It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Cape Town, and before the faux frontier-town GrandWest Casino, aging cars stretch for acres. I stroll from the ice rink, where we’ve been playing hockey, and at the casino doors, freshly renewed by pay-day, entire families are queuing. The kids are kitted out with backpacks and entertainment money, which they will soon be spending on arcade games, bowling and fast food while their folks get on with the serious business of trying to augment their salaries.
As they wander inside, the parents look anxious. This is precarious work, after all. Whatever happens today may set the mood at home for the coming days, and if things go badly, the next thirty. The older children may know this already, for there’s something about their swagger that suggests they sense the danger in this ritual, and want to care less about it.
Inside, the casino is at permanent sunset. Time itself bends and shifts to your will. There are no clocks on the walls, and no windows. The ceiling of the fast-food hall is painted to resemble the partly-cloudy, twilit sky of a Mediterranean postcard. The music in the hall is so bland and timeless that you can barely hear it, like a scent you no longer notice because you’ve worn it for so long. Only the children, whose dedicated entertainment area has natural light, will properly sense the passing of time. Just where the families split up, a Liberace lookalike stares from a poster for his tribute show. He has all the jewellery but none of the hair, and may have been about their age when the showman died.
This is where whole Sundays vanish. And it would not happen every week, and to so many people, if some of them didn’t win from time to time. For every now and then, for one or two families, it will all pay off: dinner will be fabulous, someone will get new clothes, and the house will have new curtains. And the hope that perhaps it will come again will stay with them all till the next month and the next until the children bring their own children, and risk yet another month for another miracle.
As I step into the daylight, I shrug off my disapproval, if not a certain lingering moral arrogance. They may be feeding their financial future to this monster, but there is nothing like that sense of hopefulness and the rare ecstasy of its fulfilment, and I wouldn’t take that from anyone.
Actually, come on, I would. I’ve tried hard to avoid being judgemental. But I’ve been playing hockey at GrandWest for six years and I have never seen anything to justify this flagrant waste of family time. Go have a picnic, you nitwits. Go sit on the beach or play carpet bowls in the living room. Your children may grow up okay either way, but that one-armed bandit’s never going to thank for for all the quality time you spent together.