Braveheart Nicola will forever inspire all who knew her
There are some calls you'll always remember. We were wrapping up the late afternoon news conference when my mobile rang, bringing a story I never wanted to have to run. Last Tuesday, 4.52pm, Kenny Boyd, partner of the artist Nicola Russell. His voice was faltering and before he was even halfway into his opening sentence I knew what he was about to say so left the room: his immensely talented, beautiful and altogether lovely Nicola was dead.
I said some hopelessly inadequate words of comfort - for what can you say in the face of such devastation? We touched upon some shared recollections. He wondered if we might carry something in the newspaper? When the call ended I walked back to my waiting colleagues, but now it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of the office. I felt so vexed - for Nicola, dead at just 51, for Kenny, broken-hearted, for her parents and brother and sister and friends, bereft. And then the saddest of tasks: clearing a page to make room for news of her passing.
Exactly a year ago, there'd been another call that resonated with me on numerous occasions over the past months. Friday night, 8pm. I'd just got home from work when Nicola rang. A little awkward smalltalk - awkward because she'd braced herself to break her news - and then she told me the cancer was back and it was terminal. I was devastated for her. I told her that I was so sorry. Nicola was in control and reassuring. "It's alright, really," she said, typically always thinking of others. "I'm okay, honest."
She'd been following the campaign to get life-extending cancer drugs freely available on the health service in Northern Ireland and had decided to speak out publicly about her diagnosis, adding her voice to the cause. Would the newspaper carry an interview with her? Of course we would.
The next day was Midsummer's Day. I was at my bolthole on the north coast. Nicola was in Belfast. Late in the evening we were texting each other. The light was fading and her incoming messages glittered like shooting stars across my screen. She was in the garden, at a party, in good spirits.
She was doing what she'd promised to do: living in the moment, enjoying the company of loved ones, savouring the feel of the breeze on her face. It was okay, honest, she said; those words again. She hoped I was making the most of my time, too, getting a break. She was always so generous like that. I was struck that we were having this conversation, shadowed by an impending end of days, on the longest day of the year. Privately, I wished that whatever days she had left could all have as much daylight and contentment as this one.
The thing is, I didn't know Nicola very well at all. My relationship with her was largely a professional one that had segued into, occasionally, a more personal one. Her career as an artist went from strength to strength and we loved to celebrate her success in our pages. From commissions for portraits of people like Mo Mowlam and her mesmerising portrait of the mighty racehorse Istabraq to her beautiful flowers, her work was as varied as it was outstanding.
But she brightened our pages in more abstract ways, too. Nicola was a warm, genuine and witty personality and if we were doing a story about favourite books, or holidays, or Valentine's Day, she'd always have an anecdote about herself. I've been reading through some of her Press cuttings and undoubtedly her best ones centre on her love story with Kenny.
He and his brother were walking past her gallery and went inside on impulse. He begged her mum, who was minding the shop, to let him meet Nicola. It was love at first sight; fate and destiny playing their respective hands.
In another interview, she tells how Kenny fed her chocolate during chemotherapy. Kenny was her rock, but then he was the first person in 40 years to swim the Rathlin Sound, that treacherous stretch of sea from the island to Ballycastle. Nicola, not long out of surgery, was on the shore to meet him. All the big romantic moments...
There are stories, too, about her young-at-heart parents, Jill and George, and how supportive they'd always been, and another about being bullied at school which makes me want to hunt down the tormentors even as I type this.
But nothing makes me as angry as the thought of this incredible life force being extinguished so young. Maybe Nicola was never going to make old bones, but she deserved the same chance to eke out every last day as everyone else in the UK. It's shameful that she was denied that, as others continue to be.
This time last year, she shouldn't have had to be bothered going public about her plight; she didn't need that. She should have been sitting in the garden, thinking about nothing more than the joy of breathing in and out, surrounded by love. Sleep well, braveheart.