In March this year I was being served at my local Sainsburyâs and was reluctantly drawn into conversation by the woman behind the counter; she revealed she lived on the same street I used to live on and mentioned a friend of mine who also lived there, a friend Iâd lost touch with since moving. A few exchanged words about this friend â name of Alison â followed, and then the woman serving me casually said, âOh, she died, didnât sheâ â in a house-fire, apparently, âa couple of years agoâ. I thought I hadnât seen her around for a while because sheâd moved. I didnât expect this.
In a way, Iâve been lucky to reach my mid-40s and only experienced the loss of beloved pets, aged grandparents or relatives I hadnât seen in years. For anyone whose disconnection from their family has resulted in familial affection and loyalty being transferred to friends, however, the first death of a friend can be devastating. What made hearing of Alisonâs death worse was the fact that it hadnât just happened; a cursory search through the online archives of the local newspaper actually told me it had happened in April 2010 â four whole years ago. I couldâve sworn Iâd last seen her a couple of years previously â three at the most; but a root through my diary of 2010 told me my last encounter with Alison had taken place just three days before she died. Like me, Alison lived alone, which meant she died alone, at home and in a fire, on the eve of her 50th birthday.Â
Alison was one of those people who make a lasting impression because theyâre unlike anyone else weâve ever met, a person without a reference point, someone genuinely incomparable. She was the most eccentric individual itâs ever been my pleasure to know and also one of the funniest, often unintentionally so. Nothing about her was remotely conventional, so it makes sense that our first meeting remains one of my lifeâs more unusual ones. I was walking my dog on a street behind where I lived one evening in November 2002 and saw what I assumed to be an abandoned Guy across the street, a slouched figure in an indolent parody of the lotus position. I looked again and gradually realised it wasnât a ragdoll effigy destined for the top of a bonfire, but a human being, a woman. I approached her to ask her if she was okay and she answered in a mumbling fashion without lifting her head. Having been recently associated with a community of hard drug-users, I thought I recognised all-too familiar signs, but she insisted she wasnât on drugs. With the help of a passer-by, I managed to get her to her feet and inquire where she lived; my face received a smack of spirits from her breath and I finally knew the cause of her condition before proceeding to effectively carry her home as though she were a wounded soldier on the battlefield; thankfully, it turned out she lived in the neighbouring apartment block to mine and we were no more than 200 yards from home.Â
After this bizarre opening, I used to see her around on the streets but we never spoke; only several months later, when she finally deigned to open a neighbourly conversation with me did she admit sheâd been embarrassed to speak to me on account of the state sheâd been in the day we met. But I soon realised Alison liked a drink. No binge-drinking pub-crawler, though â more the proper old-school alcoholic indulging alone at home with bottles for company. She had the classic spirit-addict physique, without an ounce of fat on her, almost as if sheâd once been a model or ballerina whose dedication to the profession had rendered her incapable of weight-gain; and it was impossible to guess how old she was. She dressed in a manner that wasnât age-specific and had the aura of loner about her, with no suggestion of husband, partner or family. Her accent was southern âposhâ, and I quickly learnt she had a fascinating (if occasionally frustrating) habit of going off on a tangent during a conversation, switching subject mid-sentence, as well as opening conversations with the quirkiest of ice-breakers, such as âHave you ever tried Coco Pops?â We initially used to bump into each other on the street and stand and chat either for a minute or half-an-hour, depending which unpredictable mood Alison happened to be in, something I could never second-guess beforehand. It also depended on how much sheâd had to drink. Then she started calling round at my flat, usually to borrow tobacco or loose change; she was in the same breadline strata as me, which hardly qualified me as the best person to come to for a loan that wouldnât be paid back. But even when I wasnât feeling sociable and had nothing to give her, she always made me laugh. Alison could come out with an almost Peter Cook-esque surreal, spontaneous observation in the same way most people will make small-talk about the weather.
She revealed snippets of her past in dribs and drabs: Sheâd been amongst a contingent of servicemenâs families evacuated from Cyprus in the early 60s (her father had been in the RAF at the time); she was a cousin of Wilko Johnson; she attended St Martinâs School of Art when Jarvis Cocker was there in the early 90s; she had been in an âabusive marriageâ sheâd entered into because she was pregnant. The latter surprised me the most; she had a child? Thereâd been no hint whatsoever of that. But for all Alisonâs undoubted entertainment value, there was an undeniable air of indefinable sadness surrounding her that always made me think of Eleanor Rigby; she seemed as lonely as I was. There were moments when we could have been more than friends. I twice asked her out early on and she turned me down; when we became closer, she asked me out more than twice and I fudged the issue; the timing was never right with either of us for that kind of relationship.Â
The more we saw of each other, the needier she seemed to become; but I wasnât in a position to help her, as I was going through a bad patch myself. Iâm ashamed to say sometimes I crossed the street to avoid her and when she once came round to ask if she could move-in with me, I refused. When I eventually relocated a mile or so up the road, I didnât tell her in advance and when I used to bump into her thereafter, I was determined not to give her my new address. And then I suddenly never saw her again. Only when I found out sheâd died four years previously did I belatedly realise how fond of her I really was. This overdue realisation motivated me to turn detective, attempting to chart the progress of a life that began in the affluence of West Sussex and ended in a poky rented flat in Leeds as it burned down around her, estranged from family, friends and (as I discovered) two sons. What had led her to this end? I eventually acquired copies of both her birth and death certificates and have applied for copies of the coronerâs report from the inquest into her death as well as the pathologistâs post-mortem. Incidentally, only two people attended this inquest: the pathologist and the fire-officer who put out the flames in her flat. No family; no friends.Â
I found out where she was buried and visited her grave â a pitiful little plot, overgrown with weeds and marked by a pathetic little âcorporationâ cross with a plaque that didnât even state her date of birth. It was an appalling monument to a special person that had slid into neglect because no one cared. A friend who accompanied me on the journey was disgusted and suggested we do something about it, so we did. We purchased the necessary tools and began to transform Alisonâs grave into a more fitting resting place for her, cutting the grass, planting flowers and adding a plaque with a personal tribute. I documented this transformation with photos and experienced the rarely-discussed positive side of social networking as a consequence, inundated with an overwhelming wave of kind comments on the project, something that climaxed with a friend of a friend I barely knew building a spectacular new cross for the grave. There was a determination in me to prove that somebody gave a shit about Alison and that someone who had made a difference deserved better; and it was nice to learn that this appears to have struck a chord with so many people. Perhaps Alisonâs unnecessary, tragic death served as a sober reminder to all of us who live alone that there but for the grace of God…and so on.Â
But the strangest gesture of appreciation came one day when I opened a cupboard I had already opened before that same day and saw fifty pounds had suddenly appeared out of thin air, three crisp notes that hadnât been there a couple of hours earlier. Although every logical avenue was explored, none offered an explanation. Besides, I knew where the money had really come from the moment I saw it. I told you she was a special person.