I started going to this café, called ‘Blackpool Cafe’, shortly after I moved to Blackpool, in mid-September. It was light and, even though the holiday season was still ongoing in the town, spacious and populated more by locals than tourists. There was a good view of the sea but, on the days when spray and rain outside – or the condensation on the windows inside – blurred the view, the simple decorations of large black and white photos showing Blackpool’s landmarks reminded you where you were. Moreover, the waitresses didn’t ask the customers whether they wanted to eat or drink more than they ordered, aware that many of them, like myself, couldn’t afford to buy extra drinks or cakes. I liked it more than my bedsit, which looked damp and shabby, so shabby that I lacked energy to try to make it cosy. I used to go to Blackpool Café with my mobile phone and computer, sometimes spending two-three hours at a time, preparing classes, reading, writing and observing people, although I always tried to give impression that I minded my own business. It wasn’t difficult to notice that the majority of customers were regulars, mostly older men, presumably single, who visited this place to seek-out each other’s company.
There were seven or eight of them in total but, usually, there were only four or five at any one time. They inhabited the part of the café further away from the counter, which was divided from the rest by a steep step. I also sat there with my gear, but some distance from their tables. The old men were drinking tea, talking banalities, and on occasion playing dominoes, as old men do, I thought semi-dismissively; although deep down I knew that they were full of histories, as they had all their long lives to collect, process, and re-tell them.
After two weeks or so the group began to break up in my eyes and I started to perceive them as individuals. There was one who seemed to be permanently unhappy and expecting others to cheer him up, which they dutifully did. I called him Grumpy in my mind, after one of the dwarves in ‘Snow White’ fairy tale. Another guy tried to play a leader, waiting for the others to calm down, before addressing them, always as a group first, before zooming on somebody, usually the one who didn’t pay attention. Maybe he was a retired secondary school teacher and the others indulged him to continue in this role while, in reality, ignoring what he was saying. I named him Doc. Finally, one of them made the others laugh and paid for their extra cups of tea and cakes, and gave good tips to the waitresses, which was probably a factor in them being so friendly towards this lot. When this man, whom I called Happy, wasn’t there, the group dispersed sooner, maybe to save money or because they lacked a reason to stay. I also noticed that it was when Happy was missing that they played dominoes; there was a box of double dominoes in a solid wooden box waiting for them, along with a selection of newspapers.
One day, when only three of them were playing, they invited me to join in, but I refused, saying that I was busy. This was impolite, patronising, and a patent lie on my part. I wouldn’t have minded playing dominoes; it would free me from staring at the screen of my computer and give me a chance to win something. However, I couldn’t bring myself to face so many strangers at once – and old ones at that, as if I was worried that they would infect me with their age. It seemed like they didn’t mind my rebuttal and wished me fruitful work with a respect the retired have towards those still in employment. This wish killed my ability to work that day completely and put me off from visiting Blackpool Cafe for a week.
Next time I was there, I arrived later than usual. I had been in Manchester for a job interview and then been for lunch with my friend Anne and her new boyfriend Luke. He proved to be a handsome and very nice man, a specialist in maths and computing, working at the same university as my friend. Luke was a bit geeky, but engaging and not awkward in the manner that those passionate about niche subjects often are. He was talking about algorithms and how they can be used to increase one’s chances in getting jobs. Luke offered me his help, in case I didn’t get the job and I politely agreed, thinking that I might use him as a minor character in a novel which I tried to write.
Anne, on her part, was sceptical about the power of algorithms, saying that nothing can replace human intelligence and intuition, a stance which for me reflected more an anxiety of an unsecure academic than any real knowledge of the issue. I remained neutral in their discussion, which became surprisingly heated for such an apolitical topic, taking sanctuary in my admission of ignorance about the subject. I wondered to myself, given they managed to quarrel about algorithms, how long they might survive as a couple.
When I arrived in the café, only Happy was there, drinking tea, reading a newspaper and looking at the sea.
‘Where are the rest?’, I asked and sat at a table next to him, emboldened by their absence.
‘At the funeral’, he replied.
‘Why didn’t you go?’, I asked.
‘Because it wasn’t my funeral’, he replied, laughing. And then he added, more seriously, ‘I don’t like funerals and had a medical appointment this morning, so I used it as an excuse not to go. I assumed that by this point the boys would return, but obviously it took them longer than I thought, or they went elsewhere.’
‘Why you wouldn’t phone them?’, I asked.
‘We don’t phone each other. We just turn up here’, he replied. ‘Can I get you something?’
‘Why not?’, I said. ‘A cup of tea and toast will be nice.’
He ordered those for me and a milky coffee for himself, and he joined my table.
I practically hadn’t eaten anything that day, being nervous about the interview I’d just picked at the lunch with Anne and Luke and it was only now that started to feel hungry. The food tasted very good, as they kept it simple here, the way old folk liked. I liked it too this way, or at least I convinced myself that I liked it, since I had no money to buy anything fancy.
Sitting in front of the old man allowed me to see him better than when observing him from a distance. This, however, didn’t help to classify him. For sure, he was old, but I didn’t know if he was closer to seventy or eighty. Moreover, his accent and manner of speaking made it difficult to establish which part of the country he came from and what he did for a living. I gathered that he wasn’t from the North and he wasn’t a proper professional, like a doctor or teacher, but it didn’t look like he was a construction worker or a plumber.
‘You wonder who I am and I try to figure out who you are’, he said, after ordering more food. ‘Let’s solve some of these puzzles. Do you want me to have the first guess?’
‘Go on’, I said.
‘I think you are very well educated and intelligent, but a bit lost.’
‘How do you know that?’, I asked, unsure whether I was surprised more by his bluntness or perceptiveness.
‘From the way you look at the sea. There are two reasons why young people look at the sea, at least the sea out of season: to calm their nerves and provide them with a direction.’
‘In which category do you place me?’, I asked.
‘In both. They are not exclusive. People who lack direction tend to be restless.’
‘You are right’, I said, disappointed that he saw through me so easily, given that I tried so hard to put an air of somebody immersed in her work.
What about old people?’, I asked. ‘Why do they look at the sea?’
‘Many have nothing else to do and it is a nicer view than the walls of one’s bedroom. Some would say that it puts their lives in a perspective – makes them feel like a part of the universe and a more friendly universe than when they get a glimpse of the mountains, which feel challenging and silent. The sea always talks to you, even when you want it to be quiet’, he replied.
‘It’s true. In the mountains, or even when looking at a photos of them, I feel the way you do. Why climb mountains if climbing the stairs is difficult enough?’, I said, laughing, as much as a person close to tears could laugh.
‘Tell me now more about yourself’, he said.
‘My name is Katie, and I’m from the Midlands. I teach in two colleges and one university; various humanities subjects, but only part-time. There is a lot of competition for such jobs, so I don’t have anything full-time yet’, I replied, trying to be as matter-of-fact, as possible. ‘I had a job interview today, but I haven’t heard yet if I’m to be offered the post’. I concealed from him that I was also regularly visiting Blackpool pubs, asking if they had any vacancies and was trying to write a novel, as there was enough failure in what I already had said.
‘I see’, he said. ‘So you must have a PhD. Very impressive. I hope you will succeed despite the competition. But why did you come to Blackpool?’
‘My best friend Anne lives in Manchester and she told me that Blackpool had the cheapest housing in the region. So I came here, to live cheaply and be close to her. However, now she has a boyfriend and has less time for me and I don’t want to intrude on her life, I don’t see her very often. What about you?’, I asked.
‘I had myself little to do with formal education. I finished school early and started to work when I was fifteen.’
‘Where was your school?’, I asked.
‘In North Wales. I’m Welsh. As a child I lived on a farm with my grandparents, who didn’t know any other language than Welsh. This was a part of the country, where there were so few different surnames and people chose so few different names for their children, particularly sons, that kids were named after the names of their farms. So I was called “Elwyn Pen-y-Bryn”, because my grandparents rented the farm of this name.’
‘When was it?’
‘In the 1930s.’
‘What happened next?’
‘I had different occupations. I was in an army for a while, then worked as a decorator, upholster, assistant in a painting shop, and so on. Eventually I got a job running a holiday camp in Blackpool, so I settled here.’
Then his pals arrived – all six or seven of them, like dwarfs returning to their cottage after a day full of excitement. I moved back to my table, my computer and my mobile, while Elwyn’s friends related to him in great detail the funeral he missed. Grumpy was silently shedding some tears, while the rest were in a jubilant mood, perhaps celebrating the fact that there weren’t protagonists of this event. When they settled on their scones and muffins, courtesy of Elwyn, I got an e-mail telling me that I didn’t get the university job; although the panel were impressed with my performance and promised to keep my details on record should any part-time hours become available. I didn’t put much faith in anything coming from this, but appreciated the gesture nevertheless. Then I left the café and took a walk on the Promenade. It was almost dark, but the afternoon was unusually warm and the sea was peaceful. I looked at it, imagining that it was a thinking creature, a prophet, or even a god, who can let me know what my future holds. Whilst doing this I became angry at myself: looking for signs of an unseen hand to guide me, rather than taking control of my own destiny. To cheer myself up, I went to a grocery shop and bought couple of things which were normally off my menu: three avocados and a bag of cashew nuts, although I knew that they wouldn’t sate my hunger, only leave bad taste in my mouth.
The next day was my teaching day and I came to the café late. There were no old men left, but the waitress told me that Elwyn paid for my supper. ‘Just order what you want, love and it will be taken care of’, said the friendly waitress. So I did, putting breakfast, lunch and supper on two plates which I munched almost till the closing hour. The waitress looked at me with pity, but I didn’t mind, as by this point there were only two of us left and I had no energy to pretend.
‘He is a thoughtful man, this Elwyn’, I said to her.
‘For sure he is’, she replied. ‘I wish we had more customers like him’, she replied.
When I returned to my room, I felt weak and shivery. Despite that, I returned to my novel about a princess who found her prince, who turned out to be a total jerk. The female protagonist was based on me and maybe this was the reason I lacked the inspiration of how to bring life to her character and existence. Whatever I wrote, seemed banal, and I was jumping from one dramatic event to the next, almost like scenes in a Marvel film, unlike great writers of the past, such as Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, who were able to fill each day with something interesting, even if, to anyone else, the day itself would have seemed like a thousand uneventful others that had already passed, or was yet to do so. Anne told me that this was because they trusted themselves and they believed-in the virtue and beauty of the everyday. Contemporary writers lost this confidence. She was right, but I was unable to change the state of literature, as my own life felt to me like a Marvel film, just without the dramatic events. Even my illnesses were lacking in character, never bringing proper pain, only adding to the usual shivering and upgrading the everyday anxiety to the panic: how I will survive the next year, what I will tell my mum about my ‘career’, how I will survive another interview at the university and another round of visiting pubs in search of work. Eventually these thoughts went away, thwarted by fever. It turned out that I got flu and had to cancel some of my teaching. This meant that it was almost two weeks till I managed to see Elwyn. He was on his own, which I thought was a happy coincidence, but he said that he tried to come earlier to be on his own, in case I came.
He waved to me and when I joined his table, he asked: ‘Did you get the job in Manchester?’
‘No, unfortunately, but there is a chance of some part-time hours.’
‘I see’, he said. ‘Maybe you should learn another craft, so you are not so dependent on the shrinking market?’
‘I think so too, but I have invested so many years in my education, made so many sacrifices, that it feels like a big loss to start something new, plus I don’t have the money to study for another degree. I also tried to get work in pubs, but I came to Blackpool too late; the season is over and managers are laying-off staff, rather than getting new ones.’
‘I never went to a university’, said Elwyn, ‘but I don’t regret it. Sorry to say it, but I believe that university offers an inferior type of education than learning from experience. I call it “going through the mud”. One is flooded by masses of information and one does not know which of those will be useful and gets easily bored or distracted. By contrast, if one teaches oneself, then there is no place for boredom or losing time – one needs to be focused and efficient to find what one needs to progress.’
‘Did you progress, as a painter-decorator or a clerk?’, I asked, trying to be neither sarcastic nor patronising.
‘I did. After a while I was offered a promotion. But this wasn’t where I discovered my vocation, so to speak’, said Elwyn.
‘What was your vocation then?’, I asked.
‘Gambling’, he replied with a slightly mischievous smile.
I was so surprised to hear it, that for a while I didn’t know what to say. Then I said ‘Oh’ and he laughed: ‘I know. One wouldn’t expect such a biddy like me to be a professional gambler. But I was.’
‘Tell me all about it.’
‘Well, it started when I was a teenager. For my fourteenth birthday I got some money from my uncle and instead of buying something for it, I bet it on a horse and won. They paid 100 to 1 on it, so suddenly I had plenty of money. Betting seemed such an easy way to get rich that I spent all the money I won on horses, lost everything, as well as the little savings I got by this point. My religious aunt told me that this was a sign from God never to bet, and I was lucky that I got this lesson early in my life. I believed her and didn’t try again, till I was in my twenties and moved to London. There I started to go out with some folks who liked horse and dog races, and playing cards. It was difficult to resist the temptation, especially as I was still young and bored at work. However, I tried to play by certain rules. One thing was learning everything I could about horses from the press and special booklets published by a retired gambler. I ordered them by post and studied them carefully. I also made charts, showing the trajectories of specific stables. These days such things could be done by computers, but in my time I had to make them manually. This, however, gave me an advantage, as few people were prepared to do it. Shall we get more tea and something to eat?’, he asked, as if worried not to say too much in one go.
‘Sure’, I said.
When the waitress brought us tea, sandwiches and scones, he said: ‘When you live all your life in Blackpool, you think it is the most natural thing to go to a café and get tea and scones. Nothing is further from truth. You don’t get scones anywhere in the world and tea tastes different abroad. Even if you ask waiters to make tea using your own teabags, tea would taste different. It must be the sea and the air which gave special taste to what we drink and eat here.’
Although I was curious to learn more about Elwyn’s gambling past, I didn’t press him, in part out of respect and in part knowing that it would be detrimental to the quality of his story. When he started again, it was exactly when he stopped:
‘I tried to find out patterns. For example, there were horses from a specific stable which were losing despite previously consistently winning. I tried to find reasons for that, such as an illness, being mistreated or a new jockey, and capitalise on my knowledge before everybody else did so. There were also specificities of flat racing and jump racing. I preferred flat racing, because there the results were easier to predict. Luckily, at the time, few people treated betting like science. In fact, most people behaved as if they wanted to burn rather than earn money, especially in the late 1950s and the 1960s, when there was suddenly more money to burn. We can say that this was the technical knowledge to master. But this was not all one needed to win.’
‘What more was there?’, I asked.
‘The next part of knowledge was economic, so to speak: where and when to bet. In my times there was no internet. At the beginning of my betting career one was either betting by post or where the race took place. I learnt that it was best to travel, even though it involved spending extra money and time. Yet, it was money well spent and the time was excellent. From the beginning of the 1960s legal betting shops opened on high streets and suddenly there were thousands of them. One could literally shop for the best deal. This added to the complication of the profession, but I was able to grasp this change and take advantage of it.
As I came from the province, I was distrustful of big firms, big chains and patronised smaller shops. It’s where I earned most of my money. Finally, one needed an extra skill, which I describe as psychological. By that I mean an ability to supress the temptation to put all money on one horse, literally and figuratively, always being prepared for losing and being able to stop when things went well. When I started to win in horse races, I gave myself a target. Initially, it was low, enough to indulge in small luxuries, like a fancy shirt, and gradually it went up, till I started to earn more from betting than from my day-time job. Finally, I gave up ordinary work and became a full-time gambler. The targets got more ambitious, but the principle remained. I called it piece meal gambling as I approached my work as somebody working at home, assembling pieces. When such worker assembles enough pieces for a day, he or she stops. In the past those unable to obey this rule, died or became infirm.’
Then Elwyn’s telephone rang. He took it and said: ‘Okay, I will come soon.’ Then he turned to me and said: ‘I think that’s enough of me talking for one day. Enjoy the rest of the day in better company.’
Before he left, he went to the counter to pay. It occurred to me that he was the only man who never forgot to pay for me and always did it in a way which didn’t embarrass me.
It was several days till I met Elwyn again, as I had to go to work in the mornings, and when I came in the afternoon, he was in a company of the other ‘dwarves’. Still, he paid for my food, as the waitress informed me. After some time, I got used to it and even counted on this help, which allowed me extra trips to Manchester and Lancaster, to see Anne and in search of work which I couldn’t find. I was grateful, but also jealous of his company. I wished he dismissed the other ‘dwarves’ and focused on his ‘Snow White.’
‘How is your life?’, he asked me, when we were alone again.
I shrugged and said: ‘Externally it is so impoverished that there is nothing to say, and internally it is so complicated that I don’t know how to express it’. And then I added, ‘Normally I don’t complain about my life to strangers, but you must have a special gift of wooing losers out of their closets.’
He laughed and said: ‘Maybe you are right. You can explain it by me being a gambler. Unlike in other professions, where winning and losing can be hidden and played down, in gambling it is all transparent and one needs to learn how to deal both with loss and victory.’
‘It shouldn’t be difficult to deal with a victory’, I said.
‘You are wrong. To deal with victory is as difficult to deal as with the loss, if not more. When you lose, the only challenge is not despair. When you win, as I told you before, you must decide whether to stop or to carry on. Then, you must deal with those who lost so that you could win. In horse and dog races it is not too bad, as the loss is diluted, but in poker your win often equals robbing somebody of his savings. Finally, there is a suspicion that you reached your apex, from now on the road will go downhill. This thought can poison the joy of winning completely.’
Then I laughed and said: ‘I wouldn’t expect that I was so privileged being a loser.’
‘This is not what I said’, replied Elwyn. ‘Almost everybody wants to win. People have it in their DNA, as do animals and plants. But animals are better in managing their victories. The lion does not hunt immediately after killing an antelope. He eats her slowly and sleeps till he digests her. Most people don’t know how to digest their prey in a right speed. So I had to learn it. But this might bore you.’
‘It won’t, but better tell me where you made your victories? Was it all on horse races?’
‘No, I also bet on greyhound races and played poker’.
‘Which was the best?’
‘All were good in their own way. They each suited different stages of my life. When I was young, I liked poker, as it gave me a thrill and a sense of superiority. But later I preferred to stay in a distance from fellow players, for which greyhound and horse races were better. Then I limited myself to horse races, as I realised that greyhound racing was cruel. I also liked the camaraderie of people going to horse races. Those who went to meetings stayed in the same hotels, it was nice to see them at breakfast and going in and out. You’d encounter people from all walks of life, from aristocrats to manual labours; yet most sharing a similar mindset and I dare to say, over-average intelligence. This gave us a certain pride, but also modesty. The gamblers don’t blabber about how good they are, there was no need for that – the outcomes of their bets did all the talking. I liked these meetings, especially in Cheltenham. This was like a festival of horse racing and, unlike, say, Ascot, nobody was interested in promenading and “dressing up”. I used to go there with a friend, who once worked with me. He wasn’t so much into betting, but liked the atmosphere, the smell of the horses and the air, the food in the “horseracing” hotels.’
‘I guessed you were both old bachelors.’
‘No, we were both married. I met my wife here, in Blackpool. She worked as my secretary. In fact, she continued as a secretary, even when I quit and stayed in this job till she retired.’
‘Oh’, I said, surprised. ‘Didn’t she mind to be married to a gambler?’
‘I don’t think she did mind or, if she did, she didn’t show it. She came from an Irish family whose menfolk, including her father, were hotheads and drunkards. For her, changing the society of drunkards into that of cool-headed gamblers, was progress. She also appreciated the fact that I was earning good money, paid the mortgage earlier than husbands of her friends and that when our son was born, I was staying at home, looking after him most of the time and so she didn’t need to be a housewife.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘She died of cancer fifteen years ago.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it.’
‘Thank you. I still miss her, but time goes on and I’m trying to make the best of my life without her.’
‘What happened to your son?’
‘He became an engineer and works in Canada in oil business.’
‘Didn’t he want to follow in your footsteps?’
‘No, when he was a child, he found gambling boring. When I took him to horse races, he only waited for us to return home and didn’t care which horse won. For him, they were all the same. When he grew up, he had more reasons to reject gambling. He didn’t like the idea of uncertain returns (as if anything in our lives was certain) and also regarded betting and gambling immoral, seeing it as tantamount to stealing. Now, with the climate crisis and all of this, his words bite him, as he finds himself in a position of an “immoral worker”. So now he appreciates more of what I was doing. Anyway, we stayed on good terms, although since his mother’s death I don’t see him very often, once, maximum twice a year.’ And then he added: ‘It’s such a nice evening and they will switch on the Illuminations soon. Should we go for a walk?’
‘Sure, let’s do it’, I said.
Although the Illuminations had been up for more than a month, it was the first time I had seen them properly, as I didn’t like to walk the Promenade by myself.
‘All these lit-up boats and castles, and even the Blackpool Tower are kitschy’, said Elwyn, ‘but you must admit it is of the highest standard of kitsch. Everything is bright, there are no shades, no ambiguity, no attempt to sneak any deeper message into this orgy of light. You get exactly what you’ve paid for, like in Las Vegas. For me, it’s even better than Las Vegas, because of the sea, which doubles the effect and offers a chance of escape, if you want to. It’s much more difficult to escape from a desert.’
‘I don’t know if it’s better than Las Vegas, as I haven’t been there, but for sure it’s magical’, I replied.
I realised that this was the ultimate reason why I didn’t want to see the Illuminations; they brought the temptation to withdraw from reality completely, which would lead to dire consequences. I knew that to stay afloat, I needed to purge magic from my life. However, with Elwyn it was different, he acted as a bridge between magic and reality, almost glowing in the festive crowd and giving substance to illuminated objects which he was touching affectionately. As if trying to pass me some of this light, he bought me a light-up flower from a street seller, which I took home and put in the vase. It turned out, it was powered by batteries, which could be replaced, so it could last longer than one evening.
After that evening there was another break in communication. When I went to Blackpool Cafe a couple of days later, one of the ‘dwarves’ told me that Elwyn had tests in the hospital and won’t be around for a couple of weeks. He also passed me an envelope, where there was five hundred pounds and a note saying ‘Thank you for your company’. There was nobody to protest against this generosity and I guess they got a similar envelope, maybe even fatter. I was happy to see the money and at the same time worried about Elwyn. Part of the worry was that this might be the last of the assistance he offered me. I despised myself for having such lowly, materialistic thoughts. I knew that I could rationalise them the way thieves rationalise their thievery, but this would make me feel even worse.
The next time I saw Elwyn by himself. He confirmed that he was in the hospital due to irregularities of his heart and it lasted longer than he thought.
‘I guess I’m not ready for the grave yet. I need to finish telling you about my gambling adventures, although there is not much to add. It seems like last time I managed to squeeze thirty or forty years of my life in half an hour’.
‘Tell me about the rest. When did you stop gambling?’
‘To put it simply, when I got old. This was a gradual process, which started when I was about sixty. When you get old, your entire world ages even more than you. It shrinks and disappears, like autumnal leaves. Anyway, this was my case. My friend, with whom I used to go to racecourse meetings, had a stroke and was no longer able, or perhaps willing, to accompany me. My wife got cancer, so I had to look after her every day, which made it difficult to travel and concentrate. Then there was the internet and betting became more virtual. The choice increased, but the opportunities and rewards diminished. More and more people used the internet not just as a shop, but as a source of knowledge. I always thought that I could win with fellow humans thanks to my experience and skill, but I assumed that I couldn’t outsmart an artificial intelligence or an algorithm, so this form of gambling put me off. I also reached my life target, so to speak, saving one million pounds.
This was enough for me and even enough for my son, who didn’t need my money anyway. Besides, if you have a million pounds, winning a hundred is less fun, than when your entire capital is only couple of thousand.’
‘If you had so much money, why did you stay in Blackpool?’
‘A good question. In the past I was thinking that with such a sum I would do something adventurous, like travelling to Bali or Cuba, but finally when I had money to go there, I had nobody to go with and the attraction of seeing new places waned. I bought myself a small flat in Portugal, where I went several times with my wife, but I went there rarely after she died and eventually sold it. These days I like most just walking the Promenade in a sunny day or coming to this café, when it’s windy or rainy, or when I’m tired from walking. Sometimes I go to another seaside resort, like Bournemouth, Scarborough or Margate, but I stay there maximum three nights, as I get homesick or rather seasick. The sea there seems to have a different mind and there are no cafés like this one here, with the part designed there for regulars. Besides, if there were such separate parts for regulars, it won’t be for me as I won’t be a regular there. So I plan to stay here till the end of my life.’
‘Can you teach me how to bet?’, I asked, surprised by my nerve.
‘I expected you to ask me this question and I was wondering what to say. I can teach you some things, but I don’t know if this will be enough.’
‘First, not everybody can be a gambler, as I have told you already. You need a variety of skills, most of which come from within and cannot be taught. Second, there is no predetermined formula for success. It’s like trying to write a book by following a manual titled “How to write a novel”. You can do it, but you have to add something from yourself in order to give the end result something which sets it apart from the work of every other writer, and still you might end up with something which does not sell.’
Chills went through my back when he said this, as I’d had similar thoughts before and, as years went by, I started to think that I was in the category of writers who produce unsellable novels. But I asked, maybe to be put off, ‘Do you think I have no talent for gambling?’
‘I don’t know. It’s for you to answer this question.’
‘Okay, teach me whatever you can and then I will try to add something from myself.’
‘What about changing the order: you learn as much as you can by yourself, and I will try to fill the gaps in your knowledge.’
‘I don’t know if I find time for that. When Christmas comes, there should be more work available and I should take it.’
‘I can give you a small studentship for you to study for a while. This will also let us find out if you have a natural talent for betting.’
‘I cannot take more money from you. I already feel like a sponge.’
‘Preying on an old man’, Elwyn finished the sentence for me.
‘This is not what I wanted to say’, I said.
‘I know, but maybe you thought it and it’s fine by me. Most of my life I preyed on others, so now should be the time to reverse it, pay for my sins, at least to some degree. And to make it more exciting, let’s do it this way – if you win something, you will get a bonus.’
‘And what if I lose?’, I asked.
‘I will carry on with the same amount, till I lose faith in you.’
‘Okay’, I said. ‘Can you bring me your old booklets and copybooks with notes and charts?’
‘I can bring you what is left. Or, for a change, you can come to my house and see what might be of interest to you.’
I didn’t know what to say as visiting Elwyn felt like breaking some invisible pact between us, to remain semi-strangers, who meet only by chance, in public places. Yet, at the same time, I didn’t want to offend him by turning down his invitation, so I said ‘I will come.’
I visited him next day and we climbed together to the loft, where there were several boxes with booklets used by Elwyn for betting at horse races and copybooks with his notes. We brought them downstairs and my host spent several hours going through one of these boxes, which included his records from the 1960s. He was telling me about specific races – how much he put on a given horse, and what the weather was like when his favourite horse ran its last race. I was surprised that he remembered so much, given the time gap and his advanced age, but then realised that to be so successful in betting, he needed to have a perfect memory.
Although the house was well kept and clean, which was to be expected, given that Elwyn could afford a cleaner, it had a slightly musty smell of houses which were never renovated or redone and which were only partially inhabited. It reminded me of the smell of some bedsits I visited before I rented the one I was currently living in. The smell and Elwyn’s somewhat too detailed story made me tired, so after drinking a cup of tea and eating some biscuits which appeared to absorb the stale atmosphere, I excused myself, taking with me two large bags of the printed material. Over the next couple of weeks, when I studied them, I realised that they had no value for me; if I was to be a gambler, I had to find my own path. Thus, instead of learning about racing horses, which had no attraction to me, I decided to learn about Mixed Martial Arts, which looked to me like the most transparent of sports, and in which at the time odds of winning were the highest, because few people were betting on it. It also occurred to me to ask Luke about algorithms used in virtual casinos. I phoned Anne to enquire about him. She replied that they had split the previous week, but was happy to pass me his phone and e-mail. The next day Luke and I met in Manchester. His recent pet project was cracking Spotify lists, but he was happy to put his mind to another task. Indeed, he wanted to do it before, but lacked a ‘partner in crime’. Luke told me that contrary to what many people said, it was possible to win against the algorithm, or at least the algorithm allowed some players to win, because if nobody won, online gambling would lose its credibility – people would stop playing in games where the chance of winning was zero. The point was to find out how it chose the lucky ones.
Over the next couple of months, we became avid visitors of numerous virtual casinos and online poker players. In addition, I bet on MMA on my own, as Luke didn’t like the sport. As per Elwyn’s advice, we gave ourselves modest targets, 200 GBP per week, and stopped when we reached it, or rather I was stopping Luke, as he was always keen to carry on. We divided our prizes half and half. During this time we also became lovers and I practically moved with Luke, as it was more pleasant to live in his apartment than in my bedsit, which I planned to give up when the contract ran out. Because of these changes I didn’t have time to visit Blackpool Café and when I eventually came, my friend wasn’t there. There were only two ‘dwarves’ sitting in their usual places and they told me that Elwyn had an accident: he fell the stairs at his home and broke his leg and ribs. Only a week ago he left hospital and was staying at home with his son.
I rushed there, feeling pain in my heart. The doors in his house were opened by a tall man in his forties, obviously Elwyn’s son Richard. He knew who I was and told me that his father was sleeping – he was taking a lot of painkillers and sleeping a lot lately.
‘How did it happen?’, I asked.
‘He fell, carrying boxes with some papers up to the loft’, he said.
I knew that these were the same boxes which he was carried down, to show me his gambling history and I suspected that Richard knew this as well, but was too polite to mention it.
‘I hope he will recover’, I said.
‘I hope so too, but I was told it is unlikely that he would carry on like before. He has a very weak heart. He already had two heart attacks.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Well, he is unwilling to admit what gambling did to him and those around him. He likes to present it to everybody as something easy and admirable, but I know it wasn’t easy, as much for him, as for my mother and me.’
‘I didn’t know it either.’
‘I’m sure he didn’t mention it, as every so often he tries to find his successor. I presume you were one of those he targeted.’
‘You can say so, although he didn’t target me. We have met by chance. Did it work with others?’, I asked.
‘I don’t know, as I live in Canada, but I believe that those who failed, had no reason to maintain friendship with him, and those who succeeded, moved on and do not need his advice anymore. This is probably also your case.’
This was indeed my case, but I wasn’t prepared to admit it. There was some noise coming from the bedroom and both me and Richard went there. Elwyn was lying in bed, pale and thin. He smiled when he saw me and asked: ‘Hello Katie, how is it going?’
‘It is going well’, I said. ‘I earn now more from gambling than from teaching and I have barely started. I think I will become a professional, like you’, I said.
‘I’m glad to hear it’, he said.
‘Sorry that I haven’t seen you for such a long time. This is because I moved to Manchester’, I added. ‘But now I will come more often. I was so sorry to learn about your accident.’
When I was saying it, Elwyn closed his eyes and Richard touched me gently, suggesting that we leave the room. We sat for another half an hour in a sitting room, drinking coffee and eating scones, which – as Richard told me – were bought in Elwyn’s favourite café. Then I left. That evening Luke and I doubled our stakes, to honour my mentor, and we lost, but made for the loss the following day.
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