(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Tests, Trials and Tribulations: Part 1

Money Matters

Along with the adventure of making a new life for ourselves at Three Bridges, and the many new experiences, came some less welcome changes.

Money became a huge problem for us. Bill wasn't an abalone diver any more, I had no regular 9-5 job, and suddenly we were responsible on our own for a purchase we'd thought we'd be sharing with another couple. And that wasn't all.

While we were still in Melbourne, Bill had bought my Mum, who lived in the island State, Tasmania, a house in the town of Devonport. She wanted a move from where she lived, in Launceston, after being widowed. All her friends there started dying off, and her home was too big for one person. She moved to Hobart to be near family there but they were busy working, she knew no-one else and didn't drive. She sold the Hobart house and came to stay with us in Melbourne while deciding what to do next. Then an old friend from Devonport, where Mum had spent her girlhood, phoned to say there was this great house for sale. Mum was enthused by the description but felt it was more than she wanted to pay. Bill offered to buy it and rent it to her.

So then we had trips to Devonport to visit her, just a quick flight or a very short boat trip across Bass Strait. She caught up with old friends there, whom she'd grown up with, and made new ones. Bill, being a builder as well as a diver (building work had always kept us going in the lean times between fishing seasons) went over and made some alterations to the house according to what she wanted. 

While he was away, friends turned up to give me two kittens they'd seen in a pet shop and hadn't been able to resist. They'd bought two of four for themselves, then thought, 'Who else needs a kitten? Oh, Bill and Rosemary.' My cat and all our dogs had died by then, the last dog only recently. 

I had promised Bill, no more animals. He wanted the freedom to travel spontaneously, and not to have the expenses that pets bring. But I couldn't resist the kittens either, so I broke my promise. I felt guilty, though resolved. How would I tell him?

I had extracted a promise from him, too: no more major purchases without talking to me first. Bill had a habit of bringing us close to poverty with impetuous, under-capitalised business decisions, then working very hard and finally restoring the family fortunes. It was a recurring pattern.

When he phoned from Tassie and said, 'I've got something to confess. I bought a caravan park,' I didn't berate him. I told him I had something to confess too – we had two new cats. Neither of us felt we could object to the other's broken promise when we'd broken our own. Writing this now, it doesn't seem to be quite comparable in magnitude – but I still think we were even, ethically (or rather, unethically). 

That was in the boom era, notorious in Australia, when the banks encouraged people to borrow big. The bank certainly gave Bill every encouragement in this purchase and saddled him with hefty interest rates. I know; I was there in Devonport, in the bank manager's office, to sign new papers when Bill wanted extra money to upgrade the caravan park. 

We were already in sole possession of our Three Bridges property by then. I was worried about what we were asked to sign, as this property too would revert to the bank should we default. I demurred, asked questions. I was no business-woman, but it seemed to be risky and weighted against us. The bank manager said he'd leave us to discuss it a little while, and stepped out of the room. Bill turned on me and hissed, 'You sign or this marriage is over!'

I have often said since, in hindsight, that if someone says that to you, the marriage is already over. (Even if you stay together. Just the fact of them being able to say that and mean it....) But I didn't understand this then. I was completely taken aback. I actually didn't believe he would follow through on such a threat, but it did tell me how much the deal meant to him. 

I still said, when the bank manager returned, 'I'm worried that if the worst comes to the worst, we could lose our home in Victoria.' The bank manger said to Bill, with a smile and a wink, 'Oh I don't think it'll come to that, will it, Bill? We'd work something out.' And so I swallowed my reservations and signed.

Bill began spending more time in Tasmania supervising the upgrade, doing a lot of the physical labour himself. He had a friend managing the day-to-day running of the caravan park for him, and all seemed to be going well. Then the boom collapsed, Prime Minister Paul Keating gave us 'the recession we had to have' and suddenly, overnight, banks which had been lending money lavishly started foreclosing. It was a terrible time in Australia. Many people went broke, including, eventually, us.

But before that happened, or was even thought of, came news that there was to be a paper pulp mill built near Devonport. That proposal was delayed and eventually defeated because of the outcry from the population about the huge degree of water pollution involved. Up until then, Bill had been an environmentalist like me and all our family and friends. But he got dollar signs in his eyes. 

'All those workers they'll be bringing in to build the mill will need accommodation,' he said. That was the reason for trying to upgrade the caravan park and going further into debt to do so. Had he left it running as it was, we might have made enough out of it to stay afloat; it was the extra expenditure – even before the pulp mill was approved! – that put us too far in the red.

I and everyone else he knew tried to argue him out of it, fervently and repeatedly, on both environmental and financial grounds. We could all see that he was stretching the finances too far, as well as betraying his own principles. He wouldn't listen. (God, he could be a stubborn man when he wanted to be.) 

He went and talked to the bigwigs who were there ahead of time to prepare the way for the mill. He got copies of the copious literature they put out to convince the Tasmanian Government and everybody else that the mill would actually be good for the environment as well as the economy. And he bought the specious arguments, and argued for them himself. He would never have done so before, but I believe he was blinded by the thought of making lots of money and becoming the wealthy man he'd always dreamed of being.

But the mill didn't go ahead; and, pretty much simultaneously, the country went into recession. Bill believed he could trade out of trouble. He kept doing projections, putting his case with lists of figures appended, and sending them to the bank. It was before everyone had computers. I, who am not mathematical, spent hours typing and retyping them on an electric typewriter, making sure all the columns lined up as they were supposed to and double-checking that the figures made sense. 

I now think the bank manager shoved them in a drawer and never even read them. It was a new bank manager by then, whom we'd never met, and I think he was under orders to give no quarter. 

Finally seeing the writing on the wall, Bill told Mum she stood to lose her house unless she would buy it from him. She complained, but did. Sure enough, the bailiff came calling, and she was able to show him proof that it was hers, not Bill's. But the caravan park was sealed off. Bill was able to get some things out, such as big gates he'd installed, and sell them, just before that happened. We had other creditors besides the bank, and they got paid. But the bank got the caravan park. (And later sold it for a good deal less than what they said Bill owed, to someone who appeared to be 'on the inside'. Perhaps we were unduly suspicious, but in any case had no time or money to take the matter further, and nothing practical to gain if we did.)

We were asked to go to a real estate agent in Lilydale, down the road a bit from Three Bridges, to complete in person some paperwork about the bank's claim on our home. Apparently there were some necessary signatures lacking. (Perhaps my reluctance to sign things that day in Devonport had proved enough of a distraction that something did get overlooked and I got my way after all!) 

While we were talking to the estate agents, I noticed an interesting detail on the paper in front of us. I don't remember, after so long, exactly what it was, but at the time I thought I'd spotted a loophole – that we didn't have to lose our house if we didn't sign it away here and now. 

I indicated it to Bill with one finger, as surreptitiously as possible, and saw that he realised too. We didn't let on. The people in front of us weren't on top of the details; they were just delivery boys really. Bill asked if we could have a copy of the document we were about to sign. There was no copier on the premises, but they said we could take it to the newsagent a couple of doors down. We picked up the document, left, and drove away with it. A lawyer confirmed we were not obliged to sign, so when the inevitable follow-up demand came, we pointed out we were not required to comply. One small victory. The other was to go bankrupt voluntarily before the bank forced us into it, which left us in a marginally better position. 

Well, saving our home was not so small a victory of course, but we were still overwhelmed by the trouble we were in. We realised we'd have to sell that home, and did. We were still living there, renting it from the new owners and acting as caretakers, when we decided we'd have to go bankrupt too, before the bank inevitably did it to us.

[About 10 years later, when all this was long behind me, an Australian movie was made, called The Bank, starring David Wenham and Anthony LaPaglia. In it, an individual wreaks a brilliantly clever revenge on a bank and bank manager who ruined his family in those disastrous times – when, as I said, many Australians went bankrupt and lost everything. Though the story was fictional, it filled me with savage glee.

Much more recently I received a request to donate $17 towards an ad to try and stop this same bank from funding a huge coal mine that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef. (They haven't changed; they've only got worse!) I sign a lot of petitions but I am on such a low income that I seldom contribute financially, even small amounts. This time I did. Destruction of the Reef cannot be allowed; I think fossil fuels should be phased out; and ... only too happy to help screw that particular bank!]

This saga, which I've collapsed into a few paragraphs, stretched over several years. Bill bought the caravan park, and started work on it, before we left Melbourne. (I remember how fit and muscular my son David became one year, working there as a labourer in his university vacation.) Things deteriorated bit by bit during the following years. 

Alongside these trials was the gradual breakdown of our marriage.

6 comments:

  1. I find it amazing how although we fear the bad times, they give some of us the opportunity to grow into the possibilities of who we truly are. We learn so much, about ourselves and the 'real' world. This is a good read, Rosemary. I'm beginning to see the you, I know, emerging, with her own light. Thanks for sharing.

    Elizabeth

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  2. Yes, life's lessons can be hard. By this time, we have all had simuliar lessons....we learn to manage money, or it manages you...so much to learn for the "who we are." Still an opportunity to grow...even learn when we have made the wrong choices. It seems the Universe doesn't really care if you get it, for if you don't, the lesson will come again. If we didn't make some wrong choices in life, how else would b know about "regret"? It seems the longer we live the higher the "pile of regret," gets. But would we have done it otherwise?

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    1. From this vantage point, I have few regrets in life. I made a lot of mistakes, but I did learn from them.

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  3. WOW! You have led such an amazing life. Full of courageous ups and terrible downs, lived with heart and survived with spirit. This is a fascinating read, Rosemary. I was taken aback at your husband's threat. It puts me in mind of the saying "when someone shows you who he is, believe him." I remember similar moments in my life, when I did not want to see what was so clearly obvious. We protect ourselves until we cant pretend any more. I am now clicking on Part 2. Wow.

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    1. Wait a minute, I have to write Part 2 yet! Didn't realise people would thunk that was a link. I am now altering that wording!

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  4. Rosemary. i agree with the others that this is a fascinating story. I related to it more than I'd like because I could see parts of my husband in yours. Thankfully, my husbands financial escapades have not ruined us financially, at least not entirely, but he has squandered much of our money in very unwise business ventures. Luckily, we've survived and our marriage per se was never in jeapordy. But I did learn to set aside a little money for myself before my dear one thought up ways to spend it.

    Can't wait to read what's next.

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