That day, on my way home from work through Edinburgh’s New Town, past the sandstone houses, over the polished cobbles (or setts) dotted with fallen cherry blossom, I heard the first swifts of the year. As a child, the sound of swifts outside my bedroom window always meant freedom:freedom from the early school day bedtimes, freedom from the long dark nights of winter and the freedom of the long endless days of summer.
I first met Nick-or Nickers-when I moved to Edinburgh. She was my cousins partner. My cousin and myself are close, more like sisters really, but me and Nick clicked in a way I rarely click with people. I felt safe with her. I could relax with Nick.
She was English but drawn to Scotland early on. Nick had short wheat coloured hair, grey eyes and a face of finely cut planes. She moved with energy and her laugh was a cheeky giggle, often edged with lewdness and totally infectious.
She had lived first in the Highlands and then in Edinburgh where she worked in a health food shop on Broughton Street. She had a dog, her beloved Nancy, who she trained using a book called the Dog Listener.
Nancy was one of the sweetest dogs I have ever met. A cross between sheep dog and a collie with a bit of labrador thrown in. Nancy was a rescue dog and always a bit nervous but she was an absolute lady. She would sit quietly and with her elegant legs crossed and her head tilted reminding me of the movie star Veronica Lake.
In her spare time, Nick volunteered for the Princes Trust, bringing groups of young people out into her beloved outdoors. I saw for myself her skills as a motivator on my first trip into the Highlands.
I had been in Edinburgh a few weeks when someone proposed a trip to Nicks old stomping ground of Newtownmore with the intention of climbing Meall a Bhuachaill, a supposed Munroe(a mountain over 3000 feet).
The weather was dull as we skirted a bright emerald lake ringed by pines, Nancy skirting our group, herding us, her flock. I had a cold and was feeling a little rough. As we climbed the weather worsened with my mood but Nick charged on. The higher we climbed the more distant the summit seemed. But Nick pressed cheerfully on.”Just over the next hill!” she chirped. Eventually, unbelievably, there was the cairn at the peak. Besides that there was nothing to be seen in the mist.
“Why did you keep telling me it was just over the next hill when it wasn’t?”, I asked grumpily.
“Well you see,” she said, “I’m a motivator.”
“Oh that’s what it is, is it?”, I griped.
At this point she revealed it wasnt actually a Munroe but a Corbett (a mountain of only 2500 feet) so I hadn’t actually bagged my first Munroe (and still haven’t).
“I suppose,” I asked, “that pretending it was a Munroe was a part of the whole motivator thing as well is it?”
To which she just giggled and ran off down the mountain. Still, somehow my mood and my cold had lifted and I was glad to be there.
I eventually found a flat and started work in the Art Shop. I would see my cousin and Nick occasionally, sometimes for a pint in the Old Chain Pier at Granton or for lunch or tea in the Blue Moon on Barony Street.
Nick gave me my first swimming lesson which set me up to become a strong swimmer. Another time she drove a group of us to Melrose in the Borders to stand with only about 30 spectators at a Womens International rugby game, Spain v Scotland, where I discovered that female rugby players are way scarier than male ones.
On my birthday, we met in Leith for lunch. Afterwards we sat outside on the edge of the pavement. It was cold, though the sun shone, and she gave me the present of a book I had wanted. I was so touched she had bought me something. I had known her less than six months at the time.
At another lunch in a favourite Italian restaurant on Leith Walk she confided that there was a time she would not have been ever to do what she was doing.
“Do what?”, I asked, puzzled, “have lunch?”
It turned out that she was so shy and self-conscious that not only could she not eat in public but she couldn’t even eat in the presence of another person. I was awed by the realisation of what she had battled to become who she was:a person who wanted to help people, to give them the confidence she never had. I remember thinking how much better a person she was than me.
When I had first met Nick I asked for her mobile number she told me she never carried it with her as she was afraid that the signals caused cancer.
“Cancer where?” I asked.
She patted the breast pocket of her long leather coat. A year and a half later she was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive breast cancer. The tumour grew so rapidly that she had to have chemotherapy before she had a mastectomy in the autumn.
All her beautiful wheat coloured hair, which she had grown into a bob, was gone. The NHS gave her a wig but she preferred a bandana or her Burberry baseball cap.
She moved back to the Highlands with my cousin when she started feeling better, back to the place that had called her at the beginning. There was a lot of hope and Nick was cheerful and the cancer seemed to be on the run. The last time I saw her was in a pub in Edinburgh where a friend of hers was playing a gig. She was stuffing her face with crisps, eating for Scotland as she said, and she was fighting fit.
A few months after moving into a house in Dunkeld the cancer returned. The end came fast, thankfully before any of the incapacitation she dreaded. She was allowed to die at home, the doctor calling by once or twice daily. Her new neighbours left food hanging in bags on the handle of the front door.
I had wanted to visit but was smothering with a cold. By the time I was better it was obvious the end was close so I stayed away. The weather was unusually oppressive in Edinburgh through those days of waiting. While I waited I wondered about cancer and why so often people talk of the fight against cancer. I wondered if this meant that the people who die from it are losers?
Nick fought. She took all sorts of treatment, an intelligent mixture of alternative and standard medical treatment but she was dying. You can stack the odds a little in your favour but nobody wins or loses the fight against cancer. The cancer decides.
Nicola passed on at 11am on the morning of May 15th 2002 at the age of 31.
I walked home from work that day under a heavy crenellated sky pierced by the cries of the swifts, cherry blossoms strewn on the burnished setts thinking of freedom and endless summer days.
I visited my cousin in Dunkeld in the days after the death. We walked in Dunsinane woods, the same woods that were portent of doom for Macbeth. There is a oak tree there that is a thousand years old, its massive spreading branches rest on props but it still lives on. We walked by it not saying much, for what was there to say?
I never know how to take death, what to say or do. Who does ?The best you can do is live I suppose. Sometimes I think of each friend who has died and what they have meant to me and I imagine carrying their lights into the future, like the glowing lamps Shakespearian actors would carry in front of them, suspended on the end of long rods, to signify the moon or the sun. I wonder sometimes how many lights I can carry before I get all tangled up and fall over in a heap. But maybe I’ll be gone by then too.
A year after Nicks passing, I returned to Newtownmore and climbed a hill near to her old house, not a Monroe or a Corbett but a favourite walk of hers that rose high above the surrounding hills undulating in the clear air for miles and miles around. I brought a bottle of her favourite wine which I polished off myself while at the cairn at the top. I stayed a while but there was nothing there. The Highlands were all around me, bare, empty.
Sometimes you can feel someones presence after they are gone. Nick, though, was gone, just gone but the grief always ebbed and died away when I was out under the great big sky.
Nancy died in 2010, at the age of 16.
FROM NICKS CELEBRATION
Is life the incurable disease?
The infant is born howling
& we laugh,
the dead man smiles
& we cry,
resisting the passage,
always resisting the passage,
that turns life into eternity.
Blake sang alleluias
on his deathbed.
My own grandmother,
hardly a poet at all,
as we’d never seen her smile before.
Perhaps the dress of flesh
is no more than a familiar garment
that grows looser as one diets
on death, & perhaps we discard it
or give it to the poor in spirit,
who have not learned yet
what blessing it is
to go naked?