Sheena Bishop 1966 - 2007
We've known each other since we were nine or ten
Of all the hundreds of people I have met in my life, there are few whose initial impression on me was as acute as Sheena's. Thirty something years ago, at the beginning of a new school term the shrill bell rang, as it did every morning, to beckon us to line up outside our classroom. We filed in one, by one expecting the class room to be empty, but this time it wasn't. Already sitting at one of the desks, her blonde hair catching the sun streaming through the window, was a stranger, a girl I would soon find out was Sheena.
Sheena was sitting quietly colouring in a picture of a heron that came as part of her children's membership package of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity that takes action for wild birds and the environment. She handed me a leaflet about it. In the mid seventies, the young Sheena was the first environmental activist I had ever met.
Our friendship got off to a little bit of a shaky start when the pairings were set for our country dancing class. Benedict Schiller was the hot ticket and I was rooting for him to be chosen as my own dance partner. The teacher, in her wisdom, decided she would match us up alphabetically. She started calling out the girls' names from the top of the alphabet and the boys names from the bottom. With a name like Bishop being so close to Breach it was inevitable for the stars to align so that Sheena beat me by one position to Ben's hand on the dance floor. I confess, now, I was silently seething. I couldn't help thinking evil thoughts to myself "If that stupid new girl hadn't joined the class, then I would have been next in the alphabet and I would have been dancing with Ben."
In the end though, being next to each other in the alphabet is probably what brought us together. We were sat next to each other at the school lunch table. School lunches in Britain in the seventies are not something that you would remember fondly. It was pre-cafeteria system and pupils were forbidden to bring in packed lunches. Basically you had no choice. You would sit at a round table where a large metal tray bearing eight portions of horrific gunk would be plonked down in the centre and you would be expected to eat your share. Even at that early age, such was her love of animals, Sheena was verging on vegetarianism, despite there being no room for such radical behaviour in the school dining system at that time. Whilst suffering through those ghastly lunchtimes was instilled into me as the only possible outcome, Sheena was more creative. Every day she would smuggle in some food, wrapped in tin foil - always a brown sugar sandwich made from heavy, doorstep-sized slices of wholemeal bread and a baby packet of salted peanuts. Hidden on her lap, underneath the table, she would persuade one of the greedier boys to eat her portion of school prescribed sustenance and nibble on her sandwich instead, kindly sharing a few of her peanuts with me. Lucky for her, the idea of sugar in a sandwich grossed me out otherwise I am sure I would have persuaded her to share her entire lunch.
From the little I have told you so far, you have probably already realised that Sheena was something of a unique and special person who was perhaps a little out of the ordinary in our neighbourhood where unquestioningly conforming to the accepted middle class way of life was the done thing. Everyone behaved the same way. We went to ballet classes, we joined the girl guides, we went to Sunday School, we were all well behaved, we watched Blue Peter on television twice a week. We were almost living a real-life version of The Truman show. Lest my mother is reading, and she will be, please do not assume I am complaining, to the contrary I loved my childhood and all of the wonderful opportunities I was given. I was blessed, and even more so for meeting Sheena who gave me the first hint of what life was like outside of my bubble.
Sheena came to Bristol from the Isle of Wight. That in itself was an exotic enough fact to attract me to her. It was almost as if she had moved from abroad. Practically unheard of in our neigbourhood, Sheena's family didn't have a television and her father, an English teacher, even published play called "Bug Eyed Loonies" about the perils of letting your children watch TV. They didn't have a car either. Apart from the chic little French girl with the fluffiest white bomber jacket who served mini Vache qui Rit cheeses at her birthday parties instead of jelly and ice cream, Sheena and her family were simply the most intriguing people I'd met by the time I was aged ten.
From ten through teens we hung out a lot. Here are some favourite memories from the hundreds of good ones available...
- Dressing like twins, aged 10 - we would both ear the tiniest little denim shorts, wear our hair in long bunches tied with red ribbons and pretend we were sisters.
- When left alone at Sheena's house with the parents safely out of the way, we invaded the kitchen to experiment with molecular gastronomy, decades before it was even invented. We carefully dissected Custard Creams, removed the filling, mixed it with pepper, Colman's English mustard powder and other weird stuff we found in the pantry and then used the resulting mixture to re-sandwich the biscuits together. And eat them, of course.
- We had a communal sewing session together where we made identical matching grey checked pinafore dresses and then later wore them at the same time and didn't care what anyone thought.
- At parties we'd pretend we were sisters and boys who didn't know us would think we were telling the truth.
- We both shared a love of marzipan. Instead of stopping at the sweet shop on the way home from school we would stop at the local Co-Op and buy a block of marzipan to share on the way up the hill.
- Our music tastes were quite different in some ways but we both absolutely loved "Safety Dance" by Men without Hats. We'd put flowers in our hair and dance barefoot to it at the local nightclub.
- We'd walk our dogs, Tamsie and Daffy at Coombe Dingle. When we ventured of the beaten track and got stuck on a precarious fallen tree trunk, our dogs saved our lives. At least, that's how we used to like to tell the story.
- Sheena introduced me to Maraschino Cherries, long before we were allowed to try them in cocktails. Every time I pluck one out of fancy drink, to this day, I always think of Sheena.
- We had to dissect locusts for A-Level Biology. We were both uncomfortable doing this and hence decided that if we had to kill the insect, we should respect it by utilising its whole being. Head-to-Tail dissection if you like. We'd pull out their wings and make them into earrings. A girl in the year above told us we were sick but I'm inclined to think we actually did the best we could under the circumstances.
- We drove to Devon in my little green car and we picked up those hitch hikers on the way, even though we didn't really have any space for them.
- Just after I'd passed my driving test we snuck out of school and took it on the motorway to see what it felt like to drive at 70 miles per hour, even though I had been told expressly not to do any such thing.
Sheena's illness descended upon her quickly with devastating effect. In August I grieved when I was told she only had a few days to live. Hopes came and went, became undashed and then dashed all over again. I thought I would never see her again. But she hung on for a while. As soon as I arrived in Bristol, three weeks ago, my dad drove me to Wales to see Sheena for what would be our last ever time together. As soon as I saw her, the years melted away and I felt just as close to her as anyone can feel. She confided in me, I sensed her hurt at the same time as I felt the glowing warmth of her frail body, acutely aware of the precipice on which she was standing. I held her, I squeezed her, I kissed her, I told her I loved her, I wiped the tears away, both hers and mine.
It might sound tacky, but I don't care what you think. 'Our song', (us being Vicky, Rachael, Karen, Sheena and me) was Seasons in the Sun. As recently as 12 years ago you might have found the five of us in a group hug on a dance floor, crying our eyes out together, not because we thought we were going to die anytime soon, but because we were mourning the loss of our wonderful teenage years together. Listen to Nirvana's version which reflects my mood right now a little more accurately than the cheery original...
Learned of love and ABC's,
skinned our hearts and skinned our knees.
Sheena, whose funeral takes place in a few hours, leaves behind her husband, two sons, a sister, parents and many friends. She will be sorely missed by all of us.
A tribute to Sheena from my mum
A tribute to Sheena from my sister