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Long Wait For A Funeral

Sadly, it happens from time to time: a body is found in a house or flat, having lain there undisturbed for months or even years. The departed person is usually old, in their seventies or eighties. All their friends have died or moved away. They’ve lost touch with their relatives. Nobody knew them well enough to notice or check when suddenly they stopped appearing outside their home, stopped shopping and visiting the library.

There was a story like that in 2006. A woman’s skeleton was discovered in a bedsit in north London. The television was still on, tuned to BBC 1. Letters and bills had piled up at the door. The fridge was still full of food and the expiry dates gave the first clue of how long the body had lain there: three years. That was hard to believe in a crowded city like London. Even harder to believe was the discovery of the victim’s age: she was only thirty-eight.

Her name was discovered from items in the flat: Joyce Vincent. Other questions weren’t so easy to answer. How had this happened to her? How had she fallen out of sight and out of mind among millions of other people? How had she died alone and then lain undisturbed for three years, companioned only by the flickering light of a television and the hum of a refrigerator?

The film-maker Carol Morley asked all these questions after she read about Joyce in a newspaper left on the tube. She decided to try and find the answers, thinking that the story might make an interesting film. She sought the help of Lynne Featherstone, the member of parliament for the area in which Joyce had died. She visited school-reunion websites and placed adverts in newspapers and magazines, asking for anyone who had known Joyce to contact her. Slowly, over more than two years, she pieced together the story of the living person.

Joyce Vincent hadn’t been mentally ill or a drug addict or alcoholic. She had once lived in good houses, working in well-paid jobs and surrounded by plenty of friends, who had liked her for her intelligence, her good sense of humour and her down-to-earth personality. She had had plenty of boyfriends and admirers too, because she had been a very attractive woman. Of mixed race, she had been compared by some to the American singer Whitney Houston. She had had something else in common with Whitney Houston: she loved to sing.

At one time, she had had dreams of entering the music business. She met famous musicians and recorded a tape for a friend to play to record companies. But nothing came of her musical ambitions and something dark fell across her life before she moved to the bedsit where she would die. Before that, she had been living in a refuge for victims of domestic violence. At least one of her boyfriends hadn’t been a good person.

Had the abuse she suffered pushed her down, killed her love for life, even brought her to suicide? It’s impossible to know, because the cause of her death has never been determined. But in the end Carol Morley had gathered enough information to make the film she had considered. It’s called Dreams of a Life and was released in 2011. Watching it is a powerful and moving experience. Of course, you expect one person to appear there only in photographs and in the words of those who remember her: Joyce Vincent herself.

But in fact there is film of Joyce when she was alive. Like Whitney Houston, she had once appeared on television and been seen by a world-wide audience of many millions. But in Joyce’s case the appearance had been anonymous and lasted only a few seconds. She had been in a room full of musicians at a tribute concert for Nelson Mandela in 1990. Panning the room, the camera had caught her smile and the gleam of light on her earrings.

That was all. When she appeared at the Mandela concert, she was twenty-six years old and seemed to have a bright future ahead of her. A career in music, perhaps, or the founding of her own company. Marriage and children. But in fact her future in 1990 wasn’t bright and didn’t extend very far. She reached the turn of the century and then somehow, through a series of misfortunes or mistakes, fell from sight, losing contact with her friends and relatives, moving into her final home and meeting death alone and unnoticed in 2003. Then came her long wait for a funeral.