Our journey together scarcely left base camp. But the tent pegs in the ground were already secure. In the midst of an ending, we forged a new bond. Green shoots burgeoned. Abundant with hope, possibility. Stuff to talk about, things to do. Such was the thrill of my short friendship with Olivia McLeod. Facing death, living life. Olivia — the Unfeartie — a woman of the most enthralling vitality.
‘What a joy to see Astrid Trugg at the Open Eye Gallery and then as the backdrop for discussion on life, death and collective leadership’ she tweeted following an afternoon at our house in March. Hotfoot from the exhibition, she was jubilant to find several of Trugg’s paintings on our walls. It was her first visit and that morning I’d been full of the sort of nervous energy you get as a kid when you long for somebody to be your pal.
I fretted about a black and white photograph which sits in our hallway. It’s of my sister, Rachael, on Druidston beach in Pembrokeshire. Each time I leave the house she greets me. Radiant, incomparable. I asked my husband whether I ought to put it away to spare any awkwardness. He agreed I should.
Rachael died almost 10 years ago, leaving her partner and five children. She was 43 and left an unfillable hole in their lives — and mine. Olivia would be bound to ask who she was and I would stumble. But I shouldn’t have worried. I was soon to discover it was only my blushes which were at stake.
As we sat down, strong coffee in hand, Olivia’s elegant presence shone. Her determined jawline matched by her evident tenacity. Our conversation moved swiftly and seamlessly from Trugg to Richard Holloway, whose new book, The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, she’d spotted on my desk. In no time at all, we were talking that, and everything in between.
Such was the ease of the space between us I soon fessed up about the photograph. Olivia smiled, her only concern the loss it involved for me. Later, getting up to go, she asked to see it. And looking at Rachael, then at me, she said ‘She’s beautiful, let’s put her back, where does she go?’
When I heard about Olivia’s illness last year, the achingly familiar void of Rachael’s loss opened up in an instant. The parallels were commonplace, in one sense almost incidental. Women, mothers, of a certain age. Cancer. It all came back. Punching me in the gut. But it was more than that.
For someone I hardly knew, Oliva had made an audacious impression. I’d met her only twice, both times professionally. But we’d struck up a connection through Twitter too and shared some brief recollections of Tower Hamlets in London’s east end where she’d worked and I’d been a councillor.
One of the things about coming to terms with loss is that it makes you determined never to waste an opportunity. So I sent her a message. I feared it might seem presumptuous given how tenuous our connection was. But she replied with characteristic openness. A quality she owned and took pride in.
In the ensuing months, we corresponded about matters great and small. Allan and I got married and she passed on some advice: ‘Respect, trust, and praise.’ Serendipity played its part too when we met at a performance of The Unthanks at the book festival last summer. ‘Truly sublime’ she said of the concert later, and ‘lovely to bump into you.’
I wanted more but I wasn’t sure how or when it could happen. Then earlier this year I posted a piece about Provincetown which she read and commented on because it was a place she’d also been. I was blessed that she was one of my readers, often with a tale to tell. Most memorably, in response to a piece about attitudes to same-sex relationships, she spoke of her grandmother’s gay cousin, whose 90th birthday she’d recently celebrated. ‘So gay was always normal to me’ she said.
Her recollection of Provincetown was more comic. Of arriving, discombobulated by the choppy boat trip from Boston, only to find herself thrust into the midst of a gay bears weekend. We agreed we had more stories to share. And that was how she came to be sitting in my kitchen on a sunny afternoon. Our familiarity was so novel and yet it felt utterly unbreakable. I savoured every moment.
A few days later Allan and I headed off on holiday. I took the Holloway with me and another book about death by Robert McCrum. Reading them provoked me to write a piece which Olivia shared on Twitter, singling out one sentence: ‘Nowness means settling up with the past and embracing the future, not least the unbeing part of it.’ That it resonated with her in those last few months is something I’ll cherish, always.
We were to meet only once more. Late in June, she came for lunch with our mutual friend, Susan Stewart. The conversation flowed abundantly about politics, literature, and art. Olivia’s illness and treatment were present though worn with such astonishing airiness, we were spared the need to suspend disbelief. Just a few hours but such a wealth of exchanges. We will remember them ever.
It was the last time either of us saw her. Though we didn’t know that, the occasion could so easily have had an end of days feel. Not a bit of it. Olivia’s insistent enthusiasm eschewed any possibility of that. There were quieter serious moments for sure. But the room was filled with joie de vivre, of books to read and plans to do it all again.
She and Susan had known each other for years. Yet not for a moment did it feel as though I was intruding. Each of us gently leaving the space for our different connections to breathe. An easiness which belied the newness of the combination. As though we’d done it before and that for certain we would again.
Oliva left that day with some books I was sure she’d enjoy. Afterwards, we exchanged messages about our thirst to talk more. We often want the people we treasure to experience the things we love. So I sent her another book, Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. We never spoke again.
I knew Olivia so fleetingly. But something clicked. ‘The mystic law at work’ she said. I had to check the reference. Buddhist, of course. ‘The Mystic Law doesn’t require obedience, or worship in order for it to work — Like any law, it just works!’ And our agonisingly brief friendship did just that.
‘A terrible loss, she was brilliant and fearless’ my friend Kevan, who worked with her in Tower Hamlets, remarked when I broke the news to him. I doubt ‘unfeartie’ is part of his lexicon, extensive though it is. But unsurprisingly he hit on the same unmissable quality we all knew.
What’s left undone. Far, far too much. But what a life. And what great luck to have been part of it. Just for a moment.
First published on September 14th 2018