Poem: Bernardine Bishop, RIP

It’s not important why I lost touch with Bernardine Bishop and my friend, later her husband, Dr Bill Chambers. I feel a fool for letting it happen and it’s a lack made even more sharp by her death. Her novels and other writing will last, and their publication make an extraordinary story, both literary and personal. I wrote this for me, of course, but also for Matt, her elder son, because he very kindly included me in her funeral, an event which was exhilarating as well as tearful.

Bernardine Bishop, RIP
For Matt Bishop, 30 August 2013

She was born in 1939
and I tick off  the decades
as one does, nearly every day.
So, it’s ’49, ’59, and so on.
But I  need the digits too when it’s life and death.
And that gives us…
a moment’s pause…
it gets her to 73.

A longer pause.

In ’69, she had rosy cheeks and a boy’s hips;
she had a flat stomach and a straight back;
and forceful shoulders;
and breasts which I imagined were small and firm.

She greeted me as though I had saved her life
and hugged me fiercely
as though squeezing a lemon
or opening a jar.

I don’t remember her smoking, but I did.
Nor her drinking, but we might have.
No money for pubs,
but was there Hirondelle or some such?
No music in her house,
no quotidian burble,
no TV, that I can see now.
I saw the man on the moon at home, perhaps with Bill.

There must have been books,
but I don’t even remember shelves.
Nor carpets, or pictures, that I recall.
Maybe saints and martyrs, ancient and modern,
from the back of the church or torn from a paper
thumb-tacked to a cork board or a door frame.

I do remember her rapid movements,
perhaps cooking for you boys, or
– no, I don’t remember more.
I don’t remember her cross with you two,
Nor muddled or sad.

The photos you sent are a jolt,
perhaps a sort of stab.

She said she always liked the way I dressed.
And she was in low-slung needlecord:
tight, trim; no belt, the button strained.
Perhaps Levi’s. More likely Wrangler.
And check shirts, like a cowboy.

You and Foff, her boys,
came for rides in the van from work.
It was a J4
and only you and I and a few obsessives
find the very marque compelling.

You say I took us all on a boat on the Thames,
perhaps from Harts Yard,
and maybe Vic Townsend was still alive then
and prepped the launch.
Or maybe he let me do it, for old times’ sake.
I sense the boat’s boxy hull, red with varnished decks,
and can see the man who built them,
shadowed at his bench.
And the oily green and wiped brass of the Stuart Turner
(never strong enough to thrill).
But I don’t remember the outing
and  hope it’s better stuck in your mind
because I have no bragging rights
unless you make it so.

I remember Bernardine loving me, I think.
I am sure she knew me,
saw through me,
and knew she could help me,
lying side by side, chastely on her bed,
talking at the ceiling,
probably about the scribbling
I might one day do, with any luck.
And maybe I was almost useful to her:
practical, uninvolved, entertaining,
my complications not like hers.

Her friends say she is in heaven
and say she believed she was headed for Jerusalem.
It is such a great thing to turn from life.
Anyway I hope it doesn’t matter what I say,
or even how little I can say of her.
It’s been a year for deaths and the dead
– all the dead whom I think are mine –
may know far more than we.
I hope her prayers were answered in our blazing July
and but feel anyway she can laugh at my mistakes,
and decide what’s right.


annetine forell
Dear Richard, Your poem appeared on my internet (what a wonderful thing the web is). I lived in London many years ago when my children were small. Bernardine and I met over school routines, and what an impact that made in my life. I felt tears come into my eyes as I read your poem. It is everything. Thank you for the privilege of my finding it on my email. I live in Australia and flew to London a few weeks before Bernardine died. We spent a small time together - a very special time. As I was about to leave, Bernardine asked me to lie beside her, which I did. Such a poignant time. We put our arms around each other and I was so moved. My thoughts to you, Annetine ( I do not have a personal website but I work with ancient timber that is carbon dated to be over 5000years old: http://ancient-wood.com)

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Publication date

01 September 2013


RDN's poems