Mr Bishop’s face was the colour of raw meat and his hair, which he tried to comb across his head, resembled the fluff of newborn chickens. Not a prepossessing face. But he was tall. And broad. He was thirty when I met him but even then he carried a precocious middle-aged paunch around his waist. He wore the same suit to class every day in the colder months and in the warmer months he wore a hat which made whole classrooms of students hum the Indiana Jones tune when they heard his footsteps at the door. There were rumours about Mr Bishop. That he had a cat called Socrates. That he had family members in the IRA. That he was a failed actor who had played Hamlet once. That he had made a perfect score in VCE. That he had a hot wife. That it wouldn’t be surprising if he did some pretty kinky shit with his hot wife. That he had a beautiful baby girl whose little finger he was wrapped right round. That he thought in Latin.
The first class I had with Mr Bishop was held on Monday, sixth period. He asked us whether we liked The Kite Runner, the text we had read over the summer holidays for homework. Most people liked it. Mr Bishop nodded silently, without satisfaction.
I learned very early on in my school career that teachers asked questions, spoke about lateral thinking and open minds and said no, there aren’t any silly answers, but deep down they wanted students who flattered their own sense of rightness. The easiest thing was to determine the answer they were waiting for but unwilling to give outright and, once you had found it, to raise your hand and smile.
‘Well, I didn’t like it, sir.’ I said.
The class stiffened their backs but said nothing. Mr Bishop bent his whole body forward and stepped toward where I was sitting.
‘It was clichéd, wasn’t it? He actually said, “there was an elephant in the room”, right?’
He stopped at my desk and smiled at me and only me.
The bell rang. I shuffled my exercise books together slowly.
‘Syà, I totally agreed with everything you said before,’ Mr Bishop said.
‘Well, it’s true. It’s not a very good book.’ I straightened up and hugged my books to my chest. Out of the corner of my eye I watched my friends give up waiting for me.
‘How are you finding The Road?’
So he had noticed it in my pile. Lying right under The Kite Runner. Again, I sensed the right answer; from where, I did not know.
‘It’s amazing. I did feel like the end was a bit disappointing, I wanted to know what happened to the Man…’
‘…but it was just amazing. The dreams he had. Everything.’
He smiled so fully, his cheeks overflowed.
‘If you liked The Road you should read Cormac McCarthy’s other books. Start with Blood Meridian.’
‘Oh, is it good?’
‘Oh, yeah,’ he said nodding and breathing tiny syllables. ‘It’s good.’
I leant over the school librarian’s desk and smiled back.
‘How are you, Syà?’
‘Do you have Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy?’
‘Did Bishop send you?’
I flushed. ‘Does he always – But how did you know?’
‘Always. Bishop just licks that man’s ass.’
‘We have the whole trilogy in the one book or the individual novels. Which would you like?’
‘Just the one.’
I walked up to Mr Bishop’s desk and pulled up a chair. On the desk was a hat, a leather satchel and a pair of pink elbows. And next to them my essay. There was as much blue ink as there was red on the pages torn from my exercise book.
‘I loved it.’
‘I mean it. For most students, this would be Tolstoy.’
I had squeezed War and Peace onto the paperbacks shelf at the library I worked at but had thought it sounded boring. I felt vaguely confused as to whether Tolstoy was a Russian revolutionary or whether that was someone else.
‘Oh, sir. That’s. That’s far.’ I shook my fringe into my eyes.
The bell rang. He handed me my essay in which he had crossed out whole paragraphs and rewritten them in his own, florid hand. I wondered what ‘catharsis’ and ‘altruistic’ meant. He hadn’t read anyone else’s essays or addressed anyone else in class except to tell them to ‘shut up and get on with your work.’
I wedged the first few pages of Blood Meridian under a plastic 101 Dalmatians plate. As I bit into my cold toast, I read about a character I had mistaken for the protagonist having his head shot off his shoulders and kicked down an old-timey staircase. I threw the rest of my toast in the bin and squeezed my feet into my T-bars without bothering to undo the buckles.
Mr Bishop rarely held to the curriculum. Most of the time he taught us about Star Trek, Greek root words, the Bible according to himself and highlights from his domestic life.
Today was a rarity. Mr Bishop wrote a long quote on the board from The Kite Runner.
‘What do you think of it? Syà?’
‘He’s…He’s not talking about the crucifixion is he?’
‘Yes! I just knew that you would understand. Because who is Hosseini’s audience?’
I paused. My hesitation made room for other people to answer.
‘America.’ An unpopular boy with a middle part and a mullet said.
‘Yes, James. Exactly.’
The boy with the mullet swelled like an orchestra playing an accelerando.
The mullet boy became a competitor for Mr Bishop’s attention. Mullet Boy even wore a suit to casual day as a tribute to him. I realised it was time to switch gameplays.
‘Syà, what are you doing?’
My hands were black. Wrinkles burned with charcoal.
A portrait of myself in my pyjamas, foetal position, turned upside down so I looked as if I was falling through negative space.
‘It’s due next period, sir.’ I added.
He rummaged in his pocket for a white linen handkerchief and offered it to me.
I spat in it and wiped the edges of the figure to soften them.
He looked at me.
‘I’ll wash it tonight and give it back to you tomorrow.’
‘I don’t want it,’ I blurted out.
‘Well, I don’t want your spit,’ he said, frankly.
‘Okay, I’ll wash it out.’
‘Just keep it.’
The next morning when I handed the clean but crumpled hanky over to him, he refused it. I put in back in the pocket of my school dress and zipped the pocket up all the way.
‘How were our essays, sir?’ Belinda, blonde hair, dyed even blonder, asked.
‘I had to drink a few glasses of red to get through them—’
The class laughed at this illicit admission the way a prep class laughs when their teacher admits to using the toilet.
My cheeks felt as if they’d been slapped. ‘That’s unfair, sir.’
‘Is it unfair to you, Syà? Well, why don’t you try and find yourself some manners before you interrupt again to tell me all about your absolute moral law.’
‘But it is!’
‘Shut up. Just shut up.’
The bell rang.
‘Stay behind, Syà.’
I stayed in my seat and rested the side of my head on my books. I felt the sudden urge to sleep.
Mr Bishop paced the room as he always did; only it felt different when there was no one else there. Did he know how tall he looked when he did that?
‘You are deceitful. You pretend not to care but you do. Sprezzatura is the word for you, sprezzatura.’
He rolled the ‘r’ sound out under his tongue, making a sound like a cat purring. He paced and spat. His voice, always loud, filled the whole room till there was no air left.
I didn’t know what sprezzatura meant but I felt how he wanted me to feel. His monologue swelled and lunged.
I began to cry. Eventually, he slung his satchel over his shoulder, picked up his hat and slammed the door.
I walked down the steps with a face blurred with tears and students I rarely spoke to asked me what was wrong. I shook my head. One of them, a boy I had loved since I was twelve, pulled a crumpled tissue from his pocket and wiped my cheeks.
At the end of our next class, Mr Bishop stopped me as I gathered my books to my chest. I sat back down. We both waited while the other students filed out.
‘Syà, your language analysis essay was the best I ever saw.’
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘That’s all.’ He smiled as he pulled his satchel over his shoulder and left me alone in the classroom. From my desk, I watched his pink and yellow head as it moved past each window. He had taught me for two years and I hadn’t noticed how ugly it was until now.