Sepia

Stephen Kennedy likes to spit in my face.

No, there’s more to it than that. Him and his mates – Mike Dennings, Mike Tucker, Benny… I don’t even know that Benny kid’s surname – they like to get me down on the ground, soften me up with a few good kicks to the tender parts, hold my arms to stop me struggling, pull my hair so hard my head jerks back, punch me in the gut till I’m winded and gasping for breath, and then – and only then, Stephen Kennedy likes to spit in my face. Or, to be more accurate, he likes to hawk up a massive greeney – though really it’s more of a browney – from way in the back of his throat, and then let it dangle, slow as he can, like a spider on a web, down into my open mouth. After that they clamp my jaw shut and hold my nose till I swallow. That cold, wet, fag-tasting slug. Then they wait for me to puke. Because I always puke. All over the playground, or the pavement, or the towpath by the canal – wherever they’ve got me today. They squeal and they laugh – “Look out, lads!”, “There she blows!”, “Count out the carrots!”, then they head off back to wherever they were going in the first place. Only occasionally do they decide to give me second helpings.

Me, I carry on puking till I know it’s all out of me. Then I pick myself up and walk home. Smile at my mum, tell her what we read in English that day, eat a Jaffa Cake to take the taste away (“Eddie – you’ll spoil your appetite!”), talk about that new game she got me for my Spectrum, talk until I know she knows I’m OK, I’m happy, then run upstairs and bawl into my pillow, with the radio on so nobody can hear, till there’s nothing left to cry.

Why do they pick on me? The answer to that’s easy. It’s because I’m different. It’s because of my hair.

Ginger nut. Carrot head. Copper top. Duracell.

Red, Red Swine. Simply Red. Mick Fucknall.

Red Ed.

They’re not allowed to pick on the black kids: that’s racialist. And when Mr. Horrocks saw them tormenting Ewan Price for being fat, he made them all stay behind and put the chairs up on the desks, every night for a week. But nobody minds when they pick on me. Some of the teachers even join in. Mr. Townsend calls me Richie Cunningham and everybody loves that. I’d rather be the Fonz, but that’s never gonna happen.

My uncle Stewart, he’s the only person I ever told.

“You know why they call you those names, Eddie-boy? Because they’re jealous. Because you’ve got your mother’s hair and that’s the most beautiful colour in the world. You take a straw poll of all the kids in your class and ask them what their favourite colour is. How many you think would say yellow? Blond? Do you know where the word ‘bland’ comes from, Eddie-boy? OK, maybe a few might say black, but they’ll be like the ‘ooh, woe is me!’, broody moody kids, the ones who end up… no, you’re probably not old enough for that just yet, but give ‘em a couple more years. And as for brown – you know what else’s brown, Eddie-boy? Who wants hair the colour of… S – H – I – T? Eurrrghhh!”

I laugh at the way he spells out that word, with hardly any sound at all, cranking his jaw round the shapes of the letters.

“No, you take that straw poll in your class tomorrow, Eddie-boy – I bet you the overwhelming majority says ‘red’. Why? Because red is the coolest colour, everyone knows that. Even in nature. What’s the coolest flower – the red, red rose? Coolest bird? Rockin’ robin redbreast! The cunning fox! The pretty flamingo! And, of course, the noble, majestic squid!”

My uncle Stewart is always going on about the noble, majestic squid. He says it’s the noble, majestic squid what made him a success as a writer after all those years trying. He’s had three books published now, and the last one’s being made into a film with Ian Ogilvy and everything. But it took him twenty years for anyone to even read his stories, and the first time they did, it was all thanks to the noble, majestic squid.

Sepia. That’s the posh name for it, the name people use when they don’t want to say ‘squid ink’. The first book my uncle Stewart had published, he wrote it entirely with a pen filled with sepia. Not the version he sent off to the publishers, he did that on Mum’s old typewriter – you could hear him in the extension till well after bedtime every night, the sound of his typing reminded me of my old machine gun, the one that Mrs. Cooper took off me and threw in the back of the dustbin wagon because she said I was a young terrorist and if I carried on like that, I’d end up in the IRA. I told her it wasn’t a real gun, it didn’t even have bullets – just a rattlesnake noise when you pulled the trigger – but she didn’t listen to me. It doesn’t matter; I’m too old for toy guns now anyway. A toy gun wouldn’t be any use against Stephen Kennedy and his mates.

After he sold that first book, Uncle Stewart used sepia for everything he wrote. Sometimes he’d let me shake the bottle to get it all mixed up for him, otherwise the gunge all settles to the bottom – the pigment, he called it – and then it goes a funny colour and it’s not so good to write with. You have to be careful not to get it on your fingers too, or they end up smelling like the fish stall in the market.

“Give it a few more years, and you’ll be aching for fishy-smelling fingers!” Uncle Stewart said one time, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. I wasn’t so sure about lots of the things Uncle Stewart said, ‘specially when he talked about my hair and how red was the coolest colour and all the other kids were just jealous of me. I mean, he must be smart, or people wouldn’t buy his books, but…

“Feel sorry for them, Eddie-boy – all they have is their jealousy.”

…I wasn’t so sure about this at all. It seemed a very adultish way of looking at things, and pretty unrealistic. Like when they say, “ignore them and they’ll soon get fed up” or “stand up for yourself and they’ll respect you for it”. I mean, how do you stand up for yourself against four bigger boys? How do you ignore someone dribbling a humungous greenie down into your throat every day? How do you think that the only reason they’re doing this is ‘cos they’re jealous of your coolest-coloured hair? That’s not why they’re doing it at all. They’re doing it ‘cos they’re mean, and they like to see me cry, hear me scream, watch me puke. Listen to them laugh – that’s not jealousy, is it? It’s just not, all right.?

Still, Uncle Stewart and his noble, majestic squid ink – it must have worked for him somehow. He’s not living in the extension any more; he’s bought a house of his own now. He has a girlfriend too, though Mum says she’s a trollop. I asked her what a trollop was and she told me to forget she’d said it, but that only made me remember it more. I think she’s pretty, Uncle Stewart’s girlfriend, she has really nice hair. It isn’t red, anyway. Still, the way I figured it, if the sepia worked some kind of magic for Uncle Stewart, maybe it could do the same for me. Maybe if I wrote Stephen Kennedy a letter, asked him to stop picking on me, told him how it made me feel… maybe the sepia would get through to him just like it had Uncle Stewart’s publishers. That was my plan when I took the inkbottle from Uncle Stewart’s desk anyway. Just to write that letter. That’s all. Except…

Except ignoring someone or standing up to them – even writing them a letter – that might work fine when you’re an adult, but there’s something else works much, much harder when you’re a kid. It’s why nobody messes about in Mr. Horrocks’ class, not even Stephen Kennedy, and why none of us have been anywhere near the railway line since Jason Thornton got his foot caught in the tracks and almost got squished by an Intercity 125. When you’re a kid, a good scare works better than anything.

And so, one Thursday after school, I let them catch me, down by the canal. I didn’t take the secret path up behind the scrap yard, the one I’d been using to avoid them if they didn’t catch me in the playground. Instead, I waited on the towpath, because I knew they’d find me there. See, I knew they were looking. It’d been almost a week, and Stephen Kennedy probably had enough phlegm backed up in his throat to make a whole plate full of mushy peas. I fed the ducks my sandwiches while I waited – I hadn’t been able to eat them at lunch – then I sat on the wall and listened for their voices, trailing on down the path. Then just before they saw me, I did what I had to do. And then I was ready.

It started like it always does – the names, the pushing, the pokes and prods and twists. I made sure to look like I was trying to get away, so they wouldn’t get suspicious, and that’s when Mike Dennings – or it might have been Tucker, one of the Mikes anyway – that’s when he tripped me up, and down I went. I held my breath, cheeks bulging as I fell. But it was too soon yet. I had to hold on. I had to let what always happened happen. I had to time it perfectly…

“I’ve been saving this one up just for you, Red Ed!” said Stephen Kennedy, his knees on either side of my chest. Then he threw back his head and snooked, jaw wide like a lion when it yawns, making a sound like a snore in a cartoon, only wetter, slimier. And there it was, slithering out of his lips like a bubblegum kiss, twinkling in the sunlight as it twisted down to greet me. “Open wide!”

They held back my head, like usual. They punched me in the belly till I gasped out for air – like usual. And then the awful blob of it touched down on my tongue and oozed back into my throat, and I felt my gip rising – but this time I didn’t try to hold it down. This time, I wanted it just as much as they did.

“Watch out boys,” said Stephen Kennedy, “Red Ed’s going to spew!” And just like usual, they stepped away and laughed.

Only this wasn’t like usual, not at all. This time when I puked it was black and gluey and sick. Sick – that’s a word that can mean lots of different things, and every one of them is right for what came out of my mouth that day. And it kept on coming too. It slopped down my shirt when I tried to sit up, and splattered on their clean white trainers, the ones their mums paid thirty quid for and they’d made sure everyone knew it. And still it kept coming.

“Shit!” said Mike Dennings.

“What you done to him, Steve-O?” said Benny whatever-he-was-called.

“You all right, kid?” said Mike Tucker. His face was whiter than my shirt had been before I started puking.

I didn’t reply. I just carried on with what I was doing – there was a whole bottle of squid ink inside me and I wasn’t sure what it’d do, if I didn’t get it all out. But it was worth the risk to see the look on their faces. To see them running away – for the first time ever, running away from me.

The noble, majestic squid. Thanks, Uncle Stewart.

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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