On the walls of Ishi’s house were pictures his Mum had painted: red and purple figures shaking their heads or moving their hands in front of their faces; naked bodies painted from behind that were little more than a blue smudge. But we never spoke much about her art. We stayed up late playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Jazz Jackrabbit on Ishi’s Dad’s computer. One time I stayed over at Ishi’s, I wet the bed, but his Mum didn’t get angry. She stripped the blow-up mattress I’d been sleeping on and let me sleep in his little sister’s room, who she took in to sleep with her. I remember his sister looking at me, momentarily appalled to have been snatched from her bed, her eyelids falling shut as her head dropped onto her Mum’s shoulder. I fell asleep in Ishi’s pyjamas in his sister’s bed, dry and warm and grateful.
Ishi was an easy boy to tease, his behaviors being consistently unusual enough to sieze upon as reasons for singling him out. He used to eat the leaves of a lemon balm plant, for example, which grew behind the goal at the edge of the football pitch. And, when you did tease him, if you wound him up enough, his face would go red and tight and he’d go for you, fists clenched, arms whirling. He was also small enough to be picked up by bigger children, like Guy H., who we called Guy the goalie. I wasn’t like I didn’t pick on him too. One time, seeing Ishi digging around in the large bin of aprons before an art class, I’d given him a shove. I remember him face down in the bin, legs bicycling in the air, the class laughing. I tried to pull him out, pulling on his legs like I was trying to birth a recalcitrant calf. Mrs. Moon ended up having to tip the bin so that Ishi and the aprons came tumbling out. She sent me to Mrs. Goodlace, the headmistress, who’d made me write a letter to apologise, sitting outside her office underneath the wall displays where good work was hung.
The next time Ishi came to my house, he bought his copy of Sonic. While I was waiting for it to install, watching the blue percentage bar climb towards the point when we could get going, I heard loud noises from upstairs. When I got to my bedroom, he’d smashed all my Lego to pieces with a plastic scimitar. My parents were amazed how cooly I met this wanton destruction of my hard work. But biven what had happened in art and the meagreness of my apology letter, the smashing of my Lego felt, in some ways, justified.
The name of the substitute teacher we had when Mrs. Moon was off sick was Mrs. Harrison. She walked like a dinosaur, her hands held in front of her, the fingers of each hand, their nails longer than Mrs. Moon’s, clasped. Mrs. Harrison would ask questions in a loud, nasal voice like: “does anyone know what 12 times 13 would be?” Even though we knew the answer, we would stay silent. Eventually, she’d pick on someone, tell them to stand up, and say “I’ve got all the time in the world” so, eventually, we’d have to answer. In English , after no one volunteered to read, she made Guy the goalie stand up. After he’d stammered his way through a paragraph, she dismissed him with the word “useless”. Constance, who was a bit older than everyone else, said at the end of the first day: “she can’t control the class”.
On the morning of the second day, we decided that we’d say “good-morning” in a way that had been forbidden in the school hall, which was to start quietly, “good morning, Mrs. Harrison” and then to get louder and louder on “good–mor–ning–ev–er–y–ONE” until the “one” was a collective roar.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, but I think she was a little afraid of us.
I don’t know what first bothered Mrs. Harrison about Ishi. But when she asked him to answer one of her questions, even after she got him to stand up, he refused to answer. “Come on dopey”, she said, and earned a ripple of laughter. She’d also caught him reading in a geography lesson. We watched her creep up behind him, snatch the book and then read the title aloud to the class.
“The Hobbit? Well, well, well”.
He remained silent for the rest of the day, and nothing anyone could say would get him to speak.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Harrison had us doing still life.
“I bought the fruit myself” she said, “so do be gentle”.
I was on a table with Ishi, Constance, and Guy the goalie. Constance was good at drawing and was able to make the fruit look brighter and more vivid than in real life, like fruit on cooking programmes. At first, Ishi wasn’t drawing at all. I was trying to draw the fruit, trying to get somewhere near the brightness Constance had achieved. I tried applying more pressure with the colouring pencil but this only made them look flatter and less interesting. Then I saw Ishi take up his pencil and began drawing, not the fruit but, glancing out of the window as he worked, one of the school busses in the playground. He managed to capture the metallic sheen of the fender and the light glinting off the side of the bus. He also managed to make the bus look like it was moving, like it was driving out of the page through a rip in the paper. Constance pressed her lips together as she looked from Ishi’s bus to her own work.
“Mrs. Harrison,” Constance said, “Ishi is drawing a bus”.
Mrs. Harrison came over to our table.
“I don’t think this is a bowl of fruit, is it?” she said standing behind Ishi, and everyone laughed.
“It’s a bus,” said Ishi, quietly.
“I know it’s a bus. But why are you drawing a bus?” she asked him.
Ishi turned to look at her sweetly, but he didn’t quite manage to look as sweet as he thought he looked.
“It’s impressionist art, Mrs. Harrison” he said.
The hit came lighting fast. She whacked the back of his head, hard, with the heel of her palm. It made a dull sound like a sports bag falling to the floor.
Mrs. Harrison continued to stand behind him with her legs braced, less like she was going to hit him again and more like she didn’t know what she was going to do, like she was fighting an impulse to run out of the classroom door and never come back.
Ishi was gritting his teeth. I saw his chin soften, and tears spill out. He put his face in his arms.
Constance was staring at Mrs. Harrison. “You didn’t need to hit him.”
“Don’t be stupid, I didn’t hit him. I just gave him a little shove.”
“Don’t call me stupid,” said Constance, getting out of her seat.
“Sit down Constance. I said I was sorry. Didn’t I, Ishi?”
Mrs. Harrison leant closer to him.
“But you really did just push me a little too far”.
We heard Ishi suck in air and then let it out again in a low moan. Constance went over to him.
“Do you want me to take you to the nurse?”
Ishi continued to breathe heavily, although he had stopped moaning. “Or do you want to go and see Mrs. Goodlace?”
Mrs. Harrison seemed to stand taller.
“Ishi, if you’re able to accept my apology, we can put this behind us.”
“Who else saw what happened?” Constance asked.
Almost everyone put up their hands.
“That’s too many,” Constance said.
“She did it with her palm,” said the other Guy, who we called Guy D., pointing at his own hand.
“Good, you can come too, but only us four and Ishi”, she said.
“Constance, sit down,” said Mrs. Harrison.
“She’s going to hit Constance too,” said Guy the goalie, and a few people laughed nervously, as the rest of us from Ishi’s table got up.
“Look,” said Mrs. Harrison, over the sound of scraping of chairs and excited chatter from other tables, “you have not been an easy class. In fact …” she bit her lip, “you’ve been the most difficult class I’ve ever taught in my life. And I’ve taught some bloody difficult …”. She raised her hand to her mouth. We hesitated, but Constance led us out of the room before any of us had time to change our minds.
Constance walked with purpose. Guy the goalie bounded along, like the whole thing excited him. Behind us, talking loudly, came the rest of the class. Mr. Maxwell opened the opposite door and shouted: “Excuse me 4B, what is happening?” Someone yelled back, “We’re going to see Mrs. Goodlace,” and a group stayed behind to explain while the rest of us marched on, towards Mrs. Goodlace’s office.
When the five of us entered, Mrs. Goodlace looked up from her desk, put down her pen and waited for one of us to speak. After Constance had gone through what had happened, Mrs. Goodlace looked out of the window towards the school busses. She spoke as if she was trying to get the tone of her words exactly right.
“Thank you for coming to see me” she said. “I’m going to speak to Mrs. Harrison now, if that’s okay with you.”
She turned to me, “will you wait with Ishi at the front until his mother comes to pick him up?”
“Don’t worry,” she said to Ishi. “Mrs. Harrison won’t leave my office until you are off the premises, Ishi.”
The phrase “off the premises” somehow made what had happened seem more serious. Guy D. looked as if he was about to cry. Guy the goalie was staring at the floor.
“What happens tomorrow?” asked Constance.
“Mrs. Harrison won’t be coming in tomorrow,” Mrs. Goodlace said.
Much later, a colleague of mine dated Ishi briefly. We’d noticed that both of us, my colleague and I, had a mutual friend on Facebook, and managed to work out that, even though Ishi had left Facebook, it was Ishi’s closed account that was showing up as our mutual friend through some glitch in the algorithm. And it turned out I was going to see the same play as the both of them later that week. Part of me felt like I should cancel. I was going alone and I didn’t want to intrude on their date but my colleague persuaded me that it might be nice for me to see Ishi again. And it wasn’t like I would be interrupted anything, they’d go one somewhere themselves afterwards.
At the play, I ended up sitting a few rows behind my colleague and Ishi, feeling a weird excitement to be near him again. I spent most of the first half staring at the back of his head.
At the interval, while my colleague was getting drinks at the bar I went over to Ishi. At first, he seemed somewhat rattled. He asked if I was still in touch with anyone from back then, and I said I still saw Guy D now and again.
Ishi nodded. I couldn’t imagine he remembered Guy D very fondly.
My colleague joined us and handed Ishi a glass of red wine.
“Man, I’ve just got to say, I’m really sorry for breaking your Lego,” Ishi said.
“You broke his Lego!” my colleague asked, raising her eyebrows.
“It was so long ago,” I said, and gave a mumbled apology for being an arsehole about the apron bin.
“No, no, you were alright,” he said.
He put a hand on my shoulder, “It was great to see you,” he said.
I took it as my cue to head back to my seat and wait for the second act of the play to start.