Michael McCarthy's story of an ageing photographer who has built a cult of personality around him, but holds dark secrets.
He exuded the self contained air of'a man who felt that to him nothing was
impossible, like a settler who had carved his home and life out of a grim
He certainly wasn't handsome or even young. His hair, a shock of thick grey
tufts sprouting from his skull, looked like a well worn carpet.
His leathery dark skin a legacy not of a passion for tanning, but the direct result
of years of working in areas where exposure to the sun's rays was unavoidable.
A man bestowed with enormous self confidence, which was confirmed
virtually every time he set foot outside his house.
He was not remotely interested in his appearance but aware of the reactions
especially and inexplicably to him in young women, very young women, it
A man who looked every one of his 62 years, and a few more besides.
Stanley Birchenhall was a photographer. A photographer's photographer. He'd
read that description many times and was happy to confirm it. A man young
photographers analysed and worshipped as much for his manner and
uncompromising life style as for his undoubted instinctual talents.
He was well travelled with acquaintances of both sexes in cities and
towns all over the world. A network who looked out for each other. He was
known as Birch to those close to him. Appropriate, according to his late wife, who had told him the birch tree was also known as 'The Watcher' because the
markings on its bark looked like eyes.
Above all, Birch was a man who seemed quite happy in his own skin, a tough
thick hide, and did not always take kindly to others. A man who didn't suffer fools or acolytes or those seeking tips or an audience
Stanley Birchenhall, the name stood for a type of picture synonymous with a
degree of risk taking, an almost suicidal tendency to exposure to life threatening
situations, and a legendary stubbornness.
A man with eccentricities, among which were never leaving home without his
pale blue, chipped, stained, jumbo sized coffee mug.
His speciality was recording the exploitation of adults and children, wherever
that took place, in all its gory detail. 'Otherwise, what's the point?' he would
half whisper when the searing and unflinching reality of his pictures was called
into question. Which was, monotonously, often.
He was also a renowned and controversial documentary maker, using the same
sledge hammer approach in his TV programmes.
'People need to be shocked to care. And they'll only do something, donate or
pester their politicians, if they care.'
He didn't so much capture the seedy underbelly of life as record it from within.
'What reaction do you hope to provoke?' was a question he was also asked with
a tedious regularity.
'Care.' He would answer and stare his interviewer down.
He eased himself, uncomfortably, into a chair, all chairs were too small he felt,
at his usual table at his usual café and placed his accessories on the table; his
coffee mug, non-filter cigarettes and matches, two pairs of glasses, sun and
reading, and a pad and biro. His camera bag he laid, carefully, on the floor
under his chair.
He closed his eyes and leaned back. Some would call his manner arrogant, he
would call it... he wouldn't call it anything.
'Hi. I'm Dora. Your usual, Stanley?' The voice was feminine, soft and
uncertain, almost apologetic. She was new. He opened his eyes and saw a small,
childlike hand reach hesitantly for his mug. Looking up, as expected, he saw a
fragile looking insubstantial little thing, with mousey hair and a pale anxious
'Hi Dora. Yes please.' He answered, his voice a tired croak.
He could see her features soften with relief. They'd obviously acquainted her
with his foibles and assured her that he was not as intimidating as his reputation
He watched her walk carefully up to the bar, his blue mug held in both hands as
though she was carrying an organ for transplantation.
It was then that the poster caught his eye. It was plastered on the windows and
columns inside the spacious café. It was simple, as agreed, and bore the legend,
'Victims - An Unfinished Business. A series of pictures by Stanley
He felt at home here, away from home, abroad. So at home, he had defied
various worthies and movers and shakers at his agency and in his home city, to
insist that his latest exhibition be housed here, in a backwater town in mainland
Europe. In the town hall opposite the café where he now sat.
If they hadn't agreed, there would have been no exhibition. 'Fuck 'em!'
He hit the cigarette pack against his palm and a cigarette shot out. He placed it
in his mouth just as Dora returned with his black coffee, put on his glasses,
picked up his pen and pad and began sketching her.
She scuttled off, head down, clearly flattered but also embarrassed.
He didn't sketch just anyone, they had to possess a certain quality to prick his
interest. What that quality was, was indefinable, especially to an artist like
Birchenhall, who eschewed technique for instinct.
After finishing a preliminary sketch, he dated it, added her name, drained his
coffee, put on his sun glasses and went outside for a cigarette.
Not for the first time he pondered why he did what he did.
His aim had always been to help and he had certainly done that. For if you
alleviate suffering, surely you help?
And what else could he have done? It was the eyes, the unremitting fear,
resignation and despair in the eyes, that is what prompted him to act.
He'd seen something similar in his own wife's eyes as her life slipped away, he
knew it was what she could see in his eyes, a bottomless sadness, emptiness and
She'd lain in his arms, a sparrow of a woman, his bulwark. His everything.
The person responsible for his success. He would never allow anything less than
100% effort from himself, anything less would be an insult to her and her
Her death had been so fucking stupid and random. They'd been crouching down
taking pictures of street children in Rio, 10 years ago, dirty, ragged, skinny,
cheeky, street wise kids.
They'd been at a street corner, it was night time and it was dark, a child on a
bike came hurtling out of nowhere, no lights of course, and hit his wife like a
rocket, she fell back and her head crashed on to the dusty, unpaved, stoney
They'd both known, they'd felt it. Seen it reflected in each other's eyes.
Her eyes closed.
He went back into the café, a bottle of beer was waiting on his table.
He kept the shades on. He didn't want people to see his tears.
There was something about Dora, he was attracted to her, like to the others, but
unlike them, she didn't need his help.
She was working here and at a fast food restaurant to save money for a holiday
and to help finance her journalism studies.
She began sitting with him during her breaks, he could see she was enraptured
by him. But she was nice to talk to. Undemanding. He couldn't remember much
of what she said, a confusing mixture of friends, cinema, parents and politics.
But she was intelligent. He liked that and also what he hadn't noticed before,
she had a strong streak of independence running through her allied to a
determination and belief in herself. But what he liked most of all was the way
she felt at ease with him, no longer daunted by his all eclipsing personality.
Qualities he had valued in his late wife.
'What's with the mug, Birch?' She asked him one day.
He loved the way she spoke English and her cute accent.
He could speak the local language but he also appreciated the fact that Dora was
keen to practice her English. It was the only help he could offer her.
'My late wife gave it to me, a long time ago.'
'Sorry. I didn't mean to pry.'
'You're not prying. Friends don't pry.'
She liked that, he could see it in her eyes.
'I always used to complain about the piddly little cups you get in cafés and
restaurants, I like my coffee, big, hot and strong, and she came up with the
perfect solution.' He laughed sadly and saw the tears well up in Dora's eyes. He
held his own back, he didn't want to go out for a cigarette, not while talking to
'Taking all these depressing photos, doesn't it get to you Birch?'
He'd never thought about it like that before. He did what he did.
'What do you mean?' He asked.
'I mean, seeing all that misery. It must do something to a person.'
He liked her honesty. He knew she meant he was carrying the weight of his
work around like a suffocating, debilitating cloak.
He shook his head and smiled at her. 'You make everything seem so simple.'
'When was the last time you had a holiday?' she asked.
'I've never had a holiday. I've always travelled for work.'
Dora's break was over, Birch finished his beer and went out for a smoke. He
thought of some of the horrors he had documented; the people living in sewers,
the sex slaves, snuff movie victims, beggars, refugees. It was their eyes he
always remembered, not the faces or circumstances, just the almost indefinable
acceptance he saw there.
But he had helped. Not all of them. He'd done his bit.
Maybe it was time to get away from the coal face.
The next day, the unthinkable happened. Dora had reached for his mug, he had
wanted to brush her fingers, just touch her, so she'd think it was an innocent
contact. The mug had slipped through their hands, and somehow teetered at the
edge of the table, like in slow motion, both of them powerless to prevent the
inevitable, and then it had hit the tile floor and shattered. It had been like a bullet
ricocheting. Dora's hands went to her face.
He could feel everybody looking at them, the way people do, nobody except the
other staff realized the enormity of what had happened.
Dora turned and fled. He collected all the pieces he could find and piled them on
Dora returned, sobbing with a dustpan and brush, distraught.
His heart went out to her.
Then he surprised himself and certainly everybody else present.
He opened his arms, beckoned Dora to him, and then he held her and
comforted her until she had stopped shaking.
'To be honest, Dora, I've never liked that stupid mug anyway.'
She laughed between the tears and dried her eyes on her apron.
Ever since his wife had died he'd been consumed by a gnawing desolation, the
only way he could combat it had been through endless work.
A spell had been broken. Now he wanted out.
His exhibition was coming up in a few days and there was still a lot to prepare
so he was unable to spend as much time with Dora.
The day of the exhibition finally arrived and with it a hoard of celebs, media
representatives, fellow snappers, and all manner of hangers on. As expected,
it received excellent reviews, ensuring the accompanying book would be a best
The next day it would be opened to the public.
He arrived at the café when she usually took her break, she brought him a
coffee in a conventional cup and they went outside. He lit a cigarette and told
her he was going to make a speech and not to interrupt him.
Then he gave her a folder full of notes and photographs.
'I want you to organize this mess, write it up and bring it to the literary agent
whose address you'll find inside. It's my life up until this morning and I'm sure
it will sell a few copies. It should more than cover your expenses. No arguments
or noble gestures Dora, please do as I ask. Promise me you will.'
He waited for her confirmation. 'Well.'
'Birch. I don't...'
'Dora. I'm waiting. All you have to say is, "I promise."'
She lowered her head. 'I promise. And thank you Birch I...'
'I've left copies of my notes in the curator's office, he'll know what to do with
them. You'll probably have to wait a while before it can be published. Until that
time you have a new bank account that will keep you going.' He slid an
envelope with the bank details into the pocket of her apron.
'But what's going on? I don't understand.'
'It's best you don't. Believe me. But what I did I would do again. It's all in
'I'll never see you again, will I?' She asked, tears streaming down her face.
'No Dora you won't. Since my wife died I've never allowed myself to get close
to anybody. So please let me do something to help you.'
'But where are you going?'
'I honestly don't know. Wherever it is, I'll be safe and I'll be following your
career. With great pride.'
Then he hugged her, the way he used to hug his wife, like his life depended on
Before the doors were opened the curator discovered something that had not
been there the day before. It seemed to be another picture, but one shrouded in a
He removed the cloth to reveal a self portrait of Stanley Birchenhall and in the
frame of the picture about twenty passport sized photographs of young women.
Like a benevolent benefactor surrounded by his grateful charges.
There was also an open envelope containing a letter. He read it and then he
called the police.
'You'll never be able to trace these unfortunates. I was able to free these women
and then they were able to bathe in private, wear new, clean clothes and enjoy a
decent hot meal.
I slept with some of them, those that were of a certain age and who insisted on
doing so. Then I killed them, painlessly with poison. I knew they would be
sucked back into their old lives and if they weren't they would be too damaged
to make a go of the chance I was offering them. I helped them. It was all I could
Stanley Birchenhall did return. Despite being a wanted man he
seemed to be able to move around with impunity. The story of what he had done
never appeared in the media and to all intents and purposes it was as though he
wasn't a murderer.
He and Dora would meet again, once only, his decision, and he would continue
to follow her career with great interest and pride.
Dora made him promise to agree to something which, with great reluctance,
The Stanley Birchenhall story would not be published in his lifetime.