ClothesI would generally describe myself as a clever woman. I’ve had a good education. I’ve had some really good, well paid jobs. I’ve travelled the world. My social skills are fine and I’ve got a wide circle of friends.

However, I’m not the smart a**e you might think I am. I have an achilles heel – men. Yes that’s right, I’m an absolutely lousy judge of men.

I married young and had two beautiful children. My husband worked in construction taking control of major building projects all over the world. For many years, the four of us lived in the Middle East, the lifestyle was fantastic and the tax free salary meant we were able to have the best of everything. Yet all was not as it seemed. Behind closed doors, my husband was an abusive monster. It started verbally, just nasty words and put downs but quickly escalated into physical violence. Living overseas meant that I was isolated from family and I had nobody to turn to. In the end, I just accepted it, doing everything I could to ensure that neither me nor the children did anything to annoy ‘hubbie’.  We moved back to the UK just as the children started secondary school but sadly my domestic situation didn’t really change.

Tragically, when he was 19, my son died in a car accident. Nothing can prepare you for the death of a child and for at least 6 months I could barely bring myself to get out of bed. The only ‘good’ thing to come out of it was that I eventually gained the courage to leave my husband and seek a divorce.

My divorce settlement enabled me to buy a lovely little cottage and I found myself an admin job in a local office. Life was good – happy and safe.

I had a great social life with lots of friends both male and female. I wasn’t looking for love but one night when I was in a local bar I was introduced to Liam. He was 20 years younger than me but witty, intelligent and a local businessman. He had it all. In all honesty, I guess I was flattered that somebody like him would be interested in somebody like me.

I won’t bore you with the details but after about a year, Liam and I bought a house and moved in together. Liam was an entrepreneur in every sense of the word, always looking for new ways to make money – and he was very successful. I wasn’t unduly worried therefore when he told me that he wanted to set up a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ and thought I’d be the ideal person to manage it.

I quickly realised that ‘Gentleman’s Club’ = ‘brothel’. I can’t explain why I didn’t walk away as soon as I found out. I knew what I was doing wasn’t legal but there was a part of me that believed Liam when he told me that we were ‘providing a service to the local community’. Not only that, several of our clients were serving policemen and I guess I felt this offered us some protection.

I should have listened to that little voice in my head which had told me to ‘get out’. All too soon, we were raided by the police and both Liam and I ended up in court. We both received significant prison sentences along with significant compensation orders. I lost absolutely everything.

Prison wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be.  I made some wonderful friends and used my time constructively signing up for every course that I could.

I was always worried though about how I was going to be able to support myself when I left prison. Having a conviction which would never be spent, I’d assumed that getting paid work would be difficult – not sure too many employers would want ‘Madam Shirl’ working for them or at least not the sort of employers I wanted to work for!! I started to consider self-employment. I’d always been interested in fashion and would often customise clothes that I’d bought from High Street stores. I knew this was something I was good at but I wasn’t sure whether I could make a business out of it.

A couple of weeks before I left prison, my personal officer arranged for me to meet somebody who worked for Women in Prison. I ran my ideas past her and she gave me some fantastic feedback and advice. She suggested I start small – sell items on eBay to see whether there was a market for my goods. She also gave me a link to somebody who was able to help ex-offenders set up websites and a list of potential funders.

So, I left prison, got my website set up, it looked great and with a £50 loan from a friend, I scoured the local charity shops for clothes. On that first day I returned home with a huge bag and spent a week, working 15 hours a day customising my loot. Adding new buttons, lace, cutting, stitching, you name it, I did it. I took photographs of the items from every angle and uploaded them to Ebay and my website. At the end of the first month, I’d earned a £500 profit and immediately paid back the £50.

Ebay and my website went from strength to strength and just before Christmas a year ago I was in a position to rent a ‘pop up shop’, initially for two months. My shop is now the ‘place to go’ if you’re looking for something original and quirky. I now buy a lot of my stock in but still make sure they’re different and one-off pieces and I’ll always give something the ‘Shirley’ touch if I’m asked.

It’s been the hardest work I’ve ever done. I spend all day in the shop and then go home and work in the evening. However, I think I’ve just got to the point where I’m ready to take on a part-time person to help me out. Without a doubt I’ll be looking to give an opportunity to somebody with a criminal record.

And what about my achilles heel – well there is a new man in my life. He’s charming and well groomed, weighs about 200lb and drools quite a lot. He absolutely adores me and all he wants in return is a big bowl of dinner and a long walk every day – he’s my St Bernard, Henry.

By Shirley (name changed to protect identity)

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