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Ward No. 4, Bed No. 1

Omar Chowdhury
29 March, 2005

He lay on the sweat-soaked bed in the dark. A glimmer of light emanated from the bathroom, the door of which was slightly ajar.

The whisky bottle was beside the bed, on the floor. He had no need for a glass He put the mouth of the bottle to his, and took a few quick gulps. The fiery liquid slid down his gullet, down, down, till it cooled somewhere and affectionately soothed his anguished body. The shivering became less, but when he closed his eyes, the white blobs contracted and expanded and floated inwards, outwards, from side to side, like ectoplasm, around the dark room. This aimless manifestation was what he feared most.

He opened his eyes and turned his head towards the dressing-table. And then it started again: phantom figures emerged from the mirror and bobbed around the room. As before, they made entreating gestures with their hands, beckoning with their fingers, encouraging him with their eyes, swinging their hips, moistening their lips, making subtle sensual movements with head and neck, like dancers. They were speaking a dumb language of love. They began to assume more discernable shapes : beautiful young men in fantastic coloured costumes. Handsome Harlequins, like agitated puppets, being jerked about, suspended from invisible strings. Their lips moved soundlessly. How desperately he wanted them to speak. Say anything! He stretched an arm towards them, his hand trembling, wanting to touch one red figure. It acted as a signal. Immediately the whole maddening phalanx retreated into the mirror.

He picked up a torch and shone it on his wristwatch. Just after five in the morning. Another two hours and the room-boys would begin their early morning noises, and S would knock and come in.

He turned on his side and wanted to sleep. But sleep was the problem - it would not come. Some more whisky. Then he began counting backwards : 100, 90, 76 , 64, .Stop. No good. Why not think of something sleepy - like listening to DM droning on about nothing at the Club. The Club? He never went there when he holed up in the hotel room with his whisky bottles. No. Think about nothing. Make your mind a blank. How? Imagine you’re a Buddhist monk on the brink of nirvana, and jump!

Each time this business with alcohol begins I swear it will be the last. but if never is. Why? What is it that I am trying to drown in whisky? Loneliness, frustration, mental impotence, physical dissatisfaction? Now the mind goes blank for a moment. But too brief for sleep to engulf him, Then a cascade of memories, came over the top; a rapid flipping over of mental photographs - Arthur, Cambridge, Evan, Ireland . . . Lost and submerged in these memories, he suddenly fell asleep.

Awake with a jolt. The God-awful shivering accelerates. Quick. Bottle. Hand trembling violently. Fuck it - drink from the shaking bottle. That’s better. Oh! Choking - then a coughing fit and retching. Steady now - no morning sickness, my boy - you can’t make it to the bathroom alone, you know that. Steady. Gulp. Salty mouth. Gulp.

Better. Gone. Hold it. One more careful swallow from the bottle. That’s better. Dear God, how long can this go on for? I feel like I’m going to die!

Coming out of a murky, dreamless sleep. S asking me how I’m feeling. H holding his hand, with eyes closed. Shivering again. Sunlight in the room - 10 o’clock. Knock on the door and H enters.

“How are you, Sir?”

Terrible! My dear H, I think I need a doctor. There’s a pain in my chest. Look at my hands. They won’t stop trembling. I have the fucking DTs. Yes, get a doctor, please.

The doctor arrives. Aggressively cheerful. Yeah, yeah. I want to say, I know what’s wrong with me. You know what’s wrong with me. The room knows what’s wrong with me. The whole bloody world knows what’s wrong with me. So let’s go through the old routine, and get the crap over with.

H sits on the edge of the bed, and the doctor, on the only chair, proceeded to reads me a sermon on alcoholism. Suddenly I’m fascinated. The poor bastard is telling me everything I know, only it sounds like the first time I’m hearing all the bullshit. He has handled such cases before. Am I a hopeless case, beyond pity, beyond salvation? Is there no magic drug which will have me out of bed by 1-30, joining J at the Club for a civilized gin and tonic? Come on Doctor, do your bloody stuff! Of course he can’t. Withdrawal syndrome. Takes time : 3-4 days usually. Tranquilizers, vitamin B injections, glucose, reading, ignoring libido - everything except a wonderful look into the void, a long, long, long swallow of whisky. From the bottle!

Doctor exits with H. Conspiracy downstairs. J is dragged in. He’s the Boss - in every sense.

I lie back, propped on pillows which S has arranged. I smile. He smiles. Our hands meet.

There is a knock on the door. H comes in. Only 45 minutes I think have passed since Doctor Balls left.

“Hurry up, Sir, the ambulance has come.”

Ambulance? What ambulance? Oh no, Jack, you are not hauling me into any damned ambulance. Go to Hell.

“Come on, Sir, Mr J is waiting downstairs.” It turned out he wasn’t. But his kind brothers were.

He was helped down by H and S on either side. Lying on a stretcher in the ambulance, shivering. WHERE THE HELL IS MY WHISKY? Stop! Let me out of here! Too late. You are on the way to the white walls, the white uniformed nurses, the white horrors of hospital. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

He was trundled along endless corridors, taken up in a lift, trundled some more, until they came to the door of Ward No. 4. There, white in a shaft of sunlight, was Bed No. 1.

He opened his eyes in panic, not daring to look around him, fixing his pleading eyes on H. Please, he wanted to say, get me a slug of whisky. The doctor said in the hotel that I must withdraw gradually, can’t turn off the juice at once. Might kill me! Yes, I feel as though I’m going to die. PLEASE try and get me a shot of absolute! Or else a shot in the arm. I can’t bear this any longer!

By and by a glum-faced doctor came and gave me a painless shot in the arm. By and by the shivering ceased.

H left, and I was alone, with about forty patients on forty beds, all seemingly about to die.

I kept falling asleep, then waking up, until my shaking wrist told me it was six o’clock.

The ward was served by six nurses, who were addressed as didi by the servants, and by their names by the doctors (all looking like medical students) who sat at a table under a 200 watt naked bulb, which was to keep me awake most of the evening, until the time came for induced unconsciousness.

The nurses were cold, and indifferent to human suffering - especially mine. All they did was to check my blood pressure, and take my temperature. And ask insolent questions about my nationality. But I am used to being mistaken for a foreigner. Am I one? I ‘m certainly foreign to this kind of hell!

Surprisingly, a nice attractive young medico came and held my wrist.

“What is the matter with you?”

Alcoholic withdrawal syndrome.

“How much were you drinking?”

More than enough.

“For how long?”

Too long.

“Do you think you can stop?”

I think I can. But I probably won’t.

“But it will kill you.”

I’m afraid it might.

“You must try to stop.”

Yes.

“Normal.”

Impossible. Please hold my wrist a little longer.

He hurried away. I dozed again, fitfully. The lights, the noise, and the nurses! Bloody Hell!

At nine o’clock a man came round with a bucket, and filled a cup with lukewarm, unsweetened, watery milk. Another brought a tray on which lay a small loaf of bread, bought from the cheapest bakery in town. I hadn’t really eaten anything for three days, deriving my nourishment and calories, from whisky-alcohol. I nibbled at a piece of bread and took a small gulp of milk. Ugh!

The night began to yawn before me. If only I could yawn myself to sleep! But I realised it would never come that easily. But the Professor of Medicine did.

Please doctor, if I am expected to sleep in this chamber of horrors, with all those tube-lights, and that naked bulb, and that screaming man over there, and the nurses hovering like white vampires to check my blood pressure and feel my pulse, then for all that is left of humanity in this world, give me a double shot in the arm!

The Professor was a kind-looking man, and he had been around. He knew the score. He gave me a professional smile, and an assurance that anything I wanted I would get. I must ignore all the lights and the noise and get some rest. He would visit me again in the morning.

A glum-faced medico came and gave me a shot in the arm.

He dreamed that he was walking down endless dark corridors, a glass in his hand, calling : Doctor, Doctor.
Suddenly he saw a door opening, and a voice calling : Come, come, I’m here.

He walked into a brightly lit room. At a table sat the attractive young medico. He was not smiling.

“Put that glass down.”

But it is my last whisky!

“You’re lying. You said you could not stop. Put it down.”

Not yet, please. Later.

“All your drinking life you’ve been lying - to yourself. You can’t stop. You’re going to die.”

If I promise to really stop, will you stop me dying?

“I’ll try. But you must try yourself. If we both try, and try hard, you’ll not die.”

Give me something to make me sleep. I’m tired, walking and walking along those corridors. Take me back to the ward and put me to sleep with your cool, cool hand on my brow.

It was an early morning dream, and I woke to find the attractive medico holding my wrist again.

“How are you feeling this morning?”

Much better. Thanks for bringing me back to the ward.

“------?”

And I promise I’ll try. We’ll both try, won’t we?

“Try - what?”

The son-of-a-bitch had forgotten everything! He dropped my wrist and hurried away, looking nonplussed.

The ward looked hideous in the morning light. A new shift of nurses was bustling around, starched and repellent. One came and checked my blood pressure.

I really was feeling better. The tremors were less. I was even a little hungry.

By and by the bread and milk was served again. I signaled to a doctor, who came over.

Is this all they give you in this hospital - bread and milk? I had it last night, and here it is again.

“Last night it was because the first meal a new patient gets is bread and milk. Now what you are getting is breakfast.”

Big deal. What happens when I’m taken to a private room, some time today?

“Oh that is a different matter. You pay for what you get up there.”

He went away. And then it dawned on me. This was a public ward, I was a guest of the government. Or rather a patient. This was the true democratic spirit. Bread and milk on this floor, scrambled eggs and marmalade upstairs. Could I have an upstairs breakfast down here, I wondered, if I paid for it? I decided not to ask. I had no money.

He lay on the bed and watched one of the patients, who had just died, being trundled away on a trolley. The old man on the bed beside his was saying his prayers. On the other side a boy, thin as a rake, was being given a saline drip. His head was bandaged. Perhaps they’ll give me saline too. The old man stopped praying and began to cough. He held a dirty piece of cloth to his mouth. When be took it away, it was spotted red.

Oh dear God, I prayed, get me out of here. I can’t take it any longer. I’ve been punished enough. I’ve been through hell before, but this is the real thing. I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll give up drinking. I swear. Please forgive me. Take me away - please.

And there, striding down the ward, came H.

The tremors had stopped.

See, my dear H, my hands are perfectly steady!

“Wonderful”.

Now let’s get to work. I signaled, the doc came over.

Doctor, I would like you to fill out and sign my discharge slip”.

“But you’ve only just come to us”.

But now I’m leaving. Bad deal for you. Better luck next time.

“Does the Professor know you want to leave”?

Not yet. Tell him after I’ve gone. Come on H, get him moving!

It was raining. I struggled into the front seat of my small car aided by H, who was going to drive.

Swish-swish went the wipers, thud-thud went my heart. Only I knew that hidden under my bed was a half empty bottle of whisky. Hee! Hee! Hee! Ho! Ho! Ho! Soon I’d be back in my room again. Tee! Hee! Whopeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee It was nice to be back in my room. S was on duty. I told him to get me some iced water.

He came back with it and wanted to know about the hospital. I told him it was hell on earth, and that I had no fear of the other place anymore.

A funny thing that happens to me when I’m riding high on the bottle is that even the thought of smoking, sickens me. S offered me my packet of cigarettes, but I shook my head. Only iced water satisfied me. The doctor of the previous day had prescribed some pills. I told S to nip out quickly and get them.

Instead of one, I took two, and lay down on the bed. It was after two o’clock. Then it was almost seven. S came in. He was going off duty. Was there anything I wanted? There certainly was!

The next day, lying in bed, I soberly vividly re-lived my experience of Ward No. 4. Bed No. 1. Somehow the second take of horror and disgust felt good - there was something cleansing about it. The ordeal had changed me. I felt different now, safe on my own bed. Confidence returned. I felt elevated, morally. I smiled. I felt gay. I got up and went down to find J in his office. I drank tea, for a change!

Later that evening, he selected a shalwar-kameez of the most seductive green, and slipped on a favourite emerald ring.
Two friends were to pick him up and take him to the Club.

He took the bottle from beneath the bed, uncorked it, and placed it on the coffee-table. Then he sat down and carefully lit a cigarette. After inhaling one puff, he kissed it goodbye, and dropped it into the neck of the bottle. It floated, defeated, in the alien whisky.

The End






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