Her Name Is Karen Smith

August 2, 2010

As many of you know, I live at Pie Palace, which is one of four flats in a very small block within a row of houses and flats created in a mock Georgian style. It’s complete with a pretty circus where the children hang out in the day and the skank hang out at night. The people on the ground floor have their own entrance, but within my block we have Riz and Afiz Palace, Shanaj Palace and Karen Palace. Karen lives below me – well she did live below me before she was taken out in a body bag last night. Shocked? You should be, because I certainly was. So what happened? We don’t yet know, but I can take you through the events that threw my Sunday evening totally off its axis.

I was at home watching TV when the doorbell rang. It was Riz asking if I knew what the police were here for and why they were at Karen’s home. I heard nothing below me. I didn’t even know they were there. The only thing I could think of was that perhaps she was receiving bad news. We went back to our respective homes and thought no more of it. An hour later, as I was writing something for this blog, the doorbell went again. It was Riz. She mouthed something I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t the bird just say it? I thought. I stepped out and glanced to my left through the railings and down the stairs just as the body was being taken out. My eyes became saucers and I clapped my hand to my mouth. I couldn’t believe what I just saw. What Riz was trying to tell me was that Karen had died, but I had just copped an eyeful, which left me in no doubt. The rest of her family then came out. We went down just as the police were leaving her flat. They told us one of the neighbours on the ground floor called, because they hadn’t seen her for a couple of days and noticed her balcony door was open. Normally, in a situation like this, the police would bust the front door to get in, but because the back was open, they went through to the garden of the ground floor flat and climbed up. They then found her. Apparently there’s nothing that leads them to think it’s anything other than natural causes, but they won’t know the true cause until the post mortem. She was 38. We gave them as much information as we could about her, which was very little as she kept herself to herself. After a while we all went back into our homes, but I was deeply unsettled by the fact that she was probably dead below me for a few days and I didn’t know. Could I have been a better neighbour? Could I have prevented it? Who knows? Needless to say I didn’t finish my blog post and I sent a text message to as many friends and family as I could. I needed to make some kind of connection.

I slept surprisingly well when I really didn’t think I would. However, I felt I was walking on her grave as I moved around this morning, doing my usual routine before I went to work and I still feel unnerved as I write this. Speaking to Riz and Afiz tonight they said they couldn’t stop thinking about her and couldn’t sleep. They were thinking about her lonely death, as was I. We don’t know if she has family and in the seven years I’ve been living here and the three years Riz and her family have lived here, we’ve never known anyone to visit her home. All of this makes me feel sad, but I don’t think she was a sad person. She was friendly enough, kind and totally uncomplicated, but not very sociable. I think she was a little afraid of people. I remember when I first moved in. I’d hear this spontaneous, almost manic laughter coming through her door, as I walked up and down the stairs. Sometimes I’d hear it through my floor. It was the kind laughter that left you wondering if she had mental health issues. One day I decided to knock on her door to make sure she was OK. She was fine and maybe a little odd, but from that day on, I looked forward to her laughing. If I didn’t hear her laugh, I’d miss it. Well she’s laughing no more. There are so many people around us that act as anchors. Some you don’t realise until they’ve gone. In due course, someone new will move in and it’ll be an adjustment for everyone in the block. I hope they’ll be a good fit. In the meantime, I will mourn the anchor that has just left me. I feel a little adrift.

Her name is Karen Smith and she was my neighbour.



  1. Blessings upon Karen Smith and her neighbors. There is nothing easy about what you’re all going through.

    • You’re right, Oma, there isn’t. Thanks for your comment.

  2. R.I.P Karen,
    Gosh Pie what a shock… certainly that she was so young and that her life was cut so tragically short.
    In any big city it’s so easy to get “lost and lonely in the business and turmoil of the crowd”
    Maybe a lesson from this is that we should all resolve to get to know our neighbours better.
    Luckily we know most of our street,(some far better than others naturally) and it’s great! That said, we *still* could do better!
    Start a trend: I cook and bake a lot from scratch and take little samples of my efforts to my neighbours and now it’s caught on: several of our neighbours turn up at our door from time to time with a plate of goodies too, not everyone recipricates of course but the ones who do are all having lots of fun.
    It all makes living where you live a “community” instead of just a random assortment of strangers who happen to share habitation of the same building or street.
    I’d challenge you,(and your neighbours) to do something in memory of Karen, a communal BBQ? Marching planter boxes with communal upkeep? maybe herbs and share the grown results around?
    People’s lives are invariably deeper, more complex than they appear, I was shocked to learn yesterday that someone I thought was very together and had it all, is actually on ever increasing amounts of antidepressants! wow, *this person? really?* …you could knock me down with a feather!
    Who knows what Karen’s places of darkness and light were? her “issues” be they her mental or physical health?… Maybe in celebrating her memory on a regular and ongoing basis, she may be gone but at least not forgotten.

    • Thanks for this, Kiwi. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. You’re right to say that people’s lives are much more complex than the surface stuff we see every day. As for something to remember Karen by, we’ll need to have a discussion on that one, but you can be certain that regardless of what we do (or not as the case may be), she most definitely will not be forgotten. Not in this block.

  3. So sad when someone dies that young. Same thing happened to my sister-in-law about ten years ago. She died mysteriously in her sleep. The cause of her death has never been determined.

    • That has to be the most difficult aspect of something like that: not knowing how she died. I know there will be a post mortem, but we may never know the results, as we’re not family. But I’m hoping the Housing Association will be able to tell us in a week or so if we ask. Thanks for sharing your story here, I do appreciate it.

  4. Gosh what a shocker – so young too. Keep us posted, if you hear what prompted her death. Sooo sad.

  5. A sensitive post, and lovely comment from Kiwi, how nice to think neighbourliness survives.

    • Neighbourliness is still around if you look hard enough. You have to search a little harder in London, but it’s definitely there. Thanks for your comments.

  6. I came across your blog a few days back and read the pieces about your neighbour dying with some disquiet. I was quite close to a woman called Karen Smith about a decade back, when she lived in Edinburgh. I lost touch with her entirely over subsequent years when she moved, first to Glasgow, then down south.

    What alarmed me a bit about your blog is that Karen, who was born in January 1972, was also 38 years old at your time of writing. She was a troubled kind of girl, and some of your description of her behaviour seemed to ring quite true. I no longer have any contacts for Karen, as after we lost touch, I changed my email server and lost her address, and she didn’t have a mobile at the time we were in touch. A couple of days back I sent an email to what I was pretty sure, but not absolutely certain, used to be her email address, but have received no reply.

    The thought that your neighbour might be the same woman has troubled me for some days, and in the absence of contact, I thought the best I could do is describe her to you. She was white, with darkish chestnut brown hair (at around 2000, anyway) and about 5’3. She was quite a pretty girl, who was born in Glasgow but grew up in Fife. She had a slight Fife accent, which I suppose in London might just sound generically Scottish. I wonder if this description tallies with your Karen? I told a few people who knew her, but also lost touch, about this and we are quite anxious to find out.
    I’d appreciate it if you could let me know one way or another.

    • Well, there is good and bad news in this, Steve. The bad news is, the Karen you’re looking for is not my neighbour. My Karen was a proper London girl and she doesn’t match the description you’ve given here. The (possible) good news is that your Karen could be alive and hopefully well elsewhere. I hope this answers your question and I hope you will be able to find her sooner rather than later.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to this post. It was not at all what I expected, but I hope I’ve been able to help in some way. I wish you the very best.

      • Thanks for getting back to me so promptly Pie. I hope the enquiry didn’t sound ghoulish or distasteful, it was just, at the time, I was a bit worried. My feelings on the matter are ambivalent. Of course, on the one hand I feel relieved that it is not the Karen I knew, but I feel sympathy for you folks at Pie Palace for the loss of your neighbour – it is very sad. I found out today that the girl I knew is alive and well, and living not in London, but the South West of England.

        I should congratulate you, too, on your blog. It’s an entertaining and interesting read. I write a periodic blog too, as a small part of my living — I’m a journalist. I will try to mention yours in mine over the next couple of days, since I think people find this kind of thing quite diverting.
        Best wishes,

        • Hello, Steve. Thanks for your response. I’ve been very busy in the last few weeks, which has made it difficult to maintain this blog, but I try to respond to all comments as soon as I can. It just so happened I had the time to answer your query quickly. I found your enquiry to be unusual, interesting and unexpected, but neither ghoulish or distasteful.

          I’m really happy you got news of your Karen, that she is very much alive and well. We still don’t know how our Karen died and we probably will never know because not being family, the housing association are not obliged to give us that kind of information. The thing that pleased all of us in our small block was finding out she did have family. Last weekend, I bumped into a female relative who was negotiating the removal of her stuff from the flat. It was a very brief exchange, but it was good, all things considered. I must admit that as I pass her door every day to get to my place, I still expect her to be behind it and I want to believe she is still living beneath me, but I know she’s gone and I think that reality will finally slap me in the face when the new people move in, whenever that happens.

          Thank you for the kind words about my blog. If you want to mention me, by all means go ahead. I hope you will visit from time to time and maybe make a comment as you see fit. I look forward to it.

  7. Life can be unnerving at times and although you posted this quite some time ago, I feel your discomfort. My husband is a member of our local Fire Rescue department and he was recently called out to a vaguely similar situation. There were reports of a body floating in the bay near our house and he was granted the responsibility of retrieving said body. Imagine his alarm when he rolled the body over to check for vitals, only to discover it was a neighbour. He’d often talked about being “man enough” to deal with a call involving someone we knew, and this turned out to be his most trying experience. The circumstances were more easily explained than Miss Smith, but nonetheless traumatic for those of us around, like yourself, who are left wondering what could have been done in prevention. I find it interesting that the death of a woman can have an impact on a world unknown and I can only hope that you, your neighbours and Karen’s family and friends have found some comfort.

    • That’s a hell of a story, SBC. I’m sorry that it was your husband who found your neighbour. To give you an update. We never did find out how she died. We did bump into a relative of hers briefly, which assured us that she did have family. The flat has been let as far as we know through an internal housing association transfer. They haven’t properly move in yet, but one of my neighbours has met them. I’m hoping they will be good people to have around. If they prove to be a nightmare, they’ll feature heavily on this blog, believe me.

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