TAB time

The spindly gait of Les, skinny, leathery Les, takes him down Pakington St to his local TAB. Les has coat-hanger shoulders, dark Brylcreemed hair, and teeth stained from 50 years of tobacco.

“G’d morning’ Ron,” he says, greeting the manager. Les looks up to the boards, checking the columns of numbers and names.

Dad staples up the last of the sheets, the heel of his right hand smacking the stapler. He chats with Les in between the emphatic punching of staples. Punctuation marks.

The cigarette ash, the torn tickets, the scraps of paper – all the dregs of Saturday – have been swept away by the cleaners. The carpet has its colour back again and the tiles are shining. It’s the start of another week in a small-time TAB and the hours are going to take their time.

Time is everything in the running of a TAB and, accordingly, it is marked out everywhere: on the bets belched and burped out by the ticket machines, on the messages hummed in from head office on the telex, on the various screens, on the clocks, on the radio.

The radio has always been an integral fixture of a TAB. Though much information is now provided on paper and screens, the radio has the feel of familiarity, plus a sense of urgency, as a teary-eyed pop song is cut short for the latest update from Flemington, Randwick, Echuca, wherever. The screens and the sheets up on the boards convey information but a radio conveys surprise, anxiety, the tension of uncertainty.

On quiet days the radio prattles away, crackling into the empty spaces, keeping not just the customer, but the manager satisfied.

Dad has a stack of novels on the back bench, beside the old jug and the sticky coffee tin. He ploughs through the books, devouring stories of espionage and intrigue in between attending to the punters. When he tires of that world he looks out on to his terrain.

There, out the window, is the passing parade of Pakington St, Geelong West. Pako. Dad’s view is of a small car park, Fagg’s hardware store and Harry Hooper’s local supermarket. A wall is adorned with a naturalistic mural: the locals immortalised. Sometimes there is a tin-shed cakestall in the car park. Lamingtons for charity. Cabbies wait for a fare, one ear on the radio. The races, maybe.

Pako is pubs and pensioners and olive-skinned grandmothers in black clothes waiting at the town hall bus stop. Pako has side streets with names like Clarence and Albert and Hope, side streets that run up to the Pix Theatre and Sparrow Park. Or down to the railyards and the huge pedestrian overpass. Pako.

Dad’s immediate neighbours are a gravel car park, a hairdresser and a clothes store called Paradise. Also, many TABs just happen to be near a pub. In this case it’s the St George, just over the road. The two establishments are linked, are blessed, by a pedestrian crossing.

It’s lunchtime but Dad cannot leave his TAB. Often someone from the pub brings over a counter meal. Or one of the punters – leathery Les, Snowy George, Smoking Joe – will do the lunch errand and bring Dad a salad sandwich.

The gamblers drift in from their shops, their building sites, their kitchens. Young men in shorts or tracksuits. Women in grey slacks and red cardigans. Tired wharfies in overalls, executives in suits. It’s a steady clientele.

Steadily dying, maybe. One regular crossed the finishing post a few months back. Just dropped down outside the fish and chip shop, the rattle of death accompanied by the clatter of false teeth on the footpath.

Lunch over, the afternoon whiles away. The advance of technology has made work, has made life, easier and harder. Easier, because everything is done at the touch of a few keys. Harder, because after that there’s no much left to do.

Once upon a time betting tickets were hurriedly written in triplicate and then collated into a network of pigeon holes. The shelves, the corners and the cupboards of a TAB were stacked with boxes of ticket pads, pens, carbon paper, staples, ink pads, and rubber stamps. Now there is the hushed tidiness of technology.

Around five, just after the last of the day’s races, the shops start closing. A teenager from Harry Hooper’s herds the stray shopping trolleys. The car park empties. Tired pedestrians wait at the corner of Pako and Hope for taxis. Buses pull up for the nonnas and the mamas and their string bags of groceries.

Snowy George, with the protuberant paunch and the roly-poly walk, strolls homeward, up near Sparrow Park. Smoking Joe is over at the pub, swapping losers’ stories with the winners. Or vice versa. People stray in an out of the TAB: it doesn’t close for an hour or so yet. Still time to bet on the Wangaratta greyhounds or the Nyah trots.

Les, spindly Les, rolls a smoke in his brown palm. Dad is checking the last-race details from the telex: placings and dividends whispered onto the endless paper in a succession of dots and pauses.

There is talk talk talk on the radio. My father opens a book, switches on the gurgling jug.

The street’s almost empty. The day’s almost over.

This story was first published many years ago in The Herald.

About Vin Maskell

Founder and editor of Stereo Stories, a partner site of The Footy Almanac. Likes a gentle kick of the footy on a Sunday morning, when his back's not playing up. Been known to take a more than keen interest in scoreboards - the older the better.


  1. Enjoyed the story Vin… a slice of time preserved… and I’ll have $2 each way on Race 9, No 7 at Belmont Park ;)

  2. Great story ! Brings back memories of the mid-1960s when my best mate’s uncle ran an agency in the northern suburbs and Alan and I used to “work” there for a couple of hours each Saturday afternoon – being under 21, we couldn’t legally be employed (or in fact even enter the agency) – it was just the menial stuff sweeping up, clearing ash trays, sharpening pencils, etc’. Given we couldn’t “work”, the “wages” were ten bob each way on the last race and a couple of daily doubles!

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