About a mile from my childhood home there was a cluster of shops and a bookies around a crossroads that served the local council estate.
To this middle class boy, they looked strange and mysterious, inevitably tempting. Side by side stood the transport cafe and the bookies.
The concepts they represented were not strange to me. I had eaten in restaurants and both my father and my grandmother liked to place a bet on the horses every now and then.
They lifted their phones and called their bookmakers. It was all very efficient, but somehow rather cold and distant.
My first job was milkman’s boy, jumping on and off the float to pick up the empties. Jim showed me how to make sixpences dance around his fingers, blatantly lying to me that it made the housewives laugh.
I knew well he was doing it to short-change them but I didn’t care because I was seven years old, unable to discern such adult rights from wrong.
After we finished the round, Jim took me to the transport cafe. I loved it, made a complete fool of myself and actually enjoyed all the men laughing at me when they heard my clipped accent. In there I felt no pressure, no expectation and more, enjoyed an acceptance of some kind, powerful enough to change my life in later years.
After several mugs of steaming strong sweet tea and snarfing down a fried egg sandwich (two slices of toasted white slathered in butter and ketchup, dripping yolk and dropping white as you ate it), Jim would lean back in his chair and belch incredibly loudly. His burp sounded like mix of someone being sick and an opera singer tuning up, which all seemed to me a bit behaviourally extravagant, seeing as how we were in public. To my bourgeois mannered amazement nobody twitched an eyebrow.
“Right, Charles me boy! On your toes son! Just got to pop next door and then I’ll return you safe to your mum.”
Fantastic! We were going to visit the bookies next door. The not-very-swishy strips of filthy dirty plastic hanging over the bookmaker’s doorway acted as a portal to another universe. Being in the bookies was like watching telly, which was black and white in those days.
There was little daring to declare itself beyond monochrome in the scene before me. Men in flat caps talked to others in boiler suits, rollies permanently stuck to bottom lips, staying lit, being drawn on every now and then.
There was a long queue of men trying to put money on a race that had already started and a very short queue of men (rarely more than two) who were trying to pick up their winnings from the last race so they could put a bet on this other race, the one that the other men wanted to bet on, even though it had already started. It used to make me giggle.
These grown men doing the same silly thing every day. They knew that the bloke behind the counter would tell them they couldn’t place their bets on a race that had started and everyone knew well that everyone else knew that was the case and every day everybody ignored it.
For an extended version of this column see this week’s Connacht or Galway City Tribune