Personal Essay

The Gambler

Annabelle sat on the front patio, oblivious to the pleasant surroundings, the blue skies and the magnificent looking garden; she was brooding and angry. The past few months’ events left her mind in turmoil; she smashed the teacup against the floor, took a few deep breaths to clear her mind. She made her decision. Picked up the pieces from the teacup and went inside the house.

Annabelle finished her packing, wrote a note, stepped out, took one last look at the house, lingering over memories. She got into the car, sighed, shed a tear and drove out.

They lived in a stately six-bedroom villa with a white pebbled driveway. The steel grilled gate at the entrance and granite walls said privacy rather than welcome. The front door, ornate, carved by a Maori artist and the stained glass windows looked as good as they did a hundred years ago. The solid teak floor needed polishing. The sofa seat was torn, the tear hidden by a cushion laid on top. The drapes were faded.

Their house, her house, overlooked the harbour and sat on a hilltop by the sea. This was her ancestral home. Flowering plants lined the driveway, and carpet flowers filled the ground below. Red and white roses, chrysanthemums, camellias, she chose plants carefully every spring. The lawn bordered by shrubs and set off with a sculpture and a pond with water lilies in the middle. Annabelle had spent many happy years here, though the last few years had taken a toll, a toll on her and the house.

Auckland- the City of Sails. New Zealand was a country of sailors and boats, yachts. Black Magic had won America’s Cup again; Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were hailed as heroes. The murky business about alleged misspent funding was settled, although perhaps not to everyone’s satisfaction. The government and the city council spent $200 million for the campaign, even though the city was deep in debt and cutting staff. An indulgence to support people already rich, some opined.

Hundreds of boats from small speedboats to yachts dotted the marina, anchored on the turquoise blue water. A sight that always delighted Annabelle, even though she saw it every day. The people were getting ready for a day on the water, like ants walking on the pier, a hive of buzzing activity. The harbour bridge glistened on the horizon; tens of thousands crossed every day to work in the city.

Annabelle was always dressed elegantly and well-groomed, something ingrained in her. She had aged gracefully. She would usually sit on the verandah after breakfast, with a pot of tea, the soft invigorating breeze setting her up for the day.

Annabelle did charity work, enjoyed working with her circle of friends, camaraderie, chit-chat, and drinking coffee. She loved making a difference for many who needed a helping hand, putting smiles on peoples’ faces and especially the children. Even in a relatively prosperous country, some people were suffering, those left behind. Children were going hungry, lacking proper clothing and textbooks, missing doctor appointments.  The massive economic changes in the eighties were not kind to those at the bottom of the ladder. The welfare benefits provided by the state were woefully inadequate. Even the many centre-left governments had done little to help those in poverty. Annabelle wondered why taxes were cut for the wealthy when there were so many who needed help. She also worried about the millennials, a whole generation left behind by rising property prices and rents. The generation gap had become a generation gulf for them.

Annabelle met Zorro at an event to support the needy. He was confident, good looking, charming. A lawyer with the gift of the gab, he had built up a successful practice and connections in the city. Zorro enjoyed working with people from all walks of life. With a penchant for high risk and high profile cases, he loved the attention these cases attracted, the thrill of winning. He aspired to get into politics, lawyers dominated the parliament.

They enjoyed many idyllic years. Moving with elite circles in the city and vacationing in glamorous destinations, getting pampered in luxury hotels. The two of them liked active vacations -hiking, rock climbing, riding bikes and motorbikes. They enjoyed the casinos, poker and blackjack. Annabelle enforced a strict budget on gaming. She wanted to play for enjoyment, not the thrill of winning.

Zorro combed his greying hair carefully; he cultivated the patrician look. Choose a smart casual suit and searched his collection of ties. He was trying to select a lucky one, something he found exasperating; lady luck had been a fickle friend lately. He had come close to winning many times recently and had a strong feeling a big win was coming. Zorro checked his purse to make sure the cash was there. He waited for his ride. His car was an old model and in need of a lick of paint. “Goodbye, Annabelle”, he called out. “Goodbye, Zorro”, she replied.

He was meeting up with James and Mike. They liked to grab a drink before the races, talk about the horses running today. The Hunters bar was packed, as usual; on big race days, many of their friends were there. The plush leather chairs, the faux English pub look, and free bar snacks invited punters to linger. He ordered a double gin and tonic, a stiff drink to settle his nerves. They checked the racing broadsheets, the latest odds and expert predictions, scribbled notes, which hopefully were legible enough to read.

Boxing Day, Alexandra Park– It was a glorious summer day in the southern hemisphere. Azure blue sky with a touch of white clouds. The grass on the track was dark green; water restrictions didn’t appear to affect the immaculate lawn, lovingly cared for by the groundsmen. Today’s races were a prestigious social event among the smart set in the city- business people, lawyers and accountants. Ladies showed off their latest fashions, colourful clothes, topped off with fancy hats of their own creation, especially for this event. The hot summer weather encouraged racy attire and bare flesh.  Horse racing was still a glamorous pastime, even if the popularity was dipping, among the younger people.

For some, today was work or a day to mix business and pleasure. Many companies had Corporate boxes. For a few hours, your customers were captive, hopefully in a good mood, lubricated by beer and champagne, and receptive to a soft sale. Entertaining was helpful to build relationships and goodwill. The horse owners loved the prestige and windfalls they would make if their horses won. Owning a horse was a way of flaunting your wealth. Then there were the rich -old money, new money, the aspiring and the pretenders. There was money to be made, friendships formed, and relationships deepened. There was also money to be lost.

The New Zealand government supported horse racing, perhaps the only country with a Minister for Racing and a government handout of $70Mn a year. The Deputy Prime Minister was a passionate horse racing fan, and he loved the campaign donations from the horse owners. Races were broadcast live on a cable TV channel; the betting company was a major sponsor.

The jockeys were primed for a good day of racing. Each had his pre-race routine; many listened to their favourite music. A few said their prayers. Many wore their lucky socks or cap.

Today should be an exciting racing day, with a million dollars on the final race and many times that riding on betting. Commentaries on the news channels were building up the occasion, and punters were hyped up. Sacramento and First Dance were the favourites, with Short Story and Money for Nothing the dark horses. The horses coming out of the paddock looked magnificent, immaculately groomed. They strutted around.

The bars dotted around the ground, and the betting booths did brisk business. Drinks and flutter were an essential part of the race day experience. People were queueing up, ready to part with cash for food, beverage and a chance to win.

Zorro and his friends popped into the bookies first. They had already their picks; they were serious about their racing and betting. An inordinate amount of homework went into selecting horses and the jockeys. They read their notes and the latest news, looked at the horses, how they walked for any clues. Many had placed some bets already, in advance, online. Outside, people without much money placed bets on horses, desperate for a win, to brighten up their lives, even if momentarily. Others played pokies, gambling for the poor.

Zorro and his mates hit the bars; he paid for the first round of drinks and food. Zorro always paid for food; he was generous. They found their places on the grandstand. Races started, and the punters cheered for their horses. The winners whooped with joy. Losers and there were many, unhappy or philosophical or hopeful. Mostly hopeful, although they knew that the house always won while you had to be pretty good or pretty lucky. They knew that winnings were only a fraction of takings; perhaps they were paying for the rushes of adrenalin, the mood swings. Alcohol flowed, the bars were busy, and the bartenders happy. The winners drank to celebrate; happy, even if the drinks and the tips were a bit more than their winnings. The losers, well, they needed a drink or two or three.

Racing was always exciting, win or lose; everyone had a good time. Well, almost everybody. The racing ended, but many continued partying, hitting pubs and bars around.

Zorro got home. He didn’t need to count his cash; his purse was empty. Annabelle was not at home; Zorro picked up the note.

 Zorro knew he had to stop gambling; he was in trouble. Deep in debt, two houses, houses inherited by Annabelle, heavily mortgaged to fund the habit. Her father had built up a property portfolio, a successful businessman who had worked hard for his money and made many sacrifices. All that wealth was frittered away. Zorro was good with excuses and lies, to borrow money – business deals, investments, and expanding his practice. His partners at the law firm were concerned; there were many discussions about client complaints. His standards were slipping, he knew, although he vociferously denied.

Zorro knew he needed help, reach out to a psychologist or a helpline or Gamblers Anonymous. The one small step that may help him turn his life around and alleviate the pain of his loved ones.

He picked up the phone—rang his dealer for a fix of cocaine.

If you have a problem with gambling or have a family member or friend who has a problem gambling issue, please call for free 24-hour support,  0800 654 655 or text 8006.