There are no pictures of me after my 12th birthday, which is when she started to notice what happened.
My mother used to joke how I would always cry as a baby after having my photograph taken, but now, reflecting upon that, it's hard to see the funny side.
She told me again and again that I could not be photographed; I thought she was just being a weird, controlling mother, perhaps worried that some sort of pedophile would want to letch over snaps of me. That's why she didn't want me on the internet, that's why she didn't want me to go out, that's why I couldn't have my picture taken. But it was for my own good, that's what she said, and I know that's true now.She took me to doctors to try and figure it all out, wrapped me up in sheets and bundled me in the back of the car just in case, and she'd stake out the waiting room for CCTV and the like, unsure as to whether that might have a similar effect. I could just about see through the dark cloth sheets, I'd stare at the other parents and children who would, cautiously, stare at me, but only when my mother wasn't looking, they didn't mind and didn't know that I was looking right back at them.
The doctor said that there was nothing wrong with me and my mother tutted and sighed, he wanted to take some x-rays to make sure and she called him bad names and dragged me out by the hand and back into the car.
She had taken me out of school, I was getting home tutoring, and the teachers would be subjected to rigorous searches; they couldn't bring laptops with web-cams or mobile phones with digital cameras. One of them asked my mother if she was Amish, she pointed sarcastically to our large plasma screen television.
I asked my mother if I'd have to stay like this forever, she rubbed shampoo into my hair and said that one day I would be my own responsibility and then it would be up to me.
My mother died of a brain aneurysm a few weeks after my 19th birthday, I was too scared to attend the funeral, I said goodbye to her in the front room and then people from the funeral directors took the coffin away.
My Auntie came round afterwards and told me it was a lovely service, she'd brought some sandwiches from the wake in a Tupperware container, they were fish paste.
She said that if I needed anything I could count on her, and then she became serious and told me that I would have to get a job, that it was strange for a girl of my age to be at home all the time. I told her that I couldn't go outside, she scrunched up her face and said not to be silly, but then she sort of bit her lip, became more considerate and asked if I'd ever seen a psychiatrist. I said I hadn't and she said she'd look into it for me.
My aunt arranged for the psychiatrist to visit, she asked if she wanted me to be there as well, but I said it was ok. I was nervous, but I reasoned that I would need to begin to face things on my own now.
The psychiatrist introduced himself to me, juggling some binders of paper from arm to arm in order to shake my hand. He pushed his round framed glasses back up his nose and shuffled awkwardly past as I closed the door behind him. I made him a cup of tea and he batted, somewhat embarrassed, at a dusting of biscuit crumbs that had fallen on his green woolen vest.
After telling him about my mother's, and my, fears -during which he scribbled the occasional note on yellow paper - he began by asking me if I had any sensitivity to bright lights, I told him that I didn't, and he mumbled something about photophobia, before proceeding to suggest, more to himself than anything, that it might just be cameraphobia. He asked if there was any reason my mother might have been afraid to let me be photographed, any incident that I can remember that might have created this paranoia?
I told him about my 12th birthday party, that it was the last time any photos had been taken of me. He asked to see them.
The psychiatrist came back every Wednesday, and we'd talk, at first about my past, then about school, what I wanted to be, how I thought I could be those things if I wished to continue this hermitage.
'There are cameras everywhere,' he said.I told him that I could work from home, and I'd already been looking into some simple work I could do in the meantime to earn some money.
He asked if he could conduct an experiment, if I would permit him to take one photograph of me in order to observe the effects.
As soon as he began speaking those words a cold shiver wrapped itself around my skin, as if I was standing in the cold bathroom after a hot shower. I told him that I didn't feel comfortable with that, he tried to explain his reasoning, but I didn't want him to, I kept telling him to be quiet, but he persisted until his voice lost its earlier calm quality and began to sound like a petulant whining child. I repeated myself over and over, but he just wasn't listening, he didn't seem to care, I wanted him to leave.
I stood up and opened the front room door indicating that he should go, but he sat there in that chair like a dumb animal, a look of ignorant innocence on his face, and I wanted to scream at him, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, so I just reached forward and grabbed his bags and threw them outside of the house and, sheepishly, with an accusatory face, he followed.
That evening I was sat in the front room, the TV was on but it didn't show any channel, it just gave off a blue light. I had turned the heating up even though I was trying to save money on the bills, I just wanted to feel warm and didn't fancy wrapping myself up in layers of clothing and quilts. It was getting late, but I wasn't sleepy, in fact I was preoccupied with thoughts about those old photographs.
I knew that in my mother's room there was a box in which she kept the photo albums, she hid them away, but I knew she liked to look at them, I had seen her many times, through the crack between the door and the frame, sitting on the edge of the bed, smiling and turning the plastic covered pages.
My auntie had been the only person in my mother's room since she had died, I had managed to almost erase its existence from my thoughts, and when I opened the door it kicked up dust that twirled, dizzy in the moonlight. The box was at the top of the wardrobe, squashed between neatly folded piles of linen, I eased it down carefully, standing on my tip-toes.
Thick books, with slightly squashy blue covers, inside pages of photographs held behind sticky plastic leaf, other scraps, party invitations, birthday cards, leaflets of holiday destinations.
Pictures of my family, my father, my mother, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and strange children I don’t really recognise anymore, some familiar faces, youthful, radiant. In the pictures that I appear I often seem sad, separate from the fun around me, I remember being wary of cameras as a child. But there is nothing distinctively wrong with these photos, other than my peculiarly glum expression for a four year old.
I turn the page, it’s Christmas, a few years later, I’m standing on a step ladder, my father supporting me, putting the Angel on top of the Christmas tree.
Over the page and we’re on a Summer holiday, I must be about ten years old, my father had left by then, I’m not the only one looking sad in the photos now, my mother seems anxious.
My twelfth birthday, these are the last photos of me, and I look as sullen as ever, no smile as the cake is brought out, awkward posture as my family sings happy birthday, and then the perfunctory, hurried blowing out of candles barely caught by the camera.
The rest of the album is empty. I put it back in the box, though underneath is a video cassette. My mother’s television has a VHS player built-in, so I turn it on, insert the tape and watch. It’s the same moment from my twelfth birthday as captured in the photos, the blowing out of the candles, the camera follows the cake from the kitchen, all alight, as it moves – carried by my mother – into the darkened dining room where I, and my relatives, are gathered around the table.
As the cake approaches they begin their sing-song; ‘Happy birthday to you…’
The camera follows the cake, there are flashes as my Uncle takes the photos I saw moments ago, and it pulls back as I lean forwards, hurriedly, to blow out the candles, someone shouting; “Make a wish!”
As the camera looms on my face, the room disappearing into darkness, there’s a confused gasp from one of my Aunts, someone turns the lights back up and I look different, older, and I seem to be ageing as they stare at me, there’s a worried gesture, I am confused, turn to look into the lens and I am a teenager, fourteen or fifteen. My mother drops the camera.