Something awful happens. I wake up with a huge spot centre left on my forehead. My dreams of waving Rob off and leaving him with a vision of beauty end abruptly. Added to that I awaken with my tongue feeling as if it is layered with shards of glass. This turns out to be the result of tiny ulcers. To add insult to injury I glance down at the hairbrush I’m using to see that it looks like a small puppy, full of hair. Oh Lord! Lock up my husband, damage my children irreparably, but please PLEASE don’t take my hair! I can cope with many things, but female pattern baldness is not on that list.
Prisonbag is ready and waiting for its maiden voyage in this particular incarnation. It is literally bursting at the seams as Rob has been advised to put as much stuff in as possible. Initially it is unlikely that he will get given very much from it at all, but in time, as he moves through the categories from B through to D he will be able to access more of its contents.
The cab arrives to take us to Euston, dropping Tala off at school on the way. We must look like a family off on a trip somewhere nice, with prisonbag posturing as normal luggage. It is before 7 and yet Oki comes down to say goodbye which is very touching as ordinarily the early morning is to her as the sun to a vampire.
The moment Rob has been dreading arrives and he has to say goodbye to the girls. Tala is full of anticipation as she has a date with her teacher for tea and toast in the classroom before school, (an unrivalled coup amongst her classmates) and the moment of separation is mercifully brief before she is passed from one set of arms into another and propelled gently away towards the awaiting breakfast. It is the truth that reality is a pale shadow of fear.
At the station we see members of the various legal teams all looking sombre and saddened by how things have turned out. Suddenly I spot Cyril; the one who got away. How he can bear to make this journey again and sit with us looking into the dock in which he had previously taken his place for all those months I’ll never know. Whenever I see Cyril it makes me suddenly tearful, his face somehow synonymous with mercy and sense. We sit together on the train, but don’t talk much and if we do, its just about the shock Brexit result, yet another indication of the folly of giving power to the people. As we walk up from Birmingham New Street station to the court house we all declare that we hope never to set foot in the city again.
Sentencing is gruelling. The four QC’s make their case for clemency and character references and mitigating circumstances are read until midday at which point the judge kindly bails the convicts for lunch. Getting another 40 minutes together seems unprecedentedly wonderful, but soon we are back inside for the death blow. I have wisely decided to forgo both breakfast and lunch, not trusting my body to behave itself with any input at this juncture in the proceedings, but still adrenaline is cursing through me and my cheeks are embarrassingly hot and red.
The judge precedes to go through the details of the case. It is horrible. I find out afterwards that he is obliged to talk through it from the perspective of the guilty verdict and therefore as per the crowns arguments as if they held water. What the judge actually thinks is neither here nor there: he has a certain role to play and he rises to it gamely. Finally he is ready to hand down the actual sentences. My heart is thumping hard against my chest as he categorises the offence as being at the top of the sentencing guidelines due to its scale. I try to prepare myself for the 16 years I know are possible, but then he begins to knock years off for good character, for the intentions behind the business and for other technicalities and pronounces a sentence of 9 years for Rob, Keith and Charlie.
It is good. Very good. We had been told not to expect anything below 10 years, the minimum sentence under the new guidelines and so I am delighted and wave surreptitiously at Rob and draw air hearts across the dock. The thing is that if the sentence had been any lower there was a risk that HMRC would have appealed again and that the case would have gone to the court of appeal where they could have imposed God only knows what kind of sentence and so he has gone for a number that should satisfy them, but is also as kind as it could be under the circumstances.
Then comes the sentence for Norman. His wife sits alone behind me, her face streaked with tears and lined with pain. I desperately want to reach out and grasp her hand but it is as if she has constructed a psychic wall around herself and I don’t dare to intrude. Suddenly something wonderful starts to happen. The judge is taking half of the sentence for the architects of the scheme as his starting point for Norman’s tiny role in its administration. Then he takes into consideration his age, his heart condition and deafness, and finally the awful fact that this poor couple have lost a child and still the years are coming off. I can hear the gulped breath behind me slowly turning into sobs until all at once our whole little row consisting of Keith’s wife Amanda, Rob’s brother, Cyril and myself are weeping as the judge announces his intention to suspend the sentence.
Norman, in total shock and looking utterly bemused, picks up his prisonbag and walks the other way, the right way, the free way, out of the dock into his wife’s arms. A small miracle has been performed here today. I was not its direct recipient, but I feel so overcome with relief that I might as well have been. Outside we hug Norman and his wife (who are still not sure what has happened) until we risk embarrassing them with this overt display of affection from total strangers. Our boys are gone now, but at least someone has been given the proverbial “get out of jail free card”.