My name is Ray Herring. My childhood was spent in a small town called Loxley Heath and my best friend was Jack Baynes. We used to play football together with a balloon filled with three teaspoons of sand, two cubes of jelly, four straws-full of orange juice, and the remainder with air. Jack worked on the exact portions for weeks. It required superb skill to kick this ball and not make it burst, and the longer we kicked it around, the more the mixture would gel, and when the ball finally broke, mid-air, the rain was spectacular. Mrs Protheroe, who owned two fat bulldogs who repeatedly launched themselves against their garden fence whenever we played nearby, Mrs Protheroe used to chase us up the street afterwards, threatening to let her dogs loose on us if we didn’t come back and clean up the road. Of course, we never did. And she never let her dogs loose on us either, so our games continued.
Jack was my best friend. My only friend really. And I have always been haunted by his betrayal of me.
I was born with red hair—well, it was more like a glowing orange, really. And people always took a step backwards when they first saw me. They would remain silent for a few seconds and then change the subject. At school, some people were not so kind. It was an open secret that my hair was red.
Our French teacher, Mr Newman, was noted for his unkindness. He also ran the army cadets in the school and everyone was afraid of him. No-one dared to misbehave in his lessons, and whenever he passed by in the corridor, the pupils would fall silent and part to let him through. Whenever I entered the class, he would declare, ‘And here comes the red herring.’ Everyone laughed. Probably more to relieve the tension, than at the humour, because I could never quite see the funny side. At other times he would look at me and shout, ‘Are you a red herring?’ Everyone laughed, probably simply because they were allowed to. In his lessons, no other expression of youthful emotions or personality was allowed, so everyone took the opportunity to laugh at me and my hair. I was their vent, the classroom’s safety valve.
After several weeks of this, I stole away to the library one day and looked up ‘red herring’. Previously I hadn’t any real idea of what people meant by it, except that I was their joke in some way. The dictionary definition said:
Something intended to divert attention from a more serious question or matter; a misleading clue, a distraction. Originally in the phrase: ‘draw a red herring across the track,’ etc. (from the practice of using the scent of a smoked herring to train hounds to follow a trail).
So, what was I supposed to make of that? Newman said I was a red herring. My purpose was to divert attention away from more serious matters. I was a misleading clue drawn across the trail of other people like the loitering stench of smoked fish.
From that moment onwards, whenever Newman addressed me, I felt myself to be an insignificant distraction. Sometimes I would feel myself sinking through the floor beneath my chair. I knew I wasn’t doing that, but that’s what it felt like, as though my whole body were collapsing inwards into my spine, and my spine were descending into the floor, like an alarmed snake withdrawing into its hole. And at other times, I was sure I could see his nose twitching as he would try to clear my smoked-fish stench from his nostrils.
‘Are you a red herring?’ he would bawl at me. And, of course, I would have to say I was, because dissent was not an option in his class, and the whole class would then deafen me with their laughter. He created so much tension that its release always came like the screaming of a siren letting rip right beside you.
One day I confided in Jack. I could talk to no-one else. I told him how much Newman’s taunting was destroying me. Jack said nothing.
Two days later, we were walking home when Mrs Protheroe stepped out in front of us with her two fat bulldogs twanging on their leashes as they danced before us on their hind legs, shaking their heads from side to side in an apparent effort to wash us with their spittle. She leant back on the leashes to counteract their determination and yelled, ‘I can hardly hold them back. Stop dirtying my road with your vile concoctions.’
Jack yelled, ‘They are not vile!’
Mrs Protheroe looked at me and snarled, ‘It’s your hair that’s driving them mad. You’re a freak.’
Jack yelled, ‘They’re spitting all over me. They’re disgusting.’
Mrs Protheroe yelled at me, ‘It’s all your fault; I can’t be held responsible.’
And then I yelled back at her—and I don’t know why I said this; it just came out; it was the only thing I could think of to say, I guess—I yelled, in a panic, ‘No, it’s all Jack’s fault; he makes them up.’
Jack looked at me in disbelief.
At that moment, Miss Whetherby, a friend of Mrs Protheroe, turned the corner, saw the commotion, took hold of the second dog’s leash, and between the two of them they managed to withdraw the snarling animals from us. Jack and I walked on in silence. Occasionally he looked accusingly at me.
After we parted that evening, it was never the same again between us. And in the days and weeks that followed at school, my nickname became established around the entire school, among staff and pupils alike. I found out later that Jack had been telling everyone how I hated being called a red herring by Newman. And perhaps it was the all-pervasive, threatening presence of Newman in that school that caused everyone to imitate him, or perhaps they all simply found it as funny as he did, but whatever the reason, I became known as the red herring. I was relieved that I only had two further years to endure in that school. I used to map it out in my mind whenever the taunting started. ‘I only have one year and ten months of this to go,’ and so on. And as for Jack and myself, we never really spoke to one another again, and I’ve no idea what became of him.
At the age of sixteen, I left home, moved to the next town, dyed my hair black, and began my new life. The town had a peculiar name. It was called Perception; and after I’d looked this up in the dictionary, I was drawn towards the town, feeling that if I could not change my life there, then it could not be changed at all.
16 April 2008
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