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Losing Touch

Losing Touch

Written by: Jeff Randall (Economics, 1979, Honorary Degree, Doctor of Letters 

As Cliff Hunt waited for a taxi outside Nottingham University's Trent Building, he knew there was no middle way. Either his all-or-nothing bet would succeed or a vicious loan shark would maim him.

While other students fretted over revision schedules, Cliff was thinking only of survival. All that mattered was winning enough to repay in full Jed Slade.

Cliff, a 24-year-old postgraduate, had accumulated many creditors: two banks, 11 card providers, three payday lenders and his girlfriend. These, however, were the least of his troubles; they could be gamed with impunity.

Slade was different. He operated a retrieval system of brutal simplicity. First was an in-your-face warning; then came hard slaps and an ultimatum.

Cliff had already experienced both. Now he had until midnight to deliver £9,000 or face being carved up by a psychopath.

The taxi, an old black cab, pulled up 10 minutes late; its flustered driver wound down the window. 

"Going to Nottingham racecourse?

"Sorry about the wait". Cliff jumped in without responding, he wasn't interested in small talk.

En route to the races, Cliff repeatedly checked his jacket. He knew the cash was there but felt compelled to touch it: £500 in the right-hand zip-up, £500 in the leather wallet, all earmarked for just one bet.

Cliff had scraped together his last-chance stake money by pocketing the £200 his mother had sent to help buy an iPad, selling his grandfather's Omega watch for £170 (it was worth much more) and filching £78 from the student union bar.

The rest had been extracted from authorised exploiters, with names like Zoom, whose television advertising offered "instant spending power" to the weak and hapless. Their rates were usurious yet they seemed almost consumer-friendly compared with Slade's.

Known to his clients as Slug — a conflation of Slade and Thug — he once lent £400 to a family in the Meadows estate. Over the next 12 years, squeezed by late-payment penalties and cowed by violence, the victims were drained of £31,000. The father ended it all by killing himself.

Slade targeted those on society's bottom rung: poorly educated, badly paid and welfare dependent. "I love life's losers," he boasted. "They make me a winner."

Cliff did not fit that profile. Brought up comfortably in Surrey's commuter belt, he had a degree in psychology. He was charming and employable. But he was also dysfunctional, blighted by a chronic addiction to risk.

The problem for Cliff was not simply extravagant punting; that was a symptom of his disorder. He had a flaw that made everyday living seem meaningless without the adrenaline rush of doing battle with chance.

Cliff had studied Dostoyevsky's The Gambler and Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man. He knew about the cerebral distortions that afflict thrill junkies: the illusion of control and the Monte Carlo Fallacy. He understood what was happening to him but carried on.

The urge to wager more than he could afford had begun in a sixth-form backgammon club, playing for weekend money. From there Cliff slid down a dark alley that led to betting shops, online slot machines and illicit poker schools.

Along the way he had enjoyed some exhilarating wins, the best of which was a four-horse roll-up at Ascot that paid £2,000 for a £10 bet. But rather than bank the profit, he simply increased his stakes. As the law of diminishing returns worked its perverse magic, Cliff needed ever-bigger doses of jeopardy to feel the buzz.

When cash ran out, as it often did, he borrowed to plug the hole. Finally, with conventional lenders turning him away, Cliff resorted to Slade. He had been warned against it but couldn't resist. 

Their first transaction took place in a dingy pub near Canning Circus, popular with council workers. 

Cliff's initial loan was £300 but when he failed to repay on time it soon ballooned to £850. Within months it was more than £5,000 and that was when Slade turned nasty.

"Do you want a carpet cutter in your face, student? Gimme back my money or you will cop it."

A fear of being slashed had focused Cliff on how to conjure up a sum equal to a coffee bar manager's annual salary. His response, of course, was to gamble.

Horseracing had been kind to Cliff before, now he was asking it for an enormous favour. He had decided to place his entire bankroll, £1,000, on a runner in the last at Nottingham called Sauvez-Moi.

It was a talented beast but had been out of form and was expected to start at 10-1. This was what American sports fans call the "Hail Mary play": a desperate, no-Plan-B, dying-seconds move.

On arriving at the racecourse, Cliff paid the taxi driver, withheld a tip, and walked over to the newspaper stand. "Post, please," he said to the bored-looking vendor.

With four races already gone, the old man assumed Cliff didn't mean the Racing Post and handed him instead a copy of the city's weekly, the Nottingham Post. "That's 65p."

Glaring at the seller, Cliff went to give it back when he noticed the headline: "Local Bully Killed In Night Club". Underneath was the sub-head: "Jed Slade Shot Dead".

Cliff's face twitched and his pupils dilated. He read the story and then reread it, as if looking for a catch. The vendor was losing patience. "Come on m'duck, The Post's not a freebie, it's 65p." Cliff slipped him a pound and ignored the change.

He was not a religious fellow but Cliff was overcome with a sense that a powerful force had looked after him: Slade gone, danger eliminated, debt wiped out. And he still had his thousand in readies.

Turning away from the racecourse entrance, Cliff headed back to the taxi rank, where the driver who had brought him was parked. "You were quick. Return to the campus?"

Cliff hesitated for a few seconds. "No, take me to Upper Parliament Street, the 24-hour casino. Today is my day."

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