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Death of a Celebrity
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The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Hamish Macbeth did not like change, although this was something he would not even admit to himself, preferring to think of himself as a go-ahead, modern man. But the time-warp that was the village of Lochdubh in northwest Scotland suited him very well. As the village policeman, he knew everyone. He enjoyed strolling through the village or driving around the heathery hills, dropping in here and there for a chat and a cup of tea.
The access to Lochdubh was by a single, twisting, one-track road. It nestled at the foot of two huge mountains and faced a long sea loch down which Atlantic winds brought mercurial changes of weather. Apart from a few tourists in the summer months, strangers were few and far between. The days went on much as they had done for the past century, although sheep prices had dropped like a stone and the small farmers and crofters were feeling the pinch. From faraway Glasgow and Edinburgh, authoritative voices suggested the crofters diversify, but the land was hard and stony, and fit only for raising sheep.
So Hamish felt the intrusion into his world of a newspaper office was unsettling. The owner/editor, Sam Wills, had taken over an old Victorian boarding house on the waterfront and, with the help of a grant from the Highlands and Islands Commission, had started a weekly newspaper called Highland Times. It was an almost immediate success, rising to a circulation of nearly one thousand and that was a success in the sparsely populated area of the Highlands-not because of its news coverage but because of its columns of gossip, its cookery recipes, and above all, its horoscope. The horoscope was written by Elspeth Grant and was amazingly detailed. Startled Highlanders read that, for example, they would suffer from back pains at precisely eight o'clock on a Monday morning, and as back pain was a favourite excuse for not going to work, people said it was amazing how accurate the predictions were.
But Hamish's initial disapproval began to fade although he thought astrology a lot of hocus-pocus. There were only three on the editorial side: Sam, and Elspeth, and one old drunken reporter who somehow wrote the whole of the six-page tabloid-sized paper among them. He did not know that the larger world of the media was about to burst in on his quiet world.
Over in Strathbane, the television station, Strathbane Television, was in trouble. It had been chugging along, showing mostly reruns of old American sitcoms and a few cheaply produced local shows. They had just been threatened with losing their licence unless they became more innovative.
The scene in the boardroom was fraught with tension and worry. Despite the No Smoking signs, the air was thick with cigarette smoke. "What we need," said the head of television features, Rory MacBain, "is a hard-hitting programme." Over his head and slightly behind him, a television screen flickered showing a rerun of Mr. Ed. "People come to the Highlands but they do not stay. Why?"
"That's easy," said the managing director, Callum Bissett. "The weather's foul and it's damn hard to make a living."
As a babble of voices broke out complaining and explaining, Rory leaned back in his chair and remembered an interesting evening he'd had in Edinburgh with a BBC researcher. He had met her at the annual television awards at the Edinburgh Festival. He had been amazed that someone so go-ahead and with such stunning, blonde good looks should be only a researcher. He had been even more amazed when she had taken him to bed. He had promised her that if there was ever any chance of giving her a break, he would remember her.
He hunched forward and cut through the voices. "I have an idea."
They all looked at him hopefully. "Our biggest failure," he said in measured tones, "is the Countryside programme."
Felicity Pearson, who produced it, let out a squawk of protest.
"The ratings are lousy, Felicity," said Rory brutally. "For a start, it's all in Gallic. Secondly, you have a lot of old fogies sitting at a desk pontificating. We should start a new series, call it, say, Highland Life, and get someone hard-hitting and glamorous to present it. Start off by exploding this myth of the poor crofter."
"They are poor now," protested Felicity. "Sheep prices are dreadful."
Rory went on as if she had not spoken. He said that although people did not like to live in the Highlands, they liked to see programmes about the area. With a glamorous presenter, with a good, hard, punchy line, they could make people sit up and take notice, and the more Rory remembered the blonde charms of the researcherwhat was her name? Crystal French, that was itthe more convincing he became. At last his idea was adopted. He retreated to his office and searched through his records until he found Crystal's Edinburgh phone number.
After he had finished talking, Crystal put down the phone, her heart beating hard. This was the big break and she meant to make the most of it. She would be glad to get out of Edinburgh, glad to get away from being a mere researcher. Researchers worked incredibly long hours and had to kowtow to the whims of every presenter. Who would have thought that a one-night stand with that fat little man would have paid such dividends? And she had just been coming around to the idea that a woman can't really sleep her way to the top! She did not realise that her past failure to move on had been because of her reputation for doing just that thing. There were a lot of women executives in broadcasting these days who had got to the top with hard work and brains and did not look kindly on any of their sisters who were still trying the old-fashioned methods, so when her name had come up for promotion there had always been some woman on the board who would make sure it was turned down flat.
Rory, when he met her at the Strathbane Station, was struck anew by her looks. Her long blonde hair floated about her shoulders, and her slim figure was clothed in a business suit, but with a short skirt to show off the beauty of her excellent legs. Her eyes were very large and green, almost hypnotic. Crystal kissed him warmly. She had no intention of going to bed with him again. He had done his bit. He was only head of features. If necessary, she would seduce one of his superiors.
Hamish Macbeth did not watch much television. But he did read newspapers. He was intrigued to read that a new show called Highland Life was to start off with an investigation into village shops in the Highlands. He decided to watch it. He expected it to be a series of cosy interviews.
The show was to go out at ten o'clock that evening. He was about to settle down to watch it when there was a knock at the kitchen door. He opened it to find with dismay that he was being subjected to a visit from the Currie sisters. It had started to rain, and the sisters, who were twins, stood there with raindrops glistening on their identical plastic rain hats, identical glasses, and identical raincoats. "Our telly's on the blink," said Nessie, pushing past him. Jessie followed, taking off her plastic hat and shaking raindrops over the kitchen floor. "I was just going to bed," lied Hamish, but they hung up their coats and trotted off into his living room as if he had not spoken.
Hamish sighed and followed them. The Currie sisters were unmarried, middle-aged ladies who ruled the parish. Jessie had an irritating habit of repeating everything. "We're here to see that new show, that new show," she said, switching on the television set. "Don't you have the remote control, the remote control?"
"I need the exercise," said Hamish crossly. "A cup of tea would be grand," said Nessie. "I'll get tea during the ads," snapped Hamish. "Shhh," admonished Nessie. "It's on."
The presenter was walking down a village street. "That's Braikie," hissed Nessie, recognising a nearby village. Crystal's well-modulated voice could be heard saying, "People deplore the decline of the village shops. The thing to ask yourself is, would you shop in one? Or do you motor to the nearest large town or supermarket? If you do, what are you missing?"
"That's old Mrs. Maggie Harrison's shop she's going into, going into," said Jessie. "Oh, look at Mrs. Harrison's face. It hasnae been rehearsed, rehearsed. She's fair dumfounert." "We're here from Strathbane Television," Crystal was saying, "and we are just going to have a look on your shelves." She picked up a basket. "That skirt is hardly covering her bum," exclaimed Nessie.
"What have we here?" Crystal held up a tin of beans. "Why are so many of these cans bashed?" she asked. She winked saucily at the camera. "I don't think there is one unmarked tin in this shop."
"It's because she gets them cheap," muttered Nessie. "But she sells them cheap. They're fine. How else is the poor old biddy going to compete with the supermarkets?" "And this?" A packet of biscuits. "This is past it's sell-by date."
And so on and on Crystal went, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Mrs. Harrison was trembling and crying. Hamish felt great relief when this horrible blonde stopped the torment, but it turned out she had moved to Jock Kennedy's general store in Drim, and Jock Kennedy was having nothing to do with her disparaging remarks. "Get the hell out o' here, you nasty cow," he roared. And so it went on, from shop to shop.
"So you see," said Crystal, summing up against a tremendous background of mountains and heather, "the decline of the village shop is because they cannot possibly offer the same goods at the same prices as the supermarket. Why mourn their passing? Good riddance to bad rubbish, is what I say."
The Currie sisters sat stunned. "Well, I never, I never," said Jessie.
"There's one good thing," said her sister, "there'll be so many complaints that the show will be taken off." Hamish privately thought that the show would get the response it had set out to get. Infuriated viewers would tune in the following week just to see how nasty it could get, and ratings would soar. There had been very few advertisements, but they would get more.
He switched off the television set and saw the Currie sisters on their way. They were too upset to notice that he had not given them any tea.
Viewers and locals, moved by the humiliation of Mrs. Harrison, flooded into her shop during the following week to buy goods and commiserate with her. Newspapers interviewed her. Elspeth wrote a savage critique of the show and a flattering article about Mrs. Harrison and her shop. The Highlands were rallying behind the underdog and forgetting that Mrs. Harrison sold some quite dreadful goods and that her local nickname had been, before her appearance on television, Salmonella Maggie. Despite Elspeth's writing a further article telling people not to watch the next show because low ratings were the only thing that would get it taken off, everyone in Lochdubh, and that included Hamish Macbeth, switched on for the next airing of Highland Life. This episode was called "The Myth of the Poor Crofter."
Her first interview was with The Laird. The Laird was not a laird at all, but a crofter called Barry McSween, who had earned his nickname by farming several crofts, so instead of having a croft, which is a really a small holding, he had quite a good-sized farm. But the drop in sheep prices had crippled him and his temper had suffered. Sheep were expensive to slaughter because, according to government regulations, the spine had to be removed and that added tremendously to the cost. Hoping that things would get better, he had bought himself a new Volvo, and the camera focused on its new licence plate and gleaming glory before moving in on his red, round face.
At first Crystal wooed him, cooing that things were bad and how was he surviving? Barry, like a lot of people, had privately nursed dreams of being on television. He invited her into his croft house, which in the palmy days had been extended. The camera panned over the expensively furnished living room and then into the large airy kitchen, which had every labour-saving device. Happily Barry bragged about his possessions while Crystal smiled at him and led him on. Elated, Barry preened and volunteered that he had a good voice and would she like a song? Crystal would. Hamish prayed that the unwitting Barry would sing a Scottish song, but he sang "I Did It My Way," in an awful nasal drone during which the camera moved to Crystal's beautiful face, which was alight with mocking laughter.
When he had finished and was sprawling back in his leather sofa with a smug grin on his face, Crystal started to go in for the kill. She said that in the south particularly, people heard a lot about the poor crofter and were not aware that someone like Barry owned so much land and lived in such luxury. Too late did Barry realise the way the interview was going. He blustered about how he could hardly make ends meet. Crystal went remorselessly on. Barry ended up by ordering her out of his house. It was unfortunate that just at that moment, Barry's wife, who had been ordered to stay away because he wanted the show to himself, should come driving up in her Jaguar. It was an old Jaguar and Barry had got it cheap. But his wife kept it gleaming and well-cared-for and it looked extremely rich.
Had Crystal left it at that, the reaction to her programme might not have been so violent, because Barry was not popular, but she picked on another crofter, Johnny Liddesdale, a quiet little man. The extension to his croft house he had built himself over the years. The furniture inside he had made himself. He stammered and blushed during the interview while Crystal made him look like a fool, and a lying fool at that. How could he plead poverty when he had such a beautiful home? Hamish could not bear to watch any more and switched off the set.
Half an hour later, there was a knock at the kitchen door. The locals never came round to the front of the police station. He opened it and recognised Elspeth Grant.
"Come in," said Hamish. "What brings you? Stars foreboding something or other?"
"As a matter of fact they are," said Elspeth calmly. It was early autumn and the nights were already frosty. She was wearing a tweed fishing hat and a man's anorak. She removed her hat and put her coat over the back of a chair. She had a thick head of frizzy brown hair and sallow skin, gypsy skin, thought Hamish, but it was her eyes that were remarkable. They were light grey, almost silver, sometimes like clear water in a brook, sometimes like quartz, and emotions and thought flitted across those large eyes like cloud shadows over the hills on a summer's day. Her soft voice had a Highland lilt. Hamish disapproved of her. He thought her astrological predictions were making clever fun of the readers.
"Coffee?" asked Hamish. "Please." "It isn't decaff."
"That's all right. Did you think I would mind?" "Yes, I thought you were probably a vegetarian as well." She leaned her pointed chin on her hands and surveyed him. "Why?"
"Oh, astrology and all that." He filled two mugs from the kettle that he kept simmering on top of the wood-burning stove.
"You are a very conventional man, I think." Hamish gave her a mug of coffee and sat down opposite her. "Did you come round here at this time o' night to give me my character?"
"No. Did you see that programme?" "The one with Crystal French?" "That's the one." "What about it?"
"Someone's going to kill her," said Elspeth calmly. "Whit! Havers, lassie. Her nasty programme will run one series. Then there'll be another and the novelty will hae worn off and she'll either sink without a trace or go to London."
"I don't think so. I think she'll be killed."
"See it in the stars?" mocked Hamish. "You could say that. It's something about her. She's asking to be killed."
"And who's going to do it?" "Ah, if I knew that, maybe I could stop it." "I am afraid in the world of television, the wicked can flourish like the green bay tree," said Hamish. "Quoting the Bible, Hamish? You?"
"Why not? I am not the heathen. Let's see, you have come here late at night to tell me you haff a feeling." Hamish's Highland accent always became more pronounced when he was upset. "And yet you seem a sensible girl. I don't trust you. I think you came along here to have a private laugh at my expense."
And although Elspeth's face was calm, Hamish had a feeling that somewhere inside her was a private Elspeth who found him a bit of a joke.
She drank her coffee. Then she put on her hat and swung her anorak around her shoulders. "Don't say I didn't warn you," she said.
He leaned back in his chair and looked up at her. "And just what wass I supposed to do about this warning? Phone up my superiors and say I have a feeling her life's in danger?"
"You could say you had received anonymous calls from people threatening to kill her."
"Oh, I should think those sort of calls are already arriving at Strathbane Television."
She gave a little shrug. "Well, I tried." And then she was gone. She left so quickly and lightly that it seemed to Hamish that one minute she was there, and in the next, she had disappeared, leaving the door ajar. He tried to dismiss the whole business from his head, but he felt uneasy.
Rory MacBain was basking in Crystal's success. The first two programmes were to run on national TV followed by the subsequent ones. The switchboard had been jammed with angry calls. The mail bag was full of threatening letters. And that was success. Reaction was success. He was disappointed that Crystal kept rejecting his advances, but the praise he was receiving for having thought up the idea more than compensated for any disappointment.
There would be more money, much more money for the next series. This one had been thought up on the hoof, with less than a week from the idea to the filming. On Monday, the topic was decided. "Behind the Lace Curtains" was to be an expos? of what really went on in Highland villages. Researchers burrowed through old cuttings, digging up scandals that people had hoped were long forgotten.
Crystal, who had little to do, as the research was all done for her and scripts written for her, although she preferred to put her own comments into them at the last minute, decided to head out from Strathbane and cruise round various villages. Her path was about to cross that of Hamish Macbeth and on the very day he felt his world had come to an end.
Yesterday morning, he had read his horoscope, Libra, in which Elspeth had written, "You will receive news on Monday which will make you feel your heart has been broken. But remember, no pain, no gain. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a whole new chapter."
"Rubbish," muttered Hamish. He fed his dog, Lugs, and was just getting ready to go out when the phone rang. It was Mrs. Wellington, the minister's wife. "I don't suppose you know," she said. "Do you read the Times?"
"No," said Hamish.
"I thought not. It was in the social column four days ago and it's all round the village. I said someone's got to tell Hamish, but then I decided that, as usual, it would have to be me."
"Tell me what?" asked Hamish patiently. "Priscilla Halburton-Smythe is getting married.... Are you there?" "Yes."
"It was in the social column. She's marrying someone called Peter Partridge." "Thank you." Bleakly.
Hamish put down the receiver and sat staring blindly at the desk. Lugs whimpered and put a large paw on his knee. Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of the colonel who owned the Tommel Castle Hotel, had at one time been the love of his life. They had even been engaged. She might have told him. He told himself that he had got over her long ago, but he still felt sad and bereft.
He remembered his horoscope and suddenly got angry. Elspeth would have heard the gossip, Elspeth heard all the gossip. She must have found out the date of his birthday. She must have found it very amusing.
He patted Lugs on the head and said, "Stay, boy." He would go out on his rounds as usual, he would work as usual. Life would go on.
He was just getting into his police Land Rover when a bright green BMW did a U-turn on the harbour and raced along the waterfront, well over the speed limit. He jumped in the Land Rover and with siren blaring and blue light flashing, and holding the speed camera gun that was fortunately on the front seat out of the window with one hand, trained on the fleeing car, he set off in pursuit.
The BMW stopped abruptly on the humpbacked bridge that led out of Lochdubh. Hamish stopped behind it and climbed down. He leaned down and looked into the BMW and Crystal French looked back.