We moved in next door to Frances on top of a hill in Lewisham when my brother was ten days old.
Our house was number 59 and it was our first home as a family.
We were a whirl of real buggies and toy prams, rice crispies and guinea pig poos, library books, bunk beds, toast eaten off of pink plastic plates, beakers, “have you checked the sideboard?”s, spaghetti hoops, hundreds and thousands, bath toys, Puppy In My Pocket and Texas on the CD player.
The year was 1991 and Frances lived alone, in the terrace house next door at number 57.
She moved in to the house in the mid 1940s, fifty years before us.
It was a council house back then, and Frances would hide with her sisters beneath the kitchen table when the air raids sounded, forced to raise her only daughter, Jennifer, on rations in the years after the second world war ended.
I remember that kitchen table, and her kitchen: pastels and doilies, Charles and Diana paraphenelia on every surface. I remember it well because it didn’t change for the entire 25 years I knew her.
Frances’ husband Kent died a few months before we moved in.
Jennifer, now with her own family, had moved to Dubai in the late 1980s, leaving Frances and her siblings alone in south London.
Frances refused to move over there (a fact she relished).
If either of my parents were later back in the house from gardening, running to the shops or returning from work, we knew why: Frances.
Getting “Frances’d” is what my parents called it when she caught you in the cross hairs: a twenty minute conversation was the minimum, two hours the record.
Getting Frances’d changed my life.
Our first Christmas as a four was her first Christmas alone. Frances asked my resolutely vegetarian Dad if he could stuff the turkey for her. It was a job Kent had always done, and Frances was diminutive - coming close to 5ft if she wasn’t stooped, but she always was. Frances was disarmingly firm and incredibly shrewd but not stern.
She must have aged in the time I knew her - but in my head she is crystallised in a housework apron the kind no one wears anymore, pastel cardigans and face powder. She existed under a cloud of white hair with two blue, piercing, alarmingly birdlike eyes. And there was no way she had the heft to stuff a turkey.
Instead, my Mum stepped in and stuffed that turkey. It became one of our family jokes - like how it was Mum that knew the car registration for the garage, not Dad. It became part of the stories we’d tell.
Our little family soon outgrew that house, my Dad running his new business from the upstairs bedroom, my brother and I taking over the living room with our bunkbed and our PE plimsols and library books. We moved away to another part of London with different schools my parents could see us growing older at, leaving Frances behind in that house next door.
On the day we moved out I remember Frances came to wave us off, our family having to order an extra lorry for all our procession of things to be packed in to, Frances standing watch from pebble-dashed number 57 with her house work apron on, using the door handle as support to stand.
We left when I was six, my brother four. Our whole lives until then a blip in time to an 80 year old.
And yet, Frances became part of our fabric. She made sure of that.
In the years that followed Frances sent my brother and me a cheque for £5 every Christmas and for every birthday for the ensuing 20 years. At Christmas, Mum was to buy us each a selection box. At birthdays, it was simply a gift. With each of these presents came a letter from Frances.
You can guess - a letter from Frances meant getting Frances’d. And now that we had moved (again) and lived 200 miles away in North Yorkshire, it was a reason to stop.
What stays the same with a family that moves every handful of years? The people that connected us when our homes didn’t. The Texas CDs and the “have you check the sideboards” and the 60 minute diversions from Frances that still punctuated our lives.
If we were all home, someone would read them aloud. If not, they’d be left on the kitchen table for the next person to read in quiet solitude.
These letters were just as she spoke. Tight, defiant writing crammed into four or fave pages of floral letter writing paper, determined to hold your attention, never pausing to allow it to wander. Frances was one of nine children, and her favourite subject was their whereabouts (of the ones that were still alive), and their children’s comings and goings - like Lewisham’s answer to Gabriel García Márquez.
”How does she remember everything?” We’d ask each other each time we’d all finished reading one. The other neighbours that had died, the reports of grandchildren must have been told three times before reaching Frances.
Another favourite topic: what the new occupants of our house had done with the garden on that hill in south London that now felt so far away. Despite their length and depth, Frances’ letters never ventured to gossip or exaggeration. It was the facts. It was life, as Frances saw it. Sometimes, life does sound exaggerated. More often than not, the honest truth holds more comfort.
When I was 18, I moved back to south London to go to Goldsmiths.
A year after settling in, with Frances’ letters still landing on our doormat in Yorkshire like clockwork every Christmas or birthday, I plucked up the courage to go and visit her.
Still disorientated from moving from a rural pig farming village 200 miles away to slap bang into New Cross, I hadn’t realised just how close our first family home was - and connected the newly familiar streets of halls and chicken shops, Student Union and beer gardens with the old, winding paths of hilly roads and terrace houses, the toy library and the chemist, stretching out into Lewisham.
The streets felt so much smaller, the houses no longer towering over me.
I knew the way, instinctively, tracing the pavements from the park I learnt to ride a bike in to the front gardens our babysitter would let us steal flowers from to make perfume.
And just like that, I was back outside pebble-dashed number 57, knocking on Frances’ front door.
Her house hadn’t changed a single detail. I think every piece of furniture was still in place. Everything from the artificial fire place to the velour sofa, the stair master and that day’s copy of The Daily Mail.
I had taken the afternoon off early, because I knew I’d be here some time: I was about to be Frances’d.
We spoke on everything, from the neighbours to her extended family, Jennifer to the supermarket’s car parking. I was relieved that nothing had changed. I had become a staunch vegan, and Frances served us up buttered ham rolls with sugary, milky tea (the addition of sugar she had insisted on, a hang-up since raising Jennifer on rations). And when I could see that context, I ate without question.
We settled into our respective armchairs in Frances’ front room, and the stories began.
Frances was an incredible raconteur who was almost impossible to interrupt despite the fact her stories didn’t focus on her or how she felt - meaning it was also difficult to tire of them. I wouldn’t be able to retell any - it was the minutiae of time.
I would try to keep up, and would often manage for twenty minutes or so, before becoming lost in the intricacies of siblings and grandchildren and Dubai and a trip to the Levi’s factory in Germany they took in the mid ‘70s.
But she was ever so sharp. I had been around plenty of older people with dementia and I never saw a trace of it in Frances.
Now as a 20 year old, I realised for the first time that just like her letters, Frances would leave the inverted commas of any proper noun in when she spoke, too. My boyfriend’s name took it with reverence - but the pause would change - with Lily Allen (who was featured in the Daily Mail a lot those days) there was judgement - I never worked out why.
Two hours went by, more tea brewed, Frances went to the outdoor freezer to fetch the cheesecake we ate with ice cream and cream (that yes, left me sick for days). Photos of Jennifer and her new family adorned every surface of the dining room, Charles and Diana remained in the kitchen. I remember thinking to myself, ‘you could look at this room and believe it was 1991 again’.
It was getting dark, and I managed to intercept Frances long enough to tell her I had to go home. Back in halls, back in another reality, friends had called and txted me wondering what on earth had happened to me the whole afternoon.
I made a pact with myself to visit Frances every season.
Soon, we had our own traditions. I would go round for elevenses on a Saturday, and sit with Frances as the other neighbours popped in. There was always Joyce, who was in her late 70s and recently widowed. She went to her husband’s grave every day (and continued to do so for ten years until she passed away). She would come by on her way back from the cemetery, Frances serving thick slices of lemon drizzle cake to distract her good friend from her grief.
Joyce had a giant tortoise called Tina who she had (rather brilliantly) also named her (now grown-up) daughter after, meaning conversations about her day to day life feeding one Tina and on the phone to the other were quick to descend into absurdity, and stayed that way.
While Frances put the kettle on again, Joyce would give me the run down of the street, like a compere for a variety show, twitching the curtains with every new arrival or double parked car.
We went on like this for years. Initially, I had thought it might be nice to spend time with an older person, after both my grandmothers had died within a few years of each other during my early teens. But in time, I realised it wasn’t anything maternal that I got from spending time with Frances - I think above all it was simply the continuity of her wonderful, understated company.
What’s more, when you make it to 90 and 100 is in sight, the smaller things really begin to pale into insignificance. As someone with a strong inclination towards anxiety, being around a person who had been through everything I was so afraid of and lived to tell the tale was incredibly powerful. It might sound funny to think of a diminutive 5ft nonagenarian in times of crisis, but ‘What would Frances do?’ became one of my first thoughts whenever I started to lose control.
Now in her late 90s, Frances would send me a letter after every visit, and I would re-arrange in my reply. I avoided using her house phone because it would rush her to reach it, and her hearing aids meant she found it difficult to hear anything once she did pick up.
But there was a call a few years later. Jennifer was back in the UK - Frances had fallen in her kitchen, and had been taken to hospital and soon into a home.
I offered to meet Jennifer and travel down to the home, deep in Kent, one Saturday.
Jennifer was a hard woman with a ‘speak to the manager’ haircut that wore Nike windbreakers in autumn and chain smoked the minute she was no longer in sight of her mother. I only recognised her from the many photos Frances had of her all over her house.
Where I was so used to sitting down and letting the stories begin with Frances, conversation with Jennifer was stilted. She was between my grandparent’s age and my parent’s age - and even though an extensive age gap had never stopped Frances and me from chatting about Strictly, it felt like with Jennifer, we had even less in common. Her children were ten years older and her grandchildren ten years younger.
When I told her how long it would take me to get to the care home, she told me not to bother. I told her I was on my way.
Meeting her on the bus en route to the care home, I finally managed to get Jennifer talking about her home in Dubai. There she had maids and servants for everything. She sent her maids on cookery courses, but she still complained there was so much in a house to organise with all those extra people milling around, helping them.
I hadn’t felt it before, when I hadn’t been in touch with Jennifer, but over that week, I became convinced Frances’ family thought I was in touch with their mother and grandmother for some kind of inheritance. They were suspicious as to why I’d travel across London to see her, or travel there more than once a week. In my eyes, I had already lost a grandmother in a nursing home and knew all too well that the ensuing years are spent thinking about how many times you wish you could have visited - I didn’t want to do that again.
Later that week, when Jennifer wanted a night off, I came back with my boyfriend.
Frances’ room at the care home was at the end of a corridor, her hunched figure curved right over in a chair propping open the door, placing her as near to the action as she could be whilst still in her room. She seemed much more frail in these unfamiliar surroundings. Her muscle memory didn’t have every piece of furniture and appliance stored in it here.
I wheeled her into the garden and introduced her to my boyfriend, pleased I had saved a new introduction for her days so out of place, to give her something else to think about. Covered in bruises and out of her element, my boyfriend escaped a true Frances session.
Before leaving, we sat Frances down in the living room, where everyone else was watching Carry On Camping - Frances looked furious. She had no time for slapstick.
To my relief, Frances recovered. She was 99 by then, and her 100th birthday celebrations steadily took over more of our conversations.
Joyce and I would sit in the front room quizzing Frances on who she would invite, how many sets of neighbours from each house on the street that had since moved away.
Probably wisely, Frances’ wider family stepped in to organise the day. There were RSVP cards and catering from the local bakery and family coming from Dubai.
On that April day, her birthday was wonderful.
I brought my boyfriend into a house full of every (living) character Frances had ever mentioned to me. All the sets of neighbours that had moved into number 59, our old house next door. All her surviving siblings, everyone on that street. I had to stop myself from crying as I picked my way through the crowd - a house empty apart from one tiny person for so many years - now packed full of people of every age and era of Frances’ life.
We stood in the garden my parents had spent those days in the 90s leaning over the fence, listening endlessly to Frances. Joyce fussed over the sandwich platters. Guests chatted amongst each other, quietly, tentatively each realising they’d all been Frances’d for years, before sharing their favourite stories about her. I met everyone that had lived in my childhood home in the next twenty years after I left. Frances’ kitchen was overrun with buffet food and the neighbours had bought their own chairs to sit on.
For a few years I had wondered how Frances would hold court at her 100th birthday, with so many people to retell her stories to, but instead, she was mostly quiet, surrounded by her family as they fussed over her. A season finale. All of Frances’ stories were here.
That was the last time I ever saw her. Her family didn’t tell me when Frances passed away, and I don’t know how it happened - in true irony, once the best storyteller I’ve ever met was no longer around, the facts stopped being relayed to me, and the stories stopped.
I didn’t hear from Frances for two months, and I had a strange feeling for weeks that something was wrong. I began calling her home phone, as well as the care home she’d been at before.
I could have made the trip to number 57 that I’d made so many times already, but I know, deep down, I feared I’d find an empty house. I just wanted an answer. Without Frances to check my facts against, I couldn’t remember which house Joyce lived in or who to ask. Jennifer’s UK mobile number rang off and I’d never asked for her Dubai one.
One day, at work, I started to panic as to why I couldn’t just know what happened to Frances.
I couldn’t believe my friends and I could be so connected as to know which street we were asleep on, but I had no way of knowing if Frances was still alive.
I eventually searched for her house online. I figured if she was in a home, Jennifer would have put the house on the market, and it had only been four months by this stage - it would have to be advertised somewhere.
Despite being stripped of all their furniture, I recognised number 57’s interiors from my laptop screen, and called the estate agent to ask what had happened to the owner.
I burst into tears when he told me she’d passed away months before. I recited my number for him to give Jennifer, whose suspicions of me hanging on for the inheritance can’t have been helped by me searching for Frances’ house online. But Frances wouldn’t have cared about that, and I don’t either.
Jennifer said she would call me but she never did, and so I never found out the story behind Frances’ final days. But I kept every last one of her letters. They are here now, interspersed between 10th birthday cards, GCSE results and halls of residence forms. I find them between pages of notebooks full of harried to do lists I can no longer remember the urgency for. I’ll find one filed with a tenancy agreement or a music festival brochure I can barely recall attending. Sometimes I find a pile of them stacked behind some DVDs we have no way of playing any more. Until a few years ago I can guarantee you there would always be one tucked in our sideboard at my parents. And our stories about her won’t change. No gossip, no exaggeration. Just the facts, as Frances saw them.
Rest in peace, wonderful friend.