen to CBC anyway.
Naomi was at work at that time and the pub piped in music, not radio.
But my fear lay in the fact that there would be people who would be tuning in to the show and they might know of Roland indirectly through his friends, and that word might get back to them.
It was a risk I was willing to take. I agreed to the interview.
It was a silly interview. Adrian Harewood, the host at the time, didn't focus much on my novel. I really wanted to generate buzz about itI was about five chapters away from finishing it and because I was publishing the rough chapters on a blog, I wanted readers.
Adrian focused on my pretending to be Roland. And when he wanted me to give the listeners a taste of him, I had trouble coming up with anything to say and I hadn't had time to warm up to the accent (I usually practiced aloud as I walked toward the pub).
The interview was lame.
But one thing was certain: the secret of Roland Axam was no longer secret. Whatever happened would happen.
Luckily, I gave the interview the day before my family and I left for Italy. We would be out of the country for three weeks and I was at a safe distance, should the shit hear the fan. I monitored my Roland Axam e-mail account, but short of a couple of e-mail messages from Naomi, wondering when Roland would be back in the pub, I heard nothing.
I returned to the pub at the end of October, 2009, a couple of weeks after my trip to Italy. I was nervous of what I would face. It was more than five weeks since the interview: surely, if someone had heard the piece, it would have leaked to the folks at the pub.
But it hadn't. All was as Roland had left it. Life in the pub went on.
But Naomi's affection for Roland was stronger. She and her boyfriend had officially broken up. And Naomi was hoping that Roland's long-distance relationship with Fiona could be broken. She told Roland that she loved him.
Roland did some quick thinking. He gave her a hug and a kiss. "I'm sorry, Naomi. When I was away, Fiona and I got married. I love you too, but we're friends. Good friends. I'm in love with Fiona. She's going to move to Ottawa in the coming months or I'm going to live with her, in Edinburgh. I'll be going back for December and we'll have a decision by the time I return to Ottawa, in January."
I broke Naomi's heart, but I had to. For my sake, if not for Roland.
I walked out of that pub on that day as Roland for the last time.
In January, when I returned, Naomi and Paul were the only two at the bar. A few unknown people were at various tables, minding their own business. Naomi and Paul were gossiping from across the bar counter, and when I walked in Naomi gestured with a shake of the head in my direction. Paul turned to face me, then slid from his stool and walked to the washrooms.
Roland took his usual seat and smiled at Naomi. Naomi came around from the bar and approached him, gave him a hug. Roland kissed her cheek and said, "It's good to see you. How have you been?"
"Good. Thanks for the gift." Roland had sent Naomi's daughter some DVDs of Charlie and Lola, her favourite children's show, for Christmas.
"My pleasure," smiled Roland, "I hope she enjoys them."
"She loves them. Can't stop watching them."
"Good. I'm glad."
"So," continued Naomi, looking Roland right in the eyes, smile on her face, "how are your girls?"
"What, Fiona and Siobhan?" Naomi often asked about Roland's girlfriend and sister when he returned from visiting them but she never referred to them as his girls.
"No, your girls. Your daughters."
Roland turned his head sideways, looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. "You okay? You're thinking of another of your patrons."
"No, I mean your two kids."
Roland hesitated. He looked into Naomi's eyes, tried to read the awkward smile on her face. There was nothing out of step with Naomi's body language; only her words seemed confusing. Roland still believed that Naomi was confusing him with somebody else, as hard as that was to swallow.
"Do you want be to bring it out?" she asked, hopping from her stool and walking around to the other side of the bar. With her back to him, Roland started to realize what "it" was: a printout.
Well played, Naomi. Well played. Naomi wasn't talking to Roland. She was talking to me.
She reached for her purse and pulled out two or three loosely folded sheets of paper. I saw the header on the first sheet: Brownfoot Journal. My blog.
"What the fuck?" she said, her voice still lowered but with her anger finally boiling. "What is your game? Did you get off on this? Do you pretend this at other places? How many other people have you manipulated like this?"
I was quiet. I didn't know what to say.
"Told you everythingeverythingabout me. I don't know you. I loved you."
"I'm sorry." Roland's accent, his voice, was gone. It was me talking. Hearing my voice, Naomi's anger grew.
"There's something wrong with you. You've got mental problems. What does your wife think of this? I bet she doesn't know. I have a mind to call her and tell her."
Lori knew that I was pretending to be Roland, had listened to the radio interview. But I never told her about how I continued to be Roland, knowing that I was playing with someone's emotions. How would she take it?
While I knew that Naomi wouldn't make good on her threat, I knew that I would have to tell Lori about it. Now that my secret had been exposed, that I was no longer able to pretend to be Roland, I would tell her. Perhaps, that evening.
"You disgust me."
Those words hurt. Of all the insults and cutting remarks that Naomi threw at me, those three words hurt the most. Maybe it was because the last time I saw her, the three words she gave to me warmed my heart: "I love you."
I waited for Naomi to finish speaking. I felt I had no right to interrupt. It was when she had said "you disgust me" for the third time that she seemed to run out of things to say.
"I know I owe you an explanation," I said, "and I don't expect you to believe me. I don't expect you to believe a single word I say, but will you allow me?"
"This will be good," she laughed. I used to love to make her laugh, but now I was saddened. I could hear the vitriol. This woman hated me.
"I never set out to do this to hurt anyone, even though I knew that eventually, I would. This was an experiment."
"An experiment?" she laughed again. "Were we all your Guinea pigs? Rats in a maze?"
"No," my voice was firm. "You were my friends. But what was I to do? I wanted to research my character for my book: that's all that it was at the start. But then I became emotionally invested. I made friends here. This was going to end in one of two ways: either you were going to find out, like you have, and I'd no longer be able to come, or this would have been my last visit, and I would have never returned as Roland, you would never know what became of him."
I had a story worked out. I had an idea for a story. Over the past few months when I was in the pub, Roland had returned to work at CSIS, had once again become a field agent. And I had an idea.
The devastating earthquake in Haiti had just happened. Many people were dead or missing, including some Canadians. A CSIS operative in Haiti was missing, and Roland was going to go to find him or take over where the agent had left off.
Roland was going to go to Haiti and for the patrons and staff in the pub, never return.
I didn't tell Naomi about Haiti. I didn't tell her that Roland was going to go away. She wouldn't have cared in her mood and she wouldn't have believed me anyway. The idea died on this day.
"I could never tell you," I said. "For you, I had to be Roland. I had to continue to lie. You mattered to me. To tell you who I really was would end the relationship."
"It's over, all right," she said, the anger in her voice attracting the occupied table in the room. "I never want to see you again. You're banned from here." She looked to the washrooms. "I asked Paul to wait in the guy's room until I talked to you. He will now escort you out. I'm sure that he'll have some words for you too." She turned away from me and walked toward the alcove that led to the boys' room.
As soon as her back was turned, I got up from my seat and headed for the door. There was no point in waiting for Paul: I had heard enough, didn't need to receive more abuse.
And I liked my face as it was. Knowing Paul, I wouldn't put it past him to take a shot at me. Without looking back, I walked out of the pub. As the cold, January air hit me, I could feel the heat burning off my cheeks. My hands were shaking, my heart was racing, I was breathing heavily.
I needed a drink.
I walked through the streets, straight to The Highlander Pub, parked myself on the first-available stool at the bar, and ordered a Lagavulin.
Ian Rankin had personally introduced me to this whisky, and I needed it more than Roland needed a drink to forget the loss of his wife, daughter, and father.
I had three, in quick succession.
I never returned to the pub. The closest I came to it was more than two years ago, when my buddy, Al, came to visit. We went to a pub with a patio, not far from Roland's watering hole. When Al excused himself to use the washroom, I had a clear view of the other pub.
And, while I waited for Al to return to our table, I saw Naomi walk out of the pub and walk past me. As she passed, her eyes roamed the patio and for a fraction of a second, our eyes met. But Naomi, if she saw me, did not react.
And I'm sure she saw me. Naomi missed nothing: she was sharp, observant. Even though she had spent most of her time talking to me at the bar, no matter how busy, she knew when a client would need attention, never waited to be asked.
She saw me. And like that final day at the pub, she played it cool.
I miss the pub. I miss walking in, never having to order my drink because everyone knew what Roland wanted. I miss the patrons: Michelle, Paul, and John. I miss Naomi.
I miss being Roland. I haven't been the Scot for almost three years.
I wish there was a reset button, that I could return to everyone as myself, that I could be the person that they never knew. But I can't.
For that, and for all the sorrow and disappointment I caused, I'm sorry.