There is a beautiful Bogside phrase Nell McCafferty's late mother used to describe inconsolable grief: "Wild sad". It comes to mind when Nell tells me she's just lost the second great love of her life: reading. A stroke took almost all her sight last year and now she waits out the long weeks of lockdown without a book.
It is a life, she says, that is at times "excruciatingly lonely and silent".
She tries to talk to Alexa but it doesn't understand her Derry lilt. She gets the home helps to read her the paper and she teaches them English at the same time.
"I love the merciful oblivion of sleep because once my eyes are closed, I can't see anyway", she says. "I have vivid narrative dreams that have recently come to include subtitles."
Sitting in the garden of her home in Ranelagh, she is part little old lady, part lioness in winter. The garbled, loud Nell of the recent Gay Byrne tribute is gone. She wasn't drunk, she says, but in a more civilised time they would offer you a drink - and a cigarette.
The implication she had been on the sauce seems especially cruel when you think what she has been through in the last few years. Multiple strokes. A long period in a coma.
"Old age," she says, paraphrasing Bette Davis, "is not for wimps."
Davis was brave, she says, going on television after she had suffered a stroke and her face was contorted. There is something of the same bravery and gallows humour about Nell. She drags deeply on a cigarette, breathing out little clouds of ambivalence.
"There was no bright light to walk toward or any of that," she says of the period in the coma. "I came back out of it and I'd forgotten it all - what a waste of a good coma! My tongue was hanging out the side of my mouth while I was on a respirator and I couldn't understand how they either didn't put the tongue back in or at least take a picture. They could have taken a picture, sold it to the tabloids and given the proceeds to the homeless."
After she emerged back into consciousness, she found out multiple friends had died. She seems to suspect she may have missed a few others. As our conversation freewheels from 1970s Derry to the politicians of the present, she more than once asks me "and is he alive?"
Some, she knows for sure, are gone. Blazing in black and white on the wall in her study is a photo of the other love of her life, Nuala O'Faolain. They were the lesbian love story of a generation, an open secret on a par with Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, but looking at the picture of Nuala now, Nell seems unsure and still, on a level, quite hurt.
"There were things I never knew about her and so I don't know, was she the love of my life or the liar of my life. I can't say what she lied about but enough people knew about it."
It was Nuala who ended it after 15 years together. "She said we'll go to Timbuktu - because we had great travels together - and while we're there we'll discuss the orderly ending of our relationship. I said to her 'you've just done it, Nuala'. We were sharing a house on Charlestown Avenue and I had to move out of there."
After that she tried to move on but Nuala still hung around in her life.
"I told her about another relationship that I was in and said that it was developing into feelings and she put her hand across her stomach as though she'd been struck and I said 'Nuala, you broke up with me!'" She had relationships after Nuala. "But I was never in love again."
Nuala's famous interview after her terminal diagnosis with Marian Finucane was, she says, "like hearing the dying cry of an animal in a forest. It was fearlessly honest but she could see and she could take off and enjoy herself".
She rang Nuala after it to offer to look after her. "I said 'I'm used to looking after people, I can look after you' and she said 'absolutely not'. What she meant was that if I had gone and looked after her, I would have been a complete reminder to her of what went wrong between us. And that would have been hurtful to her and I understood that."
Nell's mother, Lily, had always felt Nuala was too old for Nell, that she had "already lived her life".
There was a story that Nell waited until her autobiography to come out to Lily but she tells me it happened many years before. "She said 'how do you know you are' and I didn't know what to say to her. I mean, how do you discuss sex with your parents? I had to change the subject."
There is a heartrending moment in her book where she describes the women in her street in Derry rallying around a young woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock. She writes that she hopes they would do the same for her if she were outed but she never feels able to test this thesis. Her sexuality was "the great unspeakable".
The Troubles raged as the background to her youth but she recalls them with a Derry Girls-like wit, her mother issuing tart rejoinders to Special Forces as they turned over her sugar bowl in search of Semtex. She was the first in her family to get a university education but a teaching job was almost denied to her after the archbishop learned she'd gone on a kibbutz.
"I said, what about the poor Jews and the Holocaust," she says. "I refused to kiss his ring. He thought I was a communist."
Feminism and nationalism were the forces that shaped her but humour always leavened her idealism. A Free Derry poster sits on a shelf alongside photos of a young Eamonn McCann and a mini-skirted Bernadette Devlin addressing a throng of men. "They could all be looking up her skirt," Nell says. "Not everyone was feminist and nationalist at the same time."
To the then staid media world of Dublin, a mouthy Northern lesbian was a jolt in the arm. Nell's voice was precisely what Ireland needed. She became a journalist with the Irish Times, covering the Kerry Babies case, for which she won a national journalism award, and later writing for the Sunday Tribune.
She was cantankerous but entertainingly so and she had an unfailing eye for the gleaming detail in a story. She wrote, Colm Toibin once said, "from the point of view of women who have very little stake in the world as it is. The women's movement has set itself the task of creating a new perspective on almost everything in people's lives, not just of achieving concessions from time to time".
Her own words bear out his assessment. In 1971 she travelled with the group on a train from Belfast to Dublin in order to protest the prohibition of the importation and sale of contraceptives in the Republic. "People talk about me in relation to the contraception train as if I invented the whole concept of women's liberation but I am identified with it and I accept that. But I never wanted equality with men. I set my sights higher than that," she says.
Her sexuality was an open secret among her colleagues but a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' discretion was in operation and her love life was colourful.
"There was a woman I was in love with in Sweden and she flew from Sweden to tell me she'd fallen for someone else. I though that was very sweet," she recalls. "That night I went to a party and ended up on a sofa kissing a woman. She was a journalist as well."
It is a moment like this - eyes locking across a room, sexual chemistry crackling - that she sees as the biggest loss of lockdown. Like Germaine Greer and Quentin Crisp, she has become something of an awkward figure for a liberal movement that venerates her. During the abortion referendum, she said "pro-life campaigners are right about some things" and compared abortion to the mass slaughter at the Somme. "They didn't like me saying that, but they could hardly say I was anti-abortion," she clucks.
Her feminist heart still beats, incensed at reports of increased domestic violence during lockdown. "Where are the men's groups speaking out about this? It's a disgrace", she says.
She is wanly resigned to isolation, having briefly experimented with socially distant walks. "We ended up calling after each other up the street - it was no good."
So she goes on through the long bookless hours, greedily grabbing morsels of news from visitors.
"Euthanasia is the alternative but if someone travelled with me, they could be liable for assisted manslaughter and, really, if I was that keen on it, I should have arranged it before all this kicked off.
"Sometimes I feel as if I'm waiting for death," she adds, and it seems like a very Nell comment: dark, honest and wild sad.