Money for Milk

The only time I could ever press collect was when they were flinging me out of the bookies. I always wanted more. Needed more. I couldn’t resist the pull of the machines. But that night, I walked out with four hundred pounds in my pocket as they bolted the door behind me. Rain was stoating off the street, off my cheeks, down the back of my collar. I was buzzing. Floating. In awe of myself. It was only a couple of minutes to my house – you’re spoilt for choice with betting shops in this part of Glasgow – so I didn’t care about the rain.

If the guys I owed money to had been in the bookies, which they often were, I’d have given them something straight up and that would have been part of my debt paid off. But they weren’t. So as I was running through the rain with the buses shooting by and broken umbrellas sticking out of pavement bins, my head was already going over what I’d do next with the four hundred pounds. Bet it. Double it. Pay the guys off. Keep a bit back for another bet. I had possibilities and it felt good.

Marie must have heard me coming up the close stairs because she was at the open door and her face was made up and her hair was nice.

‘Where have you been?’ she said. ‘You’re wet through.’

‘I bumped into Paul.’ I stamped my feet on the doormat to cover the lie and pulled my soaking hoodie over my head. She was coming at me, wanting a kiss, but all I could think about was hiding the four hundred quid, getting it out of sight quick.

‘I need to get changed,’ I said and I closed the bedroom door and lifted the mattress and planked the money under the bed, thinking don’t come in, give me peace, don’t come in.

She came in. ‘What were you doing with Paul?’

I looked around for dry clothes to fling on. ‘I helped him shift a bit of furniture.’


‘He’s cleaning his carpets.’

‘You’ve forgotten haven’t you?’

I remembered then, so I had to go on the attack. ‘I didn’t forget. Who do you think I am? I’m round my mate’s house shifting tables and sofas and effing wardrobes. What am I supposed to do?’

‘It’s too late now. Mum says she’ll mind Kyle tomorrow and we can go out then.’

‘No, I’ve had enough. I’m fed up with this bullshit. Can’t even get in my own house without you having a go at me.’

It’s what I did. It worked every time. Creating arguments so I could leave the house and get back out gambling.

‘Please don’t go,’ she said, and because the bookies was closed and because it was raining, I sat down in the living room with Kyle. And my son’s looking at me like he’s taking it all in and I’m feeling guilty because I should have bought him some sweeties with my four hundred pounds but I didn’t. Couldn’t.

I sat with my son in the living room and flicked through the channels looking for something that wasn’t sport, that I couldn’t bet on, that might settle my head. At least the money was safe under the mattress. I found an old drama and watched that but didn’t watch it, if you know what I mean. I was thinking about the next day and how I could double my money, how it was my turn for a win, how if I tripled it I’d pay off one of my loans and have a bit left to spend on Marie. And I would buy sweeties for my son.

Then Marie came in with her coat on saying there was no milk for her cup of tea or the wean’s cereal in the morning. She put her fingers in the bowl on the mantelpiece where we keep the coins. I knew the bowl was empty because I’d cleaned it out earlier in the day.

‘Do you have any money?’ she said.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Can I use your card?’

‘Nothing on it.’

‘No coins anywhere?’ She took off her coat and sat down.

If she said one more word I’d be up and out of that room.

I sat there with four hundred pounds under the mattress and the boy needing milk for the morning and it made me think of an old guy at my work. I didn’t have much to do with him but he’d obviously been watching me. He’d said to me, ‘You’ve got a problem with gambling, haven’t you, son? I know the type. You’d rather have holes in your shoes than spend a penny on anything other than gambling.’ He must have noticed when I came in late after lunch each day because I’d been caught up in the bookies. He said he’d been there himself and was standing by for me. He also said, ‘Watch yourself with the petty cash. The boss is noticing things aren’t adding up.’ That made me feel as sick as I did when I lost.

I wished I could have been more like my pal, Paul. Paul and I started out the same; pitch and toss with our dinner money, underage bets in the bookies because we were tall, the buzz of a night at a casino. I mean, our dads gambled and it didn’t do them any harm and our mums used to sell the football cards for our under 14s team. Paul could walk past a betting shop without going in. Whereas I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop myself getting pulled in.

Marie fed Kyle. She’d taken off her going-out clothes and put on her pyjamas and housecoat. Have you ever felt lonely in your own house? Like you can’t be yourself because you’ve got too much to hide? That’s how I felt. I watched Marie pull down the blinds against the dark and turn up the fire. Freezing, this flat was. Kyle bounced about in his jammies and, I’ll be honest, he was annoying me. Too hyper. Too demanding. He was one more thing for my brain to cope with when all I could think about was getting out to put another bet on. I was gripped. Obsessed. Compelled. Overtaken. I couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to stop. Casinos opened late.

So, of course, when Marie suggested I put Kyle to bed, maybe read him a story, and said, ‘It’s not often you’re here for bedtime,’ that was it. I picked a fight. Easy. I pounced on the subtext. ‘What do you mean I’m not often here for bedtime? What are you implying?’ On and on. It didn’t take long. ‘I need to get away from you before I blow my top,’ I said and after I’d got the money from under the mattress, I was back out in the rain racing to put a bet on.

Funny, as I was walking through the city to the casino I thought I saw the old guy from work. There was a man across the road, walking a wee dog on a lead. I don’t know if it actually was him but there was something about him that I recognised; the slope of his shoulders maybe, or the way he put his bunched fist to his mouth to cough. I remember a flash of feeling. I wanted it to be him. I wished it was him. For a second, I needed to speak to that old guy who said he would be standing by for me. And then I forgot about him and jumped into the casino. I lost the four hundred quid and was flung back out into the rain and the night.

It took a few more months. I won’t go into it here, but the debt increased and the stupid things I did increased too. I say stupid but they were worse than stupid. Dangerous. Destructive. Catastrophic. Criminal. Then one day I caught the old guy’s eye at work and I just knew he understood what I was feeling. I’d come in late again from lunch and I felt so bad I thought I was going to be sick. I saw him looking at me and I said to him, ‘Have you got a minute?’ and he said he had, and it turned out that everything I told him, he recognised. So that helped. That was a relief. That was what I needed. ‘Keep talking,’ he said to me. So I did. I do.