Being told you have a lucky face is the oldest trick in the book

So, there I am, strolling towards Marble Arch Station from the north, passing the swanky Indian restaurant on Old Quebec Street and thinking that, thanks to some extra work I've got lately, I might be able to pay off a couple of debts and still have enough left over for a mediocre Chinese meal, when I am accosted by a young, Indian-looking man wearing a suit.

“Excuse me," he says, "but you have a very lucky face."

“Why, thank you," I say. (And I think: he wouldn't have said that if he'd seen me last week.)

He then informs me he's a student, and that he would just like to try something out on me. Well, I have a few minutes to spare, the weather is pleasant and this young man himself has a bright, guileless face, so why not?

He then says: "You will have three pieces of good fortune in the next few days." Well, that's always nice to hear, isn't it?

“Now, please let me try this. I am a student. Can you think of a number between one and five and the name of your favourite flower?"

Roses are red

Feeling sunnily doltish, I opt internally for three and the rose, respectively. Is it corny of me to choose the rose? I also like the lupin, the foxglove, the forget-me-not, Myosotis palustris, and the one that looks like an orange bog brush and whose name I always forget.

But every time I smell a rose, I am transported back to my earliest memories, so the rose it is. Its furled petals also remind me of labia - or is it the other way round?

Anyway, the student, who has already asked me my name and what I do and written them down, scribbles something on a scrap of paper, folds it up tightly, blows on it, hands it to me, asks me to blow on it, touch my forehead with it, then the back of my neck, or some such rigmarole, and open it.

Well, would you credit it, there in his spindly handwriting is the numeral three and the word "rose".

“Very impressive," I say.

At this point he asks me for some money, and I think, well, that's not a bad trick, and well worth a quid, so I put my hand in my pocket. He seems to know what I'm doing, and shakes his head. "People always give paper money," he says.

Why, at this point, even though my mood suddenly darkens because I know that the smallest-denomination note I have in my wallet is a tenner, which I can ill afford, do I not tell him to sod off, and carry on my way?

There is a salt-grain of menace, with reproach behind it, in his bearing, but, looking back at this incident, I am baffled that I do hand over the tenner, which he invites me to place on the opened pages of his pocketbook.

He then offers me a deal. If he guesses the name of my wife, I will give him a purple note, and if he doesn't, I get my tenner back.

“Word of a gentleman?" he asks. Of course, I say. He then goes through the same rigmarole with the paper, although this time I notice that he asks me what her name is before handing it over to me. The order of events I described earlier is obviously not as I recall it.

Now, I am on safe-ish ground here, I think. My wife is technically but not de facto my wife; moreover, she has a name that foreigners and many English people have difficulty with, as indeed does my student, who thinks I'm making it up.

He asks me how to spell it. More business with the paper, and, when I unfold it, there is my wife's name in uncertain lettering. The whole business, as I know you could have told me by the time I'd been told I had a lucky face, was a scam.

Now there's a catch

And yet still I do not demand my tenner back. I wag my finger at him and say he's not going to be getting any purple note, and he protests, invoking our gentleman's agreement.

But I turn and go, deciding that the lost tenner is a stiff penalty for my own gullibility, a lesson learned - that there is no one so easily fooled as the person who considers himself unfoolable.

Reader, take that lesson away with you. As I approach the station, I see two idling policemen (which is odd, as London elsewhere is going up in flames). "There's a conman operating just up there," I say, and describe him, and off they go. They won't catch him, but the sight of them might make him sweat.

Funnily enough, over the next couple of days I do, in fact, receive three pieces of good news.


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?