Monday, April 6, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Eight

The next day Jillian found herself subject to her usual melancholy, but she sat on the temptation to reach for the pill to regain the glowing feeling. Instead she did something she'd never done before: wander about and observe people. Venturing out of her home wing, she sought other areas of the Ward, areas where she wasn't known. She wanted to see if she could find patients of both doctors, and talk to both groups about their experiences. This mission was complicated by the fact that it was considered rude in the Ward to flat-out ask someone about why they were there, and what treatment they were under. Those were private matters that could be offered by someone if they chose, but could not be asked – especially by a stranger – without risking deep offense.

So Jillian went far away from her usual haunts to try speaking to strangers. Having had one day of the nice doctor's treatment, she could more easily spot those who were taking the pills. They were genial and easy to talk to, though their attention seemed to wander and there was something fragile about their geniality. As long as circumstances were good, they were able to remain in the glow of the pills. But if anything went wrong, they could be quite disturbed. And "anything" meant even the most trivial things, such as the temperature of the soup or the responsiveness of the nurses. She wondered if the pills wore off sooner the longer you took them.
One thing that interested Jillian to see was the effect the nice doctor's treatment had on his patient's outlook. Given that these people were supposedly taking a simple treatment that would inevitably get them released Outside, she would have thought that they'd be much less concerned with matters in the Ward and more tolerant of minor inconveniences as they bided their time until their promised release. In fact, she found the opposite to be true. It seemed that, since these people assumed that Outside was theirs at such small cost, they were aggrieved that their current circumstances were not as good as they deserved. She found them eager participants in many improvement schemes, everything from trying to get an oversight board appointed to supervise the cafeterias to trying to implement a governance scheme to manage the television stations watched in the lounges. Given the momentous issues that still hung over Jillian's head, she was amazed to see people devote such effort so such trivial matters, but they dove into them wholeheartedly in the name of "making the Ward a better place."

Jillian was fortunate on her second day to stumble across a group of patients under the treatment of the stern doctor. They were assisting each other in their regimen in one of the small gyms. She'd heard whispers of such meetings, sometimes with the implications of strange or perverse doings, but the social constraint against discussing such things openly had prevented her from learning more. But when she wandered into the gym, nobody seemed surprised or ashamed at their activities or her presence. A few shied away from the stranger in their midst, but a couple of the older patients were glad to sit down to talk to her, even after they'd learned she hadn't yet signed up for the treatment.

"Does the doctor directly supervise your treatment?" Jillian asked the man, whose name was Steven.

"Occasionally, but mostly we help each other out. The instructions are simple, and we older patients can help the newer ones", Steven explained.

"Do you find the treatment – excessively, ah –" Jillian stumbled for words.

"Rigorous?" suggested Angela, the woman. When Jillian nodded, she gave a slight smile. "It can be at times, but far less than you'd think. You get accustomed to the discipline, and even come to enjoy the order it brings to your life."

Jillian looked skeptically at the exercises that the patients were doing with one another out on the gym floor, some of which looked far beyond her ability. Angela followed her glance and then laid a hand on her arm. "My dear, you'll never understand it by watching. I thought I could when I was – oh, younger than you are now. It made no sense to me just by looking at it from the outside. The regimen is something you have to experience to understand. You have to be inside it."

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

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