Maggie Gallacher had all but read the print off the elegant, gold-trimmed card. An invitation from the Duke of Moorshire to an evening at Lea Hall? She could still scarcely believe her eyes, even if it was a long-overdue honour - after all her husband Rod had done for the town.
There were a lot of Gallachers around Fellburn, and all were equally incredulous. Their Mam was a big-hearted woman, with a laugh to match, but was she really the type to go hob-nobbing with the aristocracy? It would be a night to remember, all right!
And indeed it was. But had Maggie, or any of the Gallachers, foreseen how it would turn out, how irrevocably it would change the lives of all of them, she would have torn that invitation into tiny pieces and thrown them on the fire . . .
Catherine Cookson was born in Tyne Dock, the illegitimate daughter of a poverty-stricken woman, Kate, whom she believed to be her older sister. She began work in service but eventually moved south to Hastings, where she met and married Tom Cookson, a local grammar-school master. Although she was originally acclaimed as a regional writer - her novel The Round Tower won the Winifred Holtby Award for the best regional novel of 1968 - her readership quickly spread throughout the world, and her many best-selling novels established her as one of the most popular of contemporary women novelists. After receiving an OBE in 1985, Catherine Cookson was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. She was appointed an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1997. For many years she lived near Newcastle upon Tyne. She died shortly before her ninety-second birthday, in June 1998.