Life in a small town can be stifling, we all know too much about each other. Yet here on a ‘day out’ we are comfortable together. The bus lurches past misty pastures, there is talk of milking and how cruel dawn starts become; how the prices for milk are bad. We hear all the latest gossip, have a few laughs and then reflect a little on those we have lost lately, funerals are big occasions in a country area.
Women with pale, pinched faces and winter coats lean into the steamy windows; some of them glad of a brief rest, so they try in vain to sleep. Men become noisy, talking of fishing and the football. There are silly jokes and some ribald tales. A young guy at the back shows his bare rear at the window. That must have been a delight for the passengers on the bus passing by. Some are already into their third beer before we arrive.
We sit close together sharing a cheese sandwich, talking about what we will do when we get there. It takes three hours at least to get to Melbourne, my husband plugs his radio into his ear, and I read until it makes my stomach do somersaults.
The annual trip to the casino is a fundraiser, they have raffles as we travel to the city, and the fare is subsidised by the casino, they provide a huge ‘help yourself buffet’ as a sweetener. We get vouchers to eat there, shuffling groups in lines; organised and regimented, like cattle to the abattoir.
The lights when we arrive are dazzling, I get a moment of dizzy excitement. A rush of adrenalin, unconscious of my actions I feel for my money, yes the purse is there; yes it has notes in it, I can’t wait for the noise and the whirl of those wheels, the clunk of money, the bells and whistles, the heart stopping moments when I might, just might, have won a fortune. Yet the guilt I feel makes me say: “Shall we have a walk along the riverside first, get a coffee or something?”
On what we have to manage on, this is madness and it won’t last long, the money we saved to come on the trip would buy a load of wood or a week of grocery items. Yet when asked if we would come, we say: “Yes, put our name down”.
We dare not put much in those evil machines. Our money is so little when we look at what others put into the hungry machines, we feel sad. Yet, we always hope this is the time we come home laden with cash, or a new car, or a holiday from the spot prizes. Vain hopes; it takes supreme luck or deep pockets to win.
Our sensible friends from the town go to the Fishing and Gaming Show, or the Quilt Exhibition or the movies. They shop in the city and eat at the Casino but don’t stay. Very wise; country people who know what hard times are.
The feeding frenzy is a spectacle too, like so many sharks in a school of fish they dive and grab. We gape as we watch piled plates pass our table. “Is he really going to eat that?” I find room for two desserts though.
Then it seems within minutes the small hand of money has been swallowed like the crème caramel I ate, slipping away with no sound. My purse is flat and so are my spirits. I find my husband doing slightly better, so he gives me a handful of coins. I lurch from small wins and moments of elation, to despair in a few more minutes.
Then there are the empty hours, no spare money and nowhere to go. Beside me I see the full range of the obsession. The habits, the quirky rituals, as I sip a free coffee I observe.
There’s the old lady who taps the screen three times between pushes, her scarf drops to the ground, her stocking are wrinkled but she has eyes for the screen only. There’s a young Asian man who bets the highest amount he can on each push – he wins and soon has money in every pocket, but as I watch he puts the lot back in, every crumpled note and even the small change. He starts to hit the buttons with force as if punishing them.
I see the glamour girl who looks like she might have been out all night. She plays fast, but covers her eyes and never looks at what the screen shows. If she wins, she hits ‘gamble’ plays high stakes, and loses every time.
There is loud yelling from one dark-haired man and his friends as they win the big prize, and then drink, until they are all escorted from the building.
Finally, I spot the sad little man who presses slowly and carefully, and says, quietly ‘Come on be nice to me’, as if talking to a lover.
We sit together and have a meal of monumentally disgusting food, given to us because we have enough tokens. It is not a good feeling. We are not well-heeled enough to be part of the elegance of Casino life, but we know that too is an illusion. There is a very strict dress code for the elite, for the rooms where losing enormous bundles of cash is an obligation. No tie, no entry, but a smart suit and a suitcase of cash, ‘Do come in!’ We might not quite pass the rigorous eye of the doorkeeper.
Why is it men wear bow ties to watch beefy thugs try to kill each other at the fights? It seems the more closely aligned an activity is to organised crime, the better the wardrobe needs to be. Why is it the racing fraternity has such high dress standards? To get in the marquee they expect hats and very expensive shoes, top hats even at Ascot, where you mingle with royalty. Gloves were once expected too! The dress code has been relaxed now though, and even the young royals look like they might be going to a rock concert not a race day.
Bookies are just nicely disguised money snatchers. It seems that to lose money in buckets you need to dress like landed gentry. The more you can speculate the more you accumulate they tell us, and if you do it in an Italian suit does it help? Do the latest fashions and a designer bag signify class?
Back on the coach, with our cold coffee in a flask; and some sticky sweets gathering fluff in our pockets, we try to ignore the depressed mood that descends on us.
The Casino trips have stopped now and perhaps it was for the greater good. We had already decided we would never go on another. The town has the benefit of the money we spend now as we buy the wood or the groceries. Perhaps the netball team lost out as they were the recipients of the money raised, but I think in the end we actually won.