When I was just 15 years old, in 1972, I went to London for the first time. I lived at the end of the Central Line subway. London held many promises and every young boy wanted to venture to see the lights and entertainment. There were so many interesting things to do or buy. I especially wanted to see soho, known for its underground culture and sex shops.
I readiness for my trip to London, I had drawn out all my money. I had four five pound notes with me. That was a huge amount of money for 1972. You would have to be mad to put so much money in your pocket.
The bright lights of London
I was having a great time walking round Soho, Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square. People were everywhere.
It was so exciting. There were street entertainers, magicians, dancers, and street singers. All the shops had bright lights. There were slot-machine arcades, gadget shops and street sellers with crafts of all kinds.
The card dealer
In a side street I came across a small group of 4 or 5 people watching a man dealing cards. The dealer had an up-turned cardboard box. He was dealing cards onto it shouting "Find the lady and double your money. Everyone wins"
"Find the lady"
I approached to better understand what was happening. As if by magic the group parted to let me come close up and get a good view. The dealer had three cards - two low black ones and a queen of hearts, ("the Lady"). He would show the three cards, deal them face down, and mix them up. "Find the lady and double your money", he would shout.
It wasn't hard to follow "the Lady". People were betting on where the queen lay. Sometimes people got it right, sometimes they got it wrong. To me it seemed really easy to find "the Lady". I would have been able to win all the time. Most of the other punters didn't seem to be much good at following the queen card.
The exception was the player on my right. He could always spot the queen. He seemed to be winning almost every deal.
"It's a £20 minimum bet" called the dealer. "Come on sonny, want to have a go?", he said looking at me.
"No, no no, I'm just looking", I said.
I was quite tempted. It seemed like easy money, but in those days £20 was a huge fortune. Funnily enough it corresponded to all the money I had in my pocket. I would need some of it for my train fare home. The rest was for all the wonderful things I planned to buy in London. I couldn't afford to take the risk of betting it, even on a dead-cert like this.
The winning player
The game continued. The man, standing next to me, on my right, seemed to be winning all the time. He would slam his hand down on the chosen card to make sure the dealer didn't switch cards. He'd put his bet, - a bundle of fivers, on the table, between his fingers and the card.
One time he slammed his hand on the card and said to the dealer "twenty quid for me and twenty kid for this man next to me". He was pointing at a man in a suit on his right. The dealer said to the suited man, "Show me your money first.". The suited man seemed reluctant and shook his head. The dealer turned the card over and sure enough it was - as I already knew, the queen. "Too bad", said the winning guy, "All you had to do was show him your money".
Another round of cards. The dealer shouted "Find the lady and double your money - it's minimum twenty quid". I was starting to be tempted. I knew which of the three cards was "the lady". I could feel the four five pound notes in my pocket. The winning guy once again picked the right card, and said the same thing to the dealer, "Twenty quid for me and twenty quid for this gentleman", referring again to the man in the suit.
"Put your money on the table sir - if you want to bet", said the dealer. Gingerly the businessman pulled out his wallet, counting out 20 pounds and put them on the table. The dealer turned over the card, and sure enough it was the queen again. The dealer paid the two winners £20 each.
The dealer showed us the three cards and laid them face-down on the table, swapping their places before calling out "Find the lady and double your money". This time, the winning player on my right slammed his hand on the queen saying "Twenty quid for me and twenty quid for this little lad here", pointing at me. "Show the dealer your money son", said the guy.
I pulled out the four five pound notes from my pocket.
"Put your money on the table", said the dealer. I put my money down.
The adrenalin was running high. I was ecstatic at the thought of the £20 I was about to win. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't wait for the dealer to turn over the queen and hand me back £40.
My Shock - It's not the Queen of Hearts!
The dealer started to turn over the card. I watched him intently. I didn't want any cheating when my huge fortune was on the table. I was going crazy with the anticipation.
My heart stopped. I froze. It was the 2 of clubs! What? Where was the queen? I saw him put it there. I always knew where the queen landed. I felt vomit and bile coming up into my throat. It was impossible for the queen to be somewhere else. I stared at the two of clubs. I wasn't seeing right? It must be the queen?
I was in shock. I couldn't understand it. The dealer had been paying everyone. Everyone had been winning. He had to pay me too? This couldn't be happening to me.
Asking for my money back
I stuttered "I...I... I.. er... made a mistake.... can I have my money back?"
Before I had finished uttering those stunned words, someone down the street shouted "The bill!". "The bill" was cockney slang for "The police". The group suddenly seemed to melt away, as if by magic. Six people went in six directions. I never saw the dealer leave. It all happened so quickly. I found myself alone on the side street next to the over-turned cardboard box.
Penniless with nothing but a cardboard box
I was penniless. I didn't have any money left to spend in London. I didn't have my train fare. Everything I had was gone. All I had left was an empty cardboard box.