Death At One’s Elbow

I watched the film Dreams Of A Life. Made in 2011, this dramatises the case of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose skeletal remains were discovered in her flat in London in 2006, and it was determined that she’d died in December 2003.

The film reconstructs as much of her life and death as could be discovered. It includes interview footage with friends, housemates and lovers who knew her from the mid 80s and after. The story is structured around a recreation of the entry into her flat in 2006.

We never see the dead body itself of course, which has apparently “melted into the carpet” and was too far decomposed for a reliable autopsy.

We see the hazmat-suited forensics team cleaning up the flat, picking through objects which are linked back to scenes from Vincent’s earlier life, in which she is played by Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain. It is not clear that all of this inventory of objects was actually present in the room as it was discovered, though since it was noted that she was wrapping Christmas gifts when she died then that detail may be authentic. At times we see Vincent apparently watching the interview footage with her old friends on her TV, so we should not assume any of these scenes are representational in any strong sense. They all enact something suggested or asserted by one of the interviewees or other sources.

The film itself is part of its own subject matter, and it refers to the limitations on how far it can obtain answers to the question of how Vincent could have been dead in her flat so long. One of the official bodies contacted would not pursue the matter:

One of the interviewees is a journalist who covered the story in its early stages and many of the others share his wonderment at how it occurred. Although it is not exactly unusual for the elderly to die alone and be found later – stories about that were circulating when I was at school, they probably have a long history in urban folklore – the Vincent case is unusual as she was 38 years old when she died and not long out of employment.

Another channel of information in this film are the glimpses we see of the timeline of Vincent’s life, constructed with post-it notes and including questions and hypotheticals, and also indicating aspects that are not covered by speakers on screen – for example, that her family had been contacted, but did not want to take part.

Vincent had a series of office jobs over nearly 20 years, and had several relationships. We hear from men she was involved with in the 80s, including an agent in the music business, who was able to bring her along to the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert at Wembley. There she met the man himself, and she can be seen briefly in video footage of the crowd listening to him backstage. We also hear a few recordings of her voice and part of the demo tape she made at the end of the 80s, a brief attempt at a singing career.

The men who appear in this film have strong feelings about the lives they could have lived if things had been different. We do not see too many men she was involved with in the 90s, but the wall of post-it notes indicates she had some bad relationships in that time. Her life had become complicated in the final few years as she was working as a cleaner whilst pretending to have a job in the City to the ex-boyfriend who was putting her up temporarily.

Who were the presents for? Not known, it seems. The answer to how her death went undetected would be: because she had cut off or become remote from anyone who could have visited her. 2003 was in the age of the internet and mobile phones but before smartphones and social media, so people were not literally visible or contactable all the time on-line, that was the strange early moment of Facebook in 2007-8, which had ended when this film was made. She was not living under an assumed name. If she was murdered then the killer did not need to break in but also did not try to move the body anywhere else, at any point in the next 2 years.

The storyline of a solitary woman dying alone and being found some time later was actually the basis of the episode “The Invisible Woman” of season 2 of Six Feet Under, first broadcast March 31st 2002, nearly 18 months earlier, although the interval between death and discovery is much less. So it’s not quite true that such an event was unthinkable, it was already in the cultural fabric.

“Death At One’s Elbow” is a song that takes its title from a line in Joe Orton’s Diaries.

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