A very dear friend of mine passed away this week. Her name was Joy.
When we first met she referred to me as Mr Cooper and I referred to her as Mrs Willis. Retail was a much more formal business in those days and the use of surnames stuck. I played a very fine Captain Peacock to her mischievous Mrs Slocombe at Heelas, a John Lewis department store in Reading. Joy had been recruited from the ailing COOP department store around the corner, closing to make way for Primark. She had already enjoyed a 40-year-long career in retail spanning both sides of the Atlantic and I supposed she might stay for a couple of years before deciding to call it a day. Born in Reading, she never lost the Californian twang she’d picked up whilst working across the pond. Even in those days Joy possessed a level of experience and dedication to shopkeeping that was increasingly rare. Despite an age gap of over 30 years, we were friends from the start. Her dry humour, worldly wisdom and love of shopping were her trademarks. Joy knew retail, continuing to work well into her seventies.
The tragedy was that ill-health set in on the eve of Joy’s retirement, meaning that she could never receive the gift of time that she so richly deserved. Looking back, I wonder how much she would have enjoyed a “normal” retirement. Her life was her work and the people she worked with. She was married once, in America, but seldom talked about this chapter in her life. After I moved on from Heelas, Joy would come on annual visits to Broadstairs, which she frequently declared was one of her “five favourite places to visit”. She had an enormous appetite for drinking red wine, eating and talking, which is why we got on so famously. If we shopped together the outcome was always expensive, fun and frivolous. We egged one another on terribly. She had the same eclectic taste as me.
I do not yet know the exact circumstances of Joy’s death, but she had been desperately unwell for some time. Part of me regrets that we saw so little of one another in recent years, yet rarely did a week go by when one of us did not post a card to the other, transmitting greetings and snippets of news between Reading and Broadstairs in the good old-fashioned way. Joy dabbled with e-mails but neither of us enjoyed sending them as much as we enjoyed picking up a pen. I kept a drawer full of cards that I knew Joy would like: I cannot explain why, I just knew she would appreciate them. Another part of me is glad that I will remember Joy as a reasonably healthy person: it was clear from later correspondence that she wasn’t keen for me to see her in an enfeebled state, which she would have hated. Joy was, above all things, a proud, independent lady and l loved her.
I shall mourn for Joy because she is unique and irreplaceable in my life. An older, wiser, occasionally lonely figure with whom I had a special bond. She began her life in small-town Reading before spreading her wings, ultimately to have them clipped again by family commitments and ill-health. This is a reminder to us all to enjoy each day as it comes, taking nothing for granted. Today I will write Joy one last card and drink a glass of red wine in her honour. I know she’d have done the same for me.