When I first moved back to Abingdon, leaving work and starting out as a foster carer, I lived in a beautiful but impractical house o the other side of town. A terrace house with three storeys; true there was a lift to the first floor, but only steep stairs from there to the second storey and two of the bedrooms. A narrow concrete yard, with the sort of washing line which needs a wooden prop in the middle to push the washing off the concrete and into whatever sunshine can creep between the high rooves and brick walls. Low brick walls partitioning the yards, and a ricketty wooden gate opening out into the back lane; the space for dumping rubbish, and what would become our main entrance, as the front door and hallway were completely inaccessible for wheelchair users.
Beautiful old red brick, a Christ's Hospital house with 1897 etched into the brickwork. Tall sloping rooves and wonky sash windows, creaky floorboards and horse hair plaster on the walls. Two up, two upper, and two down, and separated from the busiest road in town by a tiny front garden and another little gate.
I had never lived like this before. None of us used the front doors. Polished doorknobs and letter boxes, beautiful little gardens (except for our overgrown wilderness; some things don't change), but the real life happened at the back.
My kitchen at the back of my house had a back door facing next door; this was mirrored so next door's back door faced mine. My sink under my window was opposite next door's sink at their window, and here I came to know Gwen.
Gwen was my lovely neighbour , who welcomed us into our house and into this new phase in my life. Whether washing up at the same time, taking out the rubbish, or hanging out that endlessly damp washing, Gwen was always there, always smiling, and never too busy to lean against the dividing wall and settle down for a chat.
Gwen welcomed all my children; never phased by the somewhat impertinent questions put to her by a child with Asperger's, nor the shrieks and squeals of an overexcited, oversized, toddler.
When Goldie first moved in, and I turned my washing line into an overhead toy line for her, hanging bells and rattles and elasticated bouncy balls, Gwen cheered her on. Gwen's bedroom was next door to Goldie's, and not once did she ever complain about Goldie's all night parties.
Gwen shared my delight in Mog when she came as a baby, and never complained about the long hours of crying. She shared news of her family, filled me in on other neighbours and on our house's previous tenant, and encouraged any efforts I made to tame the wildly overgrown jungle my garden became, without once criticising the state I'd let it get into.
For years, after we moved house, I would see Gwen around town. She was never too busy to stop and catch up, marvel at how the children had grown, tell me something new about her daughter. Always supportive, uncritical, and encouraging.
Last time I met Gwen, we were both having a cup of tea at neighbouring tables in hospital. Catching up with Mog and myself, she shared how she had just had twenty seven injections into her eyes, to treat a painfully debilitating condition. Coupled with her worsening hearing loss, she begged me to excuse her for any times she might have walked past me in town, explaining how little she could see or hear these days.
And today it's Gwen's funeral. I hope she knows how much her encouragement and support meant to me as I settled into life in my own house rather than a hostel or shared place, and as I immersed myself in foster children and adjusted to always being the one on shift. I love our new flat; it is so much more practical for all of us, and we do have lovely neighbours here too. But Gwen was someone very special, and I think the world is a slightly dimmer place for the loss of her light.
Rest in peace, Gwen; you've earned it.