How to tell if you are the red herring

1st. Your shoes don’t fit. They’re either too big, or too small; either way, even if you wore them once, you will wear them no more. What kind of protagonist outgrows their own feet?

2nd. You’re stuck in a rut. Every day, through a camera lens, appears the same routine: you get up, shower, eat two eggs, skim a whole paper. Drive to a generic government high-rise building, park, sign-in, disappear. Here’s the rub: you don’t remember how you got this job or what it is you do. You do remember you despise eggs.

3rd. Some days, your vocabulary shrivels to a few cryptic words: No, I don’t know him. No, not him either. I told you already, I Have Never Seen These Men Before. Because I’m not lying. I swear, I was just passing by. [And so forth.]

4th. Worn-down heels and frayed collars.

5th. Your limbs have been known to move without your permission, marionette-like. They follow other people of their own accord and you occasionally wake from slumber in locations other than your bed: the backs of vehicles, leaky boats, makeshift camps.

6th. You find yourself doing things without connecting to them, things you’re certain the person you used to identify as you would not do. Nothing as extreme as harming another person, although you’ve thought about that too.

7th. People follow you. Everywhere. They lurk in shadows, around dark corners, under wet eaves, waiting for you to slip up and drop your mask.

One day your car is stolen. You call these people because you know that they know that you know that they are watching and they probably saw what happened to your car. They did. They help you get it back, so all involved can return to their routines of watcher and watched.

8th. Everything you do has an air of suspicion.

9th. When you go downstairs to get a glass of water, you find yourself creeping, haltingly. This behaviour is not hour-dependent.

10th. When you speak your language, the world falls silent, and watches, sternly, waiting for your words to become razor teeth nipping at their skin.

11th. When you talk to people, they repeat everything you say back to you with a question mark attached. Conversations rarely go anywhere: you are faced, instead, with endless circularity returning to the point of the question mark. As a result you sometimes fumble in the telling. Slightly, almost imperceptibly, you change the story, the cast, the narrative – undoubtedly the listener is always waiting for these alterations. Aha, they say, and walk slowly away, shoulders hunched. They will pause; look back over their shoulder sanctimoniously. Aha.

12th. You own only three books. Two of them are written in Arabic.

13th. You own many books – an entire library. Stray passages are highlighted, whole paragraphs underlined.

14th. Sometimes, you find bullet holes in your clothing. Luckily, the bullets don’t seem to have travelled any further.

15th. If people ring your phone and you let it go to the machine, they assume you’ve been in clandestine meetings in squalid locales. Where were you? I was in the bathroom. The bathroom? What were you doing there? Normal, bathroom-type things. I see. They sound unconvinced. You wonder, briefly, how they got the number.

16th. You never laugh. You just don’t have it in you. Or if you laugh, nobody’s ever seen you.

17th. Almost daily, you come home to find your furniture rearranged. Things have ostensibly moved of their own volition. Every so often, your computer is missing; when you return, it’s back again, but there’s nothing on it.

18th. You look in the mirror but it is not you looking back. Of this, you are almost certain.

19th. You look at the photo plastered on the front page of the paper. It nearly resembles the guy in the mirror, neither of which look like you.

20th. On occasion, you are abducted. Three to four men grab you, stick a cloth bag over your head, hustle you into a car. They throw you in the back, in the boot, every so often the front – they like to mix it up a little, keep you on your toes. Sometimes they don’t even use the hessian mask.

They grill you, turn up the interior light to penetrate your deceiving eyes. They ask you the same questions over and over again: Who are your associates? Is this person a family member – they have the same last name as you! You explain that there are 5040 men in this city with the same last name as you; how can you keep track of them all? You are ill-tempered, tired of these charades. They hit you.

It is sharp and satisfying, reality reeling.

21st. The contents of your wardrobe change depending on the headline of the week. You would rather they were weather-dependent.

22nd. When you visit the ATM to withdraw cash, everyone crowds closer, lest that minor detail become important. They commit the digits to memory for if/when they will be needed at a later date.

23rd. You wake up hungover, but you do not drink.

24th. You wake up sober, but you spend every day drinking yourself into a stupor so life can pass you by unhindered.

25th. There is an unnamed, unobservable, inexact disease hanging over you. It’s dangerous, even if, at present, dormant. Others have made a diagnosis from a distance. It worries you that you are harbouring a sickness you can’t detect, let alone treat, let alone cure. The only expert willing to name and define what ails you is one whose opinion is worthless, due to a tendency to diagnose only actual diseases. Which author/potential partner/court of law would take that doctor’s word over bureaucratic consensus?

26th. On a boat. That’s how you got here, the men say to you. You did? This evokes nothing from your unstitched memories. Perhaps you do not remember your beginnings, or thought you were born here, or thought it irrelevant. Not so. Yes, with ulterior motives. Such as?

27th. Fog is a constant. Every day when you wake, there is fog in your room, and then outside, following you, enveloping you. It reminds you that you are otherwise alone.

28th. It was in a café one day. Remember? You two were drinking coffee at the same café at the same time. Are you claiming it was merely coincidence? How can you not recollect the day, the hour, the moment in question?

29th. Living arrangements are capricious. One day it’s closely shared quarters, the next it’s a cardboard tent.

30th. Your skin: it is too dark. Sane people know that to wear skin this shade is the wrong kind of threatening, like the night.

31st. The presence of police causes you to suffer spells of nausea. You find yourself acting conspicuously when they’re around, like you’ve got something to hide. Have you got something to hide?

32nd. There’s definitely something odd about the hours you keep. You’re always working. Shift work, you’ve claimed. Can that honestly explain why are you up so early, home so late? Where are you working? But, more importantly, why?

33rd. You have no family. Not anymore.

34th. For five years, you are kept in a box where the sole window never opens and the throbbing fluorescent bulbs never go out. There, you are subjected to eight-hour beatings. One year, you don’t see daylight. Sometimes, there are dogs. Other times you are stripped bare and dragged about the filthy square cell. Periodically, there are brutalising penetrative sticks. Maybe you were once a journalist, once a taxi driver, but in this place, you are only a number.

35th. If the feet fit.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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