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Stand and deliver

• Since I was eight years old, having learned to play pontoon for fags, I soon realised that the path to a cool, free smoke was the timely twist of the card.

From time to time I'll enter the odd poker classic -- and I've won on a number of occasions. Over the Christmas holidays, I rambled into a slot machine place to try a new form of amusement which also involves money.

The lights flashing and the noise of the beasts clanging and whistling was mesmerising, and money flowed into them from the gathered punters like the very lives of the machines depended on force-feeding them.

Most of the players were older women, and all had a holiness about them in the way they treated their particular potential jackpot giver. One woman had a ritual whereby she held a squeezed tissue in her left hand, while tapping the play-button with her right.

As soon as the reels began turning, she swiftly wiped across the glass pay-line with the hanky, as if by keeping it clean it would reward her with a big win. She looked neither left nor right and had a beatific smile fixed straight ahead.

Another woman, seated a few stools away, made the sign-of-the-cross after every third push on the button, her lips moving in probable prayer or pleadings to the god of Mammon. I heard her say to another: "I went to two this morning, but if you ask me, all the Masses in the world won't work if these things are not going to pay before we even sit down to play. I'm going to stop going altogether."

I was having a great time, my money falling unnoticed into the cute slit for notes like I was being seduced by a beautiful woman, and before you could say 'everyone's a winner' I was an €80 loser before 10 minutes had elapsed.

Yet it was lovely sitting there with this hunk of metal, which was somehow distinctly feminine. I convinced myself I was having fun and the money didn't matter. Is this how it begins before I have to admit I'm powerless to women of a certain bulk?

A man next to me -- obviously taking me for a novice -- asked me for a tenner, saying: "I blew the rent money on this damn thing, and what with my drinking addiction on top of this curse, I don't know what to do." Guilt got the better of me and I relented and handed over.

I left there soon after, having become mysteriously uncomfortable in the place.

My thoughts, as I left, €200 lighter, were with the man and his drinking confession.

I felt a certain sympathy for him, but could not get my head around how anyone could become addicted to those harmless, friendly machines which always seem to have a smile on their faces as one pops another five, 10, 20 or fifty, into the place provided.

Hmm . . .

Robert Sullivan
Bantry, Co Cork

Irish Independent