I was only four years old. I was in a pub with my Dad, Mum, my elder sister Helen, and some of my extended family, including my paternal Grandparents.
I was a typical four-year-old kid, inquisitive and unworldly. I’d never come across a fruit machine before and had no idea what one was or did. It was a huge thing; three times my height, stood in the corner of a Leeds pub. I could only peer up at the screen where all the activity was, at the eye level of people old enough to play. My Dad lifted me up so my feet rested on the tray where a person’s winning dropped out. He allowed me to pop a coin in the slot and push the buttons.
I can still smell the tobacco whirling in loops across the ceiling. I can hear the chatter of my family being displaced by the music emanating from all of the wonderful gadgetry at my fingertips. But it was the dancing, flickering, coloured lights that captivated my curious mind. It was Christmas, funfairs, The Muppets (my favourite TV programme at the time), all rolled into one. It was magic. The buttons flashed as cartoon characters jumped and danced and the reels spun hypnotically in time. If there was somewhere better than this anywhere in the world, I had never been.
My Dad’s money gave me five goes. Five presses. Five chances at winning, although I wasn’t sure what that meant or what the prize might be. The lights danced and dived four times without success, but the fact they spun was sufficient.
The last credit made things happen. New stuff filled the screen, buttons burst into life, louder music twirled and hurtled through my ears. The experience was dreamlike. It seemed like Santa was in my head, riding with me on the best fairground ride in the whole of the land. I felt that if Dad would only let me go I would float into that machine and never come back. It wasn’t that I wanted to escape; I wanted to fly.
Dad guided my hand to an over exited collect button and when it was pressed, my coin returned to a tray near my hanging feet. I’d won, or at least got my money back. I scooped up the coin, which seemed more momentous, meaningful, and shinier than before. I was intent on recycling the whole experience and living that dream over and over again.
I remember my Dad saying to me, “You should keep that now, you’ve had a bit of fun and you’ve got your money back, just walk away.”
It was sensible advice. I’d broken even. I could have gone and sat back down next to my family, my winnings tucked away safely in my pocket. Instead, I stuck it back in and lost. The coin was gone. The lights on the machine dimmed, the music died and my Dad lowered me down until my feet met the ground. That was my first experience of gambling.
That pub was in Leeds, but it could have been anywhere. I just remember that machine and that it was also the first time I had ever drunk Coca-Cola. It was the most perfect, gorgeous drink I had ever tasted in my life. The two things combined to make the most exotic of cocktails.
I’ve always remembered what my Dad said to me that day – to settle for getting the coin back, play it safe, to walk away. I don’t agree with his view and I’ve never been able to do it. I wasn’t upset when I lost that money; I just enjoyed the few minutes I had spent in front of that magnificent, luminous beast. To me it didn’t feel like losing. I have never been able to settle for what I’ve got. I always want more, whether it’s excitement, women, or money. I think I’ll always want more.
I got so much joy out of those five minutes. We must have gone to that pub a few times as a family when I was growing up, but I never remember even seeing a fruit machine before.
I don’t know what it was that enticed me, but the imagery of that insignificant yet character shaping scene has remained in my head all of these years. There are some things in life that you do and instantly forget. Events often pass through your life and get lost in the congestion of time. Other memories linger a while longer. I can see that machine in my head as if I’d played on it only yesterday.
It would be 15 years before I’d play the fruit machines again in a pub called City Arms in the Leeds train station, which has since been closed down. I was a student working behind the bar and playing the slots in breaks and slack periods. There was another bartender, a lad who was a couple of years older than me, and we used to play on the fruit machines together when we were working.