Last Thursday, at a loud and chaotic Euston station, I received a phone call from my wife to tell me that our friend Joanne Pullan had died the previous evening. Jo had been found collapsed in a park by a bystander, after suffering an asthma attack while walking to the shops. She was taken to Lewisham General Hospital, but was declared dead there.
At the time, then, I could scarcely comprehend the words my wife was saying. As I type these words, now, nearly a week later, it’s still no easier to accept that she’s gone. To lose anyone is hard; but to lose someone whose entire second half of their life was yet to be lived, is harder, doubly so when it’s to a cause that seems both trivial and preventable.
(Of course, it’s not trivial, as Jo’s death so tragically demonstrates. Asthma kills. If any good can come of her passing then it will be from people reading these words, and the many others that will be written about her, and treating asthma with more fear, and respect, than they had previously done so.)
My wife and I are going to miss Jo tremendously, not because she was perfect, but because of the ways in which she wasn’t. How could I describe Jo? There are as many ways to describe her as there are days in the year, but the words that come to mind now are that she was often mad and frequently exasperating, but always fun, engaging, warm and compassionate. Some people live life with its accelerator mashed down hard against the foot-well, careering through corners in a manner likely to cause a certain degree of consternation in those friends and family following on behind. Jo was one of those people.
Jo was my wife’s friend before she became mine. They met in the early part of the last decade when they both worked for the League against Cruel Sports and having become firm friends (my wife described Jo as her “vegan sister”), they stayed in close contact as their professional lives moved on.
After working for Leonard Cheshire Disability and Médecins Sans Frontières, Jo ended up at PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, where she worked in fund-raising. Unlike my wife, I never worked with Jo, but I know she was very highly thought of, with her charm, intelligence, diligence and professionalism being the perfect tools for persuading people to donate generously to the organisations she represented.
Animal welfare was a cause close to Jo’s heart, as her choice of employers indicates. If someone close to her had an elderly cat that needed rescuing, it would usually end up with Jo. And she was a devoted step-mum to our own little four-pawed bundle of canine joy.
But when I think of Jo and animals, it’s her dog, Claude, who I think of. Claude was Jo’s closest companion for all of the years in which I knew her, and she doted on him. He might have had four paws and a flat nose, but he was very much her little baby, and this showed in the dedication she displayed when facing the health problems with which he suffered over the last years of his life.
Claude suffered not only from diabetes, but a number of other ailments. Keeping him on four paws was neither a cheap nor easy undertaking. He required twice daily injections of insulin, made harder by the fact that he also suffered from – as one vet put it – “small dog syndrome”. Add to this pills, inhalers and operations to restore his eyesight, and you had a monthly bill of significant proportions. But it was a bill that Jo never hesitated to pay. When Claude finally reached the end of his time on this world a few months ago, Jo was devastated. But sad as his passing was, it at least means he’s not faced with a life without his mummy.
Jo had an eye for taste and style apparent even to someone such as myself, universally acknowledged as something of a style desert. She always looked good, even on those occasions where she was convinced she didn’t. And each of her homes were not so much decorated as designed. Where the rest of us might think in terms of what colour to paint the walls, Jo would see a room as one big art, craft and design project.
This didn’t involve lots of money When it came to decorating a home, Jo could make a budget stretch further than anyone I know, although being Jo, that budget would still be slightly larger than the sum of money she had available. She had an eye not only for a bargain, but for a bargain that with a bit of work, a sand, a repaint, or a replacement cover, could be transformed into something fabulous. She was a demon ebayer, buying and selling, although I fear half the things she was selling were things she had previously bought. My wife would often return from a visit to Jo’s with a story of finding a new sofa or bed or floor, justified by the previous one being slightly too big, or too small, or just the wrong shade of whatever. (The story’s telling would usually end with an exasperated cry of, “But there was nothing wrong with the old sofa/bed/floor/curtains/rug/house!”)
I met Jo before I met my wife, at a London Vegans event, which she’d attended with Paivi, a mutual friend of hers and Jules. It was entirely down to those two that I met my wife. Thinking I might be right for their friend, they arranged for us to meet at a small party hosted by Paivi. It all came from that: dating, moving in, getting married.
I couldn’t say that I own Jo everything, but I owe her and Paivi my wife and soulmate, and if that isn’t everything then it’s not far off it. Initially, Jo was my wife’s friend and I was her friend’s other half. But gradually, imperceptibly, and with what I’d like to think was the ease that marks all true friendships, Jo became my friend too, and I’m pretty sure I became hers.
That Jules and I are going to miss her terribly is a truth so obvious it scarcely needs saying, but some truths deserve to be spoken, and this is one of them. Jo was not a person to pass though a person’s life unnoticed. She occupied a place in my wife’s life and she occupied a place in mine, and in her passing she leaves a Jo shaped hole in both of those lives.
We’re going to miss her terribly, and while time will blur the edges of that hole it will always remain, a gap in what could have been, and a missing part of what should have been. Jo might have gone before we were blessed with the children she so wanted us to have, but if time does bless us with those children they’ll grow up knowing about their Auntie Joanne. We will never forget her.
Jules and I were apart when we heard the news, she with her mother in Yorkshire, and myself travelling to Eastercon (the British National Science Fiction convention). My first thought was that I should abandon Eastercon and head to Kings Cross to get myself on a train to Leeds. But Jules told me to stay at Euston and head for the convention. Eastercon was where I needed to be if I wanted to meet with agents, writers and the people who will hopefully end up buying my books. She reminded me that Jo had always been one of my writing career’s biggest supporters, always urging me to stay confident, always declaring her conviction that I would one day make it big. She told me to go, that it was what Jo would have wanted.
I was originally going to stay at Eastercon until Tuesday morning, and then head straight to work, finally meeting up with my wife on the Tuesday evening. But we altered our plans so that Jules picked me up from the convention on the Monday afternoon and we drove home together.
That evening, really for no reason other than wanting something to take her mind off things, Jules got onto the web in search of the new kitchen table she’s been unsuccessfully searching for over the last couple of months. She found something on Gumtree that looked perfect, and having texted the owner and received a reply, we found ourselves driving over there to take a look at it.
On the way, Jules asked me if I thought we were doing the right thing. We didn’t actually need a new table, and this perhaps wasn’t the best time for us to be making decisions. Maybe we should check around a bit more, she said, and see what else was out there, or perhaps just stick with the one we had?
I only needed a moment to consider what she’d said, because the answer was clear. What better way was there to remember Jo than for us to make an impulse purchase of a table we didn’t actually need?
After all, it was exactly what she would have done.