Imagine this: you enter an apartment with plenty of unopened mail by the door and piles of dirty dishes in the sink. In the living room, blue light is coming from a television playing BBC1, and by the couch, many Christmas presents are waiting to be sent out. In the fridge, there’s food dated from 2003.
But it’s not Christmas. And it’s not 2003. It’s 2006. And the person watching the television has been dead for over two years: nothing but a skeletal figure lying on the couch.
As unlikely as this scenario seems, this is precisely what happened to Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman from London who reportedly died from natural causes and remained dead in her flat for nearly three years before anyone noticed.
Who Was Joyce Vincent?
On the 25th of January 2006, officials barged into an apartment above London’s Wood Green shopping center. Outside the apartment, the district was jam-packed with people, walking back and forth in all directions. Busy with their lives. But in the house was a forgotten woman.
Joyce Vincent was born in the fall of 1965 to two immigrants from Grenada. She grew up with four older sisters, and until the age of 11, had a mother to care for her (her mom died following an operation). Her father wasn’t the most caring figure in her life, but her siblings helped raise her.
A Highflyer With an Angelic Voice
Described by her friends as “beautiful, clever, and a lot more intelligent than she let on,” Joyce had an incredible singing voice and a down-to-earth attitude. Her 20s were spent making music and hanging out with different groups of friends.
“I can’t understand. She had a lot of friends and a good social life,” wondered Kirk Thorne, a musician and landlord of Joyce’s in the late ‘80s, “She wasn’t a girl that came in and sat in front of the telly. If she was white, she could have been a debutante – she was upwardly mobile, a highflyer.”
She Left Her Job Out of the Blue
Joyce never pursued a musical career. Instead, she worked in the city as a secretary for a few years, only to move on to a big accounting firm, Ernst & Young, before finally quitting in 2001. She gave no reason for her departure. Her co-workers recalled being surprised by her resignation.
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“There do seem to be conflicting stories about what she did when she left,” one former colleague, Kim Bacon, mentioned. Joyce told some of them she was going to travel and told others that she found a different job. But as it turns out, neither of the reasons were true.
She Gave the Impression of Being Happy
Not much is known about the years between Joyce’s resignation from the firm and her death. But what is known for sure is that she spent some time living in a refuge for victims of domestic violence. “I know it sounds odd, but it seems like we’re talking about two different people,” Joyce’s former colleague, Dan Roberts, told reporters.
“I just can’t connect the Joyce who died to the Joyce that we knew,” he added. Kim Bacon seemed to agree, she told reporters: “[Joyce] gave this impression of being a happy, bubbly person, but it does make you wonder what was really going on.”
What About Her Rent?
The officers who discovered Joyce’s corpse were there to repossess the place due to unpaid rent. For three years, half of her rent was paid automatically by benefit agencies, giving authorities reason to assume she was perfectly well.
But after so long, and with half of the payment stacking up into a worrying pile of debt, they decided to check up on her. The heating in the place was still on. It was on for three years straight due to a kind little thing called debt forgiveness.
Possible Foul Play?
Joyce’s remains were mostly skeletal, so the only way to identify her was through dental records. And three years was too long to determine a sure cause of death, but doctors suggested she died of natural causes, and the police agreed, ruling out any foul play.
Some of Joyce’s friends don’t quite agree with the police’s quick ruling. Her body had practically melted to the floor. It had vanished. This meant that there wasn’t any way to say confirm whether she had been attacked.
What About the Smell?
How did Joyce’s body rot in her apartment for three years without anyone noticing? Surely the smell would have disclosed the decomposing body. As it turns out, her apartment was right above the dumpster.
Her neighbors attributed the stench to the piles of garbage down below. Joyce wasn’t too familiar with her neighbors either, so none of them bothered to knock on her door and see if she was okay. Moreover, her television was on, so whenever someone passed by her door, they assumed she was in there watching.
She Drove Men Wild
Joyce’s former landlord, Kirk Thorne, said she was shocked when he found out she was living on her own. “Joyce was the kind of person that would worry most women. She was a threat. Good-looking, intelligent, successful, and on a mission for the type of man all women are after.”
Another tenant, Catherine Clarke, had befriended Joyce while renting a room nearby. She recalled thinking it was a bit odd that Joyce was mainly surrounded by men. She had only one close female friend. “Mostly, it was men. Men who had crushes on her, men who followed her – there was always a story about a guy that had the hots for her.”
“What a Fall From Grace…”
One man who had the hots for her was her former boyfriend, Jason. He met Joyce when he was just a working-class boy. Joyce was five years older, with dreams of becoming a pop star.
“I used to resent her for that,” Jason admitted; “I used to resent her for having dreams… what a fall from grace.” He also told reporters that he believed Joyce had once met and got acquainted with the American soul singer Betty Wright.
A Beautiful Lucky Charm
Upon hearing of Joyce’s connection with Betty, Carol Morley, a filmmaker who made a movie about Joyce’s story, reached out. A few months later, Morley received a call from Betty’s manager and Joyce’s former boyfriend. His name was Alistair.
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Alistair told Morley that he and Joyce lived together for two years in the early ‘90s. “There were a lot of exciting things happening to me, and her arrival coincided with a lot of that change, so I used to call her my lucky charm,” he recalled.
She Had a Certain Aura to Her
Alistair described Joyce as “always immaculately attired down to the bows on her underwear.” But Joyce wasn’t just physically attractive. She had a certain aura to her. Something unique and magnetic that was hard to overlook.
Alistair explained that Joyce hardly talked about her personal life. So, he didn’t know much about the years before she met him. “Have you ever seen the movie The Man with No Name? That’s how she was – she came with no past,” he explained.
She Was Looking for Someone to Rely On
During Joyce’s time with Alistair, she got to know many of the musicians and people he worked with. They had wonderful times in the house. Jimmy Cliff came over, as well as Isaac Hayes and Gil Scott-Heron. It was a vibrant period in her life.
Alistair was almost like a father to Joyce. He believes that’s what she was after in a relationship: someone she could rely on. Alistair called her a “chameleon” because of her ability to adapt to any environment quickly.
She Wanted to Belong
Alistair introduced her to Ben E. King, and she bought his album the very next day. After he introduced her to Gil Scott-Heron, she rushed to read all about the Civil Rights movement and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Joyce wanted to belong. Above all points of interest and the colorful topics she read about, what truly motivated her was to feel part of the world. Part of society. She wanted to better herself for herself and others.
She Shook Nelson Mandela’s Hand
Alistair once took Joyce to a Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley in 1990. The concert was taped, and Alistair’s brother told him he believes he saw Joyce on the screen. Her face appeared for just a split second, with her earrings glimmering in the light.
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“Something very momentous happened – she met Nelson Mandela, she shook his hand,” Alistair recalled. Joyce was 26 at that concert. She was young, hopeful, and surrounded by hundreds of people. Her smiling face was broadcast to millions of people.
Her Former Boyfriend Spoke Up
Martin Lister was another one of Joyce’s former boyfriends. The two met for the first time in 1985. She was 20 years old and working as his bosses’ secretary. “She was always asking me to go for a drink, but it never occurred to me that she was asking me out,” he said.
Martin eventually took her up on the offer, and they ended up dating for three years. They kept in touch, on and off, until 2002. Looking back at their life together, Martin admitted he never really knew what was going on in her mind.
He Wishes He Had Known More About Her
“You look back and think, I wish I’d asked more, wish I’d understood more,” Martin told filmmaker Carol Morley. Still, they had a great time together. They were always busy with something−either “racing at Goodwood, tennis at Wimbledon, classical music, opera or restaurants.”
What Martin clearly remembers about Joyce was her constant need to better herself. “She always wanted to improve her mind,” he recalled. Despite coming from a poor background, she built herself up, taking elocution lessons to sound more articulate.
A Whitney Houston Look-Alike
People used to say Joyce looked like Whitney Houston. She had her Indian mom’s flowy black hair. Joyce was extremely close to her mom. Being the youngest out of five daughters, she was her mom’s little gem.
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Her dad, however, wasn’t as kind and caring. He was a carpenter with whom she had a strained relationship. And as the years went by, they grew more distant. He died in 2004, unaware that his daughter had died before him.
She Wanted to Settle Down
Her boyfriend Martin was stunned to hear the news about her lonely passing. “I don’t understand. She worked her way up, had really good jobs. She earned excellent money,” he shook his head in disbelief.
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He remembered her wanting to marry him. But he wasn’t ready to settle at the time. “Being a typical bloke, I was like – no, no, don’t be ridiculous,” he recalled telling her. In retrospect, Martin can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had agreed.
She Jumped Around a Lot
Another thing that stood out about Joyce was that she moved around a lot. Her friends said the number of times she picked up her stuff and left was alarming. Her constant movement had probably contributed to the fact that no one was ever worried when she was out of touch.
Her friends had likely assumed she was off leading a great life somewhere. No one ever pictured her sitting alone on her couch, watching television by herself every evening. She was beautiful and smart. Why would they think she would have to rely on something like social housing?
She Kept Things to Herself
The Glasgow Herald wrote that Joyce’s friends defined her as someone “who walked out of jobs if she clashed with a colleague, and who moved from one flat to the next all over London.” Clearly, Joyce was going through things. But she hardly opened up about it.
“She didn’t answer the phone to her sister,” one friend stated, “and didn’t appear to have her own circle of friends, instead of relying on the company of relative strangers who came with the package of a new boyfriend, a colleague, or flatmate.”
Her Friends Struggled to Make a Connection
John Ioannou was a former friend of both Martin and Joyce’s. He agreed to share some facts and memories. He recalled reading the segment about Joyce in the newspaper but not really making the connection at first. He didn’t think the story was about the Joyce he once knew.
Once realizing it was, indeed, her, he said he felt terribly guilty for never finding the time to meet her all those years. The last time they spoke was in 2002. They talked about meeting up and catching up and getting friendly again. But that never happened.
Joyce Was “Very Fanciable”
John shared that Joyce hung out a lot with his friends back in the ‘80s. “We used to mix with proper posh people and go sailing, go to glitzy nightclubs. Right poseurs we were. We used to make up names. Joyce called herself Rachel Prejudice,” he shared.
The main trouble with Joyce, John felt, was that she was “very fanciable.” Wherever she went, men were always trying to get her in bed. She was pretty and clever. “I think she had several lives,” John told filmmaker Carol Morley.
There Must Have Been Signs
Upon hearing that Carol was filming a movie about Joyce’s story, John said: “I want to know Joyce’s story myself, and that sounds ridiculous coming from someone who knew her.” John finds it crazy that things ended up this way.
“There must have been signs,” he sighed, “but if there were, she covered them up with this happy-go-lucky, having-a-great-time act.” Joyce died of neglect. They all loved her – the men she dated, the friends she met along the way, but, apparently, not enough to notice she was gone.
Her Sisters Went Searching
The interesting thing was that Joyce didn’t need to list her bank manager as her closest companion. She had siblings. And while they might not have been very close, they still went looking for her when she went missing.
After not hearing from her for a while, Joyce’s sisters hired a private detective. They didn’t know she was living in that apartment, so they had no way of getting there. It looks like she wanted to be left alone.
She Might Have Suffered an Asthma Attack
Joyce Vincent was found on the floor, holding a shopping bag in one hand. Joyce apparently had asthma, and authorities believed she may have suffered an attack. Another possibility might have to do with a condition she began suffering from shortly before her death.
In November 2003, around a month before her death, Joyce was hospitalized at North Middlesex Hospital after vomiting blood the night before. She was told she had a peptic ulcer. Doctors agreed that that could have been her cause of death.
Long Lost Christmas Presents
Perhaps the saddest thing about Joyce’s story was that when she was discovered, she was found lying on her carpet floor, surrounded by a colorful collection of Christmas presents she had wrapped before taking her last breath.
No one was able to find out who the presents were intended for. Joyce may have bought them for herself as a way to escape her solitude. When she was hospitalized the month before with a peptic ulcer, she listed her bank manager as her kin.
Dreams of a Life
After careful and dedicated investigation, Carol Morley brought together the pieces of Joyce’s life together and turned it into a bio-film called Dreams of a Life. It was released in 2011 and featured Zawe Ashton, who did a moving job portraying Joyce.
Morley’s film features interviews with various friends, former partners, and other acquaintances who were involved in her life at one point or another. The movie touches on burning issues such as loneliness. Joyce lived in one of the busiest streets in the area, yet no one knew she was gone.
A Tragic Story
Many of those interviewed weren’t aware that Joyce had died until Carol Morley contacted them and asked them to appear in the film. Most of them heard on the news that a woman named Joyce was discovered in her apartment after nearly three years, but they just assumed it was a different Joyce Vincent.
This kind of presumption is one of the central problems of Joyce’s story. It’s as if people don’t believe that what appears on the news can happen to them or the people close to them. We just assume people are doing fine when, in fact, they’re not.
The Movie Presented Some Questions
Dreams of a Life brought up several questions. For one, how was the smell not noted for such a long time? Yes, it was blamed on the trash right below her flat, but there’s a slight difference between ordinary garbage coming from our homes and a decomposing body.
This sad fact comes to show how oblivious we are to our surroundings and how busy our city lives are that we don’t have the time to investigate what is going on in our buildings. And just to clarify, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone, nor am I saying that I would have done something, I’m simply stating a fact we can all learn from.
A Thought-Provoking Movie
Dreams of Life is a truly wounding film. While the story may have nothing to do with you as a viewer, you can’t help but feel slightly responsible. Or at the very least, ashamed. Embarrassed for humanity, which has come up with social networks, phones, and video medias like Skype, all meant to bridge gaps and overcome the distance between people.
Yet today, people are feeling lonelier than ever, and particularly those people who live in cities. It’s easy to assume that a person is doing fine just because they’re surrounded by people. Cities give the illusion of togetherness, but it’s just a deception.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Vulnerable
Many of the people interviewed in Dreams of Life shared how surprised they were to hear of her situation. Joyce was apparently a master at putting on a good show, which is why her friends assumed she was off living a better life somewhere.
Her story should serve as a lesson to all of us. There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable, asking for help, or coming to terms with your alleged “failures.” Confiding in someone close to you can save your life, or at least let you have a proper burial instead of rotting for three years in your lonely apartment.