It was the saddest story most people had ever heard of.
In 2006, the skeletal remains of a London woman were found in a flat, where she had lived alone, and died three years earlier, unbeknownst to anyone. Due to the body’s advanced state of decomposition, the cause of death was unknown, as was the woman’s identity. She had been discovered after her rental arrears had climbed into the thousands of pounds, and officials from the local council, from whom she had been leasing the flat, forcibly entered her home. The television was still on, tuned into BBC1, the channel she had been watching when she died; the unsympathetic world flickering unceasingly before her amaurotic eyes.
She was later identified as Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman of Caribbean descent. And by all accounts beautiful, beloved and the last person in the world anyone would have ever expected to die alone.
How could this have happened in London in the 21st century and to someone so young? Who was she? How had she lived?
The story fascinated independent filmmaker Carol Morley, who decided to uncover more information about this woman, who transpired to be as enigmatic in life, as she had been in death. It was through Morley’s 2011 film, Dreams of a Life, that I first became acquainted with sweet Joyce and her sad demise.
London, where she had lived her whole life, is, paradoxically, both hyper-social and extremely isolating at the same time. You are surrounded by people constantly, most of them strangers, all of them on the move, every hour of every day, unsettled and unsettling. You acquire the manners of a megacity dweller, someone who is polite and extraordinarily aware of others; cool, cold and insouciant; unflappable — you’ve seen it all before. It’s a going-out city, nearly every night you’re doing something and going somewhere. Very quickly you get used to late nights, hard, fast sleep and jolting alarm clocks.
Joyce had been the consummate city girl of 1980s London, a place and a woman on the move. She’d had a high-flying job in finance and an eclectic group of friends. Most of who remember her fondly. How pretty she was, how composed and elegant and how unthinkable it was that this woman with such gazelle-like grace could meet such a grisly end.
She died the type of death that people joke about. Bridget Jones famously surmised that she would die alone, a spinster, and be found six months later half-eaten by Alsatians.
But not someone like Joyce. She had never been short of boyfriends or suitors. Two of her boyfriends who participated in Dreams of a Life recalled her in such a way that one was left with the impression that the lovely Miss Vincent had left an indelible mark on their hearts. This was someone unforgettable. How had she lain seemingly forgotten for so long?
It was pride.
The details are hazy but the facts pieced together from before she died indicate that she had fallen on hard times. There were rumours of an abusive relationship: she had spent time in a battered woman’s home before she had moved into that rather shabby council flat where she had died. Friends were incredulous when they discovered that this had been her final resting place. They could never picture her living somewhere like that. Not successful, ambitious Joyce.
Ashamed of this and not wanting to expose herself and her weaknesses, she had shut people out. She’d drifted from place to place. No one knew where to find her. An old friend, during an interview in the film, recounted an incident where she’d bumped into Joyce in the street, she’d called out to her, and Joyce had purposefully put her head down and walked on, refusing to acknowledge her. “If that’s the way you want it”, her friend had thought. And sadly it was.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
(Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith,1957)
We are caught up in the endless, rushing stream of life. Our lives tragically temporal, passing, ephemeral. We live, we die.
Sweetly sad Joyce. Perhaps we all know her in some way.
This originally appeared on On Netflix Now