It is visiting day again and there is the inevitable scramble to combine leaving on time and not looking like a bag lady. We are a reduced crew as Okha is working today, so I collect Tala from school and head off up the M40 once more. I am worried that the sight of that visitor’s room filled mostly with women and babies waiting in line for this brief, hampered access to their loved ones will prove too much for me again.
Evidently Tala has the same fear and she squeezes my hand as we enter and asks if I’m OK today. She is not particularly impressed by the way I’ve been coping in the past weeks and perceives the fact that I have succumbed to illness as a clear sign of weakness. She herself is extraordinarily resilient and seems to be able to keep Rob perfectly present in her life via her nightly drawings and letters and the continued allegiance to the T shirt/scarf sleepwear combo. (I recently plucked up the courage to sniff test the T shirt and found it still remarkably fragrant. I wonder if clothes, like hair, eventually self clean when left to their own devices for long enough?
Much to Tala’s delight the sniffer dogs are out today, having successfully intercepted a consignment yesterday according to one of the wives. We are channelled into a special corridor with designated orange squares upon which we are each instructed to stand separately whilst the dogs are led in figures of eight around us. Tala is desperately trying to attract the dogs over to her, not grasping the fact that all children entering the prison are viewed as potential drug mules and that canine affection at this juncture would not be conducive to a swift entry into the visiting hall. Finally, after the third fingerprinting check point I spot Rob and we race across to him.
As soon as I touch him I can feel that he has lost weight. He feels sweetly familiar, but also different, less mine. Tala is guffawing in derision at the beginnings of his prison beard. Prison razors are notoriously ineffectual and if ever there was a time to experiment with lavish facial hair it is now, far from Hoxton and any possible hipster association. One of the wives confides to me in the waiting room that it had taken her husband an hour and a half to shave his chest with a standard issue razor. I am genuinely impressed by his dedication to the cause, but then as she points out, he hasn’t really got anything better to do.
I manage to procure some herbal tea in the cafe and recklessly augment my order with array of peanuts and brownies. Ordinarily neither of us would have eaten this kind of rubbish, especially as this will be the first thing I have eaten all day, but there isn’t anything else. Rob is hungry, and it feels somehow important to share in this experience and to provide some sort of focus, so we plough in and send our blood sugar rocketing into orbit. I quickly acclimatise myself to the beard. It lends him a fugitive air that is appropriate in the present circumstances.
I struggle more with what is happening around his eyes. They look slightly red and certainly tired with more pronounced lines. He looks sallow. He looks I suppose as you would look without access to the outdoors. It’s a shock to me. Rob loves to be outside. Any brief respite from the seemingly perpetual cloud cover heralded by the advent of British summertime would find him sitting outside, back against the garden wall, face in the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the warmth and the air. As a boy he worked every holiday on local farms, sloughing off the negative connotations associated with being the rector’s son by grafting longer and harder than everyone else, and becoming wiry and lithe and beautifully weatherbeaten into the bargain.
In London he loved to cycle and walk. He was always nut brown, which is why it shocks me to see the physical change in him after so short a time. What is behind the eyes remains reassuringly unchanged however. It is definitely him. Strong as an ox, refusing to break or crack even a little in these new circumstances.
I survey the visiting hall and see men holding their babies, playing with their sons and daughters and holding hands with their wives across the tables. It is hard to imagine what they might have done or been accused of doing. When Rob first arrived here we both felt like aliens, but that is changing now. They all have their stories just as we have ours and the trials of the separation that every family in the room is experiencing unite us more than all of the potential dividing factors of age, class, race or crime.
Rob can’t get over how different the men all look “en famille”. He seems shell shocked by the experience of being part of “normal” interaction again and struggles to maintain his train of thought and focus, or it could just be the crack-like activity of our sugar consumption taking hold.
It is so very good to see him. He smells clean but also of nothing at all, or nothing that I recognise. No more incense, no more scent. Tala nestles into him and draws for him relentlessly in between demonstrations of curious new ballet moves. After weeks of lopsided attempts to communicate and enduring the stilted time lapse between emails and letters it is heavenly to be able to talk unimpeded and gain a real insight into what is happening in each others separated lives, but the clock races and soon the men are being herded away from us. I hug him for as long as I dare and drink in what I can until he leaves us again.
One small middle aged Chinese prisoner loiters behind with the women and children, and the hitherto patient guards begin to look irritated. After he finally leaves the hall I realise what was keeping him. His wife is sobbing alone as she pushes her little daughter towards the exit queue. Last week this was me. I hug her and tell her that it will get better and do the only thing I can do which is to acknowledge her love and her pain.
It soon transpires that she has only a few words of English. I try to ascertain how long he will be inside for and can’t make out whether it is two months or five years, the latter I suspect. I have no idea why he is here, and I’m not sure she does either. She keeps shrugging her shoulders at me and shaking her head as she tries to explain. We understand nothing and everything about each others lives. There is in any case no language and no words that can describe this experience of utter powerlessness and sorrow and waste.