9 GONE TO THE DOGS.
When I was about fifteen, I started a part time job at the Crayford stadium, as part of the track staff. Originally Cliff's eldest brother Clive worked there, and he got Colin, the middle brother in when someone else left. When Clive left to join the police, Cliff filled his shoes. So now they had run out of brothers and a vacancy had arisen, so being Cliff's best mate he got me in.
Even though Cliff and I had been best friends since we were six, after the shoplifting incident, while some of us had got caught, he had been confined to the house. Because his father was in the police force he didn't want any of his boys mixing with the criminal elements of the street, even though unbeknown to his father Cliff was considered one of the best shoplifters around. So he was banned from mixing with the riff raff from the street and as nobody had explained any of this to us we all thought that he was just ignoring everybody. He probably thought that he was to good for us, now that he was at the catholic school and we were at Crayford secondary. So something that would have blown over by the end of the summer holidays if the so called adults had bothered talking to us, had escalated into a full blown cold war, that would last for the next two years.
At first this was awful, he was my best mate, what could I have possibly done to have caused this. He never came out into the street if any of us were there, and he would leave the moment I walked outside. I took this, being snubbed quite badly. All the others, even though we all hung round in a big group had their best friends, but my oppo was gone, and that hurt. As the months drifted by I put it to the back of my mind. I do remember how strangely put out I felt when Crayford secondary played St Columbus at football. We both played for our school teams so he should have been there, but he wasn't, there was no sign of him. How dare he. I don't know what I thought would have happened, most likely we would of just ignored each other as usual, but nevertheless, he was supposed to be there and he wasn't, and I was oddly put out by this.
So, the months slipped into years, I had more or less given up on us ever being friends again. Until one Sunday afternoon, when half the street were in Bakers field, playing cricket, over he came, he could get into the field from his back garden. His head popped up from the long grass that formed the bank, that separated the field from the gardens, and over he came, as if nothing had happened, the last two years hadn't existed.
Neither of us spoke that day about what had happened or what had been so special about this particular Sunday. Why, after all this time we were back in favour. No, we just played cricket and took the piss out of everyone else, just like the old days. Many years later I found out that the crowd he had got in with at school had lead him astray in far worse ways than any of us ever could. After running away with a boy from school, who sexually assaulted him, his father had allowed him to come back to us, the better of two evils, I suppose he thought.
So on a Saturday morning it became my job along with Cliff and his brother Colin to clear the speedway track, and the centre fountains of all the debris that was left from banger racing on the Friday night. The speedway circuit and the two fountains formed a figure of eight that we had to, as meticulously as possible, walk round like the police do when they're searching for evidence walking together side by side. We had to pick up any nuts and bolts and all the tiny bits of chewed up metal. The little bits that were always missed by the banger racing clean up squad, who just picked up the the big pieces of scrap that fell off the bent up old cars from the previous nights meeting.
It was like forensic work, every last minuscule pin had to be retrieved from this metaphoric hay stack, the safety of the speedway riders being paramount. That was the easy bit after the pick up was completed to Colin's satisfaction, he was our self appointed boss as he'd been there longest and took his work very seriously. Unlike Cliff and I who would wander round chatting and smoking Bensons one after the other.
Then we had to sweep the muck and dirt from the fountains and red concrete that formed the inner part of the track. I should point out that the fountains were emptied and dried before bangers started. They didn't have to drive through great clouds of water spray. Actually it might of been more exciting had it been like that.
Now on the face of it this seemed like a nice little job to while away a few hours on a Saturday morning, but oh no!. Standing in the dust filled bowl, that was not so long ago awash with clean blue water, looking over to the empty stands we were totally dwarfed by the scale of the job. They were like two giant eyes the size of football pitches, waiting to be freed from the grit that covered them and it was our job to free them. We used brooms that were about three feet wide and used anywhere else would have looked abnormally large, but out in the centre of the stadium it was like trying to clean your carpets with a tooth brush. The first time I did it my hands were covered in blisters and my back ached like it had never ached before. But I did it with out moaning, couldn't be seen to be weak. Anyway I was used to a bit of pain, at least some body was paying me for this, but like most things you soon get used to it.
The part of that Saturday morning I liked least wasn't the fountain clean up, no, it was break time. I know what your thinking, break time? break time's only beaten by home time, I know. But for me it was the first time in my life I'd experienced bullying outside of the house and to be honest I never thought of my father as bullying anyway. he didn't do what he did for fun, no, he was forced to be that way to try and crush my constant bad behaviour. That was his excuse anyway.
I've just had a thought, some of you may not know what banger racing and speedway racing are, and I've told you this is a story about the dogs. We'll get to that a bit later. So, where was I. Bangers are just as they sound, old cars that just before they go off to the scrap man to get crushed are stripped of everything, windows, doors, lights, seats. They are then painted in garish colours and sent out on to the track to be smashed up by their fellow competitors. The last car still moving being the winner. I never got that one really quite pointless.
Speedway on the other hand is a much more refined sport. It involves motor cycles racing in groups of six for three laps of the outer dirt track at high speed. A competition between two or three teams scoring points for a win takes place. Now to me this was much more exciting, it was a proper sport.
At about half past ten everybody stopped what they were doing and headed for the tea hut. The tea hut as it was known was just a big shed with a kettle some benches and a dart board. When we arrive the full time track staff would usually already be inside eating breakfast or playing darts.
There was Pete Bussy the ground staff manager and two full time staff, Charley and Paul. They were both about eighteen or nineteen, must of done well at school to have secured two such prestigious jobs, shovelling dog shit for a living. For whatever reason I don't know, except that I was the new boy and quite shy I suppose. I'd walk in with Cliff and Colin and it would be.
"All right Cliff, who's your new girl friend then?"
Cliff would reply, "his name's Nick."
"Come and sit down next to us Nicky boy," they would say in faux camp voices.
At first I just tried to ignore them, but they persisted.
"Come and sit down here," they said, slightly more aggressively.
I was on my own now, no one was coming to rescue me. So reluctantly I sat down between the two of them while they continued to embarrass me. They would ask me personal questions about my sex life and sexual preferences, while all the time rubbing my leg or hugging me. These actions by them were never in reality meant to be sexual and they were never violent. They were passed off as harmless fun, "a bit of banter." But the fact was that they were designed to cause me as much humiliation as possible while giving their humdrum little lives a bit of a lift. Anyway I was fifteen and didn't have a sex life, which they probably knew, but still revelled in my embarrassment. I think that in hindsight, if I'd stood up to them on that first morning they wouldn't have bothered with me any more. But unfortunately I didn't so they did.
After a month of Saturday mornings one of the evening track hands left and Pete Bussy had asked me if I wanted the job. Cliff and Colin already worked the dog meetings and I would be working with them. so even though I knew I'd probably have to put up with the two bullies I said yes.
The job entailed raking one of the bends of the track. There were four of us and each person started at about ten yards into the straight and worked backwards round the bend until they got to the centre point of the curve. When the dogs ran on the soft pete track their feet would create massive holes, so it was important to get them smoothed over before the next lot went hurtling round.
In those days a meeting only consisted of seven races at half hour intervals. So after each race we had approximately twenty minutes to get the bend raked before the start of the next one. Nowadays there are thirteen races and a tractor does it in about two minutes flat, that's progress I suppose.
Colin was his usual meticulous self and always took the full twenty minutes, taking care to cover every last inch of ground. The other guy, Gerry I think his name was, was just as slow. In contrast Cliff and I would race each other to see who could get back into the hut first.
The hut was just like the tea shed except Charlie and Paul my Saturday tormentors rarely went in there. Their job entailed loading the dogs into the traps and setting the hare, this kept them at the other end of the stadium most of the time. I used to get a bit of stick pre-meeting in the changing room next to the press box. Every body used to ware a white coat the ones like doctors or butchers ware, so we all had to go up there to get changed. I couldn't avoid this, but I would get in and out as quickly as I could.
The great attraction of the hut for Cliff and me was that not only was it not frequented by any low life's, but also the kennel maids used to sit in there between races if they didn't have a dog running. They were all attractive young ladies who seemed much more exotic than the lot from school. I suppose most of them would have been a least a couple of years older than us as they were in full time employment. The girls were all very friendly with us and they had all experienced Paul and Charlie's sexist humour. They all in turn had to meet them by the traps before each race and listen to the non-stop drivel about whether it would be them or the dog that was going to be loaded into the trap, and stuff of a similar vein. Yes hilarious I know.
On this particular evening Cliff and I were in the hut listening to two of the girls Sarah and Lou going on about what horrible bastards those two were, and how they made all the girls lives miserable. On hearing this Cliff piped up about how they were mercilessly teasing me. Personally I had always fought my own battles, I learnt from an early age that it was futile to go moaning about anything to any one, because I usually came off worse. Their reaction was only marginal less embarrassing than being sat between Charlie and Paul, except it was meant to make me fell better.
The pair of them came and sat on my lap and were hugging me and kissing my bright red cheeks, and telling me not to take any notice. I tried to stay cool and after what seemed like an age they slide from my lap back to the wooden bench, but remained tightly clasping my hands one on either side. The moment was only broken when Cliff got out the cigarettes and offered them round.
For some reason Charlie was up by the trip. This was twenty yards past the finish line and where the hare that the dogs chased on the wire loop that encircled the track was ejected. It was supposed to come flying off when triggered. This is what brought the speeding dogs to an instant halt.
The hare which in reality was nothing like a hare. It was more like a big stuffed sausage that was slid over a spring loaded steel arm. In turn this was attached to the travelling wire. It had failed to work properly and resulted in four of the dogs doing two or three extra laps before they ran out of steam and gave them selves up.
Anyway Charlie had sorted out the problem and had decided to pay us all a visit in the hut. By the time he had finished his work, there were about six kennel maids and Cliff, Colin, Gerry and I all crammed in the hut. When in he walked, full of bravado. Him and Paul thought they owned the place. He came over to me sat himself on my lap thinking it would get a laugh. He had forgotten that his sidekick wasn't there, no he was alone and a second after sitting down he realised his mistake, but was trapped. He couldn't back off because he'd started.
So one by one they turned on him.
"What are you doing sitting on his knee? You must really like him," Lou said.
" What do you mean?" He replied.
She didn't answer his question, she was so enraged, her pretty face contorted.
"Get off him you fucker, you and your arse of a mate are a pair of fucked up bullies, leave him alone, go on you prick, get off him."
It suddenly became a free for all with all the girls joining in the chorus of abuse.
Now, when all this was going on Charlie had become riveted to my knee. So with my new found backup I decided to get brave. From my sitting position I placed my arm under his bent knees and stood up, his arm instinctively wrapped itself around my neck so that he wouldn't fall to the floor. I stood up and carrying him like you would carry a five year old up to bed maybe, I walked to the door and threw him to the ground. I didn't go back into the hut because I thought that once he had picked himself up he would be wanting to fight me. With hindsight I realise that he would never have hit me because it was never about that. It was about feeling in control of something, anything. Controlling how other people feel, from fine to embarrassed from just OK to humiliated from happy to sad. It was a little piece of control, it helped them get through their pathetic lives. But to hit me, no, they would have been instantly sacked and it might have been a crap job but at least it was a job. Also by fifteen I was six foot four and Charlie wasn't. He had confided in Cliff months later that he had been quite shocked at how strong I was and how easily I had picked him up and discarded him like so much nothing.
After this incident I had gained slightly in confidence and even though they carried on trying to bully me I had realised that if you want to be a victim you can, but it's a state of mind. If you don't give them permission to get inside your head, then they have no other way in. There's always someone else for them to pick on.
I stayed at the dog track until I left school. I was the last one out of our little lot to move on. Colin, like his brother left to join the police and Cliff left school when he was barely sixteen. Charlie and Paul were long gone too.
The last time I went to the track was on my eighteenth birthday. I was well into my butchery apprenticeship with the co-op by then and Cliff had a series of dead end jobs. I think his first job was washing up in a works canteen in North fleet. By now we were both fast becoming hardened drinkers.
Being in the meat trade I always worked on Saturday but Cliff had his weekends free. He was a bit pissed when we met up in the pub that evening. That was at six O clock as soon as it had opened for the evening session. God knows where he'd been till then cos the pubs used to close at half past two after lunch and he was drunk three and a half hours later.
So we had been in the Bell, our local for about an hour and were getting itchy feet. We'd been reminiscing about the old days, the good old days when we worked at the track. God! we must have sounded like a couple of old men talking about donkeys years ago, but I suppose when you're young a year or so seems like a life time.
Anyway we decided to pay them all a visit. I should of known this wouldn't of been a good idea considering the state Cliff was already in. He was a law unto him self at the best of times, but when he was drunk he was a complete nightmare, but what did I know.!
After a long staggering walk weaving our way down the hill past the shops we made it to the turn-stiles. We had no intention of paying to get in, so we went to the staff entrance. This was a door at the end of the row of pay booths, that when you opened it there was yet another turn-stile, but this one was activated by the clocking in cards. So we picked two random cards and clocked our selves in.
The place was absolutely packed to the rafters. I knew he would never make it through the bar area without causing a major upset of some sort, bashing into people knocking drinks over, you know the sort of thing. So I told him to go through the stands to the other end, (less people holding pints of beer for him to bump into that way) and I would go and get the drinks and meet him at the hut. So off I went.
It took me about fifteen minutes to get us a couple of pints of lager and gingerly push my way through the crowded bar without spilling it all. Eventually I arrived at the doors at the far end, but as I passed through them I couldn't believe my eyes. It was cliff, he had somehow already got hold of a drink and was drunkenly staggering towards me, pint in one hand roll-up in the other lurching from side to side.
Now that wasn't so unusual, he did that a lot, except the reason I could see him so clearly through the sea of eager punters was that this time he was walking down the middle of the dog track itself. He had somehow managed to get from the stand over the fence and on to the track carrying a pint of stolen lager without being stopped. He appeared oblivious to the hundreds of angry people who were all shouting and jeering at him as he was holding up the start of the next race. He just made it to the finish line when two men in white coats that I didn't recognise, it had all changed by then, came and escorted him off the track and straight out of the stadium via the back gates and into the car park outside.
As quick as I could I drank down the two pints, well I wasn't going to waste them now was I and followed them through the kennels and out the back way. I found him sitting in a parking space half asleep still with his bent up roll-up in his mouth. We never did get to meet up with any of our old friends from the track that night, but from what I did see I suspect that none of them were there any more anyway. People never stay long in those types of jobs. kennel maids and track hands were coming and going all the time. A few years after that they pulled down the old stadium to make way for a supermarket and built a new soulless little track at the other end of the car park. Quite sad really.