‘It’s not just a horse race …’!

by Maisie Bowie

(The author, her husbaand and small children were emigrating from Britain to  Australia at the end of World War II)

We went ashore in Melbourne to give the kids a bit of frreedom and buy a few things for the rest of the journey to Sydney. As we walked along the main street we could not understand why everyone was standing around in the middle of the afternoon listening to loudspeakers.

We came to a Woolworths store and walked in. All the shop assisstants were huddled in a corner listening to a radio. "Excuse me," I said, tapping one assisstant on the shoulder. "Shush!" was her reply. A few minutes later I tried again. "I'll be with you after the race is over!" she snapped, looking at me as if I'd just dropped down from Mars. There I stood. Yes, I thought, this is a Woolworths store. Then the penny dropped. The 'race' must be what all those other people were listening to. All we could do was wait and meander around the store. What a haven for shoplifters, I thought.

The voices on the radio were going firty-to-the-dozen. Then the radio voice stopped and all hell broke loose in the store. "Hooray! I backed it!" …. "You bloody beauty!" …"Ah geez, I was gonna have an each way on it but I didn't!"

At last the radio was switched off and the shop assisstants got back behind their counters, some with jubilant expressions, others looking as if they'd lost the shirt off their back – maybe they had. Then we received instructions on the importance of the Melbourne Cup.

I looked at the girl behind the counter and said "Good God – do you really mean to tell me that we've had to wait all this time so all of you could listen to a horse-race?" I often cast my mind back to that day. There we were, far from war-torn Britain,asking ourselves what sort of country this was where everything seemed to stopfor a horse-race – oh, pardon me, not a horse-race – The Melbburne Cup!

There's a follow-up to this story. On the first Tuesday in November 1961 I was in the labour ward of the local maternity hospital awaiting the birth of my third child. The midwife was a friend of mine, but that didn't make any difference. "Now Maisie," she said "we're just going out to listen to The Race. You'll be all right for fifteen minutes." When I protested that there were more important things happening right here in this room she replied "Come on, The Melboourne Cup only happens once a year! We'll be back before you miss us."

I eventually produced a healthy daughter, but when one of the nurses exclaimed" Oh Maisie, you should call her Melba!" I gave her a long, hard look. Nothing more was said.