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Death at a Shetland Festival by Marsali Taylor

I am delighted to be part of the tour for the gripping new book, Death at a Shetland Festival by Marsali Taylor. Thanks to Marsali Taylor and Lynsey Adams of Reading Between the Lines for including me in this opportunity and for Marsali giving her time to chat with me.

The Extract

Monday 5 January 1981

This was such an exciting day – my first day working at the camp. I couldn’t believe I’d really been allowed at last, after all the fuss Dad made about me being too young. Angie and Auntie June persuaded him into it. If I was using these six months to earn money before college, well, it was hard work at the camp, that was true, but I’d earn more than I was getting in Solotti’s in town, and save my bus fare too. That set Dad off muttering about how shops in town were closing because they couldn’t get folk to work there, but Auntie June diverted him and at last he said yes.

I hardly slept. I was already awake and dressing when Angie came to wake me at half past five, and I was too nervous to want any breakfast. I just had a cup of tea. Angie was a bit nervous too, because since she’d been eighteen in December she was starting out as a chambermaid. We dressed in trousers and t-shirts, with a jumper on top for warmth (“You won’t need it once you’re in the laundry!” Angie said) and she put her overall on top, then we put our parkas on and went out to wait at the end of the road, where the car would pick us up.

It was a proper car too, like a taxi, just for the two of us. The inside was really clean, and it smelled of flowers, a bit sugary. The driver was nice, he teased me a bit about wanting to work at the camp to find myself a handsome husband, and that was embarrassing, but he wished me luck when he dropped us off at the bus stop.

We didn’t have long to wait until the bus came, and that was fancy too, like a coach down south, not like our buses at all. The seats had headrests, and they were covered with fabric like a stiff velvet, not leather, and there were curved windows all along each side of the roof.

Our bus had come down from North Roe so there were only a couple of women on it, and I recognised one, she’d been at the Brae school at the same time as me, though in an older class. I couldn’t mind her name, so that made me feel awkward, but I said hello anyway, and we sat down a couple of seats behind them.

The bus soon filled up, mostly women, all ages, from teenagers up to several who had white hair. I was glad Angie had persuaded me out of trying to be a bit smart, because they were all dressed for cleaning, with the bottom of their nylon overalls sticking out below their parka, and a carrier bag with their gloves and stuff. Angie seemed to know everyone, she said hello and the name as each person got on, and presented me:

‘My peerie sister, Karen, who’s come to join us’, and everyone was very friendly.

Her friend Rosie, who’s a chambermaid already, came to sit in front of us, and she and Angie chatted away.

The camp was even bigger than I’d imagined. A bit intimidating. It filled the whole hillside, block after block. Some were white-harled houses with a line of thin windows up along the top under the roof, then wall below. The roofs were flat, dark grey, with ridges along them. Others were like wooden cabins, set up on strong blocks, with bigger windows.

The car park was full of buses, all exactly like ours, with a stream of people getting out of each one. I’d known it was a huge operation, but now I really felt what an enormous thing it was that had come to Shetland. I was really impressed at how cool Angie was about it all, chatting and laughing as if she hardly saw it.

The walk to the laundry was absolutely terrifying.

‘I’ll come with you the first time,’ Angie said, and she led me into a barn of a room all smelling of frying breakfast.

It was the canteen, and it was filled with men eating. They didn’t notice us at first, then the nearest ones went quiet, and then started whistling at us, and cat-calling. It was horrible. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me. But Angie laughed, and said hello to several of them by name, and said,

‘This is my little sister, and you’re not to scare her.’

She was looking around them as if she was expecting to see someone, and then this young man got up, tall and dark and very handsome, with a friendly face and blue, blue eyes, and he called out,

‘Angie!’ and she blushed, and he came and held her hand.

‘Karen, this is Munno,’ Angie said.

She gave him a shy smile, as if she wasn’t sure how to explain him, and he put his arm round her and said,

‘Angie’s my girlfriend.’ He had such an Irish accent I had to work to understand him, but I got that all right!

The laundry door was right at the far end and Angie took me through and to the desk on the left.

‘This is Miss Stewart, who’s in charge,’ she said. ‘Miss Stewart, my peerie sister, Karen.’

I’d heard a lot about Miss Stewart, and even had a brief glimpse of her on the carnival float the camp lasses had been on last year, all dressed as can-can dancers, but I was still astonished. I’d never seen anyone so glamorous. She had gleaming dark hair, swept up into a roll at the back, not a hair out of place, and that sweep of eyeliner along her upper lid, and scarlet lipstick. She came out from behind the desk to shake my hand, and I saw she had a suit like someone in a movie, light blue, and stockings with a line up the back, perfectly straight. I managed to stammer a hello, and Angie gave me a quick hug and went back to the door, where Munno was waiting for her.

‘Well,’ Miss Stewart said, ‘I’m sure you’ll be as good a worker as Angie was. I was very sorry to lose her. Let me show you around.’

For the first time I really looked past her to the laundry room. There were loads of windows looking out onto the hill, so it was nice and light, but there was a cloud of steam hanging in the air, and from shoulder-height down it was just a blur of machines. There were big rollers in front of me, and then steps down to rows of huge washing machines and tumble dryers, and doors going off into other areas. I glimpsed a whole load of tailor’s dummies in one room. I felt a bit panicky seeing it all and realising that I’d be expected to work all those machines.

‘Don’t worry,’ Miss Stewart said, ‘you’ll soon get the hang of them. Now, I’ll introduce you to the team.’

There were eight of us and it took me all day to get the names sorted. Ruby and I were the only Shetland ones – Ruby was from Scalloway. There were two girls from Glasgow, who’d come up together to work a year ago, they were Jenny and Carol, and then two older boys, Justin and Oliver, students from Oxford who sounded like the Queen, I really couldn’t understand what they were saying, and one man from Aberdeen, Archie, at least I could understand him, and an older man, Frank, who was an engineer, and in charge of keeping the machines running. They all said hello in a friendly way, and asked after Angie, and then we got down to work.

Miss Stewart gave me one of those pinnies with a stud at the waist, a tabard she called it, and a pair of gloves if I wanted, and then she put me with Ruby on the men’s bags.

‘It’s the men’s washing,’ Ruby said. ‘I’d wear gloves for sorting it, if I was you. We have to separate it out, wash it, dry it, press it if it’s needed, then put it back into the individual bags. You’ll soon get the hang of it. We do five or six men at a time, that’s plenty.’

She tipped a bag out onto the table and began sorting it into coloureds, whites, cottons, nylons, very dirty, like work jeans, and explaining as she went. I kept nodding like a dog in the back of a car, but inside I was panicking that I wouldn’t remember any of this. Soon though it began to feel like helping Auntie June on Mondays in the holidays. We got our loads into the machines no bother, and started on the next lot, and the next, and then while the first lot were still washing we gave Peter a hand with the sheets.

The big rollers were for pressing them, once they’d come out of the tumble-dryers. All the time the chambermaids kept coming in with more big bags of sheets or smaller bags of the men’s stuff. Some of it was pretty smelly – diesel, and sweat and even what I was sure was pee. Yuck! Then once our first load of washing was finished we took it out, and separated the shirts. That was what the dummies were for – they had holes in them that blew hot air, and you draped the shirts over them and they dried them with no creases, just like that.

‘Nice shirt,’ Ruby said, holding up a cowboy style one with pearl buttons. ‘I’d like to meet him.’

By the time I’d done two hours my arms were starting to ache from all the lifting. Ruby saw me rubbing them.

‘It’s good money,’ she said, ‘but we work for it.’ She glanced up at the clock. ‘Ten minutes till our teabreak.’

Well, I was glad of that cup of tea by the time it came. My arms were aching.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ one of the other women said – I didn’t catch anyone’s names at teabreak, some were in the office, they had blouses and skirts, and some in the kitchen, in white coats, and of course all the chambermaids, an army of them. I’ll learn them gradually.

The tea was good and strong, in a mug, not a cup, and there were fancies with it. Then Ruby and I went back to work, and then it was lunchtime. We’d had fifteen minutes for tea, same as at school, but we only got half an hour for lunch. I sat beside Angie, who was laughing away about what we’d done over the holidays – not much, but she made it sound exciting, and they were all teasing her, and saying Munno would be jealous. There was a bit of teasing going on about the men who worked there.

Lunch was, well, wow! I didn’t know what half of the stuff was, and Auntie June would have stared to see it. I thought the starters were the whole lunch, soup with rolls or bowls of prawn cocktail to help yourself to. Pizza, I recognised that, though I’d never eaten it before, and spaghetti bolognese, a bit like tomatoey mince with long white worms in among it. I’d seen pictures of that too. but Dad doesn’t eat that foreign stuff. There was grated cheese to go on top of it, and salad with lettuce and tomatoes and cottage cheese, and trays of braised steak, ginormous pieces with onions and gravy, then for pudding there was Angel Delight in six different flavours, or crumble, or a sponge pudding, both served with custard or ice cream, whichever you wanted.

I was ravenous so I took too much then found I couldn’t eat it, and had to force the Angel Delight down, which made me feel a bit sick. I didn’t say anything, I headed for the laundry and kept going, only a bit slower than before.

I was more careful at the afternoon tea, and didn’t take a fancy, and then it was more laundry and at last it was time to go home again. I felt woozy from the smell of the washing powder, and I was that tired I slept on the bus, head on Angie’s shoulder. Everyone was keen to hear all about it at dinner. It wasn’t dinnertime at all of course, it was nearly ten when we arrived home, and all I wanted to do was fall into bed and sleep, but Auntie June had kept us something specially, because it was our first day, so I mushed my tatties in among my mince and tried to answer the questions.

Yes, I’d definitely get used to the work. No, we hadn’t seen any of the men, except at the very start (Dad looked pleased at that, though Angie’d explained at least ten times that they were out at work while we were there).

Angie told us about the rooms, a funny mix of luxurious with fitted carpets and really bare with just what the men had brought in their bags, maybe a photo from home or a couple of books.

‘They smelled too,’ she said, wrinkling her nose, ‘Diesel and sweat and aftershave. And several had little pots of water by the door, and a notice “Don’t put a lid on the holy water.” Goodness knows what that was!’ Some of them had video players. Peter wanted to know all about that, and if she’d tried playing one, and she told him she didn’t have time.

‘Maybe next Christmas,’ Dad said, and we all agreed that would be good.

The reception here is rubbish, the least hint of wind and it goes snowstorm. At least we could borrow videos from the library.

Then I headed for bed, which is where I am now, writing this up – I wanted to get it all down while it was fresh in my mind, even though it’s taken three days worth of pages. I have serious spaigie in my arms, but all the other women said that would soon wear off. I hope so! Up again at half five tomorrow, but at least I won’t feel so lost – and I definitely won’t eat breakfast.


The Blurb

Crowds are gathered for a concert at Shetland's renowned folk music festival when there's a shocking discovery - international folk legend Fintan Foley has been stabbed backstage.

Sailing sleuth Cass Lynch and her partner DI Gavin Macrae are in the audience and must untangle a complicated case where nothing is quite what it seems. Cass soon discovers that Foley's smiling stage persona concealed links with Shetland. He'd worked here in the 80s, the days when oil brought wealth to the islands.

Has a long-buried secret risen to the surface - and will it make Cass a target for a cold-blooded killer?

The Author

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.

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1 Comment

This is very interesting! Lovely blog.

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