(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 28, January 2020)
The reason maggot-racing was so exciting was because maggots have absolutely no sense of direction. Your maggot might be wiggling along strongly – well clear of the rest of the field, with a nice, clean, economical action, and plenty of fuel left in the tank – when, suddenly and inexplicably, s/he executes a 180-degree turn. And that was your chance of scooping the jackpot blown for another week.
The maggot-racing during the Thursday morning tea-breaks was the only good reason for working at King’s Wholesale Grocery. The wages were crap. The work was tough: no stacker trucks, no lifts. And there were just seven workers being ordered about by three (yes, three) bosses. There was old Mr King himself, gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable (or just plain terrifying), and his two grotesque sons – ‘Mr Geoff’ and ‘Mr Adrian.’ And that’s not counting Briggsy, the slippery and snide under-manager. Strangely, it was the maggot-racing that proved to be Briggsy’s nemesis.
Back then, in the Sixties, King’s was the only place in town that still smoked its own bacon – a product much loved, especially by the older generation. Our butcher, would prepare a side of bacon for the smokehouse on Thursday morning. The first step in his preparations was always that of laying-out the side of bacon on a sturdy wooden table and thumping it up and down its whole length with a heavy wooden mallet. The blows of the mallet would propel the maggots out of the meat as if they were jumping beans. And the dispirited workforce would be transformed into happy punters as they gathered round to select their potential champion maggots.
Each of us would contribute a sixpence to the pot, and the competing maggots would then be placed in the centre of a four-foot-wide chalk circle, drawn on the cement floor of King’s backyard, where we were accustomed to drink our mugs of tea and smoke our fags. The owner of the first wayward maggot to wiggle out of the circle would scoop the pool and have the bragging rights til the next Thursday.
My fellow-workers were a kindly crew: Roger, the butcher; Taffy, the van driver, for the afternoon deliveries; Ian, the gentle strongman ex-borstal boy, who was the foreman; Weird Willie; and Tank Thompson. The exception, of course, was under-manager Briggsy (Taffy: ‘That Briggsy’s from Planet Zog. He’s probably got completely different genitalia’). Briggsy wore a white ‘slop’, in contrast to our mucky brown slops, and – as conscious of his status as any army corporal – waged a constant verbal battle to assert his social, moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of us.
For example, if the conversation turned to the fortunes of the town’s football team (then in its glory years), he would interrupt with a report on his own favourite sport of ten-pin bowling: ‘You’re not right in the head, you lot. Fancy shelling out good money to stand on the terraces in the rain, when you can spend a whole evening in the warm, bowling.’ If we sought to question the wisdom of human-chaining the hefty boxes of firelighters all the way to the warehouse’s top-storey, Briggsy would allude mysteriously to a new storage plan allegedly being hatched by Mr Geoff in the front office: ‘You lot, you’ve no more understanding of economics than my granny. Mr Geoff wants ‘em all upstairs for a reason.’
Nevertheless, Briggsy could never quite conceal his enthusiasm for the maggot-racing: he was just as enthralled by circuses as the rest of us slaves. On the day that was the start of the trouble, Briggsy was particularly wound up because he was going for a hat-trick, having owned the winning maggot on each of the previous two Thursdays. He’d already upset Weird Willie (not weird at all, just a bit out-of-step) by reminding us all of Willie’s previous misguided attempt to nurture a champion maggot, taking it home from work in a matchbox. You could sense the tension in the yard, as we all waited for Roger, the starter, to give the word to release our maggots into the circle.
Briggsy’s maggot had a definite early lead and was making brisk progress when, as so often happened, the maggot veered abruptly away from the circle’s edge and finish line. Taffy’s maggot then put on strong spurt to come in just ahead of Tank’s maggot, who seemed to be finding the going heavy. Briggsy, however, was furious, claiming foul play because Willie had been leaping excitedly about on the edge of the circle, shouting encouragement to his own maggot (named by him, as always, as ‘Curly’). Briggsy argued that his maggot had been put off by Willie’s antics (‘Fatally distracted. Totally irresponsible behaviour.’).
Briggsy wouldn’t let the matter rest and Willie was getting visibly upset. To calm and distract, Tank suggested holding a Stewards’ Enquiry. Tank’s dad and uncle regularly went to Uttoxeter Races, so we wrongly assumed that he knew how the Enquiry should be conducted. Tank appointed himself Chief Steward, with Roger as his Deputy and Clerk of the Course.
Tank and Roger set up their Enquiry on a couple of packing cases in the corner of the yard, with Tank wearing a broken mop as a wig. They called for witnesses to appear individually. Briggsy affected to regard the proceedings as tiresome and took the hump when Tank asked him to demonstrate for the Enquiry the alleged threatening nature of Willie’s hopping movements. But what really got Briggsy’s goat was Taffy’s evidence, where he expressed the view (silently held by the rest of us) that Briggsy habitually released his maggots off-centre, giving them all a potential head start. Briggsy (tall and thin) and Taffy (short and fat) were squaring up to each other and who knows what would have happened next, if Ian the foreman hadn’t then waved his watch and declared the tea-break over.
Briggsy stalked off with a face like raw bacon. Shortly afterwards, he was seen, panoplied in self-belief, entering Mr Geoff’s office (it was best to enter Mr Geoff’s office in the mornings, as he got pissed in the afternoons; it was best not to enter Mr Adrian’s office at all). Nothing more was said, but Briggsy didn’t join us in the yard for his tea-break that afternoon, or on the following days.
On the following Wednesday, I wondered out loud whether there would be the usual Thursday morning maggot-racing. Tank caught Ian’s eye and Ian nodded: everything would proceed as usual. Tank then changed the subject, asking me when I’d be starting back at college.
The arrival of the sugar lorry, first thing on Thursday, kept us busy: we’d only just finished unloading it when Ian called break-time. We trooped into the yard to gather our preferred maggots. Briggsy was once again absent, but Tank had brought a guest competitor into the yard. A few minutes later, we were all happily bent or squatting around the circle, shouting encouragement at the maggots and insults at the other owners.
Three men then burst abruptly into the yard – Briggsy, Mr Geoff and Mr Adrian. They looked like they meant business. A stocky figure in a suit then straightened up on the far side of the maggot circle. Old Mr King – still gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable – waved enthusiastically to the new arrivals:
‘Hello boys. Come to join the racing?’