Conversation Through A Window

On the way to my daughter’s, I walked by the betting shop I used to gamble in. Normally, I refuse to look in the windows. But this time before I could look away I saw a young woman standing in front of a machine. She had her back to me. She barely moved. She was playing roulette and it was flashing red and yellow and black in the way I used to love. I couldn’t move a step further. I couldn’t stop myself from staring. I wasn’t afraid for myself, but I was afraid for her. She could have been me. I wanted to go in and drag her out.

My grandson was sleeping in his pram, his jacket zipped, a blanket covering his legs. I’d told my daughter I’d have him back for three o’clock. We weren’t late but we were only just on time. The park’s autumn leaves had enchanted him and he’d enjoyed kicking them with his yellow wellies. He must have been attracted to the colours and the crunch. I love him so much.

But I couldn’t move from the bookies window. The young woman played on. I was remembering the times I’d stood shaking by those same machines, everything gone. No money for the house, no money for my daughter, for holidays, for food. My sister told me I wasn’t looking well. I didn’t care.

I shouldn’t have been lingering so long at the window. Even though I’m years off a bet, it wasn’t good for me. The woman stepped back from the machine and I thought to myself, That’s it, my love, you can’t win, you’ll never win, but she went to the counter and I saw her paying in more money. And then she was back at the roulette. When I gambled, I didn’t see so many women in the bookies. This woman seems familiar with the place.

I used to feel at home and at peace in a betting shop, as if I could finally escape. I didn’t like real life. Once or twice the lassies at the counter said, ‘Are you sure?’ when I asked to pay in more money: the same lassies that offered me the free bet when the machines first came in. Are you sure? Of course I was sure: I was chasing all the money I’d lost.

I put my fingers to the glass and watched the woman, trying to see how much she had left to play with. I thought about leaving my grandson in his pram, darting inside, pressing collect for her, and whisking her away with me. If anything happened to grandson, my daughter would never forgive me. So, I stayed where I was, watching her. Men and women with prams and dogs passed by, on the way to the school for the three o’clock pick up I presumed. The lollipop lady was already at her post. The wind lifted leaves and they gathered around the wheels of my grandson’s pram. I turned back to the woman at the machine. She took out her phone, looked at it, scratched the back of her head then put her hands on the machine. If she had kids to collect, she’d need to collect them now.

I can’t count the times I was late to get my daughter from school. She told me she was always the last kid in the playground, standing next to the teacher, waiting for me. When I didn’t come, she’d have to go inside and sit in the office. I never cared. I used to leave her in the house alone for hours. I stole money out of her birthday cards. I missed one whole parents evening, at her high school, because I won a huge sum of money which I then flung back into the machine. I stood shaking in front of the machine that night. My sister said I had a problem with gambling. I had terrible thoughts.

Five minutes to three. I’d need to go. I’ve always been punctual when looking after my grandson. It helps my daughter trust me. I knocked my knuckles on the door but the woman didn’t seem to hear me. I knocked again. Louder. Nothing. I knocked one last time and when she finally turned round I saw on her face everything I’ve ever felt myself; the sadness, the loneliness, the fear, the despair. She looked right at me so I had to say something. ‘Go to your GP!’ I shouted. ‘Make something up if you have to. Just get yourself through the door then ask for help. Say you’re beat.’ She kept staring at me so I carried on: ‘Talk to someone. You’re not alone. Life comes for you, it really does, but gambling won’t fix anything, life will still be here when you’re done in there!’ She looked at me and I nodded my head – and for a second I saw that she’d heard me and I think she felt understood – then I watched her face change from desolation to irritation. She said something dismissive, her mouth a snarl, and turned back to the machine. I used to be the same.

I either stayed and shouted more through the window or I got my grandson home on time. There was no choice. My daughter said to me once that I’d have a lot to lose if I went back gambling. I love my grandson. I love her. I won’t lose them. So, I turned to go, and as I did I noticed an advert sliding onto the bus stop’s electronic display. It was an advert for bingo with a woman not much older than the girl I’d seen in the bookies. The woman on the advert was smiling, however, and winning. The odds are stacked against us, I thought, and then I thought, No. Look at me. Living proof. I walked my grandson home, through the falling leaves, to my daughter.