Lady from 3 to 8

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Reading on mobile? Watch video here. On 25 Januaryofficials from a north London housing association repossessing a bedsit in Wood Green owing to rent arrears made a grim discovery. Lying on the sofa was the skeleton of a year-old woman who had been dead for almost three years. In a corner of the room the television set was still on, tuned to BBC1, and a small pile of unopened Christmas presents lay on the floor. Washing up was heaped in the kitchen sink and a mountain of post lay behind the front door.

Food in the refrigerator was marked with expiry dates. The dead woman's body was so badly decomposed it could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photograph of her smiling. Her name was revealed to be Joyce Carol Vincent. I first heard about Joyce when I picked up a discarded copy of the Sun on a London underground train.

The paper reported the gothic circumstances of her death — "Woman dead in flat for three years: skeleton of Joyce found on sofa with telly still on" — but revealed almost nothing about her life. There was not even a photograph of her. The image of the television flickering over her decomposing body haunted me as I got off the train on to the crowded platform.

In a city such as London, home to 8 million people, how could someone's absence go unnoticed for so long? Who was Joyce Vincent? What was she like? How could she have been forgotten? News of Joyce's death quickly made it into the global media, which registered shock at the lack of community spirit in the UK. The story ran on in the British press, but still no photograph of Joyce appeared and little personal information. Soon Joyce dropped out of the news.

I watched as people discussed her in internet chatrooms, wondering if she was an urban myth, or talking about her as though she never mattered, calling her a couch potato, and posting comments such as: "What's really sad is no one noticed she was missing — must have been one miserable bitch. But I couldn't let go. I didn't want her to be forgotten. I decided I must make a film about her.

At this point all that had been revealed in the press was that Joyce Vincent was 38 when she died, had been born in west London to parents who were from the Caribbean, and that some of her family had attended her inquest. Some reports suggested Joyce was, or had been, engaged to be married, and that before living in the bedsit she had been in a refuge for victims of domestic violence.

But she didn't fit the typical profile of someone who might die and be forgotten: she wasn't old without family; she wasn't a loner, or an overdosed drug addict; nor was she an isolated heavy drinker. Who she was and the circumstances of her death were a mystery.

I placed adverts with various publications and internet sites. On a poster on the side of a black cab I asked: Did you know Joyce Vincent? Meanwhile, as I waited for any response, I contacted people who were involved with bringing Joyce's story to light.

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She told me that while the paper would have liked to have pursued the background to the story, they didn't have the time or money, and that even the BBC with all its resources had tried and failed to run an item on Joyce. Lynne had urged the police to reopen their investigation into Joyce's death but they decided there was nothing to answer to in terms of foul play. The coroner recorded an open verdict, with the cause of Joyce's death "unascertained". Lynne wrote to the local council, the utility companies, and the housing association about Joyce's unpaid bills, questioning why alarm bells didn't ring earlier — but she either received no reply or little insight.

I gather she was very beautiful, which for reasons totally spurious makes it more poignant because we always think beautiful people have everything go their way. On the way to her next appointment Lynne drove me to Wood Green, to the back of Shopping City, where lorries rumbled in and out of a delivery depot. She pointed to the housing estate above the mall known locally as Sky City, where Joyce had lived and died. I looked at the red brick walkways and tiers of water-stained grey concrete, interspersed with metal grilles, indistinguishable from the car park or the shopping centre below.

As I stepped out of her car she wished me luck. Dominating the skyline was a round blue for Shopping City — a beacon to commercialism. In one of the flats I saw an open window with a billowing net curtain and I thought of the window in Joyce's bedsit that had been open for the two years she lay dead, insects crawling along the windowsill, the escaping smell of her decomposing body attributed to the rubbish bins below.

I walked around to the other side of the complex — to the high street, hectic with shopping activity and traffic. The main door Joyce used to access her part of the estate is here, sandwiched between the usual chain of shops.

Inside the entrance I avoided the lift and climbed the empty grey concrete stairs. I walked along a walkway, meeting nobody. In contrast to the hordes of people below, it was desolate. I found Joyce's bedsit, with its glossy green door, at the end of the walkway. With only one neighbouring flat, and no flat above or below, it felt architecturally cut off. I knocked on the doors of other flats in the block, but no one answered. I wondered if I would ever meet anyone who actually knew Joyce. The first response to my adverts was from Karen, but it turned out she never knew Joyce.

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I lived on her doorstep. I got my old diaries out. Had I seen her? Had I written about her? All the neighbours — where were we? Why didn't we talk to her? Months passed. I spent time in libraries and public records offices, piecing together some of Joyce's history through official records, locating addresses and relatives. I managed to track down people who knew Joyce, but they wouldn't talk to me. Then I received an from Martin Lister, who had seen my advertisement. He wrote to me in the hope that the Joyce in question was not the same Joyce he went out with in his twenties.

We quickly established that it was. On the phone he said it just didn't add up — "she never drank much, she never took drugs" — but the thing that most surprised him, he said, was that she ended up in social housing. I arranged to meet Martin outside Shepherd's Bush underground station.

In his late 40s, he wore a green Brazil baseball cap, and was all friendly smiles. In his local pub I thanked him for seeing me. While he had confided the news of the circumstances of Joyce's death to friends, he was glad to have the opportunity to discuss her at length.

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They had met inwhen he worked negotiating client renewals for a shipping company in the City. Joyce was 20 years old and secretary to his boss. I thought, what a shame she doesn't have any friends. I didn't read anything into it. Eventually Martin went for a drink with Joyce and they subsequently dated for about three years.

Afterwards they kept in touch, on and off, until Looking back, Martin was unsure if he ever knew exactly what was going on in Joyce's life. They had good times together. We liked restaurants too. Actually, she told me she'd had elocution lessons and she sounded — I wouldn't say posh, but you wouldn't know she was from London, she just sounded very well-spoken, almost BBC really. In reality she grew up off the Fulham Palace Road in west London and she used to say, 'I don't know why people say it's so lovely round there because it certainly wasn't when I was growing up.

Pulling some photographs from a carrier bag, Martin looked at one wistfully before handing it to me. It was the first photograph of Joyce I had seen. I held it carefully, trying to take in every detail. He sipped his wine and looked at another photo. Her mother was Indian, she died when Joyce was young, 11, I think.

She had a real bond with her mum, especially as she was the youngest. She had four sisters, but I think she was the only one to be born over here — the sisters brought her up really. Her dad was a carpenter.

I never met her family, which I thought was a bit odd. She worked her way up, had really good jobs. She earned excellent money.

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I didn't want to settle down. Martin opened a sizeable old Filofax to find Joyce's name. Her contact details had been TippExed over a of times.

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