gone to the dogs
My dad liked “a bet”.
After work on Saturday morning, he would bike into town and head straight to the bookies (a betting shop). After carefully studying that day's races, he would place his bet. At this moment life was good, full of potential and hope. Throughout the afternoon his optimism would drain away as my dad’s “certainties” would fall at the first fence, give up on the last straight or throw the jockey. His favourite saying was “bandit”, which he would shout while throwing his lucky pencil at the tv because his horse lost by a nose.
On the rare, and wonderful day he failed to lose all his money on the horses, he would take his winnings, and sometimes me, to see if he could lose his money on the dogs.
The Walthamstow Dog Track was a football stadium with a huge sand-covered oval track inside, around the pitch, sort of. A few minutes before the race the dogs are led out and paraded along one of the straights for “punters” to view them, I was always there, dizzy with excitement. I would hurry back to my dad and we would queue up so he could put our bets on. I would spend the last minutes before the race watching the “tic tac” men, they ran the independent betting. These men wore white gloves and I was fascinated watching their seemingly random hand gestures to convey the odds to their buddies across the stadium.
With the ringing of the 30-seconds warning bell, I had about ten seconds to make it back to my dad. The bar and restaurant lights all around the stadium would blink off leaving only the track lamps. In the stadium darkness, the crowd would fall silent. The only sounds were the whining and barking of the dogs because they could hear the whirring of the cable dragging the rabbit (stuffed toy). Thousands of statue-like people, totally silent, a black and white moment frozen in time and memory and then …
CLACK, the rabbit trips the switch, the trap doors fly open, the six dogs emerge and the entire stadium, with one voice, erupts. In the end, the losing betting tickets would be thrown into the air, along with curses and dreams. Twenty minutes to the next bell.
I would be off. If it was a photo finish I would go straight to the cabinet where the actual deciding photograph would be displayed. Otherwise, I would wander the bars and restaurants, taking in the noise, the smells, the winning, and the losing. Between races 3 and 4, we would make our way to the cheap cafe under the stadium. It was all bright lights, cigarette smoke, and spilled drinks. I always had a cup of strong tea, with milk, two sugars, and a sausage sandwich with brown sauce.
The night would end at the second to last race, we had a bus to catch. Regardless of how much my dad won or lost we always had enough money to buy a bag of Percy Dalton's warm peanuts. I would stand at the bus stop, shelling my peanuts while watching the mad man who, in his world, had the important job of directing traffic. He was always there, the mad man, and I always felt profoundly sad for him.
From the late afternoon long walk to catch the bus to the even longer midnight walk back home, those nights are some of my most treasured memories.
Top picture is me, my dad, and my brother Rick - a long long time ago
The "famous" front entrance to Walthamstow Dog Track
CLACK and they are off