In the hole

Saturday morning, an inner suburban booze den affectionately called a local, hidden amongst a neat row of terraced townhouses. Quaint looking from the street, any delusions of grandeur are shattered by the grubby fit out. A cancerous grey skin of decade old smoke and sweat congeal over the squat ceiling and a mish-mash of sporting memorabilia that entertain the walls. Ingrained dank is testament to the lost souls who shat, spat, spilt and spent their lives away, slumped in a bar stool.

As usual, West was the first punter in the pub. He offered a familiar wave to the bartender. Most people see themselves as recreational punters. Nothing wrong with that, Australia replies. Punting to West was more than just recreational. He loved it; loved the thrill of a big win. Loved studying the form lines, looking for something others couldn’t see. Punting defined his existence.

West had been in the hole for most of his adult life; lived with his mother and had worked the same job since school. That didn’t matter; he had been paid the day before. He had paid back the $300 he owed his mum. The remainder had gone to the neediest of his credit cards. Except for the money for the punt. Today, he had $100 in his pocket and that ‘things will come good’ look in his eye.

West carefully took the scrap of paper from his pocket. His bets for the day, the product of two days pouring over the form, were laid out in childish scrawl. The first bet didn’t jump for more than an hour so he pulled up a stool in the empty bar and listened to the day’s race preview.

A bloke about West’s age, wearing four days growth and a lopsided cap, wandered into the bar. He walked straight to the TAB betting window and put $50 on a runner in New Zealand. Grabbing his betting slip he walked back to stand within spitting distance of the TV.

Never much of a beer drinker, West ordered a glass of scotch, and that meant house scotch. At $3 a glass, 100 Pipers was the drink. He walked to the boards and sipped as he checked the form. The four jumped out at him. It wasn’t on his list but the pub was dead and he was getting restless. A $5 go in New Zealand was as good a way as any to kill time. West placed his first bet of the day.

Both men watched the screen as the horses were loaded into the barriers. As the race jumped, an old lady shuffled into the bar. Agnes dropped in around the same time each week, always dithered around for a few moments confused. Her bets were always the same: a Daily Double, numbers one and ten in both Melbourne and Sydney. She was old enough to remember when a bet was hand-written and unlicensed SP bookies ruled the city’s pubs. A collect couldn’t be made until the end of the day back then. Now it was computers, televisions and barcode scanners. Finished with her dithering, she asked the bloke at the TV for a hand. Too consumed by the race being played out on the screen, he couldn’t acknowledge her existence. It was left to West to help her put on her bets.

His horse thoroughly beaten, the bloke at the TV slammed his fist into the table, swore and stormed over to the form boards. Not West though, his runner got up and delivered a $60 collect. Happy days, it was going to be a good one. Another scotch was in order.

Lost in self-congratulation, West didn’t notice Hamish duck in off the street. Something about the stitch of his hems and the sharpness of his part meant Hamish didn’t quite fit the downbeat backdrop but West smiled when he saw his mate. He had known Hamish since the day dot. They ate dirt together at primary school, drank, smoked and chased the same girls through high school but Hamish had well and truly come good since then; had climbed the corporate ladder and made partner with some big law firm. He had married an equally ambitious woman and they had three kids.

It didn’t take long for West and Hamish to find their groove: work, life and old times. The bar was quiet and their conversation filled the room. It wasn’t his drink of choice but West and Hamish shared beers. It had always been that way when they caught up. West sipped, Hamish drank and they shot the shit. It wasn’t long before talk turned to the punt. Hamish mentioned a bloke he knew with a horse running that day. It was a sure thing, apparently. West made a mental note. They chatted for a while then Hamish said he had to head off. Had to pick up the kids. The head had barely flattened on West’s beer but Hamish was well into his third. He drained the remainder, stood, shook West’s hand then left.

West took his flat but still brimming pot to the bar. He ordered a scotch in its place. The bloke walked over from the TV and said it would be a shame to waste a beer. West was caught off-guard but you couldn’t argue with that logic so he handed over the beer. The bloke asked about Hamish. How did West know him? That was how West met Johnny D.

The topic had just got onto the punt when Will arrived. West introduced him to Johnny D. A waiter in a nearby restaurant; Will also loved the punt. He only bet on races in Adelaide and only $20 a week but he spent hours devising elaborate multiples, running different selection combinations through different races. Most weeks he didn’t win a cent but every now and then he hit a collect of $500 or $600, massive money for a lad like him.

Will didn’t bet big either but every waking moment was spent studying the form, listening to a call on the radio or just thinking about the next big collect. Will’s dream was to run some kind of subscription based tipping service, where punters paid for his insight and analysis. It was never going to happen but he and West had spent hours discussing it.

Already up from his New Zealand collect, West splashed out on his first selection at Melbourne. Put $20 on the nose. Never looked like losing and paid $6. High fives were exchanged all round.

By that time, the regulars had started to roll in. Jake was always one of the first in. He had spent his entire working life – more than fifty years – at the brewery, hardly missed a day. Now retired and with no family, he dedicated his life to the drink. Each day he would sit, drink and talk shit with a string of mates and associates. His drinking buddies would stagger out a couple of hours later, having not spent a cent. Jake would drink all day and his demeanor didn’t change. The only noticeable difference was that he spoke slightly louder and moved slightly slower.

West was back at the betting window in time for race two. He liked the look of this pony. It burst out of the gates and led from start to finish, delivering West another $100 collect.

Next in were Leo and Dave. Both were there because they had nowhere else. After he retired, Leo had spent a few weeks pottering aimlessly around the house before his wife told him to find somewhere else to be. A new Australian gentleman, Leo was unfashionable in every sense; wore muted tones, thick glasses, high cut trousers, a collared shirt with a woollen vest and well-worn shoes polished within an inch of their existence. Leo now spent is days in the pub mystified as to how he had ended up there. When he thought nobody was watching he would go grab other punters discarded betting cards then go through them desperate for some insight into what he was supposed to be doing. Dave, thirty-something and balding, had only recently made the pub his local. An accountant, he had the smooth unblemished hands of those from behind the desk. Friendly in an unsettling kind of way, it had taken a while for the boys to get where he was coming from. They never quite nailed what was going on in that head of his but he had a taste for the drink and that was common ground enough. Dave nodded in the direction of the three boys then assumed his shift drinking with Jake. Leo just wandered off amongst the form boards.

West found no joy in the third race (having swiped West’s betting card and copied the bet, Leo found no joy either) but he had solid tip in the next. West had a mate at the Caulfield stables who he would often hit up for tips. He had given a dead cert in the fourth race and West backed it. It got a dream run, one back on the fence. It found space at the 400m and burst into the lead. West, Will and Johnny D called it home the entire length of the straight.

Sweat and stale smoke mingled with the oily heat of dozens of Saturday arvo punters. A familiar stench hung heavy in the air; the sickly sweet smell of pub gravy w13afted from the kitchen calling to booze-drowned bellies. The bar was brimming with punters and the counter meal crowd by the time Ando and Billy had assumed their usual positions. Joints full of gout and arthritis, they spent their days drinking from seven-ounce glasses at the end of the bar. Ando had the drawn grey look of someone with a gut full of tumors. One front tooth was long gone and only half of the other remained. More than double the size, Billy was a cardiac condition; scabby skin, chewed ears and a puffy red face covered with a nicotine beard. West drifted over and said g’day.

Going into race five, West was nearly $400 up and had a big enough bank for a decent go at the Quaddie. Both he and Will loved the Quaddie, loved the challenge of picking four winners in a row. It cost him a touch over $300 but was worth every cent in his eyes. By then the booze was flowing freely; West shouted Will and Johnny D drinks. He also gave them both $20 to have a nibble at something. Johnny D blew his cash on a fancy that did nothing in the fifth but the favourite delivered tidy returns for West and Will. They both reinvested their winnings into the favourite in the sixth and Johnny D looked on with envy as their runner again delivered. His worries didn’t last long. You can’t be around a streak like West’s without getting in on the action.

West remembered the horse Hamish mentioned earlier in the day. It was running in the seventh. He had put it in his Quaddie but now had a closer look at its form. It was pretty solid and at $8 it was over the odds and worth a shot. West dropped $100 on it and watched it rail home like a bastard.

By this stage the good word around the pub had it that West was on a roll. Coming into the last race of the day at Melbourne, West was already more than a grand up and was still alive in the Quaddie. Had six runners. He decided to whack an extra $500 on the favourite. The rhythmic drone of the call seeped through the very essence of the pub. West, Will, Johnny D and the other boys watched and the caller weaved the clichés into a continuous call.

Every fibre of West’s being strained with anticipation. Eyes transfixed on the screen, he willed on his charge on with every inch of his soul. Two runners went head to head down the straight. Absorbed by the screen West lost track of his surrounds; he was oblivious to the nods of acknowledgement and the familiar banter between his mates and fellow punters. He was unaware of the spilt beer, blurred eyes and slurred speech.

The three boys rode West’s runner home for the last four hundred metres, shouting at the top of their lungs. The caller’s voice climaxed as the horses hit the line. A photo finish. Two agonising minutes crawled by. Then, out of the blue, the caller declared West’s horse the winner. Screaming with joy, he threw his hands in the air. The Quaddie was his and the extra $500 he had on the winner meant a seven grand collect.

There were slaps on the back and many hands to shake. A win of this size was more than enough to get him back on track. But first thing’s first. The pub was full mates, people he drank with, punted with and had borrowed money from. They needed attention. West put $500 over the bar and the good times rolled.

West had completed a dream day on the punt. He had turned a hundred bucks into a touch over seven large. His appetite had been whetted. He was on a roll and you need to milk that for all it was worth. There was plenty left to bet on; the dogs at the Meadows, the trots at the Valley. The TAB runs a race every three minutes, plenty of opportunity for a savvy punter to build his bankroll. Will, and their new mate Johhny D, were along for the ride.

Things got blurry after that. There was a counter meal, a power of drinks and a heap of laughs. Most importantly, there was plenty more punting. It didn’t seem to matter what West bet on, the money kept on rolling in. West must have been more than ten grand up by the time the trots and the dogs finished up.

Will pulled stumps and headed home but when you’re on a roll you have take any and every opportunity to keep on rolling so Johnny D convinced West to go next door to give the pokies a nudge. West was smart enough to know that a gut full of piss, a pocket full of cash and a room full of pokies isn’t a good mix. He just sat at the bar while Johnny D played the machines. West let his mind wander; with this collect, he was well and truly out of the hole. No more personal loan. No more credit card debit. Even better, there was a full Sunday card of races at Mornington in the morning.

The luckiest streak of West’s live came to end when the pub shut. Johnny D looked at West. Come with me, he said. West stumbled into the unforgiving night, pockets full of cash, with a bloke he hardly knew.

This piece was originally published in the University of Melbourne’s Creative Writing Anthology, Above Water in August 2012.