It is time to return from our travels. We are a well functioning team now: Me, Tala and the class bear who is vacationing with us this year, much to Tala’s delight. We arrive back to find the house practically immaculate.  The plants have fared less well and a ground floor window is wide open, but in the scale of things I am very pleasantly relieved.  I race through the laundry, cook and catch up with Okha who looks better than I have seen her for years: Natural and rosy and effusive about her trip to Venice with the girls.

I decide to go by train to visit Rob the following day. The very thought of Euston station makes me shiver, as it will be forever associated in my mind with the day of sentencing, but I feel too tired to trust myself in the car as I am already running a sleep deficit after the day’s travelling.  It’s just me and Tala for the visit as Okha has to work again and hasn’t yet grasped the fact that she needs to plan ahead to be free on visiting days.

It isn’t an easy journey by train.  Prisons are generally located in remote locations, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps to keep this undesirable segment of society away from the general population, perhaps due to land values.  Whatever the reason, getting there for us involves a cycle ride, a tube trip, a fast Birmingham train, a wait, another slower, stopping local train, and finally a cab.  We leave at 10, arrive at 1.30 and aren’t actually processed until after 2 so that we miss a significant half hour of our visit.  No one even mentions it, let alone apologises.

As we are herded between the various holding bays and doors that have become familiar to me, I spot the prison officer who was so kind on my first visit when I couldn’t stop the floods of tears.  Although weeping wives and crying children are a familiar sight, I am amazed that she remembers me and asks how I am doing.  I tell her that she was right and that I am getting used to it.  She asks how long we have left, is shocked by my reply, and looks once more for all the world as if she would pop inside and bring him out to me if she could only deal with the admin involved in such an act of common sense.

Our chatting has broken the conversational stand off between the families and one girl with startling pale blue eyes asks me if she has lipstick on her teeth. She doesn’t, but we lament the lack of mirrors caused by phone separation.  She hates visiting.  It makes her feel judged and guilty.  I don’t feel like that when I am with the other families because I suppose that we are all feeling the same mixture of anticipation and longing and a curious sensation somewhere between shame and defiance.  Being Saturday there are many more children here: Little girls with fancy hairstyles, party dresses and frilly socks and small cheeky boys with patterns shaved into their hair.  It is a big day for us all and we want to impress.

We can’t spot Rob at all in the hall.  Then we realise that the cool, slim, bearded gentleman on a far table who is smiling and waving maniacally is actually our Robbie, just much, much hairier.  Tala is practically crying with laughter.  Clearly incarceration is no grounds for an exemption from the mockery of one’s daughter.  He is a little insecure about his new look, not having seen himself in almost 6 weeks.  Glass, mirrored or otherwise, is obviously an immediate and deadly weapon, and so there are no mirrors on the inside, only strange vaguely reflective surfaces that necessitate a considerable leap of faith for the subject to imagine his actual appearance.  To me he looks beautiful, always and forever I suspect.  The beard feels nice to kiss too: slightly furry and springily soft.

I get a running commentary on many more of the men than usual, as he has gotten to know more people as the weeks have passed.  His social standing has been greatly enhanced by a genuine and mutually rewarding friendship with one of the brothers from the next door “pad”, by his teaching and, I am sure, though he would never say it himself, by the general good nature and cheeriness that he brings to bear in even the darkest of situations.  Two tables away he spots a man who he is teaching to read and write.  He is severely dyslexic, but is persevering and making progress.  Sometimes they do very little actual work as he is struggling so badly with being inside that learning is all but impossible.  His wife is fighting to cope on the outside and he is caught in a cycle of self loathing and powerlessness.

Rob is developing a fascinating knowledge of the criminal underworld.  He arrived as an innocent man, but when he leaves he will certainly be well versed in the machinations of the underbelly of which we would like to believe we are not a part.  The truth is that though there are certainly some nasty characters banged up here, a generous proportion of the prison population are not in for violent crimes. Drugs and mental illness provide the majority of prison fodder. Surely we can do better?

So quickly the time is up.  We cling together again, almost suffocating Tala between us. He says that he won’t look back as he leaves.  The men, marked out by their practical but humiliating netball bibs, flock back together and greet each other again after their brief subdivision into both nuclear and extended family groups.  Like a sports team coming off the field after a glorious match, they reunite, puffed up by the individual attention and love.

I see Rob with his mates.  He looks properly at home with them now.  The long hours spent together in far from ideal circumstances allow the formation of deep bonds.  Comrades in arms.  Like Orpheus attempting to return Eurydice from the underworld he cannot resist glancing back however, and finds us jumping up and down at the back of the exiting visitors so as to remain visible ’til the last precious second.