Nineteen years ago, I arrived at Cambridge University with a suitcase that squeaked as it rolled along behind me. I studied Economics and found that I was still able to complete the required work in a fraction of the predicted time. I spent what remained of my days learning computer programming so I could build software to manage my first business, an introduction service for non-English speaking students who needed proofreading services and English lessons, which other British students provided. I called the company International Student Support, ISS, and despite three months of thorough market research, I was astonished at how much money international students had at their fingertips to spend. That summer I hired an accountant for my Mum’s business and a temporary manager for ISS so I could travel the length of South America alone. I learnt how to speak Spanish and how to savour good food; by eating it with people you love - in this case three generations of a Chilean host family I lost touch with too quickly.
Sixteen years ago, I spent a year studying at Brown University in California. It was the first time I took the sun for granted and my hair turned golden as a result. I learnt short hushing Arabic words from the Ph.D. student I fell in love with there. At the end of the spring semester, he whisked me away for a holiday at his family’s mansion on the rugged outskirts of Marrakech, a city I swayed from loving to hating and back again. I found the crowded Medina alleyways as dirty as they were mysterious and I lost count of how many skinny cats trotted at my ankles. I felt upset when Amir was too proud to acknowledge them and I promised myself if I ever moved to Morocco with Amir that I would never ignore these cats, even if I couldn’t help them.
Fifteen years ago, I returned to Cambridge and finished my degree. I was awarded a First. My graduation was a day of misty eyes and sparkling wine as I took Mum for a punt along the River Cam. I hired more staff to work for ISS and slowly the business needed less of me. In the September of that year I returned to California carrying everything I owned, but Amir didn’t show up. Over the phone, in an airport motel room, he told me he was engaged to a woman he’d never met and that he was going to honour this commitment. I stayed in that motel room for three days expecting him to call back. He didn’t. Instead, I created a miserable environment in which my heart could break in torturous silence. The only phone call I received was the one that made me go home; the one that turned the broken pieces of my heart into dust-like fragments. My mother had died of a brain tumour nobody knew was there.
Fourteen years ago, I founded the hair products company that would make me a millionaire. The company was named after my mother, Gloria Gill, and when an Australian multinational wanted to buy the rights to distribute in Australia and New Zealand, I moved to Sydney to oversee the process. It was too easy a decision to make, I’d been looking for an escape. I rented an overpriced waterfront apartment and fell in love with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I worked tirelessly towards making my mother’s name something that hairdressers everywhere could be proud of and I took it as a compliment when journalists misprinted my age as 33 in articles and interviews.
Twelve years ago, I received my first marriage proposal from an Australian entrepreneur famous for turning around the fortunes of failed businesses. At first he wanted to hire me. Then he wanted to dine me. And finally he wanted to marry me and love me for the rest of my life. He never seemed to want to fuck me and that was a problem. I didn’t want love; I wanted to be used. Not long after I turned him down, I realised how despicably rich I was. I began giving away over half of my income to brain tumour charities across the world and I downgraded to a suburban one-bedroom flat on a non-descript North Shore street. My only indulgence was a slightly skewed, distant view of the Harbour Bridge from the corner of the bedroom window.
Ten years ago, Gloria Gill was named ‘Cosmetics Brand of the Year’ in fourteen countries. At around the same time I found my first grey hair, a thick blade of white bursting out just above my right temple. It prompted me to sell my majority shareholding for more money than I was comfortable with and I put my apartment on the market. I met the woman who bought it privately at yoga. She had dark brown dreadlocks and a green Om symbol tattooed on the inside of her left wrist. As I handed over the keys, I asked her if she had a backpack and if I could buy it from her. I booked a one-way flight to Bangkok the next day.
Nine years ago, I was proposed to for the second time. He was a slight Japanese man of few words but many physical expressions. We met in India on a meditation retreat. He was there because of the stress of a divorce. I was there because it was finally time to deal with the loss of my mother. I returned to Tokyo with him and spent my days meditating on a designer sheepskin rug in front of a view of Shibuya. I teetered on the brink of falling in love with him, always pushed back by the fact that he had three young children I couldn’t communicate with. I left in the middle of a rainy night because I knew saying goodbye might have pushed me over the edge.
Eight years ago, I arrived in Cape Town to roll out the same social enterprise I’d begun in Asia a year ago, International Start-up Support, ISS2. Using a similar model to the original ISS, I created an online network whereby successful professionals and business leaders could mentor small start-ups in developing countries. It was one of the first social enterprises of its kind. When I received an email from Amir saying he was divorced and wanted to see me again, I ignored it. I spent a lot of time on the beach listening to the waves and asking them for answers.
Seven years ago, I married Amir in a small ceremony on a beach in Barbados. Our only guests were a young Chinese couple on their honeymoon; they acted as witnesses, standing proudly next to us in matching swimwear. We moved into his Upper East Side Brownstone, which he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to have refurbished. He called it our new start. I called it a waste of money.
Six years ago, Amir lost his job as a University professor. He blamed it on cutbacks and praised it as an opportunity to finish the book he’d been working on for seven years. I had to find out from the newspapers that it was because of a sexual harassment accusation, the third in two years. To this day, it disturbs me that they waited for unlucky number three.
Five years ago, my divorce from Amir was finalised and I moved to Indonesia to learn batik painting from a group of women who profited from sharing their art with tourists thanks to ISS2. They acted drunk with gratitude in front of me and I met their children who welcomed me with wide smiles and shining eyes. There was something about those women and children that told me I wasn’t at all responsible for their happiness. It came from somewhere else. Somewhere I’d not yet been.
Three years ago, I received a phone call and a new opportunity. It was the Australian entrepreneur whose marriage proposal I’d turned down. He was a contributor to a trust that supported a number of schools in the poorest parts of Southeast Asia. They’d found evidence of fraud and corruption on a number of regional education boards and the fund was floundering. Would I steer things in the right direction? He didn’t have an office, an apartment or money to pay me. I landed in Kuala Lumpur less than a week later.
Two years ago, I decided to sell ISS and its international subsidiaries to an investment vehicle on the promise that all staff would remain in position for a minimum of five years. The money was obscene, but not as much as it should have been. I used a small fraction of it to buy and furnish an apartment in one of the many high-rises that pushed up from Kuala Lumpur’s rolling hills. The rest went to the schools I was rebuilding. I spent my evenings with books again; a pile of books, imported French wine and Malaysia’s sticky heat.
One year ago, I began to see real change in the schools I managed in Cambodia, Laos and rural Malaysia. I had to fire seventeen corrupt people, but each week I received a new letter of thanks from happy parents and pupils. For every piece of paper I lay my hand on – treasuring a moment of reward – I took a second to think about the hundreds, thousands, millions that we weren’t reaching. I realised this was where I belonged; in a job with no end. Once I resigned to this lonely but still satisfying fate, I relaxed into being a woman with some selfish pleasures again. I started having weekly massages and getting my hair coloured by a small Chinese lady who washed my hair not at the sink, but in a chair by the mirror. Using strips of my hair to pool the water and fold the shampoo in, she never once let a single drip run down my neck, though I always expected to walk away soaked. I would sit staring at her in the mirror as she stood on tiptoes to reach the top of my head with her bottle of water, all the time hoping that Mum was watching.
Five months ago, I met a man.
Four months ago, I started to sleep with him. It was both consuming and comfortable and I relished our lack of commitment. I hated his clothes, his flashy car and the gel he put in his hair, but I loved how he stroked my back to wake me up in the morning.
Six weeks ago, I missed my period and I was blinded by how lost in this world I was.