My shaking finger was poised and ready; I was aiming at his head. I had never shot royalty before and now it all came down to this one moment.
He was on the other side of a small room in conversation and bound to turn towards me. I had dug myself into a real hole. I had one shot; failure was unthinkable.
The conversation seemed to be coming to a close. The back of his royal head was beginning to twist and reveal one of the most famous faces in the world. Instantly, I fired.
Prince Charles immediately stopped and closed his eyes, half blinded, his face screwing up in displeasure and discomfort. I could hear him muttering expletives before he regained his composure.
I could have died. The flash-gun had unleashed a grossly disproportionate payload of white light into his eyes as he turned from his dutiful examination of the shop owner’s wares.
I immediately looked at Camilla standing directly opposite me, barely a few yards away. Her eyes met mine and in that moment we both understood each other. A secret smile, the faintest of expressions, told me that it was alright; she understood and she sympathised and I wasn’t going to the Tower of London to be consigned to a life of torturous incarceration in its infamous dungeons.
Following Lady Diana was like replacing Keith Moon. The media scrum that was never far away, the circus that Charles so obviously despised, was interested only in insulting and deriding her. She had only had bad press, a little like Linda McCartney, the woman who had dared to marry Beatle Paul. I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of Camilla or any of the royal family. That moment of kindness, however, was very gracious.
Inside the nauseous claustrophobia of the tiny Cornish art shop she had been standing facing me, so close that we could have whispered to one another, and I hadn’t been sure whether I should photograph her or not from such close range. She couldn’t have avoided me and I could have clicked away a hundred shots. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and couldn’t make myself do it.
I felt that I couldn’t initiate contact because I was supposed to be invisible; I wasn’t to interfere in royal business, I was there to document it in a silent and respectful manner: but It was almost as bad ignoring her as it was invading her privacy by shoving my lens in her face. Looking back, when I replay it in my mind, as I do sometimes, I wish I had asked her permission for a photograph. I think she might have said yes.
As far as I was concerned coverage of the royal family was just another media soap opera designed to sell newspapers. I found the media’s obsession with them distasteful and embarrassing. There was no doubting, however, that Prince Charles was one of the most recognisable celebrities in the world and that upsetting him was a big deal for a naïve photographer like me.
Charles didn’t look at me once as he filed past, almost brushing my jacket, as though he didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing that I had upset him. It was just another chapter in his daily battle with the paparazzi he so despised.
I was in a strange dream and had been from the moment that my bad-tempered boss had called me up to tell me that he was sending me to photograph royalty. It was my thirty-second birthday and the very day that I was moving in to my new home in my new city, living in my new life and doing my new job. All of a sudden I was facing a very different assignment to the routine cheque presentations I had been expecting. It came out of nowhere and when I asked for advice from my boss (as he had urged me to do a matter of days before) I received an ear-full of abuse.
I loaded my equipment up, strapped some of it to my back like a marine going into battle, and wandered through the drizzle into the circus scrum.
My first instinct was simply to follow the pack and do whatever they did. The village was tiny and most of the shops were too small for more than one photographer to go in with the royals. With unusual fairness and civility, it was decided that we would take it in turns.
A few of us followed them into a tiny church shortly after their arrival. As soon as the doors opened the Women’s Institute burst with fervent enthusiasm into song and did for Prince Charles’ considerable ears what I was later to do for his eyes. The royal couple did well to remain in the building and not turn around immediately and flee.
Later, my turn was to be inside the tiny art shop. That was my showdown with the heir to the throne.
When the showdown was over, back in the office, I went through the usual routine of cataloguing the pictures, choosing the best, printing out photocopies of them and delivering them somewhat warily to the picture desk where my boss may or may not be lurking and poised for attack.
At the end of the day I made my way to my new home. My wife and I sat on the floor in the conservatory, overlooking the wood, looking up at the stars and sharing a takeaway meal whilst waiting for our furniture to arrive. We felt excited and optimistic but I was living through an out-of-body experience. I could scarcely process what was happening to me, but a small, rational, part of my mind, didn’t trust any of it.