When I was four I fell helplessly, head over heels, in love. Sadly, that love was doomed. But anyone who met my beautiful, feisty, mischievous cousin Birte would, I’m sure, have understood.

Birte was born just six months after me, to my mother’s younger sister, Grethe, and her husband Willy Nyberg. They already had three children – Kirsten, Jens and Steen – and it wasn’t long before Birte’s sister, Agnes, completed the family.

My mother made it her business to visit our Danish family every year, but our first port of call was always Esbjerg, where the Nybergs lived. That, after all, was where the ferry from Harwich docked, and I remember how excited I always was to see if we could spot them waving to us from the terminal building.

My first memory of Birte comes from a segment of film where we are sharing a pram and I am reaching out to touch a birthmark on her forehead. You’d be hard pressed to see any sign of it now!

My second was triggered by another photo of the two of us with her younger sister. That reminded me of happy summers at Birte’s family home on Solsortevej in Esbjerg. We had enormous fun raiding fruit and vegetables in the garden, though I’m not sure Willy approved!

Later the family moved to the fourth floor of a block of flats closer to Esbjerg’s town centre. There Birte and I played outside with other children, or in the girls’ room, where we spent happy hours talking and making music together.

And it wasn’t one-way traffic. Birte also came to England, and I particularly remember the time she and Agnes escorted my beloved Danish grandmother to visit my mother. Like me, she knew she was dying and made the brave effort to visit the whole family. While she was here my father was able to get tickets for us to the ‘Simon Dee Show’ with guests including Bruce Forsyth and Amen Corner – though I don’t think we were visible when the show was televised – and we also went together to see ‘Yellow Submarine’. 

Much later, after Birte had spent time in Israel, she returned with an Israeli husband, Avi. I soon warmed to him and I was delighted when their beautiful children arrived. They were living in the same block as Willy and Grethe, and I remember happy hours babysitting their lovely daughter, Katja.

Time passed and it became clear that Avi’s Israeli qualifications would not be recognised – but the last straw was when the children, Katja and Roni, were subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. Not surprisingly the family elected to go back to Israel – where their skills, their energy and their entrepreneurial spirit were recognised and welcomed.

We visited them there – as did many of the Danish family – in the year 2000. We were celebrating Katja’s wedding at a kibbutz – and it was killingly funny to see the reaction of the young men on the kibbutz to the arrival of a crowd of Danish blondes (eyes out on stalks!)

A few years later we had the great pleasure of a visit from Birte and Avi, equally enjoyed by all. And as soon as Birte heard about my diagnosis we began making arrangements for her to come and see me.

I’m so very glad that we did.

Birte and I were able to talk and exchange stories with the same openness and freedom there has always been between us. And when poor Rosemary was taken to hospital with cellulitis Birte stepped into the breach with admirable capability to make sure I was fed and watered as necessary. I treasure those few days in my heart as a time of total openness and love with someone as close to me as anyone has ever been. To her, I am her much-loved favourite cousin. To me, she has been a deeply loved inspiration in all that she says and does – and a beacon of love and hope in her adopted country.

Bless you, Birte – you have brought light and joy into my life since we were children. And not even death can ever change that.