Men are dropping like flies on unit 12. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel over there. Every morning someone new has been axed in the night.
It begins with the eviction of charming Russian V to a detention centre from whence he’ll no doubt be deported to a gulag back home. This is routine for all foreign nationals regardless of the offence and even for those with children who have been born here and are thus forced to chose between their father and their home.
Then a mobile phone discovery sees K transferred back South to a wing unaffectionately known as Gaza. It’s not long before he ends up in Seg, (the isolation unit) where it reportedly takes 5 screws and a beating to “bend him in” to his cell, although that is probably just a malicious rumour and clearly highly unlikely. He is last seen in a meat wagon shipping out to pastures new. Check Mate… but to whom?
Without K’s steady influence on the youth emotions bubble over and the snitches are further emboldened. Grassing is the lowest of the low in prison because officers are rarely considered to have the best interests of their charges at heart. Telling “the man” leads only and inexorably to draconian punishment and never to help.
The internal politics of prison living are like chess: when you remove key pieces from the board you disembowel the community and destabilise the whole game. Suddenly guys are getting nicked and banished (a cruel and medieval torture involving the loss of everything you know) in their droves. A draw of tobacco here, a phone there and piece by piece the heart of the unit is surgically removed.
K didn’t do drugs or buy or sell. He was a fitness guy: smart, motivated and constantly frustrated by the lack of courses and education at Highpoint. His sole reason for having a phone was without a shadow of a doubt to call his Mrs. You’d want to call her too if she was your girl: she’s beautiful and trying to stick by him through a sentence that is well over a decade too long to impart anything except bitterness.
Prison phones are a joke. They’re charged at three times the national rate, cut you off after exactly 10 minutes and two seconds and are excruciatingly public. I defy anyone to really excel at phone sex at 4.30 in the afternoon (last slot before bang up) with a queue of guys cheering you on from the sidelines.
The unit’s best barber is also lost in the cull condemning the survivors to bad hair until a replacement can be found. The shame. Cake clubs collapse, friendships are severed and the once buoyant mood of the wing becomes tense and disconsolate. Outside it rains and rains.
My spirits are rather soggy too. Holidays are a mixed bag for mothers. On the one hand a less Nazi approach to bedtime means that the house is still blissfully peaceful at 7am. On the other I have 7 hours less childcare a day… and it is raining… biblically. I escape to the Sun. God bless Easyjet and everyone I know who lives somewhere with a sensible climate.
Children are infinitely preferable in small packs of mixed age groups who can be fed en masse and then turned outdoors and largely ignored. Left to their own devices without internet access it seems they will revert to the good old practices of playing together and messing about in the woods or the river, returning at sundown, grubby, hungry and wholesome. They form little communities and rub along together regardless of language barriers and age gaps, teaching each other to make bracelets and alarmingly sharp daggers. They spend bone chilling amounts of time in and under water whilst we soak up sun and adult conversation and regret that we even thought about smashing their precious tablets over their sweet little heads.
August brings another birthday without Rob. The numbers are beginning to stack up alarmingly. My mother is shocked by the profusion of grey about my temples. My neck is turning mercilessly to crepe. The clock ticks.
I toy with re-igniting the mid life crisis, but a week spent with our Great Aunt in Canada sorts me out. She is part of an ex-pat community of women who have all eschewed the lure of child bearing and husbands and are now retired from various high flying jobs and living companionably together in elegant condos, quaffing excellent wine and making the twilight years look remarkably desirable.
I am invited for a swim and dinner chez one of the “Friday Night Gang”. Gina (as in Re, not Va unfortunately… that would just be too perfect) ushers us in. “And they told us you were fat and ugly” she admonishes. I feel instantly perky. “You’d better not be wearing a two piece” she warns, “no-one has worn a two piece in that pool since the early 90’s…” These gals are feisty, feminist and deliciously glamorous – living proof that you are only as old as the woman you feel. If they can fuel their 70’s entirely on girl power, surely I can manage half a decade of my forties?
Finally, and when I least expect it I have “The Dream”: the one where Rob has been released and we are together again. This is the prison equivalent of the post bereavement dream: a blessed reprieve where the deceased returns briefly and you can talk and hold each other again in a dreamland that is somehow more than that.
For some reason probably related to the holiday spirit we push together two sun loungers and lie in each others arms. I can even smell his skin in the sunshine. After a while I dare to ask if he has to go back. He must of course because this is fairy time. Even in the visits – especially in those ridiculous wretched, noisy, visits – I never feel him as close as this. Actual prison visits are roughly as satisfying as bad sex wrapped in an entire 12 pack of Durex Extra Safe (zero intimacy and very little actual pleasure), but this dream stuff is the business.
I awaken reluctantly but remain intoxicated with the bitter-sweet cocktail of gratitude and loss for several hours, clinging to it until gradually the feelings fade and there are none.
He is gone again.