I set off for the BBC to record the interview for Woman’s Hour. Tala sets the bar of expectation low for my first foray into mainstream media. Her parting shot is: “Mamma try not to burp on the radio”. It’s good advice which I manage to follow. Jane Garvey is fiercely bright and business like and I sense that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She asks me things and I try to answer them as honestly as I can. After we finish I have no idea what I have said, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve missed plenty of tricks. When the interview airs the following day however, apart from sounding so posh that I could slap myself, I am surprised to hear a reasonably lucid conversation.
I check my website to see what’s happening and find that it has crashed. When I finally get on there have been 3000 hits before the end of the program and this continues to rise throughout the day, quadrupling itself after the piece makes the weekend show. I get emails from other women in my situation and much worse, beautiful letters from random strangers and hundreds of sign-ups to the site.
I can’t believe it. In this world where there is so much to be upset about, so much misery and confusion and madness, people still have the time and energy to be interested in the lives of a convict and his family. It is an incredible feeling to be wrapped in layers of protection that radiate outwards from my family, to my friends, to acquaintances, to friends of friends and now to total strangers who happened to turn on the radio on Tuesday morning. I feel like the penguin in the centre of an Antarctic huddle.
Rob doesn’t catch the Tuesday broadcast because he is in “labour”. I hope it isn’t as painful as mine were. There isn’t a box with “wife on the radio” that can be ticked to excuse him from disassembling a computer(?) which is what passes for education at Lowpoint so I urge him to commit an act of civil disobedience and refuse to leave his cell, or at least pull an old fashioned sickie – “Ferris Beuller’s day off” is a family favourite and we have both observed our occasionally reluctant and resourceful offspring enough times to know what to do, but he is still pursuing his enhanced status, which would let him draw down more money weekly and entitle us to an extra visit a month and he doesn’t want to risk the penalty.
Even in jail where there is so little to achieve, the basic human drive to succeed and prosper is still a powerful force in him. Acceptance is a tough nut to crack. He is becoming a little desperate about his dwindling funds. Now that he isn’t working, even though he has money in his “spends” (his personal account that I have paid into), he isn’t entitled to access enough of it to continue to call us every day and still buy essentials like washing powder, or cod liver oil (a great vitamin D source and vital for these men who get virtually no access to daylight for years on end) or fruit. One of the reasons for this is that the call rate out of the prison is three times the standard rate. Talk about kicking a man when he is down.
Even when he does have credit he can’t get to the phone much at the moment however as staff shortages mean that the men are being locked down almost permanently. I stop expecting him to call in the afternoons. It is better not to expect.
The upside of the lock up is that Rob is reading avidly and is becoming a full on bibliophile. He starts to attend book club. Along with getting religion (he has chosen Hinduism mostly in a bid to get in on the Diwali feasting I suspect), you get ticks for activities like this that supposedly contribute to eligibility for enhancement. The endless jumping through hoops and singing for your supper. One of the club attendees is a traveller who has already served ten out of a certain seventeen years of his sentence for a murder. He is extraordinary well informed about history and literature and comes alive when he shares his knowledge. He learns for its own sake. For the sheer joy. There can be no other reason.
It is Sunday and bitingly cold suddenly. I think about people making roasts for their families and almost regret the no cook zone in my kitchen. Tala is at ballet all day, Arsenal have anaesthetised the surrounding populace into a familiar low level of tepid disappointment with a draw, Okha is AWOL without a functioning phone and the dog looks horrified when I suggest a late walk in the drizzling dusk. The coziness of the house seems insurmountably hard to maintain with all of its people scattered and winter closing in.
Luckily we have fresh blood. In an attempt to keep my head above water and service the plethora of bills that continue to mount up: council tax, insurance, water, electric, gas etc. etc. I have turfed Okha out of her loft space, shoe horned her extravagant collection of make up and costumery into the spare room and rented her room out. Admittedly it’s a little brutal, but we have to be practical. Our lodger is gorgeous – quiet and friendly and she cleans the sink after she washes up. I like the feeling of another body in the home. It’s win win in an otherwise pretty relentlessly lose lose situation.
As the dog and I face off over the walking situation, there is a knock at the door. I open it to find Okha’s ex-boyfriend arriving to spend the afternoon with her as per their yesterdays arrangement. She isn’t home and sends no word to him until two and a half hours later. We sit in the kitchen together and I eat everything that is readily available from the fridge (left over pasta, a stray sweet potato pie and some almond butter) whilst we chat.
He has been travelling and has grown almost beyond recognition in the last year, full of stories and photos that he shares with me. The depth of his continued love for my child, for whom, despite her faults and even as he is being stood up, he has nothing but respect and admiration, moves me to tears that I try to hide for fear of freaking him out. How many of us can love when it is futile and stay open when it would be so much less painful to cut off and walk away?
It isn’t the afternoon either of us expected, but weirdly, it works. We sit there, bridging gender and age gaps, united in loving someone who is not there and it makes me think about Amy singing “Love is a Loosing Game”. Love is something that you do against rubbish odds, hopelessly and into the void. No expectations.