Preston, in the north west of England, is not the loveliest of towns, although it has some hidden gems. Too much 20th century development has trampled over the heart of the place, which dates back to Roman times. Preston came to prominence as far back as the 12th century, but the city’s history is not why this location is important to our literary journey today.
Once again, we’re delving into some of the background to The Silver Locket.
I was working in Lancashire County Council’s offices in Preston when I started writing the novel, and working in that public sector environment somehow led me to Laura’s occupation: a translator for the EU in Brussels (remember we’re back in 1989). It was my daily commute there from Liverpool through Rufford that really kick-started the novel. Driving fifty miles each way gives a writer lots of thinking time, in between listening to Radio 4, and I wrote many scenes in my head whilst on the road. Naturally, I couldn’t resist a little nod to the city in which I was working.
My desk at County Hall overlooked the Lancashire Records Office, which Laura visits to find out more about the family who lived in the house she’d inherited. It’s a strange building, elevated on stilts. I never did find out why. Nor did I actually visit the place. My knowledge of its operation came from a friend of mine, who was training as an archivist at the time. That’s Jo.
Real people, or sometimes just their names, do occasionally find themselves recreated fictionally in my books. The surname of the Reverend who married Cathy’s parents was borrowed from a colleague. He was rather pleased when I told him.
But back to our setting and the jeweller’s shop that Laura visits. Conveniently, there is (or at least was) a tiny jeweller’s shop, almost exactly as described in the book. Rather dark and mysterious, it had just the kind of owner who’d have the right connections to point Laura in the right direction to solve the mystery of her locket. More about where that takes her another time.
You’ll also notice I make references to the weather. Preston must be the wettest and windiest place I’ve ever encountered!
Excerpt from ‘The Silver Locket’
Twenty minutes later, the train pulled in at Preston. The station was larger and grander than Laura expected, with its curved wrought ironwork and glass roof supported on ornate columns which harked back the Victorian age of steam. From what Laura could see, Preston itself was rather less impressive than its railway station, although she was pleased to see a large Debenhams store on the corner. She might call in on the way back. Now she’d decided to stay on at the house for a while, she could do with a more extensive wardrobe than the suitcase-full she had brought.
Laura followed the directions given to her by the archivist she had spoken to at the Records Office on the phone the previous day. As she passed the solid square building of the county council offices, Laura imagined the staff inside scratching away at piles of bureaucracy, much like their counterparts in Brussels.
The Records Office was as described: an oblong building on stilts. Maybe the building was so strangely elevated to protect the records from flood, although despite the volume of the recent rain, it seemed unlikely that flood waters would ever reach such a height.
The archivist, Jo, who she’d spoken to on the phone, was an attractive young woman with long blonde hair. She was a great help, setting her up with the microfiche records of baptisms and burials from St. Mary’s church. Laura scanned through the records. It didn’t take her long to get used to navigating through the closely written text. Laura knew that the date of Cathy’s baptism had to before 1912. If Peter had been 22 when he’d died, as it said on the gravestone, he would have been born in 1890, just over a hundred years ago. Cathy was obviously his younger sister, so she should start looking at the entries after 1890.
And there it was: Catherine Emily Martland, baptised 31st March 1897. Her parents’ names, Thomas Edgar and Sarah Elizabeth, of Rufford, Lancashire. The ceremony performed by the Reverend Josiah Blackburn.
At last, here was the proof that Cathy had existed. This had to be the Cathy who experiences she had lived out in the two dreams, she’d had. Dreams that had been so vivid, it had been as if she was Cathy herself. Laura had never had dreams like these before. She wasn’t exactly disturbed by them, but it was strange. Maybe it was as Helen had said. She was just so immersed in the house that she was bound to dream about it. But still, why wasn’t she dreaming about her aunt? Why were the dreams taking her back to an earlier period in the house’s history?
Laura exchanged the baptisms sheet for the burials one. There was no record of the burials of Thomas or Peter. The woman in the churchyard had said that they never found Thomas’s body. Maybe Peter’s body had been lost too. Sarah’s burial was dated 18th July 1916. She and Cathy had already moved out of the house, of course, as Lucy’s husband had purchased it in 1913. Laura wondered where they had gone. She continued to scan the records, but she could find no entry for Catherine. Her eyes were getting tired, and anyway she had found out what she really wanted to know. One final scan and her eyes found the name James Clayton, Lucy’s husband. He had died in 1925. Poor Lucy, though maybe if he had been so badly shell-shocked, it had been something of a relief.
Laura returned the microfiche sheets to their box and took them back to the counter.
“Any luck?” asked Jo.
“Yes, thanks,” Laura replied. “I found what I was looking for.”
“Well, if you need anything else, you know where we are.”
Laura headed back towards the station, passing the entrance and heading for the ugly Fishergate Centre which housed Debenhams. A quick coffee and a slice of cake fortified her for some proper retail therapy. Although not a particularly keen clothes shopper, Laura was happy enough browsing the displays and picking out some practical additions to her currently sparse wardrobe. She also splashed out on a duvet and a pretty cover, since she was missing the comfort and ease of a quilt, being no longer accustomed to the sheets and blankets she was using now.
As she left the Centre she noticed a small jeweller’s shop on the opposite corner. She still had the locket fastened around her neck and it would be the ideal opportunity to have it examined. The bell on the door rang loudly as she entered.
“Be right with you,” called a voice from the back room of the shop. Presently, a man emerged.
“Could you take a look at this for me?” Laura asked unfastening the ribbon and handing him the little necklace. “I think it should open, but I’m afraid of breaking it.”
He turned the locket over in his hand. “I’m a bit busy just now, but I can certainly look at it tomorrow if you want to leave it with me.”
Laura hesitated. Somehow she didn’t want to part with the locket. But that was stupid. She could easily come back on the train tomorrow. She nodded and took his card.
Fortunately the train wasn’t crowded and Laura was able to secure sufficient space to accommodate her purchases. As the train pulled into Rufford station, she recognised the woman in the brown coat again. She had just left the platform and was heading over the level crossing. Laura was keen to speak to her. She hurried off the train, dragging her carrier bags with her. The woman turned into the churchyard. Laura tried to quicken her pace, but the wind which had replaced the rain, caught the unwieldy bags and slowed her down. By the time she reached the church the woman had vanished. Maybe she had gone into the church? Laura went to look, but the door was locked.
The Silver Locket: available as a paperback, ebook and on KindleUnlimited
Image credit: visitpreston.com