Pictures at an Exhibition by Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy's story of an ageing photographer who has built a cult of personality around him, but holds dark secrets.

He must have been at least six foot four tall. Lean, rangy, long limbed with a fluid stride.

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 unforgiving territory.

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 provoked.

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 gladly.

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 face.

'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 indicated.

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 Birchenhall.'

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 helplessness.

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 memory.

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.

But children.

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 street.

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 Dora.

'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 the table.

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 seller.

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 there.'

'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 it.

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 black cloth.

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 do.'

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, he did.

The Stanley Birchenhall story would not be published in his lifetime.


  1. A stunning read - carefully constructed but with seamless progression. The ending winded me and I had not foreseen it at all. A superb story with cinematic potential. Very well done and thank you, Ceinwen

  2. Excellent writing. Your descriptions were central to the story and drew the reader into the narrative. The ending came as a complete surprise and allowing Stanley to live freely seemed right in the circumstances. A really satisfying read, Michael. Thank you.

  3. Don't like Birch much. I'm put in mind of Roman Polanski. If you have enough influential friends and your art is popular, you get a pass.

  4. Phew! A lot to think about. At first I thought it was going to be a portrait of an egotist and it would have been good as just that, because - and here I agree with D''s comment - how many people have I known (and particularly in that artistic world) who swan around carrying a weave whose weft is egotism, and whose warp is tragedy? But Michael's character is no stereotype, it's a deeply creative distillation...and I love the odd home truth such as '(real) friends don't pry.' But then the piece turns into something completely different and of a profoundly questionable morality, and like B & C I didn't see that coming. The story raises a parade of questions about art, politics, how closely do/should we get involved, can some things be mitigated? Old prime minister Gladstone comes to mind who regularly scooped up child prostitutes on his way back from The Commons and took them home for the night. As his wife was there there's never any suggestion of impropriety nevertheless how closely should one get involved?
    On a more banal note, and speaking as one who regularly laughs and cries in the wrong place in theatre or cinema I couldn't help wondering why the hell Birch's wife hadn't bought him a nice powder blue enamel tin mug instead of breakable porcelain?
    Thanks for the brain food Michael!
    B r o o k e

  5. Ceinwen, Beryl, Doug, Brooke - many thanks to you all for your very astute and welcome comments. I didn´t want Birch to be just a black & white character, but at the same time I wanted it to be clear (in his mind) why he did what he did. I think Birch´s late wife deliberately bought him a porcelain mug because, in a sense, you would expect someone like Birch to carry a tin mug around. (Actually, I just made that up!)
    Anyway, thanks again, look forward to your next offerings

    Mike McC

  6. Thought provoking read....I guess we all need to squirm from time to time!

  7. Definitely was a lot of twist and turns while reading it. I was trying so hard to like Birch until the end of course.

  8. The continuing twists and turns pulled me further and further into the story. There was no way to predict the ending, which is the mark of a great story teller. And I agree with the others, I was trying to like Birch, but not about to happen.
    Jerry McF

  9. Well written and evocative. It does engage. Fine job.

  10. Hi steelewendy, Brittney, Jerome and Michael,
    many thanks for reading my story and your perceptive comments
    i´m glad you enjoyed it. it´s always great to receive feedback.
    Mike McC

  11. Love the descriptions in the beginning, and I enjoyed the ending. My only suggestion is sprinkling some more mystery and suspicion of Birch into the beginning of your story. I believe him having killed those women was your twist--a great one, indeed--but it happened very quickly. Sprinkle it in, draw it out, make your reader suspicious yet craving for the answer. This is a fine work, and I think with a little tweaking it could be excellent. Once again, I highly enjoyed this. Great job!

  12. Hi Jinapher,

    many thanks for reading my story and for your constructive comments
    I´m glad you liked it

    Mike McC

  13. I enjoyed this very much. There's a certain distance I felt through out but at the same time, it seemed as if I knew this guy. That juxtaposition is difficult to pull off and you do it beautifully. Thank you!

  14. Hi,

    thank you very much for your comments
    I´m glad you enjoyed it

    Mike McC