Team

It is time to return from our travels. We are a well functioning team now: Me, Tala and the class bear who is vacationing with us this year, much to Tala’s delight. We arrive back to find the house practically immaculate.  The plants have fared less well and a ground floor window is wide open, but in the scale of things I am very pleasantly relieved.  I race through the laundry, cook and catch up with Okha who looks better than I have seen her for years: Natural and rosy and effusive about her trip to Venice with the girls.

I decide to go by train to visit Rob the following day. The very thought of Euston station makes me shiver, as it will be forever associated in my mind with the day of sentencing, but I feel too tired to trust myself in the car as I am already running a sleep deficit after the day’s travelling.  It’s just me and Tala for the visit as Okha has to work again and hasn’t yet grasped the fact that she needs to plan ahead to be free on visiting days.

It isn’t an easy journey by train.  Prisons are generally located in remote locations, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps to keep this undesirable segment of society away from the general population, perhaps due to land values.  Whatever the reason, getting there for us involves a cycle ride, a tube trip, a fast Birmingham train, a wait, another slower, stopping local train, and finally a cab.  We leave at 10, arrive at 1.30 and aren’t actually processed until after 2 so that we miss a significant half hour of our visit.  No one even mentions it, let alone apologises.

As we are herded between the various holding bays and doors that have become familiar to me, I spot the prison officer who was so kind on my first visit when I couldn’t stop the floods of tears.  Although weeping wives and crying children are a familiar sight, I am amazed that she remembers me and asks how I am doing.  I tell her that she was right and that I am getting used to it.  She asks how long we have left, is shocked by my reply, and looks once more for all the world as if she would pop inside and bring him out to me if she could only deal with the admin involved in such an act of common sense.

Our chatting has broken the conversational stand off between the families and one girl with startling pale blue eyes asks me if she has lipstick on her teeth. She doesn’t, but we lament the lack of mirrors caused by phone separation.  She hates visiting.  It makes her feel judged and guilty.  I don’t feel like that when I am with the other families because I suppose that we are all feeling the same mixture of anticipation and longing and a curious sensation somewhere between shame and defiance.  Being Saturday there are many more children here: Little girls with fancy hairstyles, party dresses and frilly socks and small cheeky boys with patterns shaved into their hair.  It is a big day for us all and we want to impress.

We can’t spot Rob at all in the hall.  Then we realise that the cool, slim, bearded gentleman on a far table who is smiling and waving maniacally is actually our Robbie, just much, much hairier.  Tala is practically crying with laughter.  Clearly incarceration is no grounds for an exemption from the mockery of one’s daughter.  He is a little insecure about his new look, not having seen himself in almost 6 weeks.  Glass, mirrored or otherwise, is obviously an immediate and deadly weapon, and so there are no mirrors on the inside, only strange vaguely reflective surfaces that necessitate a considerable leap of faith for the subject to imagine his actual appearance.  To me he looks beautiful, always and forever I suspect.  The beard feels nice to kiss too: slightly furry and springily soft.

I get a running commentary on many more of the men than usual, as he has gotten to know more people as the weeks have passed.  His social standing has been greatly enhanced by a genuine and mutually rewarding friendship with one of the brothers from the next door “pad”, by his teaching and, I am sure, though he would never say it himself, by the general good nature and cheeriness that he brings to bear in even the darkest of situations.  Two tables away he spots a man who he is teaching to read and write.  He is severely dyslexic, but is persevering and making progress.  Sometimes they do very little actual work as he is struggling so badly with being inside that learning is all but impossible.  His wife is fighting to cope on the outside and he is caught in a cycle of self loathing and powerlessness.

Rob is developing a fascinating knowledge of the criminal underworld.  He arrived as an innocent man, but when he leaves he will certainly be well versed in the machinations of the underbelly of which we would like to believe we are not a part.  The truth is that though there are certainly some nasty characters banged up here, a generous proportion of the prison population are not in for violent crimes. Drugs and mental illness provide the majority of prison fodder. Surely we can do better?

So quickly the time is up.  We cling together again, almost suffocating Tala between us. He says that he won’t look back as he leaves.  The men, marked out by their practical but humiliating netball bibs, flock back together and greet each other again after their brief subdivision into both nuclear and extended family groups.  Like a sports team coming off the field after a glorious match, they reunite, puffed up by the individual attention and love.

I see Rob with his mates.  He looks properly at home with them now.  The long hours spent together in far from ideal circumstances allow the formation of deep bonds.  Comrades in arms.  Like Orpheus attempting to return Eurydice from the underworld he cannot resist glancing back however, and finds us jumping up and down at the back of the exiting visitors so as to remain visible ’til the last precious second.

By | July 31st, 2016|

Frogs Lizards and Camels

My house is threatening to become something that Gerald Durrell would be proud of: There are tubs covered in cling film containing water, rocks and small perturbed frogs, and piles of lizard bait in unlikely places, so that as I dash for the ringing phone, I crunch through artfully placed rice crispies, scattering small emerald-backed reptiles in my wake.

Every conversation now has to be conducted at pace. There is so much to ask and so precious little time, and almost everything I say seems woefully trivial, but he sounds solid and that is above all what I am probing for. The good news is that post seems to be getting through again and the robe and slippers have finally been delivered.  Keith has the same robe in grey and Rob is pleased that I went for the blue as any sporting of matching lounge wear may be considered as going a step too far in the name of solidarity, or worse still, evidence of romantic involvement: matching his and his accessories are definitely not the look he was after.

He has been outside five times since his arrival, always for less than an hour and this despite the beautiful weather.  From his cell, beyond the fences topped with razor wire, he can see tree tops shaking in the breeze. He seems to feel much more at home now, having worked out who to avoid and who to engage with and is excited about training as a resettlement worker.  He will be “red banded” in this job which means more freedom of movement within the prison as well as the facility to do something useful.

Keith is working in the library, a great post that suits him well.  I wonder what the local libraries will think, negotiating the delivery of requested titles to the prison, with this well spoken, effusively polite man. Only Charlie’s double glazing sessions are a disappointment, being of dubious quality that leave him feeling ill prepared for this future career path and failing to unlock his inner tradesman.

They pass the time playing cards and any board games they can get their hands on and don’t seem to long for things beyond what they have.  They have some interesting new neighbours, Pakistani brothers who are extremely entertaining and regale them with outrageous stories. As I am speaking to him, thanks to the miracles of technology, I am standing on a hillside looking out towards distant hills over a valley of pine trees dappled in morning sun.  I feel burdened by the happiness I feel, and so, not being one to sit with guilt any longer than absolutely necessary, I confess to feeling truly content.  Amazingly, with so much less reason, he feels the same way.

Above all I feel overwhelmingly grateful for him, however far away, and for all the friends that I have. People have been so kind to us that it is hard not to see that the underlying human condition is love.  This is not to deny that there is a minimum level of comfort needed in order to appreciate this world without fear of hunger or cold or illness, but understanding that this bar is set materially and emotionally much lower than I ever thought, brings a freedom that I had not anticipated.

I remember when we discovered that HMRC were bringing criminal charges Rob’s biggest worries were the jobs of the people who worked for him.  Being charged with fraud isn’t great for business and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to retain his staff.  He did however, until the conviction, at which point his company folded and several people who were much more than employees and who had been with him for over fifteen years lost their jobs.

For Rob however the lengthy custodial sentence has been paradoxically freeing.  For years he juggled bushinesses, wages, offices, a mortgage, and a dependant wife and children.  To be taken to a place where you can no longer provide and to have the majority of your possessions taken away is for him fantastically liberating.  It is said that a camel passes more easily through the eye of a needle than a rich man through the gates of heaven.

I believe that Rob feels more free in the bowels of Hewell that he has for many a long year battling out in the world to be successful. He is getting a second childhood now inside: a return to boarding school where the primary aim of existence is to have a laugh and to break as many rules as possible without getting caught.  The basics are provided and you don’t have to think for yourself.  In jail as everywhere there are good and bad people, and the good ones probably have better stories to tell than most.  I am anticipating some interesting dinner parties in the future.

I meet some of Anita’s friends.  It is only after I leave them that I remember that they undoubtedly know my story.  For the first time in nearly three months I don’t feel defined by what has happened.  Day by day, prison and separation cease to dominate my existence.  I don’t feel strong: The mere thought of something happening to one of my children assures me that I have no mandate to claim any kind of inner strength.

I remember a story that I was told as a child.  A man looks back at his life and sees two sets of footprints walking in the sands of time: His and God’s. He notices that there are also dark periods where only one set of prints can be seen.  The man asks God why he deserted him in his moments of need and God replies that at these times he was carrying him.  This is the overwhelming sensation that I have: Of being carried on the thoughts and prayers and blessings of family, friends and beautiful strangers.

I release the frogs back into their watery paradise and disincentive the lizards from massing on the terrance with dustpan and brush.  It is a beautiful world, here more than almost anywhere (to me at least).  To be confined to a cell, or, if you are frog, to a makeshift tuppaware prison is a travesty indeed and yet to be free and never to realise it – to long for what is not, is arguably more tragic than any physical incarceration.

By | July 24th, 2016|

Planted

I decide to go away for a couple of weeks with Tala. Okha has entered the world of full time work with its meagre holiday allowance and can’t come.  It is a hard decision to make as we will miss two prison visits.  It feels selfish and also essential to go and decompress.  I know what the weekly visits mean to me and I still have all of the rest of my life, so I can only imagine how important it is for Rob to see us and live vicariously in quasi normality for a couple of hours, but I am craving nature, and sun of course, like every long suffering Brit.

The thought of spending the school holidays kicking around London, battling to deflect attention away from screens and into more wholesome activities, is unappealing and so I book flights to Ibiza to visit wonderful Anita who has broken her leg in a bizarre dog walking accident, then to Portugal to help some of my dearest, oldest friends cook for thirty people three times a day in their yoga retreat centre.  That should keep me out of trouble! Rob is as always just pleased for us.  He seems to be able to cope with what he is (or rather is not) living, as long as he can see that at least we are happy.

The journey starts very badly.  I attempt to print our boarding passes and am informed that Tala’s passport is out of date.  A frenetic Google search confirms my fears that although we are still part of Europe, (technically if not emotionally), a valid passport remains a prerequisite for travel.  Our suitcase is packed and waiting by the door, Tala is chomping at the bit to leave.  I feel stupid and negligent and unsure, but I can’t bear to fail already before the escape has even started and so I shove her birth certificate into my bag, grab the cases and go.  Perhaps no-one will notice?

Aboard the Stanstead express I almost bolt, cut my losses and return home, but the doors shut and we are committed.  It’s a rather fraught journey. I approach the eerily empty Easyjet desk and suddenly I know that I can’t spend the entire onward journey like a stowaway waiting to be unearthed.  I have no appetite to find myself on the wrong side of any kind of regulation right now and so I come clean with the check in guy.  He seems promisingly unfazed and nips out through a hidden door into an office that must be bisected by suitcases lurching through on conveyor belts only to emerge minutes later after a brief phone call and inform us that in fact, you can travel to Spain for a full year with an expired passport. Success! Tala and I cheer and whoop and high five each other. We shall go to the ball!

It is fun to travel light. Just the two of us and one bag, Tala traversing the smooth airport surfaces at speed on her Heeleys. It reminds me of when Oki was small and we were a little team, who grew to three when we found Rob and then a balanced four.

We stay in the little apartment that overlooks the house where we have stayed every year since Tala’s birth.  It is perfect for the two of us and better still, friends are staying below and a sort of idyllic commune evolves where the children run wild, stopping only to be fed in one place or another or both and long lazy afternoons are spent catching frogs or lizards in the way you could imagine that children used to before the advent of TV.  I feel the pace change and we are happiest when we are doing nothing, listening to the cicadas, delighting in the soft breeze, the heat, the light and the colours.

I have been surviving on the cast iron support of the people around me.  It is a wonderful thing to realise that somehow, despite my many failings as a friend, I am totally held.  There are new people too who trouble themselves to write to a stranger, and connections to a wider community – journalists who might take our story forward, and amazingly the CEO of a flourishing NGO for prison reform who lives on my street and is charming and informed in equal measure.  All of this is exciting, but I know that I need to ground myself and put down roots again as the separated person I must now be.  It is time to start now.  I allow myself to begin to feel joy again, anticipation even for the new life.

Rob still manages to call almost daily for a minute or two.  It is the only contact I have now without his funny, informative letters.  I can still email him, but again he has much more of our news and I know very little of what is happening in and around him.  Yesterday they were let out into the yard for forty minutes.  Despite the fact that prisoners are entitled to a daily hour outside, this is the first time that he has been out in well over a week.  Whatever paltry light enters his cell through the window is all of the outside that he gets most days.

I see old friends who still don’t know the story.  It never fails to shock.  It is hard to reconcile the thought of Rob with his strong inner light locked away from the world. A friend told me this though, and I repeat it like a mantra when I falter: Sometimes when you think you have been buried, you have actually just been planted.

By | July 20th, 2016|

Norse Code

All emails and post have been withheld from prisoner A8003DT, AKA Rob for almost a week.  Days with nothing despite the fact that I write and email two or three times a day.  I am slightly worried that this is the result of the fact that Tala communicates almost entirely in ancient Norse these days.  She has leant this skill at school and has sent Rob the alphabet, minus a few letters that she couldn’t remember just to keep him on his toes.  It is her way to keep the uniqueness of their bond, the written equivalent of a private whisper. It is quite possible that this is considered to be a seditious code by whoever has the unenviable task of checking all communications for potential subversiveness, but I’m not sure how to rectify the situation other than emailing over a Norse translation guide.

When I go on the “email a prisoner” website to see what I can do about the non delivery of mail (Rob can’t do anything from his side, and neither it seems can I from mine, despite paying 35p per mail), I come across text stating that prisoners who receive regular communication from friends and family are six times less likely to offend.  It’s a shocking statistic and further proof if any were needed, that offending runs parallel with dislocation from society.  Our boys just want to put their heads down and find the fastest way back to their lives, whereas for so many inside, as ugly and harsh as it is, prison is their life and they have very little to go back to.

When I answer the brief, regular call that Rob is able to make more often now that he has some phone credit, I can hear that he isn’t good today.  He has survived another Black Eye Friday without personal incident, but the lack of communication, the system, the powerlessness and the sheer craziness of what is happening all shows in his voice for the first time.  Being locked up and shut down, and not being able to do a thing about it must be torture for a man who has always initiated, innovated and resolved.  Not even the antics of those who have treated themselves on Friday night and are now so off their faces that they are attempting to jump off the landing from the 3’s (second floor) down on to the 1’s (ground floor) or remove their trousers in the hallways can bring him out of his funk.

I fire off three emails in a row and head them with a capitalised plea for them to be delivered.  I wonder if anyone really cares.  No one has managed to deliver the slippers and robe yet either. There is zero accountability for the staff and moral is on the floor with grim working conditions, poor pay and nothing to hope for.  There is one kind lady screw (screwette) who has promised that she will try to find the missing correspondence, but as a resident in a jail you have no rights to a good service.  You can hardly take your business elsewhere, and so standards are allowed to remain pitifully low in terms of both reoffending and living conditions.

The result is a bunch of disenfranchised, demeaned men, who collectively despise the system they are in and the people who put them there -hardly the right climate in which to foster the fundamental change of attitude needed for reintegration into society.  If we want our prison population to do more than learn to make pretty much everything necessary for transporting illegal substances into and around prison using little more than loo roll, bed sheets and biros, then we’d better get some proper, full time, serious rehabilitation going.  It is hard to loose sleep over the sacking of Michael Gove, but I do hope his prison reforms aren’t axed along with him.

On a more positive note and despite a recent attempt to prevent books being sent to prisoners, Hewell actually connects up with all the local libraries so that with a little effort it is possible to get hold of almost any title. What I need are some suggestions! If anyone has read anything fantastic or even just moderately good recently, please let me know, or write Rob a postcard with your recommendations to the address under the “letter bomb” blog post.  At present most of his time seems to be taken up by learning some extraordinary jailbird practices such as how to fashion an enema kit (useful for those who might have ingested large amounts of narcotics they would like to eject promptly from the body) from a biro and a plastic bottle, so please don’t be shy, the bar of entertainment value has not been set very high.

I’m also interested in the recipe for “Orange Juice and Jacob’s Cream Cracker Champagne”. Apparently the yeast in the Jacob’s ferments the OJ, and, if started early enough, will produce a drinkable vintage by Christmas.  Rob is obviously famously T total, but there is a vicious rumour circulating that Keith may not be, and it is so tricky to find a fitting gift for your nearest, if not (I hope) dearest, on that special day.

By | July 18th, 2016|

Survival

Prison is no place for the weak.  The threat of violence is pervasive.  On friday the blocks echo with the sound of forced entry into targeted cells where it is known, or suspected that the occupant will give up their canteen purchases without a fight.  Not having yet received any of their weekly money and goods, it is too early to tell whether Rob will be targeted, but it is clear that if he is, he will fight.

The alternative is joining the ranks of the dispossessed, men like N, a tragic figure who roams the block looking for stray dog ends and who is relieved of the little he receives by the bullies who own him.  There is nothing to be done for him.  To intercede would start a full scale war with less exit strategy than Iraq.  You are on your own inside.

Every cell is fitted with a panic button that the guards insist you should use if you are intimidated.  No one ever does: You push the button, what then? Maybe the guards come, perhaps they even move you into another block, or solitary, but you still have to move around the prison and news travels fast here.  Snitching isn’t tolerated, so you have to make your bed and lie in it. You live on your wits and by the friendships and alliances you strike.

There are great people here too: Guys with borderline or full blown mental illness and hysterical stories to tell as a result of the whacky decision making that results from these sojourns into alternative or parallel realities. ADHD seems to abound.  There are bright sparky young men who have simply become bored with polite society and whose attempt to enliven it with the odd petrol bomb in a car has landed them inside again.  Funny, clever kids with extraordinary resourcefulness who can get illegal goods into locked cells and between separated blocks with nothing more than a toilet roll and a bed sheet, who can’t cope with societies rules and so pay the price with their freedom again and again and again.

Rob meets an autistic genius residing at her Majesty’s pleasure as a result of tapping into mains gas pipes to fuel the bunsen burners necessary for producing an experimental personal batch of LSD from weed killer, unfortunately miscalculating and causing a large explosion and a rapid exit via an upper story window.

In jail applied physics that would warm the cockles of any science teacher’s heart abounds as phones are charged using TV’s that have had various cables amputated, (which explains the state of Rob and Keith’s set), and “lines” between blocks and rooms are counterbalanced and tensioned with socks and soap.  I sense a vast oasis of talent and character and resourcefulness that for one reason or another is working against society rather than for it or at least has been deemed to be.

Rob has been teaching in the classroom and will soon qualify to do some one to one work out of normal classroom hours which will allow him to move around the prison more freely and get out of his cell more frequently, which is the ultimate aim of anyone trying to work this system advantageously.  The listening role that he would ideally like to train for can’t be pursued yet as it would mean that Hewell would put a hold on him for 6 months and he is desperate to get out of here: It is by all accounts one of the worst prisons in the country, and though he is not complaining, he wants to move on to a category C where he can settle into a stable routine, get more deeply involved in his education and try to forge some kind of recognisable life for the next two and half years, before he moves on to category D.

In the interim however, he is currently teaching maths to a pleasant and capable schizophrenic.  A certain frisson is added to the sessions when his student complains that the voices in his head are getting very loud, exacerbated by the dull roar that is the norm in the classroom.  Rob has to try to get the outside teachers to lower the volume of their charges somewhat, or risk the execution of whatever actions “the voices” are suggesting.  It is rewarding work though and he seems to be good at it, as he is already being personally requested for new sessions.

As much as a cat B lock up is a pretty grim experience on many levels and the level of care afforded to the men in terms of helping them to stay physically clean and mentally sane is diabolically poor, I sense that Rob is very genuinely incredibly grateful for this first hand experience that so few of the people who might have the power to change it, will have.

Back home, with the safety net of relative financial security gone, Okha is also learning fast what it is to work hard.  Her hands are sore from washing hair and her spirits are somewhat dampened by the monotony of the reliable persona she has adopted to hold down this job.  She is beginning to piece together a trajectory through to the next stage, towards a life where she will have choices and possibilities. There really is no substitute for experience.  A few short weeks of responsibility have had more effect than all of my impassioned lectures, considered or ranting.

Something is happening to me too. I feel the urge to do or create something beyond my family.  A framework for a future I must and want to provide for.  I have no real idea where this will take me, but it smoulders in me insistently and interestingly.

By | July 15th, 2016|

Sleep Driving

Visiting is intense.  I see Charlie and Katie and their beautiful, heartbroken daughters huddled together around their table, heads almost touching, hands clasped, shutting out the exterior babble and creating a brief precious space together.  Everyone in the room is trying to make the best of whatever has happened in their lives that has led them to this point.  No one wants to be here, and at the same time it is the highlight of our week.  As soon as we loose sight of our men, we begin counting down again until the next fleeting reunion, the next fix.

When it is over we are all spent, but I have a further task to perform before we can head back, as getting the aforementioned robe and slippers through security is a mission of its own.  I have to take the items back down to the visitors entrance and wait until someone can come out to take them from me.  After twenty minutes or so one of the guards emerges at a leisurely amble and leads me into another waiting room where I wait a further twenty minutes and listen to him painstakingly listing off the entire contents of a prisonbag that has been brought in for another inmate.

Tala just wants to get out and is all for abandoning our package on the desk, but I manage to persuade her to stay the course and so we wait and sign the forms and watch our offerings get bagged up and tagged by the amiable, red faced, sloth paced guard who is doing his best to prove that he has a heart and is here to help, despite all of the red tape.  Almost everyone that I encounter in the visiting process is unfailingly polite and kind and I am never made to feel like a criminal myself, but if they could just be fitted with a second gear.  I wonder if a daily shot of valium is the only way to survive the job?

Finally we hit the road home.  About half an hour in I am already struggling to keep my eyes open.  Tala offers to pull my hair for me at random intervals which is helpful and does keep me on my toes, but still, the urge to sleep is overpowering.  When I was a baby and my mum ran out of patience trying to get me off to sleep, she resorted to putting me in the car (in an unsecured carrycot – it was the 70’s) and driving around until I dropped off.  Far be it from me to reprimand any mother for any action taken in pursuit of a quiet life, but if she does find herself relieved of her first born in a tragic car crash she only has herself to blame…just saying…

On top of the tiredness I am also feeling panicky.  If something terrible were to happen to us I am certain that even this tragedy wouldn’t change Rob’s incarceration.  Okha would be left dealing with the loss of us alone on the outside and he would still be trapped inside with (perhaps I flatter myself here) unimaginable grief.  It’s a ridiculous train of thought, but I can’t seem to turn it off.  The giddy feeling of ultimate responsibility for the children is one of things I least enjoy about this experience.  I remember it well from my single mother days.  It feels so much safer when there are two people at the top of the pyramid.

I’m torn between keeping up the breakneck speed that will get us home quicker and is at least providing a form of adrenalin that I hope might keep me awake, or the more sensible option of pulling into the slow lane, or stopping at the services. I stick in the fast lane.  Go big or go home.

After another fifteen minutes or so of the intermittent hair puling and the occasional unnecessarily vicious pinch, I push through the tiredness and come out of the danger zone.  Eventually, by eight o’clock we are back home safe and sound.  I cook as we all need something real to eat.  I even manage to elicit ten minutes violin practice before ushering Tala off to bed.  She has very little fight left in her and is asleep within seconds.

I drag myself back downstairs to clear up.  I seem to have made a strange but irritatingly binding pact with myself not to let things slide whilst Rob is gone, so I water the window boxes, put on some laundry and call his mum which is no chore at all as I adore her.  I tell her truthfully that Rob is in fine fettle and actually managing to have a quite a laugh all things considered. From the anecdotes I have heard today, in many ways prison is not unlike boarding school, but with worse prospects and much naughtier friends.

By | July 13th, 2016|

No Words

It is visiting day again and there is the inevitable scramble to combine leaving on time and not looking like a bag lady.  We are a reduced crew as Okha is working today, so I collect Tala from school and head off up the M40 once more.  I am worried that the sight of that visitor’s room filled mostly with women and babies waiting in line for this brief, hampered access to their loved ones will prove too much for me again.

Evidently Tala has the same fear and she squeezes my hand as we enter and asks if I’m OK today.  She is not particularly impressed by the way I’ve been coping in the past weeks and perceives the fact that I have succumbed to illness as a clear sign of weakness.  She herself is extraordinarily resilient and seems to be able to keep Rob perfectly present in her life via her nightly drawings and letters and the continued allegiance to the T shirt/scarf sleepwear combo.  (I recently plucked up the courage to sniff test the T shirt and found it still remarkably fragrant.  I wonder if clothes, like hair, eventually self clean when left to their own devices for long enough?

Much to Tala’s delight the sniffer dogs are out today, having successfully intercepted a consignment yesterday according to one of the wives.  We are channelled into a special corridor with designated orange squares upon which we are each instructed to stand separately whilst the dogs are led in figures of eight around us.  Tala is desperately trying to attract the dogs over to her, not grasping the fact that all children entering the prison are viewed as potential drug mules and that canine affection at this juncture would not be conducive to a swift entry into the visiting hall.  Finally, after the third fingerprinting check point I spot Rob and we race across to him.

As soon as I touch him I can feel that he has lost weight. He feels sweetly familiar, but also different, less mine. Tala is guffawing in derision at the beginnings of his prison beard.  Prison razors are notoriously ineffectual and if ever there was a time to experiment with lavish facial hair it is now, far from Hoxton and any possible hipster association.  One of the wives confides to me in the waiting room that it had taken her husband an hour and a half to shave his chest with a standard issue razor. I am genuinely impressed by his dedication to the cause, but then as she points out, he hasn’t really got anything better to do.

I manage to procure some herbal tea in the cafe and recklessly augment my order with array of peanuts and brownies.   Rob is hungry, and it feels somehow important to share in this experience and to provide some sort of focus, so we plough in and send our blood sugar rocketing into orbit.  I quickly acclimatise myself to the beard. It lends him a fugitive air that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

I struggle more with what is happening around his eyes. They look slightly red and certainly tired with more pronounced lines.  He looks sallow.  He looks I suppose as you would look without access to the outdoors.  It’s a shock to me.  Rob loves to be outside.  Any brief respite from the seemingly perpetual cloud cover heralded by the advent of British summertime would find him sitting outside, back against the garden wall, face in the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the warmth and the air.  As a boy he worked every holiday on local farms, sloughing off the negative connotations associated with being the rector’s son by grafting longer and harder than everyone else, and becoming wiry and lithe and beautifully weatherbeaten into the bargain.

In London he loved to cycle and walk.  He was always nut brown, which is why it shocks me to see the physical change in him after so short a time. What is behind the eyes remains reassuringly unchanged however.  It is definitely him.  Strong as an ox, refusing to break or crack even a little in these new circumstances.

I survey the visiting hall and see men holding their babies, playing with their sons and daughters and holding hands with their wives across the tables.  It is hard to imagine what they might have done or been accused of doing.  When Rob first arrived here we both felt like aliens, but that is changing now.  They all have their stories just as we have ours and the trials of the separation that every family in the room is experiencing unite us more than all of the potential dividing factors of age, class, race or crime.

Rob can’t get over how different the men all look “en famille”. He seems shell shocked by the experience of being part of “normal” interaction again and struggles to maintain his train of thought and focus, or it could just be the crack-like activity of our sugar consumption taking hold.

It is so very good to see him.  He smells clean but also of nothing at all, or nothing that I recognise.  No more incense, no more scent.  Tala nestles into him and draws for him relentlessly in between demonstrations of curious new ballet moves.  After weeks of lopsided attempts to communicate and enduring the stilted time lapse between emails and letters it is heavenly to be able to talk unimpeded and gain a real insight into what is happening in each others separated lives, but the clock races and soon the men are being herded away from us.  I hug him for as long as I dare and drink in what I can until he leaves us again.

One small middle aged Chinese prisoner loiters behind with the women and children, and the hitherto patient guards begin to look irritated. After he finally leaves the hall I realise what was keeping him. His wife is sobbing alone as she pushes her little daughter towards the exit queue. Last week this was me.  I hug her and tell her that it will get better and do the only thing I can do which is to acknowledge her love and her pain.

It soon transpires that she has only a few words of English.  I try to ascertain how long he will be inside for and can’t make out whether it is two months or five years, the latter I suspect.  I have no idea why he is here, and I’m not sure she does either.  She keeps shrugging her shoulders at me and shaking her head as she tries to explain.  We understand nothing and everything about each others lives. There is in any case no language and no words that can describe this experience of utter powerlessness and sorrow and waste.

By | July 12th, 2016|

Black Eye Friday

It is Friday night and I have just spent 3 hours cleaning in a bid not to notice that I don’t have anything else I want to do.  Tala is at a party, Oki is at work.  There are things I could do, but nothing that could compare to what we used to do on a Friday…very little. Together.

It is Black Eye Friday in the slammer as it is payday all round: Prisoners are allowed to collect their weekly allowance if they have someone on the outside wiling to send it to them and also their weekly earnings (roughly £8) and so today is the day all internal debts are settled. If you can’t pay for the drugs or other favours you have blagged on tick during the previous week, you get beaten up.  Judging by the massive shiners sported by the guy in the cell opposite, he is clearly in arrears.

A big parcel has recently arrived via drone, hooked in through a window with a broom, so the deaths (12 so far this year from Mamba in Uk prisons), debts and beatings can continue to abound.  Neither the collapse of a prisoner in Rob’s block this week, nor the massive potential penalties seem to dampen enthusiasm for the lifestyle and so things continue undaunted in Her Majesty’s prisons in the time honoured fashion of releasing prisoners in a worse state of dependency and mental health than when they arrived.

In a bid to stave off shingella the boys have managed to procure some washing up liquid so that they can clean their plates.  There is no communal eating arrangement or wash up afterwards: convicts collect food on their trays and take it back to their rooms.  Sadly they don’t have anything to keep the precious fluid in except an old washing up glove with holes in the fingers that has to be very carefully managed.  I aways find the idea of washing up gloves used for anything except the task for which they were designed slightly kinky, and God only knows what previous uses this glove has had, but you can’t fault the ingenuity.

Rob has also managed to source washing powder so that he won’t smell when we come to visit.  The thought of him swapping a weeks worth of choc ices or whatever he has had to do to effect this transaction stabs at me. Now and then I still have enough perspective to find it incredible that this man who is generous, hardworking and honest to a fault, is locked up and struggling to clean his clothes in preparation the 2 hours a week he gets to spend with his wife and children.

Okha comes home from work to spend the evening with me.  It’s unexpected and lovely in equal measure.  I manage to reawaken myself after unwisely lying down in bed to get Tala off to sleep (the routine I have defaulted to in pursuit of the least possible trauma to her at bedtime), and we plump for “The Danish Girl” as I have the unwatched BAFTA screener. (Rob never could face Eddie Redmayne in a dress). It is rather a traumatic watch but it is the first evening that I have spent doing anything other than writing in some shape or form and I have a beautiful soft skinned daughter in my arms who won’t require putting to bed afterwards or any further input from me, all of which makes it a rare and welcome treat.

Afterwards I slip quietly into the bedroom I now appear to share, undress in the dark and attempt to drape the discarded clothes on a chair which is no longer there, moved as part of an early purge and now functioning as our nightly card writing table.  I do this sort of thing a lot -make too much breakfast, over shop, or put his phone on charge out of force of habit.  I worry more that these oversights that he is gone will soon stop and I will cease to live pretending that I can carry on keeping this relationship in pole position in my life via letters, snatched phone calls and weekly visits.  Who will I become?  Will the new me fit with the new him?

By his own admission Rob is also rather concerned that prison is bringing out the macho male side of him (yes uncle Tim, there is one). The steady diet of TV sport was previously something I pitied my brother’s wife for enduring, but I may soon be in her long suffering boat. In his letter which is disturbingly full of tennis and football references, Rob assures me that he will do his best to return to being a non sport devouring male “on the out”, but he sounds unconvinced and we are only two weeks in.

Rob has requested a pair of slippers and a robe when I next visit.  Having filled out the prerequisite form he been granted the request, which is something of a coup. Slippers we have, but Rob has never been a robe man so I will need to source one.  My instructions are “knee length, no hood and not too flashy,” which seems a prudent brief.  Knowing that he has so very little on the inside, I set out on a Saturday afternoon, small girl in tow, to find the perfect robe to convey to him how much I love him.

In my minds eye, I’m envisaging a soft grey waffle print number, luxurious without being showy, perhaps with hidden cashmere, but John Lewis who should never have let me down here, have virtually nothing that isn’t white.  Robes are a Christmas line apparently. (I feel sorry for all those fathers, brothers and sons receiving bloody robes in their stockings: If they don’t have already have one, oh well meaning present buyers, that is because they’d rather wear old trackies and yesterdays T shirt.  FYI alcohol (copious), diabetes inducing food stuffs and play station paraphernalia are really the only acceptable male gifts on the market.  If I had ever ventured to buy Rob a Christmas robe I would have been out on my ear as surely as if I’d exceeded the maximum target weight clause (around which I have been teetering for a couple of years now), in my marriage contract).

Undaunted I make my way down a hot and heavy Oxford Street to Selfridges.  Everything nice has hoods, costs upward of a weeks salary, or looks too noncy.  In desperation I brave the endless promotional shots of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley looking sultry and demure all in one, and worse still David Gandy looking slightly constipated to find a promising collection at M and S. Tala is beyond desperate to go for the weirdly soft one, but there is no way that material was harvested from any natural source and I dread to think about the potential devastation at HMP Hewell if a stray ember of mamba were to cross paths with that ungodly fabric and so, despite inferior softness that is clearly an affront to her fathers delicate skin, we settle on a grey blue towelling number from the luxury range and get out while we still can.

By | July 10th, 2016|

Space

Rob loved birdsong, loves it still I expect.  I wonder if he hears it from his cell.  He does have a window now, one that actually opens.  He also gets a daily hour outside in the “yard”.  I think I glimpsed it whilst being herded through the various checkpoints on my visit: A concrete, high fenced pen, topped with barbed wire.  Not an inviting prospect for a little bird, (or for a man) but I hope that perhaps just one little fellow might be generous enough to brave the aesthetics and release some torrents of defiant melody from its little beak for the benefit of the detainees.  Back home I am acutely aware of the birds these days, waking early or sitting at my laptop whilst the sun goes down and Tala sleeps. Against the stillness of the house, it is clear and fresh and full of summer.

The house feels so much bigger with him gone.  On our first weekend alone here I decanted all of his coats, jackets and shoes into the cellar and suddenly whole realms of space opened up.  One pair of his size 12 shoes takes up twice the space of mine, a fact which had previously rather irked me, but I miss them now to the point where I even consider bringing them back out of exile.

Tala’s room is now just home to a growing collection of dirty socks, pants and T shirts, as its occupant is squatting other quarters, namely mine.  I ask her if she misses her little bed.  She whispers back to me so as not to offend the previously cherished bottom bunk. “No, but don’t tell!”.  The kitchen, whilst still officially in use, is certainly not the epicentre of times gone by.  We forage there and compile odd combinations of foodstuffs that make sense only to ourselves in random moments of hunger.

I have very little trepidation about the confiscation orders that will be debated and decided in January.  The only thing I wanted out of this debacle has already been taken and deposited at HMP Hewell.  This terraced house that fitted the four of us perfectly swamps us now, with only one of its bedrooms in full time occupation.  Okha is mostly out enjoying her summer and doing what had seemed an impossible dream only months previously: working and playing hard.  We’ll all be fine wherever we land.  We will make space, be creative and compromise.

I visit my friend on her wide beam canal boat, (part of my resolution to say “Yes!” to good things), and we move (well she moves and I watch) via a loch to a new temporary mooring.  It is beautiful on the water with the sun and the breeze and the river life all around. Here on the boat you don’t just look at the canal, you are inside it; part of it.  I used to walk almost daily down Regents canal with the dog, wondering how exactly the locks worked and what the boats were like inside and now here I am experiencing it and it’s brilliant.

On the boat there is room only for what you need or what you love.  Change is truly the only constant here, moving from mooring to mooring and the things that we take for granted like water, gas and electricity require consideration and care.  It strikes me again that it is actually rather fantastic that I have had the rug pulled out from beneath my feet like this.  It is an opportunity to realise that almost all of what I have I don’t need.  Furthermore, it is an invitation not to spend the rest of my life trying to accumulate more of it.

A letter comes, and then, as I am reading it, a prison phone call!  This I do need.  I am starving for his voice and his words.  Wonderfully his letter is less informative and more personal than the previous two missives and even though the call is brief, I feel as if I have been plugged back into the mains.  He sounds well and less shell shocked than before and yet whatever I am going through he must be experiencing tenfold.

This assertion is confirmed in his letter where I learn that, in desperation for vegetables he has chosen a side of carrots alongside his lamb biriani, even though boiled carrots do not go with anything except perhaps a roast dinner as far as Rob is concerned.  In the past there were few things that upset him more than the concept of an alliance as only unholy as pasta and carrots.  Ah, how far the mighty have fallen.  He signs off his letter confessing to feeling a little queazy as Keith has just stripped down to his pants…No offence Amanda if you are reading this, but love is blind and it’s early days for Rob.

By | July 7th, 2016|

Live

Laundry again, and I fold two of his T shirts and a final pair of pants.  Stragglers.  There will be nothing more of his until I get unilateral agreement for the washing of the “She Brings The Rain” T shirt and there is a long way to go before I will even begin to broker that unholy deal.  Happily I have a vicious cold, (the culmination of sleeping too little, not eating and then eating cake), and can smell precisely nothing.

It is Okha’s birthday and the house has been filled with her extraordinarily brilliant friends.  Despite guaranteed hangovers, they embark on the impossible mission of tackling “the lair”, descending with bin bags full of I hate to think what exactly from Oki’s attic room, and braving a months worth of laundry, hitherto strewn liberally over and under every surface.  They bring a trademark combination of sassy banter, political awareness and cheap prosecco and make everything good.  To top it all, they all stay over and bring “Thelma and Louise”. Tala’s best friend sleeps over too and the two of them don lipstick and dance to the teenagers music, coveting their attention.  It’s a whole new vibe: an all girl take over and I like it!

Rob causes euphoria by calling for a couple of brief, rushed minutes to say “Happy Birthday!” to her and we very rapidly discuss his next prison move.  His 9 year sentence makes him just eligible for imminent transfer straight into a category C prison.  This is still a lock up, but the accommodation and lifestyle should be better if he can get to the right place.  It is clear to us both that the priority is for him to be in the best possible environment rather than the most geographically practical for me, as the London prisons are notoriously busy and bad.

Researching prisons is hard.  Hopefully I type in “best category C prison in the uk”. The results are uninspiring.  Disparaging articles appear detailing a catastrophic litany of failures, deaths and disasters that appear to be more or less universally distributed throughout all of HM’s prisons.  In short there are no “good” ones.  That said, there are big differences between the standard of the cells, libraries, training programs and gyms and most importantly the number of lock up hours.

Working your way through the prison system is not dissimilar to trying to get your child into a good school. On the one hand you don’t have the final say, but you do seem to have a choice over where you apply, and if you manage to tick the correct boxes, you can certainly influence your passage through the system until you reach the golden gates of the category D jail – open prison, where, with an impeccable record, you may even be able to come home on a tag on the ROTL (release on a temporary licence) program.  Only the final 24 months of a sentence can be served in a cat D facility however and so until that time we have to get Rob to the best Category C prison possible as he will be spending at least the next 2 and a half years there

It is still a long time.  Impossibly long it sometimes seems.  A friend tells me that I have to live for two now. I know that she is right – it is just too long to wait it out, but I can barely contemplate living for one at the moment.  It is not that I am actively in pain.  I keep myself busy and the children are remarkable and upbeat.  It is more a sensation of numbness, or more accurately deadness inside.  It is as if there are receptors in my heart that were tuned specifically to him and without the visual and physical cues from his actual presence, they remain inert, leaving a monotone where once was so much joy.

I need to retune into things that have not been taken away: learn how to live again in this new incarnation.  Sometimes waves of despair and grief and longing rise up in me and I have to cry briefly and always alone for just a few seconds as if I am releasing the pressure on a valve.  This enforced separation is burning away parts of me.  I know that this will give way to new growth, but it is early days and I still feel rather singed and sorry.

I wonder if Rob is missing me, worry that he isn’t and then worry more that he is.  I have everything here with me still.  Confiscation proceedings will not start until after January after which time Jim will tell me how much, (if any) of the house I can keep, but until then I have my home, my work and my children.  He has so very little in comparison.  They now have a broken kettle which still manages to produce hot water and have shared a single cup of black tea.  Their TV has no earth and can be plugged in only by inserting a biro lid into the socket. The live wires have also been cut at the back so you have to be extremely careful turning it on, but again, it works…just.  Every day Tala draws beautiful cards and insists that I do the same, but he can’t put them up as the only “glue” available is toothpaste which would damage the cards and Rob can’t bear to do that.

On top of these somewhat straightened circumstances he is hungry.  Everyone is starving.  You can get enough food, but only by filling up on copious amounts of white bread and spending all of your canteen money on extras from the shop.  Getting hold of anything fresh is virtually impossible although he has procured one orange thus far.  Vegetables (frozen only) are in short supply.  In the visiting hall Rob asked Okha to get him coffee and some dark chocolate if they had any.  She returned with a cup of something I was sure he would not drink and a KitKat.  I watched the man whose body was always a temple enjoy these simple low rent pleasures.  All the rules are out of the window.  This is survival, pure and simple.

It is not all rest and feasting however and the men have enlisted on courses which will enable them to work whilst inside, adding a few precious pounds to their weekly canteen money and most importantly enhancing their status and smoothing their passage onwards.  I am proud to learn that all of our boys have scored in the highest percentile in their induction tests (harder than one might think: the maths paper entailed questions on cosine and algebra that would have been way beyond my ken) and so they are eligible to choose from the full gamut of training opportunities.

All three elect to become mentors, supposedly a kind of therapeutic role and one of the best jobs as it allows more freedom of movement within the prison.  By some administrative blunder however, Charlie finds himself on the double glazing course which causes much mirth amongst his family.  Who knows? It may come in handy someday.  I hope that they can all manage to live this time rather than just survive it and that new parts of them can emerge, despite or perhaps specifically because of the challenges they face.  At the very least, Katie may get some new sash windows.

By | July 5th, 2016|
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