Driving up to the church I noticed a large bingo hall opposite. The rest of the area looked fairly desolate and abandoned with boarded up shops, abandoned warehouses and large open spaces of concrete littered with glass and other debris. The church itself looked as if it had seen better days, the large wooden front doors battered and chipped with gaping holes at the bottom where I imagined rats had been feasting. It was eerily dark with only a single street lamp across the road giving off a dull hue. To my left I noticed a bright red glow which I quickly realised was the tip of a cigarette that was quickly followed by the shadow of a heavily built man. “You must be Kevin?” “Err, yes hello” I replied. I could see him clearly now – a broad stocky man, I was guessing about my age, unshaven and wearing an old crumpled brown suit, open-necked checkered shirt, short greying hair which was slicked back from his craggy face. He shook my hand enthusiastically “I’m Joe, we spoke last night on the phone. The meeting is round the back but like I said to yer we should be able to get you in. This way lad.” I’m always bemused about people of my age or even younger call me lad, I suppose it’s their way of being endearing but I do wonder how much my wheelchair plays a part in this.
With trepidation I followed him round the back of the church where there was a huddle of about seven other blokes outside the door. From inside I heard the clang of bolts being moved and then the door swung open and we were all greeted by a tall slim man in a dog collar and grey sweater. “Come in, come in” he waved in a friendly manner towards our direction. “Now there’s a bit of a step here but we’ll manage somehow” he said addressing his shoes. I was very disappointed to find two concrete steps each about 6 inches in height. The night before Joe had assured me that the meeting place was accessible. I never usually take people’s word for it and I was annoyed at myself for not checking out the place personally beforehand. Nevertheless, I was here now and everyone was willing to help me in and after a bit of a struggle four of them managed to lift the heavy chair up the steps. One of them put a hand on my shoulder and said “If you come here next week lad, we’ll have a ramp or something sorted for ya.” Which made me feel rather touched and included in a strange way.
The meeting finally started in a back room which looked like it was also used for storing chairs, hymn books and other religious paraphernalia belonging to the church. It was brightly lit with garish white neon strips and we were all in a circle of about eleven men. The youngest was probably 25 but the average age must have been at least 60. I was surprised to find there was no women (especially because of the large bingo hall across the road) and I wondered whether Gamblers Anonymous meetings were separated by gender, like the Scouts movement once was or something, but I didn’t want to ask as I didn’t want to look foolish in my first meeting. The vicar who led us in didn’t join us in the meeting but left us all to it. Joe started off, he seemed to be the group leader. He began with an opening prayer which he read from a leaflet that we were all handed but I forget the wording, but everyone repeated it by robotic rote (or parrot fashion) and my heart sank somewhat as I didn’t realise God would be involved albeit that we were borrowing his house. After the prayer, he started with the words “I’m Joe and I’m a gambler”. We all listened in respectful silence as he gave a horrendous account of how gambling ruined his life, how he’d lost his wife, the respect of his children, his job and ultimately his home. After he’d finished speaking the person to his left began with “I’m Jimmy and I’m a gambler” and proceeded to tell his story. The third person was a guy called Charlie who looked the most desperate and indeed his story was the most dramatic. Looking around at us all solemnly he dramatically said “I was that desperate I was even robbing from graveyards, how low can you get?” I immediately bit my tongue hard and desperately tried not to yell out “six feet!”. I tried to stop myself from laughing at the absurdity of all this and wondered what the hell you could find valuable in a graveyard. The days of Burke and Hare were long past.
Then it was my turn. I took a deep breath and without any prompting I began. “My name is Kevin and I’m a gambler”. I told the group about my addiction to the betting exchange on the Internet and how much I’d lost over the years and some of the excuses that I had made to myself (at this point they were all nodding in recognition). I spoke in a rush which lasted about 10 minutes and in a way it was cathartic getting all this off my chest. One or two friends and relatives knew about my gambling but I only moaned sporadically or when I’d lost a particularly big bet. I told them about the 2006 World Cup and the fact that I was almost £3,000 down and I started to play catchup which is fatal to a gambler. I panicked and kept doubling up to recoup my losses but in reality it just made them worse. I was very hopeful when England was drawn in Round B to play Trinidad & Tobago. The world was astonished that these tiny islands had even qualified for the World Cup. Surely England will batter them with goals in double figures? The team was fielding David Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard all in their fittest prime so I figured there would be at least a goal or five so I laid the 0-0 for the first half (the odds were much better than laying the 0-0 over the 90 minutes).
My stake was £5,000 the biggest bet I’d made to date. But I was so confident that I would recoup the bulk of the £3,000 losses that when my sister phoned just after I’d put the bet on (and I was on a high with excitement just before the kick off) and enquired “You still gambling?” I replied “Yep and I’ve put a big bet on the England match so if they score in the first half I win a shedload.” “Oh my God! You idiot!…” But I cut her off laughing saying “Don’t panic! Trinidad & Tobago are useless and it’s the first time they’ve qualified for the World Cup, they’re going to get battered.” “Oh don’t tell me anymore, good luck but you’re an idiot”. I put the phone down and settled down to watch the match. By the 40th minute I was sweating profusely and swearing at the telly. “You useless bastards!” I screamed at the multi-millionaire primadonnas sauntering around the football pitch not looking like they were bothered to score anything. At the 44th minute my sister rushed into the flat “I’ve been listening to it on the radio doing the ironing, you’re going to lose £5,000 you bloody idiot!.” Her face was red and she looked visibly upset. I tried to put on a brave face. “No, no the goal is coming any second now and there must be at least 2 minutes injury time.” I stammered hopefully, but not even convincing myself. And then all too soon the referee blew the whistle. My sister said she’d make me a cup of tea (her panacea to all woes and crises) and I tried to reassure her “Ah don’t worry, I’ll win it all back in the next game.” But it only made her feel worse. “That’s your problem! You need to stop. You need help!”
The GA group didn’t seem at all shocked and even less so when I told them that this was just the start of my big losses and the total amount was now running to almost £80,000 and I was maxed out on eight or nine credit cards and had taken out a £10,000 loan from my bank.
After my speech Joe asked if I had any questions about the group. I swallowed hard and said “To be honest, I hadn’t realised there was a lot of emphasis on God” (the leaflets were full of references to him). “I’m not at all religious.” Joe replied “Oh don’t worry lad, as long as you accept there’s a higher power that can help you then you don’t need to be in any religion. The members here are from all backgrounds and all religions or none.” That didn’t reassure me much as it seemed to me “the higher power” was just another euphemism for God. But I didn’t want to pursue this line. To be honest, I felt this wasn’t for me anyway. None of them gambled on the Internet – they all went into bookies and quite a few of them were addicted to playing slot machines. I felt I had very little in common with any of them.
After the meeting we all had a cup of tea and I was able to chat to some of the group. The guy who had an addiction to slot machines, the youngest of the group – Mick, told me he was up in Court next week. “I’m shitting myself, they’re going to lock me up for sure this time”. He told me he used to work for a machine company and when he was dismissed he had kept the overalls and the keys which opened the machines. He spent his days going around pubs pretending to service them but in reality he was robbing them. “The only way you’ll get money from those fucking things is from the back of them” he spat bitterly. He genuinely looked scared and I felt sorry for him.
I went back the following week, the promised ramp hadn’t materialised but I wasn’t bothered, I wouldn’t be going back. But I was very surprised (and pleased for him) to see Mick return. The magistrates didn’t send him down to gaol, but had put him on probation and he had to complete 300 hours community service. His uniform and slot machine keys were confiscated. “I couldn’t believe me luck man! God had defo. answered me prayers” – everyone nodded in silent agreement.
Despite Mick’s good news I was still determined that this would be my last GA meeting. Apart from the fact that none of them gambled online and they actually handed over real cash rather than playing with numbers on screens the other thing that put me off was that the same people turned up week after week and their stories were told over and over again, almost word for word. Charlie even used the same line about graveyards and “How low can you get?” (it was even harder not shouting out “Six feet!” this time). I was shocked when I asked him in the tea break how long he had been coming here. “Oh since it started lad, about 9 years – a few of us started this up together.”
I immediately felt utterly depressed and I decided there and then that this wouldn’t be my life. In fact, gambling on the Internet seemed more attractive than this eternal hell. I couldn’t wait to get home and catch the last few races at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park.
End of part 2.