Pick Me Up Magazine - Terry George
We all dream about what we’d do if we had loads of money. Telling your boss where to stick it, buying mansions, flash cars and designer clothes…
For most people it’s a dream that will never come true. For me, when it did come true, I couldn’t believe it. Even when I saw it in black and white.
SECRET MILLIONAIRE GIVES AWAY £30K read the newspaper headlines. The weird bit was that they were talking about me.
I’d never much thought of myself as a ‘millionaire’. Maybe because of how I’d grown up. My mum, Teresa, and dad, Richard, did their best, but with three brothers and a sister, there was never enough to go around. We had no electricity, had to cook over a coal fire and got so desperate we’d pinch milk off our neighbours’ doorsteps.
At 15, I’d left school and got three jobs. After a day packing pickles in a factory, I’d spend early evenings moving pianos for a local antiques shop, before collecting glasses in a nightclub. It was exhausting, but soon I was helping Mum and Dad pay off their debts.
All that hard work set me in good stead. Over the years, I’d built a business, first working as a DJ and club night organiser, then running a magazine and chat line business. My work ethic meant I was pretty successful.
Thankfully, that carried on when, in 2005, I’d set up www.gonetoosoon.org, a website where people can leave tributes for loved ones who’ve died. It had really taken off, so in November 2007, when I’d sat staring at the newspaper headline, I knew it was true. I’m a millionaire.
As to how I’d hit the headlines, it had started in May 2007, when Channel 4 got in touch. ‘We’d like you to be one of our secret millionaires,’ they’d said. They’d explained they send wealthy people to underprivileged areas, undercover.
‘At the end, you donate money to causes there,’ the producer told me.
‘Sounds interesting,’ I replied, so they sent me a DVD to help me decide.
I couldn’t get through a single episode without bursting into tears.
‘There are so many people who need help,’ I’d said to my partner, Michael Rothwell, 42. ‘You’d be good at that,’ he’d urged.
I thought back to my childhood. Could I really go back to living like that?
I wasn’t lavish, but I was used to central heating and a full fridge. ‘You love a challenge,’ Michael insisted. True.
So three months later, I was on my way. Cornwall. I’ve always fancied going there.
As Leeds train station disappeared into the distance, a cheery image popped into my mind of sandy beaches and cosy holiday homes. I was in for a shock. There was no sign of pretty cottages as I got off at Penzance and was taken to a static caravan park.
The area was run-down and my tiny caravan could fit inside a bathroom of my six-bed home.
The producers had taken my wallet and told me to say I was making a documentary about moving to the area.When they left me in my draughty caravan my stomach was growling, but the cupboards were as empty as my pockets.
There’s only one thing for it, I’d thought. I’d gone from one caravan to another, asking to borrow food. Returning with a few slices of bread, some butter and a few tea bags, I felt like I did as a kid. But this time I was asking for milk and not just taking it. I couldn’t get over how generous these strangers had been.
‘I love to dance’
Over the next 10 days, I met so many people I’d wanted to help. First, there was Kath and Don Tozer, who I worked a few shifts for in their chippy.
‘I love to dance,’ Kath had said, giving a cheeky wink before spinning across the kitchen and performing a tango!
You’d never know it to look at her, but Kath had terminal cancer. ‘I’d love to go to Argentina and tango there,’ she confided. ‘It’s my dream.’ Ten days later, I gave them £10,000 to make that happen.
I also did some work at a nursing home, and a single mum there, Kerry Blockley, 23, invited me to hers for Sunday lunch. ‘Careful of the oven,’ she’d said as she’d dished up a roast with all the trimmings. ‘It’s broken.’ The washing machine was on its last legs, too, and the place was desperate for a lick of paint. Kerry worked hard but she was struggling to make ends meet. She’d stood there in shock when I’d written her a cheque for £8,000. ‘Th-thanks so much,’ she’d stammered.
I’d also donated money to the nursing home for new tellies and a minibus.
When my 10-day stay was over, I was glad to be back with my home comforts, but I kept in touch, and was delighted when Kath and Don booked their holiday.
When I saw the show on telly, I welled up. Those people had given me an experience I’d never forget, and were friends for life.
I kept updated about how Kath and Don’s holiday had gone and how Kerry was getting on with her new oven. I smiled whenever I thought of Kath whirling around the chippy like she was in Strictly Come Dancing.
But in October 2008, I got a phone call.
‘It’s Kath,’ Don told me. ‘She’s died.’ Even though we had known it was coming, Kath had been so lively, it had seemed impossible. ‘I’ll come to the funeral,’ I gulped in reply. The following week, I was back in Cornwall to pay my last respects.
‘She loved that holiday,’ Don said. ‘Thanks again.’ ‘I’m just glad I was able to help,’ I said, hugging him.
I thought the world of them both, and if I’d needed proof it went both ways, I got it last September when Mum died, aged 76.
On the day of the funeral, I was making my way into the church when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Don standing there, eyes filled with emotion.
‘You came all this way,’ I said, stunned.
I couldn’t believe Don had driven almost 400 miles and spent God knows how much on petrol, just to support me. Especially as he didn’t know Mum well.
‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘You were there for me, weren’t you?’ He gave me a look that made me realise he knew exactly what I was going through.
I got a big bouquet of flowers from the girls at the nursing home, too.
I’ve been back to Penzance a fair few times since then, and I always look forward to my visits.
The cash I donated has long since been spent but the friends I’ve got now will last a lot longer. And they’ve made my life a hell of a lot richer, too.