A homeless alcoholic’s second chance

duncan gall john gall

After sitting his GCSEs, Duncan Gall went to Tenerife with his friends from school. He and his father, John, lived in a flat in Peterborough. His mother, Maureen, had died 4 years before. Duncan had started to rummage for his keys when he spotted the notice. “It said we’d been evicted,” says Duncan. “When I tried to open the door, I couldn’t. The locks had been changed.” There was no sign of his dad. “There were no mobile phones in those days,” says Duncan, now 33. “I was 16 years old and completely alone.”

Today, John listens to his son’s story in silence. “While he’d been away on holiday, I’d walked out and left him,” he says, shaking his head. “I simply couldn’t go on any more. It became easier to just slide out of Duncan’s life than to stay and face up to the reality of my own.

That night, Duncan stayed with a friend. A few days later, he went to the council housing office and was given a bedsit. “But I survived. School gave my life a framework. It wasn’t so bad.” Of his father he knew nothing, which was exactly what John wanted – he was now homeless, living on the street or in night shelters. For a while he slept at a bus stop and became known to the locals as Bus Stop John.

John had begun a slide into alcoholism the moment his wife was diagnosed with cancer. “She was 39 years old, and we had three children aged 12, 13 and 14 at the time,” he says. “She was dead within six months. It was too much to bear. I’d always been a social drinker, but I quickly became totally dependent on it – I was drinking vodka before getting out of bed in the morning.”

Until Maureen’s death, the family lived in a rented house. John describes himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He moved from job to job. Once widowed, he no longer worked and before long he couldn’t afford the rent. The 4 of them – John, Duncan, and his older sisters, Joanne and Kate, moved into a family hostel, and eventually the girls moved out to live with boyfriends. John and his son were rehoused in a flat. “I knew he was drinking a lot,” says Duncan. “But he was still there and we still communicated and lived around one another. He was still my dad.”

Over the weeks and months there were occasional sightings of his dad. Duncan would glimpse him in the distance or hear about him from friends. “It was pretty obvious what had happened, that he’d gone off the rails and was drinking himself into oblivion,” says Duncan. “Sometimes he’d get accommodation for a while and I’d go to see him, but I never stayed long – it wasn’t easy to see him in that situation.” By now his sisters weren’t in touch with John much either.

But they did all live in the same town. John had turned to begging by day; and it was when he saw Duncan passing by that he realised he’d have to get away. “I was begging for money to spend at the off-licence, when suddenly I spotted Duncan walking along the street,” says John. “I was horrified. I knew that, however bad things had got, I didn’t want my children to see me doing this.”

John left Peterborough the next day. He went to Cambridge, then on to London. From there his life went further downhill. “I slept on benches or under Blackfriars bridge. It was dangerous and cold and uncomfortable, but when you’ve had as much to drink as I usually had you hardly notice. I never stopped feeling guilty about the kids. Not a day went by when I didn’t think of them, and feel bad about what I’d done. However much I’d drunk the night before, I always woke up thinking about them.” Looking back, John believes he had a death wish. “I think I was expecting to die and I thought it would be better for me and for other people if I was dead,” he says.

One night in December 1999, he went on a bender – two bottles of whisky, three or four more of cider – and the last thing he remembers is drinking vodka in Trafalgar Square. When he woke up, he was in another part of London entirely with no idea how he’d got there. “I realised the danger I was in. I really wasn’t going to last long if I carried on,” he says.

He found a room in a cold weather shelter, and heard about the scheme that would save his life. It was a project called Emmaus, in Cambridge, a place where homeless people could live and work, and rediscover their self-respect and self-belief. “I knew I needed work to give me something to get up for in the morning, and I knew I needed to get away from London and the life I’d been living there.” He got a place at Emmaus in January 2000: it was to be the start of an extraordinary rehabilitation.

Duncan, meanwhile, had done his A-levels and got a job in a warehouse, quickly rising to work in sales and then as a buyer and later an account manager for a technological company. He had lost touch with his father and now didn’t expect to see him again. “I thought he might even have died without me knowing,” he says.

Then, in 2002, a wedding invitation landed on Duncan’s mat. A year or so after arriving at Emmaus, having successfully detoxed, John had fallen in love with a fellow resident, Joan Baxter – and they were getting married. “Most of the people at Emmaus are men, so when Joan arrived I was asked to look after her – we clicked straight away,” says John. “Our wedding was the start of a new life and I summoned up the courage to invite the children. I really wanted to be in touch with them again.”

Duncan didn’t hesitate to accept. “It was quite daunting, knowing I’d be seeing Dad again after all this time,” he says. “But I really did want him back in my life.”The wedding was quite a surprise: through his years of homelessness, alcoholism and then alcohol withdrawal, John had made a lot of new friends. “

For John, seeing Duncan again was the icing on his wedding cake. “I’d seen my daughters again by then, and seeing Duncan was just wonderful. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk that day, but I knew we’d see one another again. I had a lot to make up for.”

Over the next few years, John and Duncan rekindled their relationship and then in 2009 Duncan came to stay with John at Emmaus. “I planned to be there a fortnight and stayed 18 months,” says Duncan. “Everyone was really welcoming, especially as I had skills I could share in the community, and it gave me time to really get to know my father again. Emmaus has about 30 homeless residents and they all became my family.”

By this stage, John had progressed from being a resident (they’re known as “companions” at Emmaus, which is a secular organisation, although it was originally set up by a priest in France in the 1940s) to being leader of the Cambridge house. When a new community was set up in Leicester last year, he encouraged Duncan to apply for the same role there. Duncan got the job; today he and his dad speak on the phone every day, and meet every week or two. “It’s so helpful when I’ve got a problem to be able to talk it over with Dad, because he’s done this work a lot longer than me – and he understands the issues around homelessness from the inside,” says Duncan.

What’s most touching of all, chatting to the two of them, is how immensely proud each is of the other. “I often meet people who tell me how difficult their start was and how it stopped them getting on in life. And I think of Duncan and I say, yes, it’s hard when life deals you a bad hand when you’re a kid … but look at my son. Look at how tough things were for him. And he made it.”

For his part, Duncan never tires of telling how John turned his life around. “At Emmaus Leicester, I say: look at my dad. If you’re telling me that you can’t do anything with your life because you’ve been on the streets, that you can’t pull yourself up again, look at him and what he’s achieved. You don’t get more down and out than he was: but he made it back. That’s really something.”


Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/may/25/dad-homeless-alcoholic-second-chance



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