The Secret, Hellish World of Working in a London Bookies

By Laurence Rivers, Illustrations: James Harvey

I look at myself in the mirror every single day before setting out to a job I hate and think: 'You coward.' It somehow seems easier to keep grinding away at something that slowly kills me mentally while I convince myself that one day I will become a writer or musician. I know now that this will never happen. In my free time I am too exhausted to think and my activities are restricted to the lifting and setting down of pints. I am one of the herd and that’s how it's going to stay. Self-loathing and a regular paycheque – all held together with alcohol. Welcome to the 21st century.

MY FIRST DAY
It was a foul day when I turned up for my first shift at the bookies. The premises stood grey and desolate in an area of East London that gentrification has yet to “bless” and with my head fogged from the previous night’s excesses, I march to a job I already do not want to do. It’s hard to explain why I ended up working in a betting shop as I have absolutely no interest in gambling but then nobody seemed interested in paying me to do anything else and I had to pay rent.

My supervisor spoke with the idiosyncratic metre that comes naturally to those who have done the same job for too long.

“Always check the toilets, you must always check the toilets. You must…”

A bookies’ bogs are a far cry from the Savoy in any case, but on this day they were something else. A clipboard with several vertical monograms boasted that the lavatory had been cleaned and checked by the anonymous Latvian women who no one had yet met. Classic. Turn up at the start of the month, sign “Magda” 31 times, then do whatever the fuck you like for a month. Even if the company calls the agency the receptionist is Magda. The boss is Magda. Her three fucking daughters are Magda and they all hate you for giving them the “opportunity” to work from 3AM till 5PM scrubbing out betting shop toilets. So, Magda was gone and I was here. The smell is what hits you first, of course; a combination of the sweat of loss and desperation, muddied with the stench of processed booze. Pools of spent Special Brew formed a moat around the cubicles, the toilets a throne for the arses of those that even the pub won't touch any more.

With grim trepidation I pushed open the first cubicle and there he sat: Eyes grey in death, mouth slightly upturned as the needle sagged low in the crook of his arm. This was where he had come to take the final hit and now there is some corner of a bookies’ toilet that is forever England. The boss was told, the ambulance came and we were all reprimanded by the security officer for not checking the bogs enough. Apparently this kind of thing happens fairly often. Later on, I ventured to look into the other cubicle but it was merely overflowing with shit and piss. Wonderful.

This was my first day.

THE THINGS I LEARNED
Gamblers are idiots but very auspicious idiots; even though they lose day after day, they always feel that the gods of luck dictate they should maintain their endless cycle of losing money to a strict timetable. Thus, you can effectively time your day’s work to the second.

Naturally, the toilet became a constant source of interest to me – my discovery of the porcelain martyr on the first shift was one of the most interesting things that happened to me while working at the bookies. It was also in constant use; drug addicts, drunks, vagrants and prostitutes all called its Formica walls home from time to time. But one day she gave in. After inspection, I found it was a discarded ale can that led to the terminal blockage but I knew deep down that she had simply had enough. She was as much a member of staff as anyone else that works in a betting shop. Job description:

“Sit in a little box all day and deal with people’s shite.”

The only difference was that she never complained about it. Now she groaned her last and burst her banks in a final act of defiance to the establishment. There was shit everywhere – up, down and all around. The gamblers remained unfazed as one inch of sewage coated the floor but my shift still had two hours on it. I called the head office, fully expecting to close early but half an hour later everything was sorted out. His name was Steve and he had come from Reading. With his mop and some antibacterial tablets, Steve did a manful job of mashing the shit deeper into the carpet and adding the smell of bleach to the already overpowering cocktail of human effluence. When he’d finished, I said I was going to close up. Nigel wasn't very happy.

“But it’s fine now mate, you can trade,” he stammered.

“It still smells of shit, pal. Isn’t it a health risk?”

“Nope, germs aren’t airborne, all good," he replied.

I chose to ignore the good doctors’ analysis of virus transmission. For now, the sewage was seeping through the wall.

“Oh and by the way, it’s backed up through the plumbing, so don’t use any taps.”

I could have cried. Instead, I bought water for the shop and a pack of cans for me and charged both to the company account. Pricks.

THE PEOPLE I MET

RAY
I’m due to open the shop but Ray’s already there. I have the only key so my suspicion that he lives in the shop is heightened. Ray's been in the bookie business for almost 35 years, which means that horseracing is all he knows. This makes his conversation ironically predictable for a man who thinks in odds.

We sit in silence most of the day. Twelve o'clock comes round and Ray goes for lunch. He spends that hour in the rival bookies across the road. Ray has piles. Ray has piles because Ray has spent the last 35 years perched on a bookies' stool both sides of the counter. Ray’s retirement is coming up but we never talk about it. Come to think of it, we never even mention his private life. It’s better that way, I guess. Everyone knows Ray the bookie – nobody knows Ray the man. While he’s at lunch, I look in the airing cupboard and find a blow up mattress and some cereal. I vow to myself to think less about Ray.

CHRISTY
Christy is my utterly charmless female colleague. It's hardly highbrow stuff but Christy’s philosophical account of her girls' trip to Amsterdam is all there is to listen to most mornings. The same sad congregation of old bastards will have gathered by the heater in preparation for another day of loss, and along with the soft burbling from the tellies Christy’s musings on "chocolate fountains" are all there are to listen to, cutting through the silence like the Wehrmacht through France. “She was smokin’ a cigar wiv her 'nani!"

JOHN
John is a regular. He apparently had owned a pub but used it for the distribution of illegal narcotics and was thus unsurprisingly shut down. Now he spends his days watching virtual horses run around virtual tracks for 13 hours a day, all the while sustaining himself on discount diet coke and cup-a-soup. One day he made a strange gurgling noise, fell off his stool and collapsed onto the floor. He took a box of betting slips with him too and once Christy was done talking to some crone about Amsterdam, she called an ambulance.

RATS


    
I dream about working. When I fall asleep, the repetitive nature of my job means that the images I dream simply consist of the identical shifts I work. I work day and night in mirrors. I finish a shift. I go home to bed. I dream a shift. I wake up. I start a shift. I finish a shift. I go home to bed. I dream a shift. I wake up. Etc. Nothing exciting happens. I don’t dream of setting fire to the place or killing the boss. I simply do a normal shift like always. Whether I am asleep or not has become irrelevant as the line between reality and fantasy has become so blurred. It has been five nights now. For me this is like doing ten shifts on half pay. I get up and go to work.

Today is a little different, though, because the floor keeps moving. It’s the kind of thing that should be a dream but my brain suggests it isn’t. As I sit and count the money, something's constantly flickering in my peripheral vision. I blame it on exhaustion, or a lack of motivation. Then I walk across the room to open the cupboard with the bog-cleaning stuff in it and turns out it’s neither – it’s rats. Big fucking rats.

When you’re that zoned out you don’t react normally to a shrieking beast the size of a terrier in your bog cleaning cupboard. It was only when it came at me that I swore and hollered until it disappeared into the recesses. Pest control didn’t believe me about how big it was. Boric acid and glue traps went down, but this leviathan ate the pills like Smarties and left paw prints in the glue, as if it were strolling along Hollywood Boulevard.

It took three days. In an uneasy truce, the bookie staff “tooled up” and held a perimeter around the main counter but the staff kitchen, that was rat territory. The beast clearly got arrogant and tried to clamber over about five of the glue traps. It was the shrieking that alerted us to a potential opportunity to use the toaster again. We went in and there it lay – finally brought to heel like Gulliver and the Lilliputs. Then our attention came to the manner of its disposal. Shooting it point blank with the foam fire extinguisher seemed like a great idea at the time but after ten minutes of foamy screaming it was clear that this was nonsense and so logic would have to prevail. Sort of.

I managed to attach the broom handle to the screaming mass of glue, rodent and, because of the fire extinguisher, foam. Its eventual manner of demise would be far from dignified. Two thumps off the side of a wheelie bin behind the kebab shop next door couldn’t kill it and it spat blood and teeth back in my direction. One final act of defiance. I grabbed an empty beer keg from the pub on the other side of the road. Turns out that cartoon staple of squashing animals to the sides of rolling devices is based on reality. I stood looking at a 2D rat affixed to the bottom of a Carling barrel. The idea of subsequently cleaning said keg was far from my thoughts as I put the barrel back with its counterparts. Leave that one to the corporations.

Comments