It entered his bloodstream when he was merely six years old. The addiction, that is. As far as Andrew can tell, it happened like this: His father had been ‘misbehaving’ at home. Euphemistically speaking, of course. So his mother bundled him into their old beat-up Holden — the one that screeched so loud on starting up it caused heads to turn — and said, “Come on, Andy, I’m going to the club. We’ll come back when he cools off.”
His dad, a carpenter by trade, had been having trouble with work. Regular one minute; laid off the next.
“It’s not clear whether he found the bottle or the bottle found him, but they became good soul mates,” says Andrew, “and between the two of them, they somehow managed to bring their troubles home.”
Usually, when things got a bit ‘stressful’ at home, it was to grandma’s house they went — his mother’s mother’s place — except on this occasion grandma herself was holidaying in Bristol with a sister she hadn’t seen for decades.
“Can we go to the park instead, mum?” he remembers suggesting before being vetoed with, “Mummy needs a cup of strong black coffee, darling, so let’s do the club first.”
“How are you doing, young man? Come to help your mother lose her money?” he remembers being asked by one old lady with a twinkle in her eye, who, before leaving to take her own seat at one of the hundred one-arm-bandit machines adjacent, gave him a big hug.
“I still associate the old girl with a variety of smells,” says Andrew, “Her skin smelled of talcum powder and Pears soap. Her clothes gave off the strong scent of mothballs. And my cheek copped a strong strain of coffee from her breath.”
It was a time when regulations were a lot more relaxed. A child could be in the vicinity of a gambling machine and get away with it as long as the child himself was not playing. In this way, while his mum slowly sipped and analysed her marriage from the dark depths of her coffee cup, he held elderly Mrs Abraham’s hand and walked over to the ‘playing’ area. “Come on. Watch how a poor old woman can get poorer in a couple of minutes. Then when you’re older yourself you’ll know not to come here and feed your dollar bills into these greedy mouths.”
So saying, Mrs Abraham, all of seventy-five, at the time and long deceased now, hopped up on a stool, fed the machine a five-dollar bill and said something like, “Okay, here goes nothing,” before pressing a button once. The columns on the screen rolled backward, forward, pictures of horses, lions, queens, dragons, twisting this way and that before stopping. In that split second when everything came to a halt, a series of lights began flashing accompanied at the same time by a strident ringing, to be followed three or four seconds later by the sound of coins pouring — a non-stop rain of metallic rattling, clinking silver.
“If it is possible to imagine a machine getting sick and throwing up, then this is what I witnessed,” says Andrew, “And all the while Mrs Abraham just sat there with her mouth open like she’d been turned into a statue, she was so shocked into disbelief.”
Eight hundred dollars, on the press of one button.
“For me, wrong place, wrong time,” as Andrew recalls, sipping, like his mum years ago, a cup of black coffee, “because I’ve never stopped trying to recapture that moment myself. Oh, I know, I’m not a child anymore. I know about odds. I know about the near impossibility of winning big. But I saw it happen with my own eyes, see? On a dark day, when my father, bless his soul, was giving me and mum hell, I witnessed a little bit of magic. I’ve been trying to replicate that all my life without, as you can see, much success.”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.