John's story

L R Duncan Gall Cambridge John Gall Family affair 200213web

I was born in Stirling, brought up in Lancashire and had joined the Armed Forces as an engineer by the age of 17, so it’s fair to say I was used to moving around a bit. I spent most of my time as a soldier in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, but I was only in for five years before I smashed up my leg and was medically discharged.

After that I travelled around doing odd jobs here and there until I met my wife in King’s Lynn. We lived together for a long time before we married and had three children, two girls and a boy. By that point we had moved to Peterborough and I was running an employment agency, finding people work all across the Fens.

It was very sudden when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Within six months she was gone, leaving me with three kids and no idea how to cope. I’d always liked a drink socially, but after she died I buried myself in the bottle. I couldn’t sleep for worrying, so instead I’d stay up all night drinking and thinking and then I’d sleep in in the morning. I started missing work and soon enough we were homeless.

We lived in a hostel for a while but I knew it wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t good enough, and soon my daughters moved on. I got a flat with my boy but I am ashamed to say that when he was away on holiday I ran away. I left him to fend for himself, which is something I’ll always regret. But I was in a bad place. I felt that I was letting him down by being there, by drinking, by not being able to control my emotions.

I took myself down to the level of survival and it made life so much easier. All I had to think about was where my next drink was coming from. For years I was known as Bus Stop John because that’s where I stayed. It is easy to get down but so much harder to get up. I begged, I stole, I survived, but when my son saw me one day I ran away again, to London.

It was Christmas 1999 when I went on a massive bender. The last thing I remember is drinking in Trafalgar Square and then I woke up somewhere entirely different. I had no idea how I had got there, which is a dangerous thing when you live on the streets. You need to have your wits about you to a certain extent.

I decided then and there I had to change. I found a hostel place in the East End and then I heard about Emmaus. In those days the only way to get in was to ring and ring until a space was available. After five weeks of phone calls I got into Emmaus Cambridge.

I was the biggest troublemaker going when I first arrived. I didn’t and wouldn’t stop drinking, in fact I wore it like a badge of pride that I could go out and drink the night before and still make it to work the next day with a hangover. But gradually, I calmed down, as I felt more secure and more confident, and in 2000, Joan arrived. I was told to look after her, make her feel happy, at ease, to take her out socially as she had come from a pretty horrible relationship.

I knew I liked her straight away but it took her a while to warm up to me, and eventually we started going out. After a couple of years together the time seemed right to propose. Emmaus was growing rapidly at that time and our wedding turned into a bit of a media circus. We had over 300 guests and Terry Waite gave a speech. The most important part of the day, though, was that I screwed up the nerve to contact my family and happily they came to the wedding.

I cannot emphasise enough how proud I am of my son. Over the years since the wedding we have gradually built up contact, and in 2010 he came to stay with me. It was meant to only be for a few weeks but he ended up staying for a year. I felt like we had so much to catch up and I was able to make up for some of the time we had lost.

My biggest regret is that he didn’t go to university, and that was because I left him when I should have been there to guide him, but the skills he has gained have brought him somewhere new. I think that Emmaus has now filled a gap in his life the way it did for me, the need to be able to help others and give something back, but also to have the opportunity to be yourself without frills.

I just wish we both could have found Emmaus without having to go around the long way. Duncan has turned out to be so steady and level-headed and the fact that he is leader of his own community makes me glad that what I did to him didn’t break him, just made him stronger.