Just two months after Henry’s first letter, he wrote this descriptive account of a subsequent visitors’ day at HMP Birmingham, delving further into the emotions provoked by visits from family in prison and the feelings of performing as part of a choir. Once again, any editions have been mainly structural, and kept to a minimum.
It is the day of family visits once more, and spirits are high. Another precious opportunity to perform for loved ones and spread a bit of cheer.
As we wait in the holding area before our visitors arrive, it feels oddly like we’re preparing to make our way on stage. We live in a place where blood, refuse and foul aromas are part of everyday experience; but then, quite suddenly, on days like these, we walk into a clean room and pretend that it is all normal, that things are great. A test of resilience if there ever was one.
We are all there, though – surrounded by familiar fellow faces, sharing in anxiety and tense anticipation. Everyone is dressed to impress, hurriedly groomed by whoever happened to have a passable set of clippers (for the bargain price of a tin of tuna and some biscuits). An external display of normality is vital in a place like this, both to maintain a level of respect amongst fellow inmates, and to hold onto your own self-confidence. And yet, as we enter, each of us is handed a green bib – mine is covered in bits of food from previous users’ visits. A further guarantee, besides my own pasty prison complexion, that I will stand out amongst the visiting crowd.
I check my clothes anyway: do I look good? Am I presentable? Do I look happy? Is my…? But my rising thoughts are abruptly cut off by the sight of those faces. My god, those beautiful faces. My girls run to me and the world stands still. They smile that smile of recognition and I wrap my arms around them. Their energy is infectious; no hint of self-consciousness, untainted by the judgements of others, and pure of heart. I am truly blessed.
I look at mum. She smiles too, but I see the tiredness in her eyes. The strain of this situation is, for some reason, something we never discuss. After two years, it’s still far too sensitive. I can’t bring myself to hold her gaze; it’s impossible to hide my shame and she cannot mask her deep disappointment in me – she will be left alone for another six years.
At points throughout the day, I come into contact with other dads and their families. We talk with unusual openness, and watch our children play together. I always wonder how they are feeling. On occasion, I see a real sadness – the realisation that we’ve been so stupid to have reached this position. As quickly as it appears, though, it is swiftly covered over by the mask we must all wear to survive this place.
Pete, our choir director, arrives, performance time looms and a few of the lads look a little anxious.
I am struck all at once by a feeling of pride as I watch them stand up and prepare to sing in front of their onlooking peers. In an environment so devoid of displays of vulnerability – and so dominated by continued perceptions of ‘toughness’ – their confidence to express themselves without judgement is inspiring. I am on my feet beside them.
The stage is set and, as we await our introduction, we don our matching t-shirts. I catch the eye of a few of my brothers in song and we exchange nods of encouragement and winks of reassurance that we have strength in numbers.
I quickly discover that it is surprisingly difficult to sing when you have a child wrapped around your neck… But I manage to begin anyway, “Summertime, and the living is easy…”. I force myself to relax, it’s going well and we all sound great. Go on the lads. Lovely tone, smooth harmony.
Second song – “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”. I’m sweaty, but I look around and smile at the sight. Seeing all the love and emotion on everybody’s faces is such a stark contrast to every other day within these walls. For a fleeting moment, the scene changes and the stark lines between prisoners and family, inside and outside, melt away. We finish to a round of applause and my girls clap along. I see pride in their faces and I am filled with love for them.
Through the perfect bubble of our temporary little world slices the unwelcome shout, ‘Finish your visits’. Game face brother, now comes the hardest part. My girls have their coats are on and it suddenly feels like there is so much to say, yet not a wasted minute has passed in silence – I swallow a large helping of panic and try to hide any unruly negative emotions. Thankfully, they’re all smiles: no drama, they walk out of the door, and wave exuberantly as they go, content that all is great in the world and dad is safe and sound in his ‘Castle’. I know. I wish I was joking, but it will have to do for now.
As always, we attempt to attract a few more members from our watching fellow inmates. I can’t help noticing their assortment of expressions, from shy non-commitment to sheer panic, and the usual helping of ridicule. As we perform, though, the benefits feel undeniable and I can only hope we conveyed something of the self-confidence and hope that singing together can bring.
Nonetheless, I return to my chair in something resembling shock. Feeling somewhat down is inevitable after a visit, and after the initial realisation that your loved ones have left, and that you are about to return to a harsh world that just does not allow for much emotion, it’s vital that one keeps a level head.
As ever, it is a day that I will hold dear. The opportunities to spend quality time with those who mean the most to you, and the very real mental and physical rewards provided by performing and expressing ourselves as a choir, are to be preserved and cherished.