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The day I (almost) won the lottery in Spain

William Cook was on his way to buy a ticket for “El Gordo” in a small town in Tenerife but changed his mind at the last minute. It’s a decision he’s lived to regret. 

Magic number: a bar owner celebrates his big win near Barcelona, 2010
Magic number: a bar owner celebrates his big win near Barcelona, 2010

I've got a good idea,” I told my wife, as we lay in our hotel bed in Tenerife on a holiday we couldn’t possibly afford. “Why don’t we do the Spanish lottery?”

“But you said you don’t agree with lotteries,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t. I still don’t. But now I’m willing to try anything. What I agree with or disagree with doesn’t matter any more.”

We were watching Spanish breakfast TV and the lottery was everywhere. Tomorrow’s draw was el gordo, “the big one” – one ticket, one prize, worth €3m. It was the perfect amount of money, just about enough to make all of our financial problems disappear.

We were in a small town called Garachico, a windswept place on the rocky north coast, a long way from the big beach resorts in the south. Only a few thousand people live here but there was a lottery shop on the same street as us, barely a hundred yards away. After breakfast I slipped out to buy a paper and a winning ticket.

I walked past the shop several times. It was the only place you could buy the tickets – a little hole-in-the-wall office, reminiscent of a bureau de change. Unlike the paraphernalia of the British National Lottery, the window display wasn’t garish; it was dull and bureaucratic. I’d never played the lottery before but here it felt quite different, as if it was the normal thing to do.

I still can’t work out why I didn’t go inside and buy that ticket. Maybe it was my useless Spanish that stopped me. Maybe it was my middle-class angst. When I was a child, it was always drummed into me that gambling was wrong, even sinful. Betting shops were like sex shops. Their windows were boarded up for good reason. What went on inside was shameful, something unfit for public view. When John Major launched the National Lottery, I looked on with pious condescension. It was a tax on stupidity and, like most know-alls, I heartily approved of it – for other people. Let them waste their hard-earned money. I didn’t need luck to make my pile.

Now, in my mid-forties, I didn’t feel quite so optimistic. I’d been scratching a living as a journalist for 20 years and the rates were the same as when I started. I made enough to get by but I’d never get rich doing it and I knew it. I’d come to understand the mindset of those poor saps who queue up for their Lottery tickets every Saturday. It had taken me 20 years to learn what they’d always known: that for most people, people like me, with no particular talent or application, the only chance of becoming rich is to get a lucky break.

The news broke early the next morning. The whole hotel was agog with it, buzzing with raw adrenalin. The winning ticket had been bought right here, in little Garachico. I went out with my seven-year-old daughter to see what was going on. The narrow street was thick with people. The lottery shop was hemmed in by Spanish journalists, interviewing anyone they could find – or, if all else failed, each other.

The shop was shut but the winning ticket was posted up behind plate glass, like a sacred relic in the window. People surrounded it as if they hoped some of its magic would rub off on them. The alley was littered with confetti. My daughter scooped up two dirty handfuls and threw them over me like a bridesmaid at a wedding. A camera crew pounced on us, beaming the surreal scene to Madrid and Barcelona. We must have made a pretty pair, both of us covered in confetti, my daughter giggling with pleasure while I wore the shit-eating grin of a sore loser.

The winners were already holed up in La Quinta Roja, a grand old hotel on the main square. I joined a throng of sheepish hangers-on, hoping to find a way inside, to no avail. This was a private party.

Over dinner at our favourite tapas bar, I tried to look on the bright side. Even if I’d bought a ticket here, I told Eduardo, the proprietor, I never would have guessed the winning number. I should have kept my mouth shut. The news was far worse than I’d assumed. Unlike the British lottery, in which punters pick any numbers they want, the Spanish lottery (at least this one) was all about the actual tickets. Each shop gets an allocation of them, each with a unique, preprinted number. You wouldn’t need to guess the winning number. All you needed to do was buy the ticket.

“Never mind,” I said, seeking reassurance. “They probably sold the winning ticket months ago.”

“No,” said Eduardo, with a rueful grin. “The winner bought his ticket yesterday.”

The last few days of the holiday didn’t feel quite the same. What had begun as a mild folly now seemed like an insane splurge. I agonised over every euro, double-checking every receipt, counting and recounting every handful of loose change.

All I could think about was how much €3m would have changed me. No more haggling or scrimping, no more hustling, unless we wanted to. We’d finally have the same lifestyle as the folk I’d known at university who’d had the guile to get their head down and stick at a sensible career. At 45, I knew I was too old to make it happen any other way.

Back in Britain, queuing up to buy a paper, I had to wait while the man in front of me fussed over his National Lottery numbers. No, I wasn’t tempted. I’d had my chance. Yet something else had shifted. Previously I would have dismissed him as deluded. Now I found myself waiting for him with far more patience than before. His chances of becoming a millionaire may be small but mine are surely even smaller. His pound had bought him a precious sense of hope, a sensation I know I’ll never share.

As I handed over a pound for my boring newspaper, I found a few pieces of confetti in my pocket and wondered, for the millionth time, what I would have done with €3m.