The secret-sifter

Something else I remember that’s gone now is bets scrawled by hand by bookmaker’s clerks. Their elaborate crayon swirls held everything a bookie needed to know; the race, the horse, the type of bet, the odds and the amount wagered. They were like coded messages. Secrets.

My family weren’t racing people. Instead I’d head across town during winter to watch football matches with my grandfather. On the way home my tram stopped outside the track.


The lining of his dirty gabardine coat bulges full of discarded hopes. I’m mesmerised. Though I’m just a boy I can tell this man’s connection to the world the other passengers share has withered until it’s barely a thread. He ignores everyone including the conductor. Everyone ignores him. In the bubble of his pungent self-possession he spreads across the space that spreads around him. Then the tickets emerge in clumps from the depths of his coat. He processes them like a machine. In his crumpled head he might retain little of his past. But he remembers every result from every race at the track today. Tote tickets and bookie stubs fall around him like dirty snow. The conductor scowls, but maintains his distance. No one watches but me. He sees me staring his way. His grin, toothless and vacant, is fleeting. He pulls another clump of tickets from his coat, lingering on one that looks as if it’s been picked from the mud. He holds it to the light, smiles, then pushes it into the side of his shoe. I figure he deserves it. All that work collecting and sifting.

It never occurs to me that this might be a show of victory for my sake alone. But just a show nevertheless. Even a secret-sifter, I realise now, might feel the need to prove the worth of what he does.

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