Bleak North - Photos, Stories and Reflections from the Highlands

The Writer

It is comforting to me that Andrew can be described as a man with no redeeming features. Were there to be any single feature, any hint of something, - anything, - that relieved the noxious toxicity of his character, I would find it hard to continue with this narrative and I would have found my own part in its conclusion an unbearable burden and one which I would have carried with difficulty from that day to this.


Instead, I find myself largely unperturbed by actions which would, with anyone less odious, have roused me to the heights – or depths – of self loathing.


Andrew was a man who, from the outset, had not been blessed with the natural advantages of physique or looks. Nor had he improved with age or effort. Where others successfully compensated for their physical shortcomings by the gradual development of wit or charm or intelligence or compassion or even some enviable skill, Andrew had singularly failed to make any such efforts. It was as if he had taken one look in an unflattering mirror and had decided there was nothing to be done. He would spend the ensuing years reinforcing and deepening every unfortunate feature with inner characteristics to match.


He was a boiled sweet of a man. There was no soft centre, no subtleties of texture, colour or flavour. He was hard and unchanging, through and through. The only recognisable changes were the inevitable consequences of time and erosion and even they had marked their progress with nothing more than the stench of psychological decay.


To use an unfortunate cliché, what you saw was what you got; and what you saw gave no hope of any pleasure from the encounter. His outer appearance was as clear indicator of what lay beneath as if it was a mere, transparent shell.


His tiny, round eyes set so far apart on his face that they appeared to have no real connection with each other, were enlivened by no soft or witty light, had no variety of tone or meaning, were nuanced by no hint of life and laughter within. They were as blank, cold and unemotional as stones in concrete.


His lips embraced a tight, narrow slit of a mouth, reptilian in character, which had acquired no flexibility to suggest subtle and interesting workings of an acute mind, or to express a considered, caring or empathetic response to others. They did not open to reveal the potential for laughter, curve with the hint of a smile, close with sadness or melancholy or tremble with compassion. They were thin and cold.


In all, he had the look of a man who had found his eyes and mouth in a sale and, being taken with the bargain price, had paid no attention to their appropriateness for the setting in which they would be placed. It was indeed unfortunate that both the head, which was large and impressively cylindrical and the nose which intervened between eyes and mouth as if between warring factions, were disproportionately large and gnarled.


Bedecked in a dark raincoat and overly large jeans Andy’s stooping figure was to be seen most days walking the neighbourhood.


He was married to a young woman, a year or two his junior, who seemed disconcertingly contented. Perhaps she had emerged from some crisis and, in a state of mental anguish and distress, had succumbed to imaginary qualities she willed herself to see in him. Or perhaps Andrew had greater social assets banked than he ever withdrew to spend within his community?


Any momentary optimism quickly vanished, like dreams of flying, when rudely awakened by a subsequent chance meeting with the man. What his wife saw, or tolerated, would remain a mystery to everyone, tantalisingly hidden behind their private veil of intimacy.  


They lived just beyond the village, where the lane turned a sudden corner to face an exhilarating stretch of straight road, extending for perhaps a mile, before another corner, somewhat sharper than the first, veered alarmingly left. Young drivers, overcome by the sense of freedom that the open road offered were, like Toad, drawn to test their skills to the limit. Having accelerated violently down the straight mile they had to decelerate by the prompt application of brakes in order to accommodate the requirements of the corner.


It was a challenge that, perhaps five or six times a year, someone would singularly fail to accomplish. On such occasions, the morning (since such escapades were often the adrenalin fuelled consequence of night time boastfulness in the presence of male and – particularly – female passengers) revealed tyre marks leading through a fence and into the adjacent field.


Often, there were no other signs of the intrusion, the damaged car having sufficient reserves of strength to extract itself and flee the scene. Occasionally, the vehicle would remain and its shamefaced owner, guilty of failure on so many levels, would require the assistance of older and more experienced hands, to recover both equanimity and vehicle.


At least annually, violent sirens would accompany a flurry of rapidly moving vehicles disturbing the village and heading towards the corner. A day or two later, flowers would appear by the fence and another family would mourn the tragedy of a daughter, a son, destroyed.


Andrew was revolted by the stupidity and selfishness of the drivers. Every night, he heard the aggressive change of gears and the sudden, ugly acceleration and the sound breeched his concentration just as it did the silence of the evening. He found himself hoping they would crash.


‘No great loss if they did crash,’ he said. ‘Let them kill themselves!’


He found himself particularly irritated by one particular youth from the village who stubbornly refused to crash or to die in a tangle of metal and smoke. Each day that this youth continued to thrive felt like an insult.


‘He’s doing it on purpose,’ Andrew muttered. ‘Anyone else would have had the decency to crash! It’s spite, that’s what it is!’


Foolishly, he gestured at the youth to indicate he should reduce his speed to the level acceptable to a fifty four year old neighbour – namely himself – but this rash action, undertaken at precisely the wrong moment, had quite the opposite consequence to the one he desired. Had his gesture been made when the youth was alone in his car he may well have reflected on the inherent danger of his parents hearing about his recklessness on this stretch of road. This alone might have caused him to reduce speed for the duration of his transit of Andrew's house.


Unfortunately, he had, at the time, three passengers in the car, one of whom – a young lady – he had a particular desire to impress. The other couple, seated behind him, howled with derision at Andy’s impertinence. The youth felt he had no choice. Not only did he accelerate even more aggressively than normal, he also indicated his profound lack of respect by a prolonged application of hand to horn.


It was a course of action that he subsequently repeated on each occasion that he passed the house. He felt increasingly comfortable now that it became clear that Andy’s cowardly failure to confront his parents on the first occasion, which had caused him some temporary anxiety, was the result of a timidity that was unlikely to change.


That was when it began.


Faced by the contemptuous and insulting behaviour of the young hooligan – who was, in fact, nothing of the sort and was merely betraying the exuberance of youth of which he would later repent, - Andrew felt compelled to restore his self esteem and to register his superiority (if only in his own eyes), by taking strategic action.


His strategic action was characteristically mean spirited and underhand.


He secreted himself in his office, a private room which had served as a third bedroom under previous occupancy but which now acted as a private sanctuary. Here, secure in the knowledge that he would remain undisturbed, he set about his work.  


Having previously acquired from a number of untraceable sources – bus seats, park benches, even waiting rooms and surgeries – a variety of nondescript publications which shared no feature other than bearing no resemblance to any publication that he would normally read, Andrew composed his messages.


They were simple in format but dignified and literate in style. It was important not to allow grammar or spelling to hint at a less than discerning mind. Andy’s pride would not allow him to extend his subterfuge to the detriment of his literary acumen. He tested his wording on his computer and, having satisfied himself that his choice of phrasing betrayed no lack of fluency nor presented meaningful clues to his identity, he deleted them and began work with cheap paste, scissors and nondescript paper bought in modest quantities from a supplier at some distance from his home.


The letters, six in total, were identical in wording but varied in presentation. Typically, they informed shocked parents that their young, teenage daughters were risking their lives as passengers in an aggressively driven vehicle (whose make and colour was specified) and were under the influence of a predatory young man whose suitability as a companion for their vulnerable offspring they may wish to question. (Andrew made his selection of targets based on nothing more than their occasional proximity to the youth).


These letters were posted together (at a safe distance and involving some careful diversionary antics) and Andrew eagerly awaited the outcome. His inner mirth turned to glee as tiny scraps of information gradually fed their way down to him. Reactions had been typically varied but fathers whose normal response to an anonymous letter would be to present it immediately to the nearest bin, felt obliged to taker some action because of the reference to their beloved daughters. One or two made enquiries, satisfied themselves that their children were in no danger, warned them to be vigilant and let the matter drop. Two or three, however, whose children were closer to the youth, were immediately quizzed about the boy’s driving habits and general behaviour. In two cases, their daughters were immediately forbidden contact with the boy on pain of financial penalty and loss of privilege.


The father of the young girl who had been seen by Andy took more decisive action. Being a man of few words and a propensity to immediate action, he achieved a sufficient level of ignition from his immediate response to the letter to project himself along the street to the door of the boy’s house. There he made it clear to the bemused parents (who until that moment had thought of their son as a typically exuberant but intelligent, malleable and caring boy) that his daughter was off limits then and forever. Any breach of these conditions would result in an immediate act of painful retribution involving broken legs, severed testicles and the local dogs.


The boy himself, who we may now identify as one Darren Harley, was severely shocked. He too, until these recent events suggested otherwise, had viewed himself as a compassionate, quite intelligent, sensitive sort of boy. He was, he admitted, rather prone to the occasional rash action but these were of a generally playful nature. He also admitted, under quiet inquiry from his parents, that he did rather show off in his car and perhaps drove rather more recklessly than he should. However, it was something of a revelation to find himself portrayed as a danger to his friends and as some sort of sexual predator. This latter accusation was a particular frustration because Darren had an unfortunate habit of falling deeply in unrequited love on an almost habitual basis and the extent, to date, of his sexual experience, was little more than a few inept fumblings and premature ejaculations, often premature by as much as twenty four hours. It was rather galling to be warned off before he’d even made a start.


Of course, the car was immediately rendered inoperable, much to Andrew’s delight. Darren’s mortification and subsequent social decline were, of course, of no consequence.


I heard of Darren’s misfortunes some days later having, rather typically, come late by the information that was already old news in some circles. I met him in the nearby market town and such was his look of misery, rather like a scolded puppy, that I took him for a coffee and engaged him in what I hoped would be reassuring conversation about the events that had so overwhelmed him.


Did he know who was responsible for the letters, I wondered?


He didn’t. He had spent many hours, he told me, running through an exhaustive catalogue of possible and impossible contenders, all to no avail. Who, he wondered over and over again, could think so ill of him and dislike him so much to act in such an underhand and hurtful manner? It was impossible, at present, for him not to view every person he knew with suspicion, and no amount of reasoning could completely eliminate them. He had even, he laughed, considered whether I was capable of such a thing. I was relieved that he rejected the idea as preposterous.


‘You are far too lazy to spend all that time cutting and sticking,’ he smiled.


‘Well,’ I told him, applying the bandage of a comfortable cliché. ‘Whoever it is, whilst they’re picking on you, at least they’re leaving someone else alone.’


I reassured him as best I could. It would all fade into forgetfulness soon enough. The plague of locust gossips would move on to somewhere else. No-one liked the cowardice of anonymity. Those who had reacted with passion and thoughtlessness would regret their actions.


I left him some time later a little reassured. I said nothing but, even then, I had my suspicions.


For a number of days, Andrew stood by his window, beaming uncontrollably. He looked round for someone with whom he could share his delight. Unfortunately, there was no-one. He did not, as a matter of principle, keep secrets from his wife, considering such a thing incompatible with true affection. However, he was conscious that this latest activity would not receive unconditional support and that he might, were he to make a full disclosure, rather diminish than grow in the eyes of his beloved. On this occasion it was perhaps wise to remain silent.


The consequences of his letters had been far greater than he had ever imagined but, to Andy’s thinking, no less well deserved. He rubbed his hands together with the satisfaction of a job well done.


In fact, such was the satisfaction he felt, it was only a matter of weeks before he found himself looking round for another target for his campaign of social improvement. Since he was a man of mean spirit and selfish motivation he looked, first and foremost, at people against whom he had a real or imaginary grievance. This latter category was by quite large, consisting of anyone for whom he felt the slightest envy.


Over the following weeks Andy engaged in a period of research into the lives and mores of his neighbours. His primary source material was the local shop where, were he careful to enter at prescribed moments, he could overhear the proprietor and individual members of her circle, engaged in a process of dissemination from which he would normally be precluded.


He very quickly found himself armed with sufficient weaponry to begin his assault. His first target, much to his delight, was a local solicitor. This gentleman, Ian Tennant, had caused some resentment in the bosom of Andy by rejecting on behalf of his client a perfectly respectable offer on the cottage that was now Andy’s home. Andy had been obliged to dig deep and extract a further three thousand pounds from the recesses of his miserly wallet before the deal could be completed.


It is an unfortunate fact of life that the profession of solicitor rarely prompts the out-flowing of empathy that a career such as a vet or nurse might elicit. People are generally quick to believe the worst that can be discovered even on the flimsiest of evidence. Corruption and misdemeanour are, after all, considered to be in their genes. Gossip attached to this poor individual not only a rather unglamorous affair with his receptionist but a fraudulent deal by which he had acquired his own rather stately mansion home.


Andy was surprised to find he was completely disinterested in the veracity or otherwise of the rumours he heard. He was, instead, excited at the prospect of continuing his exhilarating hobby. The letters were painstakingly composed and carefully forwarded to where he felt they would have the greatest impact and do the maximum harm.


One arrived at the Tennant household and was addressed to Mrs. Tennant. One was directed after some research to the husband of the maligned receptionist. A third anonymously registered a complaint about misconduct through official channels. A fourth landed on my desk where I had taken on a voluntary role as co-editor of a local newspaper which was circulated to homes within the village and the neighbouring hamlets and farms. I chose to ignore it but was only too aware of the significance of a second such incident in a matter of months.


The evidence of distress within the solicitor’s immediate familial and professional circles was apparent. Although the local gossips were late in acquiring full coverage it was evident from the pallor of his complexion, the troubled expressions of the whole family, the accusatory and suspicious looks, the shock, that all was not well in the Tennant household. I never heard how the cruel lies were received by the husband of the receptionist, but she was notably absent from her position for some days and, although she returned for a few weeks, it was not long before she felt a change of career was likely to be beneficial for her future familial security.


Andy was overjoyed at the success of his second venture and was quickly in pursuit of as third, a fourth and a fifth.


‘Sow a seed and watch it grow!’ he muttered with self congratulatory justification. ‘If they weren’t guilty they wouldn’t care!’


Wives and husbands were accused of misconduct on the flimsiest evidence.


‘Ask your husband / wife where they were last night.’


 Unemployed men who, in their empty hours, offered help to a neighbour and were rewarded with a few pounds, found themselves subject to humiliating investigation and unnecessary exposure.


‘Sew a seed,’ Andy muttered, between smiles of contemptuous disdain, ‘If they weren’t guilty……. It isn’t right behaving like that …… I wouldn’t ……’


My suspicions, which had been aroused quite early in these proceedings, unfortunately without the comfort of supporting evidence, were finally confirmed when, returning from a night with friends, I saw his unmistakeable, furtive figure emerge from the garden of my friend Jason. Jason, following an extensive battle against recurring bouts of the darkest depression, was sufficiently in control of his condition to exert his not inconsiderable energies to support local youngsters through a youth club and a variety of social enterprises. His support for Darren had been loud and wholehearted which, no doubt, had aroused the ire of his malevolent neighbour, and had prompted the current retaliation.


I hid in the shadows and allowed Andy to make his hunched and secretive escape. I followed him until he slipped quietly into his own house. In the flickering light that momentarily eradiated his face I saw a smile of ghastly self satisfaction that was unmistakable. I no longer had any doubts.


I became aware that he had sunk to new level of malice when, the next morning, I was disturbed at an early hour by a repeated hammering at my door. I opened it to find Jason, half dressed and dishevelled, his eyes fearful and wild. His trembling hand held a piece of paper. Poor Jason could not speak; he held the paper and indicated I should read it.


‘Your behaviour with the girls has been noticed. The police will be calling soon.’


A similar note, it later transpired, had been sent to Jason’s employers.


‘Visiting adults are concerned by Jason’s behaviour with the girls. Please investigate.’


The surge of anger I felt, especially as I saw Jason’s emotional disintegration, required careful control. It was, I knew, a mistake to act in the heat of the sort of disgust and anger I then felt. However, I had no doubts that it was necessary for me to act.


I contacted my co-editor.


‘We could write a piece about the letters as a matter of general information,’ he said, ‘but you need much more explicit evidence if you are to make any specific accusations. You may be certain that you are right, but your evidence is flimsy and could be easily contradicted. Besides, this is a matter for the police not for a village news sheet. Find more and then come back. Then we’ll nail him through the proper channels.’


Evidence proved remarkable easy to come by. Three nights icy observation from the lane outside Andy’s house provided me with two adequate photographs of an evil, cylindrical head hunched in callous concentration over newspapers which he was carefully cutting and pasting on a separate sheet. I followed him as he crept to the vicarage and watched as he pushed the letter through the letter box. I took the precaution of inviting Jason to accompany me on this latter excursion.


The poor minister, whose interest in his aging female parishioners was of a demonstrably platonic kind and who had never betrayed the slightest indication to the contrary, found himself accused of a clandestine relationship with a flimsy little lady whose only crime in life was to misjudge her own ability at flower arranging.


The minister was, thankfully, a man of sufficient metal to show the contemptible letter to his wife and then, upon request, hand it to me to add to the bank of evidence I was acquiring. Neither he, nor his wife, thought any more about it.


I was now ready to act.


It would, I confess, have been proper at this stage to take the advice of my colleague and hand the matter over to the police. Andy would be suitably punished and his malignant presence in our community would be at an end. This should have been sufficient.


For me, at least, it wasn’t. I wanted him to feel something of the helplessness of his victims. I wanted him to be aware how agonisingly impotent they were when faced with a document to which they had no means of redress, being ignorant of the identity of their accuser. I wanted him to share something of their despair.


I suppose, if I am truthful, I wanted to hurt him.


My medium, so to speak, would be the same as his. I would use the power of the printed word. I knew I would have to do so without the support of my co-editor but, fortunately, the day to day running of the paper had fallen to me. It was a simple matter to circumvent him and produce an edition of which he had no knowledge. However, there were journalistic procedures I needed to follow.


‘Now I must advise Andy that I am planning to run the story before handing my evidence to the police,’ I told myself. ‘I must ask if he has anything to say. He has to have a chance to defend himself, even if his victims had no such chance,’ I thought.


It was only as I left the office that the course of action I was considering became clear to me. It raised a smile and then a quickly stifled laugh. I hastened to see Jason.


The first letter we composed was very simple and, if I may say it, very stylishly presented, being carved from the glossiest colour supplements we could lay our hands on at short notice.


‘I know the writer is you,’ it said. ‘You have five days to respond.’


The delight of our plan was, of course, its simplicity and its inherent justice. Like his victims, he was not provided with the means to defend himself.


The second letter, sent twenty four hours later, was more specific, but similarly finely presented.


‘All your victims will be told. You have four days to respond.’


I was pleased to imagine the fear and panic that would be assailing him, the futility of his search for the identity of his accusers, his desperate search for an alibi, an excuse, an explanation or exoneration. None, I knew, would be forthcoming.


The third letter was more accusatory. It was a list of names of those who had suffered by his callous spree. ‘Darren, Jason, Ian, Tanya……….. Three days to respond.’


I imagined the sleepless nights, his dread at the reaction of his wife, his neighbours, his fear of retaliation. I am ashamed to say that I felt not even a fleeting moment of compassion. I busied myself, secretly, preparing my article, the photographs and the evidence.


The next day we simply sent a copy of one of the photographs I had taken.


‘You have one day to respond,’ was the terse message.


No response was, of course, forthcoming, and the next day the special edition of the news sheet was produced. That evening it would be distributed. The information I held would be passed to the police. It was time for my final letter.


‘Since you have failed to respond we will now proceed to publication.’


Delivered at the same time as this final letter, was a copy of the news sheet. Andy’s furtive figure was on the cover, clearly hunched with scissors, news print and paste. The headline emblazoned above it said simply, ‘Revealed’. The article, which focused more on the suffering of the innocent parties maligned in the letters and the generally shameful nature of anonymity, concluded with a specific challenge.


‘If you dispute the content of this article, I invite you to take out civil proceedings against me.’


Andy’s drive was empty the next morning. His car had gone and there was evidence of rapid packing. A week later a van arrived and the rest of his belongings were removed.


There was a subsequent court case, held some months later in the nearby town. Pleas for understanding and evidence of mental health issues coupled with obsequious expressions of regret and remorse, were sufficient to produce a non custodial outcome.


My own part in his downfall was not entirely condoned. There was some expression of concern that I had targeted and persecuted Andy and that such matters were better left to the police. I was accused, in a veiled manner, of vigilantism. It was felt that the delay between acquiring my evidence and passing it to the police was unacceptably long. I accepted such criticism with good grace. Since my objectives had been fully achieved, I felt I could respond with a generous show of humility. I had, after all, acted from a sense of understandable, if misguided, outrage, they said.


I did not care. I had resigned my post as co-editor of the news sheet, of course. That was inevitable. An august journal more familiar to its readers for its joyful coverage of fetes, galas, shows, clubs, births, death, comings, goings and the events of the local school, was felt to be the wrong medium for the airing of such sordid linen. When the matter was taken up by a Regional and then National newspaper, my own part, originally praised and celebrated, was felt to be having a demeaning effect on the status of the village. Such public notoriety was not in keeping with the tranquil and community orientated image the village worthies wished to present.


It was not many months before I too chose to move on.


For reasons I still find it impossible to explain I cannot completely eradicate the emotions I felt at that time. I feel contaminated, soiled. I have recently felt it necessary to take a shower at least twice each day. I wash and scrub my hands. There is some dirt there that I cannot see and that I cannot remove. It has seeped deeply into flesh and bone.


There is no soap that can cleanse memory.