Wise Child

By: Audrey Reimann

Everyone knows me as Isobel now. I have not used the name I was born with for years, yet within half an hour of arriving in Macclesfield I passed my old enemy in the street and heard her say to the woman on her arm, 'My God! Lily Stanway! What's she come back for?"

Silk mills and secrets. All of Lily's young life has been dominated by undercurrents among her elders that she could sense but not understand. The ties that bind the Stanways, Hammonds and Chancellors are never discussed, yet the younger generation are deeply aware of them. And when they grow up and fall for the very people they must not, cannot marry, it looks as if the delicate facade of inheritance, blood and property will collapse and draw the three families to ruin with it.

Chapter One

Macclesfield. May 1948

Everyone knows me as Isobel now. I have not used the name I was born with for years, yet within half an hour of arriving in Macclesfield I passed my old enemy in Chestergate and heard her say to the woman on her arm, 'My God! It's Lily Stanway!'

I jumped, hearing Doreen Grimshaw's flat tones, turned my head and caught the other girl's reply: 'Lily Stanway? What's she come back for?'

They glared after me and I knew it again - the nervous leap of the pulse, the metallic taste of fear. I have long since settled old scores with Doreen, so why does it come back to me now - the childish dread that Doreen will uncover my deepest, most shameful secrets and, jeering and mocking, hold me up to ridicule for them?

My old tormentor's face has set into hard lines. We're the same age, twenty-nine but she looks older than I with her brown hair cut short, permed and set in a parody of the 'bubble cut'. I keep my dark hair at shoulder length and wear very little make-up but Doreen is plastered in Max Factor. She is wearing a New Look dress that swirls about her thin legs, six inches' above clumsy white platform-sole shoes. I'm wearing a full-skirted tangerine suit with a nipped-in waist and flared peplum and black patent-leather high heels. My suit was made in Paris and Doreen's dress was clearly made here from a length of cotton print. Oh, God forgive me! I sound spiteful and I know I'm not. Dressing well and fashion have played a big part in my life.

I really don't care tuppence for Doreen's opinion. But I care about Macclesfield. I belong to this ancient town. All that I am, all I aspired to be, was fashioned here. My youthful ambition was to marry a good man who would be a kind father to the dozens of children I wanted. We'd live in a big house in the hills and I'd be looked up to for what I was, not pitied for being Mam's daughter.

I did it once. Can I do it again? Can I rise above my beginnings when I was little Lily Stanway, shunted back and forth between my grand- parents' farm in the hills and Mam's shop on Jordangate?

Can I live here again? I am not homesick for Macclesfield, but an old unsatisfied curiosity might make me return. My new husband will join me here in two days' time. He will want an answer. It is ridiculous that at last I have a choice about my future and instead of being rational I'm shaking in my shoes because I passed Doreen in the street

You'd imagine old fears and excitements were behind me, forgotten and buried as so much else ought to be. Yet I am here, reacting in the same way to Doreen and to Macclesfield, and knowing how much I've changed in the last three years I half expected Macclesfield to have changed in my absence.

Nothing has changed.

Absence should have made me see my home town objectively; from a distance as it were, for when you have your feet planted, rooted in a place you cannot see it all of a piece.

Now if you were a migrating bird you'd see it all of a piece. You could spot Macclesfield easily from the air. The medieval town is set on an escarpment in the foothills of the Pennines, to the west of the mountain range where the hills fall away to the plains of Lancashire and Cheshire.

You could live all your life here and not know this. You could live all your life here and only know that Macclesfield has scores of steep cobbled streets lined with red-brick cottages and that most of the streets slope down to the cotton and silk mills on the banks of the River Bollin. Over a hundred mills fill the air with their throat-catching fumes and fill the river, which in medieval times was called the River Jordan, with waste and stink.

Medieval Macclesfield had only the four streets which radiate from the Market Place. Chestergate, crowded with shops and taverns, joins the old coach roads to Manchester and Chester. Mill Street runs south and descends, cobbled and steep, to the mills and the river. Jordangate and Old Cockshutte Lane ran down to the River Jordan. Old Cockshutte Lane now is Hibel Road. The River Jordan is the River Bollin, but the street where Mam and I lived has retained its ancient name of Jordangate. Elsie Stanway's, Mam's dressmaker and haberdasher's shop, was at the poor end of Jordangate.