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The Gambler

17 Feb 2024 4 minute read
Photo Antonio Battista

Ben Wildsmith

Calmly and easily, the nurses busy themselves around this ward, administering a tablet here, a smile there, a squeeze of a hand.

It’s bright in here, and quieter than the ones people graduate through to reach it. It’s the pinnacle of most people’s lifelong journey through the NHS, from squealing into life in Obstetrics to here.

It’s taken Louise 46 years to arrive, after all those visits to A & E, operating theatres, and psychiatric wards, she’s completed the game.

Around her bed, the support workers who tried to cushion her bumpy ride are bereft. Inevitability is no balm to the wrench of losing someone you care for.

They’ve been busy today, both of Louise’s brothers are in prison so urgent calls had to be put in to the chaplains who can advocate for compassionate release when a relative is dying. They arrived earlier, handcuffed to officers, and unwound with grief. As Louise lay motionless the elder brother just wept, the younger plead,

‘Not now, Lou, not now, please…’


The streets are hard on a person. For a night, a week, a month, six months that kind of homelessness is such an offence to the soul that it can provide a spur for change, the sort of ‘short, sharp, shock’ that idiot politicians think will work for anything they disapprove of.

The real trouble sets in when the shock wears off, when there’s no point in becoming sober anymore, when you don’t notice if your clothes aren’t dry, and your cough replaces your smile. Once that perversion of normality settles on a person it never really leaves.

There are moments though. Perhaps a support worker had a free afternoon and could take her to Barry Island for a couple of hours. She’d rave and laugh all the way then sit on the wall and smile at the sea, silent until it was time to go home.

Because there was a home in her last few years, a little flat that she kept immaculate – ‘Get your feet off my rug!’


In her pomp she was magnificent, singing in the city centre for strangers, enough for a can. Everyone knew her: police, magistrates, judges, doctors, probation officers, prison officers.

‘What are we going to do with you, Lou?’

‘Got a pound, Your Honour?’


‘God loves a trier!’

She needed to be visited daily by her support workers, first thing in the morning, don’t be late. We brought her food, rationed out her cash, took her to the hospital if we could. The police knew to call us if she got out of hand in town.

‘Can you pick Louise up, please?’

Cursing the world and its mother she’d be coaxed into the car and brought back home. We’d put a blanket over her if she fell asleep on the sofa and refused to move.

There were only flashes of what had sent her life that way. She didn’t do self-pity.

Little Louise remembered hiding her dad’s lager, not letting him have any until he’d eaten the toast she’d made for his breakfast. Her mam had been the same too, she knew what was coming.

Mostly, though, the stories were uproarious.

‘I was in prison, right, and I didn’t have any burn. So, I find the nearest muppet, not a tooth in her head, and sell her my false teeth! She comes back half an hour later and tells me they don’t fit! Well, you can’t have your money back, I tell her. I can’t have them now, can I? It would be unhygienic!


Once, when we took her to Penarth, she collected a handful of smooth stones of the beach. When I took round her shopping the next morning, they were on her mantlepiece, one for each of us with our names carefully written on them, and the date.

She once told me she’d never had a steak, or champagne. We got her a steak.

As she slips away, tiny and silent, we sing to her: Kenny bloody Rogers like she always sang to us.

You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em,

Know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money,

When you’re sitting at the table,

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

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1 month ago

You told me a few years back how much you and many others really rated this exceptional lady, but how she couldn’t hope to survive much longer with her internal organs in the state they were in. You all worked hard to get her a home of her own and keep her there for as long as she had left. And you have achieved that, so good for you for a job well done.

I hope you can play and sing at her wake, and lullaby and rock her on her way with some excellent noise.

Tim Dominic Peterson
Tim Dominic Peterson
1 month ago

Please don’t let it be the lovely friendship bracelet lady from Cardiff. I knew her name, was it Lou for Louise? Desperately searching for a photo – Oh surely not. I realise you are protecting her by not publishing a photo. It’s late and I am just worried about all my street friends. I have just joined the Choir With No Name. It’s for the homeless. I know she had a place and never claimed to be homeless. If you need someone to sing at the funeral, please let us know

Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
1 month ago

Names have been changed. The events described were some months ago.

1 month ago

Great strength there but also great sadness. We should be sad because our homeless and other disadvantaged have been shunted out of sight while politicians and their servants are busy looking for new issues to address in their usual superficial style. Do more for our own first then erect proper structures to manage the vast array of arrivals with differing needs. The funds exist. Catch the dodgers and cut the waste in all sorts of segments of government spending. That alone might be the best start to saving the planet if they really want to do that.

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