My mate Nige was a curious looking chap. A quintessential ‘nerd’, I decided, when I first set eyes on him, with his mop of mousy, blonde locks, dowdy clothes and unfashionable spectacles.
He painted a most unassuming picture. Together with his softly spoken Yorkshire dialect, it would be very easy to deem him a bit ‘wimpish’.
But he epitomised the reason for the adage about looks being deceptive.
For Nigel was a REAL tough cookie; an Investigations Producer at the BBC, with a sharp mind and an even sharper wit.
A great journalist, he had worked as Associate Producer to John Pilger in a BAFTA winning documentary and had other award nominations for his BBC work.
I had known him for a few years but I didn’t get to know him well until earlier this year when I worked with him. He needed someone big, brash and ugly to work undercover in South London and he charmingly thought me perfect for the task.
Not that he couldn’t have done the job himself. Nige had trodden the deserts and dusty roads of IRAQ for a BBC documentary at great risk to his personal safety. There was certainly nothing and no-one by way of London’s’ unsavoury characters that fazed him too much, as many of the ‘victims’ of his stings and exposés had discovered, to their cost.
In fact, it was always a matter of some consternation on MY part that he would insist on being dropped off in the less than salubrious areas of London, often at night time, whilst I went on to attend to the investigation at hand. I would then often have to drive around in darkness, looking for him when it came to collecting him, losing him on MORE than one occasion.
His wife, Marie, was a beautiful Mauritian, and I joked to him that his children, two girls, had clearly inherited their Mother’s good looks.
But the truth was that, Nige was a man of great warmth, character, charm, humour and honesty, and it was impossible for anyone who knew him not to love him.
His unimposing frame and appearance also belied another factor; he was a good athlete and an accomplished MARATHON runner.
In April of this year, he ran the London Marathon in an impressive time, collecting funds for his favourite charity, “War Child”. His experiences in Iraq had shown him the lost and blighted lives of the youngest victims of war.
Ironically, it was shortly after this Marathon that Nigel began to feel unwell.
He thought he might have had a bit of a stomach ulcer and went for a check up.
He was diagnosed with Stomach cancer. A large tumour.
I learned of his illness through a close mutual friend and colleague and I was quick to offer whatever help or support I could.
I found him in resilient mood, as I expected. The doctor’s were optimistic, he said. They had caught the cancer reasonably early and tests suggested that it hadn’t spread.
He was prescribed bouts of Chemotherapy in order to shrink the tumour, to be followed up by surgery in late 2010 to remove his stomach.
We kept in fairly regular contact, via email and telephone. There were a couple of brief periods where I didn’t hear from him, but I expected this and knew that this was when the worst periods of his treatment were taking place and he was either too ill to speak or write, or he simply wanted to be left alone with his wife and children.
Whenever he DID communicate, he was always optimistic, 'though realistic. He wrote:-
“I have so many fences to jump. Some days every fence seems like Beecher's Brook on others not so high”.
I know that his worst moments were when he “drifted off” as he called it, and he thought about his girls “too much”.
Finally, ‘though, I was delighted to receive a ‘phone call from him. He reported that the tumour had shrunk “dramatically”, that his appetite had increased greatly and that he was starting to eat more and more.
His surgery had now been postponed until the New Year. He still knew that the removal of his stomach was no small task, and that he would have to dramatically change how often and how much he ate afterwards, but that was a surmountable problem in his eyes.
He was starting his third bout of Chemotherapy and he was now genuinely hopeful for the future. The author, explorer and ex-SAS soldier, Mike Asher, with whom Nige had worked with in Iraq, had booked him in for a 14 day camel trek in the Sudan/Khartoum in 2011, and he was more than confident that he would fulfil it.
His relief was tangible and he sounded almost elated. We made plans to catch up, within the following couple of weeks, for a drink or perhaps lunch.
The last words I said to him was that it was going to be a truly great Christmas in his family home.
I didn’t hear from him over the subsequent few weeks. I DID have a couple of ‘Missed Calls’ from him, on my mobile. HIS ‘phone, likewise, rang before going through to voicemail when I tried to return them. I wasn't unduly concerned for this was pretty much how our telephone conversations had always transpired, each missing each others' calls and leaving messages for the other.
By the time I heard from the same mutual close friend that he had deteriorated, he was already in a Hospice.
The cancer had spread to his liver, and had assumed its most aggressive form.
I hurriedly made arrangements to visit him on the following Friday.
He died on the Wednesday.
It would be wrong and presumptuous of me to assert that Nigel was a really “close” friend. Our paths never crossed in sufficient enough numbers, nor for a long enough period of time, for that.
But it is a testament to the degree of respect, admiration and love that I obviously had for the man that his passing has hit me harder than I could ever have imagined.
Frustratingly, (and painfully), I also find myself wondering if those missed calls were his way of saying the goodbye's I, myself, was too late in making.
I DO derive some comfort from the fact that I know our friendship, together with my words of support and encouragement, DID mean a lot to him. I shall forever retain the emails where he states so.
Nige was just 44 years old. His little girls aged perhaps 5 and 7.
I truly hope that the immense pride that they will surely feel for their father will eventually override the pain and sense of loss that they will undoubtedly have, each and every Christmas that they spend on this earth.
For me, I shall forever feel honoured and immensely grateful for the all too short period of time that he was in my life.
It isn’t true that only the good die young. But Nige was way too young and way too good to go so soon.
Goodnight, Godbless, Nige wherever you may be.