Goodbye Joanie

Tea with Joan Matthews

One of the first authors to contact me when I began my business three years ago was a lady called Joan. She wanted me to write her memoirs and give them to her family when she died. No one had asked me to do that before, nor have they since, but as time went on I realised that it was a request that epitomised Joan. She was an independent lady who liked to have control. Not over anyone else, she would say, “Just my own life.”

We set to work, sitting at regular intervals in Joan’s conservatory at a little Formica table, where we ate Werther’s Originals and drank Robinson’s Pink Grapefruit squash – now a firm favourite in my own home. And we chatted away. Sometimes the sun burned through the window, we overheated and Joan would give me a Cornetto. Other times I could barely hear Joan for rain. Joan loved to feed the birds and occasionally a seagull would land on the plastic roof with a thud that sounded more like a Pterodactyl and I would jump out of my skin.

There at Joan’s table, I heard it all. How she’d been born a month premature and was so tiny that a neighbour told Joan’s mum she wouldn’t survive, how as a child she loved to the smell of the bread delivered by the local baker, about the family’s annual holiday which was a day trip to the Isle of Wight and why being evacuated during World War Two turned Joan into a hard nut. Back home at family gatherings, Joan’s song was I’ll Be Your Sweetheart by Foster and Allen.

As time went on we laughed at Joan’s teenage escapades. In the cinema, wandering hands were treated to a jab from a pin she carried. After school she became a shorthand typist working at a solicitor’s that had a department facilitating divorces for servicemen who came home from the war to find their wives had been unfaithful. “What’s a poxy cow?” Joan asked her beloved father one day. He took a sip of tea before answering.

In 1951, Joan signed the Official Secrets Act and joined the typing pool of Scotland Yard in the Norman Shaw building, retiring 36 years later as the most senior female member of the Met’s civil staff. During her ascent she was nicknamed The Pocket Venus of the Flying Squad as, in the days before woman police officers, she was occasionally taken on surveillance jobs and used as a decoy to make plain-clothed police officers appear as regular drinkers. I loved to look at pictures of Joan in her 50s dresses and hear about her crazy 300 calorie-a-day diets, Lancome make-up bought from Army and Navy, and Coty L’aimant perfume, which she was wearing once more having discovered it in her local pharmacy.

I always looked forward to seeing Joan. Once I arrived and she couldn’t hear me knock because Faith Of The Heart by Russell Watson was blaring from the CD player. “I’m choosing the music for my funeral,” she told me. I admired Joan’s pragmatic approach to death. She loved music, “I feel fortunate because there have been so many new things come about in my lifetime,” she told me. “I’ll never forget the day that Rock and Roll started with Bill Haley and Rock Around The Clock. That was the first bit of rock I ever heard and it was a revelation. It hit me. Crikey, this is great! No more schmaltz!”

There are parts of Joan’s story that are great fun but very personal and as is inevitable when confidences are shared, Joan and I became good friends. This year on her 82nd birthday I took her a cream tea, taking care to choose scones with as many cherries as possible. I admired how, after a 70th birthday gift of a computer from her family, she had embraced modern technology and was the happier for it. She loved Amazon, enjoyed spending, and as she was mainly housebound, ordered her shopping online. She wasn’t a big eater but her fridge and cupboards were full of treats. She adored eBay and liked to play naughty, bidding people up if a price had gone beyond what she was willing to pay. I tried to persuade her to join Twitter but failed. She played Patience. Her screensaver was Stonehenge and her only regret in life was that she had never seen it for herself. I offered to drive her there but she didn’t think she was well enough to travel that far.

Joan and I finished her memoir this summer and we were due to go to print. I had collected several of her photographs but there was one more that she wanted to include but couldn’t find even when we looked together. Every few weeks I would check in to see if she’d found it. Her short-term memory was driving her bonkers so sometimes she’d forget what she was looking for. I’d remind her, we’d chat, and I’d promise to call again soon.

Last week I rang Joan and her ‘phone didn’t ring. There were three pips and silence. My stomach lurched. There was no way Joan’s ‘phone would be off. She spoke regularly to family and friends and if she had changed her number she would have let me know. I got in the car. Twenty minutes later I turned into Joan’s road. In front of her house some way down I could see the distinctive tree in her front garden and in front of that, something white. Please don’t be a For Sale sign, I thought. As I got closer, I could see that it was a Sold sign. Still I hoped – selfishly, as it wouldn’t have been what Joan wanted – that she was ‘just’ in hospital and had sold the house to go into a care home. A nice care home where I could go and see my friend, tell her to sod the last picture, and press her memoir into her hands.

I tapped her dragonfly door knocker but I didn’t wait for an answer. I ran to the back garden. And there I saw the sight that made me dissolve. Joan’s conservatory was empty. Her clutter, her ornaments, her ironing board with cover in the pattern of a Butler’s uniform, the cat food, even the dust had disappeared. Our little table was gone.The place where Joan had sat and told her stories was no more.

I looked to my right. Joan’s garden ornaments were still there, but none of the mountains of bird seed that I sometimes helped her scatter. The hundreds of spoiled birds would be dining elsewhere. The seagull/Pterodactyl would be startling someone else. The fox that Joan fed crossed my mind. She’d gone to the vets and got mange medicine for him, slipping it into his food. She’d loved watching him blossom from decrepit to beautiful and he, of course, had no idea of this act of loving care.

The neighbours were very kind to me. Joan had died a few weeks earlier. She hadn’t suffered. Sophie, Joan’s terribly shy rescue cat was in a new home. Joan had hoped to out live her. She said she wouldn’t mind dying when Sophie was gone. The note Joan had left asking that I be informed of her funeral had obviously not been found. I guessed she’d written it in the shorthand that was familiar to her but no one else. The neighbours told me about Joan’s service, that it had been as she wanted and that her song, Faith Of The Heart, had rung out. I was glad.

I felt desperately sad that Joan had died without holding her book in her hand. I beat myself up emotionally but eventually I decided to take Joan’s advice and have no regrets. I realised that I could still carry out her wishes and get her memoirs to her family. The neighbours gave me a number for Joan’s niece and I rang her. She knew that Joan was writing her memoirs but not that they were finished. She was delighted and a few days after hearing those terrible pips, I emailed her Joan’s story – Reminiscences of a Maiden Aunt.

Joan’s memoir finishes with her words, “I’m enjoying life but I am not dreading death, apart from how I will die. I believe in the old ways. I believe that death is a part of life and that when I die I’ll be going home where I’ll meet all my loved ones who have already died. Then at some stage after that, I’ll be reincarnated, and my spirit will be re-born on earth. Who knows what my story will be next time?”

Joan, I absolutely loved helping you tell your story. If you are right and we are reincarnated, I think I’d like to come back as a memoir writer please. I’d also like to help you tell your next story. I hope we find a nice conservatory to sit in. Make mine a Pink Grapefruit squash.

Farewell friend, lots of love x

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Dear Marnie