‘Do you want a girl or a boy?’
‘I don’t care what sex it is, as long as it isn’t ginger,’ said its mother.
It was ginger. He. Didn’t stand a chance with four flaming red cousins, two auburn uncles and a reddish brown aunt. She threw out the cheeky uncle who persistently called him a redhead and focused instead on pink-petal babylips and gazing blue eyes and minuscule fingernails.
Beautiful bright red. Old ladies stopped in the park and beamed. ‘Isn’t he lovely?’ they said of the toddler, drawing a bag of jelly babies from a pocket. ‘Is it all right?’ they asked. How could any mother say no, seeing his eyes light up? ‘Little cherub,’ they added, patting the corkscrew curls.
‘Anthony!’ His teachers zoomed in although he sat at the back, doing nothing untoward. And there lay the rub: any trouble and there was always Anthony, lurid as a berry. Teachers had an affinity for red hair. So he scrapped homework, because if he knew all his spellings and body parts of an insect, Mrs Adams would grill him till she found uncharted soil, and he flicked paper pellets because she blamed him for all flying objects anyway. Worse, the irresistible hair was curly.
At twelve years old he had a number two haircut and scolded his mother for allowing curls before. ‘I’ll never again grow it long,’ he declared, but red is still red.
At fourteen in the summer holidays, pocketing his paper-boy’s wage, he went out red and came home blue. If he had struggled to slink into the amorphous crowd before, now it was impossible. In a small town where the great and the good sneered at the lesser and the worse, and the sneered-at kids beat up the sneerer kids (or, failing them, any), bright blue was not better than bright red. And in a small garrison town where squaddies and townies fight every Friday night, you don’t mess with squaddies. Our Anthony hadn’t thought of all this. A twelve-year-old visiting army cadet asked him to buy two hundred cigarettes for him, and Anthony took the twenty-pound note and vanished. Not recommended for a redhead, let alone a bluehead. At the club where the police ran a night for fourteen to eighteen-year-olds, the bartender rushed into the gents’. ‘Anthony, quick, the squaddies are after a boy with blue hair.’ Deft as a bat Anthony zigzagged out of the high window and wore a beanie hat all summer.
School permitted dyed hair, but ridiculously only in hair-like colours, because what could be more exotic than shouty ginger? Come the night before start of term Anthony panicked and bleached it. Mr Wilson blinked and urged him to leave school because he disliked blond and black and he certainly disliked red. Anthony shaved it all off, which jarred with employers. What was a young man to do?
Form a ginger club, or rather, a ginger deniers’ club. Learn to cope with this aberration and fight it head-on. They flocked, they twelve-stepped, but they didn’t conquer. In summer they grew redder, radiant as bronze, with joined-up freckles. Townsfolk felt menaced by gatherings of people with hats pulled down.
Anthony took a stand. They had got it all wrong. They should be fighting prejudice, not nature.
‘My name is Anthony,’ he began, ‘and I’ve been ginger since birth. From now on let us affirm our gingerness. I’m ginger and I’m proud,’ he told a shocked meeting.
‘I’m ginger and I’m proud,’ chorused the assembled closet redheads.
Judy Birkbeck has had short stories published in Litro, Lampeter Review, Liars’ League, Unthology 9, East of the Web, Aesthetica, Manchester Review, Leicester Writes and Mechanics’ Institute Review issue #15. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books in the UK and North America. www.judybirkbeck.co.uk