26 September 2011


I met Siobhan when we were studying on day release for our qualification in housing. It was pretty much love at first sight on my part. She had that curiously Irish colouring of pale skin and dark hair, with slate grey eyes, a cute turned-up nose and a mischievous smile. Over the three years of the course I grew to know her very well, and we'd often bunk off for the afternoon, finding a Hackney pub where, in those less enlightened days, they had to close the curtains and pretend they were shut. When she had a few drinks, she spoke with a Brummie accent, which is always amusing, and when she’d had a lot she lapsed into the Dundalk accent of her childhood.

Our careers followed each other around for a bit. For a time we both worked for Islington, and then we were both at Lewisham when they were developing their Neighbourhood Offices. It was obvious she was going to be very successful. She was brilliantly clever, quite driven and very hard-working. But once she had stopped working - often well into the evening - she definitely switched off and became a fun monster. She was terrific company and the best person to be with, either in the pub or at the theatre.

We slept together a few times but it was obvious there was no future in that. Obvious to everyone but me, that is. Every time we met I'd fall in love with her again, hoping that finally she would see sense and stay with me. I know now, and probably knew then that it would have been better for me to keep her as a very good, exciting, entertaining friend, but I could never do that.

After I left the housing business, more than 15 years ago, we gradually lost touch, but I followed her career. Sure enough, she did well and this year she was the Head of Housing in a London borough. I'm sure this was no less than she deserved. From time to time I thought of contacting her, but I feared a repetition of the heartbreak.

One evening last week she came back to mind, and the next day I did a google search on her name and the name of the council she worked for. The first few results were normal: she was still there, and I found she was Head of Housing (East). I skipped over a few results for someone of the same name who had died – her name’s not that unusual – then found this announcement  in a committee agenda.
[Siobhan ____], Head of Housing East, passed away suddenly on Sunday 24th July 2011. [Siobhan] joined _____ in 2006. She initially worked as the District Housing Manager for _______, and later became Head of Housing Services for the east of the Borough. [Siobhan] was committed to providing the best possible housing service for residents and worked hard to improve the management of our stock. She passionately believed in resident engagement and had a great relationship with the tenants’ representatives in her area. Her passing is a terrible loss to _____.
I did the sums. She must have been 49. That can’t be right. The Siobhan I knew was bursting with life. Death couldn’t touch her. But then I looked back at the results I’d skipped over. A newspaper in Dundalk had reported her death. Not much more detail, but some things I didn’t know. She’d been living in Blackheath, and had a daughter. Suddenly there was a huge gap, a loss. I had missed so much of her life, always assuming I could pick up the pieces later. I found a death notice that had been published in a local paper, with a photo of Siobhan that must have been taken around the time I knew her.

Nearly a week later I’m still in shock. Part of the reason I’m writing this self-indulgence is to try to come to terms with this. I know that with time I’ll stop thinking about her, feel less sadness, feel less guilt for losing her friendship through cowardice. If you’re reading this, and there’s a Siobhan you’ve lost touch with, pick up the phone, give them a call. You may not get another chance.

(Siobhan isn’t her real name, of course. One thing this experience is shown me is that people – even fairly private people like Siobhan, who wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter – have a kind of afterlife on the internet. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Her Linkedin profile is still there: why would anyone ever think to delete it? I don’t want anyone to stumble over this blog entry the way I stumbled over that committee agenda.)

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