Underneath the “Free the Garlic Two” sign, that is mysteriously displayed on one of the official prison noticeboards, another message appears: “And lo, a miracle”. The governor has taken one whiff of the offending “hooch” and declared that whatever is in that bottle, it certainly hasn’t been brewed for pleasure or intoxication. He cancels the appeal, rendering Rob’s three page essay on the by-products of carbohydrate breakdown without the presence of sugars or yeast, and the chemical composition of methane as opposed to ethanol, a waste. The Garlic Two unpack the bags containing their scant possessions that have been underneath their beds for the past two days and are welcomed back from punition like returning prodigal sons. Both of them are £20 short on their canteen allowances for the week, but given that Rob was set to hunger strike if the authorities had continued with the disciplinary process, sighs of relief are breathed all round. I know my husband. I can hear the stubborn set line of his jaw over the phone, righteous and defiant, and I do not want to think where this might have gone.
And so we visit on Christmas Eve on masse, the two girls, grandma and I. Rob confesses to feeling like a mother bird trying to feed a nest full of chicks who are all vying for the juicy worms of his attention. The smallest chick mostly seems to win out and by the end of the visit I will feel as if I haven’t managed to extract enough of him to last me until next week.
The visiting hall and “visitors centre” are bereft of even the most perfunctory seasonal cheer. There is not a bauble or faded plastic holly sprig in sight. Most institutions manage to resurrect some kind of ravaged seventies tinsel tree construction out of storage for the occasion, but there is not the merest suspicion of grudging celebration at HMP Highpoint North, and this despite the fact that the big man himself (Jesus Christ), was a fellow “criminal”, tried and condemned by the authorities of his time.
It is a strange Christmas Eve. The long familiar journey, the fight to stay awake at the wheel in the dark as the passengers slumber uncomfortably in their seats, the disengagement with the soft part of myself that knows how to feel. Rob is well though. Irrepressible in fact. He has found something remarkable in the commune of convicts on Unit 12 and confesses that the prospect of being ejected out of there into the single cells of the “basic” naughty block was at least traumatic as leaving us.
Perhaps I should feel slightly miffed about this admission? I don’t. We are in this for the long haul: another 4 years at least. We have to do what we can to survive this. Living where we are is our only weapon of defiance in this unfolding Kafkaesque nightmare. The fact that he feels connected and integrated into his new life is a huge relief. I will not roll over and die as I’m supposed to and neither will he.
Christmas day is rubbish. For some reason, although Rob’s mum and brother are with us and although Tala is still full of childish excitement about presents and the endless chocolate opportunities, it feels pointless to baste the turkey that will be dry anyway, and fuss with the stuffing and the trimmings when he cannot eat them. Five hours later when I finally get the cremated bird on to the table with the roasties and red cabbage and cranberry sauce, we toast Rob, who has just called after eating what has been, even by prison standards, a disappointing lunch in his cell with J and I feel emptier and lower than I can remember.
Three days later and I have cabin fever. Okha leaves for Thailand with all of her savings. I will miss her more than I can say, but I am glad for her. Someone should escape. She sends me an incredible poem about her first night in Bangkok and I know that she is where she should be, far away from the cold grit of our London lives, and nonetheless realising how much we have.
I prevail upon uncle Tim’s good nature and get him to man the fort for a night whilst I jump on the Eurostar to Brussels and visit Carolyn, (usually resident in Portugal, but visiting her husband’s Belgium family for a few days), because she has always somehow been able to inspire me again when all seems lost. We spend a wonderful day gorging on each other’s news and soaking up the connection. It is like oxygen.
Then the train I am on breaks down and I miss the last Eurostar home. There is no room at her inn for the night but bless her she books me into a beautiful little hotel in the heart of Brussels where I waste the gorgeous room in solitude. I don’t even go out to forage. There is however something wonderful about being alone on this adventure. I take a 30 minute shower and lie on the white hotel sheets in the sympathetically lit room, looking out onto the bustling unfamiliar city below.
The following day I am on the first London bound train out of there. Twelve miles into our journey it too succumbs to the frosty conditions and short-circuits irreparably and so we wait, without power or heat. The hours tick by and I begin to scan the cabin for who to eat first. They send round Twixes to appease the people which is worryingly successful. We receive news that we will be towed back to Brussels. I send uncle Tim the Samaritan’s number, fearing for his sanity after a text where he describes his toss up between the living room where Tala is glued to endless repeats of eye twitchingly bad American teen soaps and the kitchen where Grandma is confessing that she wants to die.
I wonder if the train debacles are just an outward manifestation of my desire to evade responsibly for a bit longer, but then Tala sends me a selfie and I am suddenly desperate to return to her. The people I love are scattered, frustratingly out of reach, but unlike my fellow passengers who need more Twix sedation, I think I might be learning patience. And lo, just as I resign myself to living out the rest of my days in coach 8, a miracle occurs and we finally begin to move again. Where we are headed now is anyone’s guess, but then, isn’t that the beauty of it all? The past is history, the future is a mystery. Happy New Year.