We were both bossy, Barbara Sheehan and I. We made sure one of us was always elected leader of the many clubs we founded. We issued frequent orders to her little brother and my younger siblings, a surprising number of which they followed. We both liked long words (Barbara invented “irraphumpinating” which meant a mix of irritating and frustrating. It is still a word I use). We both had red hair. We were best friends from the time we could talk. Barbara lived three doors down from me and on the other side of the road. Her house was certainly the first one I was allowed to visit by myself. I remember her always-tidy bedroom with its orange eiderdown, and how she used to lay out the clothes she would pack weeks before she went on vacation, and the time she got up early to Tippex out all the rude verses on a tween valentine so she could show it to her parents. Barbara was a good daughter, a good student and liked order in a way that I did not. My parents were always happy if they knew Barbara was involved in any activity because she was perceived as sensible and intelligent. My father invited her to join us on holidays in France when I was a teenager and at my most intractable. Her mother baked an enormous chocolate cake which traveled the Loire Valley with us in a giant Tupperware container. We had a sliver every night after dinner, eager to ensure the cake would last the distance. Barbara’s mother also made bacon pinwheels she served at Barbara’s birthday parties. These involved cooked bacon crumbled on to a slab of puff pastry which was then rolled into a fat tube and cut in thin circles for baking. I can taste those puffy, buttery, bacony discs still. Barbara had things I was denied as a small child–a bike, a tortoise and glamorous sounding holidays on the Isle of Man. Her Grandfather in Greenisland planted an apple tree for her when she was born and so in the fall she had a ready supply of Coxes Orange Pippins from her own tree by Belfast Lough. Her Aunt and Uncle who had no children of their own always sent her color postcards from their holidays. My sister has reminded me that Barbara had her own portable record player, on which we used to listen to the Archies singing Sugar Sugar over and over. I envied all of this.
When we were small children, I thought we had the same talents: reading books and running things. By the time we grew a little older it became clear that Barbara, while excellent at English, was really a scientist. She got good grades in Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A level and went on to Queens to study microbiology while I, bottom of the class in all these subjects, gladly gave them up at the end of 3rd form. In our early teens, we watched Top of the Pops together sitting on her living room carpet. Rod Stewart was number one with Sailing. Barbara and I both loved him and couldn’t understand why her mum thought he was ugly. We sang along to the Rubettes and Sugar Baby Love. Barbara had a beautiful voice. She took up choral singing and joined the church Gang Show while I discovered the allure of boys and bars. Barbara developed a weird and terrible rash that seemed to be brought on by the sun and exacerbated by stress. For her it was important to have peace, routine and certainty. She was always immaculate, curling her long, straight red hair every morning with tongs and able to wear white jackets and to sport tights without ladders. I favored risk and “wash and go” and bare-legged rackety adventure and so we gradually drew apart. When I was at University she, a couple of years older, was already a graduate and one of Thatcher’s unemployed. Barbara would visit me and we established a new, adult friendship with heart to hearts about the worry of parents and the trouble with men. She got a job at a hospital lab in Leeds and, at the time when HIV was first rampaging across the world, tested blood samples for this and many other terrible diseases to see if people had what she called “wee nasties”.
I last saw her in the middle of the 1980s when we were both in our late twenties. She was sharing a house with 3 other women and saving to buy her own. She visited her parents in Scarborough at the weekends (they retired there). She was in the middle of a complicated relationship but otherwise her life was a model of order in a sea of calm. I was in constant motion then and so we lost touch. I hadn’t thought of her for decades but had a dream about her last week. I Googled her and found out that Barbara died last year. It seems odd to mourn and to miss someone I haven’t seen for twenty-five years, but I do, I really do.