In March this year I was being served at my local Sainsbury’s 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 I’d lost touch with since moving. A few exchanged words about this friend – name of Alison – followed, and then the woman serving me casually said, ‘Oh, she died, didn’t she’ – in a house-fire, apparently, ‘a couple of years ago’. I thought I hadn’t seen her around for a while because she’d moved. I didn’t expect this.
In a way, I’ve been lucky to reach my mid-40s and only experienced the loss of beloved pets, aged grandparents or relatives I hadn’t 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 Alison’s death worse was the fact that it hadn’t just happened; a cursory search through the online archives of the local newspaper actually told me it had happened in April 2010 – four whole years ago. I could’ve sworn I’d last seen her a couple of years previously – 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.
Alison was one of those people who make a lasting impression because they’re unlike anyone else we’ve ever met, a person without a reference point, someone genuinely incomparable. She was the most eccentric individual it’s 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 life’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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.
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 she’d been embarrassed to speak to me on account of the state she’d been in the day we met. But I soon realised Alison liked a drink. No binge-drinking pub-crawler, though – 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 she’d 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 wasn’t age-specific and had the aura of loner about her, with no suggestion of husband, partner or family. Her accent was southern ‘posh’, 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 ‘Have you ever tried Coco Pops?’ 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 she’d 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 wouldn’t be paid back. But even when I wasn’t 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: She’d been amongst a contingent of servicemen’s 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 Martin’s School of Art when Jarvis Cocker was there in the early 90s; she had been in an ‘abusive marriage’ she’d entered into because she was pregnant. The latter surprised me the most; she had a child? There’d been no hint whatsoever of that. But for all Alison’s 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.
The more we saw of each other, the needier she seemed to become; but I wasn’t in a position to help her, as I was going through a bad patch myself. I’m 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 didn’t 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 she’d 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 coroner’s report from the inquest into her death as well as the pathologist’s 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.
I found out where she was buried and visited her grave – a pitiful little plot, overgrown with weeds and marked by a pathetic little ‘corporation’ cross with a plaque that didn’t 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 Alison’s 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 Alison’s 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.
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 hadn’t 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.