It was, as my British readers surely know, the Grand National this weekend, a day where drama, heroism and controversy culminates in bestowing the crown most prized within the sport of kings; or, alternatively, the day on which by collective consensus we as a nation suspend our principles and indulge profligacy for the sake of a quick thrill and the lure of a big win. It is the day Britain unbuttons her moral straightjacket and, with a sigh, says “actually, gambling is sometimes alright”.
I have bet on the Grand National before – but in the past it has been something of a family affair. Mater most years will ring me up and ask if I care to go in for a quid or two when she puts hers down, and I will then glance cursorily over the runners and riders and pick the jockey with the most daring dress sense or the beast with the bizarrest name and not give a badger’s elbow for the odds. But this year, being now “an age” at which I am perfectly capable of flushing my own bank notes down the lavatory, I determined for the first time to place my own bet, all by myself, and furthermore to do so in an establishment that exists solely for the facilitation of such transactions.
It was a lovely spring day when I set forth to make my fortune (for being bet for the purpose of a blog’s narrative, I felt sure my humble pennies would be transformed into a fortune); the sun was shining, the air was fresh yet warming, and the town’s populace as a consequence seemed borne upon their business rejuvenated by the promise of a bright future. The contrast between this atmosphere and that of the place my business took me to could not have greater.
Some doors, the magical doors of literature and myth, lead to wonderlands; impossible worlds where your wildest dreams come true. Some doors, it seems, lead to worlds where all dreams die.
On entering the bookies I felt as if I’d passed through a portal from a world of light to one of gloom: a murky, airless, enervating, confidence-sapping, hope-mocking, soul-destroying room. Hunger and Desperation appeared as palpable particles floating with the dust. The only noise was the ringing and clinging of fruit machines and competing commentaries on TV sets; the only light was that emanating from those same sets; and the only occupiers of the room were men.
When I walked through the door all male heads lifted up like feeding deer suddenly alert to a new danger. They stared, spent a few seconds processing the unexpected sight of a shy woman in a hat and velvet coat, evidently considered me no threat, and returned their gazes to the betting slips and racing pages. As there is an unspoken no-speaking rule in betting shops, the unanimous head bowing was equivalent to the resumption of a broken conversation, and I felt at liberty to roam the room, like an accidental gate-crasher permitted to stay at a party.
The walls were lined with posters dedicated to the different sports and events one could lose one’s money on, an overwhelming mass of numbers and names. A quick tour of the premises took me to the horse racing section in the furthest, darkest corner, where I found a slip for betting on the Grand National.
I had had the foresight to select my horse in advance, thus meaning I only needed to spend time working out how to bet on this horse correctly; a learning process considerably speeded up by the threat I sensed from a male customer circling behind me like a shark sussing out a particularly curious piece of prey.
Having read the instructions and filled it in to bet the grand sum of £2.50 ‘each way’ (which I now understand means to bet £5 on your horse finishing either first or in the top four), I carried my slip to the counter, unsure over whether it reflected better on my character to feign familiarity with the gambling process or to reveal myself as a first-timer, a curious flutterer. The impertinence of the spotty youth behind the counter quickly made me decide the latter was best.
“Do you have a Ladbrokes’ card?” he asked. “Do I look like I have a Ladbrokes’ card?” was the answer he deserved.
I don’t, and I’m glad I refused his suggestion that I acquire one. Gambling is not for me. My horse, Ballabriggs, which I had chosen for being, according to the papers “in with a chance” and having sporting odds of 20-1, pulled up at the 24th fence. A lucky escape, as had I won, I would have had to return to the miserable graveyard of broken dreams to collect my winnings; or worse, may have dared to dream there again myself.