Volunteer Teresa Cairns poured tea for the next man in a line of homeless people, then stopped in her tracks – as if she’d seen a ghost.
Standing opposite her, after 13 painful years, was the man she had searched long and hard for.
In disbelief, Teresa, 54, whispered his name – Tony. And two words ended her heartache as he replied: “Hello, Sis.”
The miracle reunion came after Teresa had trawled the streets, staring into the face of each homeless man, praying that he was her brother.
As time passed, she decided Tony, 52, must be dead. So two years ago, Teresa began voluntary work with the Hands On Hand Out charity “to help anybody who might be in the same situation
And it was that kindness that would bring them back together – at London’s Charing Cross station three weeks ago.
Mum-of-three Teresa said: “I used to hope he was working on a beach somewhere abroad, but as each birthday and Christmas came and went with no news, I thought he must be dead.
“So when I looked up to see the next person waiting in the queue for a cup of tea was him, I couldn’t believe it.
“I whispered his name and he turned his head, saw me and said ‘Hello, Sis!’
“It was like a dramatic moment at the end of EastEnders when the credits roll. I felt like I was in a TV soap.
“He gave me a big hug and I was crying so much. I was shellshocked. I thought it must be a dream.
“It’s so surreal. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
Tony – surname Leonard – was equally stunned and said: “Last Christmas I was at a homeless shelter run by Crisis. This Christmas all my dreams have come true.
“I don’t like to show emotions, but when I’m by myself I just break down sobbing. They are tears of joy.
“I can’t believe I have my family back. I never got a cup of tea that night, but I got something so much better.”
The last time he and Teresa had seen each other was in 2005 at their mum Jackie’s funeral – a year after their dad Tony Snr had died.
Their 73-year-old stepdad, also called Tony, is still alive and will be reunited with “young” Tony – who he brought up like his own son – next week.
And the siblings will spend Christmas Day together, when Tony will meet Teresa’s three grandchildren for the first time.
Tony – thrilled at discovering he is a great uncle – missed out on years of family life after vanishing without trace after his mum died.
Teresa, who works for a company that carries out drug and alcohol testing, spent weeks walking the streets of London searching for him.
She said: “He had a history of going off, from when he was a teenager. He always came back… but this time he didn’t.
“I would look at every homeless person’s face, hoping it would be him. I contacted the police and all the missing people charities. Whenever I heard about bodies being found and police being unable to name them, I would check it out.”
The statistics seemed to be stacked against ever finding Tony. Homelessness charity Crisis fears more than 24,000 people will sleep rough this Christmas.
Last year, almost 600 died in England and Wales. Eighty-four per cent were men and the average age was 44.
More than half were caused by drug poisoning, suicide or alcohol abuse.
Tony himself had fallen victim to drug and alcohol addiction.
He said: “After our mum died I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t cope. I think I blamed myself for her death. I thought it was all the stress I’d put her through with my drug-taking and going off the rails. So I just did what I’ve always done and walked away. I found that easier than asking for help.
“Sometimes I’d be on benefits, other times I’d get by through begging.
“Being on the streets has left me with PTSD. I’d get beaten up all the time by other homeless people wanting whatever I’d got. That’s why I moved around so much.
“I’d try to find places that were quieter, where there weren’t as many homeless people.
“Cornwall was a good place. You could get work on the farms there picking asparagus and cauliflower and shelling peas. One year I went out to France to pick grapes.
“I took drugs to stop thinking. I wanted to blot everything out. LSD was what I used to do and then Spice came along and I got hooked on that. It ruins lives. I went from taking one gram to six grams in 10 weeks. It changed my brain, made me weak.
“I’ve lost three friends to Spice in the last 18 months. I was taking Spice and drinking two or three bottles of wine a day. I was in a mess.”
Finally, three years ago, Tony sought help at a rehab centre in East London.
He added: “I spent seven months there and have been clean ever since.
“I didn’t want to go into a dry house when I came out. So I went back on the streets. It was then that I started thinking about family again, about my dad and Teresa.
“I became desperate to see them again, but I didn’t have the courage. I got as close as the coach station at London Victoria. I was going to get on a coach to go and see my dad, but pride stopped me. I started doubting whether he would want to see me. I couldn’t go through with it.”
Teresa, who has three daughters Marnie, 17, Ruby, 18, and Charlotte, 29, with husband Jim, 56, recalled her childhood days with Tony.
She said: “We always looked out for each other. He had undiagnosed learning difficulties and I was the one who would be there to pick him up from the park when he had been picked on or had got into a fight.
“We had fun as well. We just absolutely adored each other.
“I still can’t believe I’ve found him. The first thing he told me was to stop crying and that he loved me and that I was still his skin and blister. That’s something he used to say to me.”
Tony was back on the streets after their reunion on December 3. But he arranged to see Teresa again at an outreach event last Sunday near Euston station. And that night, he returned with Teresa to her home in North Weald, Essex.
She served his first home-cooked meal in 13 years – shepherd’s pie with their mum’s secret ingredients, baked beans and Worcester sauce.
Tony said: “Being at home with Teresa has been overwhelming. Just being accepted back into the family is the most amazing feeling.
“I never imagined this day would come. I’ve been taking her dogs for walks and we’ve been chatting a lot.
“I can’t wait for Christmas Day. I’m a great uncle and I’m going to meet Teresa’s grandchildren for the first time.”
Tony is hoping to settle close to his sister and Teresa is helping him to find a home of his own. He said: “I’ve got all I could ever want right here and I’m not going to mess it up.”
And thrilled Teresa added: “I’ve always had a few tears on Christmas Day, thinking of Tony, that he should be with us. Well this year he will be.
“It’s our Christmas miracle and I will be forever thankful.”
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