It’s the little things that make life bearable, inside prison and out. In times of deep despair the warmth of a tea cup in hopeless hands, the solace of a hot, silent shower or a strangers smile, can all make a difference and turn the scene as they say in the business (film, not fraud obviously).
If you know Rob, then when you discovered that he was going to be spending the next few years at her majesty’s pleasure, it would not be long before you asked yourself how on earth he was going to survive on prison food.
For some, incarceration and the culinary and alcoholic deprivations thereof, are life savers: Rob’s neighbour proudly shows him the leather belt he entered jail with 5 years ago, a redundant swathe of worn notches marking the eight stone he has lost inside. Keith was positively jubilant about the health farm aspect of his impending “holiday” and has already dropped an only marginally needed trouser size, but Rob, AKA by his droll brother Tim as “Mr No-bottom”, certainly wasn’t relishing the idea of prison grub.
Ideas of maintaining any kind of middle class standards disappeared almost immediately and, liberated by sheer hunger from the twin yokes of fear and fussiness, he now willingly eats almost anything he can get his hands on, excepting the white bread dished out at breakfast – they don’t even let you feed that to ducks these days.
So it is that when he is presented with two penguins on his first friday night he practically spontaneously combusts with excitement. It is hard to imagine the humble penguin causing such strident emotions among a population of large tattooed men, but that’s what a mere week of sensory depravation (pleasurable senses in any case), in an induction wing will do to you.
Then, imagine the euphoria when, suddenly, a few weeks later the penguin quota is hiked to an almost unfathomable 8 bars – an entire strip of penguins: Unimaginable bounty. (No pun intended).
Had the “piece de resistance” of Gove’s prison reform bill been fast tracked into legislative reality despite his meticulously self-crafted ejection (In your face Brutus) from political relevance?
It takes Rob weeks of persistent sleuthing to solve the mystery, but in the fullness of time, whilst taking up a seat for a card game on an apparently innocent looking box, all is revealed. The aforementioned chair is in fact a construction composed of entire boxes of penguins. In truth the penguin allocation for all prisoners at Hewell had always been eight. The fact that only a quarter of these ever reached their rightful stomachs was the result of a masterful relocation effort by the kitchen boys.
Everything in jail is currency, and here, as everywhere, money is power, and only the industrious are rewarded. This was an especially slick and large scale operation however: When you calculate that there are over 2000 residents at Hewell, each entitled to 8 of the delectable chocolate coated and cream filled biscuits, with only a quarter of these reaching their destinations, you will deduce that over 12 thousand penguins were going awry on a weekly basis, that’s a lot of stray penguins…
But alas, the Lord giveth and he taketh away. Rumour has it that there was some sort of internal argument over why there were only(!) eight weekly penguins awarded per capita. Apparently a proportion of the penguins were actually designated as part of a breakfast allocation…? (Please no-one tell Tala or she’ll be following in her fathers footsteps and pursuing that career in media that I have warned her about…) and so, after a failure to mediate in the dispute over exact penguin numbers and rationale, management resolve the disagreement by revoking all penguin rights, thereby making the remaining contraband phenomenally desirable, and simultaneously breaking the hearts and minds of grown men.
Who knew the dizzy heights of greatness that would be thrust upon this lowly, some may even say gritty, McVitie’s masterpiece. Perhaps wisely, Highpoint have stayed out of the penguin game and inmates are forced to fall back on that stalwart the Bournville (invented over 100 years ago and still going strong) to get their sugar fix.
When I speak to Rob on the phone today he is bursting with excitement. “Baby it’s like Christmas in here”, he enthuses. It transpires that a mate of theirs is moving out to a highly desirable outer block (the real estate market in prison is buoyant and closely followed by the inmates) and has handed over all his best stuff to Rob and Keith ahead of the pirañaesque picking clean of the cell that will occur literally minutes after it has been vacated. The magnanimity of this gesture means that the boys now have a bin, washing up liquid complete with receptacle, sink cleaner and none other than the holy grail itself: a kettle. He is genuinely over the moon…. It really is the little things.