by Harry Downey
Id like to tell you about a young woman I know - Sharon Jennings, her name is. Shes a neighbour - has been since she was a baby. She lives in the same tower block as I do, two doors away on the eighth floor. I enjoy my privacy so, I wont say exactly where that is except its in south London.
I like Sharon, and her mother, Sheila. Ive become a sort of substitute father to the family a bit more like a grandfather really. Theres a younger sister, Kylie, but she shows signs of going wrong at a young age Im sorry to say. Sharons fine, though. Those sociology people who do these things would have her down as a no-hoper - minimum potential material or something like that in that jargon they use. Their files would have all the boxes ticked - brought up by a single parent; living where she does they would expect her to be on drugs; bullied at school, probably a drop-out from there as well, pregnant in her teens, and later either in a dead-end job or living off benefits. Theyve been proved wrong on pretty well everything and no-one is more pleased than me about it. Let me tell you some more.
Sharon was a happy child. At thirteen or so when my tale begins, no-one could find anything to dislike about her. Plain, bespectacled and plump with straight, straggly hair, the girls at the Thomas Round Comprehensive didnt see her as a challenge with the boys so they didnt bully her. Sharon was well aware of boys but they didnt seem to be aware of her except as just one of the gang, and a pal who happened to be female. A friendly outgoing teenager, usually one of a crowd, avoiding all the pitfalls the experts said were lying in wait for her.
If there was a problem with Sharon, it was one shared by all the kids she knocked about with, and was as much down to the world we live in as anything else. That was their obsession with what they called celebrity. People Id never heard of were their idols and they lived and dreamed other peoples lives. I cant understand it personally but then Im not their age. Sharon was just like the others, and forever seemed to have copies of magazines writing about the doings of these people who meant so much to her. As individuals and as a group the peak of ambition was to become famous - to be in the papers or to be on the telly. It didnt seem to matter what for. Just being famous thats all. I find it all rather sad.
In school she wasnt stupid, but certainly wasnt academic and her results consistently put her at the bottom end of her class. But, and its a big but, when she showed me the reports every term every single one said something nice about her and her behaviour.
Unique is a much misused word but our Sharon was just that at the Thomas Round School. Nobody could match her record for attendance. Right from day one in the First Year Sharon had turned up for school every single day. Sometimes with colds, once with a sprained ankle when she hobbled in on a stick, and even when there was a bug of some sort going the rounds that gave most of the others in her class an excuse for a couple of days off ? Sharon went to school. Quite an achievement - and I know her mum Sheila was very proud of her.
There was a teacher at Thomas Round, Jonathan Pilkington his name was, a likeable young chap, who had taken a shine to Sharon. No, not in that way - Jonty had his own steady boy-friend - but he saw something in her and tried to encourage young Sha to develop what he felt was in there somewhere. He taught the kids some of the basics of computers and also tried to interest them in his own hobby of photography. Apparently he had all the proper gear at home, lenses, dark-rooms, tripods, developing tanks - stuff I know next to nothing about - and he allowed the class to see some of it sometimes; in end of term lessons and that sort of thing.
Then one day he brought in a couple of those new digital cameras that were all the rage then and becoming more popular by the week. He gave all the kids a few goes each and allowed them to take pictures of whatever they wanted - almost inevitably most of the pictures were of the children snapping each other. Then with his Computer Teachers hat on he showed the class what he could do when he put the images into the PC gismo - something else I dont know much about - and did things with them to turn them into better pictures. The kids were fascinated and I can imagine that, knowing them as I did, quite a few of the lads were wondering where they could steal a camera from, or if they had to pay for one, who they could mug to get the money.
Sharon joined in with the others and took a few pictures but it was what the teacher and his computer could do with this basic material that impressed her most. She was so thrilled as she told me about it, and I was delighted that shed found something she could do and enjoyed doing. It must have been obvious to Mr. Pilkington too, as a few days later he gave Sharon a camera. It was one of the very first digitals that had come on to the market, inevitably Japanese, and already out of date as this weeks top of the range model became obsolete by next Wednesday. No more use to him it but to Sharon it was a dream come true.
She took it to school with her - despite warnings from her mum, me and apparently Mr. Pilkington too. Once she realised there was no film to buy and she could re-use whatever took the pictures inside the camera she was over the moon. Every spare moment Sharon was out snapping away at something or other. The teacher was a real brick. He stayed behind after school whenever Sha had photod anything and put it through the computer. Then as Sharon learned, he allowed her to doctor the pictures herself - and any that were special he let her print out in colour for us to see.
November came and there was a freakish spot of early snow: Sharon managed to snap a robin eating from a hanging net of nuts the kids at the school had put out. Beginners luck or what, it was a smashing picture. The bird with its brilliant red breast against the snowy background, it really was lovely. It could have been a proper Christmas card. Between them the two cropped the picture their word, not mine ? and framed it. Oh, Sha was so pleased.
Things went on from there. Jonathan e-mailed the picture off to the local paper and they printed it in all its full colour in the special <<Yuletide Post>> edition. They sent a young woman reporter round to interview Sharon who became tongue-tied, so Jonty and the reporter concocted something nice to go with the two photos they printed Sharon and her robin picture. Sha became very emotional and tearful.
Not everyone welcomed what had happened. Inevitably there was a degree of jealousy that ended in Sharons camera being stolen. Everyone thought they knew who did it - one girls name came up regularly - but, without proof, the investigation got nowhere.
Sharon wasnt camera-less for long. At the final assembly before the Christmas holiday the Headmaster made an announcement that to mark the wonderful and unequalled attendance record (his words) Sharon Jennings was to receive a special award. It may appear a bit corny and perhaps obvious but Sharon was given a new digital camera. With even more pixels than Mr. Pilkington has. The Headmaster fancied himself as a bit of a wag.
The Post printed another article about Sharon and her new camera - using much of the same material as before. Whether or not the publicity was to blame nobody knows, but the new Muji 549F was stolen on Boxing Day from Sharon as she was out taking photographs of the queue at the local B & Q Sale.
Sharon was distraught. Her mother and I talked about replacing the stolen item for her, but we couldnt afford to. So Sharon was left with memories, a particularly lovely photograph and lots of other decent ones on the school computer, and the beginnings of a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings - but no camera.
Somehow, even though it was the holiday, the news reached Jonathan Pilkington. Clearly he knew people who knew people and had contacts, and within days Sharon was called to the local branch of Comet. There she was greeted by the Area Manager and the store management, the same young woman from the local press - and a stringer I believe they call him from the Sun - and left an hour or so later with a replacement camera that exactly matched the one just stolen, and lots of accessories and bits and pieces all donated by well-wishers. I was with Sha and her mum and it wasnt only those two who were wiping back tears that day.
Sharons story was in the nationals over the next couple of days and two more reporters came out to interview her. By then she was becoming a little less nervous in her responses but still came over as a likeable, unassuming schoolgirl. She had even become confident enough to take off her glasses when she was being photographed. Her scrapbook was becoming quite bulky by now but her mum and me did our best to keep her feet on the ground. Fortunately it wasnt too difficult. She was still our Sha.
By now Sharons lot were in their final year. She was still down near the bottom of the class, still never missing a day and still busy taking photographs of everything that interested her. Mr. Pilkington was giving her advice still, but that was more on the computer side than on the picture-taking aspect. Her mini-celebrity was now a thing of the past and any resentment due to her few weeks of prominence had almost gone. Big plans were being made by all the youngsters in their search for fame and fortune, and those that couldnt even dream of the heights were beginning to think of life in the real world.
It was three weeks before the end of term and the final year children had the day off while some of the juniors were taking their exams - and as Sharon said - on those days they want all the teachers they can spare for watching and invigorating. They wont stop the cribbing but theyre trying to keep it down. Yes, invigorating was the word she used. I hadnt the heart to correct her it was probably the longest word Id ever heard her use.
Sharon was patrolling down on the Broadway, with the inevitable Muji in her hand. Shed taken a handful of photographs, more for something to do as she said nothing special and probably for deletion later on. She was clicking away at a traffic warden arguing with an Escort driver just as two men ran out of the National Westminster Bank. Brushing aside a man delivering next door, they dashed for a white van, taking off their masks as they did so. The instant they were in the van, it pulled away, knocking a cyclist off his bike as they went. Sharon managed to take three pictures and she was checking their quality as the first police car arrived.
The men were arrested two hours later and all the money recovered. Sharons photographs didnt help in the arrest - the police had already had a tip-off and knew where to look for the gang. Her pictures were just extra confirmation of the mens identities. As the arrests were already made the photos were not needed by the authorities. Instead they were in the papers next morning with headlines like Plonkers (The Mirror) and How thick can you get? (The Sun) both papers making fun of thieves who uncovered their faces in a crowded High Street.
She didnt know which was better - the generous cheques or seeing her name on the front page of National papers. Sharon felt just then she really was on the way to becoming a professional photographer. More for her scrapbook. The bank sent Sharon a small cheque and invited her and her mum to a presentation. The Police called her in and presented Miss Sharon Jennings with a Citizens Commendation. Then Sharon left school.
Jonathan and the Headmaster made a few phone calls and Sha was offered, and jumped at, a job in the local PCWorld - in the section selling digital cameras. She wasnt brilliant at it, but her likeability and enthusiasm helped her make a few sales and she qualified for staff discount on her occasional purchases.
Now a few years on from those days Sharon - still at PCWorld, still living at home and still taking pictures right, left and centre - has lost some of her puppy fat, wears contacts instead of her old specs and turned into an attractive young woman, attractive enough to have a steady boy friend - one Im pleased to say I approve of. Shes had no more strokes of good fortune and life has settled into a predictable routine for her. Whatever happens, even if its nothing special ever again, Sharon has had her touch of glory and celebrity - partly proving that weird-looking American bloke with the funny name was right when he talked about Everybody being famous for fifteen minutes.
One final point. Theres now a Sharon Jennings Attendance Prize at Thomas Round School waiting to be won by someone. It will be given to the first pupil who manages to equal Sharons record of never missing a single days school in his or her time there. Somehow I dont think the prize will ever be won. Thats good for Sha but sad in a way as shed been told that she would present the award personally to the winner. And that would have meant another photograph from the local paper to go into her scrap book.
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