My most precious possession is the birthday card my partner Nigel gave me as he was dying. I keep it close by my bedside, and blow a kiss to it every morning.
Nigel gave me the card, with a message inside, on the afternoon of May 20, 2020: a glorious spring day.
That was the sunny evening of the Downing Street garden party where mask-free guests mingled from 6pm to share bottles of ‘bring your own’ wine.
The tables, no doubt, were being set up for that illicit soiree when Nigel and I met in the lobby of a private north London hospital where he was being treated.
Sue Reid, pictured with her partner Nigel at home in West London. As he lay dying in a north London hospital, there was a party in the garden at Number 10
The Covid rules were draconian: both of us were masked to the hilt, and I even donned an old pair of large purple sunglasses to avoid catching the virus through my eyes or passing it to Nigel.
Now the memory of that dreadfully sad day seems even more cruel.
How angry it has made me to think of myself and Nigel – who used to play tennis with Boris Johnson and considered himself a fan of the Prime Minister – were taken for fools by the Government.
Every painful memory of the birthday visit has come flooding back to me with renewed agony as more details emerge of how those who ran the country during the pandemic, and imposed its wretched rules on the rest of us, were so ready to flout them themselves.
What I would have given to spend that last birthday with Nigel in a spacious London garden, sipping a glass of fine wine and laughing without a care in the world – as he always made me feel.
Special permission had been granted for my birthday visit because Nigel had persuaded the hospital’s most senior administrator personally.
How angry it has made me to think of myself and Nigel – who used to play tennis with Boris Johnson and considered himself a fan of the Prime Minister – were taken for fools by the Government
His case was an emergency: intravenous antibiotics were being pumped into his 6ft4in body to battle sepsis. It was thought he’d become infected through his chemo port during four months of gruelling medical treatment.
I was so excited to see him – but he was clearly a weakened soul.
I had brought a small picnic to try to make it an occasion, but the ever-polite Nigel struggled to touch it. He had lost stones in weight: his trousers were falling off, his face was sunken, his skin so pale. As I looked into his brown eyes, I was terrified at his deterioration.
But I didn’t want to frighten him by saying that out loud.
At one stage, my gaze wandered over Nigel’s head, as he sat forlornly in a chair in the lobby. A delivery man walked in from the road outside and waited with a parcel outside the lift a few feet from us. He wasn’t wearing a mask – and I was so enraged I took a photo of him on my phone. I also took a snap of an unmasked hospital patient leaving the same lift and going outside to smoke a cigarette. There wasn’t a glance or a rebuke from the hospital’s reception desk.
Clearly, there were already pandemic rules for some but not for others in this hospital – just as, over in Downing Street that same day, the glasses were being polished and the guest list totted up.
Like thousands of others obeying the rules – often at huge personal cost – I feel as though I have been laughed at by the hypocrites stalking the corridors of power. I realise that Nigel and I were cheated of our time together in his final days.
We were desperately keen to see each other, messaging one another 18 times a day as he was incarcerated in a room at the hospital with no visits allowed.
By then, Nigel said his nurses had told him the hospital was overwhelmed with Covid and non-Covid patients being transferred there by a National Health Service unable to cope.
Nigel had been diagnosed with bile-duct cancer in January 2020. Soon after he began chemotherapy, he collapsed and became delirious. It was, said the oncologists, caused by a ‘mystery infection’.
His final hospital visit was two weeks before my birthday, when the private doctors rang our home to say tests showed he had the mystery infection again and must go in immediately.
I went with him in a black cab to the hospital’s door.
I was hurried away after being told he would be isolated in one room because of the pandemic (although he never tested positive for Covid at any stage). I would not be allowed to see him and nor would any of his family.
I could not speak to the doctors face to face. The result was that I could not stand by his bedside and fight his corner as a
loving partner should. He was totally alone. Then came my heart-wrenching birthday. I have looked up our messages and emails just beforehand.
‘Come soon,’ said Nigel, who admitted he was struggling even to type on his mobile because he felt so ill.
I said I had my phone under my pillow and would run to his side night or day – if I was allowed. On my birthday, May 20, I sat in the private hospital lobby and waited for him. Nigel came down in the lift, a female nurse helping him, before collapsing into the chair and handing me a birthday card to ‘SD’, his nickname for me, which stood for ‘Sue Darling’.
‘Darling SD,’ he wrote. ‘How could I not mention today how you transformed my life when you let me into your heart? In return, for the future, you will carry my love with you wherever you go. I adore you, Nigel.’ When I read the words, right in front of him, I realised that he knew his end was near.
A natural rebel, I broke the hospital’s rules by slipping quickly behind his chair to hold him in my arms for a second or two: to whisper in his ear that I adored him, too, and to feel the warmth of his cheek.
And just as I did so, that jolly evening party was beginning only a few miles away, attended by those men and women who had made Nigel and I so terrified of touching when he was already so near to death. Seven days later, Nigel was sent home.
He passed away on our sofa after 36 hours without another word from the hospital. We held each other beforehand, as my birthday card with Nigel’s beautiful, enduring message to me rested on the mantelpiece.
And those treasured moments are something the suspected rulebreakers of No 10 can never take away from us, however contemptible their own behaviour.