I met the Bishop of Bombay today at the post office.
‘Bonjour,’ I smiled, allowing the sentence to linger Englishly beside the empty bubble-wrap envelopes. No response.
The Bishop’s wife touched his elbow and he turned around and saw me. His little eyes lit up Gallicly and his cheeks filled out. Although I always thought he looked old, today he looked much older. Deeper. Sadder.
‘M. Mercier?’ I continued. ‘You used to teach me; it’s Lucy’ I said, mixing my tenses as proficiently as ever.
He grinned and I recalled how he always used to address us in class: ‘Now, ma leetle missionarees – when ah waz ze Bishop of Bombay, let me tell you somesing – what ar you doing zere?’ He always spoke like that. He played to his strengths, with a strong warm French accent and a passion for the perfect tense with être. We played to his weaknesses – some smoked under the tables, while I got fed up with arriver and partir and spent lessons with my head in my dad’s copy of Teach Yourself Swahili. Moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano and all that. As he got older he got louder. Everyone knew who M. Mercier was, and what his class were learning that lesson if you were on the top corridor. Our school may not have been great for sending folk to Oxbridge, but it was rich in Life.
There was one time when the Bishop of Bombay took me to the local A&E as I’d fallen in the playground – almost certainly from copying the rest of the second year girls and attempting to do gymnastics on the wooden bars outside the drama room. I asked him why he said he was the Bishop of Bombay. He actually twinkled his eyes and explained in broken English that he wasn’t really. I knew that, but I wanted more information. I said that since I’d been seven I’d wanted to be a missionary. After that he always addressed us as ‘my leetle missionarees’.
‘Aha, zee firrst female Bishop of Bombay’ he pronounced, waking up the rest of the post office. The lady hoping to check and send her passport application had been checked and sent away to collect the rest of the requisites. The Bishop’s wife moved forward to the vacant teller. She smiled at me. ‘You were always one of ze very best’ M. Mercier went on. This was clearly untrue. Even my Swahili was sketchy. But I knew what he meant. I didn’t misbehave and I tried hard. I wanted to say something to encourage him.
‘I’m married now, I have two children.’
‘Oh, zat ees good.’
He had hearing aids in. From experience with older folk I knew better than to ask someone with hearing aids if they are well, especially in public with no time to chat. So I told him I had studied more languages at university. He smiled as if he hadn’t heard me. I smiled as if he had.
And then it was time for me to move on to the next vacant teller. The Bishop and his wife both said goodbye to me and walked on, and I was left calculating the value of postage and of words. I didn’t learn much French at school, malheureusement, but I did learn about giving a much better education – that of positive words.