We spent March rotating through the front and support lines, about five days at a time. Just now we’re in a support trench, a mile or so from the firing line. This morning Wally, Dick and I went out on a pre-dawn carrying party, hauling bags of ammunition to the front line. I came back and had a kip and while I was out to it, mail came in. I awake to the pleasure of a small pile of letters placed neatly on my chest. As I turn them in my hands, one by one, recognising handwriting, savouring the treasure within, Lofty steals my attention.
‘Look here what’s this now fellas?’ he holds up a shining, dinted tin that lost its label somewhere en route to the lines, a wavy line of dry glue the only hint it ever had a name.
‘’bout the size of a tin o’ jam I reckon,’ says Bluey.
‘Maybe it’s peaches. Or pears,’ ventures Blocker. ‘Blocker loves tinned pears. They’re bosker.’
‘Nah I reckon it’s jam,’ says Lofty.
‘Blocker likes the syrup best.’
‘It could be marmalade,’ put in Dick.
‘Nah marmalade comes in jars. Or saucers,’ Lofty carries on.
‘Yeah me old landlady Mrs Jarvis she used to put the marmalade out on the breakfast table in a saucer, a tea saucer like, all posh ‘round our way matey. It never came out o’ no tin, 20 ter one it’s marmalade.’
‘I’ll take those odds,’ chips in Thommo, wearing a wry grin. ‘I’ll take marmalade at 20s. Two bob,’ he says with a wink.
Lofty’s eyes lit up. ‘You’re on! Here, Beano. Where’s that note pad o’ yours lad? You keep the book. Write a chit fer Thommo there, two bob on the bay, Marmalade, at 20 ter one.’
‘Who else’ll have a shy at what’s in me tin then?’ calls out Lofty, holding the cleanskin up for all to see. ‘C’mon punters, get inter the ring ‘n pop it down.‘
‘I’ll have a lash Lofty,’ says Bluey with a smile, ‘what odds can I get on Strawberry?’
‘Well now Strawberry’s the fav’rite ter take the Cup mate, been in great form lately ‘n this track suits her. We can’t do better ‘n 4 ter one on Strawberry.’
‘Righto mate a tanner on the fav’rite,’ says Bluey turning to Beano who is scribbling out his chit.
‘C’mon you coves, come ‘n have a sling over here,’ encourages Teddy. ‘I’ll take the fav’rite too Lofty,’ he says. ‘Put me down fer half a crown on Strawberry, as fine a filly as we’ve seen ‘round here.’
‘Half a crown! Strewth if Strawberry comes home I’ll be cleaned out. Last time I lay odds fer you mob,’ says Lofty, passing a muddy hand over his brow.
‘I’ll put a bit on fellas,’ says Dick. ‘I’m partial to Plum jam Lofty. What odds will you give me for Plum?’
‘Plum has some form in the mud ‘n as yer can see there’s bags o’ that about today Dick, Plum’s backin’ into 6 ter one ‘n we reckon he’ll push Strawberry all the way here at the track this arv. He’s a goer mate.’
‘Rhubarb Lofty! I fancy Rhubarb,’ Wally interrupts, ‘will you gimme 20 ter one?’
‘They’re fair odds Wally, Rhubarb hasn’t had much of a run lately so 20 it is for Rhubarb to take the Cup. ‘n 30 ter one fer ole Gooseberry!’
‘I’ll take Gooseberry at that price,’ says Sparky, wrapping up his rifle. ‘Count me in fer two bits.’
Beano is working hard to keep up, keeping the book with his notepad and pencil and handing out a chit for each bet laid.
‘’n I hate plum jam, that must make it a dead cert, put me down fer a bob on Plum, Beano.’
‘I’ll back Strawberry,’ comes the commanding voice of Sergeant Burns. ‘On the nose.’
These last three words are directed straight at Lofty and bring a hush to proceedings. None of us noticed the Sergeant looming but we knew he and Lofty had their fair issue of run-ins.
‘Strawberry’s backed in Sergeant,’ interjects Lofty, spotting a big loss heading his way, as well as an opportunity to get one over on the Sergeant. ‘There’s been a plunge on flamin’ Strawberry, beggin’ yer pardon Sergeant, ‘n she’s back ter even money.’
‘All right then, I’ll put three bob on Rhubarb thank you Private Dale,’ says the Sergeant, hiding a smile. Meanwhile Beano is scribbling away, darting glances over his glasses at the Sergeant, perhaps hoping he won’t get put on report for using his runners pad to scribe Loftys’ tote.
‘C’mon Blocker,’ says Lofty spotting Blocker sitting pensively. ‘Not like you ter be so quiet, what’d y’like?’
‘Pears Lofty, not jam. Blocker likes pears and syrup.’
‘Aw geez Blocker! Pear’s the rank outsider, yer’ll lose yer brass there matey. Tell yer what we’ll go a cricket score fer Pear, how’s 100 ter one?’
‘100 to one!’ Blocker sits up brightly in his dugout. ‘Blocker likes the sound of that Lofty. A thr’penny bit please. But I ought to warn you, Blocker can pick them you know.’
‘Block I consider myself forewarned, ‘n forearmed. Write him a chit Beano.’
‘Young Jack, yer gonna have a plunge?’ Lofty turns to me.
‘Raspberry’s me fav’rite jam,’ I say. ‘Nothin’ sweeter than raspberry jam on bread for supper I reckon. I’ll put two bob on Raspberry if you don’t mind.’
‘Half-brother ter Strawberry, Raspberry’s 10 ter one Jack, lay o’ the day.’
‘That’ll do me,’ I say, happy with Lofty’s odds.
‘Righto boys, last bets. They’re linin’ up fer the Derby,’ announces Lofty as Beano frantically completes the last few chits.
‘They’re lookin’ settled in the starter’s hands, though Marmalade’s showin’ some spirit, while Gooseberry’s all of a lather,’ continues Lofty in his best race calling voice. ‘The track is dead,’ Lofty toes the muddy trench floor. ‘One fer the mudlarks today.’
‘Where’s Cookie?’ mutters Beano, ‘fetch Cookie we need his blasted tin opener!’
Cookie is soon fetched, tin opener in hand. A nod from Beano and, ‘arright no more bets the book’s closed,’ declares Lofty.
We cluster tight around Lofty who perches himself on an upended ammunition box, holding the shining silver tin on his left knee, while in his right hand the tin opener is poised. He looks up at us with smiling eyes.
‘Set,’ he winks, and drives home the sharp point, to pierce the lid of the tin.
‘They’re off!’ he shouts.
A barrage of cheers breaks out with each of us calling our jammy horse on.
‘Look out here comes Rhubarb at 20 ter one!’
‘Get a move on Pear! Get amongst them,’ shouts Blocker, over all.
Lofty works the tin opener frantically and in his excitement the tin slips, the lid only a quarter sliced open, and falls at his feet.
The cheering stops and a hush falls as if a horse has stumbled and thrown its jockey. Lofty picks it up, and tilts it level again. ‘No syrup Block, reckon Pear’s got left at the post matey,’ he grimaces.
Blocker hangs his head in dismay.
‘Don’t worry Blocker I had a saver on Plum,’ mutters Teddy, ‘you can cheer Plum on fer me.’
‘C’mon Plum you old bastard,’ roars Blocker, and the others take up his cries.
‘Garn Gooseberry, at 30 ter one yer growin’ wings!’
As we roar our imaginary field on, Lofty edges the tin opener further round, booming out his commentary as he goes ‘…into the back straight they’re in a bunch, wi’ Rhubarb on the rails ‘n Gooseberry trailing the field.’
As he gets close to completing his circle, the lid dips in and just as quickly springs back, scooping up with it a sliver of jam. The cheering stops and everyone peers closer.
‘It’s red!’ sings out Lofty. ‘Red. Bejesus’, his shoulders slumping at his losses if the favourite Strawberry got up. ‘Well,’ he says, quickly recovering, ‘they’ve hit the straight ‘n ole Marmalade’s turned into a hairy goat, he’s runnin’ stone motherless,’ he says to laughter all round. ‘Who had Marmalade?’
‘Oh that’s no rotten good,’ confesses Thommo, tearing up his chit and throwing it into the mud and then smiling despite himself as he is jostled and gee’d up by those nearest.
‘They’re barrellin’ up the straight now, Strawberry with her nose in front,’ says Lofty, working the tin opener rapidly around the last of the lid.
‘Bring it home Plum!’ roars Blocker.
‘Get the whip out!’
And then Lofty is done and with great ceremony he lifts the lid, to reveal the sweet, glossy, rich red jam.
‘Strawberry, Plum and Raspberry’ve crossed the line together,’ he looks at our peering faces. ‘There’s nothin’ in it,’ he confides. ‘We’ll have ter call on the stewards ter split ‘em. Cookie? Where’s Cookie got to? Yer chief steward mate, step up ‘n tell us who’s got their nose in front at the line.’
Cookie is jostled to the centre, takes one stride forward and dips a finger into the tin of jam. With due ceremony he holds it up and we gaze at it, entranced.
‘C’mon Raspberry, home on the bit,’ I mutter, biting my lip.
Cookie puts the jammy finger in his mouth and closes his eyes.
All around him is silent, waiting on his call.
He smiles the faintest of smiles and licks his lips.
‘C’mon blast it Cookie, who’s won the Cup!’ yells Blocker.
Cookie opens his eyes wide, ‘Raspberry’s won the Cup!’ he gets out before he’s mobbed and the air is split with whoops, winners and losers alike delighting that Raspberry got home.
‘Good on you old Raspberry!’ I yell, jumping to my feet and accepting the tin from Lofty’s outstretched hand. ‘C’mon ‘n break out the biscuits, Raspberry jam for all,’ I say, with a smile as wide as if I’d picked the winner on a sunny afternoon in a lush green paddock at Randwick.