I had never seen him before. But the minute he swaggered through the Green Street shop door I knew it was Leroy.
Expensive leather jacket, barely held-in aggression, eyes piercing through all surrounds. Probably about my age, 26. A far bulkier minder, also black, followed him in. The two of them stood out like sore thumbs in a shop where the regulars – a mix of West Indians and Asians – were noisy but peaceable.
I loved working there, just a mile or so from the Hammers’ ground at Upton Park.
My cashier, Lil, and I would spend much of our spare morning time discussing ways to find a winning horse racing system. When the shop started buzzing just after lunchtime it was a mixture of fun and challenge to try and keep up with the flood of bets pouring across the counter. The afternoons flew by in a haze of cigarette smoke and endless cups of tea. High-volume banter amid the winnings and losings. Nothing like the slick plastic betting emporiums of today. No fixed-odds terminals or digitised credit.
With Leroy’s entrance, my defences went up. The stories were legion. He ran drugs, handled hookers and laundered money. Crossing him could hurt you. A lad named Steve who managed Ladbrokes’ Custom House shop had recently been beaten up by Leroy and his cronies at a bus stop after work. Hospitalised, for enforcing shop rules on something fairly innocuous.
Paul Gibbs, who managed the nearby Katherine Road shop, reckoned that Leroy needed uncompromisingly firm handling, especially on the price changes. So if a horse was 10/1, and the tannoy announced it had shortened to 8/1, Leroy would want the bigger price.
When I used to play football, my dad would say that if you tackled with all of your strength, you could never get hurt. Something of that advice had stuck. So when Leroy steamed in for his first bet, £50 to win on a greyhound at Hackney, he wanted 3/1, after the price had fallen to 11/4. I gave him a flat no. He started to raise his voice.
Adrenalin was coursing through me. There was no way he could have the upper hand. “Do you want 11/4 or SP?” I asked, matter of fact. Scared as shit. Maybe I lucked in. Perhaps he didn’t yet see any weakness. He took the lower price, almost growling, but the dog won. So he got £137.50 back, not £150, but still enough to keep him happy. His next bet won as well, and he was already £250 or so ahead.
“Wass ya name? Not seen you before.” Testosterone thick and deep in his vocal chords.
“Yeah? I’m Leroy. You heard of me?”
“Bits and pieces.”
“Yeah? I’m a professional. Bet for a living.” I knew that was not the case. “Might come here a bit more often.” Off he smirked, and returned to hand over £100 or so for his next bet. A lot of dosh back in 1983. My weekly wage in fact.
That one lost. He came up to the counter and looked over at me. Trembling inside, I made sure to settle a few bets before looking up. No way could he be allowed to access my thoughts. There were lighter tinges to his dark skin, and some facial scars. His eyes were moulded from a template forged in one of Satan’s ante-chambers.
And so the afternoon wore on, and he must have handed across anywhere between £1200 and £1500 in bets. At times he was so far ahead that we couldn’t pay him, and so he was allowed – as per company rules – to bet on the strength of those winning bets. And then, for what seemed like no reason, he just upped and went with his colleague, who resembled a brick shithouse with several ground-floor extensions.
What a relief. Lil and I felt about 47 times happier when the door closed behind him. Bob, who marked up the price changes with his thick black pen out in the shop, looked across with a wipe of his brow.
Later, when we had closed up, I tallied up the day’s takings and found that we were about £200 over the cash level that the books said should be in the shop. There was only one punter that could have come from. He had been hurling his money across the counter so quickly, and wanting payment at the same time, that there had been a mix up somewhere.
I went through the books twice more. Same result. The shop’s money was all there, as it should be. The books balanced exactly with what the till rolls said, bar the extra £200. Leroy had inadvertently left us a massive tip, which was split three ways between Lil, myself and Julie, our Saturday morning cashier. We earned it just by being in Leroy’s orbit.
I looked around extra hard when opening and closing the shop for the next few days. But never saw him again, aside from a couple of swift 5-minute visits. He reminded me of a dog spraying his piss around the neighbourhood posts. Rotten as the Krays, but without the business sense.
I never knew how he came about his money. Several years later I heard that he was killed in a gangland revenge murder. Tempting to say he deserved it, but not sure anyone should judge another man’s life on a brief snapshot.