Archive for the ‘Michael’s Latest Gambling Yarn’ Category

A Tip from Charlie Smirke

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Charlie Smirke - head

A Tip from Charlie Smirke

  

For many years, Charlie Young had been the most popular hairdresser in Woking and his backroom gambling set-up handled more than a third of the town’s betting turnover.  Charlie’s acquaintances were legendary and, a few days before the 1952 Derby, one such character – Solly Bernhart – was an unexpected visitor to his Saloon.

   “Something for the weekend Solly?”  Charlie enquired.

   “No thanks,” replied Solly, whose sexual experiences where now purely academic. “Actually, I’ve come down to-day to do you a little favour.”

   “Let’s go through to the back room then,” said Charlie, remembering some of Solly’s previous favours.

 

   Solly Bernhart was a flamboyant character, who resembled Mr Pickwick in appearance but not in motivation.  He had been a friend of Charlie’s since before the war, and having recently sold his jeweller’s shop in the East-end of London, was now flirting with a life of leisure.

   Once in the betting room, Charlie introduced Solly to Alice and I, who were pouring over the day’s runners.

   “You’ve met my wife Alice, and this is young Michael, runs a penny book at Goldsworth School, but comes in to hedge-off the occasional hefty double.”

   Solly shook hands, but hastily declined Alice’s offer of tea and Woodbines in favour of Charlie’s Cognac.

   I was all ears as Solly told his tale of how, on a recent visit to the Savoy Turkish baths in Jermyn Street, he had bumped into Charlie Smirke.

   “He was full of himself,” said Solly, “whistling away, he was, told me Tulyar was the best Derby mount he could remember.  In fact he kept on saying ‘I’ll Tulyar this and I’ll Tulyar that,’ to hammer home the message.”

   Young rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

   “Have you backed it yet Solly,” he enquired.

   “Well, I had £30 at 100-6 with my local man, but that’s his limit, and I’d like to get a bit more on with you.”

   “That’s OK,” said Charlie, sipping his Cognac, “I’ll make some calls, take a price and you can pay me cash, how much are we looking at?”

   “Fifty or sixty quid if you can – we can’t miss this one,” responded Solly.  Charlie made the calls on the ‘business phone,’ keeping his voice to a whisper. Suddenly he looked up “100-7 do yer, Solly?”

   “Fine.”

   “He will lay you a £1,000 to £70,” said Charlie, “but,” covering the mouthpiece, “I’ll want the cash here before the race, say Monday.”

   “Of course, of course,” Solly nodded vigorously, “don’t forget yourself.”

   Charlie lowered his voice and completed the added investment.

 Sinking their second Cognac, they congratulated themselves on their expected good fortune.  Feeling rejected at being left out of the negotiations, I got up to go.

   “Off now,” said Alice, then, “here Charlie, aren’t you going to cut Michael in for something?”

   “Yes of course, I almost forgot about the boy; what would you like Michael?”

   “Well, as I am actually going to Epsom; perhaps you’ll give me the price to five shillings?”

   “Yes that’s OK,” Charlie replied nonchalantly.  “You have a few bob to come, so I’ll take it out of that.”

   “You’re all heart Charlie,” I replied and promptly legged it back to school.

 

   Monday came and went with no sign of Solly. Tuesday lunch-time, he still hadn’t shown. Charlie began to panic.  Alice suggested that he try to cancel the bet, but his reputation was at stake and Charlie wouldn’t hear of it. However, after failing to trace Solly, he phoned his big players to try to lay off – they were not interested.  Charlie’s panic mounted and he suffered a troubled night.

 

    1952 - Tulyar - best Early Wednesday morning, having got special permission from Headmaster, Bonk Peel, to have Derby Day off, I dropped into the hairdressers to hand in my family’s bets. Charlie and Alice, looking the worst for wear, were already occupied with a steady stream of shilling each-way’s and any-to-come’s. Alice confided, “Charlie’s  furious with Solly – it isn’t the first time you know.  If he doesn’t show and Tulyar loses, we’re buggered – it’s like doing a thousand hair cuts for nothing.”

   Charlie came over, “Don’t listen to her, she’s got no bottle,” he said bravely.

   “But you could do me a favour as you’re going to Epsom.”

       “Sure,” I piped up, eager to help.

    “Look, phone here as near as you can to the big race, if Solly hasn’t brought the dosh, I want you to spread £30 over the first three in the Derby betting – the race is wide open and I know you’ll beat the S.P. Hopefully it will save our bacon.”

     I stashed the small fortune carefully into my blazer pocket. I shall be the biggest punter on our coach I thought, and perhaps, this could be the start of the big time for me.

    Arriving at Epsom with my telescope, sandwiches and raincoat, my heart sank on seeing the length of the telephone queues behind the stands. If I was going to phone, it had to be now – still no Solly.

    Walking across the course I was surprised that Tulyar was not only as low as 10-1, but now third favourite. I waited. The showers forecast for the afternoon didn’t arrive. Instead, the sun beat down on the packed crowd, causing hats and coats to be relegated to carrier bags.

 

    Just before the Derby, the money for Tulyar became an avalanche, forcing him into favouritism. Some bookmakers, in danger of a one-horse-book, off loaded their commitments onto other bookmakers, so forcing the price down further to 11-2. In consequence, the five French-trained horses who had previously vied for favouritism, were now all on the drift. I was now faced with the problem of which three of the five Frenchies to back for Charlie, as they were forever interchanging and increasing in price. And it now became obvious from the crowds pressing in on the bookies, that I had to choose between seeing the race or trying to beat the S.P.  My 16-year-old priorities won the day – I watched the race.

 

    Throughout the Derby parade, the heat, and the endless inane chatter of two uncommitted ladies immediately in front of me, caused me to feel queasy. I must have slumped forward as, moments later, I felt myself being passed over heads to a perfect position, normally reserved for members of the constabulary. I sustained a miracle cure.

 

     There was no racecourse commentary in those days, and my first view of the race was when the field turned into the straight – 33 runners were an eyeful, but I could pick out Tulyar, moving up on the outside. Steadying my telescope, I got a better view two-furlongs out as Charlie Smirke gave him a crack and they stormed into the lead, the green and brown hoops of the Aga Khan getting bigger and bigger until my hopes became a reality.

Charlie Smirke - full   Apparently, at the finish, my unrestrained celebrations had convinced a nearby policemen that I had made a full recovery and I was promptly escorted back into the enclosure.

Later, checking the number board with my racecard, I noted that the second, Gay Time, had been ridden by the young Lester Piggott, and Faubourg, one of the French horses had finished third.

The relief of Tulyar’s victory and the saving of Charlie Young’s £30, together with my skin, seemed to have solved everything.  So after a near-perfect day and after being dropped off in Woking, I hurried to the hairdressers.

 

“Come in Michael,” Charlie said beaming from ear to ear.

“Did Solly turn up?”  I blurted out.

“No, and not a word on the phone. Just as well, thank God, what a result.  Do you know I’ve won about £1,200.”

“I think it is a little more than that,” I said.

“How do you mean?” he puzzled.

“I saved the thirty quid for you.”

Alice intervened with a certain lack of perception, “Blimey Charlie, how’s that for honesty? I think he deserves a reward.”

“Ummm,” said Charlie, obviously considering the pros and cons of my actions.

“Tell you what, Michael, I’ll double your winnings and we can all celebrate.”

 

  Later clutching my seven quid and change, I made my way home with ambivalent feelings – the glow of nobility from my honest gesture vying with my mental calculation of just how many paper-rounds at six shillings a week equalled £30.

  On hearing my story, Mum had no such ambivalence in reaching her conclusion.

  “Charlie Young is a mean old miser!”

 

 

Post Mortem:  Solly Bernhart died of a heart attack on

Monday, May 26, 1952, two days before the Derby.

 

 Tulyar went on to win the Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen

 Elizabeth Stakes, and the St Leger Stakes.  He was unbeaten as a 3-y-o.

 

 Alice and Charlie had their first holiday since the war,

staying at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.

 

 

This short story is taken from

Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which Michael has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs

 

A Monday Grand National

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A Monday Grand National

Grand National racecard 1997

 

  Father Green had been reading in the Press that the up-coming 1997 Grand National was to be the 150th running. This year’s race looked wide open and in Perry’s words, “Was not to be missed.”

  Although he had previously booked his County Stand Badge, how he would travel to Liverpool and, whether he would stay up there for more than a day, he had yet to decide. Then strangely, on the Monday, he received a call from a long lost friend, Father Tod Abraham.

  “This is a surprise, after all this time too. What’s been happening?”

   “Well, remember old Tom Tooley from our seminary days? He and I were talking about the Grand National and your name came up. We were remembering how you loved the race and the good times we had at Aintree. So, we thought, why not do it again?”

  “It took me a couple of days to track you down on the Catholic radar, but now that I’ve found you, what do you say?”

  “Count me in,” said Perry, enthusiastically and straight away agreed to share their Aintree B & B.

  “We’ve booked it Wednesday to Wednesday,” said Tod, “so, Thursday to Saturday we’ll be racing and the rest of the time acting like tourists.”

  “There is just one thing Perry, I’m told there are only two single beds and, the living room’s quite small, but there’s a large settee which makes up into a bed, if you don’t mind sleeping there?” 

   A short silence followed, after which, Perry, ever conscious of his six-foot-

four-inch frame, answered bravely, “Oh that’s fine, really it is.”  

  The conversation then drifted to old seminary days and some uncomfortable memories for Perry, as Tod touched on the late night poker school in which Tom Tooley claimed he had lost a tidy sum to Perry, who had bluffed the pot with a pair of three’s.

  Perry sighed – “Ah, the stuff of legends,” but then quickly and diplomatically ended the call with, “It’ll be fantastic to see you both again, let’s hope this year we get the winner.”

 

 For the rest of the day, Perry seemed a little reflective. He had really only planned to go to Aintree for a day or two, but somehow, he’d got carried away in the excitement. Emily, however, having overheard part of the conversation and unable to bear his indecision any longer, came up with the following suggestion.

  “Father, why don’t you ring Father Abraham and tell him you’ll be travelling up early on the Friday morning – Euston to Lime Street – drop your bag in at their B & B and then go racing?”   

 

  Arriving at Aintree racecourse, Perry felt a surge of excitement. It looked like a fair size crowd for the Friday and although the weather was overcast and grey, he was very glad to be there. On meeting up with Tod Abraham and Tom Tooley, he learned that Tod had heroically relinquished his bed to him during his stay and now, he looked forward to two days’ racing.

 Father Green His betting, however, could have gone a little better, having backed The Last Fling, second to Cyborgo in the Mildmay, and then Highlandman, second again, to Blue Cheek in the Fox Hunters. Never mind this was like a holiday to Perry and he was determined to enjoy every minute of it.

  The following morning, after a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, he left his fellow priests to take the Racing Post back to his bedroom in anticipation of the afternoon’s sport – this was the time that he loved best.

  Arriving on course, the view from the County Stand was exhilarating. High in the stand he was opposite the winning post and, with his binoculars and view of the big screen he hoped to follow the big race throughout.     

  Perry’s luck, however, was still absent without leave – the first three races returning winning S.P’s of 25-1, 20-1 and 14-1 – so filling the bags of almost every bookmaker to the brim. Only a popular National winner would remove the hurt of some 60,000 spectators on course and a further ten million punters at home.

  Then, with the horses coming into the paddock, the Merseyside police received a coded warning that a bomb had been planted at Aintree. Nigel Payne, Aintree’s Press Officer, broke the news, live, to BBC’s anchor-man Des Lynam and immediately after, loudspeaker instructions were broadcast to evacuate the course. In addition, as part of the security operation, racegoers were forbidden to remove their vehicles from the car parks for the remainder of that day.     

  Meanwhile, the search for the bomb continued.

  Jenny Pitman, a previous winning trainer, made a tearful plea to Lynam:

  “We have the lunatic element here and we can’t give in to them.”  

 

  As the gravity of the situation became known, the Managing Director and Clerk of the Course, Charlie Barnett, confirmed that two coded bomb warnings had been received and with the minimum of decorum, asked Lynam and the BBC to leave Aintree immediately.

   At this point, Father Green, and those around him, still hoped that racing would continue later. However, the sight of tens of thousands of people spilling out onto the course and a few hooligans clambering over the fences, caused that hope to disappear, leaving only a painful memory of the day that had promised so much. 

  

  Being six-foot-four sometimes has an advantage, for although Father Green was hemmed in against the running rail, he could at least see where the meandering mob was heading.  Similarly, those within shouting distance could

see the tall figure of a priest in a Homburg, trying to move through the crush without forcefully pushing or shoving.

  “Father Perry, Father Perry,” a strong Irish brogue cut through the dejected babble and soon, Tod, Tommy and Perry were reunited.

 

   Later that evening, when Tod went out to get a Chinese takeaway for them all, he was delighted to hear from Larry Wong that the National was to be run on Monday at 5 p.m. – the only race on the card.

  In the meantime, Perry had nipped out to buy a bottle of Glenmorangie whisky and six cans of Guinness. It was going to be a good night after all.

 

   It was some time after the three men demolished their Chinese supper, and only then, as an afterthought, Tommy enquired, “Does anyone fancy a game of cards?”

  “I found an old pack,” Tommy continued, “in the chest of draws in my bedroom – they’re all there, I’ve counted them, what do you think?”  

  Tod looked a little uncomfortable at first, before referring the question to Perry.     

  “You’re the expert, so they tell me. What should we play Perry?”

  “Five-card brag can be fun. It’s a simple game,” he said airily, “you are dealt five cards each; make a hand with your best three and throw the other two away. Like poker really, but a run beats a flush. Oh, and a A-2-3 beats a A-K-Q,” he added, nonchalantly, “that’s usual I believe.”   

   They decided to play for 50p stakes and since none of them had much in the way of change, Perry found a full box of matches by the gas fire to improvise as chips.

  Tommy and Tod both remembered playing 3-card brag as schoolboys, so having two further cards to choose from felt like a luxury.

 After half-an-hour, with the game heading towards boredom, Perry made the suggestion that they open the Glenmorangie. Not surprisingly, the game took off.

 

     Tod was the first to get a really good hand – a 6-7-8 all in spades. Tom and Perry went with him for a while, till Tommy threw in. But Perry, for reasons best known to himself, stayed in longer than perhaps he should. Tod picked up around 20 matches and looked very pleased.

  As the night went on and the whisky went down, so the stakes grew bigger. In fact, Tom found it necessary to knock on the landlady’s door for another box of matches. Then, as so often happens with this game, all three men drew

exceptional hands at the same time. Tod picked up three Kings, Tommy a Q-J-10 of Diamonds and Perry, well, we’ll have to wait to see his cards.

  Needless to say, each player thought they had the winning hand and when the matches ran out, apologetically, but nevertheless enthusiastically, fivers and then tenners took their place. 

  After ten minutes of building up a sizable kitty, each player was faced with the strong possibility that there might be a better hand than their own. And whilst Tom had liberally contributed, he was the first to crack, and threw in.

  Thereafter, Tod and Perry continued to bet as if their money were only lent, until Tommy counted the kitty as nearing £150. At this point, they braced themselves with another whisky and tried to take stock. 

  Tod could not believe that Perry had three aces and although happy with the original 50p stakes, he now felt the need to press on, quietly harbouring the thought that it would teach Father Green a lesson.

  Perry, too, took stock and slowly developed the face of a gravedigger – but whose grave was he digging?

  Ten minutes later, with the kitty up to £250, Perry paid his final twenty to see Tod’s hand.

  “Read’em and weep,” Tod said joyfully, having remembered the phrase from an old movie, and then spread his Kings out in front of Perry.

    There followed a short silence, until Father Green slowly tipped over his cards – three fives!

   “What a relief,” said Tod, “Thank heavens for that.”

  But it was Perry who scooped up the money.

  “Sorry Tod, but three fives is the top hand – just like three-three’s in three-card brag.”

  Tod’s face was a picture of disbelief, until Tommy backed up Father Green.

  “He’s right Tod, remember when we played three-card brag as kids and you won my wristwatch with three three’s.”

  Tod regained his composure, while Perry folded the notes into his pocket.

  “Well, I really have to thank you both,” Tod said unconvincingly, “you have taught me a valuable lesson, one, I should have learned long ago.”

  Then, with a noticeably croaking voice he enquired, “Say, is there any more of that fine scotch whisky left?”

 

   Sunday morning, the three of them trooped off to Hope Street to hear the 11 o’clock Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. None of them had visited it before and so when the crowds had gone they took time for a personal tour. Towards the end, Perry read the first lines of a poem written by a local newspaper editor on how the people of Liverpool had built the Cathedral.

 

   “They did it by touting the streets and pubs and knocking on doors like their own.

  They did it, bless ‘em, by giving, when they had so little to give.”

  

 As they were about to leave, Perry excused himself, saying, “I’ll catch up with you boys.”

  Tod and Tommy then surreptitiously watched him engage one of the priests and pass him a bulky envelope.

   Later when out in the road, Tod asked, “Where did you go Perry?”

  “Oh, I just went to slip the priest a couple of quid.”

 

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    

  

    Monday’s Grand National was due off at 5 p.m., the time set to encourage as many locals as possible to attend. It was a fine day and Tod, Tommy and Perry, joined the large crowd with a spirit of Dunkirk defiance, as the 36 runners went to post.

  Go Ballistic (fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and the grey, Suny Bay, headed the market, whilst the New Zealand bred Lord Gyllene was a popular each way choice at 14-1.

  My own recollection of the race at the Raynes Park offices of Racing Post was that work stopped completely, while staff gathered to see courage and tenacity triumph in the face of adversity.

  Back at Aintree, Lord Gyllene, under the joint bottom weight of 10 stone, made virtually all the running to win by 25 lengths from the gallant Suny Bay, with the 100-1 shot Camelot Knight, third of the 17 finishers.

 

  That evening, Tod, Tommy and Perry tucked in to large portions of steak and mushroom pie, washed down with pints of Guinness, until finally, Perry’s taxi arrived to take him to Lime Street Railway Station.

  They all agreed that in spite of the disruption, they’d had a great time and promised each other to do it all again next year.

  “But, with some other card game, aye,” said Tod, with feeling, as he carried Perry’s bag to the door.

 

 

 

 

This story was taken from Michael’s latest book of short stories,
The Gambling Adventures of Father Green,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

 

 

Brighton Races

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Brighton Races

 

This is a story of racing at the end of the 1940s, a young Michael, his dad and a dodgy bookies runner known to the family.

 

I had recently seen ‘Brighton Rock’, the film of Graham Greene’s classic crime thriller, where a young Richard Attenborough plays ‘Pinkie’, the leader of a razor gang, working a bookmaker protection racket at Brighton races.  And although this era was at an end, the film had given the racecourse a popular folklore notoriety that added a buzz to the meetings.

    On learning that a race meeting at Brighton coincided with our family holiday, I persuaded my father to take me, and, it proved a day to remember for this impressionable 13-year-old.  To begin with, I spotted Billy Cook, the Australian champion jockey, walking towards us at the back of the stands.  Hastily producing a racecard and pen, I asked him for his autograph.  Cook, who had been in England for about three months, already had the tinge of a London accent, and his gaunt face and heavy eyebrows belied his pleasant manner.  Plucking up courage I said, “Are you riding anything good today Billy?”

    “Well I’ve only got two rides; the one in the first is a long shot, but my ride in the last has a chance.”

    “Last race Cook, eh?” I replied, for this was what Fleet Street had dubbed him after a recent run of last race successes.

    Getting into racecourses was quite expensive in those days, and as I recall, Dad paid an uncomfortable amount to get into Tattersalls, followed by a small contribution to the Gateman to look the other way as I scrambled over the turnstile.

    Once inside, we found our bearings and marked our selections in the racecard.  It was a bright sunny day, the smell of freshly cut grass, mingling with the shimmering heat-haze and the sound of horses hooves, created a sudden assault on my boyhood senses which crystallised itself into a lasting memory.

    Neither Dad nor I had a bet in the first race, and Billy Cook’s long shot finished well down the field. But running in the next was National Spirit, a long time favourite of mine, who, trained by Vic Smyth at Epsom, had twice won the Champion Hurdle.  I made him my ‘Nap of the Day,’ and, having obtained evens to a pound note, our cheers were drowned in the deafening roar, as the old fella drew away coming up the hill.

    Just after Dad had collected our winnings, an incident occurred that changed our day.  Frank Rogers, a bookies runner and one of Uncle Albert’s shadier friends, appeared hurrying towards us.

    “Are you staying for the last, Stan?” he anxiously enquired.

    “Yes it’s a lovely day isn’t it,” said Dad.

    “Would you do me a great favour and look after my briefcase?”

    Dad hesitated. “It will get me out of a spot,” Frank added.

    “OK, but where will we meet you?” Dad cautiously enquired.

    “Up there at the back of the stand,” Frank said pointing, “after the weigh-in.”

 

 

As the runners were leaving the Paddock for the next – the Brighton Mile – I persuaded Dad to go halves on Star Signal in the first leg of a Tote Double, while I looked after Frank’s case. Once again we had something to shout about, as Star Signal won in a canter, while Dad resumed control of the briefcase.

    Finding a place to sit while enjoying our tea and buns, we began to question why Frank had trusted us with his briefcase and why he looked so anxious about it.

    After the second sticky bun, I could no longer contain my curiosity.

    “Come on Dad, let’s have a quick look inside.”

    “Its probably locked,” he replied.

    “It isn’t Dad, I’ve just tried it.”

    “Well, OK then,” Dad said with uncharacteristic abandon, “just a quick look.”

    I flicked the case open … “Bloody hell!”… and shut it smartly.

It was full of bundles and bundles of pound notes.  Just then, the loudspeakers announced the overweights for the next race and Dad scuttled off, unsteadily, to bet a few shillings on the Tote, leaving me to clasp the briefcase tightly with sweaty hands.

    In stark contrast to the contents of the case, Dad’s place on the Tote paid 4/3d (21p).  And even then it took us a minute or two to sort out the right ticket, since in those days, they had to be held up to the light to read a series of perforations that revealed not only the number of the horse and race, but also a four letter code-word.  This persistent scrutiny tested the patience of both the punters and cashiers alike, and continually caused lengthy, slow moving queues at the pay-out windows.

    Exchanging our Daily Double ticket for the second leg, we both agreed on the Duchess of Norfolk’s Suivi, the long odds on favourite, and, after checking the safety of the briefcase for the tenth-time, Dad was able to relax in time to see the horse skate home by four lengths.

    It was now time for the last race and, remembering to back Billy Cook, we opted to bet with the bookies, as the Tote queues continued to grow. The bet on, Dad and I stood high in the stand to watch the race and wait for Frank.  Cook was riding Dorothy Paget’s Wynola, and we watched her famous blue, with yellow hoop colours glide gracefully to the start. The best price available was 13-8, but, having bumped into Billy at the start of the day, we felt duty bound to back it.

    A furlong out, the roar of the crowd told the story, as Cook cruised into the lead to win easily, and whilst by our standards we had had a stunningly successful day’s racing, the presence of Frank’s briefcase put our profit into perspective. Ten minutes later, when we were just beginning to worry about him, he suddenly appeared at our side.

    “Thanks for looking after the case Stan. Saved my day. Have to dash now I’m afraid.”

    And with that, he took the case, looking back to say “Must buy you a drink next time.”

    For a moment we stood there stunned, until Dad said, “Thank heavens for that, I thought we were going to get stuck with all that money!”

    Suddenly, we remembered we hadn’t collected our winnings, so in a bit of a panic, Dad gave me the bookie’s ticket to collect, while he went off to cash our Daily Double.

    I caught up with Dad at the back of the Tote queue.

    “One pound sixteen shillings between us,” he said.

    “Oh well, it could be worse,” I replied, “but I’d have rather hung on to the briefcase!” And part of me meant it.

  It should come as no surprise to the reader, that flashbacks of Frank’s briefcase haunted me throughout my teenage years.

 

 

This short story is from Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which Michael has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs

The Ghostly Lieutenant

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The Ghostly Lieutenant

 

   Father Perry Green and his housekeeper, Emily, having spent the morning taking down the Christmas decorations, were carefully wrapping the crib figures in tissue paper and boxing them up for next year.

  The tree had been a bit of a problem – an artificial, three-part, screw together, measuring eight feet high. Not Father Perry’s idea, but Emily had insisted, “I haven’t time to hoover up pine needles every day for the twelve days of Christmas.”

  So now, having forcefully crammed the tree back into its original box, it joined the other packages on the landing, waiting for Father Perry to put them in the loft.

 

  A few days later, not having visited the loft since moving into his new residence, Perry was keen to tell Emily what he had found up there.  

  “It’s terribly dusty, nothing has been disturbed for years – rolls of carpet, tatty curtains, old picture frames; no lights of course, but there is a skylight window and under it, there’s a card table, a wicker chair and a pile of old newspapers. It looks as if many years ago someone went up there to study. Oh, and I think we might have mice too. I may have to ask the council to send around the pest controller.”

 

  The following Saturday, there was jump racing at Ascot on TV.

Father Green had come back with the Racing Post and was looking forward to studying the form. However, no sooner than he had summed up the first race, Emily’s brother, Donald, arrived to tidy the garden and rake up and burn the leaves.

  Perry became restless and felt guilty reading the racing pages while Donald was working, so to ease his conscience, he went out to make himself useful. An hour or so later, with Donald gone and the leaves gently smouldering at the bottom of the garden, Perry thought he had just time to find a few winners. 

 “Have you seen my Racing Post, Emily?”

  But no, she hadn’t, and after he had made a thorough search, his frustration became evident when, on turning on the TV, he learned that the only horse

he had picked out – Mark Pitman’s Hitman – had won at 20-1.

 

  That night, while lying in bed, Father Green was disturbed by a scampering in the loft, not much and not often, but just enough to add to his irritating day.

 

   Monday morning, after mass, Father Perry went out to buy four mouse-traps and on returning, climbed up into the loft to prime them with Sainsbury’s mature cheddar.

   The manoeuvre to set the first three entailed Perry crawling around on his knees with a torch for ten minutes. But then, with a touch of flair, he planned to set the final trap on the table under the skylight.  

  Approaching the dusty card table his eyes fell upon a half-opened Racing Post. He checked the date – it was Saturday’s!  

  “That’s impossible,” he uttered, then, instinctively, he turned the pages to the Ascot form, and instantly recognised the circle he had drawn around Hitman.

  Trembling slightly and feeling angry, he tried to reason how the newspaper he couldn’t find on Saturday had now appeared in the loft.

   After priming the fourth trap, Father Perry descended the ladder still in a state of bewilderment. Then, sitting down heavily on a kitchen chair he told Emily of the mystery.

His story, however, carried little credence with her.

   “Are you sure you didn’t go up there before Donald came; you’ve been going on about those mice for days?”

  Although still a little confused, Father Perry knew he hadn’t and didn’t bother to answer.

 

  The next day, as soon as Emily went shopping, Perry decided to take another look in the loft. He had told himself it was to see if the traps had bagged a mouse or two, but in truth he was still mystified by the reappearance of his Racing Post.  

  Taking a torch, he checked the first two traps – one tiny mouse.

  “Looks like they’ve started breeding up here,” he thought. Then, glancing across to where the light partially covered the table, he thought he could dimly make out a figure hunched in the wicker chair. He took a half step and leaned forward, to be sure. Suddenly, the chair creaked and a figure in a military uniform half turned his head to gaze in his direction. Perry recoiled in horror. Half of the man’s face had been shot away, there was no blood, but the face had a grey ghoulish look. Father Green, now transfixed four yards from the vision, spoke out – his faltering voice sounding distant and hollow.

  “Who are you, and, and w-why are you here?”

  The man then got to his feet and slowly raised his arms above his head, as in an act of surrender. Perry, mesmerised, focussed all his attention on the image in an attempt to remember every detail, but then, after six or seven seconds, the man whose uniform Perry now recognised as an army Lieutenant, slowly faded away. 

  

  “Father, are you in the loft, Father?”

Emily had returned laden from the shops and called up for some help to put the groceries away.

   When Perry came down, he said nothing, putting away the shopping as if in a trance. Meanwhile, Emily, sensing that he was preoccupied waited, until eventually asking, “How are the mice up there – still running around?”

   Perry remained pale and preoccupied.

 Then putting his hand on her shoulder said, “Sit down a minute Emily.”

They both sat down.

 “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m going mad, but, I have just seen what I think was a ghost in the loft – a military man, badly wounded.”

  Perry held the corner of the kitchen table for support while he continued, “I believe he might have been a Lieutenant in the First World War.”

  Emily listened, reserving her credence and watching poor Perry’s face while he tried to make sense of what he had just seen. And although they both made an effort to normalise the rest of the day, the thought of the ghostly Lieutenant returned in every quiet moment.

 

  The next morning, soon after Perry had gone out for his Racing Post, Emily, courageously pulled down the loft ladder, “To see for myself,” she mused.

   “Father Perry was right about one thing,” she thought, “it was terribly dusty.”

  Then, flashing a torch about her, she saw the dead body of a mouse caught in a trap.

  “Yuk!” she recoiled.

   Seconds later, she heard a rustle of paper and instinctively thought it was another mouse, or worse still, a rat. But slowly, almost unwillingly, her eyes went to the far end of the loft. And there, under the murky skylight, she saw him. Dignified in appearance and in his mid-thirties, he took no notice of her and carried on reading his newspaper.

 “It was true, he was wearing a military uniform,” but then, after remaining motionless for what seemed like a full minute, she nervously called out, “Can I help you, Sir?”

  He neither moved, nor spoke.

  Then, as he slowly faded before her eyes, she had the strangest feeling that he belonged there. 

  Carefully, she made her way back and down the ladder. Where feeling numb from the experience she flopped into a chair and gazed blankly out of the kitchen window.

  “So it really was true,”she told herself, “Just as Father Perry had said.”

   Slowly, her validation of the vision led her on, and Emily, being Emily she soon became troubled with the responsibility of it.

   

  While waiting patiently in the kitchen her mind darted to and fro over her experience, honing it in order to add to Father Green’s first encounter. But where had he got to?

 When eventually Father Green came through the door, he sensed from Emily’s expression she had been waiting for him. Apologising and explaining that he had dropped in on a sick parishioner, he put the kettle on, while Emily, anxiously at first, told him her story.

  After a while, when she had run out of things to say and Father Green had nothing more to add, they agreed that a drive and a walk around Victoria Park would help them put things into perspective.

  “Blow the cobwebs away,” said Emily, taking charge of the situation, “You’ve been too long worrying about St Joseph’s and that silly diocesan survey, and now this. A good long walk in the fresh air is what’s needed. I’ll put together a picnic.”

 

  Vicky Park, as it is known locally, was bathed in a watery sunlight and sitting on one of the benches by the lake, Father Green and Emily ate their sandwiches and fed the ducks. Oddly, they took on the appearance of a married couple after a disagreement; however, there had been no disagreement, only disbelief.

  They spoke very little, each in their minds revisiting the appearance of their ghostly lodger.

  There were very few people in the park that day, but Father Perry commented on the two soldiers taking a stroll.    

  “You know, there can be very little peace in an active soldier’s life and those who fight in close combat must remember those violent images for the rest of their lives.”

  Then as an afterthought, “And what of the loved ones left behind?”

  Suddenly, he recalled the childhood memory of the framed blood stained photograph on the mantelpiece of his great aunt Maud. Once she had told him that her husband, Walter, when fatally wounded in the trenches at Mons, had held it up in front of him, before he died.

  Father Perry, a very gentle and fearful man, told Emily, “I would surely have suffered nightmares if I had witnessed those bloody battles at close hand.”

  Emily, touched by his sentiments, supported and sympathised with him, until finally, she diverted the topic to her idea that perhaps, the ghostly Lieutenant had lived in the house some years before.  

  “We could check on that, I suppose,” said Perry, thoughtfully, “I’ll go to the Council Offices tomorrow, and ask if they have a record of past occupants.”

  “While you are there,” lightened Emily, “would you ask them to send a pest exterminator – who knows how many mice we’ve got up there now?”

   

  Father Green’s enquiries were absorbing. In fact, he was soon spending more time at the Council Offices than at St Joseph’s. Nevertheless, with time put to good effect, he had made steady progress. Apparently, a Mr and Mrs Henderson-Bell had lived there with their son, Roland, until 1913. They then went to live in Canada, leaving Roland behind, until he joined the Army a year later. Further records showed the house as purchased by the Army in 1919.

  Then, suddenly remembering the ever-growing patter of tiny feet in the loft, Perry made an appointment for the pest exterminator to call.

 

  A week later, a ring at the front door brought in Mr Horatio Smallwood, the tall, thin, weasel-like, pest exterminator from the Council. His ID checked, Father Perry welcomed him in, introduced him to Emily then took him upstairs to the loft ladder. Neither Father Perry nor Emily made any mention of their ghostly lodger, and once Mr Smallwood was in the loft, Perry, rather than accompanying him, nervously hovered at the foot of the ladder, praying that the Lieutenant would not put in an appearance. 

   After what had seemed the slowest 20 minutes in Father Perry’s life, Smallwood, having replaced the traps with rat poison, descended. Whereupon, Perry, after scrutinising the weasel’s face for signs of a sighting, gave grateful thanks. Meanwhile, Mr Smallwood washed his hands, asked for a ‘job done’ signature and, before Perry’s heartbeat had returned to normal, was gone.

 

  Having as he thought, his obsession with spectre under control, Father Green returned to the loft the following week. Sure enough, there was no sign of mice. Mr Smallwood had told Perry that when the mice ate the poison they would scuttle back to their holes to die.   

  However, the question that had troubled Perry’s mind was silently answered when, under the skylight all that was visible was an empty table and chair. Still requiring proof, he again looked hard, looked away and refocused – nothing.  

  For a moment, he stood there bathing in the relief. Then, torch in hand, he walked across to where the spectre had been. His old Racing Post was still there, but with it, he found a pile of very old newspapers, some racing. He looked at the dates – all were between August and November 1917. The front pages gave reports of the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, one newspaper, however, was folded to the racing news. Perry scanned the page – it gave the result of that year’s St Leger and on seeing the name Gay Crusader, he was reminded of that great horse’s Triple Crown victories.

  When later, he tossed the paper back onto the table, he caught sight at the foot of the wicker chair, what looked like a ladies prayer book.

  It was, and inside the front cover, he read the inscription – “To Rosemary, with fondest love, Roland.”  

    “Strange,” he thought, “Perhaps he never gave it to her? Unless, that is, she sent it back!”

  Finally, carefully folded into the back of the prayer book, he found a cutting from the local paper, telling of the bravery at Passchendaele of Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell.  

 

   When Father Green and Emily did their big loft clear-out, they vacuumed up all the cobwebs and dead insects, took down the tatty curtains and rolls of carpet, until, lastly, it came to throwing out the Lieutenant’s card table and wicker chair. Still haunted by his memory, Perry deliberated with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, it was Emily who insisted, “The past is past Father, let’s now have a nice clean loft.”

  So, as usual, in household matters, Emily had her way and everything was taken to the local waste disposal.

  

 Returning from the tip, Father Perry was forestalled outside his house by a very old man.

  “I saw you throwing out the last of Roland’s furniture,” he said inquisitively.

  “You knew him?” replied Perry, stunned.

  “Oh yeah, we all knew him round here, and everybody gave him money; you see, he was so horribly wounded.

  Mind you, that was before we realised he was gambling everything away on the horses. I was only a small boy at the time,” he said reminiscing, “but my Mum and Dad were very angry when they found out.” 

  “That said,” he continued, “I always had a soft spot for him – he used to call me little Tommy Atkins and sometimes, if I asked him, he would show me his medals and his officer’s revolver.”

  “Sadly, what finished him was when his lady friend broke up with him.  Soon after that, he died, suddenly like.”

  “I shouldn’t be telling this to you Father,” he said, lowering his voice, “but I heard say she lost a child – whose, I couldn’t say. But you shouldn’t listen to rumours, should you?”

 

  Father Green, however, felt compelled to keep the ladies prayer book and later that month, invited little Tommy Atkins to attend a belated Mass at St Joseph’s for Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell and his fiancé, Rosemary.

  Very few attended, but Emily and the old man went along and sat near the front, where they saw Father Green put Rosemary’s prayer book on a corner of the altar. The Mass progressed through the usual rituals and concluded with the final blessing.

   

  Afterwards, outside the church, while Father Green was conversing with his parishioners, he suddenly remembered he had left Rosemary’s prayer book on the altar. Excusing himself he hurried back through the empty church – it had gone.

  For a moment or two, he felt confused, until believing that Emily must have picked it up. Then, while still a little unsure, he heard the scraping of a chair in the darkened Lady Chapel. Peering through the shadows, he could just make out the veiled outline of a young woman holding the hand of a child in school uniform. With caution, he slowly moved towards the figures, already knowing it was useless, as they became fainter and fainter until, on setting foot inside the Lady Chapel, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of the little girl turning and waving goodbye.

 

  Father Green never told anyone of his experience and despite all his efforts, he was unable to recover Rosemary’s prayer book.

 

 

 

 This story was taken from Michael’s latest book of short stories,

The Gambling Adventures of Father Green, 

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

 

 

 

The Italian Job

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The Italian Job

This is a story from the golden age of greyhound racing – hugh crowds, highly competitive betting and a stage full of characters that have all but disappeared.

 

During World War II, Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium was very badly bombed, and in order to continue racing and offer some basic amenities, the authorities moved the traps, winning line and stewards’ box to the opposite side of the track.

Soon after my fourteenth birthday, my parents finally consented to me attending the track on my own, although my wish had been granted with reluctance.  First, to get in unaccompanied, I had to pretend to be a year older; secondly, I had to be four years older to bet. But, such was my enthusiasm, I managed to achieve both.

However, first I must tell you of my plan to compile a personal form book, covering a longer period than the racecard. Cutting out the Wimbledon results from the Greyhound Express, I pasted them chronologically into an exercise book and compiled an index, listing each greyhound’s finishing position, his time and the date of the race.

 

One thing I learnt very quickly was that some dogs, whatever grade they ran in, rarely won, whilst others often ran their ‘Best Recent Time’ when second. I labelled all these as chasers, since many did not like to lead, and if they did, some would idle in front until another dog joined them.  My developing plan, which I disguised at school as an applied mathematics project, was to find races where three or four of these chasers ran together, preferably behind one or two fast starters.  This scenario, used in Tote forecasts, looked to me like a key to a treasure chest.

After a few weeks of cutting and pasting, I had promised to give myself a month’s dry run, just checking through and making nominal bets on paper to find out if I were on the right track. But having selected five races in the first two weeks, from which I had predicted two straight forecasts and two others in combinations, I found it hard to resist. And so every Wednesday and Friday, throughout Nature Study and Double Woodwork, I would pour over the Wimbledon card looking for races that fitted my plan.  After school on Wednesdays, I would take my shilling forecasts and three dog combinations into Charlie Young’s betting room, but on Friday nights I went to the track.

 

One such night, when I was above an archway on the first bend, one of the regulars who I knew as Tony came over.

“What’cha got in that book kid – all the winners?”

“Sometimes,” I grinned.

But my reluctance to give him any details seemed to heighten his curiosity.  And although we would chat about the dogs most Fridays, it was not until the night I landed two forecasts both paying over £3 for two bob a time, that my tongue ran away with me.

Tony was mid-20’s, and wore a long black jacket with sideburns to match; a few years later he would have passed for a teddy boy.

“I’ve got some friends who’d be interested in your system and that book of yours – they might pay good money.”

Naturally, I was flattered by his suggestion and fortunately, I hadn’t given him all the details, for having almost perfected what I thought was a passport to riches, I had no intention of sharing it.

At this time, I think it fair to tell you that the sources of my income were many and varied: six shillings (30p) a week from an early morning paper round; a profitable school bookmaking business; a lawn-cutting and dog-walking service and irregular amounts from collecting manure from the milkman’s horse.  But, if my new system stood the test of time, all but the bookmaking business could go.

 

The following Friday, Laurels semi-final night, Tony introduced me to the gang – all Italians – Berni, Ricardo and Alfredo, whose flashing smiles never quite reached their eyes.  When they fell to talking amongst themselves, it was about ‘deals’ and ‘goods,’ and I quickly found out that they supplied the black market – that is, when they weren’t racing or at the dogs.

Alfredo, the main man, bore an air of menace, a black suit, slick black hair and a pitted face.  He seemed to know most of the bookmakers and when he made a bet, no money changed hands until after the race.  For most of the evening Tony stayed close at hand, as if keeping an eye on me, but after gabbling something about the need for cigarettes and a slash, he disappeared under the stands.

Being a big night, there were ten races, instead of the usual eight – the ninth, fitted my system – a 700 yard graded stayers’ event. On Ricardo’s invitation he bought me a meat pie, a pale ale and then came straight to the point:

“I hear you win money here.  A good system Tony tells me?”

“Keeps the w-wolf from the d-door,” I replied, in a desperate attempt to sound cool.

Ricardo smirked, tolerating a stammering schoolboy.

“What’s going to win this then,” he pressed.

“Three with the field’s the b-bet,” I replied.

At eight shillings a time this cost me £2, a very big bet for me, but I did it for bravado, and the pale ale helped.  As it happened, the three-dog won easily, albeit as the 6-4 favourite, but the second, one of the five chasers, was the complete outsider and the forecast paid me £7 and change.  Aware that Ricardo and Co. were close by, I suppressed both my relief and delight, and, on their suggestion, I joined them at the bar, after collecting my winnings.

“Nice forecast,” they all agreed, until Alfredo cut in with, “How you gonna getta home kid?”

“Train from Wimbledon,” I said.

“We givva you a lift to the station, OK? Tony does the driving.”

“Thanks; saves my legs,” I replied.

Strange words from 14-year-old, but I had had two beers!

Once in the car, Ricardo told me that they ran a tipping service – horses and dogs – for about 40 clients; wiring or telephoning their advices on the morning of the race.  Approaching the station, Alfredo half turned from the front seat, his slicked back hair reflecting the orange street lamps along the Alexandra Road,

“Listen kid, we wanna you to give us a copy of your system see. Just a copy you understand, we’ll pay £5, OK.?” He looked at me hard, “OK?” he repeated.

“I’ll let you know next Friday,” I hedged, “and thanks for the lift.” Then, glancing at Ricardo, “and for the beer.”

I scurried through the barrier and down to the platform.

I can tell you, I wasn’t too happy about giving anyone a copy of my system, especially not for £5. Perhaps they thought for a kid I was as cool as a cucumber, but I certainly wasn’t as green.

 

Throughout the week, I day-dreamed about employing someone like Tony to drive me about in a big car, and then stopping all homework. “Who’d ever heard of a professional punter writing about Roundheads and Cavaliers?”

But when the following Friday came and I had no system written out, I began to get nervous. But what the heck! I couldn’t miss the final of Wimbledon’s big Classic.

Travelling up on the train, I had the idea of missing the first two races, to let the crowd build up while I had a cup of tea outside the station. Then, if I were to go to the other end of the track, they surely wouldn’t look for me there?  Twenty minutes later, I caught the red double-decker bus that went to the track. I pulled an old flat cap over my eyes to disguise my age and squeezed through the turnstile to join the crowds that flooded into every available space.  The trade papers said there would be catering to suit every taste. Where I was, you had a choice between cockles, mussels and jellied eels served in a dish, with vinegar and crusty bread.

Inevitably, there was a Crown and Anchor dice game going on in the ‘gents’ and at Wimbledon, this was always played with five dice rather than the usual three, the operators paying out on doubles or more to get a better profit margin.

While the third race was being run, I was able to move more easily along the walk-way under the stands. I then hit on the idea of transferring into the main enclosure.  This way I would avoid the gang and get a better view of the dogs.  I paid the additional five shillings and climbed the stairs.  All the seats were occupied, but if I went down lower I could stand on the terrace. No sooner had I found a perfect spot than I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“What-cher got for tonight kid?”

“Oh bloody hell!” I thought, “and I’ve paid for the privilege.”

I straightened up to my five foot three inches and told Ricardo, “A 2-4-5 combination in the next looks good.”

Suddenly, Alfredo appeared on the scene,

“Have you gotta dat system with you kid?”

“Er n-no,” I stammered. “I started writing it but, my pencil ber-oke and Dad said I had to g-get on with my homework.”

It sounded weak, and it was – I hadn’t the nerve to tell him I had changed my mind.

He paused for a while, then enquired, “What’s agood tonight then?”

I told him what I had given Ricardo, and as he walked away to join the queue for the  forecast, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The dogs now going into the traps, I rushed up to another forecast window to place my bet.  Out whirred six ten-bob tickets, down came the seller’s hatch, the traps sprung open and released a wall of noise.

First I could see, then I couldn’t, pushing, shoving, jumping up and down and then falling into the gangway. But I did catch a glimpse of the orange and blue jackets going into the third bend.  Scrambling to my feet, I asked, “Who won?” I didn’t have to wait long.  A crackly Tannoy annouced  “First trap five, second trap two.”

Minutes later, I collected £8 and some silver from the payout window.  Ricardo spotted me.

“Well done kid! Alfredo’s got a table upstairs; come and join us,” adding as an afterthought, “make yourself comfortable, you can write that system out for us.”

Surprisingly, Alfredo was in a good mood.

“Good boy, nice divi, come and sit down.”

But then, staring hard into my face, he said,

“Look, I think we stop messing about. I’ma gonna give you £20 and you’re gonna write out the system, OK?”

To soften his order he smiled and handed me a pen.

What could I say?  It was twice what my Dad would earn in a week.

For a while, out of stubbornness, I hesitated, until finally, I asked him for two sheets of paper.  He waived my request away, spreading four fivers on the table before me.

“Write it out in your book and tear out the pages.”

He then took out a long blade flick-knife and started to clean his nails.

A rage of resentment welled up inside me, and so, with a trembling hand, I started to write.

 

The system that I gave him was not worth £20; neither was it my system.  What I did write was, I hoped, a convincing concoction of selections based on trap numbers and odds, together with a staking plan.  Enough I thought to occupy their minds for a few meetings before the truth hit home.  We shook hands, although mine were still shaking, and he counted out the dosh.

“Was that your only bet tonight kid?” he enquired, I nodded.

“That’s good,” he said, putting the pages into his inside jacket pocket along with his knife.

“Perhaps we’ll have a little drink later?”

They all got up and moved away, pushing through the crowd.  I stayed, feeling what I thought big poker players felt when they’d bluffed a big pot.

Over the next half-hour, I remained at the table reading my torn book.  At intervals a crowd would rush out and then back in again; the alternating babble and roar coming and going like a tide.  A Tannoy voice announced the weights for the Laurels and, walking down to the lower terraces, I was able to get a good look at the dogs in the parade.

Last year’s winner, the brindled Ballymac Ball, looked a picture. Trained by Stan Martin at Wimbledon and drawn again in Trap 6, he would be difficult to beat.  At 14, as now, nothing focused my mind faster than the anticipation of the traps opening.

Instantly, Ballymac Ball hit the lids and from the shrieks, yells and cheers that followed, you would think that everyone in the stadium had backed him.

A minute later, I was legging it out on the street.  All I wanted now, was to get on the train and get home.  From over the railway bridge, and halfway down the Alexandra Road, I had 10 minutes to catch my train.

Suddenly, a black sedan pulled up alongside me. Ricardo leaned out.

“Get in the back kid.”

The back door swung open. Fearing they had rumbled me already, I slid on to the back seat. The door closed with a sickening thud.

“Saw you striding out kid – didn’t want you to miss your train – great dog that Ballymac Ball eh?  We cleared two ‘C’s’ on him.”

They pulled up at the station.  I trapped out of the back seat.

 

Aboard the train, I re-thought the situation.

“What had I done?”

Here was a racy, black-market gang in the big-time, wanting me in and I’ve just double-crossed them – out of the frying pan into the fire!

 

From then on, Friday night followed Friday night, but I never returned to Wimbledon Stadium until the Laurels Final the following year.

What happened to my well crafted system? It served me well for a few years – but more of that another time. As for my pseudo system, I often wondered if I had been rumbled, or if the gang had moved on, until nearly a year later when Uncle Albert excitedly burst into our kitchen.

“You won’t believe it, but I’ve found a great way to make money,” he said.

“Oh no” Mum replied, “not again.”

“I have,” Albert continued, “and it’s just up Michael’s street – have a look at this.”

He handed me two typewritten sheets.

“It’s a greyhound system,” I exclaimed.

“Yes, yes, read it,” he said.

“I’ve seen something like it before,” I said slowly.

“No, no, you can’t have; it’s a new system, I’ve just paid £5 for it – it never fails.  An Italian geezer at Wimbledon has made a fortune with it!”

 

 

 

This story is from Michael’s book Born to Bet,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

The illustrations throughout the book are by Julia Jacs

Escape to Newmarket

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Escape to Newmarket

Between the ages of 18 and 20, I, like every other able-bodied young man in Britain in the 1950s, did my two years’ National Service.

Starting off at RAF West Kirby, just outside Liverpool, I went through six weeks’ square-bashing, where they attempted to force my square peg personality through a round hole.  However, although it was brutal for some, having previously learned to play the trumpet, I found that band practice and pass-out parades regularly cut into the torturous schedule of crawling through barbed-wire, bayonet charges, gas attacks and giving pints of blood away. From there, having survived what should have been an onslaught on my passive lifestyle, I was posted to RAF Hospital Ely in Cambridgeshire, where, working as an orthopaedic clerk, with a little trumpeting on the side, I lived an almost useful life.

 

The highlight of my stay at Ely was undoubtedly an eight-day rest in bed with newspapers, fruit and a radio, owing to a suspected concussion sustained when slipping up on my first parade.  Other modest achievements included playing The Last Post in church on Armistice Sunday and landing a treble at Epsom to win our four-man syndicate £125 (at the time, my pay was £3 per week).

 

The journey from Newmarket to Ely is about 12 miles.  I had always wanted to go racing there, but they had no Saturday fixtures and I could never get time off during the week.  The thought began to bug me, and in view of my imminent posting to Bristol University Air Squadron, I might never be as close to the racecourse again. What was known as the First October Meeting started on Tuesday, September 27.  It was a three-day affair and to me, it looked like now or never.

 

Tom Lewis, the Station Warrant Officer, also Entertainment’s Officer, was known to be keen on sports, particularly athletics, and from time to time would organise cross-country runs.  According to the Orderly Room notice board, the next, over six miles of local terrain, was scheduled for Wednesday, September 28 – perfect.  Ben Jordan, camp pianist/punter, whose official job title was Medical Clerk, was also keen  to go to Newmarket. After much discussion, and to everyone’s amazement, we both entered our names for the cross-country.

On the morning of the run, SWO Lewis informed the various sections that, owing to a previous engagement, he would not be accompanying us on the run but Corporal Waterhouse would. We should assemble at the Guard Room at 13.00 hours in regulation shorts, singlet and plimsolls, signing out on our departure and in on our return.  Having seen a number of POW films, by comparison our Great Escape took the minimum of planning.

Our third party enabler was Leading Aircraftsman Bobby Barnes: MT driver/danceband drummer, and supplier of new-laid eggs. One of his tasks was to take the Hospital’s outgoing mail down to Ely Post Office and today this was conveniently arranged for 13.00 hours.

Ben Jordan and I had already rolled up our civvies into a spare mail bag, and thrown them into the back of Bobby’s van.  Our signatures and last three numbers having been recorded at the main gate, we set off at a steady trot. So steady in fact that, after half a mile, we were already 200 yards adrift of Corporal Waterhouse and the main pack.

Immediately turning off into a side lane, who should be waiting for us but our chauffeur for the day, Bobby Barnes.  We quickly changed into civvies and stuffed our running gear into the post bags.  Bobby then drove us to the racecourse, promising to meet our return train at Ely after racing.

 

The two principle races this day were the Newmarket St Leger and the Cheveley Park Stakes.  In the ‘Leger’, Ben and I plumped for Cardington King.  We had both recently been kitted out at RAF Cardington and had backed the horse each-way in the Derby at 100-1. Sadly he finished fourth that day, but we reckoned now was the time to get back our money – and that’s just about what we did.  Cardington King won by three lengths at odds of 4-7 and we spent our entire winnings on two half-pints of Mackeson Stout.

The next race was a two-runner affair, but by the time we had collected our previous winnings and queued for the beers, it was all over.  The Cheveley Park, for 2-y-o fillies, looked an interesting event and often threw-up a Classic contender.  This year, the French filly Midget was all the rage and, ridden by Roger Poincelet, won easily.   We collected on our modest even-money investment, then the sun broke through and our ‘away day’ seemed proof of our charmed life.  It was not to last.

Queuing at the bar for further refreshments, a familiar, but dreaded voice shattered our bonne fortune.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here Church? And you too Jordan?”

“Wer-wer-well Warrant Officer, we did our cross-country and c-came on here.”

“I can see that,” he fumed, “but sports afternoon is not intended for Horse Racing.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise,” I replied feebly, my voice trailing away.

As the three of us were strangely wedged together against the bar, he eventually succumbed to ask us briskly “How are you doing anyway?”

In my shaken state, it must have taken me fully five minutes to tell him we had backed C-C-C-Cardington K-K-K-King, and from the glazed look that came over him I knew he wished he hadn’t asked, worse still, we had all missed another race.  Lewis, unable to extricate himself from our unfortunate pincer movement in front of the bar, heard that his intended nap of the day – Sculpture – had been beaten in a close finish.

“Well, I suppose I’ve got you two twerps to thank for that,” he said grudgingly.

At this point, Ben thought it might help our predicament to order another round of drinks and although SWO Lewis accepted his offer, his expression gave us no sign of hope.

Eventually, we broke free in time to see the last race.  Neither of us had a bet on it and we watched the finish in a subdued silence. On the long walk back to Newmarket Station, we talked over various excuses to give the Military Police on our return, none of which I feared, would get us less than 14 days confined to camp.

 

Bobby Barnes met our return train as arranged, and we changed back into our crumpled, but spotless running gear in the station toilets.  Jogging the last half-mile back to camp we had our ‘got lost’ excuse ready and offered up prayers that SWO Lewis had not shopped us.

“Who goes there?”

“Ch-Church and Jordan.”

“Advance and be recognised.”

A corporal MP looked us up and down.

“What hour do you bloody well call this?”

“W-we g-got lost c-corporal,” I stammered.

“Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard all about it.”

My heart sank.

“Lucky for you Station Warrant Officer Lewis saw you running in the wrong direction – half way to Cambridge he said.”

 

Later that evening, Lewis came into the NAFFI.

“You boys all right after your long run?” he enquired.

“Yes fine, and thank you for looking out for us.” I replied.

“Strange you didn’t see me,” he said meaningfully.

“Anyway, next week’s concert in the Town Hall wouldn’t have sounded the same without our pianist and trumpeter, would it?”

We nodded solemnly, knowing it was just another case of ‘birds of a feather.’

 

This short story is one of 22 from Michael’s book Born to Bet,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

Illustrations by Julia Jacs

The World’s Fastest Greyhound

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The World’s Fastest Greyhound

 

 

Little did I know as I queued in front of the new Woolworth’s weighing machine in the summer of 1949, that I would remember the next minute for the rest of my life? 

  The eager queue of school children waiting to weigh themselves en route to Saturday morning pictures, were not there to monitor their progress against under-nourishment, nor to measure obesity, but simply in order to obtain a weight-card in the highly collectable series, ‘Speed’.

  Among the cards I had seen at school were ‘The Flying Scotsman’, the racing driver Malcolm Campbell, and the Olympic athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen.

 To this 13-year-old they looked exciting and a change from cigarette cards.

 

I put my penny in the slot and waited. My weight on the card – 8st 6lb, was of little interest, but the picture was – a brindled greyhound in a red jacket at full stretch.

It read, ‘Priceless Border – Greyhound Derby Winner 1948 – approx 37.3 mph.’

 I had another penny left, but with the kids behind me shouting ‘hurry up Churchy, jump off’, I complied – only to jump smartly back on to weigh again. ‘Hallelujah! Another Priceless Border! What are the odds of that?’ I said to the next in line?

 

Priceless Border was well known by my school mates, some having backed him. And I could remember, reading in the Greyhound Express, about him winning a heat of the 1948 Greyhound Derby in 28.64 sec – a world record for 525 yards – before he went on to win the 1948 Final.

On a day dream level, I learned he was owned by a 10-year-old boy, Desmond O’Kane, his father having bought the dog for £110 as a present for him. 

  From that moment on, I saved a weekly amount towards my first greyhound.

 

The strange thing was that no-one else at school, no matter how many times they weighed themselves, ever got a Priceless Border. And it got to the point that a few Doubting Thomases’s, including Bobby Reigate, who only needed that card for the set, continually heckled me into bringing one of the ‘Priceless’cards to school.

 

During the next day’s dinner break, I enjoyed the notoriety and the bargaining power of being the sole owner of these rare cards. The gathering crowd of enthusiasts inevitably broke up into scuffles, attracting the attention of the duty dinner teacher Ma Frost.

  Fearing the card could be confiscated; I quickly switched it for the less valuable cigarette card of Don Bradman and, under duress handed it over.

   Later that day, I stoutly refused all overtures from Reigate for the precious card, until he hinted darkly that he would, in future, make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

 

A few weeks later, there was a knock on our front door. It was Bobby Reigate and his father. My Dad, unaware of the significance, invited them in and Mum made them tea. It ensued that Mr Reigate was taking Bobby to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and asked if I would like to share Billy’s birthday treat?

  ‘We could stay after the match for the greyhound racing’, he added.

 

I had to hand it to Bobby; this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But, wishing to look cool, I sat very still and pinched my leg, until eventually, politely thanking Mr Reigate. Strangely, nothing was said about the Priceless Border card, but with schoolboy honour I knew my duty as one obsessive to another.

  Going into the front room I took one of Mum’s ‘get well soon’ cards, wrote Happy Birthday Bobby and dropped in the ‘Priceless.’

 

More than 60 years later, and by now my prized weight-card long gone, a strange coincidence took place. One evening, on entering ‘greyhound’ into eBay, up popped an original Priceless Border weight-card. Joyfully, I bought it, but that’s not it, for when the card duly arrived I turned it over to see the date – July 49 and, the weight 8st. 6 lb – what are the odds of that?

 

 

A Glorious Goodwood

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A Glorious Goodwood

Alf was carefully chalking the numbers from one to 36 around the front tyre of the coach. This was Stewards’ Cup day in 1959, and for many the ‘sweep on the wheel’ would be their first bet of the day. The coach trip to ‘Glorious Goodwood,’ run by our local working mens’ club, was always fully booked and many of the stalwarts on board had been saving for this day since Christmas.

This year, I had been assigned by Mum as ‘guide for the day’ to Martha and Bucky, distant friends over from Dayton, Ohio. Keen racegoers in the States, they were eager to sample the delights of an English race meeting. However, by choosing a working mens’ club outing, they were about to be exposed to the primitive delights peculiar to that genre.

Five miles out of Woking, Alf, the senior bar steward, was joyfully handing out bottles of pale ale, Bass and Worthington for the men, and miniature bottles of spirits for the ladies. Having got everyone loosened up, he then went round collecting two shillings a head for the numbers on the wheel, (each passenger being allotted the number on their seat), and the same amount for the traditional Stewards’ Cup sweep.

Alf, by this time, pleased with the smooth running of the business end of things, generously assisted my bookmaking ambitions by announcing, “If any of you are going to have small each-way bets, I suggest you give them to young Michael, as they probably won’t take them on the course.”

 

Our first stop for ‘refreshments’ was the Half Moon in Petworth. Everyone was keen to stretch their legs, and it was ‘getting to know you’ time as the passengers mingled. Alec and Danny, two ‘likely lads,’ certainly used the time well, chatting up the Littlewood sisters, Wendy and Maureen. Meanwhile, having collected about a dozen small bets, I kept a distant eye on Bucky and Martha, unsuccessful in their quest for either Root Beer or Daiquiris. They had been cornered by Smithy, an expert on the Turf, but badly handicapped with pebble glasses and two walking sticks.

“Back on the bus folks, or we’ll never get there,” Alf pleaded, and slowly the pints were emptied and the seats were filled. Traffic was now building up alarmingly and in the next half-hour the passengers’ bladders reached capacity. Even Martha and Bucky politely enquired about the next washroom facilities.

As we were then stationary, Stan, our driver, decided to follow the example of the coaches ahead and release the passengers to take their chances in the hedgerows. Gents to the right, Ladies to the left, seemed to be the etiquette. Although the more discreet ladies could be observed laughing and stumbling towards the privacy of a distant thicket.

 

Eventually everybody returned, some more dishevelled than others but, after another round of bottled beers, including a Bass for the driver, any inhibition that lingered was swept away, as the volume of noise and laughter rose by a hatfull of decibels. ‘No Limit Banker’ was in full swing across the back seat, and a four handed game of Spoof (three matches per hand), stretched across the gangway. Martha and Bucky, who in necessity had taken advantage of the hedgerow washroom, watched in awe as the Littlewood sisters got down to some serious snogging with Alec and Danny. Such was everyone’s preoccupation, that no-one (except the driver, of course), noticed us turn into the racecourse. Journeying along from the straight six furlong start, we lined up with 30 to 40 other coaches.

 

In time-honoured tradition, Stan the driver was first out of the coach and, checking for the winning number on the front tyre, let forth a stream of expletives. Soon passengers were pressing in on all sides.

“What’s the winning number,” Bucky enquired.

“I wish I bloody knew,” replied Stan, “someone must have peed over the wheel at the Half Moon!”

Alf, well trained in thinking on his feet, instantly came up with a solution.

“The money on the wheel goes into the big race sweep – that should double the winner’s prize.”

Moments later, Alf, small but with Sampson like strength, was sliding out trestle tables from the under-carriage of the coach, assisted by a number of glazed but willing helpers. And while the ladies spread out table-cloths and covered them with all manor of meat pies, sausage rolls and sandwiches, Alf, now having enlisted the assistance of Bucky and I, distributed a full bottle of spirits to each of the passengers. According to Alf, this was all in the price, thanks to the generosity of the Committee.

A pork pie, two radishes and a glass of neat gin was not my usual diet for picking winners, but half-way down the gin bottles and well before the first race, many amongst us were confident that it was going to be their lucky day. Even Martha, who had managed to dilute her vodka with a Pepsi, had suddenly become psychic.

“Today the Smiths have it,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Smithy of the pebble glasses; I think it’s an omen. He was telling me about the Smith brothers, Doug and Eph; said they were the jockeys to follow.”

Bucky preferred to bet on the names, and being in England, fancied Queensberry and Tudor Monarch, the latter particularly, since it was owned and bred by Sir Winston Churchill.

As part of my duty, I proudly guided my middle American charges up to Trundle Hill, where they admired the view, but had to admit they had never watched racing from so far away. Lending them my binoculars went some way to placating them but, after Doug Smith won the first race and brother Eph the second on Queensbury, they seemed to be settling in nicely.

 

Next up was the Stewards’ Cup – 21 runners and the biggest betting race of the meeting. Bucky, looking to play up his winnings on Winston Churchill’s, Tudor Monarch, and Martha, convinced of the infallibility of the Smith brothers, headed off to the Tote, taking with them my ten-bob each-way Deer Leap.

Trying to call a race head-on from about a mile away is almost impossible, but halfway up the straight, I could see Manny Mercer on Deer Leap heading affairs. Into the final furlong, now well clear, I was counting my money. Suddenly, the pink, chocolate sleeves and cap of Tudor Monarch came out of the pack to challenge. Could Mercer hold on? Bucky hoped not, and he was right. The Tannoy announcement wavered across the downs, “First Tudor Monarch 25-1, second Deer Leap 22-1, third St Elmo 100-8.” The Yanks were delighted and I was more than pleased with my 10-1 place odds on Deer Leap.

Throughout the afternoon, Martha had been obsessed with the bookmakers and tic-tac men, and although her profits had been dented by Lester Piggott winning the next two races, she desperately wanted to bet with a bookie before returning home. Naturally it had to be on a Smith.

Doug was riding the Boyd-Rochfort two-year-old Jet Stream.

“That’s the one,” Martha said, pressing a pound in my hand. Bucky wanted the same and gave me another pound.

“Do your best Michael, we’ll come and watch,” he added.

Bookmakers on Trundle Hill weren’t usually known for their wild generosity, but amongst all the 7-2’s I spotted a 4-1 and dived in.

“Ten quid to collect if you win,” I told them.

Giving them a commentary on the race was a pleasure – Jet Stream led from tape to line. And Martha, given the ticket to collect the dough, made much play with the ten one pound notes, laughing and waving them around.

Battling back through the crowds to find our coach, Martha and Bucky, eager to tell the tale of their success, rejoined their fellow travellers who, had formed a large, seated circle on the grass. Predictably, about a dozen of them had not moved from the coach all afternoon, and were now more laid out than laid back. Meanwhile, Robert, the assistant bar steward, check waistcoat and beret, was serenading the circle with his accordion, and two gypsy women who had gate-crashed the party were, in the absence of tea leaves, reading palms.

At this point, one, ‘drunk as a skunk’ Turfite from another coach, staggered into our circle. His binoculars having worked around to the middle of his back, appeared to balance his equilibrium, since after having taken three steps forward, the weight of his bins contrived to drag him back.

Soon it was obvious to everyone that he was going to fall, but which way? Thinking quickly I borrowed Smithy’s walking sticks and crossing them in the centre of the circle to give us north, south, east and west, I encouraged the punters to bet on which way he would fall. The 2-1 odds I offered were not, in truth, for their benefit, but the entertainment value was great. Everytime he tottered north, folk would shout across their bets and throw over their cash, then, when he staggered back, they would call out south and throw over more money for me to record. Since his shambling progress continued for nearly five minutes, a small crowd had gathered to watch the fun, and my take on the event would have been the envy of any bookmaker on Trundle Hill.

Just when we thought he might stagger out of the circle, he went down to a great cheer. After close inspection, it was agreed he was inclined east, which, I am ashamed to say, was a very good result for me.

 

Climbing aboard the coach, we learnt that Alf had won the double sweep, but, appeared in no fit state to receive this news or any other. Out cold, he had been carried back to his seat by his conscientious family members.

Looking around, I noticed that the Littlewood sisters, whose petticoats and beehive hairdo’s were looking more than a little distressed, had changed partners with Danny and Alec. Meanwhile, those who still had a little money and were conscious continued with the ‘No Limit Banker’ and rounds of Spoof.

Feeling a little queasy, but otherwise contented, I settled down to count my day’s profit, when suddenly, I was disturbed by angry voices a few seats behind. Looking around, I saw two chaps, both very much the worse for wear, taking poorly aimed swings at each other. This continued for a short time until they both simultaneously passed-out and keeled over onto the seats, where they laid happily for the rest of the journey.

 

As we pulled into the Crown for the use of their toilets, Stan shouted out, “Fifteen minutes only, if you’re not back I’m going without you.”

Thirty minutes later, he went in to dig them out, but by then most people could not have told you who they were, let alone how long they had been there. Eventually, just as Stan was shepherding a few folk back on the bus, those aboard having become restless, were going in for the second shift. This pantomime continued for some time with most of those passing to and from the pub, breaking into impromptu dances on route, Martha and Bucky executing a very well received square dance.

 

Eventually, all were aboard, and everyone agreed that Stan had been a ‘brick’ by not driving off without us. So rather than ask him to do the usual, slow, one-by-one, drop- off routine, we all agreed to go back to the club, tipping generously when the hat was taken round on his behalf.

Tumbling out of the coach to the church clock striking 12, we were still a very rowdy bunch, since many had now got their second wind and were determined to sing their way to their doorsteps. Martha and Bucky thanked me, in song, for my company and then slowly wended their way along Church Street, harmonising their own particular version of ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’.

 

If I could have had one last bet that day, it would have been that Martha and Bucky would never, ever, have a day’s racing quite like that, again.

 

 

This story is  from Michael’s book Ripping Gambling Yarns,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

The illustrations throughout the book are by Julia Jacs

Our ‘Olympic’ School Sports Day

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Our ‘Olympic’ School Sports Day

I would like to take you back to our School Sports Day in 1948, which according to our Headmaster, would draw inspiration from the then current Olympics in London.

To put you in the picture and to give you a flavour of my life, when still a lad, I often attended horse and dog races, and could also be spotted in the crowds at Chelsea and Woking’s football matches. Athletics, however, due to the distinct lack of betting opportunities, had never grabbed my attention.

But now, fuelled by the ground swell of interest generated by the Olympics, everyone I knew was talking about the popular athletes, MacDonald Bailey, Arthur Wint and, of course, the phenomenal Fanny Blankers-Koen.

In fact, every playtime, class relay teams would hurtle their way round our playground, which inevitably led to queues forming outside the first aid room for attention to grazed knees and elbows.

At this time the School Sports loomed large in both teachers and pupil’s consciousness. And although it had crossed my mind that there might be some betting opportunities, it  came as a major disappointment that the only school events open to my age group, the 11- and 12-year-olds, were to be the egg and spoon, the three-legged and the sack race. Who were the National Heroes in those, I wondered?

I must have sulked for a week. Secretively, I had planned to run a book on the sprint races for our year. But not with eggs and sacks – I ask you?

Then one day I confided in Uncle Ernie, who surprised me by taking the higher ground,

“Never mind the type of event lad, why don’t you try to win one.”

He was right of course, although in truth I was a moderate runner, unless someone was chasing me, and my lack of hand-to-eye coordination had cost me dearly at conkers. So that sadly ruled out the egg and spoon.

My thoughts turned to the sack race, until dad reminded me of my nightly struggle to remain upright whilst climbing into my pyjama trousers – so no go there.

Finally, I settled on the three-legged race, but as Uncle Ernie said,

“You’ll have to find an agile partner for that one Michael?” He was right

again, and from then on I started to give it serious thought.

The Goldsworth School 12-year-old mixed three-legged race, run over 50 yards, was for 16 boy/girl pairs, to be run in two heats of eight, the first four in each heat to run in the final. Uncle Ernie, having temporarily given up betting, was keen for me to run and win, promising me a £1 note if I did, and he persuaded two of his brothers, Albert and Arthur to stump up the same amount.

That was all very encouraging, but my appeal to the fairer sex was at this time limited. As a geeky loner with a serious stammer, I had to make my p-p-pitch c-c-convincing.

Plucking up courage, I put my case to Thelma. Bespectacled, she had freckles, a fringe and two short pigtails. But more relevantly, she had been a member of the Junior School hockey team. So she was both well balanced, agile and the owner of a pair of satisfyingly sturdy legs.

After careful consideration, even at this young age, she would be a worthwhile ante-post bet for Council Librarian. On the other hand, if she later chose to smoke and drink, she would be nailed on for the cast of St Trinian’s.

For someone who I had rarely spoken to before, she was surprisingly compliant with my wishes. Thereafter, every lunch break and for half an hour after school, clasping each other behind our backs, we ran to the bicycle sheds and back, straight backed and focused ahead.

As we progressed in our training, we began to feel our elevation from ‘bus horses’ to thoroughbreds. This new image was further supported by Thelma’s excellent suggestion that we breathe in unison. At this point, I began to congratulate myself on my inspired choice of partner.

We were, at times, subject to ridicule, nothing new to me, but I felt sympathy for Thelma.

 

Inevitably, my reputation was called into question and I was summoned by Headmaster “Bonk” Peel, to be warned of the consequences of betting on the school sports.

Marshalling me into his study, he began, ‘Church, you are not going to turn our ‘Olympic sports day’ into a disreputable occasion are you?’

He sat menacingly on the end of his desk, glowering at me with knitted eyebrows.

‘You remember what happened on our last encounter, when we confiscated your double-headed penny?’

I did indeed, and to reinforce his threat, he took one of the five switches from behind his desk, momentarily trying it out for flexibility.

‘I w-w-wouldn’t dream of it Sir,’ I said with a slight tremble.

He looked past me, my reply having no impact on his impending lecture.

‘By that, I mean no wagering; not sixpences, thrupences or even pennies. Do you understand Church?’ he said, swishing the cane in the metre of his threat. Fully wound up he continued, ‘The Olympics are a proud occasion for everyone in the British Isles. Remember Church, it’s not about winning, but taking part – right Church?’

‘Right Sir, permission to speak Sir?’

‘Yes Church.’

‘W-w-well to say as yet, I haven’t taken a single bet.’

‘As yet, as yet,’ Peel fumed

‘W-well Sir, I m-meant to add – and I don’t intend to.’

‘I should hope not. Is that a promise Church? You know the consequences.’

‘Alright then, a promise,’ I said resolutely.

Bonk kept up his frown, but I did hear his secretary, who had crept in midway through his tirade, give a sigh of relief.

 

Sports day arrived and in the heats of the three-legged race, Thelma and I ran well to finish second. Delighted with the result, we decided not to watch the second heat, preferring instead to go behind the cricket pavilion and relax.

Ten minutes later, we were tracked down by Thelma’s anxious parents.

“There you are. What are you doing down there?” they echoed.

But I could see the relief on her mother’s face, when she saw we were rubbing the embrocation into our own thighs rather than each other’s!

In the final, we bounded from the start in unison and at halfway, we led by a yard. Then, someone clipped Thelma’s heel, causing her head to go back, then violently forward, sending her glasses flying into our path. I heard the crunch beneath us. Thelma swore and momentarily checked her stride, but she kept going with a grim determination – a girl after my own heart.

Sadly, we were beaten by inches, although Thelma’s mother kept telling everyone that we were the moral winners.

From that moment, after what had seemed to us a personal tragedy, our friendship steadily grew.

That evening, Thelma’s parents invited me round for tea, and to give

them credit, they never mentioned the likely cost of new glasses once.

Over cream buns with strawberry jam, I realised how lucky I had been to

find a girl as obsessed and committed as myself, one in whose company I now no longer stammered.

In the very happy months that followed, whilst guiding her gently through, what was for her, the unchartered waters of fixed odds football pools, we became an item, both in the classroom, sitting next to each other for algebra, and out of it, standing behind the goal at Woking.

Twenty years later, at Sir Ivor’s Derby, I thought I saw her in the grandstand. The pigtails had gone, but she still had the glasses and the freckles. I tried to get a closer look, but suddenly, she became engulfed in the crowd, and I could never be sure.

 

This short story is from Michael’s book Black Horse – Red Dog ,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

 

 

Ladies Day at Royal Ascot

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Ladies Day at Royal Ascot

It had come to Father Green’s ears, through Emily, that the ladies of the parish, namely, the Catholic Women’s League, thought their priest was less than appreciative of them and their works.

Perry sighed when he heard this, it was sometimes more than he could cope with, keeping all the elements of the parish happy. However, he valued Emily’s opinion and she seemed to think he could do no harm by giving the good ladies a little TLC.

Emily had hinted that his interest could take the form of an event or outing that the women would enjoy and which he could attend with commitment and enthusiasm – quite a challenge!

Perry had vague memories of previous undertakings by the CWL led by their doughty Chairwomen, Brenda Bartholomew. He had in mind a particular trip to a sewing machine museum, where he had to use all his priestly guile to avoid attending.

He needed, therefore, to think hard before something equally dreadful came his way. What would constitute a decent ladies day? Then it hit him – Royal Ascot’s Ladies Day.

 

The Gold Cup, run on the Thursday, was the centrepiece of the meeting – the Queen, the hats, Frankie Dettori, they’d love it. More to the point, he would love it.

The suggestion was put to the members at the next CWL meeting, where it received a tentative reception. Mainly, it was said, because some of the ladies were worried that Father Green would be bored with such an outing. And while Perry was able to put their minds at rest on that point, Emily had taken a back seat to stifle her amusement.

When the committee suggested that the Grandstand would be the most suitable enclosure at around £50 a head – bookable in advance – there were a few protests. However, Father Perry, not wanting to spend the afternoon on the heath or in the Silver Ring, enthusiastically extolled the Grandstand facilities, which included not only a better view of the race, but of Her Majesty when presenting the Gold Cup. In addition, he stressed, they would benefit from the many bars, food outlets, tote windows and overhead cover should it rain.

Father Perry’s final point won over the last of the doubters, since there had been much debate about their outfits.

As the date loomed nearer, Perry sensed there was a growing excitement, almost to match his own,

A coach was hired and the morning dawned bright. A small crowd gathered outside the Church to see them off. It was generally agreed that the outfits, although rather varied and some bordering on the eccentric, were overall, a credit to St Joseph’s.

Always hoping to air her voice, Brenda had brought along the accordionist, Colin Campbell, to provide a party atmosphere on the coach, and had also booked a local photographer to capture the ladies haute couture.

On the journey, Colin, sitting on the back seat, played a selection of songs from the shows, unaware that the singing and chatter from three dozen excitable women was making it increasingly difficult for Perry to study his Racing Post. But study he did.

If anyone, including Emily and Brenda, had expected Father Green to stay with them once inside the Grandstand, they were soon disillusioned, as he quickly melted into the crowd.

Punting wise, Perry would agree, this was not his finest hour – four straight losers including his nap and next best, had almost emptied his wallet. To make matters worse, although desperate for a drink, he had decided to steer clear of the bars to avoid being waylaid by zealous parishioners. Finally, however, the combination of losing and lying low began to take its toll. He had to have that drink and do a couple of forecasts – at least try to get out of trouble.

He was just downing his second whiskey in quick succession when two of his parish ladies spotted him from across the bar and within seconds it was too late.

“I know you don’t gamble Father,” said Maureen, “but Molly and I have been wicked and guess what, we’ve backed all three of Frankie Dettori’s winners.”

Perry smiled thinly.

“How splendid,” he said hollowly, “You must excuse me now while I watch this race.”

“We’ll come with you,” was the dreaded response. And so it was that Father Perry Green watched the penultimate race – the Chesham Stakes, without a penny on the much fancied World Premier, while his two companions twittered on endlessly.

After a while Perry’s face must have betrayed his tension because Maureen said, “Father you look pale, you have been good bearing with all this racing, we are going to buy you a coffee.”

Mercifully, as they left, he joined a nearby Tote queue to have his last £10 on a dual forecast – but on what?

“Frankie was sure to be in the shake up again,” he thought, “but betting on the favourite wouldn’t help his cause, unless he added a rank outsider.”

He scanned the racecard. Diaghilef was carrying 9st 7lb – top weight and 40-1 – “Even so,” he thought, “top weights are sometimes favoured by firm ground. So, smiling at the Tote girl he muttered, “Nil Desperandum,” and kissed his tenner goodbye.

 

The queue at the coffee stall must have been very long, for Perry had time to watch the race on a TV monitor under the stands. The King George V Handicap was over a mile and a half, so the horses would start away to the left on the far side of the course – all 20 of them.

Perry scanned the TV for his colours, but with such a big field the images were too small for him to identify clearly, worse still, the shouts of the punters drowned out the commentary – anyway, it looked like a blanket finish.

Just then Maureen and Molly returned.

“Sorry there’s only half a cup Father, we were jostled and nearly knocked over when the race started.”

Suddenly, he found himself sweating – the noise and the disappointment had finally got to him.

What happened next, Perry could never explain. Did he really faint, or was it his self-preservation coming to the rescue as it had in the past. He remembers Maureen’s anxious face and someone calling out, “Look out the priest is falling”.

Father Green felt himself slip gracefully from his chair. Was that his voice saying, “I must get outside, I need air?”

Many willing hands worked towards this end. Until at last, Perry found himself sitting quietly on a bench on the Grandstand lawn.

Attentive, anxious faces were all around him, but through the babble, he heard the tannoy announce, “Here is the result of the photograph for the sixth race: First Number 1, Diaghilef.”

“Oh what a pity,” said a woman nearby, “Frankie was second.”

Moments later, a St Johns ambulance man said, “He’s looking better now, see, he’s smiling.”

“I’ll be alright soon, thankyou,” said Father Green, “Just the heat, I expect.”

Then looking up at Maureen and Molly he said, “Give me a few minutes and I’ll follow you down to the coach.”

Which he did, but not before revisiting the Tote windows, where incredibly, he learned that the payout for his £10 dual forecast was £4,147 – “Certainly Nil Desperandum there,” he mused, and looking back, thought it could be his biggest win ever.

 

On the way home, Brenda, with accordion accompaniment, gave them soulful renditions of Climb every Mountain and Luck be your Lady Tonight.”

Meanwhile the ladies assured each other that in spite of everything, Father Green looked to have enjoyed the day.

Maureen and Molly vouched that he never stopped smiling all the way home.

Later, Emily gave further testimony that his smile had continued well into the evening.

 

 

This story is from Michael’s book,

The Gambling Adventures of Father Green,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.