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Sarah Dunnakey introduces The Companion

My debut novel The Companion is a mystery set in Yorkshire in the 1930s and the present day. Billy Shaw has grown up at Potter’s Pleasure Palace, a cotton mill turned entertainment emporium, which has a dancehall, a roller rink and boating on the pond. His mother and sisters work in the tearooms and Billy dreams of becoming Mr Potter’s assistant and of one day owning a Palace of his own. But at the age of almost-12 he is sent to be the companion to another boy, Jasper, who lives with his mother and uncle, the writers Edie and Charles Harper, in an isolated house on the moors. Four years after Billy’s arrival Edie and Charles are found dead. It is ruled a joint suicide.

Billy’s story is interwoven with that of Anna Sallis, who in the present day is the newly appointed archivist at the museum now housed in the old mill. Sorting through the collections she finds inconsistencies in the accepted story of what happened to the Harpers. With the help of her neighbour, Frank Chambers, a retired farmer with his own connection to the mill, she begins to untangle fact from fiction and pieces together the truth.

The story was partly inspired by Gibson Mill in Hardcastle Crags, near Hebden Bridge, which like Ackerdean Mill in The Companion was transformed into an entertainment centre in the early 1900s. On a quiet day there, sitting by the millpond, time seems to stand still. It is easy to imagine you’ve just seen a pair of 1930s dancers waltzing past the mill’s top floor windows, or heard the splash of oars on the pond. It was there, thinking about all the lives that had passed through, that I first heard Billy’s voice and began to write down his story. The trigger for the plot came from my online perusals through the personal columns in editions of The Times from the 1930s. When I spotted an advert asking for a Child Companion for a young boy who lived in a house on the moors, I knew that this was where Billy’s journey would take him.

After brief stints as a college librarian, an education officer and an NHS researcher, Sarah landed her dream job as a Question Researcher on Mastermind. She now writes and verifies the questions for a plethora of TV shows including University Challenge and Pointless. Sarah’s work, especially researching the Specialist Subjects on Mastermind, has been a rich source of ideas for her writing. Her short story, The Marzipan Husband was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The Companion is Sarah’s first novel. She currently lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire with her husband and daughter.

Events

Sunderland City Library, Burdon Road, Sunderland, SR1 1SE
Thursday 15 March, 2.15pm

King Cross Library, 151 Haugh Shaw Road, Halifax, HX1 3BG
Wednesday 4 April, 2.30pm

Wideopen Library, 101 Canterbury Way, Wideopen, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE13 6JJ
Monday 16 April, 2.30pm

Kirkby Library, The Centre, Norwich Way, Kirkby, Knowsley, L32 8XY
Friday 20 April, 11am

Hull Central Library, Albion Street, Hull, HU1 3TF
Monday 23 April, 5.30pm

Hexham Library, Queens Hall, Beaumont Street, Hexham, NE46 3LS
Thursday 26 April, 6.30pm

Hexham Library, Queens Hall, Hexham, NE46 3LS
Thursday 26th April 2018, afternoon (time tbc)
Writing workshop

Birtley Library, 16 Durham Road, Birtley, Chester-le-Street, DH3 1LE
Thursday 3 May, 10.30am

The Word, Market Place, South Shields, NE33 1JF
Tuesday 15 May, 6.30pm

Doncaster Central Library, Waterdale, Doncater, DN1 3JE
Thursday 24 May, 10am

Bridlington Central Library, 14 King Street, Bridlington, Yo15 2DE
Thursday 7 June, 6pm

Acklam Library, Acklam Road, Middlesbrough, TS5 7AB
Tuesday 12 June, 7pm

Castleford Library, Carlton Street, Castleford, Wakefield, WF10 1BB
Thursday 14 June, 2pm

Penrith Library, St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Penrith, CA11 7YA
Thursday 21 June, 1.30pm

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