Uncle Charlie’s close-up encounter with His Royal Highness

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I’d open my Auntie’s door and she’d be standing at the sink making a cup of tea, as she often was; the kettle would begin to toot on the hob and it was as though I was an admiral being whistled on to The Good Ship 34 North Street. She’d pour the hot water into the teapot with one hand and gesture into the front room with the other: “He’s waiting for Prince Philip,” she’d say, and I’d nod.

I don’t want you to think that the Duke of Edinburgh was visiting Darfield to meet some of the denizens of The North before being whisked off to the Town Hall; no, the Prince was about to appear on the news, and my Uncle Charlie was going to take his photograph.

Uncle Charlie was a keen photographer but, as he said to me many times as we sat in the darkroom he’d made from a cubby-hole next to the downstairs toilet, he wasn’t that bothered about what he called “scenes and folk”. What he liked best was to take pictures of famous people who appeared on the TV because, as he said of stars like Bruce Forsyth and Shirley Abacair, “Such as that’ll nivver come round here”. He stuck the pictures in an album and would pore over them for hours, sitting at the kitchen table in his braces, chuckling and shaking his head.I went into the front room. Uncle Charlie had his tripod and camera set up on the carpet in front of the black-and-white television. “He’s just about to come out” he said, by way of greeting. What always puzzled me was that Charlie never took the fruit bowl with its gleaming apples and oranges off the top of the TV, so his subjects often to be wearing a hat like Carmen Miranda’s. He was hovering over the camera, ready to click the royal personage as he emerged to wave to the crowd. His breath, as ever, came in long wheezing rasps like waves breaking over shingle, a consequence of working all his life down Houghton Main pit.

“Will you be going in the dark room later?” I asked. He nodded vaguely; he could tell by the increased flappage on the flags held by the schoolchildren that something was about to happen. Suddenly the Prince ambled onto the screen and Charlie clicked the camera and the deed was done, royalty was captured. Uncle Charlie sat on the settee with a sigh of satisfaction, the same kind of sigh I imagine Leonardo Da Vinci let out when he’d got the Mona Lisa’s smile just right. Auntie came bustling in with a cup of tea and some fig biscuits.

I loved that dark room of Uncle Charlie’s; I guess we all have sacred places from our childhood where we felt safe and excited at the same time and that tiny space with the developing trays with the fluid in, and the images emerging from negatives, and the comforting sound of our breathing, mine light, his deafening, was mine.

“We’ll develop him in a bit” he said. “I’ve just got a couple of pictures left on this roll. Stand up.” I stood next to Auntie and Charlie snapped us twice holding biscuits. He slurped his tea, smacking his lips. “Come on then” he said, putting the cup down, and we went into the dark to bring me and Prince Philip blinking into the world.