Two Wiganers have had their tough lives transformed after an extraordinary chance meeting revealed they were in fact long-lost brothers.
Veteran Roy Aspinall, from Marsh Green, was returning home from the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies when he spotted a man who was sleeping rough in the parish churchyard.
Chatting to the man after being struck by the familiarity of some of his facial features, Roy was astonished to discover he was Billy White, the brother he had last seen some quarter of a century ago.
An equally-stunned Billy realised he was talking to the sibling his mum had spoken to him about but who he had never actually met.
The brothers are now living at 36-year-old Roy’s Stranraer Road home while Billy, 28, is found accommodation of his own.
They are also both being supported by EDs, a Wigan town centre organisation helping military personnel and their families.
Both spoke to the Wigan Observer about the extraordinary bond they have formed in the space of a week, their emotional journeys to fill in the gaps of their family histories and the often-tumultuous paths they have taken through life including addiction and time on the streets.
Roy said: “We had done what we needed to do at the memorial and been back to EDs for a brew. I left and walked back through the churchyard to get my bus and I saw this guy sitting on the brick wall.
“The recognition of his face was there. I thought I had to see who he was. He seemed to be on the streets because he had his little bag and sleeping bag.
“I went over, offered him a cigarette and starting having a chat. I asked some questions, if he knew this person in the family. I was talking to a complete stranger but was trying to get answers and eventually asked if he was William.
“He said yes but they called him Billy. I rang my sister who I had got to know at the beginning of the year and we confirmed it. She hadn’t seen him for 15 years and the last time I’d seen him he must have been just starting to walk.
“Billy had a little talk with her and they were both over the moon. We couldn’t believe how amazing this day was. Once Billy had put the phone down I just told him to grab his stuff and said he was coming with me.
“I took him to my place and he’s polished up alright. My living room now has a sofa bed for him. He was made up with it.
“We’ve just spent all this week getting to know each other and we’ve both been in tears more than once. For me it’s just a case of: ‘Where have you been all my life?’
“The way we’ve gelled and bonded is amazing. Some of the things we have found out are uncanny. We have very similar personal do and donts and I thought I was the only person in my family to drink coffee until Billy came along and ordered exactly the same thing I had.
“It’s an incredible experience and I can’t put it into words.”
Billy said: “I didn’t actually believe him at first when he came over and I didn’t notice the similarities of his features. I then started looking closer and the more I spoke to him I could see the resemblances coming out. I’ve seen pictures of him when he was younger and he really has a look of me in those.
“I always knew I had an older brother, my mum spoke about him a lot. She had explained everything to me but I didn’t know anything about him to pinpoint him or even if he lived in the same area.
“I was nervous and a bit scared at first, we both were, and I’m still pretty shocked by everything.”
Roy and Billy are both the children of Lorraine White, who lived in Higher Ince with Roy and then spent her years bringing up Billy at various addresses, including ones on Sherwood Drive and Frog Lane.
Lorraine falling pregnant caused huge tension with her parents and when he was very young Roy was given to her sister and brought up believing his aunt was actually his mother and his cousins his siblings.
He was expelled from Rose Bridge High School and from then on spent a lot of time on the streets, struggling with drink and drugs problems which invariably caused issues in his relationships.
Billy, meanwhile, was brought up by Lorraine until he was 10 and then spent the rest of his formative years in the care system.
Telling each other the things they did not know about their real parents and siblings has been a journey of discovery and also quite a difficult process for both of them.
Billy said: “Our mum was amazing, she wouldn’t hurt a fly and she was the sweetest woman going. I wish Roy could have met her, things could have been different.”
Roy added: “I wish I could have met her as well. I never had that opportunity.
“It’s so weird saying ‘brother’ or ‘uncle’. It’s something I’ve never had. He’s also told me about his side of the family and I’ve told him about mine.”
In the care system as a teenager Billy gradually got into trouble, going to jail when he was 17.
It was a brush with the law which also led Roy’s life to take a new turn as he joined the Army for a four-year stint, not seeing front-line duty but working on testing new kit with his battalion.
Both brothers, unknown to each other, then drifted through a few years of similar lives battling their personal demons while enduring time homeless interspersed with a series of relationships that produced children for both of them but ultimately did not work out.
Their similar experiences have clearly helped to forge a deep bond. During the conversation with the Observer Billy emotionally speaks about some of his children and Roy knows exactly the right words to say to help.
Billy has also been helping Roy over the past week while he has been struggling with a slipped disc.
As well as addiction Roy also battled serious mental illness and at his lowest point was transferred to hospital in Liverpool. He then realised he needed to kick his problems with alcohol and drugs and started attending courses and awareness groups.
Going to Coops led him to EDs as one of the workers there was also helping the Library Street organisation and the veterans there quickly ensured he was one of them.
Billy has now been given full rights as a veteran’s family member and EDs is supporting him too, with both men speaking in glowing terms about it.
Projects manager Darryl Picton has also spoken of his delight at being able to play a role in such an incredible tale.
He said: “This is one of those good news stories you don’t get very often. It’s amazing how it has come about.
“It’s an honour to be able to help support both Billy and Roy.”
After much hardship things are now starting to look up for both brothers.
Billy is starting work with logistics firm Arrow XL at Martland Mill while Roy, who is an injured veteran from his time in the Army, hopes to get more involved with the counselling and drug and alcohol work at EDs to go alongside his volunteering at Coops.
Both are in total agreement on one thing: “He’s never getting rid of me now.”