Mid-morning, Saturday, 23 July 2011.
I was in my room at the Four Seasons Olims Hotel where I’d spent the past two nights in Canberra, and I was packing my bags to return home after the week’s leave I’d mentioned in my last post.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, my iPhone rang.
My first thought was that it was my mother calling to check that I was okay.
But as I went to pick up my ‘phone, I saw from the display that the caller was my neighbour back home in the apartment next door. He was also the building caretaker.
Shit! Had something happened at my place – like it had been broken into?!?
A moment later, though, I was relieved to hear that my apartment was fine…
…but the reason my neighbour was calling was that no one else in our building had seen me for the past week, and he was concerned that maybe I was badly sick or otherwise trapped in my apartment.
I assured him that I was fine and returning home that night from holiday.
I was genuinely grateful for my neighbour’s concern, and his call was a typically kind and practical gesture. After we’d ended our call, though, I wondered if he’d also been prompted to ring me by a recent incident in Sydney that had been big news and prompted a lot of comment and debate.
I used to live in the Sydney inner-city suburb of Surry Hills, and also not far from Kippax Street where in early July an eerie discovery was made – the bones of Natalie Jean Wood, an elderly woman whom had last been seen alive in 2003 and had died alone in her home sometime since then without anyone else apparently knowing or realising it (her home is the middle one pictured above).
That news made big headlines, and it immediately reminded me of another story that had caused a similar sensation back in 1995 when the bones of Sydneysider Clement Williams had been found in his home…three years after he had died, according to the last entry found in his nearby diary, which was a simple matter-of-fact observation about his last morning’s weather back in 1992. Another eerie factor about that discovery was that the radio was still playing.
The missed death of Clement Williams prompted a lot of debate in the media about isolation within modern society, and especially for the elderly. There were even suggestions for local or state government to set up a register for people living alone so that in the event of their deaths they wouldn’t be missed (although I can’t recall if this or something similar went ahead).
Sixteen years later, Natalie Jean Wood’s missed death once again prompted debate about people being too isolated from the rest of the world, either by choice or not, and what can or should be done to prevent more deaths from remaining undiscovered for years.
In late 1995 – and several months after the discovery of Clement Williams’ death – I moved to Sydney and have lived alone here ever since.
During the 2000s as I became active online at Facebook predecessors like WHquestion and Cerescape, every now and then someone would report a sad story about people whose lone or lonely deaths had not been discovered for weeks, months or years. The longest case I read about was a Japanese businessman who back in the early 1980s suffered financial difficulties and disappeared…until the mid 2000s, when his skeletal remains from his death about 20 years before were discovered where he’d been living rough in an abandoned Tokyo skyscraper.
These stories not only prompted more debate about the loneliness of modern society, but for those of us living alone it also got us thinking about our own situations – if we died in our homes, how long would it take before we were missed and our deaths were discovered?
In my case, I thought at the time, it would depend upon what day of the week I died.
If I died at home on a weekday, I would think that it would be discovered within two or three days at least, especially because of my employer wanting to know where I was.
If I died home alone on a Friday night, though, I wouldn’t be surprised that, because I usually spend my weekends alone and don’t have social contact until Tuesday movie-nights with friends, it could take up to a week for my death to be discovered.
By 2009, I had become one of the two million or so Australians (out of a total population of approximately 22 million) who live alone and mostly by choice.
As well by then, I had become (and still am) a heavy user of Facebook as a games centre and the most convenient way of staying in touch with friends all around the world.
In fact, as I became more isolated at work and then began working from home full-time since late last year, I often half-jokingly tell people that “If it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t have a social life during business hours”.
Thanks to Facebook, though, there is the possibility that if I suddenly died alone at home, nowadays it would be discovered much sooner – especially if people started wondering why I was suddenly ignoring their requests in CityVille and Empires & Allies.
As of this writing, it’s been two weeks since my neighbour called me.
Out of curiosity, I would still like to ask him if the discovery of Natalie Jean Wood’s lone death partly or wholly prompted him to call me.
The irony, though, is that during the past fortnight I have sometimes heard him entering and leaving his apartment, and one morning while heading out for work-related reasons I passed his open front door…but in all that time, I haven’t seen him in person at all.
At this rate, maybe I’ll never get a chance to ask him.
Until next time, stay well and take care
UPDATE: 11 AUGUST 2011
Today, I finally got a chance to speak with my neighbour.
After we talked about a couple of other things, however, I was initially reluctant to ask him if the discovery of Natalie Jean Wood’s missed death had partly or wholly prompted him to call me that morning, because now that seemed foolish and morbid.
Fortunately, though, I eventually told myself to stop being a coward, and so I put my question to him.
He burst out laughing – good-naturedly, though, and then said that, yes, it had partly been why he’d called me.
UPDATE: 5 FEBRUARY 2014
The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Natalie Wood: The woman Sydney forgot’