A Gamblers Tale

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: New Writers wanting Reviews

This is a story about a compulsive gambler who rolls the dice for the very last time in hope of winning his family back and putting his finances in order. Set in Berkshire England in the early 1980s and based on true events, it demonstrates how fate can deliver all your wishes in one moment only destroy them moments later..

Call it destiny, fate or chance; in one moment lives can collide and change forever. The story you are about to read begins on Thursday, the third of June, nineteen eighty two. The Falkland’s war was into its second month. Margaret Thatcher was being compared to Sir Winston Churchill, having only recently been touted as the most unpopular Prime minister in British history. The radio was blaring out Paul McCartney's and Stevie Wonder's number one hit, Ebony and Ivory. The average family home cost forty thousand pounds and a pint of beer was less than eighty pence. Welcome back to the eighties.

The protagonist of this tale was an old friend of mine called Geoff Marshall. At forty years of age, Geoff seemed to have it all. As I reminisce, his image is clear in my mind. Dapperly dressed, tall, blue eyes, close cropped dark hair with handsome chiselled looks; who impressed both with his charm and generosity. If you had met him, you would have liked him. He and his wife owned the popular Queens Arms in Henley upon Thames. Overlooking the River, their seventeenth century character pub was popular with well-off locals and celebrities including George Harrison and Barbara Windsor to name but a few. Geoff was in the process of opening up, for what was usually a quite evening trade before the weekend rush, when he was inundated with a large group of road workers who had just finish their shift. They were Tarmacking the Oxford road between Maidenhead and Assendon. Geoff had been in public house management for nearly twenty years. He had been a gambler for a good while longer. In fact, he had his first bet at the age of twelve. His Grandfather, not so much a gambler but a horse racing enthusiast, took him to Newmarket. The big race of the day was one of the turfs classics, The Two Thousand Guineas. His father had given him two shillings to bet with. On his Grandfathers advice, he bet the full amount on Crepello at 16 to 1. Crepello won the race and from that moment on he was hooked. His interest in Horse racing and betting became a regular Saturday afternoons pursuit. (Incidentally, Crepello was trained by the legendary Neaul Murless and ridden by a youthful Lester Piggot.) By the time he was twenty the emotional and adrenaline rush of excitement, anxiety and even the disappointments drew him in like amoth to a flame. He was now betting in figures three times his weekly wage. He harboured aspirations of becoming a professional gambler. It was around this time he met Lisa Marie. She was nineteen years old, petite, attractive in a natural sort of way with mousy-brown springy hair. She had a smile that would brighten up your day. Having completed her apprenticeship at the Carlton hotel in London, Lisa Marie had been hired as Sous chef at the prestigious ‘Inn on the lake’ Geoff was also a new recruit having secured the role of head barman. Like the quote goes, for Lisa it was a case of ‘you got me at Hello’. She was smitten with him. They were practically inseparable from the day they met. That year, Geoff continued betting on anything Lester Piggott was riding. Lester won his eighth jockeys championship enabling Geoff to accumulate a small fortune. Things couldn’t have seemed better for the young couple. They got married, brought their first home and holidayed abroad; sightseeing in Europe if my memory serves me  right. I have to say, Geoff was a little apprehensive about the large party. They were not the usual type of clientele he had become accustomed to. The foreman of the group propped himself up at the bar, having announced he was picking up the tab and encouraged the crew to order whatever they wanted. His name was John McCarthy. Johnny to his friends. Johnny was a large rounded man with a prominent nose and flushed face who exhibited proof of his appetite for a pint or two. He claimed to be old school Romany with a history steep in cultural heritage. Traditionally the Romany gypsy’s had worked the land. However, in modern Britain opportunity had knocked and building roads was the means to keeping the community of travellers in work. They would travel up and down the country, wherever their work took them. Geoff noticed Johnny had an emblem on his jacket.


“Frankincense And More”

This prompted him to ask Johnny if he liked horse racing.

“Like it! We’re all horse racing mad”

“It is all about the winning” He chuckled as he replied in a soft Irish tone.

He then asked Geoff if he happened to have a copy of the daily racing paper. Geoff promptly produced "The sporting life”. A kindred link had been made. They spent the rest of the evening reminiscing. Johnny spoke about how he had family and connections in all the best racing stables and how he often went to watch the horses training on the gallops. By the end of the evening he let it slip that he owned acouple of racehorses. Whilst Geoff liked the idea of racehorse ownership, it was the last thing on his mind. He had far bigger worries swirling around in his head. You see, he was on the brink of financial ruin. It wasn’t that the pub wasn’t doing well, it was. His troubles were all due to gambling. He had lost his grip on the hardest lesson a gambler has to learn; you must not chase losses. He was on a losing streak, got the hots, tried to smash his way out of trouble and had run up debts of just under one hundred thousand pounds. Furthermore, he had a plethora of unpaid bills that needed to be settled. In his eyes, giving up gambling was no more an option than continuing. Lisa Marie was unaware of how serious the debts were and clung to the belief that everything would be fine. She would often say, “Geoff had a knack of getting money in”.

After all, this wasn't the first time they had been in this position. In 1977, Geoff was being served eviction orders on the family home. By this time, they were the proud parents of a one year old son; Geoff junior. His bank overdraft was maxed out and he had missed several payments on numerous loans. The strain between him and his wife was at breaking point. Then, in an remarkable change of fortunes, a letter arrived. It wasn’t a debt or summons as Geoff had first thought. It was a letter from a solicitor. An aunt had miraculously left him one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in her will. He was made for life, or so you would have thought. Within three months of receiving the money the young couple had resigned from their jobs and purchased the Queens arms. Geoff was now facing the prospect of losing everything again. He knew there would be no chance of a benefactor this time. John McCarthy had made the Queens Arms his regular watering hole, as had most of the other in his party. Racing tips and so called inside information were as common as rabbits in the nearby fields. If you have ever been along the Oxford road you will know what I mean. Some of the talk was accurate, but most of the time it would have been a costly exercise had you bet on the information. Geoff had observed that Johnny, even with all the showmanship, camaraderie and race talk had never told anyone to bet their hard earned cash. What’s more, Geoff had overheard one of Johnny’s associates go as far as to say, “Johnny will only tell you to bet on a horse when he is extremely confident you will win. Well as confident as you can be with horse racing” One evening, I believe it was the twenty ninth of June; Johnny informed Geoff that one of his horses would be running in the near future. He went on to say, “There’s a good chance you will be able to get decent odds about him winning”.

He continued to explained how the colt had been deliberately campaigned out of his depth. The horse had finished down the field on his previous two runs and had now been found an opportunity where conditions would suit. The handler of the horse wasn’t known by many of the betting shop habitués and hadn’t had a winner for some time. The jockey, Billy O'Neill wasn't popular with the public but was reliable to win a race when he was required to. He too, would also be overlooked by the public. “You can have a few hundred on and get yourself a bit of a result for a change” he remarked meaningfully. He wrote on a napkin the name of the horse, the date, time and where he would be running.


Geoff’s face lit up with joy. This was his chance to resurrect. With one bet he could change his destiny. He had decided this would be his last roll of the dice.

That afternoon he went about borrowing twenty thousand pounds from a back street money lender. He already owed them twenty thousand pound, so a further twenty wouldn’t be a problem, especially as he was using the deeds to the pub as collateral. This was far from ideal as the interest rates were extortionate and if he missed a payment the penalty was extreme, and I’m not just talking financial. In Geoff’s mind he felt he had little choice. Not surprisingly, Geoff and Lisa Marie’s relationship had become tense, for want of better words. Among other things his wife was making demands on her husband to ban the ‘travellers’ from the pub. She was extremely upset about the loss of some of the regular customers because of their presence. In fairness, whilst they could be a little rowdy, there was never any real trouble. Truth be told, snobbery was the main cause of the declining local trade. They simply didn’t like the ‘travellers’ using their local. O.K, I can recall one incident of wrongdoing. Two of the travellers had poached and slaughtered a deer from the grounds of the Queens estate. They had then tried selling the venison carcass to Lisa. She phoned the police faster than you can say Jack Robinson.

On the Thursday, the penultimate day before his bet, Geoff booked a table at his wife’s favourite restaurant. He thought it would give them an opportunity to talk things through, away from all the hassles of day to day life. On Arrival, Geoff ordered a bottle of Don Perignon 1967. The restaurants best champagne. Lisa wasn’t impressed. Her face said it all. They had barely been seated at their table when she began to ask questions. “What the hell is going on? We have very little money, the travellers are ruining our business and you’re spending like you have just won the football pools”

“Well it’s like this my love” he said sheepishly.

“Don’t give me love” she barked assertively.

Geoff continued with, “I’m going to have my last bet on Saturday, I’ve borrowed twenty thousand pounds” Well that was it. The expression on her face said it all. She looked empty. “I’ve had enough of all the lies and deceit” “Please trust me on this one” He pleaded. Her tone began to raise in line with her anger, “I’ve had enough, I’ve put up with your gambling for too many years” Tears of helplessness began to well in her eyes. The reality to the failure of her marriage seemed to crystallise. Lisa Marie had stuck by her husband for sixteen years, always convincing herself he would stop gambling one day. “Take me home” she sobbed. “take me home”.

The following morning she left for her mothers, taking the boy with her. This wasn’t the first time she had left him. Geoff had become resigned to Lisa Marie walking out on him from time to time. Yet truth be told, his wife and son were the totality of his life. He was confident, once his bet had won and his finances were in good order, he would be able to woo his wife back.

Finally, it was Saturday. Armed with twenty thousand pounds, Geoff left for Newbury. He arrived early, some forty minutes before the race was due to start. Tarmac Boy was declared to run in the second race. Waiting anxiously, he began to chain smoke. He took no interest in the first race of the day. He was on autopilot. In his mind, it was a one race, race card. Finally the time had come. The wait had seemed like an eternity.The bookmakers began to chalk up the first show of betting.

Raindrop 5 - 2

Ladybird 4 - 1

Time Charter 9 - 2

Tarmac Boy 9 – 1

The favourite, Raindrop had ran twice this term, on both occasions he had finished within half a length of two potentially useful colts; five to two seemed arealistic price. Second in the betting market was Ladybird. Last time out, she had ran in the prestigious Castle stakes at Windsor finishing last of seven runners; however her previous performance had not escaped attention and would be popular at odds of 4-1. There were three other competitors of which Time Charter stood out as a well bred newcomer from the prominent yard of Alan Wilkinson, whose record at Newbury in maiden races was second to none; he was priced accordingly at odds of 9-2. Tarmac Boy was on display at 9-1. It was 12-1 bar.

“Five to two the field, take five to two” blared the bookies from the rails where Geoff was standing. The crowds begin to back Raindrop and Time Charter. Seconds later, one of the bookmakers shouts, “Tarmac Boy, take ten to one”

Geoff asked the bookmakers clerk to take his bet.

“Ten thousand to one thousand on Tarmac Boy winning the race”

Surprisingly, far from being perturbed, the bookmakers clerk accepted the bet and dropped it into his satchel without a second thought. Alarm bells began to run though Geoff head. Generally, with the amount of money he was betting with, the Clerk would haggle and reduce the odds on offer. He bet another thousand, and again, “no problem sir, our pleasure sir’ as the cash disappears”.

Geoff’s confidence was rapidly deteriorating. Neither the less, he continues to bet the whole twenty thousand pound with the middle and back row bookies. He even manages to get twelve to one in a place or two. Clearly, the Bookmaker’s didn’t see Tarmac Boy as the winner. Whilst there had been a colossal gamble on him in the betting shops around Berkshire, word was out that he wasn't going to be winning and they were happy to take bets on him. Connections were in fact backing Raindrop and Time Charter.

The Starting Price indicated just that: Raindrop at two to one, Time Charter at three to one, Ladybird at eight to one and Tarmac Boy returning at odds of nine to one.

From Geoff point of view, this wasn’t looking good. The amount of money he had bet in the betting ring, coupled with the money bet in the local betting shops by the travellers and their associates; Tarmac Boy should have shortened to around a three to one chance. What he wasn’t aware of was all the shenanigans that were unfolding behind the scene. He felt something was seriously wrong. An intense feeling of gloom, failure and loss saturated his mind. He couldn't control his thoughts. His heart was pounding; his body awash with sweat. The fact that he had managed to back the horse to win over two hundred thousand pounds was irrelevant. Geoff was convinced he was done for. He stood alone at the back of the racecourse, hardly able to hear the commentary as his mind span with anxiety.

There off! Raindrop and Time Charter make the running. Ladybird sits third with Tarmac Boy tucked in on the rails. A furlong from home, Time charter leads by two lengths with Tarmac boy trying to close in second place.... 

The crowd began to cheer, the thunder of the hooves echo, all eyes were fixated towards the winning post as the two battled. They look synchronized as they pass the line. It was imposable to know which of them had won. “It’s a photo finish. Photo numbers six and three” blasts out of the loud speakers. It took nearly ten minutes for the result to be announced ‘First number six, Tarmac Boy… Second number...’

Geoff had won a little over two hundred thousand pounds. He was now in a state of euphoria. As he began to calm down from the adrenaline rush, it dawned on him that he had achieved his goal. He had won enough money to put everything right. As the proceeding race was getting underway he went about collecting his cash. It filled two carrier bags.

His mind-set had now switched from money to wife and child. He felt desperate to talk to them. His only desire was to be reunited with his family. He phoned his wife from various racecourse phone kiosks but was unsuccessful in getting a reply.

Geoff left the Racecourse and headed home on the M4 towards Maidenhead. The traffic on the motorway was at standstill. The radio news reporter had indicated there had been a major incident and the road was blocked. A car had lost control in a police chase and had hit another head on. Geoff switched channels. He didn’t want to hear such bad news. The journey should have taken less than two hours; he had been sat at the wheel of his car for over six. He finally arrived at his destination around 9am. George the barman had been waiting anxiously.

“Bloody hell, where have you been? Are you O.K?” He asked with intrigue as he poured him a pint. 

Geoff was preoccupied and didn’t respond. He was in deep thought about what he was going to say to his wife. He had a few gulps of his beer, then headed to his living quarters which were adjacent to the bar area, grabbed the phone and began to dial. Again he was unable to get in contact with his wife. He was just about to put the carrier bags of cash into the safe deposit box when two Police officers walked in.

“How I can help” he asked inquisitively. “Please sit down sir” There has been a terrible accident. “I’m sorry to have to inform you, your wife and child have both been killed”.

The news broke him. His spirit for life had been crushed to the point of no return. Fate had delivered in one moment and destroyed him in another.

The epilogue:

It transpired that John McCarthy was using an alias. His real name was Evan Elliott. We will stay with Johnny as that was the name I knew him by.

Johnny was involved in drug smuggling and had invested heavily in his last consignment which had been intercepted and detained by customs. This had led him to change his plans on the Tarmac Boy gamble as he now needed a guaranteed way of making a lot of money. With rumours throughout the betting shop habitué of Maidenhead and Henley firmly in the belief that Tarmac Boy would be winning his race, Johnny would be able to manipulate the odds on the other runners and construct his bet to ensure he won asubstantial sum. Johnny’s riding instructions to his jockey were firm and simply put. “Under no circumstance are you to win the race”.

(Unlike other sportsmen, such as cricketers or footballers, jockeys are able to influence the outcome of a contest. They can never guarantee a horse will win, but they can make certain it loses.)

However, Billy girlfriend had recently informed him she was carrying his child. With his girlfriend now pregnant, he planned to fulfil his dream and start a new life in Australia with his future family. A few hundred pounds for stopping Tarmac Boy from winning wasn't going to cut it. Like Geoff, he had gone  ‘All in’ betting on Tarmac Boy to win.

The story goes, Johnny confronted Billy after racing. His temper became frayed and he threw a punch that would end Billy's life. He then escaped in his car heading back to Henley to collect his belonging before intending to do a disappearing act. The Police were onto him, he lost control and collided head on with another motorist. Evan Elliott survived the car crash and was sentenced at Reading crown court to “Life in Prison, with a minimum term of twenty five years” for the murder of Billy O'Neill and drug trafficking crimes. He was never charged with the manslaughter of Lisa Marie and Geoff junior.

Submitted: September 10, 2019

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Add Your Comments:



So this is a great story. If you could fix the many typos and formatting problems it would be even better. :)

Thu, September 12th, 2019 7:09pm


Thank you. I will fix.
Kind regards

Thu, September 12th, 2019 2:09pm

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