The Sisterhood of the Travelling Jacket: Keri

Thursday 25 September 2014
Keri copy
Photography by Marlene.

“There is no security in following the call to adventure” - Joseph Campbell
It’s 2007 and I feel like the world is my oyster as I plough my heart, soul and life savings into launching my own recruitment agency.  An agency specializing in the library industry, as the world teeters on the cusp of one of the worst recessions to date and the biggest cuts to the public sector. Fuelled on by some crazy spirit of creativity and independence, I ride the wave in the first year trading and I am thrilled to be able to create jobs for a small but fabulous team in one of the most deprived towns in the North West of England.

Little was I to realise then that I would be creating jobs at the expense of being able to draw my own salary a few years down the line.  As a team, we were able market the company well and secure some great clients and candidates, but as a small business I was unable to secure all but the smallest overdraft.  Coupled with constant chasing of invoices to clients who included large city law firms and investment banks, I start to realise that we were struggling financially.  In recruitment, especially contract recruitment, it is the agency’s responsibility to be able to pay its temporary staff on time whether or not it takes the end client four to five months to settle an invoice.  

Three and half years later my husband Chris comes home from work to declare that the public sector organisation he is working for are making him redundant.  On a whim, and realising that we can’t survive financially for much longer, I contact my former boss and friend.  He and his wife had successfully sold the recruitment agency I worked for several years earlier for a seven-figure sum and had embarked on a new life in France renovating properties and injecting new life into local businesses in the Averyon, one of which was a beautiful bed and breakfast and tea shop, in a pretty but remote mountain and riverside village.   

Feeling that we’d done our ‘London years’ and approaching our late thirties with no children, we decided to make the leap and throw in the towel for a new life in the French ‘idyll’. In the months running up to our move, I wind down my company and knowing that we would be moving into fully furnished accommodation, scale down on literally all our household possessions and belongings.  

With plans to open the business ready for the Easter and summer seasons of 2011, we reluctantly serve notice on the property we had happily called home for five years and started preparing our goodbyes to friends and family.  With a month to spare, I suddenly start to feel a general sense of malaise and overwhelming tiredness.  Putting this down to the stress of moving and packing, I push this to the back of my mind.  It’s only when a friend jokingly asks if I am pregnant that the penny finally drops.

Always the ‘London career and fashion girl’, our friends and family are surprised but not as much as me!   We set up a Skype call to France and tell our new employers to sit down as we have something to tell them.  Immediately they know why I am calling and fall about laughing;  ‘Keri you don’t do things by halves! This can still be an amazing opportunity for a new life for you all as a family, and although it will be hard work, we know if anyone can make a success of things it will be you’.  Some may call it mad, but never ones to shy away from challenges we pack up the car, our beloved cat Poppy and dog Alfie, and set off on the two day drive to the South of France. It was the beginning of what would be the biggest roller coaster experience of our lives.

Ever the fashionista, I while away the journey admiring the changing and dramatic landscape of our new home. Passing the time and riding with the waves of morning sickness, I dream of wearing cute maternity outfits as I stroll along the medieval lanes with a baguette tucked under my arm. In the following months we are thrown into the French life, grappling like most expats with the language. With good humour, we are welcomed with open arms by our lovely French neighbours.  We survive the Easter rush in the B&B and teashop. We even survive the Royal Wedding. But the cracks are starting to appear. Hired to ‘manage’ the businesses, we arrive work at 7am each morning and during the summer season are still entertaining into the early hours of the next morning. The hours in themselves and the physicality did not faze us, but our work began to be criticized and our confidence knocked.  

Things came to a head three months later. Myself eight months pregnant, we were called into a meeting and told that we were surplus to requirement. Never one to be at a loss for words I was left speechless, whereas my usually calm and collected husband lost his composure and demanded an explanation. To this day, the only explanation we received was that they are ‘entrepreneurs’ and business must come first.  As it slowly dawned on me that not only were we about to become jobless and homeless in another country, I realise we are also unable to return home immediately with our pets on the British passport scheme.  Breaking down into tears, I wobbled back to our ‘home’, which had just been deemed more profitable as a holiday apartment for the owners’ surplus guests.

I shove close the typically French shuttered windows to our bedroom and gather Alfie and Poppy onto the bed with me as I curl up into a ball and cradle our unborn son, blinded by tears and panic.  Metaphorically speaking, I realise now that I also closed the shutter doors on my mind and usual bright optimism. Looking back I can see that much of this was probably due to being tired and pregnant but I can honestly say that my mind went into free fall.

I guess like many women, I am a fixer, a doer, a planner, and some may even say a control freak. So the feeling of not knowing where we were headed next was completely overwhelming. Our employers’ one concession was that we could remain in the apartment until our baby was born. However, with only four weeks to spare all we wanted to do was get back to the UK and to our families. Having struggled my way through the French maternity system at the local hospital and prenatal checkups with much sign language involved, I felt that I wanted to return ‘home’ to give birth.       

As is typical in small rural villages, news spread fast and thankfully a lovely lady who I now think of as a friend (albeit an overseas friend) came to our rescue.  A real animal lover like me, she took it upon herself to re-home our cat Poppy and organised for her friends to temporarily look after our dog Alfie until we could return to France some ten weeks after Luca was born to bring him back to the UK. For me this was the hardest part, saying goodbye to our animals.  I had rescued Poppy from the famous Battersea Cat and Dogs Home some fourteen years earlier, as usual not telling my husband. He came home from work one evening to find a pretty young white cat scaling his vinyl record collection. Alfie was a similar story. Rescued when he was eleven weeks old and Chris away working in London. Sadly it was my last goodbye to Poppy. She died of a stroke last spring. She was the only one of us who got to live out her days in the beautiful French countryside, ironically in a gîte named Poppy Cottage.

Luca was born two weeks early and we found ourselves living in what was my office, which, apart from a bed and moses basket, was bereft of any furniture. It was a roof over our heads, much more than some, but not ideal with a newborn baby. With the initial joy of a having a healthy newborn starting to fade, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted.  As well as defeated, I felt cheated. Possibly the most ridiculous things to feel cheated of, but in my mind, I was cheated nonetheless.  Cheated of the fun of having a baby shower, which I’d enjoyed organising for other friends and cheated of having the money, time and home to plan and decorate a nursery. In all honesty, I still feel a little cheated of those memories.

It took five months for Chris to find work and when he did it was based in Durham, a five-hour one-way journey. In order to make this work financially for us, for five months he had to travel to the North East on Sunday afternoons and return home just before midnight on Friday evenings. Finding myself left with a young baby on my own during the week, living in a not great location, I started to slip into depression.  I usually pride myself on being able to spin a tale or two. As an only child I’ve often been reliant on using my imagination and find writing to come naturally to me. But when the tale is one that takes some soul searching, it’s not too easy. 

I’ve never felt useless before or lost for ideas and solutions but I could not see a way out at all. I would wake up crying looking out of the window hating where we were living, and would fall asleep looking out of the window hating where we were living. I felt completely embarrassed to feel so low, the rational side of me appreciating how lucky I should feel: I had a lovely family and the happiest and healthiest little boy. But still, I felt helpless and trapped by our situation. Looking back, my biggest regret has been the time I wasted sitting worrying and constantly questioning. Questioning how we could have been treated so unfairly when we are both hard workers and I was so pregnant.  When I wasn’t caring for Luca I started to revisit blogging and sought solace with friends from all over the world whom I had met prior to moving to France and who had shared in our journey via my blog. I relished every consolatory comment and enjoyed sharing pictures of Luca and our progress.   

Three years later I am relieved to say we are just getting back on our feet. It’s funny, how at the time, I could see absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel but in actual fact things have turned out for the best. We have moved again, not quite to France this time, but to one of the prettiest villages in West Dorset. Two years ago, I could not even have begun to imagine how we would land on our feet again. Ironically we now call Tolpuddle our home. Treated unfairly by our employers, we now live in a village famed for the Tolpuddle Martyrs (story: in 1834, a group of farm workers shared a secret union meeting to protest their unfair wages and as a result were exiled to Australia). 

To this day, I hate the term ‘entrepreneur’, even though I now run a number of micro businesses. I feel there is a better and kinder way to operate a company.  Luca brings a renewed sense of joy to our family and all the wonder of an almost three year old.  We have even been reunited with Alfie, so together boy and dog enjoy many countryside walks and trips to the Dorset beaches.

I guess there are many morals to our story, some of which I need to remind myself of daily.  Transitioning from career girl to working mum, only now do I realise I am more than ‘my job’.  When we first returned from France, I dreaded having to explain where we were living and that we were not working. I felt that I had lost any sense of my own identity. I better appreciate now that happiness isn’t attached to ‘things’, although I will still fight you for a designer handbag and pair of shoes!  There have definitely been days when I’m not sure how we managed to survive, particularly financially, but we did because we had to.  To anybody sharing our story, remember that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, even if it takes some time to appear. To end in the words of Joseph Campbell, "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us”.      

Keri also blogs at The Chronicles of the Dollie Daydream.     

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  1. Fabulous story Kerri and a true tale of inspiration and hope when all around you seems to be fading.

  2. Wow Keri! We have led a very similar path but in 2 different countries! Its so awful to think that people that you consider to be friends could be so ungrateful, inconsiderate & cruel! I'm sure that it was an all time low experience for you both but like me you are a fighter & never gave up no matter how hard it became! I truly believe that sometimes we have to go down in life in order to build ourselves back up again & you are the proof of just that! I love your hair too! Big Hugs Sister! Ax

  3. They say what doesn't kill us makes us stronger Keri and I think your inspirational story is proof of that, although I will never understand how people could have treated you so harshly especially when you had given up everything for a new life and were also pregnant - shame on them and lets hope karma comes to bite them on their entrepreneur arses! x

  4. Gosh - I can SO relate to a lot of this!! That final quote is fabulous - I need to steal that! xxx

  5. You will never know how much your life story has helped me, I am currently travelling a very similar path, and can fully relate to the feelings of depression you felt. Thank you so much.
    Much love
    Sue x

  6. Well done Keri. I think Sharron has put things perfectly so I will ditto that. xxx

  7. I'm so pleased that everything worked out eventually. When I hit a bad patch, I always tell myself it means there is a good bit to come, and it gives me the strength to get through. It was a pleasure to help you out, and to have Poppy with us for that precious time.

  8. A really brave thing to share Keri, it sounds as though your story has already given others hope which is really lovely. Hope you previous employers remember that karma can be a b**ch!! xx

  9. Did you have no contract? No employment rights?

  10. Gosh Keri, what an awful time for you. I can sort of relate to the living situation being not ideal with babies, but your situation was far worse than ours. But well done for finding your feet again, it's shows what a strong person you are and I'm sure it's made your and your family stronger too.



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