Before going to see my football team of choice-by-birth, Coventry City play at home on a Saturday with my dad, we would stop off at the bookies for him to put on his daily bet. I was about nine and he would sit me in the corner of the smoke-filled shop against a backdrop of walls covered in the vital statistics of the day. We would wait for the first race before heading off up the match (this was years before televised races).
At the off, chatter would be replaced with commentary, and the men’s heads would move 45 degrees North to look at the speaker in the corner. The men would listen with their eyes, as though they had a better chance of winning by using more than one of the senses. As the race progressed, they started encouraging their horses or berating the jockey. Towards the end, the smoke almost gave way to their shouting, until the horses crossed finishing line. Then silence and muttering would be accompanied by the odd screwed up bet thrown at the poor innocent speaker.
Maria Taylor’s poem, A Day at the Races evokes this male dominated scene from the point of view of a woman who works behind the counter of the bookies. “For over twenty years it’s been a cinch/smiling without any come-on or affection./Her punters see more of her than their wives”. She is trained in the art of customer service; in dealing with the punters (now to be called ‘clients’) her tack is one of bitterness tinged with a sad inevitability of the outcome. “Her name is May, spelt in gold around her neck/she takes money from an old man…/’Today’s your lucky day’, she fibs,/someday she’ll drag his sheep-skinned corpse out.” Maria then neatly weaves in the clash of classes endemic in the racing game as the screen “cuts to ladies, daft complex hats, Lancome smiles,/cut to well-fed gent lifting a ribboned trophy.”
The key to betting is knowing when to leave the shop; those that stay the longest, lose the most often. Like the old man in the poem, “who’s lost all track of time/making confetti of his hopes on Walter De La Mare.” On the surface, the bookies has changed in many ways; longer opening hours, nighttime racing, races screened worldwide, even slot machines. But for clients née punters, the pastime, the sport of kings, can often turn into something dark, and whether you listen to your horse’s fate on a crackly speaker or watch it in HD, the result is always the same.
Maria Taylor is a poet from Leicestershire. Her family are Greek Cypriot in origin. She was born in Worksop, but her family later moved to London. Her poems have been published in a wide range of magazines including Magma, The Rialto, The North and Ambit. She is reviews editor for Under the Radar magazine. Her first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. She blogs at: http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at: @MariaTaylor_
A Day at the Races
For over twenty years it’s been a cinch
smiling without any come-on or affection.
Her punters see more of her than their wives
except nowadays head office calls them ‘clients’.
She means business, stacking coppers into towers,
fingers plump but lissome, Claddagh-ringed.
Her name is May, spelt in gold around her neck
she takes money from an old man, who’s busy
watching a screen, purple lips parted, lonely teeth,
as he weighs up the impossible odds, coughing guts
into a damp hanky. Today’s your lucky day she fibs,
some day she’ll drag his sheep-skinned corpse out.
Who dares give horses such indecorous names?
Sam Banjo, Mine’s a double, Wholelottarosie.
Cut to ladies, daft complex hats, Lancome smiles,
cut to well-fed gent lifting a ribboned trophy –
wanker says the man who’s lost all track of time
making confetti of his hopes on Walter De La Mare.
Fuck it, he snaps, holding his tiny biro like a knife,
he’s itching for a drag of tar. It keeps raining.
First Published in ‘Cake’ and ‘Melanchrini’ (Nine Arches Press, 2012).