The Accent Interpreter – highly commended in “The Letter Review” short story competition

Monty Summers was an expert at telling people what they wanted to hear. And what they almost always wanted to hear were compliments which boosted their self-esteem from critically low levels. That’s why they consulted with him for his accent interpreting expertise. His website advertised his “impartial interpretation of the way the world responds to his clients’ accents and communication skills”. But Monty Summers had long forgotten about the carefully worded marketing message on his home page. To deliver the truth would surely destroy his business prospects, and he didn’t want that. He knew from painful experience that his clients couldn’t handle the truth. So gifting white lies was mutually beneficial for all involved. Monty Summers became wealthier each year, and his clients walked away with the short term self-esteem boost they craved. Everyone was a winner.

That morning, Monty Summers was due to meet Leonard Linkmeyer, a New Yorker by birth who’d spent much of his life living and working in Dublin. Leonard Linkmeyer was a tall thin man with graying hair and a pronounced limp. It was their first meeting and Leonard had emailed to tell Monty that he’d recently returned to the US after 20 years living in Ireland. He wanted an objective opinion of how his changed accent would be perceived back in New York.

“Morning Leonard,” Monty said as he shook his hand. “And welcome home.”

“Thanks, and nice to meet you,” replied Leonard.

Once Monty had served Leonard a five-star café latte designed to ease the pain of his famously high hourly rate, the two of them got down to business.

“So what brought you back to New York?” asked Monty.

“I grew tired of being an American in Ireland,” responded Leonard as he took a slow slip of coffee. “The only real friends I made were fellow expats, but most of them moved away after a few years. I was always starting new relationships with people who kept disappearing.”

“I hear you,” replied Monty who’d noted Leonard’s unusual combination of Irish and American accents. If Monty had to honestly describe Leonard’s accent he’d say the two accents hadn’t blended well. Leonard’s nouns and verbs sounded twangy and American, but his adverbs and adjectives reeked of a fake Irish accent. It sounded like Leonard was trying to present as Irish, but hadn’t been able to transform the words which resided deep in his heart. The result was an awkward and forced communication style which suggested Leonard wasn’t happy within his own skin.

“So tell me, what do you think of my accent?” asked Leonard, ready to be dazzled by Monty’s expertise. “I’m particularly curious as to how Americans will respond to my Irishness.”

There it was. Leonard had handed Monty the only answer about his accent that would make him a happy client. Clients always did this during the first few introductory minutes. It was generally framed as a question, but they were really telling Monty how they wanted to sound if they were listening to themselves talk. Monty took a deep breath and searched for the right words; Leonard’s words reframed and returned to him.

“You do sound very Irish,” Monty stated. “Beautifully so in fact. When you speak it almost sounds as if you’re singing an enigmatic hymn. You’ve got such a light-hearted way of communicating. My initial professional opinion is that you’ll be perceived by Americans to be 100 per cent Irish. Many people will be entranced by your accent. As you may be aware, millions of Americans feel connected with Ireland at a deeper level. So I’d say you’re destined to create deep connections now you are back.”

Leonard smiled and Monty knew he had delivered the right words, the right answer.

“I suspected that would be the case,” responded Leonard. “The first time I heard an Irish accent, I experienced an overwhelming desire to hear more accents like it, and also to speak like that myself. What a joy it is to realize I now do.”

“It’s a beautiful accent. You’re a lucky man,” agreed Monty.

“So, is there anything I can do to leverage my Irish superpowers?” asked Leonard with excitement. “For example, should I consider a career in radio? Or as an MC? I know the wedding industry is always in need of great voices.”

“Well, I’m no career adviser,” replied Monty, “but I’d say you’ve got the perfect voice for any voice-related vocation. My only advice is to own your Irishness. Don’t be afraid to use your powerful voice.”

“Fair play, that’s great advice,” said Leonard with an emphasized Irish lilt. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it, eh?”

Their conversation continued, but it was more of the same. It always was. Monty found multiple creative ways of telling his clients the same thing: that they sounded like the voice in their heads. He viewed himself as a social worker making the world a better place. And his clients always left feeling better about themselves, as Leonard Linkmeyer did.

“I must say, your services are well worth it,” enthused Leonard at the end of the hour. “I feel like I’ve got greater clarity about where I fit in here.”

“Always a pleasure. I’ll email you the invoice,” said Monty with a smile as he visualized another thousand dollars showering down from above.

Life went on like that for Monty Summers. Each client who arrived in Monty’s life presented themselves as uniquely different, but Monty knew they were all the same person, asking the same question. He was the only one who was privy to the bigger picture.

However, one day, a different sort of client arrived in Monty’s reception room. Martine Stavanger was a psychologist who’d contacted Monty about his participation in an upcoming conference showcasing the psychology industry’s high ethical standards. Martine strode into the room with the calm confidence of an Olympic athlete just after winning the gold medal. She was tanned and toned, and her flowery perfume colonized the room.

“Mr Summers, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she stated.

“You too,” Monty replied. “Please take a seat.”

As Monty served Martine’s coffee, his hand shook ever so slightly. He didn’t know why.

“So as I emailed,” Martine began, “I represent the psychology industry body, and we’d like to offer you a unique role at our upcoming conference.”

“Unique in what way?” Monty asked, full of interest.

“We’d like to demonstrate the industry’s high ethical standards. So we’re inviting a few industry practitioners and random clients onto the stage to talk freely with one another in front of the audience,” Martine explained.

“You mean consult openly on stage as we’d normally do behind closed doors?” Monty asked.

“Yes, with the consent of both parties of course,” Martine added.

“That’s a novel idea. What’s the objective?” asked Monty.

“We want to reveal the power of truth in all parts of the profession, particularly the lesser known corners,” Martine replied. “You’re the only accent expert we’ve invited. We think it’s a potential growth area so worthy of inclusion. It’s an opportunity for you to raise your profile across the industry.”

“Oh right, thanks,” responded a proud Monty Summers. “You mentioned the truth. How will that be demonstrated?”

“Oh yes, sorry,” Martine replied, “I meant to mention there will be a lie detector attached to each practitioner when they’re talking on stage with clients. It’s a crowd-pleasing formality aimed at celebrating how professionals handle the often murky world of framing the truth in a constructive manner.”

“Oh right,” said Monty, as he crossed his legs.

“So are you interested?” asked Martine.

Monty paused to consider the alternatives. On the one hand, he was being offered the ultimate marketing opportunity. It was a chance to raise his profile across the psychology industry while raising his already high income levels. Why not make hay while the sun was shining, he surmised? And on the other hand, he felt uneasy. Maybe it was the mention of the lie detector and the truth. Could this backfire, he wondered? But he comforted himself with the knowledge he could tell the truth at will. After all, this wasn’t a real client or a real situation.

“I’d love to take part, thanks,” Monty eventually replied as he shook Martine’s hand.

So Monty’s participation was agreed and the logistics were arranged. After Martine left, he became quite excited by the prospect of showing the highbrowed psychology world what a success he’d made of his little-known niche. He hadn’t even been to university, and yet he’d single-handedly launched New York’s accent interpretation profession. His recognition as a thought leader was long overdue.

When the big day of the conference arrived, Monty donned his best suit and spent longer than usual brushing his hair. He even plucked his eyebrows to ensure he looked his best. He walked to the conference center which was located in the Meat District. A VIP entry ticket and a shiny name badge awaited him at reception. As he walked past the eminent professors and psychologists en route to the main conference hall, he stood tall in the knowledge he was their equal. He was directed to sit in the front row by a young girl standing at the hall door. Monty sat down and waited for events to begin.

A few minutes later, Martine appeared on stage. She was just as trim, taught, and terrific as the first time Monty had met her. Martine waved at the crowd, then marched over to the microphone.

“Welcome everyone to the inaugural Ethics in Psychology experiment,” Martine stated. “We believe this is the first time something like this has ever been attempted anywhere in the world.”

The crowd applauded wildly, but Monty was momentarily discombobulated. Martine hadn’t mentioned an experiment when they’d spoken. Maybe calling it an experiment was an in-house joke in the psychology world, Monty surmised. After all, life was an experiment.

“And now to the fun,” Martine said with a grin.

A curtain opened behind Martine to reveal two plastic seats facing one another across a white table with a small machine perched on it. Monty Summers shifted in his seat.

“So let’s meet our esteemed industry professional,” Martine continued.

Martine walked across the stage toward Monty. She smiled at him as though the two of them were the best of friends. Monty wished himself invisible. Why was Martine so focused on him, he wondered?

“Mr Summers, will you join me on stage?” asked Martine.

Monty took a deep breath and stood up. The good news, he reasoned, was the sooner he got his part done, the sooner he could relax and mingle. Monty climbed the steps to the stage where Martine met him. She directed him toward a chair like an air hostess seating a passenger, then she marched back to the microphone. The room fell silent.

“And now, let’s meet our valued client,” Martine stated with gravity. “Milton, would you like to join us up here?”

A man stood up in the middle of the hall. He was tall and thin with wavy gray hair. As he walked toward the stage, some people in the audience noticed he was limping. When he arrived at the top of the steps, Martine greeted him with a pat on the back. Monty squinted as he could have sworn he knew Milton from somewhere. As Martine escorted Milton to the second chair, Monty suddenly recognized who he was. Milton was Leonard Linkmeyer! Monty panicked and considered escaping from whatever was happening. But the exits were closed and the audience were watching, waiting. There was no way out.

“What’s going on?” Monty whispered in the direction of the man previously known to him as Leonard.

But Milton seemed to see through Monty, and he remained silent. In his confusion, Monty turned to Martine who was already hooking him up to the lie detector.

“Martine, I know him,” Monty hissed. “What’s happening?”

Martine appeared not to have heard Monty as she pressed the big green button on the lie detector device. As she did, a large video screen lit up above the stage with the words “LIE” and “TRUTH” on the two sides of the screen. Monty Summers wished himself anywhere but where he was.

“So here’s how this will work, folks,” stated Martine into the microphone. “The client will ask the professional questions and we’ll all watch how truthful the professional’s response is.”

The audience applauded. A few people even laughed. Monty Summers didn’t know what was so goddamn funny.

“Let the conversation begin,” continued Martine with a pointed look at Monty.

Milton, or Leonard, or whoever the hell he was, fiddled with the microphone attached to his collar before he asked, “Tell me, Mr Summers, what do you think of my accent? I’m particularly curious as to how Americans will respond to how Irish I sound these days.”

Those were the exact words Leonard Linkmeyer had used the first time they’d met! Monty again searched for an exit. Then he looked around for Martine, but she’d disappeared from the stage.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t appreciate being played like this,” he stated to the audience.

The word “TRUTH” flashed on the screen in bright green as the lie detector digested Monty’s words.

“It’s a simple question for a man of your professional standing,” added Milton.

“OK, here’s my answer,” responded a fired up Monty Summers. “You sound like an American who’s talking with a fake Irish accent to escape the flawed reality of your own existence. You’re failing miserably—your accent is a car crash.”

The “TRUTH” sign flashed green, the audience gasped, and Milton smirked at Monty’s answer.

“So why did you tell me the opposite only a few weeks ago?” asked Milton. “You referred to my accent as ‘beautiful’ and ‘entrancing’ at the time.”

Monty stared at his feet, but they didn’t have any answers.

“Here’s the truth,” he eventually stated to the crowd. “I gave you the answer you needed to hear to make you feel better about yourself. You couldn’t have handled the truth that day.”

The “LIE” sign suddenly came to life in a blood red display of brutality.

Monty stared at the sign, challenging it to explain itself. “How’s that a lie?” he seethed at the sign. Then he gazed at the audience in the hope of receiving an answer. But no one said a word. Finally, he turned back to Milton.

“It’s a lie, Mr Summers,” Milton explained, “because you make that assumption with every client you meet without even getting to know them. You treat them like children who can’t be trusted with the keys to the car. Of course, I could handle the truth about my accent. It was a fake accent designed to uncover your fraudulent activities.”

Milton paused to let that sink in. The audience started murmuring and Monty Summers jumped up from his seat.

“Who’s responsible for this sick game?” he asked the room.

“Sit back down, Mr Summers,” said Martine’s voice over the loud speaker. She remained out of sight.

“Where are you?” Monty shrieked.

“We’re all watching you, Mr Summers,” explained Martine. “We’re watching you avoid responsibility for your actions. You could have been the star of this show, but you’ve left us with no option except to expose you.”

“Why? Who are you to judge me?” shrieked Monty at Martine, at the audience.

No one responded and an awkward silence dominated the hall. Then Martine’s voice returned, “It’s the right question, Mr Summers, only it’s us who are asking it of you. Who are you to judge the human race? Each time you make these blanket assumptions about clients who walk into your office, you’re judging each person as a hopeless victim. And you’re profiting from this unethical charade. It can’t go on.”

The “TRUTH” sign flashed green even though Monty hadn’t spoken. He froze and stared at the bright green word. As he did, the word suddenly meant something to Monty Summers—it meant the game was up in the most awful of ways.

As Monty digested the gravity of the situation, he stared at Milton across the table. But Milton’s face was changing in ways it wasn’t possible for a face to change. It was spewing, splattering, and splaying into a diffused mess of blurred inexplicability. His face was merging into nothingness before Monty’s eyes.

“What the hell?” Monty shouted.


Then Monty felt a hand on his shoulder shaking him.

“Mr Summers,” said the voice. “Are you alright?”

Monty Summers suddenly became aware that his eyes were closed. He opened them to discover the man he knew as Leonard Linkmeyer holding out a glass of water for him. He gazed around. He was lying on the floor of his client meeting room.

“What happened? How did I get here?” he asked.

“You fainted,” stated Leonard. “We’d just started our second consultation when you blacked out and fell to the ground.”

“So I’ve been unconscious all this time?” asked Monty.

“I believe so,” responded Leonard. “Although you were saying things, strange things.”

Monty Summers picked himself up off the ground and sat down on the sofa. He sipped the water and tried to piece together the chain of events which had brought him to where he was. He remembered feeling tired and light-headed ahead of meeting Leonard Linkmeyer that morning. But then his plans had changed. He’d attended that conference and everything had gone wrong.

“You’re Leonard Linkmeyer, right?” asked Monty.

“I am indeed, sir,” responded Leonard.

Monty Summers suddenly knew what he had to say next.

“Leonard, I need to come clean with you about something,” he said.

“Oh yes?” replied Leonard.

“Your accent doesn’t work,” stated Monty with his head held low. “Your Irish accent sounds inauthentic and fake.”

Leonard Linkmeyer fell silent as he digested Monty’s revised professional opinion.

“I’m glad you said it out loud, Mr Summers,” he eventually replied. “We both know you were trying not to hurt my feelings last time. Let’s get on with helping me become the authentic human I’m meant to be, eh?”

“You and me both, Leonard. You and me both,” replied Monty Summers as he breathed out.