We cleared the kitchen table for a game of pick-up sticks. Remember them? Thirty long, thin bamboo sticks, their differing values painted on them in red, blue or yellow stripes? You bunch them in your fist and let them collapse in a heap on the table and then the players extract one at a time from the pile without disturbing any of the others? The game is still being sold in Oxfam shops for 99 pence a set under the rubric ‘Those Were the Days’.
The kitchen table is circular. Four of us, representing four generations — me, my son, my grandson and my mother — are playing. I let the sticks fall. My grandson picks up a loose ten stick and does his silent maniacal rictus laugh. My boy reaches out and snaffles an easy two. Mum’s go. She loves a silly game and considers the stick pile with theatrical avidity. Spotting an ambitious medium-to-difficult five stick, she reaches out a trembling, 85-year-old hand, where it hovers, her Parkinson’s tremor going into overdrive. She laughs. We laugh. She makes fingertip contact with the five stick (it is delicately balanced) and the entire heap pulses violently then disintegrates. Which means the game is halted, the scores totted up, and the sticks are bundled together and dropped afresh. ‘I don’t think this is a game for anyone with Parkinson’s,’ she says sadly.
I don’t know which planet or planets are chiefly responsible, but everything that seemed settled for the players around the table is about to change. After five years of staying at home to look after his two boys, my boy has made a second attempt to join the prison service, and this time his application has been successful. A prison officer seems a tough career choice for such a gentle lad to make, but he’s had his heart set on it since watching the comedy series Porridge when he was small. Last week, I showed him a worrying article in the Times about the rising levels of violence in HM prisons. In the past six years, it noted, the number of prison officers has fallen by a quarter from 20,000 to 14,500. Last year, 4,963 assaults on a prison officer were recorded, a rise of 36 per cent on the year before. Assuming that these assaults weren’t all on the same guy, that could mean that up to one in three prison wardens were on the receiving end of some sort of violence. Incidents of self-harming, suicides and inter-inmate violence were all up by a quarter on last year’s totals. The week before that, I watched a TV documentary about Norwich prison, which seemed a decent sort of prison, characterised by civility and decorum. Yet here even the female prison officer’s faces had that twisted, embattled look that the former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal wore for most of last season, and which one also sees in close-up photographs of frontline soldiers’ faces. ‘You’re joining the prison service at its most underfunded and dangerous time in living memory,’ I said, perhaps a little overdramatically. ‘I’ll be starting on 23 grand a year,’ was my boy’s, to him, unanswerable riposte. Last week he drove up to Wiltshire, where prison officers screamed in his face for five minutes to test his composure. All he has to do now is drive up a second time and show that he has the strength to hold a riot shield in front of him for one minute, bench-press 25 kilos, and he’s in. Acceptance will mean he’ll have to move away, and my grandson will be starting at a new school in September.
Changes are imminent for my mother, also, who is daily expecting the surgeon’s letter requiring her attendance for five hours on his operating table. There is a chance, his junior doctor has advised her, that she will go from there to the morgue. There is also a good chance she will survive but be in confusion for some days, weeks or months afterwards. Earlier that morning, when the post arrived, I performed a shuffling rain-dance over the little pile of letters before she opened them, and our hope for another 24-hour stay of execution was granted.
Change is afoot for me, too. Depending on the result of tests on the blood sample I had given that morning — the cotton-wool swab was still taped to the inside of my elbow — my oncologist could halt my anti-cancer hormone treatment and I’ll be a man again.
I bundled the sticks into my fist, opened it, and let them fall on the table in a new pattern. My grandson jubilantly extracted the King stick with the blue spiral pattern — 20 points — and ran around the table in celebration with his West Ham shirt pulled over his head.