At the end of April last year, as the summer was just beginning, I reached the end of a 6 month contract at a famous and stuffy blue chip in South London. It was around 5pm and the sun was beaming in the sky as I crossed the car park. I had a pile of money in the bank, freedom of movement, a phone book full of good friends and a whole summer of dalliance ahead of me. I was financially and geographically free, exactly as I’d been patiently and painfully working towards for over 10 years. I was much younger than 40 and I was retired. I danced across the car park in a state of elation, dizzied by the song playing on my iPod. This was the one of the most euphoric moments of my life. The rest of my life promised to be a Faustian blur of pleasure and dalliance, starting with a 3 month road trip across Eastern Europe with one of my best friends.
One twist of fate and three weeks later I was living in an attic in my old family home. My nephew and business partner was in a hospital bed diagnosed with cancer, with a 20% chance of dying.
It goes without saying my nephew had a tough time, faced with his own mortality. I won’t go into that because I can’t, that’s a story for him to tell. I am telling my story about how unforeseen and serious disaster can present itself to all of us at any time, even indirectly, and like it or not, you’re going to have to rise to it.
The business was close to closing, costing myself and my friends who had trusted me… an awful lot of money if it did. It was losing money every single day and I was subsidizing it. I was working all day long to keep it alive and subsidizing its significant daily losses out of my pension pot. I was also fighting against competitors who were keen to take parts of the business off me by force if they got the chance. When you’re bleeding money every day and you can’t see an end to it, you don’t know when it’s going to end – when it’s eventually going on credit cards or coming out of your ISA, your pension… when you can’t see an end to it and it’s very frightening.
Aside from the obvious fear of my first nephew, a son to me, losing his life, I had to contend with the daily weight of he and I, other members of my family and my friends losing a hell of a lot of money. In hindsight, we’d probably slightly over-invested. We wouldn’t necessarily have ‘lost everything’ but it would have been a painful game changer. I couldn’t cure my nephew’s cancer, but I resolved I could save his future, if he had one.
It was a dramatic and bewildering fall from my pedestal. I didn’t know what had hit me. Some days were so bad you just can’t imagine. Days where my nephew looked more ill than you can believe coincided with days that his ex-employees (people he’d fired), seeing weakness, stole money from the company safe and stole company vehicles, making us unable to work but still have daily wages for me to pay, out of my ISA, holding the vehicles to ransom for money I didn’t have. Days where family members came to blows, days I had to physically fight people to keep or take back what was rightfully mine, days I had a knife held to my neck. That’s not an analogy by the way. Someone owed me money, I had to physically force him to give it to me and he pulled a knife on me.
I am still only getting back on my feet. My nephew has been given the all clear recently but he is still very ill. The business is breathing but not making any money, but it will, it will just take a little more time. Remember – I didn’t know that last summer. I didn’t know how the hell it would turn out.
All the remnants of my old life are now in tatters. My London life is long gone. The house I shared with friends has, in the meantime, been knocked down and said friends are now scattered to the wind. We will never live together again. SOme of them I may never see again. I always knew I’d leave them at some point, but I thought it would be a conscious, not an accidental, end of an era. I got distracted for a while and it just didn’t wait for me.
I learnt a lot about myself, some bad, some good… and I learnt who my friends are … and I learnt who they most certainly aren’t. With the exception of my girlfriend and one other person, I’d say there is an element of damage to all my friendships. The life I walked out to on that April day last year has most definitely gone.
It was horrible. Some moments stick out for me that I wanted to share.
At one moment I had to call a friend. It was about August or September. He’d invested a lot of money. A lot. I had to tell him that I thought we’d lost it all, to expect to never see it again. It was a lot of money and he certainly would have been injured to lose it. All he said to me is this, ‘Whatever happens Jimmy, don’t worry, I have your back’. You really have to understand it was a lot of money and he unequivocally told me that whatever happened he was in my corner. He was trying to relieve me that one extra worry. He currently has no idea how much those words meant to me, but I’ll tell him soon, when things are back to normal.
My girlfriend sacrificed her summer, at cost to herself. 23 years old and instead of spending her summer on the beach with her friends, she spent her summer in my attic in a little town, bored, just to make sure I wasn’t alone. When I felt trapped away from the world she reminded me of my old life, there she was, still youthful dalliance, sunshine and fun. It was out there and I couldn’t see it, so she brought it to me. I’ve had nothing much to offer her in the last year, just a man with problems, but despite many offers from other men, she is still here.
I did some things of which I am not proud over the last 12 months. When the pressure is on you learn a lot about who you really are. Not who you claim to be when writing a blog. It’s easy to say you’re a man of integrity when you’re not in danger.
Well, as it turns out, when my back is to the wall, I may well cheat and lie folks. I’ll sometimes use other people to save myself. I’ll at times hide facts to make others responsible or my failings. Sure when the sun is out I’m a rock of integrity, but in a storm I am just as prone as anyone to betraying.
One afternoon I was at an employee’s house arranging a schedule of work for the week. I was at the same time in discussion with a guy from Manchester to sell the whole business, at a severe loss, but it would have got me out of the nightmare.
While at my employees house, he told me he’d been asked by the other guys if their jobs were safe. He wanted my word.
At that moment, in true movie script style, his daughter came in. About 4 years old and I realized… this guy is married with kids to feed. He has a mortgage to pay. So do all the others. They are all terrified they will lose their jobs – if they do, those kids don’t eat. They may lose their house. Their wives are worried and probably telling them every night to jump ship.
If I lose those guys I am well and truly cooked. Game over. Part of me would like it, the nightmare would be over I suppose, but I have other people’s money to think about. So option 1 is out. I cannot let him know I will sell if I get the chance. He and the other lads will immediately go and get other jobs.
So I had a choice to make.
1) Guarantee the jobs and lie. Tell him it’s all fine but sell the business anyway. Leave him in the mire and let him deal with the consequences.
2) Guarantee the jobs and stick to it, even if it leaves me losing money, every day, out of my ISA. The nightmare is still on.
I looked him in the eye and I told him to trust me, I would not be selling the work, I told him I had enough to ride the situation out for a year. I gave him an absolute guarantee the jobs were safe and I laughed off the suggestion that things were THAT bad! Sure they were tricky but, hold on, I think he’s misjudged the crisis, it was code amber not a code red. Did he think it was a code red? Sorry if I gave that impression, no things are tough but I think I might be coming across more dramatic than I intend.
The next day I called the guy in Manchester and told him I wouldn’t sell. It meant I was still bleeding money, it meant I was still trapped. We all have our price, but I know that when push comes to shove, even under threat, my integrity is at least set very high.
It’s a warning to me. Earlier on in this post I said we may be faced with challenges even indirectly. And this is the thing, we make plans, we think we’re young, we think nothing is going to get in our way for many years, but at any moment something can happen even to someone else. We all have parents, they can get ill, fall, die. We all have nephews; they can fall into a bad crowd, get arrested, and get into debt.
You can’t take anything for granted.