A crowd slowly ascending the stairs. A maudlin, dark sea. Flecks of grey. A discordant noise. One head turns. The crowd never stops. The plodding climb. Faces without expression. Five days to go. Again the noise. More of a bleat, sharper and higher.
Maureen was grinning. Halfway up now. I gripped my copy of the Sporting Life harder, drew a third deep breath, and contracted my stomach muscles hard, letting out a noise that any sheep would be proud of. No reactions. Monday morning grimness, sky still dark as we emerged at the top of the stairs onto Platform 1 at Chelmsford railway station.
More like a zombie movie than the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Although his Thought Police would have nabbed me for the aural suggestion that we travelled amid flocks of ruminants.
34.5 years later, my view has not changed. Phones, earphones, laptops and tablets make it easier for commuters to London to create their own hiding space from their fellows, whereas books and newspapers were the shields of choice in 1984. But nobody wanted or wants this gauntlet of misery. Is it really worth losing precious time on the planet by waiting, sitting, eyeing up, jostling, coughing, seething, chewing, sneezing, sipping, watching, leching, breathing shallow and grinding teeth?
Five days a week, twice a day, weekends off for good behaviour. For Maureen.
Six days in my case. Still at Ladbrokes, but now as a relief manager, covering for holidays and illness. Anywhere in the East End. More often than not at the Hoe Street shop in Walthamstow, which lacked a manager. Or Custom House, Woolwich, Canning Town, Leytonstone, Forest Gate, Plaistow or East Ham. And sometimes just 100 yards from Upton Park, in the big shop on the Barking Road just along from the iconic Anne Boleyn pub.
Back to my East End family roots but so bored that the travel gauntlet remains my strongest memory. I got through the days by thinking obsessively about betting on racehorses. If I had let the commuting, and then the betting shop surroundings take an unfiltered toll, I may have broken down.
Tucked away behind the reinforced shop partitions I sat at my desk and continued logging certain statistics in what became a series of exercise books. Always affable with the punters and cashiers. Then rooting back through as many old copies of the Sporting Life as I could lay my trembling hands on. Always betting small. Every night of the week shuffling through my notebooks, dazzled by the numbers and patterns that I thought I saw.
To say that I buzzed with inner delight may underplay the pleasures. It was the paradigm that had somehow always lain in wait. Where the buck stopped with me, and the brain and guts were engaged in equal measure. My young man’s mind loved the visceral element, where the results panned out at speed and in colour. My conversation at home began to be peppered with references to “when my system has won lots of money”.
I recall almost nothing else of that autumn. The IRA nearly assassinated Maggie Thatcher in October 1984. The spiteful side of me wished they had. Striking miners probably agreed. Only Brexit and Marmite have split Britain like Thatcher.
Also, we became pet owners. Millie, our black and white kitten from a litter in Danbury, would creep into our bed at night and sleep between us. I made up baby rhymes for her, including this gem:
Puddum, o tatum….the little, ittle catum
I know. Keats and Wilde meet John Donne, take laudanum and entertain the angels.
A few giant thunderstorms marked our first months in the maisonette. I would wake terrified at the explosions outside and above, paralysed with the idea that Russia was unleashing a nuclear weapon. A global fear, interrupting my dreams. An arm came around me. Soothing words.
Maureen’s care and competence matched my over-imaginative nature. She knew how to decorate, and what furniture we needed. What food was required; how to keep in regular contact with parents and siblings; and what washing powder and loo roll to buy.
A great organiser. And she kept me lustful.