© Stuart Martin
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GA = Gamblers Anonymous
My name is Robert Arnold and I was a world-class liar: most compulsive gamblers are. We spend so long living in a framework of deceit it becomes our reality.
Once I stopped gambling for long enough to get some perspective, I realised a simple truth. If I were one of the people I had let down, lied to, and manipulated, I wouldn’t forgive me. So I had no right to expect they would. I didn’t deserve forgiveness, or trust. And I didn’t deserve another chance, but I hoped for one all the same.
Bransholme playing fields, Hull, June 3rd 1996.
My instep made solid contact with the rugby ball and it tumbled through the air. Liam, my son, the brightest beacon in my self-inflicted gloom, set off in pursuit. “You won’t stop me this time, Dad, I’ll score the winning try.”
He was five, too young to understand that I’d caused the disruption in his life. Contemplating how he might react once he did understand was physically painful.
Scooping up the ball from the rubberised playground area he headed back towards me, legs pumping. Inside I smiled at his determined expression, but I gave him my game face. “You’ll never get past me.”
“Yes I will.” He ducked to the left.
I curled to the ground in a mock tackle and trailed my fingers down his back as he crossed our imaginary try line. “No…I thought I had you.”
“Yes - try.” He dropped to one knee doing a fist pump, his favourite post-score celebration. “I’m too fast for you now, aren’t I, Dad?”
I ruffled his hair. “You’re fast, but I’m a bit tired today. I’ll beat you next time.”
Liam threw the ball up and caught it. “Let’s play another game. I’ll give you one start if you’re tired.”
In the small parking area Kirsty was standing beside her car. “Not today, you’ve worn me out, and it’s time to go anyway. Mum’s waiting, look.” I pointed.
He ran to her. “Mum, Mum, I beat dad three times, I’m too fast for him now.”
Kirsty allowed me an hour a week with Liam, and I ceded to any agenda she set. She didn’t want me in her life. Not because of the gambling, or the debt. It was the lying. She said she couldn’t live with a man she didn’t trust, and she didn’t trust me. She threw in some colloquial expletives the first time she told me. But it wasn’t just anger, she said the same in measured tones, and I felt as though my stomach was being kneaded by a master baker.
I understood why she thought that way; I’d looked her in the eye and lied thousands of times, so why should she believe I’d change - because I said I would? At her request I’d moved out, that was a year ago. Since then I’d lived by the GA mantra - be honest at all times, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, and welcome scrutiny.
Kirsty smiled as Liam demonstrated his body swerve. “And dad couldn’t tackle me.”
“Well done.” With a hand on the back she guided him to the open car door. “So, dad lost,” she looked up with raised eyebrows, “again.”
I accepted barbed comments as just penance, and took the hint of dark humour as a positive sign. I hooked my thumbs in my pockets. “Same time next week?”
“Not sure, I’ll ring you.”
“Mum,” Liam called out as he climbed into his booster seat, “can I have pizza for tea?”
I tensed as Kirsty leaned in close to me and whispered, “You tell him he’s having fish, it’s better for him.” I couldn’t remember the last time she’d welcomed my touch, but I longed for the feel of her skin, and involuntarily my hand twitched toward hers. I winced at my own action, and when she jinked away I felt vile.
I moved to Liam, checked his seatbelt and gave him a high five. “I’m going to have healthy stuff for tea every day until we play again, then I’ll be as quick as you.” I rubbed my chin. “I Think I’ll have a fast fish tonight.”
“Mum - I want a fast fish for tea.”
“Hey,” he gave a cheeky giggle when I tickled him under the arm, “that’s sneaky.” Kirsty started the car. I held the door ajar. “You’ll call me?”
We exchanged a glance in the mirror. “I always do, don’t I?”
“Thanks.” Liam and I did our parting knuckle bump. “Rematch next week, Flash.”
The seventeen-year-old Fiat sounded tinny as Kirsty pulled away, reminding me she was living among the aftermath of my selfish actions. She’d vented her anger at times, but she could have been far more caustic. If that was for Liam’s sake, or because she felt there was still a chance for us was a recurring question. She’d never mentioned the D-word, and as far as I knew there hadn’t been anyone else, though I had never asked, and I wouldn’t quiz Liam. I used that, and anything I could put a positive spin on to fan the ember of hope inside me.
My bed-sit was austere. The most enthusiastic description the estate agent could muster was ‘functional’; I suppose you get what you pay for. It was always a relief to get out, and the next evening I left early for my GA meeting. I sat in the small café across from the venue until one of the regulars arrived. I thought of them as friends, and I think it was reciprocated.
For the past five weeks there had just been the four of us. We always started with the prescribed procedure, but no one had slipped, and we knew each other’s stories, so inevitably we drifted off topic. This meeting would be different. Don, our chairman, had called me to say two new members would be attending. If they turned up, they didn’t always, it would give the group focus. That was good because complacency is the sworn enemy of the gambler in recovery: never cured, always in recovery.
I suspected Don had primed me about the new members because he was going to ask me to give a therapy, a sort of talk about gambling and how it had affected your life.
I walked across as Don unlocked the meeting room door. “Evening.”
“Robert, can I count on you to give a therapy tonight?”
Recognising aspects of my behaviour in other peoples’ therapies had helped me, and the thought that mine could help others was cathartic. “I’ll always step up, you know that.”
“Good man. Get a feel for the newcomers and pitch accordingly, you know the form.” As far as I knew Don had always worked in insurance, but he had some old school military mannerisms and was a natural leader.
Our meeting room was a council owned rectangular space used by various groups: carpeted and quite comfortable. Don and I were shuffling the chairs into position at one end when the door opened and the other two regulars ushered in a new attendee. The weird variations in what people expect from their first meeting were a source of amusement in most groups. Some expected to be tied to a chair and interrogated. Others, like me, expected to find a bunch of deadbeats who would have no understanding of their situation. What you don’t expect is to see someone you know there.
Brian worked in quality control in the leather tannery where I was a fitter. I hadn’t realised he was bald on top, I’d only ever seen him in a hard hat. We’d only passed the time of day, but he recognised me too. I sensed his unease and took him to one side. “Brian, just wanted to assure you that I would never mention anything I see or hear in this room outside.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “We all have the same problem, and we all help each other.”
Brian stiffened his stance and spoke loud enough for the others to hear, “I’m only here because of the wife. She doesn’t understand that I’ve had some really bad luck – I’m not addicted.”
A knowing glance ricocheted between the regulars. It wasn’t uncommon, attending GA to placate family members. In most cases those people hadn’t admitted to themselves they had a problem.
Five minutes after the official start time Don clasped his hands behind his back and rocked up on the balls of his feet. “It doesn’t look as if the other new member is coming so I’ll call the meeting to order.”
The usual approach with new members was to start a conversation, gently draw them into it, and get a feel for what stage of the acceptance process they were at. But Brian had already made that clear with his earlier statement, and once Don had completed the formalities he turned to me. “I’d like to ask Robert to come up and give a therapy.” He indicated the chair that faced the group.
I took a steadying breath as I sat down. I’d decided to go quite deep to try and strike a chord with Brian, and that would be emotional for me. I addressed the group: “My name is Robert and I am a compulsive gambler. My last bet was on the eighth of April 1995. Most compulsive gamblers have to be in a desperate situation before they admit to themselves they have a problem. I, like most GA members, can pin the beginning of that recognition to a particular day.”
Don knew what was coming and gave an approving nod as I continued, “Twenty months ago I was desperate. The utility companies were all threatening court action, I’d had a personal visit from the representative of a loan company, and I’d been refused extensions on my overdraft and credit card limits. I’d also borrowed money from family, friends, and casual acquaintances. At that point even my closest friends and family cringed at the sound of my voice on the phone. But I still asked for more.”
I took a sip of water. At the time their reactions washed off me, now the memories were painful. “I lied constantly, and used love and trust as weapons to hide the truth. To avert the immediate crisis and keep up the pretence I needed £1,940. It would be twenty-two days before my next pay day and I had thirty-four pounds. I had no way to get money other than crime, and, of course, gambling. Some wild thoughts ran through my mind, but time was an issue, I wanted to get into the betting shop by twelve the next day, so I took some copper and brass from work. The following morning I took it to the scrap dealers. That gave me a total of ninety-eight pounds to blast my way out of trouble with a big win.” I made pointed eye contact with Brian. “I believed I would do it, my bad luck couldn’t last forever.”
Brian was shaking his head and mumbling. “No, not me, I would never steal.”
Don leant toward him a little. “Can you honestly say you haven’t already done things you thought you would never do?” Brian’s shoulders sagged a little. “And not your fault, I should have said, but please don’t interrupt therapies.” He gestured me on.
“I got to the betting shop on time. By two o’clock I’d had eight bets, seven of them winners. I counted my money, I had £2,325. The feeling of relief was gravity defying. I could pay off the most pressing debts and use the rest as a stake to win more.”
I paused and pinched the bridge of my nose before I went on, “When I walked out of the door at four-thirty I didn’t have enough money to pay the car parking. My head was swimming. I couldn’t face spinning the controller a line to get the car out and walked. On that long trek home I asked myself one question over and over, why hadn’t I stopped when I had the money I’d been desperate to get? It was so obvious I had to admit it, I had a gambling problem.”
I exhaled long and slow and stared at a distant point. “But making that admission to myself was only the start of the process. The little voice inside me, the part of me that didn’t want to tell people the truth, the part that didn’t want to face the mountain of debt, my inner coward, kept persuading me gambling was the way out.”
My friends nodded empathetically. “The next few months were a blur of denial and self-recrimination. During that period I had nightmares so vivid I was awake for hours before I convinced myself they weren’t real.”
I pressed my fingertips into my forehead as I spoke, “I was working with a guy from Portsmouth who’d come to live with a girl in Hull. And of course I’d borrowed money from him. When his relationship broke down he asked for the money back because he was going home. I dreamed that I’d battered him to death and put his body in an old service duct at work.” I straightened my posture. “I didn’t. A workmate went to visit him a few weeks after he left.”
I took another sip of water. “I also dreamed I’d faked a robbery at my mother-in-law’s, and stabbed her through the heart. She had some money in the bank and a decent house my wife would inherit. I didn’t. I was at her seventieth birthday lunch last month.”
I wasn’t sure if anything was chiming with Brian, he was sat with folded arms resting on his round stomach. His body language said ‘bored’ to me. I rounded off: “Eventually I was so sickened by my own behaviour I did ask for help. I can’t say it’s been easy, facing the consequences of my actions. But at least I’ve started back up the hill. And I think there’s a chance my wife might give me another chance, as long as I don’t gamble, and I’m honest at all times.” I held up the blue ‘GA guidelines for the first ninety days’ booklet. “I never want to be that person again, and GA has shown me it’s possible not to be.” I swallowed. “Thank you. My name is Robert and I’m a compulsive gambler.” There was sustained applause as I went back to my original seat. Brian joined in without conviction.
Don spoke in his ‘order please’ voice, “Thank you for sharing that, Robert.” He glanced at his watch. “Let’s have an early break, then we’ll have an open forum discussion.” He put a hand on my shoulder and dipped his head toward the kettle. “Will you do the honours, I’m just…” He brandished a cigarette packet and followed the others outside.
The kettle was about to boil when Brian came back in. I held up a mug. “Tea or coffee?”
“Coffee - milk, no sugar please.” He walked up as I filled the mugs. “You know that bloke you were talking about, who went back to Portsmouth.”
I was concentrating on pouring the boiling water. “Mmm.”
“When you said workmate, you were talking about Cooper, right?”
“Well he never really went to stay with him.” I overfilled a mug. “That’s what he told his wife.” Brian tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “He actually went to Prague on a stag weekend.”
That happened over a year ago, and there had been no fuss, no one asking about him. I gave myself a mental slap in the face. I hadn’t killed anyone, but the doubt had barbs and I couldn’t shake it. I was oblivious to the rest of the proceedings. An image from my old nightmares kept replaying in my mind: wide, staring eyes looking up through me as I slid the last steel plate into place.
I spent a sleepless night willing the clock handles round. I was doing well, turning my life around, and making amends. But what Brian said, that one piece of information, plunged my psyche back into the turmoil of those desperate months. Back then gambling gave me temporary relief from the pressure of reality. It wouldn’t help now. It was crazy, but I’d have to lift those plates and confirm what I knew, there was no body hidden there.
The next day I was waiting when Oscar, the watchman, opened the factory gates. I brushed past him, heading for the top warehouse, desperate for resolution. “You’re early, Rob – shit the bed?” He laughed at his own quip.
I glanced back. He was smirking. “Yes,” was all I came back with.
The warehouse was a simple structure, an H-girder frame, concrete floor, corrugated steel walls and roof and no windows. Pallets piled with animal hides were delivered at one end and dispatched to the factory from the other. Most came from local abattoirs, fresh off the animals, but some came from overseas and were weeks old. The disused service duct in the floor would be an ideal place to hide a body: no one had reason to look in it, and the stench of decaying flesh was a permanent feature. The old hands’ used to joke: “You get used to it after twenty years.”
I was the first into the building, the warehouse staff didn’t start for another hour. As the floodlights warmed and threw out more light a muscle in my neck tensed. There must have been a big delivery late yesterday, it was rammed full of pallets. There was no way to get to the duct in the time I had. I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath. All I could think was to come back when the shift finished, no time pressure then.
The trouble was, I couldn’t function on any normal level. There was no way I could work. I skipped the usual pre-work tea and chat, and got to the office first. There was the ideal job, compressor maintenance. I snatched up the docket, went straight to the compressor house, and locked the door behind me. In eight hours I managed to change the oil, all the other tasks just got a tick. I spent the rest of those long hours torturing myself with thoughts of how I might never see Liam again, never touch Kirsty’s velvet skin again. I had no idea why, I hadn’t killed the guy I was certain of that. There were points in my past when I’d almost believed my own lies, but not on this.
At five minutes to clocking off time there was a knock on the door. “Rob, you alright in there? you bloody workaholic.”
“Yes – thanks, just cleaning down. See you tomorrow.”
“See yer tomorrow mate.”
I clocked off and hung around in the workshop until the warehouse men had gone. Then I took a screwdriver to pry up the plates and headed up there. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be around, and was surprised to see Brian walking towards the car park. I raised a hand in acknowledgment, he didn’t respond.
Inside the warehouse I could see the duct was clear of pallets before I flicked on the lights: relief. I went straight to the section near the far wall that featured in my dreams, ignored the chunks of skin and fat on the floor, knelt down, and used the screwdriver to lever up the plate.
With my fingers under the edge I paused, closed my eyes, and pushed the plate aside. I exhaled and opened my eyes in unison. No body, just a thick layer of congealed fleshy gunk. I heaved up the next plate, and the next, and carried on until I’d lifted all nine. Nothing but microbe infested slush. The tension left my neck and it became easier to breathe. I felt stupid and elated at the same time.
The penultimate plate dropped back into place, and though my back ached I smiled as I moved to replace the last one.
“I took your advice.” The voice from behind had my heart trying to escape through my throat. It was Brian. He looked out of place at this end of the factory, in his white coat and polished shoes, like a surgeon in a coal mine. His head twitched. “I told my wife the truth.”
I felt somehow exposed, guilty, and my eyes flicked to the uncovered channel. But Brian didn’t seem interested in what I was doing. I thought something must have happened and he wanted to talk. “Was there a lot she didn’t know…? How did she react?”
“I told her I would soon be winning again, but she wouldn’t listen.” He gave a slow shake of the head as he spoke, “She said she was leaving me.”
I cringed, I’d been there, in total denial, believing my own spin. I gave a muted smile. “Shall we go somewhere and talk?”
Brian’s eyes flared wide. “Talk!” Before I could react he swung his right arm up and jabbed something hard into my solar plexus. There was a surreal half second delay before pain engulfed me and I sank to my knees. “I had to kill my wife - end her life - to stop her leaving.” He let a short length of pipe slip out of his sleeve and pointed it at my head. “I could have put it all right, but you got in my head, made me think ‘honesty’ was the best way. Well it’s all gone to shit now, and it’s your fault. You’re an interfering, self-righteous prick.”
He gripped the pipe in both hands and lifted it above his head like an executioner. I managed to take a breath. “Brian, don’t - please.” A vision of Kirsty comforting a crying Liam popped into my mind.
Brian let out an anguished cry, “Ahhhh.” Without conscious thought I’d stabbed the screwdriver up, under his rib cage into his chest. He folded to the ground and the pipe rolled out of his hands. He tried to speak but the words turned into a cough and blood filled his mouth.
Still struggling for air I felt for a pulse. I couldn’t find one, but I didn’t trust my trembling hands. The tallyman’s hut in the corner had a phone. I dashed across, intending to call an ambulance. With the receiver to my ear and a finger poised over the nine button I hesitated and assessed the situation: absurd was an understatement.
I looked across. Brian hadn’t moved. I went back, knelt next to him, and with a steadier hand felt for a pulse again. Nothing, he was dead.
I’d just protected myself, the guy was going to cave my skull in. I’d invested a lot in honesty, but it would surely hurt me here. Without anything else my explanation for being here would make me look deranged. I couldn’t envisage any outcome where I told the truth and it wouldn’t be a massive setback to my relationship with Liam and Kirsty, and traumatic for them. And that wasn’t just me trying to avoid the consequences. They didn’t deserve that – I didn’t deserve that.
Part of the person I was when I was gambling, the person I’d been trying so hard never to be again, was a cold, calculating, manipulative liar. Once I’d decided on a course of action, I opened the door of my mind safe, stepped into that personality, and got to work.
I glanced at the clock on the wall, Six-forty. It would be twenty minutes before Oscar started his round, and this was his first log point.
First thing was Brian’s car keys, they were in the first pocket I checked. With a twist, the screwdriver came out. I wiped it on Brian’s coat. Two rolls got his body to the edge of the duct, another half roll tipped him in. The landing was soft and he sank a couple of inches into the fleshy mush.
Making my nightmare an eerie premonition, Brian’s eyes were looking straight through me as I slid the heavy steel plate over him. I could hear rats scurrying under the pallets: amazing the gaps they can squeeze through. Those eyes wouldn’t last long.
Always aware of the time, I took a brush and manoeuvred scraps and debris around until it was impossible to tell the plates had been disturbed. Satisfied with my work, I turned out the lights and made straight for the nearest toilet. My dark blue working clothes didn’t show any sign of the blood splatter I knew must be there, but I needed to check my face.
Once I’d washed I waited in the toilet until Oscar went past. When I was sure he was out of earshot I slipped out, climbed the fence, and took Brian’s car.
Three days later a police officer came to the factory, set up in an office, and asked for anyone who knew Brian to come in for a talk. It had already been on the local radio and TV news, a woman’s body had been found and the police were looking for Brian Porter to help them with their inquiries. His car had been found in the train station car park. The advice for anyone who saw him was to contact the local police. He was not to be approached.
I waited until the afternoon, after the initial rush, then made my way to the interview office. Oscar passed me in the corridor. “Rob.” He smiled and gave an exaggerated wink.
The big old watchman was a bit of an oddball, all those long nights alone I suppose. I returned his smile. “Oscar.”
In the office, the young officer turned a pen over in her fingers, tapping each end on a notepad as I took my seat. She’d probably been bombarded with repetition. “Mr…?” She looked up.
“Arnold - Robert Arnold.”
“Do you know Brian Porter well?”
“No, not well.”
She sighed. “Did you talk to or see him on the day of his disappearance?”
“Not that I remember.”
She circled her tongue behind pursed lips and jabbed the pen into the pad. “Can you tell me anything relevant about Brian Porter?”
“I’m not sure, you might already know, but I can tell you he had a gambling problem.”
“Really?” She hunched over the pad and started to write. “How do you know that, Mr Arnold?”
I put on my contrite look. “I am a compulsive gambler in recovery. That means I’m not gambling at the moment, haven’t for over a year. Anyway, I go to GA meetings every week, and Brian came to the last one. He said it was because his wife had pressured him to attend.”
“Really?” Her tongue slicked her top lip as she wrote. “That could be very helpful, Mr Arnold. Thank you.”
Sometimes the truth is a liar’s best asset.
At the next GA meeting I asked Don if he thought I’d done the right thing.
Don tried to straighten his already straight back. “I think so. I told them everything I knew when they interviewed me. I know we’re called Gamblers Anonymous, and I don’t know what GA’s official line is, but I for one have no intention of withholding evidence about a killer.”
“Quite right.” We nodded our agreement with Don’s moral imperative.
Brian’s eyes stared at me in my dreams, but I stared straight back, my conscience was clear. I had to lie every now and then, but it was justifiable, guilt free lying. And that ‘person’ was back in my mind safe.
1 year later
Liam pulled his hand free of Kirsty’s and turned his back to show me the name on his new football shirt. I tutted. “David Beckham! What’s wrong with Hull City, your local team?”
“They’re rubbish, Dad. United are the best.”
I narrowed one eye. “Grrrrrrr….” He punched me on the thigh.
I fell in beside Kirsty and we followed Liam into Marco’s Ices. “Thank you for this.”
“Liam wanted you to come.” She gave me a little look. “So did I.”
I felt like throwing my arms wide and thanking any watching deity, but held it inside.
Liam was at the display counter pointing at the Mega Brownie Sundae. “Can I have that one, Dad?”
“If mum says it’s ok.”
Kirsty gave him a rueful look. “I think your eyes are bigger than your belly, young man. You’ll never eat all that.”
He bounced on the spot. “I can, Mum, honest.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Ok - if you’re sure.”
“Hooray.” He pressed his nose against the glass.
Kirsty and Liam went to a table while I waited to collect the order. A hand clapped me on the back as the attendant whipped up Liam’s milk shake. “Now then, Rob. How’s it going?” Oscar leant one elbow on the counter.
A grin leaked onto my face. “Good, really good.”
“Going to be chaos at work from next week.” He furrowed his brow. “When they start pulling down the top warehouse.”
I’m not sure how I looked, I just felt numb, and couldn’t move my lower jaw.
“Ha.” Oscar punched me in the shoulder. “Just kidding… Your face – precious.” He leaned in and whispered behind a cupped hand. “I saw Brian lurking around that night, and followed him. I know what happened. I thought you’d spotted me when I disturbed some rats. Anyway, don’t worry, your secrets safe with me. He was an arsehole, he got what he deserved.”
I couldn’t find a response, but my gaze lingered on Oscar as I took the tray of drinks. He dipped his head and gave a mini salute before breaking eye contact. The door of my mind safe was being rattled from the inside.