I’m sure we all have friends hovering on the periphery of our consciousness. Friends who have been important in a particular stage of our life but with whom we may have lost touch. Even so, we think about them often and know that if we were to meet up, we would pick up just where we left off all those years ago. Julia was one of those friends. We were at University together in Durham, mainstays of the diving club. Every weekend we all piled into the university minibus and headed off up the old A1 to St Abbs where we dived off the shore, either at Petticowick or outside the Harbour. Petticowick was a slog; a steep, grassy slope down with the gear and, of course, back up at the end of the dive.
My first dive in Britain was at Petticowick, after learning to dive during a gap year in Jamaica. I vividly remember my introduction to the cold, greenish murk of a November kelp forest, shivering in a too big borrowed wetsuit with a piece of orange canvas that purported to be a life jacket around my neck. “Wasn’t that wonderful!” proclaimed my buddy, Tim, later of Eden Project fame, as we staggered out of the water. “Drifting down through the kelp, in that beautiful clear water!” He clearly hadn’t been on the same dive as me. Still, I perservered and learned to like, if not love, kelp forests. The following year Julia and Chas arrived in Durham and joined me in the diving club while I switched subjects and joined them in Zoology lectures. We became firm friends within a wider group of divers, biologists, college mates, and were involved in organising expeditions with a Joint Services diving club. Then came finals and we went our separate ways to research posts around the country: I headed for Glasgow (what a mistake that proved to be!) and ultimately to the natural history side of science, Chas to Lowestoft and fisheries, Julia to Bristol and a career in the science of fish vision.
Those few years were an intense period of living, and we lived them to the full. They marked a shared growing up between leaving home and setting out into the world. They established the direction of our future paths. And yet, looking back, I see how little we knew of each other outside our university lives. I find myself writing all this now as I have had it in mind for a few years to get back in touch with Julia again. I knew she had moved to Australia but we had barely been in touch since my wedding, over twenty years ago. So now, with a family trip to Australia in the early stages of planning, it seemed to be time to meet up again. Tragically, I’ve left it too late, just a few weeks too late. Julia died of cancer at the beginning of February this year, leaving a partner and two teenage children, about the same age as my own.
It’s strange how, after all these years, I can still hear the sound of Julia’s voice in my head. She was a generous, softly spoken person, self-contained with a sort of inner grace that I have come across in few other people. She was a very good friend although it is so long since our paths last crossed. I have found the news of her death very upsetting for a whole mixture of reasons. It was so recent – if only I had been in touch a couple of years back when I last made a half-hearted attempt to find her. Her death reflects my own experience of cancer in a way that I hardly dare think about. Her children are so close in age to my own and they must be devastated by the loss of their mother. And she is the third of my relatively small cohort of female diving marine biologists to die of cancer.
Dale, who I worked with sporadically over many years, died of breast cancer just before Christmas. Nettie, who I shared an office with in the stable yard at OPRU, died a few years ago of a particularly nasty cancer of the smooth muscle. And now Julia. A mutual friend has a photograph of Nettie, Dale and Julia together on a survey on Skomer in the 1980s; all three are gone but I think of them all with fondness and remember the laughs we shared and the many good times we spent together exploring the coast.
And I think of other peripheral friends, important friends I’ve lost touch with but keep in mind, and I have resolved not to leave it too late to speak to them again.