It’s bin day at Linda Nolan’s Blackpool home. We wheel the bins round the back and sit in the weak but warming autumn sun.
There’s a wreath in the shape of a star there, flowers long faded.
“Bernie’s,” explains Linda. It’s from younger sister Bernie’s funeral in July, the “funeral of funerals” as Linda puts it, which brought Blackpool to a standstill as the cortege headed to Bernie’s beloved Grand Theatre. “We’ll never outdo that. I’m not sucking up but Blackpool, and The Gazette, did Bernie proud.”
Almost three months on Linda admits: “I couldn’t bear to see it thrown away then. Now I can’t bear to throw it away. I suppose I should but...”
The silence lengthens with the afternoon shadows. It’s a long time since we first met, back in the 80s, Linda bright, bubbly, buxom, ever so blonde, hostess with the mostest at Maggie May’s showbar, Central Pier.
Husband Brian, cheeky, charming, constantly at her side, best friend, lover, husband, manager.
He died in 2007. Cancer again, skin cancer, in remission until an infection caused total organ failure. Linda is bereft. “I’ll never get over it.” Already laid low by the emotional fall out after her own battle against breast cancer (diagnosed in 2005) Linda ended up clinically depressed and suicidal until taken under the wing of clinical consultant psychologist for cancer services Dr Jean Brigg.
She counts Dr Brigg and breast care nurse Sarah now as friends, part of her extended family. And for the first time she feels she has work to do. Not paid work “although I’d hate to think I’d never sing again.” Charity work. One that begins at home and is close to her heart. The Gazette Hospice Heroes campaign to raise £200k to update, improve and extend facilities at Trinity, the Hospice in the Fylde.
The hospice gave Bernie the boon of a further four months of life having been admitted from Blackpool Victoria Hospital. Bernie fell desperately ill after coming to Blackpool for half term, for her husband Steve’s party and Linda’s 53rd.
Bernie visited their favourite cafe in Stanley Park and went to the party - but later paid the price.
“We got a call on my birthday, February 23, to say she was in the Vic,” says Linda. “She got sent home and came out for a meal but was back in hospital and kept in.
“She wanted to go home but was told she wouldn’t make the journey. And she wouldn’t – at that point. At Trinity they made her strong enough, over three weeks, to return home. They put her on steroids, stopped her cough, arranged oxygen, a walker, wheelchair, everything needed – and off she went.
“She came to Maureen’s the night before and it was the elephant in the room. I said I’ll be down to see you soon and she left and we all broke our hearts. We were, are, so angry at being robbed of the rest of her life with us.”
At 54 Linda’s still a lovely looking woman, warm, witty and wise, with that dark Irish banter that kept Bernie smiling almost to the very end. She remarks on the shadows under her eyes. “We all have these dark rings under our eyes now,” she adds.
But there’s strength in Linda’s face too, something of the Blood Brothers matriarch (Mrs Johnstone) she was the first, of four of the six sisters, to play. Maureen reprises the role in Bill Kenwright’s Blackpool production soon. Linda collapsed when she tried to return to the role after Brian’s death.
Getting rid of the star wreath - along with mowing the lawn front and back - is on Linda’s list of things to do.
She has more pressing priorities. She’s just spoken at her adopted charity Breast Cancer Campaign’s Pink Ribbon Ball at the Dorchester, London.
She’s at Trinity’s annual ball this month. She spoke at the Dying Matters conference at Trinity in May, Bernie back home in London still battling cancer. She did Trinity’s Illumathon – for the third time – this year. “I walked it.” Her sister Maureen was there too.
Linda, who’s attended Trinity’s lymphoedema clinic since her own breast cancer, admits: “Trinity is not a place to die but a place to live. It is a lifeline. It offers hope and help. It gave Bernie four months more – and we cherished and treasured every minute.”
It would have been Bernie’s birthday yesterday – she would have been 53. This week The Gazette launched Hospice Heroes – our bid to raise the £200,000 needed to fund the refurbishment of both Trinity and Brian House hospices.
Bernie wanted a party, not a wake, yesterday. What Bernie wanted she got. Her instructions for her funeral were followed to the letter by her family. “Control freak? God, yes,” Linda smiles. “Bernie had it all worked out. We’re all going out to mark her birthday and our first drink will be vodka and ginger ale – she even had that in the hospice.
“And there couldn’t be a better birthday present for Bernie than support for the Trinity appeal – it’s a living gift.”
Linda’s wearing Bernie’s last gift. A bangle she bought each member of the family at Trinity Hospice. The inscription reads “every day holds the possibility of a miracle.”
“We never take them off,” says Linda.
Sisters Anne, Maureen, Linda, Coleen, Denise and brothers Brian and Tommy saw a miracle at Trinity on Low Moor Road - the miracle of a mortally ill sister, wife to Steve Doneathy, mother to Erin, now 14, restored not so much to health but a period of grace.
Trinity helped heal them too.
It poured balm over a damaging family rift which had lasted four years, Anne (who also recovered from breast cancer) and Denise back in the embrace of their sisters, Bernie watching on with relief and tears in her eyes.
“So much time lost,” Linda says with regret. We took over the day lounge at Trinity. Steve came in one day and laughed.
“It’s like our Big Fat Gypsy Hospice, he said, and it was.”
Trinity’s magic goes beyond clinical care, says Linda, who talks of the gardens, and birdsong, the gentle empathy of staff and volunteers.
“It’s not gloom and doom and morbid. It’s about living. We thought we knew cancer. There’s been so much in our family yet it’s not in our genes, we’re just unlucky, I guess. Trinity teaches you how to live with cancer. Bernie never lost hope.”
Linda’s taken on a very different challenge, that of being a mother. Her psychologist noticed how the light returned to Linda’s eyes when she spoke of her nieces and nephews. Now Linda’s not only a patron of Tramshed, an inclusive theatre company which still can’t quite believe its luck, but... a foster mother. “I’ve looked after my first two children. And loved it.”
Linda knows she is lucky to be alive. “I’d had a lump in my breast since I was 19, was told it was a blocked milk duct.
“It got bigger but I left it two years before mentioning it.
“I was doing a panto in Belfast, Brian had been ill and if you don’t work you don’t get paid so I went in between shows, had a three needle biopsy. The cancer was nine by five across. I had a left breast mastectomy, 11 nymph lodes removed, chemo, radiotherapy, Herseptin. I’m a survivor. So’s Anne. 30 years ago we’d have been dead. Great advances are being made. One of the biggest is calling it cancer -–not the Big C.
“But Bernie was braver. She was diagnosed in 2010, got the all clear, felt another lump at the end of 2012, had the scans, went back to work in Chicago, the show, in Monte Carlo.
“The show always goes on for the Nolans.
“She got the results and called. It’s not good news, Lin, she said, it’s spread, they can’t cure it. It had gone to bones, lungs, liver, brain, metastasised, spread. I said you know what Bernie, you are strong. She was unbelievable. I put the phone down and sobbed. Maureen collapsed.
“Bernie came back to Blackpool before Christmas 2012 and returned in February.
“Even when her sight was failing she sent texts. ‘I live you.’ I’d text back and say what have you been drinking?
“When my Brian died Bernie texted or phoned me twice a day for two years. They were lifelines.”
The cough, caused by cancer spreading to her vocal cords, and hardening her lungs, cost her voice - displayed to such dazzling effect in Pop Star to Opera Star.
“By all rights she should have won that. She called and said I can’t even sing in the shower. I said, you know Bernie, I never liked your voice. Every cloud and all that. She laughed. It’s how we got by.”
Bernie kept the news from Chicago cast members but days before she died members of the cast turned up at her home to serenade her.
It’s one of Linda’s three most precious memories.
“Steve was out promoting her book. Bernie wanted me to look after her. I went up and Steve left at 4am and I gave her the meds at 7am and asked are you going back to sleep?
“She said come and lay down with me so I lay on the bed and we held hands and both fell asleep.
“That was the week before she died and no one can take that away from me.
“The weekend before she died on the Thursday we were at the local cricket club and had two jugs of Pimms, a barbecue and she sat up until half one in the morning.
“On the Sunday afternoon the Chicago cast turned up.
“Bernie was asleep, I woke her and said look who’s here and they came in softly singing ‘give them the old razzle dazzle’ and it was amazing. We all cried. Bernie was thrilled.
“We Nolans are talkers. It’s our therapy. Bernie said you lot are not going to stop me, the doctor won’t stop me and bloody cancer won’t stop me.
“And I’m never going to stop talking about Bernie.”