My house is threatening to become something that Gerald Durrell would be proud of: There are tubs covered in cling film containing water, rocks and small perturbed frogs, and piles of lizard bait in unlikely places, so that as I dash for the ringing phone, I crunch through artfully placed rice crispies, scattering small emerald-backed reptiles in my wake.
Every conversation now has to be conducted at pace. There is so much to ask and so precious little time, and almost everything I say seems woefully trivial, but he sounds solid and that is above all what I am probing for. The good news is that post seems to be getting through again and the robe and slippers have finally been delivered. Keith has the same robe in grey and Rob is pleased that I went for the blue as any sporting of matching lounge wear may be considered as going a step too far in the name of solidarity, or worse still, evidence of romantic involvement: matching his and his accessories are definitely not the look he was after.
He has been outside five times since his arrival, always for less than an hour and this despite the beautiful weather. From his cell, beyond the fences topped with razor wire, he can see tree tops shaking in the breeze. He seems to feel much more at home now, having worked out who to avoid and who to engage with and is excited about training as a resettlement worker. He will be “red banded” in this job which means more freedom of movement within the prison as well as the facility to do something useful.
Keith is working in the library, a great post that suits him well. I wonder what the local libraries will think, negotiating the delivery of requested titles to the prison, with this well spoken, effusively polite man. Only Charlie’s double glazing sessions are a disappointment, being of dubious quality that leave him feeling ill prepared for this future career path and failing to unlock his inner tradesman.
They pass the time playing cards and any board games they can get their hands on and don’t seem to long for things beyond what they have. They have some interesting new neighbours, Pakistani brothers who are extremely entertaining and regale them with outrageous stories. As I am speaking to him, thanks to the miracles of technology, I am standing on a hillside looking out towards distant hills over a valley of pine trees dappled in morning sun. I feel burdened by the happiness I feel, and so, not being one to sit with guilt any longer than absolutely necessary, I confess to feeling truly content. Amazingly, with so much less reason, he feels the same way.
Above all I feel overwhelmingly grateful for him, however far away, and for all the friends that I have. People have been so kind to us that it is hard not to see that the underlying human condition is love. This is not to deny that there is a minimum level of comfort needed in order to appreciate this world without fear of hunger or cold or illness, but understanding that this bar is set materially and emotionally much lower than I ever thought, brings a freedom that I had not anticipated.
I remember when we discovered that HMRC were bringing criminal charges Rob’s biggest worries were the jobs of the people who worked for him. Being charged with fraud isn’t great for business and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to retain his staff. He did however, until the conviction, at which point his company folded and several people who were much more than employees and who had been with him for over fifteen years lost their jobs.
For Rob however the lengthy custodial sentence has been paradoxically freeing. For years he juggled bushinesses, wages, offices, a mortgage, and a dependant wife and children. To be taken to a place where you can no longer provide and to have the majority of your possessions taken away is for him fantastically liberating. It is said that a camel passes more easily through the eye of a needle than a rich man through the gates of heaven.
I believe that Rob feels more free in the bowels of Hewell that he has for many a long year battling out in the world to be successful. He is getting a second childhood now inside: a return to boarding school where the primary aim of existence is to have a laugh and to break as many rules as possible without getting caught. The basics are provided and you don’t have to think for yourself. In jail as everywhere there are good and bad people, and the good ones probably have better stories to tell than most. I am anticipating some interesting dinner parties in the future.
I meet some of Anita’s friends. It is only after I leave them that I remember that they undoubtedly know my story. For the first time in nearly three months I don’t feel defined by what has happened. Day by day, prison and separation cease to dominate my existence. I don’t feel strong: The mere thought of something happening to one of my children assures me that I have no mandate to claim any kind of inner strength.
I remember a story that I was told as a child. A man looks back at his life and sees two sets of footprints walking in the sands of time: His and God’s. He notices that there are also dark periods where only one set of prints can be seen. The man asks God why he deserted him in his moments of need and God replies that at these times he was carrying him. This is the overwhelming sensation that I have: Of being carried on the thoughts and prayers and blessings of family, friends and beautiful strangers.
I release the frogs back into their watery paradise and disincentive the lizards from massing on the terrance with dustpan and brush. It is a beautiful world, here more than almost anywhere (to me at least). To be confined to a cell, or, if you are frog, to a makeshift tuppaware prison is a travesty indeed and yet to be free and never to realise it – to long for what is not, is arguably more tragic than any physical incarceration.