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I was sorry to read of the decline of fruit machines. Their usage in British pubs has gone down, no one seems certain why. The prioritising of space for tables for food has been suggested, and the popularity of high-stakes high-street fixed-odds betting terminals. Either way slot machines have lost their lustre. I play them now and then and am aware I have to do so with a great deal of insouciance because standing in front of them for any length of time makes me look a bit sad. It spoils your fun when strangers throw out concerned glances which seem to ask, “Is she OK?” (I am.)
Yet I retain a certain loyalty to these machines. I have often felt the siren of the sweep of flashing coloured lights. I have been mesmerised by the central bonus gaming feature with its cash ladders and its nudge trails, its tinny winners’ anthems and its regular blurted catchphrases from favourite soap or sitcom stars. A machine I once liked even lit up with a cartoon of Flo capering after Andy Capp with a frying pan, when you were doing really well.
A lost weekend in Vegas is not an option when you have responsibilities, but 10 minutes lost in private in the half-light can do the trick. A lime and soda in one hand, your hair scooped back in a rubber band, your handbag hooked over the crook of your arm, a pocket full of coins, and you’re ready to roll. For a few minutes you are entirely “off”. You expect nothing of yourself and neither does anyone else. The illusion of transgression can be ever so soothing. That little thrill of disgrace. You can’t lead your whole life thinking, what would Jane Eyre do? Striding across moors is all well and good but a life that is too wholesome is not worth living.
Besides, is there a better way of killing time and frittering away money — especially compared to, I don’t know, skiing? No one was ever airlifted from a fruit machine by paramedics trying not to smirk.
I can chart the reigning fruit machines of my life like the kings and queens of England. The first one was in a café in Islington called The Seven Steps. The staff were refined in that they wouldn’t serve chips. It was the first café I developed a bond with, a two-minute walk from my junior school. I used to go there on my birthday, have a ham and salad roll as a concession to my mother, then I would approach the machine.
This was the 1970s, when things were simpler. There was a hold feature but not I think a nudge. It was 2p a spin. The highest yielding symbol was a piratical treasure chest filled with silver coins. Three of those on the win-line and your ham roll was free, plus change. I still remember the taste of the “butter” against the slimy square of iridescent ham. The crisp cucumber slice, the sweetness of the tomato — it was unbelievably delicious, even gobbled down.
The Windrush was a motorway café on the way to Gloucestershire where we often spent Christmases with friends. I have always liked breaking up journeys when the destination is in sight. The food was awful, but that fruit machine loved me. It financed my junior Christmas-shopping splurges year after year. You had to get three yellow bars to make any proper money. The Windrush had a heroic aspect, like the café in The Tiger who Came to Tea. It saved the day.
Most Sundays I used to take the 19 or the 4 to Chapel Street at the Angel. Some saw a fruit and vegetable market there but to me it was a street lined with temptations: deep-fried apple fritters sold in threes or sixes, threepenny mixed ice creams and the small arcade at the bottom on the left. There was a three-month period when I lost my pocket money in there every week. I never mastered those machines. Occasionally, ignoble and filled with remorse, I had to walk home. Sad times.
Since then there have been many others. My favourite thing is to let the winnings in a takeaway pay for the meal. Bringing home the bacon is a lovely feeling. I don’t have a particular machine I am attached to now.
My father said that gambling was only worth doing if you risked more than you could afford. He was a gambler. He once gambled a house. There is a William Hill on the corner of my street with a fixed-odds betting terminal standing in pride of place. Apparently you can lose up to £100 per spin in a simulated roulette game. Each spin takes about 20 seconds. I am keeping my distance. For the time being.