Bang in the Middle!
Jillian Godsil became divorced. Her ex husband became bankrupt and she was left with a million euro mortgage on a house worth half that. This is her story about being in the middle.
How do you know when you are in the middle? Is it by age, experience or weight? As the Ardal O’Hanlon joke goes, everyone wants to know your weight at birth but no one wants to know at death. So how can we tell where we are? Age is equally arbitrary; genes and luck count in unequal amounts; some of the healthiest people I know have been struck down in car accidents, lives wrenched horribly short. Or do the gods wait for us to complete our own personal bucket list? And what if we are too conservative or wildly over-optimistic? Does that have any bearing on what we get to finish and can we keep on topping that list up every year if we are lucky enough to reach those ambitions?
I am hoping I am only at the middle. It feels a bit like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell: she may have pleaded for everyone to believe in fairies; I am hoping the same goes for second chances.
Our lives, if experience be the key, are defined by markers: chance happenings, major events, goals achieved or dreams lost. My hope for a second chance comes after one of those life-changing experiences, divorce. It is like the sea parting for Moses. There was a before and now there is an after.
Of course, when you hit a major marker you think it is the marker, the marker that defines who you are as a person. I could list half a dozen markers all of significant importance; going to Trinity College Dublin, working in the city of London, moving to Sydney, getting married, living in Singapore, having children, returning home, losing my father, writing my novel and learning to ride a horse.
I think divorce is perhaps one of the more significant markers possibly because of its proximity to the middle of my life (again that hope), the point where I must start again. And also, aside from childbirth, one of the single biggest disruptions to my life across the board; emotionally, financially and socially.
I remember at sixteen thinking the world had suddenly notched up a gear and was spinning a little faster than before. I asked my mother, then a mere fifty, if things slowed up at her extreme age. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘It only gets faster.’ Thinking about this article, I checked in with her again, now a sprightly eighty. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘It only gets faster and more precious.’
And so it seems. Trinity for me was one of my first major new departures: the stepping from childhood into adulthood. For four years I lapped up the special atmosphere that is Trinity. Summers were spent working as a waitress in the states and while I loved it, I also ached for the return to Trinity where I could stretch my mind. Of course I spent most of my time doing the mundane: attending lectures, eating chips in the Buttery, drinking coffee in the sunshine that came each May before exams. But I did, and often before walked through front arch and think wow, I study here, I study here.
I recently returned to a Trinity English Alumni Talk in the Long Room Hub. After my nervousness of trying to find the new building built long after my graduation, teenage angst all over again, I soon slipped back into that thankful state in which I called Trinity the best four years of my life.
London was another departure, a literal one. I remember ten years previously my eldest sister left to nurse in London for six months. The entire family came to the airport in tearful support reminiscent of famine emigration scenes. Fast forward to 1987 and only my parents were there to see me off; travel wasn’t such a big deal then or else the world had collapsed enough for the move to be seen as a minor one.
London in the late 1980s was fast and furious; it was fun, hurricanes, stock market crashes, boozy lunches and champagne breakfasts. It was sweaty tube rides in summer and late night trips to the curry house. I made my first, and financially disastrous, foray into property, buying a lovely Georgian flat with a friend. ‘You can’t go wrong buying property in London,’ I told my parents. Words that echo to my present condition. Oh, if only I had listened to myself!
London was also the city of romance one Christmas. I met my future husband and we paired like love-sick swain. Of course, my stories from here on in have all to be rewritten a little. The victor gets to write history and the divorcee gets to look at the pursuit of love with a slightly cynical eye. As those endearing traits much loved in a new romance can fester into irritating habits, so too the path to true love seems a little less rosy when viewed through the mirror backwards.
Three months together and he was posted to Australia by the bank we both worked for. I always wanted to go to Australia.
So engaged, apartment sold for a loss, parents and family departed from again but I seem to recall more of a send off as Australia was definitely a long way away, and I arrived in Sydney. Now, this was a marker. I stepped off the plane and into the limousine rented by my fiancée for the occasion.
If London was fast and furious,Sydney was hot and laid back. Here I learned to love shiraz and that oaked chardonnay that is so uncool today. I still love both since I refuse to follow fashion. We sunbathed in winter, bbq’d all year round and modified our twang a little. ‘How are you going?’ replaced ‘How are you doing?’ Instead of finding a parking spot, we found a park. And in the middle, had we but known it was the middle, we flew off to Fiji to get married on Valentine’s Day on a little beach with only a Fijian choir for company.
So, now I was starting to grow up. I was starting to accumulate those additions that separate a girl from a woman. I had a degree, had owned a flat, worked abroad and now had a husband. Whatever next?
Singapore was next. This brief two-year period was lived in temperatures of 30 degrees day and night. And here I conceived and gave birth to my elder daughter,Georgina. There was no getting away from the fact I was getting all grown up now. I had a daughter to prove it.
Becoming a mother also made me homesick. I wanted to be in the cool mists that descend from the Kerry Mountains and to walk through the damp streets of Dingle. The fact that I had never been to Dingle was irrelevant, I just had to go back to Ireland. Motherhood and motherland were inextricably linked.
So too was fatherhood, or rather my father. Worries about losing him brought me home too. I was lucky: we enjoyed many more years before he died in his eighty-seventh year. The tragedy was that my father-in-law died two days earlier. The double loss was terrible since two grieving people are often no good to each other.
So we returned to Dublin. This was familiar ground again and I loved it, especially having my family so close again. We bought a beautiful Georgian house in Rathmines, I gave birth to my second daughter, Kathryn, and settled in for the long haul. But I got it very wrong again. I said I would be taken out of my lovely home in a box, and while fortunately I was not, sadly we did sell up.
Next stop Raheengraney House, the reason for this voyage through my life. Here was a beautiful manor house in very poor repair sitting in a field, a bit like the house in Father Ted. Of course, to ardent restorers, the worse the repair the better the challenge. My mother fell through floorboards in the attic, not seriously, but that only made us keener. Both families felt we were a bit mad but appreciated the challenge.
The move was precipitated by my husband’s desire to change careers. He was tired of banking and was an excellent cook and so we thought we’d run a guesthouse. What we didn’t factor in was my extreme dislike of chamber maid duties and his propensity to behave like Basil Fawlty.
Accordingly, Raheengraney House, like Lady Havisham in all her wedding finery, was made up with all the bells and bows that could be found. She sat there waiting for her guests and she waited and she waited.
Ah, the lack of guests. This can be explained in two ways, or perhaps three. For the first refer back to the reluctant chambermaid and the grumpy chef; I have been reliably informed since that all chefs are grumpy. Then there was the rude awakening to the fact that running a guest house does not pay very well. Finally, my fledging newly formed public relations business had taken off and the bills were better paid from the basement where I lodged my office than from the glorious bedrooms and their fine views.
Around that time my life settled into a rut. You might imagine that I would have welcomed such as rut after all the house-jumping and country-hopping I had experienced. And yes I did, although it was not without its complications. The most glaring disruption to our lives was the reversal of roles. Previously my husband had been the main breadwinner, although I worked furiously behind to catch up. Now I was the sole breadwinner and he diversified into other fields; gardening, construction of a guest cottage, green energy, furniture-making, even writing at one stage, I seem to recall.
Sometimes it is only when roles get thrown up and reversed that cracks can appear. It took some time but our compatibility issues came slowly to the fore. Even I, the most horribly optimistic person you could hope to meet, began to feel that all was not what it should be or could be. I was horrified to discover that I could not see myself settling into old age with my husband, especially when the children would have left home. It was a terrible feeling but one that I could not ignore. I also felt that I was not in the middle at all; I felt I was at the end.
How does one begin the hardest journey of one’s life? One step at a time, one step at a time. With feet like clay, I began that process. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I was so naïve thinking a marriage could be unravelled as easily as it was made. It was like going to see a romantic comedy only to discover you had booked into the dark thriller film showing next door instead. And in that journey I lost my husband – albeit that I did the losing, all my financial security, most of our joint friends and my social standing.
There is a powerful prayer often spoken at funerals. It speaks of God and man walking hand in hand with their footprints together in the sand. At the darkest point, the footsteps reduce to only one set and the man asks, ‘Why did you leave me when I needed you most?’ ‘It was then I was carrying you,’ God replies.
So too with life.
Of course journeys are not all gloom and doom, not all lost baggage and interminable delays in hot airports. There are many resting places, beautiful and unexpected vistas at the turn of the road or kind words spoken at the end of the day.
Selling my house on YouTube has been one of the surprising vistas. If I may step back and explain. Alliteration is a funny thing. With Divorce, comes Depression and Desperation and Debt, lots of it. As part of the divorce, our lovely Georgian manor house, Raheengraney House, was put on the market. It failed to sell. My now ex-husband returned to the UK. The mortgage, with arrears, soared to the million mark. The house value, now with tenants installed, sank to the half million mark. My ex became bankrupt and kindly gave all the debt to me, every last red cent.
In desperation, I made a video and tried to sell the house. To my amazement the video went viral in April 2011. The interest and the coverage was shocking, amazing and wonderful, if a little exhausting. There have been many awesome moments in this episode and one of the best stories comes from Mark Little, journalist and cofounder of Storyful. He was in New York during the second week of the video going viral and got asked about my house from people in the The New York Times and The Huffington Post. Wow, I had arrived.
Within two weeks I had a cash buyer for my house, but for half the value of the mortgage. I celebrated, prematurely as it turns out, and asked the bank to join with me in the sale. I waited and I waited. They refused and they refused. I proposed and I proposed. They refused again. And after three long and frustrating months my patient buyer went away.
So I was back to square one. I still own a lovely Georgian manor house but the grass has now grown up to the windows. I have sold the curtains from the rooms, the granite troughs from the gardens, the ovens from the kitchen. It hurts like a knife each time I take something away from my house but I have to live. It and I are in a state of stasis.
The past four years have led to me the middle but it’s not all bad. As my mother reminds me frequently – Ever Onwards and Upwards, Maybe Sideways, but never Backwards!
In my four-year journey from married woman to new me I have had some of the most fantastic of experiences, intense joys and new-found confidence. My first step felt like the first step of my last journey, but now I know and hope it is only one of many, many more.
I learnt to ride a horse and to showjump, winning rosettes in competitions and even one in the national riding club festival. I went on a cattle drive to Montana and an equestrian safari in South Africa. I wrote my first novel, Running out of Road, and have begun my second. I went on writing courses and have joined writing groups. I write on a regular basis. I learnt to cook. Before my children said I burnt pizzas. Four years on and they have not starved. I found new friends. I had too: my old ones found it too difficult to remain neutral. I have made loads of mistakes. I have watched my girls grow. I have watched them showjump for their school and the ponyclub. I have even watched them, my heart swelling with pride, as they competed for their school and country in Hickstead in the UK. I have recently watched my eldest learn to drive, which caused my heart to palpitate for different reasons. I have been signed up by Assets Modelling agency, although no jobs have arrived as yet. I have learnt the joy of running and am a regular fixture on my treadmill before work most mornings. I have taken up kick-boxing classes and I love it. I have read more books than ever before and love the mobile library that parks in Shillelagh every second week. I enjoy my life and I laugh a lot. I have friends who laugh a lot. I can’t stop laughing.
So where am I? I really hope I’m only in the middle. I’ve living life like I’m only in the middle. And if I’m not, please don’t tell me because I don’t want to know!
Jillian Godsil September 2011