In Memory of Jean Kelly


I have just taken a cursory look at my blog and noted that nothing has been pasted up in six months! I did start to write a blog when I was ill last September but is there anything more tedious than people writing about how unwell they feel?

Now I am writing something only a shade better, I have decided to return to the blog to write an obituary for a friend – Jean Kelly Castillo. Jean, as she knew only too well, was anything but boring overall… but like all very interesting people she was capable of being a monumental bore at certain moments. She was an adventure seeker — fun, and at times dangerous. I hope to honour all her lovely and scary characteristics amidst these few words.

I lost touch with Jean shortly after I carried out the funeral of her partner and husband Francesco Castillo in May 2009. Jean and Chico had married a few days before his demise. They had been together for a good while, but I think the issue of a previous wife from many years back had stopped him from marrying her.

Losing touch with Jean was a regular happening that occurred in moments of strange uncertainty, and also the formation of interesting assumptions on her part. This last assumption, I suspect, was that she thought that my decision to become an interfaith minister was synonymous with becoming a Catholic bishop — she assumed that I had become seriously and deeply judgemental on a variety of moral issues.

Jean’s fear of being judged was because she was a Catholic, but like many good Catholics she was a spectacularly lapsed Catholic. Her father was an alcoholic and violent, and she was an alcoholic and an addict, but none of this stopped her from being an inspired and daring person. She was great company, and if one introduced her to someone she didn’t like, she made no hesitation in expressing herself in such purple and shocking prose as to scare the living daylights out of everyone around. It was fun, but it could be scary.

I met her in a women’s club at a time when she was in a same sex relationship, something she did on and off in her youth, but later liked to pretend never happened. I think her first same sex relationship was with a prison warden. As a young person she went to art school, where she discovered the joys of heroin and cocaine. She later got herself a job working as a doctor’s receptionist, where she discovered the art of writing her own prescriptions, something that secured her first spell at her Majesty’s pleasure, in Holloway. Later she did something equally silly, and returned to do time again. I spent many hours chatting with her about the joys and horrors of doing time, and Jean often had me in paroxysms of happy laughter as she took trips down memory lane. Two examples of her unique sense of opportunism and fun come to mind – one was to go to jail, and not only lose out on her Monopoly money but to get a job in the prison library at the first chance, which allowed her to read just about every book she could get her hands on, with the result that she was wonderfully cultured and well-read. The second memory was the time when she was sent to an open prison, far away from all her cronies in Holloway. In order to ensure that she returned to her favourite prison as soon as possible she took to writing letters to the world beyond saying that she was getting messages from outer space encouraging her to set fire to the open prison, whereupon she was returned to Holloway post-haste.

When she came out of jail the second time she made an extraordinary effort to get off the stuff, but took an interest in alcohol. She then decided to take up a career as a nurse, and thanks to having the sort of name that allowed her to skip under the radar, she succeeded in gaining her State Registration, something that I think served her well. For a while she did some very specialist nursing in both the Hospital for Nervous Diseases (which she referred to as the Hospital for N-n-n-n-nervous Diseases) and also the Marsden. As a nurse she was both clever and practical in her approach, taking pride in saving the life of a patient who suffered sudden and extreme anaphylactic shock, and writing detailed and unexpected notes and observations about cancer patients that fascinated the Consultant she worked with.

But Jean became bored easily. She gave up nursing and for a while she worked as a bar-maid in the 606 Jazz Club, at the time when it was still in King’s Road. She would do some agency nursing if necessary, and even trying her hand at some of the more exotic aspects of ‘the oldest profession’. Then one day she realised that by using her nursing qualification she could put herself forward as an English nanny serving the rich and famous of Europe, and this is what she did.

For a number of years she lived in Italy, looking after the children of some very well-known fashion designers, including the Missoni family and also Laura Biagiotti. She also worked in France for a while, in Paris, building up a close relationship with the child of a wealthy American publisher. It was here that I visited her, and we spent an amazing couple of days looking around some of the more unusual art galleries and feasting out at one of Paris’s most stunningly pretentious hotels, and having great fun in the process.

Our friendship was, however punctuated by moments of not-seeing each other. One evening she came to stay with me and my then partner, and sinking into one of her more morbid moments of deep booziness, announced that she was quite capable of topping herself, to which my then partner made the suggestion that she was free to do so if she wished. For a long time we lost touch with her, only to catch up with her at a very much later date, after spotting her on television, in Paris, at a special edition of Question Time, sitting in the audience, looking unusually calm, a character far away in a strange film.

It was while she was working abroad that Chico Castillo, a musician born in Costa Rica who had also spent time at her Majesty’s pleasure, also for drug offences, came out after a long spell in jail and decided to go in search of Jean. She was, he declared, the love of his life, and I truly believe this, although in later years he did not seem to be particularly faithful, and the relationship creaked a bit. But after spending time in jail, dreaming of Jean, he tracked her down, and brought her back to England, whereupon the two took up service as a housekeeper and handyman in the service of a judge and his wife, living in a particularly elegant house near the Thames. It always amused me greatly that the judge and his wife had employed the services of two jail-birds to look after them, and look after them they did, until Chico decided that he wanted to earn a bit more, and the accommodation was considered not up to scratch, and they moved on. By this time Chico was running his own janitor’s business, and I am not sure what Jean was up to.

It’s a long time since I saw Jean, but as I said before, becoming an interfaith minister put the tin lid on our relationship, even though I carried out Chico’s funeral. In the run-up to his funeral there was talk about stealing a hospital bed, and getting him, the bed, and their friends shipped over in a van, across land and sea, to the house they had bought in Northern France. Here she planned to nurse him until the end, but it never happened. Even in tragedy, there was always an element of farce about Jean’s adventures. Doing something naughty was second nature to her.

After Chico’s funeral I contacted her, but I could hear that she didn’t want to communicate. While he was dying she had taken to drinking his liquid morphine, which took her back to a place that she clearly wanted to revisit. She died last month of bowel cancer; I had clearly been erased from her address book, which is sort of sad… and sort of not. Whatever fate awaits Jean as she trips across the barrier of life and death and beyond, I hope she looks back on her life with pleasure and above all things, amusement. She was one of those people who taught everyone who encountered her… in one way or another, even if the education process was a real challenge.

Jean Kelly