At the security desk beyond the visitors’ centre, a man checks my fingerprints and my passport. I have arrived early, so I wait and wait and then I wait some more. A little girl wearing a tiara and a tutu, around 6 years old, eyes me up.
“I like your hair,” she says, her eyes wide.
“Thanks,” I smile at her.
She continues to stare. “I’m going to see my daddy today. Who are you here to see?”
“I’m seeing my daddy too,” I tell her.
Both our daddies are in prison.
My dad was arrested on conspiracy of attempted armed robbery in 1988 – the year I was born – and then again, six years after his release, in 2004, when I was 16. He was everything my mum wasn’t. Shortly after Dad’s arrest in 1988, she met the man who would become my stepfather. With him, I had private schooling and 5* holidays. With my other dad, I got to go on a ferry with my mum to visit at HMP Parkhurst.
The last time I saw my dad in the "real world", I was 16, hungover and cold, wearing pink leg-warmers and Uggs. He had asked to meet me at Bermondsey station, and I had arrived ready for an unpredictable day; sometimes we’d browse old bookshops, other times he would take me to an upmarket fish restaurant and we’d have a food fight. He wasn’t at the station, but then I heard his distinctive throaty laugh wafting out of a nearby pub. I walked in, and there he was – my inebriated dad and his cardboard-cutout Goodfellas friends. I ended up having to drive my dad home that night. Forty minutes later I was tucking into a chicken pasanda.
A month later he was arrested.
His trial lasted two years and in 2009 he was sentenced to life with no release date. I found out about it in the newspaper on my way to see a play at drama school. I stayed on the tube instead, rereading the article over and over again. Since then, we’ve spoken on the phone almost every other day. He phones me from the prison pay phone. Sometimes he’ll run out of credit mid-conversation. Other times, I’m at a crucial point in a Netflix binge (Orange Is the New Black, memorably) – and he will not stop talking.
Face to face though, there’s nowhere to hide.
Back in the visitor’s centre, I check my pockets are empty. Even a rotting peanut in your pocket can mean no entry. Soon the 10 of us are packed into a lift-like space waiting for somebody to open up the other side. Next to me is the hard man with a perm, body clenched in a tight Ralph Lauren T-shirt. There’s a baby in her Sunday best, hair glittering with hairspray and pink bows. There are the regulars who come every week to visit their “bad boyfriends”. For a moment, I hate them for their giggles and their seeming nonchalance. These rooms contain every colour, size, and age, wearing everything from burkas to miniskirts. A girl on my left touches up her hair in the reflective glass.
Once through, we put everything inside a scanner, and one by one we are searched. I lift my tongue up and a woman in a uniform checks the soles of my feet. I’m suddenly happy I bought that loofah a few weeks back. In the next room, an Alsatian pants, ready to do his job and get a big old snack for it. I had a puff maybe a year ago, but even the dogs are grasses here. He sniffs around my vagina a bit and then moves on.
I am given my table number, and I rush to the canteen before all the good sweets go. I try to remember what my dad likes, but him having been in prison most of my life kind of gets in the way. I choose an array of sweets, chocolates, and sandwiches, plus two coffees and a damp-looking Victoria sponge for good measure. The little princess is already with her dad. She sees me and smiles. I smile back.
My dad was the king of his castle. A presence. A rebel without much cause. Rarely sober, he’s loud and arrogant after a few drinks, and thoughtful and introverted after a few joints. He makes me laugh more than Liza Minnelli, and he towers over everyone from the pedestal I put him on. I’ve never spent a birthday, a Christmas, a Father’s Day with my dad.
As a child I was told my dad was in the army. I would visit with my mum when he was in England for a few days, before his next big adventure. He was a hero, fighting sea monsters and saving lives. I later found out half of Bermondsey was in the "army" too. Only my absolute best friends at secondary school were told about my dad, and then sworn to secrecy. It soon became everybody else’s secret too. I remember once, having dinner at a friend’s house, and her mother shadowing me – in case I walked out with a case full of her china plates.
My dad and I go through stages of letter-writing but the older I’ve got the fewer I receive. I recently found one in my teenage diary that I’d written “BULLSHIT” over. He sends me cards, but prisons don’t have much of a variety. I visit twice a year, although because we speak so often on the phone it feels like more. I always drive. Hours and hours of R&B love songs as I chug along to whatever remote part of England he’s in.
At this point I always panic. What if he doesn’t come out? What if he’s ill or had a fight, and is in hospital? But then there he is, with the right amount of stubble and confident swagger that assures me everything is just fine. We hug. I can feel his grip tighten around me. He smells clean, with a hint of cigarette smoke. As usual, we hug for too long, and the guard breaks us up. We sit.
“How are you?” is out of the question. The last time I asked him that, he replied: “Lovely, had some oysters last night, swished ‘em down with some bubbly, and I’m off to Paris tomorrow.”
I settle on: “You’re looking really well, Dad.” That pleases him. He is a vain man, and used to be a regular in his sunbed shop.
“I wanna get a hair transplant,” he declares.
“What?” I say.
“A hair transplant. Reckon it’d whip years off me. I’d get my teeth fixed an' all.”
His face is weathered but handsome. His eyes are gentle and I feel a sudden surge of love for him.
“How’s work?” he asks. I quickly figure out whether or not to tell him the truth – that I’m temping and working in a pub and every day I feel myself getting older and no closer to anything of any real worth.
“It’s fine. Money’s shit, but so far I’ve managed to keep on top of my rent.”
“Have a reef up in the till. Them wages they give you ain’t fair – make it fair and give yourself an add-on.”
Right there, that’s the difference between him and me. He is an opportunist, a man who sees a situation and justifies a way to make it “better”, to make that extra buck. I once put a tip in my pocket and then felt so bad I put it back in the jar to share.
He looks down at what I’ve purchased from the canteen. “Cor, this sponge looks Jekyll.” (Jekyll and Hyde – snide.) He eats it whole, before telling me he doesn’t like Galaxy and why didn’t I buy him a Bounty? I make another mental note that I will forget as soon as I leave. We compare hands, like we do every time we meet. They’re identical, small and short.
Suddenly my dad shouts: “What are you – a Corbynator or what, George? I mean, he’s the bollocks.” My dad, the armed robber and newly formed socialist. Prison gives you a lot of time, I guess. “He’s a good man, good principles, I like what he’s doing.” I tell him I went on a march and he calls me soapy. We laugh a lot. He looks at the clock and goes silent. We have 15 minutes of our allotted hour left, and he asks me to go and get him a family-size Dairy Milk for later. I return with his chocolate, and we sit silently – awkward but lovely – for our last few minutes. So many things I will regret not saying on the journey home. We hold each other’s hands with the sound of cries and farewells surrounding us. We know.
Years back, a week before his trial, when he forgot to stay positive, I told him to stop acting like “a slow snail”. He snapped at me. “Snail? We’re fucking mountain lions.”
He repeats himself now. “We’re mountain lions,” he says sincerely. Strong, sharp, quick, aggressive, my dad. Like a mountain lion. I guess you can be a mountain lion until they stick you in a cage.
“Time!” the guard shouts, just like at the pub. The hour always goes quick. We stand and hug, I tell him I love him and he says he will be out soon, but his voice is deflated. I see two lovers – probably in their fifties – filled with a passionate fury as they snog for longer, their hands all over each other, her lipstick across her face. The guard separates them and she lets out a cry. She joins the rest of us, tears rolling down her face. I stay calm because I have been here before, and getting upset only upsets him.
My dad has been incarcerated for most of my life. He is not the person I call when my car breaks down, or when I want to have a moan about my rent (it's so high!). I want him to meet my boyfriend, and I want to spend a Sunday eating a roast dinner and playing Articulate! with him. I'm not a princess, and he's no Disney dad. He will never be a fat little inventor or a mermaid king. But as I’ve got older, he's become a friend.
His release date is up for discussion next year and with a "positive outcome" he could be home by 2017. I have offered him my living room for when this happens. He replied: “I ain’t into that." “Into what?” I asked. “I’ve got a life to catch up on, George.”
As I get into my car, the little princess walks past me. We give each other one last smile. We know. We both know.