Timothy O'Brien always did the lottery. His habit was to buy five weeks' worth of tickets in advance for himself and a workmate and then fill them out with the same sequence of numbers: 14, 17, 22, 24, 42 and 47.
Last Saturday, Mr O'Brien did not watch the lottery draw live on the television. So he missed Anthea Turner and Gordon Kennedy riding a steam roundabout in Norfolk. He missed the usual run of previous winners popping the champagne corks and smiling the smiles of those whose lives have been changed irrevocably. And he also missed the fact that the numbers popped out of the tombola were 14, 17, 22, 24, 42 and 47. It wasn't until the next morning, when he read his Sunday paper, that he found out he was on a course to riches. Until, that is, he checked his tickets and discovered they had run out the previous week, thus depriving him and his mate of a share in the pounds 8m jackpot. Unable to face his friend with the news that his bureaucratic incompetence had deprived him of a life change, Mr O'Brien, a regular church-goer, did the unthinkable for a Catholic: he went up to the attic, loaded up the .22 pistol he used at his local gun club and shot himself in the head.
Though his death might have been, Mr O'Brien's life was not unusual. He lived in a neat, semi in an unexceptional suburb of Liverpool; he had worked in the same factory in Kirkby for more than 20 years, he had two grown-up sons and was known around his community as charitable, easy-going kind, a good man. And, like millions of his countrymen, he did the lottery. In the five months since it began, the lottery had become a given in the fabric of his life, a light-hearted relief from the ordinary, a chance for a weekly vicarious day-dream about wealth. He had not missed a week, until the week he would have won.
The same day that the papers carried news of the "pounds 1m loser" (as the Daily Mirror termed it), the tabloids also featured the story of Kevin Hatcher. Another lottery regular, Mr Hatcher pulled out of a syndicate in Kent because he couldn't afford the 50p a week stake. The week he decided to give up his place to a chum, the syndicate won pounds 2.7m: his share would have been pounds 150,000. Mr Hatcher, pictured looking glum with his torn lottery ticket in his hands, said he couldn't believe he had given up the chance for riches for the price of half a pint.
Neither story - one tragic, one comic - will have done the lottery harm. Both serve to underline the essential message that its organisers wish to convey: hang on in there, do it regularly and success will surely come. Remember: you have to be in to win.
Mohamed Elgady, who was Mr O'Brien's newsagent, said yesterday that he did not remember Mr O'Brien coming in to buy his big batch of tickets in advance. But then there is no reason why he would. Mr O'Brien would have blended into the rush of customers filling the shop.
"These are the extremes gambling can lead to," Mr Elgady said. "People have become obsessed [with the lottery]. For some of my customers it is all they seem to live for. They spend their last pennies on it every week."
This is a pattern repeated in every economically under-achieving part of the country. In five months, the lottery has taken hold. Kishor Patel, who owns a general store in Hoxton, a deprived district north of the City of London, says he takes about pounds 6,000 a week in lottery punts. More than half that taking is now in instants, the scratch card introduced last month that offers immediate cash prizes without the tiresome wait until Saturday: the crack cocaine of the lottery world.
"I thought it would hit a peak," said Mr Patel. "But it just goes up every week, every week more play. On average most of my customers spend between pounds 3 and pounds 5 a time. Very few just spend a quid. A lot of them are pensioners, and you feel theyare spending money they can't afford. pounds 1 is all right, but pounds 5 means they must be going without something else."
Last Friday, one of Mr Patel's customers won pounds 1,000 on the instants. As the news percolates around the local estate, more people will decide to go without in the pursuit of the redemptive promise of the lottery. And the roll-call of lottery losers will mount.