Laundry again, and I fold two of his T shirts and a final pair of pants.  Stragglers.  There will be nothing more of his until I get unilateral agreement for the washing of the “She Brings The Rain” T shirt and there is a long way to go before I will even begin to broker that unholy deal.  Happily I have a vicious cold, (the culmination of sleeping too little, not eating and then eating cake), and can smell precisely nothing.

It is Okha’s birthday and the house has been filled with her extraordinarily brilliant friends.  Despite guaranteed hangovers, they embark on the impossible mission of tackling “the lair”, descending with bin bags full of I hate to think what exactly from Oki’s attic room, and braving a months worth of laundry, hitherto strewn liberally over and under every surface.  They bring a trademark combination of sassy banter, political awareness and cheap prosecco and make everything good.  To top it all, they all stay over and bring “Thelma and Louise”. Tala’s best friend sleeps over too and the two of them don lipstick and dance to the teenagers music, coveting their attention.  It’s a whole new vibe: an all girl take over and I like it!

Rob causes euphoria by calling for a couple of brief, rushed minutes to say “Happy Birthday!” to her and we very rapidly discuss his next prison move.  His 9 year sentence makes him just eligible for imminent transfer straight into a category C prison.  This is still a lock up, but the accommodation and lifestyle should be better if he can get to the right place.  It is clear to us both that the priority is for him to be in the best possible environment rather than the most geographically practical for me, as the London prisons are notoriously busy and bad.

Researching prisons is hard.  Hopefully I type in “best category C prison in the uk”. The results are uninspiring.  Disparaging articles appear detailing a catastrophic litany of failures, deaths and disasters that appear to be more or less universally distributed throughout all of HM’s prisons.  In short there are no “good” ones.  That said, there are big differences between the standard of the cells, libraries, training programs and gyms and most importantly the number of lock up hours.

Working your way through the prison system is not dissimilar to trying to get your child into a good school. On the one hand you don’t have the final say, but you do seem to have a choice over where you apply, and if you manage to tick the correct boxes, you can certainly influence your passage through the system until you reach the golden gates of the category D jail – open prison, where, with an impeccable record, you may even be able to come home on a tag on the ROTL (release on a temporary licence) program.  Only the final 24 months of a sentence can be served in a cat D facility however and so until that time we have to get Rob to the best Category C prison possible as he will be spending at least the next 2 and a half years there

It is still a long time.  Impossibly long it sometimes seems.  A friend tells me that I have to live for two now. I know that she is right – it is just too long to wait it out, but I can barely contemplate living for one at the moment.  It is not that I am actively in pain.  I keep myself busy and the children are remarkable and upbeat.  It is more a sensation of numbness, or more accurately deadness inside.  It is as if there are receptors in my heart that were tuned specifically to him and without the visual and physical cues from his actual presence, they remain inert, leaving a monotone where once was so much joy.

I need to retune into things that have not been taken away: learn how to live again in this new incarnation.  Sometimes waves of despair and grief and longing rise up in me and I have to cry briefly and always alone for just a few seconds as if I am releasing the pressure on a valve.  This enforced separation is burning away parts of me.  I know that this will give way to new growth, but it is early days and I still feel rather singed and sorry.

I wonder if Rob is missing me, worry that he isn’t and then worry more that he is.  I have everything here with me still.  Confiscation proceedings will not start until after January after which time Jim will tell me how much, (if any) of the house I can keep, but until then I have my home, my work and my children.  He has so very little in comparison.  They now have a broken kettle which still manages to produce hot water and have shared a single cup of black tea.  Their TV has no earth and can be plugged in only by inserting a biro lid into the socket. The live wires have also been cut at the back so you have to be extremely careful turning it on, but again, it works…just.  Every day Tala draws beautiful cards and insists that I do the same, but he can’t put them up as the only “glue” available is toothpaste which would damage the cards and Rob can’t bear to do that.

On top of these somewhat straightened circumstances he is hungry.  Everyone is starving.  You can get enough food, but only by filling up on copious amounts of white bread and spending all of your canteen money on extras from the shop.  Getting hold of anything fresh is virtually impossible although he has procured one orange thus far.  Vegetables (frozen only) are in short supply.  In the visiting hall Rob asked Okha to get him coffee and some dark chocolate if they had any.  She returned with a cup of something I was sure he would not drink and a KitKat.  I watched the man whose body was always a temple enjoy these simple low rent pleasures.  All the rules are out of the window.  This is survival, pure and simple.

It is not all rest and feasting however and the men have enlisted on courses which will enable them to work whilst inside, adding a few precious pounds to their weekly canteen money and most importantly enhancing their status and smoothing their passage onwards.  I am proud to learn that all of our boys have scored in the highest percentile in their induction tests (harder than one might think: the maths paper entailed questions on cosine and algebra that would have been way beyond my ken) and so they are eligible to choose from the full gamut of training opportunities.

All three elect to become mentors, supposedly a kind of therapeutic role and one of the best jobs as it allows more freedom of movement within the prison.  By some administrative blunder however, Charlie finds himself on the double glazing course which causes much mirth amongst his family.  Who knows? It may come in handy someday.  I hope that they can all manage to live this time rather than just survive it and that new parts of them can emerge, despite or perhaps specifically because of the challenges they face.  At the very least, Katie may get some new sash windows.