Manchester, 1939. On the eve of war Gracie Earnshaw is working in Rosenberg’s Raincoat factory – a job she hates – but her life is about to be turned upside down when she falls in love with Jacob, the boss’s charismatic nephew.
Through Jacob, with his ambitions to be a writer, Gracie glimpses another world: theatre, music and prejudice. But their forbidden romance is cut short when Jacob is arrested and tragedy unfolds.
Gracie struggles with heartbreak, danger and old family secrets, but the love of her first sweetheart comes back to her in an unexpected way giving her the chance of a new life and happiness.
Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny, and after dinner Sarah announced that she was going to whitewash the outside privy. ‘If there’s going to be a war, I want to make sure all my affairs are in order.’
Gracie looked at her mother, shook her head in disbelief and convulsed with laughter. ‘What? What?’ was all she could say.
‘You know what I mean,’ said Sarah. ‘I wouldn’t want anybody to talk about me if we’re bombed.’ By now Sarah knew how ridiculous she sounded and started laughing as well. ‘Anyway, do you want to help me?’
‘No, Mam. The last thing I want is to spend a lovely day in a lavatory. I think I’ll change my clothes and go out for a bit. I’ll be back for my tea.’
It was a fair walk from Oldham Road to Heaton Park, but Gracie didn’t mind. It was good to be out in the fresh air, to leave behind the streets of two-up-two-down terraces and find herself in the leafy suburbs. She wore her Sunday best – blue floral cotton frock and cardigan with a matching ribbon in her dark hair. She strolled under the colonnade that marked the entrance to the park and joined the crowds of people enjoying the warm sun and a holiday atmosphere. If anyone was concerned about the threat of war they certainly didn’t show it.
The lake was crowded with rowing boats and she stopped to watch the antics of four lads who couldn’t work out how to stop the boat going round in circles. Then she set off up the long drive towards Heaton Hall, a large and impressive Georgian house. To the right of it was a high vantage point topped by a little temple. She climbed the hill and looked out over the park from where she could see the anti-aircraft gun and searchlight that Charlie had described. The encampment was well dug in and surrounded by a wooden fence. Two soldiers stood on guard. The gun was much bigger than she had imagined and the thought of it in action made her shudder.
In the distance to the north and east were the mills of Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. To the south, as far as the eye could see, were the factories and canals of Manchester and Salford, and to the west, on this clearest of days, Gracie fancied she could see the port of Liverpool. Above her the sky seemed huge and for a moment she imagined it full of enemy planes.
‘It’s an impressive weapon, isn’t it?’
She turned. Jacob Rosenberg was at her side. ‘I suppose so, but I hope to God they never have to fire it.’
‘I’m afraid they probably will, Gracie, and sooner than we think.’ He went on, ‘The news is bad today. The papers are saying we’ll be at war this time next week. Just think, we could be enjoying the last Sunday of peace for a long time.’
‘Well, that’s put a dampener on the day, hasn’t it?’ said Gracie.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, forgive me.’ There was the lovely smile that brightened her working days. ‘Let me make it up to you,’ he said. ‘How about an ice cream?’
They walked down the hill together, and Gracie couldn’t help wondering why he was in the park and, of all the people there, he had ended up standing next to her. ‘It seems a bit of a coincidence that you’re here today,’ she said.
‘Not really. I often have a walk here on Sunday afternoon. I only live up the road.’
‘So you didn’t hear me say I was coming here?’
He pretended to be surprised. ‘Why would you think that?’
She had the feeling he was teasing her, but she wouldn’t let him get away with it. ‘I know you watch me at work when you think I’m not looking,’ she said.
‘Ah, but that’s because you watch me when you’re supposed to be stitching raincoats.’
She opened her mouth to protest, but he was already laughing. ‘Let’s just say we keep an eye on each other. But today’s different, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ she said.
‘Of course it is. We’re not in the factory. It’s just you and me out for a walk in the sunshine. So, how do you want to spend our time together on the last Sunday of peace?’
They went to look at the Hall, walking around the outside and peering through the tall windows at grand fireplaces, huge dark paintings of people long dead, an elegant table that would seat half of Gracie’s street. ‘It would have been such a bustling place at one time,’ said Jacob, ‘with carriages sweeping up the drive bringing the cotton barons to dine.’
Gracie’s eyes lit up. ‘Yes, and the lady of the house, in an Empire-line gown, embroidered with pearls, and long white evening gloves, would have stood at the foot of the sweeping staircase waiting to greet them.’ She ran up the steps outside a French window and struck a pose. Jacob followed her, playing along, bowing low
‘Welcome, Mr Rosenberg,’ she said, in her poshest voice, ‘and how is the raincoat business?’
‘Thriving, ma’am, thriving.’
‘And, tell me, do you treat your workers kindly?’
‘Indeed I do, ma’am, especially the pretty ones.’
She frowned. ‘So, you have an eye for the ladies, have you?’
‘I wouldn’t say that.’ He took her hand and brought it to his lips.
Gracie pretended to be shocked and looked up at him under her eyelashes.
‘I shouldn’t have done that, should I?’ he said.
She laughed. ‘Don’t be daft, Mr Jacob, I’m just play-acting.’ But she was surprised to feel her heart racing.
‘Oh, you can’t call me Mr Jacob when we’re not in the factory.’
‘I’m just Jacob.’
She put her head to one side, pretending to study him. ‘Just Jacob, I like that.’
They wandered through the rose garden, heady with scent, and into a shaded woodland walk. ‘Do you like working at the factory?’ he asked.
‘Not really. Some days I think there’s not much difference between us and them down the road in Strangeways.’
‘Come on! My uncle’s not that hard a taskmaster, is he?’
Gracie pulled a severe face and mimicked her boss: ‘Miss Earnshaw, I don’t pay you good wages for clowning around when there’s raincoats to be stitched.’
Jacob threw back his head and laughed. ‘You should be on the stage, Gracie.’
Back on the main path, Jacob bought them ice-cream cornets and they went to sit on a bench under a chestnut tree.
She studied him closely: his dark hair a little longer than most men’s, strong nose and chin and, when he turned to look her, the darkest of brown eyes. ‘I’ve not seen you wearing the little cap before,’ she said.
‘The kippah… Jewish men cover their heads to honour God. I don’t usually wear it, but I’ve just been to shul, that’s my church, for a meeting and, well, it’s expected.’
‘And the way you speak, is that Jewish too?’
‘My accent, you mean?’
‘In a way… I grew up in Germany, but I’ve been back and forward to England every few years, sometimes London then Manchester, learning the family business. I was supposed to go back to Germany a while ago, but…’ He looked away.
‘But what?’ asked Gracie. She saw his jaw tighten and it was a moment before he answered.
‘I wanted to go back, but my parents thought I should stay here. Now is not the time to be a Jew in Germany. As we speak, thousands are fleeing the country, frightened for their lives.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s a bad business.’
Gracie would have asked him to explain, but he looked so sad. After a minute, he checked his watch and his voice was brighter when he said, ‘Come on. It’s almost time for the concert.’
The bandstand was lower down the hill, set in an amphitheatre of grassy banks where people were sitting around, waiting for the music to begin. Jacob took off his sports jacket and spread it on the ground. ‘There you are,’ he said, and they sat down so close together their arms touched.
Besses o’ th’ Barn brass band, resplendent in their uniforms trimmed with gold and red, were straightening their music stands and playing random notes by way of a prelude.
The conductor stepped up, raised his baton, and the band members put their instruments to their lips. The baton fell, and the air was instantly full of the rich sound of brass. The programme of patriotic music lifted everyone’s spirits, and at the end of the concert the conductor invited the audience to sing along to ‘There’ll Always Be An England’.
‘Oh, you won’t know the words,’ said Gracie.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Jacob. ‘I’m happy just to close my eyes and listen to you.’
The day had turned chilly by the time they left the park and they stood together under the colonnade before they went their separate ways.
‘I’m glad I came out for a walk today,’ said Jacob.
‘So am I,’ said Gracie, and she thought he might kiss her, but then he frowned.
‘Gracie, when we’re back at work tomorrow…’
Instinctively, she knew. ‘I understand,’ she said. ‘I won’t say anything.’
‘It’s just that…’
Gracie touched his arm. ‘It’s all right, don’t worry.’
Jacob took her hand and held it. ‘Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow,’ he said, and she watched him go.
On the long walk home, her thoughts were full of Jacob. He was nothing like other lads she knew: he was funny and sad, confident and shy and so very, very handsome.
At the bottom of Cheetham Hill, not far from the raincoat factory, she was surprised to see a ragged procession of people walking towards her up the road. Men with long black coats and high-brimmed hats, women in dark clothes with their hair covered, several with a baby tied in a shawl across their bodies. Closer they came, too weary to look about them, carrying bundles or battered suitcases. But it was the sad-eyed children
trailing in their parents’ wake that touched her: a little girl in what was once a pretty party dress now ripped and stained; a boy with ringlets hanging in front of his ears and a little round cap on his head.
Gracie’s heart went out to them for she knew at once that they were Jews and they had travelled a very long way to get to Manchester.