When I was eight, I knew everything. I mean I’d read all the Enid Blyton books, been on a school trip to Southport, and had a pen pal in France. I had seen it all. I also thought my mum was really boring. All she did was buy me books, get me private tutors, make me do verbal reasoning tests, and tell me that I was going to be a doctor. And that being a doctor was the only profession in the world; anyone who wasn’t a doctor had never even heard of the word “profession”. How dull.
So when I was eight, it came as a huge surprise when she bought me a camera. I was disappointed. I wanted a space hopper like my friends, something fun that I could bounce around on. Not a boring camera.
I said: “A camera? What do you want me to do with that?”
“It’s a Polaroid,” she beamed.
It was as drab as you like. A big grey brick with a slit in the front for some reason. “It’s a Polaroid!” she kept shouting, as if it were the crown jewels.
She then told me that the minute I took a picture, the photo would pop out of the front, and we wouldn’t have to take the film to the chemist and wait two weeks for our snaps to come back. She took a picture of me standing in the garden, and it came out immediately.
She waved it in the air to dry, and then said: “Come and stand with me and we’ll watch the photo develop.” It was like watching magic happen before our eyes. And as the photograph appeared, all of a sudden my mum changed before me too. I never thought she’d ever buy me anything as exciting as this.
I immediately starting taking photos of everyone: my brother on the toilet, my sister brushing her teeth, my mother cleaning the sink. I loved the whole process, from seeing what I wanted to photograph, to actually taking the picture, it shooting out straight away, then watching it dry, and looking at it for days afterwards.
I now saw the world as things to photograph. I started sneaking up on people and taking photos when they weren’t looking. That was my favourite, I felt like I was taking real “natural shots”. I took some photos of my very old grandmother; I didn’t know her very well, but I liked her a lot in the short time I knew her. She died shortly after I had taken a Polaroid of her, and I always kept that photo by my bed.
When I’d taken that photo of grandma just sitting on the settee talking, I showed it to my mum and she said, “I wonder what she’s talking about? I bet she’s moaning about your dad. Why is she wearing that white suit? She could have worn the one I had made for her.” And that would start a conversation between us that we would never normally have.
I would show my mum all the photos I’d taken and she’d be critical, telling me how I could take better ones. It changed my relationship with her, as it gave us something to talk about. Before the Polaroid, our conversations would be limited to: Have you finished reading your book? Have you revised? Why not? It was a series of orders, and a lot of disappointment, not really a relationship of any kind.
I also became cool at school for about two days – until everyone else got a Polaroid too. Since I was the first of my friends to get an instant camera, I felt like I was ahead of my time; I was trendy and interesting. Thanks Mum! Now everyone wants to be like me.
My mother was no longer the dictatorial, humourless person I’d thought she was, and I was no longer the unruly, naughty, disruptive know-it-all I always thought I was. The camera gave us something creative to do together, and something to talk about other than my up-and-coming career as a doctor.
The camera created an instant bond between us. We laughed together, gossiped about the people I took photos of, and – best of all – I still have those Polaroids today.
Every time I look at them, something reminds me of my mum, and I think of that camera as a fun little adventure we both went on, before I got my exam results and the mood would change for ever.