Jim was in transition. He was resident in a kind of no-man’s land between mawkish self-pity and euphoria. If Snake Charmer had bolted up with a couple of lengths to spare he would have been hollering and whooping like a lunatic with a pair of scissors in a vasectomy clinic. He just couldn’t navigate that narrow channel between abject failure and unqualified success. It had all happened too quickly. He’d have dealt with the failure, eventually. His embittered existence demanded that level of self-forgiveness. It was success, even by default, that his mind couldn’t process temporarily. He’d dismantled something akin to those two infamous walls, Berlin and Jericho.
All around him punters were staring at the small scrap of paper hanging precariously in his right hand, threatening to be blown away with the turbulence being stirred by a people unused to, in turn, to both animation and success. At some point he was aware that a hand cradled his own and curled it around the winning slip, protecting it. “You’ve found the golden ticket Charlie, now run home as fast as your legs will carry you” He didn’t have to run that far but the lack of feeling beneath his waist threatened to turn it into a similar trek.
Then it rose; from deep inside all those bodily recesses, a realisation that he was a winner, a man and a husband. It was his Holy Trinity. The first life signs of a smile twitched away at the right side of his mouth. Slowly it stretched encouraging his cheekbones to rise in complicity until his grin resembled that which only Dennis Quaid could replicate.
“Yes, you mother-fucker!” he screamed, the gambler’s equivalent of the Halleluiah salutation. The blood was now sprinting around his body like water uncorked from a dam. He stood up and strode to the counter.
The girl who’d taken the bet was trembling as she took it back as if she were a victim in a M R James’ ghost story and the paper contained a line of runes about to disintegrate. The shop manager was standing behind her left shoulder. She held it up behind her and the manager took it from her.
“Would you step into the office please sir?” and motioned with his eyes for Jim to come to the staff door.
“Yeah, sure” Jim clipped, as nonchalantly as any proud new monarch would, crowned in the presence of the vassals and peasants that were now his possessions.
The inside of the office was busy with bad furniture and a bare bulb hung from the ceiling between grey areas and patches of thin emulsion, where someone had once attempted to spruce up the interior but after two or three brushstrokes realised it was pointless. “He isn’t going to pay me” The thought seized Jim like an arm lock from a wrestler and his breath shortened as if here were hyperventilating. The manager appeared to be calm, almost serene as he ambled around his little room arranging the chairs and table so they would be comfortable. As he did so he would steal a glance or two at Jim’s winning slip that he carried in his left hand like a pamphlet warning of the evils of addiction.
“Tea or coffee” he asked Jim, filling a battered electric kettle from the water fountain sat pathetically in the corner.
“Tea will do; thanks” replied Jim, sitting down.
“We have no champagne”
“I might buy a bottle later”
“Never been any need”
“I’ll send you one maybe. Keep it for next time”
“You’re planning another coup?”
“I wasn’t aware I was part of a first”
The manager lifted up the slip and dropped it on the table, then sat down so that all three of them were at rest.
“You know,,,” and paused inviting Jim to fill in the blank.
“You know…Jim…I started off as a runner 25 years ago. I spent ten years taking bets with two independent bookmakers before I got this position. I’ve seen millions of bets struck on and of-course. I’ve taken thousands off rich dickheads at Royal Ascot who laid bundles on the backs of many an odds-on also-ran just to show off to a party of hangers-on. Kids have come in here pissed up on lager or high on speed and put down a score or maybe a monkey not because they know fuck all about the horse; no, they’re just trying to launder stolen money on betting shop whispers. What I’m saying Jim is no-one in their right mind makes a bet like that!”
“Bullshit. Look at the National: 100/1, 200/1; you must take a hatful every year on three legged nags; book your holidays on the takings. Even better when one of the rags actually comes home first”
“Housewives and part-time sports fans; works syndicates and office tombola; a pound in the kitty or 50p each way, yeah we see a lot of that. This isn’t even in the same league”
“What am I then? The owner; the trainer’s first cousin or maybe his milkman”
“Who gave you the name Jim?”
“You seem to forget; a few minutes ago I was a loser like all those other mugs out there. Perhaps you think I arranged the interference or in some way influenced the Stewards with a Jedi mind trick!”
“Forget the bluff Jim. The horse was primed to win. Flautist got in the way, that’s all”
“So then, you’re not going to pay me”
“Oh you’ll get your money but you have to understand I’m only asking you the same questions my bosses are going to put to me”
“I’ve never met you”
“The onus will be on me to prove that”
“Who are they, the fucking mob?”
The manager said nothing
“Look Bob” Jim said, finally interested enough to read the manager’s company badge “I was desperate. I like reptiles. My Dad was born in fucking India. Pick a category”
Behind Bob the kettle’s off switch popped. He got up and poured out two cups of tea, squeezing Jim’s bag with extra venom. He planted both cups on the table along with a bag of granulated sugar and a plastic pint of semi-skimmed milk. Jim picked up his wining slip just as a loose wave of tea broke over the lip of the yellow mug Bob had given him and sloshed across the table.
“That was deliberate” thought Jim and began to construct an exit strategy.
“Look Bob, can I get my money?”
“I’ll get the cheque book”
“Come on, I haven’t got that here”
“This is the busiest bookies in town. You took that this morning”
“I have to bank so much as the day goes on. The threat of robbery, you understand” the irony of that sentence so heavy the words seem to hit the shoddy floor tiles underneath them.
“Well un-bank it”
Bob called in Sandra the girl who’d taken Jim’s bet. He was angry at her for taking the bet in the first place without consulting him. “I couldn’t see you and they were about to go” Maybe Sandra was in on the deal. It just didn’t add up. He would’ve laid off part of the bet.
There were two other clerks but vindictiveness must be satisfied, so Bob sent her to the bank. He didn’t want her to get mugged anymore than she herself did but if anymore shit was going to hit the fan she’d have to wipe it off.
It took her twenty minutes after Bob had called ahead and arranged the pick up. Ten years ago his banker had suggested a code word to use in this eventuality. It wasn’t the same fiscal official but the code word remained apt and unused in all that time – ‘cheat’.
Bob wrapped the money in a large envelope but Jim removed his original stake of £50 for the Chinese, and then tucked it inside and halfway across his waistband pulling his shirt over the top. “It’s been a pleasure” he grinned.
Bob said only one thing in response “Don’t place anymore bets here”
“I’m barred then?”
“There are others” Jim said as he left the office already relishing the prospect of another text in the morning.
As he left the security of the staff side of the shop he carved through the envious losers, who stared at him like he were Christ returning upon the clouds, and made for the front door and the open, crowded and safe shopping precinct beyond. As he did so he patted his breast and shouted “Thanks for the cheque”
Inside his jacket the black phone vibrated again.
“What the hell is he telling me to do now?”
He tarried by the door unsettling Bob who was concerned that Jim was up to something else.
It was short and brief:
“Another tip? Tonight?” Jim thought “But where’s the race?”