Saturday 22 June 2013

'Halfway House' by Robert Thomas

I arrive each day at first light and select one of the men for inspection. In the mornings the only room open to non-residents is the library. Twelve men cast in the dolorous glow of dawn. Something abandoned and wild in their faces. The huge bay windows rattle in the wind. The coral trees outside throw their arms against the sky, as if in admonition.  The room is warm and I note how good it feels to be away from the heckling autumn air. I hold my hands by the open fire and survey today’s candidates in the mirror. One man carries his blankets in a plastic bag. Another takes his shoes off at the door, as if reading were a religious act. We are in Comma Tower, Kolkata, India, a halfway house for alcoholics and drug addicts. A place for those the world has forgot and who in turn want to forget the world. It sits, half-sunk, in a gated garden and sags into the landscape as if embarrassedly trying to hide its face among the sycamore trees that line its perimeter. The name is appropriate for a comma is what this place is supposed to be; a pause between the clauses of a persons life. A place of restitution for the malnourished soul. Alas in recent years there has occurred a slippage between word and thing and it is no longer clear on which road this house is halfway to- salvation or hell. The men who congregate outside the doors often seem to be drinking by early evening and in the morning you see many of them strewn unconscious up and down the Dharmapala Road as if the tide of the receding night could not quite carry them home. It is intensely sad to see men my own age (57) reduced to this. I have found the process of getting older to involve the gradual clarification of how a life should be lived. For me each year has represented a minute sharpening of perspective and by fifty the things which were indistinct and blurry in my youth had resolved themselves into family, children, a life.  I see these men before me each day with brine-soaked eyes and calloused ringless fingers. I see it my duty as a doctor to help where I can.

The sunlight braids itself around table legs and bookcases like a sleepy cat.  A likely candidate sits across from me. Observe how his face is robbed of all its cunning! Note his gaze so plaintive and enquiring! See how his eyes are two unlit silences, unbearably sad! My younger self would say ‘Brother! Worry not for in this room are held multitude worlds more perfect than our own!’ But I am old. I point and say ‘Him. He’ll do for today’. He will not be missed. Two orderlies collect him to be prepared for the examination. The exact nature of my work is neither here nor there. The results are all that counts.

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