As it goes, behind every great man is a woman, and behind this man’s shrine is another. But who is she and why, after 11 years, does she still care for a shrine of a man who never technically existed?
Carol-Anne Hillman has a method.
She leaves the left corner for flowers, the top for bunting. The middle posts she laces with silk roses, four bunches strewn with coordinating red tape while the rest hang in pairs upside down. Then she re-weaves the suit ties: two maroon, two a brighter rouge.
“He always wore a nice suit,” says the 68-year-old retired housekeeper and official care of the Ianto Jones shrine, synching the last knot with a rote tug.
For Easter, Carol-Anne has bought 32 multi-coloured chicks. For spring, plaited leis. All year she keeps the love locks, the plastic coffee mugs, laminated poems, drawings and letters sent from as far away as Mexico. And today, there’s a palm-sized macramé quilt of two men holding hands.
“They’ve put that up there since I left yesterday,” she says. The caretaker of five years leans forward and promptly adjusts the shrine’s newest addition from the photograph beside it. It’s of a man, brown-haired and doe-eyed boasting a dark horse smoulder. It’s the same man beaming from the shrine’s every angle.
“He’s handsome, huh?” Carol-Anne sighs, not waiting for an answer. “He’s got more handsome, like a fine wine.”
Since 2014, Carol-Anne Hillman has been the official caretaker of Cardiff Bay’s Ianto Jone’s Shrine, an impromptu memorial erected in 2009 after the beloved teaboy from BBC’s Cardiff-set Torchwood perished unexpectedly at the hands of the script writers.
For six years, the Wales native has spent her days looking after this otherwise wont wood panelling nestled at the bottom of Mermaid Quay. She sifts through tributes sent to her Roath home from fans all over the world, primes their locations on the wall, swiftly removes tarnished items and guarantees each holiday is suitably feted.
“A lot of people say they don’t understand it,” Carol-Anne says. She cocks her head to the side as her hazel eyes zero in on her latest adjustment. “But I’ve got no husband, no kids, no worries.” She makes one last tweaking before touting an insouciantly cheeky shrug and grin. “To each to their own.”
For a fan, it’s a dream come true: 24/7 Ianto Jones. And if Carol-Anne is simply anything, she’s simply a fan.
She’s written over 200 fan fictions, her first just six days after his death and spanning 150 pages. Every episode has been watched, every book/audio tape bought. She knows what colour tie suits him best (blood-red), waistcoat suits him worst (none) and can recognise Ianto’s actor Gareth David-Lloyd by nothing more than the area between the middle of his nose and top of his mouth.
“I would know it was him from 100 yards away,” she says. “You never forget the mouth. In every picture I’ve got on my wall, because I’ve got loads, you can see the mouth.”
Twenty-two hang in the bedroom, alternating from shots of her and Gareth together to individual shots of the actor himself. Twenty-two more hang in the front room, the hallway’s horde is immeasurable, though none hang in the spare bedroom or toilet.
“Although when I say to him, ‘Can I have a picture taken with you?’ and he shouts, ‘Haven’t you got enough?’, I say no, I still have room in the toilet,” she says with a cheeky grin.
Which perhaps is the most salient difference to other shrines: Most caretakers don’t become friends with their enshrined. Most of them can’t.
“You could say it’s weird,” Carol-Anne deadpans. “But see, I wouldn’t try to take [Gareth] off his wife. Ianto I would try to take off of Jack.” Carol-Anne pauses before her steel chaff cracks. “I’m in love with a fictional character,” she confesses. “But Gareth, he’ll do fine.”
While their initial 2009 meeting demanded a coaxing shove and a heartbeat verging on heart attack, Carol-Anne has surpassed the standard barrier between fan and fan-ee.
She calls him Gareth, he calls her Ol’ Woman. When she dressed up as him for Comic Con, she sported his very own shirt and trousers. Once she convinced his heavy metal rock band, Blue Gillespie, to play in a cramped pub in her hometown, Ash, Surrey, where she bobbed her violet-streaked pixie cut so fervidly, she felt sore for days.
“I followed that band for months. I followed them to Cardiff,” she says.
Carol-Anne knows his wife, she’s played with his kids. At his plays, Gareth introduces Carol-Anne as a friend of the family. He owns a copy of Carol-Anne’s first fanfiction, and she adopted one of his cat’s kittens — which she named Max, not Ianto.
On the surface, Carol-Anne comes off as just another fan, albeit a slightly more infatuated one and, in spurts, even exuding doting grandmother vibes as she skims through her phone’s trove of Gareth photos with deft memory.
“See how he’s wearing shorts?” she asks as she stops on a photo from the Shrine’s 10th anniversary last summer. “He cycled two and a half hours to get here. And there’s his beard. I quite liked him with his beard.”
Yet beneath that adulated veneer, Carol-Anne pushes much deeper than sepulchred phone photos.
For Torchwood fans, Ianto Jones was tantamount to a well-tailored revolutionary, one of television’s first LBGTQ characters to headline a series. He was quirky, jest-ready and smiled like a satisfied panther. His death consequently spawned a virtual dirge.
‘Save Ianto Jones’ crusades flurried. There was a campaign to bombard the producers with tea. In Cardiff Bay, an innocuous lily bouquet bloomed into the 20-foot-long shrine Carol-Anne polishes now.
“Ianto loved more than anyone could love. That’s who Ianto is,” she says. “He’s the kind of character who snags your heart.”
For five years, Carol-Anne has been something akin to a one-woman defibrillator, a manifested kiss-of-life to these broken hearts. But Carol-Anne is no woman of delicate beliefs. One small twist of fate could’ve changed everything.
Four days before he died, Carol-Anne didn’t know what Torchwood was. Her mother’s passing led her to move in with her brother, where he unexpectedly declared they’d watch the five-day marathon of season three.
A week after Ianto’s death, she travelled three hours to slip around a barricade and pin her hand-written poem upon a shrine for a man she’d fallen in love in only four days.
One would assume Ianto’s voice sailed the wind then and implored her to stay, an epiphany dallying with Field of Dreams. But Carol-Anne pinned the tributes and left.
She wouldn’t return to Cardiff for five years, happening to follow Blue Gillespie. By then, the shrine had waned into disarray: rain-smeared poems, sun-faded photos, tattered signs from errant stag-dos, all culminating in a maroon thong and a pair of yellowed pants flapping in the breeze like derelict battle flags.
“You don’t put up a pair of dirty pants, good grief,” Carol-Anne says with a roll of her eyes.
The shrine could’ve evanesced with the pants’ inevitable yellowing had Carol-Anne been any other woman and Ianto Jones any other character.
But as Carol-Anne found herself vis-a-vis an unsaturated shamble of the shrine’s former glory, she thought one thing: “I had to do something. Even Gareth said, ‘Carol-Anne, it’s gone grotty.’”
The early days didn’t see only roses. Storms brought floods. Conservatives complained of the wall’s pro-LGBT stance. Fans carped that Carol-Anne had no right to remove illegible tributes, even accusing her of stealing a ceramic mug.
“It nearly turned into World War III. I said, that’s it then, I’m not going to do this anymore,” she says. But then Gareth came and said it was him. “Of course it wasn’t. It’s only because I said I wouldn’t do it anymore that he did.” She grins. “We couldn’t have that.”
They can be risky business, impromptu shrines. Sometimes, they transcend. There’s John Lennon’s memorial in Central Park. David Bowie’s mural in Brixton. The hundreds in Los Angeles following Kobe Bryant’s recent passing.
Despite the show quitting on Ianto, Carol-Anne won’t anytime soon. Her Twitter following has swelled to 480 in just six years. Fans have donated £90 for Christmas decorations. Not a pair of pants is in sight.
For the shrine’s future, Carol-Anne isn’t really that concerned.
“I’m 68 now, I’ve got another 20-30 years of doing this hopefully. I should be on a motor scooter then, but I can get to it, go down the ramp,” she says.
And if people stop sending tributes?
She winks. “Me and my friend have printers.”