Weekend Fiction: House of Chance

No one remembers who really came up with the idea, but it was taken up by the new government with enthusiasm. It dealt with an epidemic that had been growing for years, and did it in a way that kept the addicts both comfortable and out the way of the masses, while still allowing their families a certain level of access to them.

Gambling had been getting out of control, mostly amongst men between the ages of 25 and 65, and up until that point no one had suggested a workable solution outside of more regulations and more taxation. The gambling lobby simply would not have it: casual gamblers, they said, who genuinely gambled only on occasion for a bit of “light fun”, would suffer due to the excesses of immoral disreputables and the unfeeling iron gloved hand of the nanny state. Attempts to regulate the amount machines and multiplier bets could pay out had also met with stiff resistance. The real problem was that no matter how much or how stridently they managed to actually regulate gambling, those men still wanted to gamble, at any and all costs. They no longer cared for their family, for their jobs, for their homes, their pets, their health, even their other addictions; men formerly wrecked by dipsomania even gave up their beer and spirits for a chance at a few more spins of the virtual roulette wheel. All they cared for was hunting and fighting for that sweet, sweet win. The jackpot was their saviour, the Buddha they continuously waited for while meditating hunched on the torn black faux-leather seats at a betting shop table.

Nothing would get to these men. No amount of red tape or self-imposed exclusion orders would help them beat their habit. Like terminal patients, they were resigned to their fates, and it was starting to ruin local economies across the country.

Then, most likely out of the corner of some dark think tank somewhere, came the idea of the ‘gamblers’ hostel’: a place where gamblers could be sent to play to their hearts’ content in a safe environment. The state would foot the bill for the bets, because the figures worked out that under the current tax regime, and given the cost of the forever failing rehabilitation programmes and psychiatric treatment given to compulsive gamblers being virtually negated, the cost of paying for their gambling was negligible, maybe even in the long term would yield something of a surplus. At least, that was the theory presented to everyone. There was already a place in Ohio that worked on a similar basis for alcoholics: they let them all live in a care home-type environment, and just let them drink themselves to death. It was strangely enough more humane and less damaging to themselves and to the general public to just allow them get on with the inevitable.

The new homes took off fast, and within a year more than a thousand men and nearly a hundred women were housed in twelve homes, eight of them in Scotland and Northern England. Within three years this had grown to more than twenty thousand inhabitants in dozens of homes.

They were free to leave at any time, but their compulsions almost always kept them there. Their families could arrange a visit for a prearranged visit, but only if the staff thought the gambler was in a fit mental state, which they were often not. All necessary meals and other basic amenities would be provided to them. The gamblers got to keep any money they won, but of course they never kept it for very long.

The inhabitants of the homes were not patients, because there was no treatment going on as such. Several pathways for gamblers were laid out: ideally, the gambler would be able to ‘get it out of his system’ and re-join society a cleansed man; alternatively, he would recognise his problems and leave to go seek proper professional help, which was also acceptable; or, in the worst case scenario, but also the most likely one, he would simply grow old and either die there or in some specialised home for elderly gamblers. Any which way, as far as the government was concerned, the problem had not exactly been solved, but it had at least been stemmed and contained in a way that was acceptable to the average voter.

I can now admit it: I’m one of their residents. I’ve been living in Walker House just outside Blackpool for about two years now. It’s pretty comfortable in here, once you get used to it of course. The food is decent, but there isn’t much in the way of variety over time. The building is quite cold and grey, a bit like an old hospital. I think the place was an office or a bank at some point, but the staff don’t know when you ask them.

I first came across the problem about a month ago. I had been on the virtual roulette for about the fiftieth time in a row. Roulette was my preferred bet, although I also did blackjack and played the horses as well. It was 10 AM and I was on my third cup of coffee, which was in line with my usual schedule. I didn’t do anything else by this point: I woke up at about eight, and gambled until eleven at night, taking only brief breaks for lunch and dinner. I could burn through five grand in one sitting, or come up with five grand on credit, which I would always inevitably blow the next day. Until this particular day that was.

It had been a very good morning: I was up six grand, which was a rarity for that time of the day. I placed my bet on black, the whole amount. Usually, such a bet would be denied and I’d have to split my credit into a savings and a new bet, but for whatever reason the machine accepted it, and I played. It won! £12,000! I couldn’t believe it.

At that moment an epiphany came, and it washed over me like a cold jug of water. I hadn’t seen my daughter for about two months and she was reaching that age where telling her that “Daddy was sick” or that “Daddy is on a much needed holiday” wasn’t enough anymore. I remembered the shame I could see in her face when she last came to visit. I had been a pretty good businessman at one point, quite successful, a man of the community even, and now here I was, a total disgrace. My wife had already left me over the gambling and there was no chance at getting her back. What was on my mind now was: could I at least get my daughter back?

For the first time in a long while I had the money spare to treat her, to get her what she really wanted, to hell with my own fixations. I stood up and right there and then decided I wanted to go see her, taking my money with me.

I went to the front reception and told them my intention: I was leaving and I wanted my winnings.

They looked at me in confusion, before the three of them behind the desk retreated to the back office to discuss it. I saw someone make a call. A minute later the general manager walked past me and went in to talk to them. A few minutes after that they all came out and explained to me that my money was already in my bank account, and that I’d have to physically go to a cash point to get it. So I retrieved my debit card from my safety deposit box—I had surrendered it there at the suggestion of the head councillor when I had moved in—and went straight to the bank, as I or anybody was still free to leave at any time. I admit as I walked across the streets my eyes hurt from the light a little, and I scared myself with an extremely pale reflection in a flower shop window, but I was determined to get the job done.

I reached the cash point and inserted my card, typing my pin in, which I still miraculously remembered after two years. The screen flashed and my account was almost empty, bar 18 pence. Every direct debit I once had had long been cancelled, and it was just as untouched as the day I had entered the home.

I walked back, passing several betting shops, but placing bets was not on my mind. When I got there I told reception the money was absent. They went through the same process of filing into the back and the general manager joining them, before coming out to explain to me that there must be a problem with the system and that it would take several days to correct. I was impatient to get going, but figuring that this was the inconvenience of a withdrawal system rarely used, I decided to let it pass and wait.

And pass did the days. By the time I asked again about my winnings a week had passed and the same ritual of retreating into the back office was repeated again. The general manager came out and asked me if I was “certain” I had won £12,000. I replied that I was. He made it clear that he didn’t believe me. I protested and started to shout, but security came in and took me back to my room, and locked me in. I pounded and screamed on the door that this was illegal, but they didn’t heed. After a few days I had calmed down and they finally let me out, but the compulsion to gamble had returned, and as soon as I had left the room I was back on the roulette machine, winning and losing hundreds by the hour.

I didn’t forget my twelve grand though. It stayed at the back of my mind, until a week later when I asked at reception if it was available yet. I was told I had already gambled it away. I knew this couldn’t be the case—I would have noticed £12,000 in credit suddenly appearing—and I felt like shouting my head off again, but I knew what had happened last time. I decided I had no choice but to let it slide, and gave up on leaving the home. I had no money to leave it with anyway.

That night I lay in bed awake, which was unusual for me because I almost always just fell straight asleep. I had started to wonder: what if none of it was real? What if it was all an illusion to keep us happy?

I became obsessed with this thought, an obsession that continues to this day. Am I winning or losing any money at all? The staff would never dare admit the truth. If I’m not actually winning or losing anything, then all I’m doing is just going through the motions. The impulse to gamble begins to diminish, but it doesn’t go away, it redirects elsewhere, outside of the home. I inch closer to walking out that front entrance every day, every hour, every minute. They’re not going to stop me this time. There’s a betting shop, a real one, in the main road, not that far away. I just know it.

My daughter has not yet come to visit me, and I don’t expect her to that soon either.

 But they ain’t gonna beat me son. I’m a winner.


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