HOW could it be true that a woman in her 30s, a former successful City worker with no shortage of boyfriends or acquaintances, could lie dead in her high street flat for three years before anyone noticed?

That is the question movingly addressed in Dreams of Life, Carol Morley's acclaimed new film, nominated for a Grierson documentary award. At the time the skeleton of Joyce Vincent was discovered by housing association bailiffs in 2006 I was working on a weekly tabloid in the Tottenham area of London and there was not much that could take me by surprise. I had come up close to life at its very worst but I remember this story stopping me in my tracks.

Reports of bodies being found were not uncommon but they tended to be pensioners, widows or drug addicts and generally never someone this young. The bustling inner city conceals thousands who have simply melted away into that deep, vast picture of transience, struggle and opportunity on show in the metropolis. The lonely sometimes do go unnoticed but usually someone comes knocking for them in the end.

But for Joyce Vincent, despite coming from a large family and making her mark with her striking looks and a vivacious personality, nobody did.

Her badly decomposed body was found fused into the carpet of a bedsit which was incongruously perched on the back of Wood Green Shopping City, a red-brick behemoth built in the early 1990s. Thousands every day would stream in and out of its rag tag collection of boutiques and mainstream commercial shops. The entrance to the flats where Joyce was found sat at the heart of it all, close to a well-known coffee-shop chain.

Wood Green is home to the main police station, civic centre and transport hub in the borough of Haringey and received a hefty trashing during this summer's riots. It's a focal point of life in this part of north London but it is also too where Joyce Vincent slipped completely off radar.

As we got to work on the story, it became clear there was a remarkable lack of information on offer about the woman. The initial snippets we did collect made her life – and the story – all the more intriguing.

We heard she had been employed at advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi and that she had been a very beautiful woman from a family of four sisters.

There is no good reason why this should make the death of Joyce Vincent any more important than the death of anyone else, but the circumstances surrounding this truly horrific tale did become more mysterious.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking oddity of the case was that, when she was found, Joyce was surrounded by Christmas presents she had wrapped before her death. Nobody knows who they were intended for or if indeed Joyce had bought them for herself as she descended further into solitude. Not long before she died, she was in hospital with a serious peptic ulcer and she listed her next of kin as her bank manager. How could life end up so bad and who, if anybody, was to blame for that?

It was the story that everyone wanted but no one could get.

No cause of death was recorded for Joyce Vincent, simply because there was no body tissue left to examine, with the coroner reporting it as unexplained. Her four sisters attended the inquest but refused to speak to the press. They and the local MP, Lynne Featherstone, requested a criminal investigation into her death but police found nothing suspicious in her flat and ruled out foul play. There were no signs of a break-in or a struggle. Joyce's window was found to be slightly locked ajar, the slim inlet of air creating an escape route for the stench. Neighbours did wonder about a strange smell but thought it was just the bins downstairs.

A lot has been said about Dreams of a Life being a timely lament on the decaying state of society, where nobody cares much beyond their own business or helps those who need it most.

In part, that has got to be true, but I believe Joyce Vincent was someone who didn't want to be found. Here she was, living in a part of London far from home, where nobody knew her and who had rarely been seen by her neighbours. Her sisters had hired a private detective to track her down but, as a friend recalled in the film, she died alone and wanted to be alone.

For years she had put on a brave, winning smile and impressed with her well-spoken demeanour and kindly manners but, as detailed in Dreams of a Life details, her friends noted her as someone who fled at signs of trouble, who walked out of jobs if she clashed with a colleague and who moved from one flat to the next all over London. She didn't answer the phone to her sister and didn't appear to have her own circle of friends but instead relied on the company of relative strangers who came with the package of a new boyfriend, a colleague or flatmate.

She rarely spoke of her family and as one friend recalled, Joyce was a woman with no past and no future.

I first met filmmaker Carol Morley shortly after Joyce was discovered and she has gone on to do an impressive job of resuscitating parts of Joyce's past, particularly her difficult childhood and her struggle to come to terms with various losses.

When she was old enough, she hit the bright lights and heights of London in the late 80s, hanging out with the City boy crew as well as a string of musicians and producers. Gil Scott Heron, Jimmy Cliff and Isaac Hayes are just some of those she spent time with.

Men fell hard for her charms and it came no surprise to one friend that Joyce ended up in an abusive relationship, given that men became so possessive of her. Someone had found a sickening way of pulling down her wonderful veneer from the inside and Joyce's key tool for survival had been taken from her.

And then it hits you – the story of Joyce Vincent is most shocking when you realise it could happen to any one of us. There is nothing anywhere to say that we couldn't fall through life's fragile weave, just like she did.

People don't ask to become estranged from their families or be abused by their partner. Homelessness is not a life choice made by many. Losing love and self-esteem are not things that we want to happen, but sometimes they just do.

It happened to Joyce Vincent and, on the face of it at least, she was someone who once appeared to have it all.

Dreams of a Life is now showing at Cameo, Edinburgh, and is at Edinburgh Filmhouse from January 6.