Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Improbable Win for Walsh’s Women by Steve Goodlad

 I love this picture. The context is so much more than the scene it depicts; the day we were all made redundant. You wouldn’t think that, looking at our faces. We might look happy, that’s because we were, but grimly determined to be happy, and that moment is where it all changed, where we stopped pretending, stopped covering up our loss, flipping gloom on its head and taking on our future; all for one and one for all as an equally dashing troupe once said.

Had the story finished that day, as we thought it would, as the day had been planned for, we would each have left York Races for our individual destinations, each of us the centre of the world around whom others revolve and events assemble. A group of worlds in one picture, touching and soon to become mutually oblivious to each other. So much would have been lost, skated over, ignored. We would have looked upon that photograph with reminiscence every now and then, maybe someone would suggest a reunion in a year or ten that would never happen. So much would have been lost to mundane singularity, jobs elsewhere perhaps; stacking shelves in a supermarket or warehouse. Good jobs on our own, but together we were greater than our sum total. 

We were Walsh’s Women. Seamstresses making dowdy catalogue fashion that middle aged women wore to make themselves look like their Grandma. At least that’s how it seemed in the last few years. Somebody must have been ordering the stuff, but the quantities got smaller and the range from dull to dreary in all sizes. None of us were management but Jean was in accounts and on Friday evenings when we always called at The Crown on the way home for a glass of wine, she spilled the beans about the state of affairs and said the writing was on the wall for Walsh’s.

That’s when we first mooted the idea of a day out. Somewhere different, in our glad rags for one last hurrah and then someone mentioned ladies day at York Races and before we knew it, we were booked.

Walsh’s was an institution in our town, a big employer in its day. If you got a job there after school you could say you had a job for life. When we first used to meet up, it was in the canteen at lunchtime where we got a hot meal at subsidised prices. As the number of machines began to dwindle, the canteen got closed, three floors became two, then one and lunchtimes we spent either outside or in the café across the street.

Each of us made our own outfit for our last day. We pooled twenty quid each into a float and took turns at each race to choose a winner. We decided that if we broke even by the last race, we’d done well. If we lost it all, then what the hell. None of us had a clue about horse racing or the betting odds. We chose horses on names we fancied, so when Borodin’s Bum won on the first race with a decent stake we were already off to a flyer.

By the last race we were just above the amount we’d started with. We had plundered the kitty for a couple of bottles of prosecco at one point so all in all we’d done well for novices. There was just Irene to choose a horse in the last race and we thought we’d chuck the lot in, but she chose a horse with such long odds it might as well have been a seaside donkey. It was called Juicy Lucy and we nearly didn’t stick around to see it cross the line. 

Jo suggested we all had a photo as the day had gone so enjoyably and we might never be all together again, so she asked a man in a top hat to take a group shot and we all posed and smiled until Irene looked up at the video screen and shouted: “Juicy Lucy is winning”. Mr Top Hat must have carried on taking pictures as we started leaping around cheering on this improbable nag. We screamed at the screen as first one horse then another went past him only for a comeback in the final furlong where he crossed the line in a photo finish. There were tense moments as we awaited the outcome and Jo got her camera back and then it was announced that indeed Juicy Lucy had won.

Now, we could have blown the lot again, it was quite a sum now, but on the train on the way home Jean suggested an idea that eventually changed our fortunes even better. She suggested we use the money as a business starter. We all had redundancy pay-outs to come but we wouldn’t need vast amounts of that if we all clubbed together and be equal share-holders. She knew where we could rent cheap premises. We could buy old machines off Walsh’s liquidation sale, maybe even fabric stock (though we weren’t that desperate) and we could launch our own business.

 It was a germ of an idea that saw each of us develop previously unseen talents. I never thought I could pitch a range of clothing or organise an exhibition of our own, and you can guess who our models were? Jean kept the business solvent (wage less, but solvent) in the first year but we began to be noticed.

That photograph is now framed and hangs in our studio on the wall of fame. We have made bespoke dresses for some famous people for gala nights or film premiers and their pictures surround ours. I have never been back to the races but I do watch on TV sometimes and I smile when a commentator at Ladies Day at Ascot picks out an outfit on some celebrity and coos over a dress made by Juicy Lucy.

© Steve Goodlad

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