Sunday, January 10, 2010

Time to come home


After decades of seeking his fortune abroad, a lawyer finds what he needs most at his doorstep.

AS is my habit I was early for my appointment. The pattern I had established was to arrive a few minutes early, take stock of my surroundings and gather my thoughts before attending to the issue at hand. It had a calming effect on me – shutting out the unsavoury headlines of the day which highlight man’s inhumanity to his fellow men, the tottering economy and, not least of all, the challenging cases crying for attention at my firm.

The tasteful reception room was a quiet reflection of its famed location – Harley Street. The pile carpet, the originals on the walls, the handmade furniture and subdued lighting spoke volumes for the tenant’s good taste. A discreet polished brass nameplate had the name and academic and professional credentials of its occupant.

Apart from the receptionist there were two others in the waiting room; a young lady of generous proportions and rare beauty that would, undoubtedly, stand the test of time. She was immaculately dressed in a light-weight suit with matching shoes and handbag, which complemented her complexion – she radiated good health. In stark contrast, beside her was a child of about five, a startling image of the woman, but with very pallid skin.

They went hand in hand into the surgery, leaving me to my devices. Twenty minutes later the child emerged, followed by her mother who was sobbing uncontrollably. I was taken aback by this turn of events; my mind was trying to fathom the situation when the receptionist cut into my thoughts.

“Dr Owen will see you now, Sir.”

Jack and I had been friends since our university days some four decades ago, when we shared some of the most outrageous experiences. Following medical school he had gone on to do post-graduate studies and, within a few years, had become a highly respected oncologist. He married a Malaysian whom I had introduced him to and their home in St John’s Wood was my link to all things Malaysian and Asian.

This was my 10th consultation with Jack in as many months; I would sit across from him at his oak table and with professional detachment, he would outline his prognosis on my case. He would painstakingly go beyond the call of duty, leaving no question unanswered.

As I walked towards where he stood, he gestured me to a coffee table and deep chairs set in an adjoining alcove. I immediately understood the reason for the change in routine – he was going to discard professional detachment and adopt a soft approach.

Speaking slowly and gently Jack went over all the tests, procedures and treatment I had undergone and the results observed. He also made references to related medical research and my options for the future. At length, he finished and leaned back in his chair. I had the inevitable question for him and he answered it, looking me in the eye.

“Six months, perhaps a year.”

When I stepped out into the street, it was to witness the distressed lady and her child getting into a taxi. Suddenly, the unexplained episode in the surgery was patently clear; I felt sorry for Jack who, on this fine spring morning, was the unfortunate harbinger of dread, on possibly two counts.

“It is time to go home,” I told myself.

Recognition and praise

Within a week I had wrapped up my affairs in London, in preparation for my departure. I resigned from the firm I had joined some 30 years ago; set up a trust fund to finance research on cancer treatment; gave away most of my wardrobe to the Salvation Army; distributed all my collectables to friends who would appreciate them and wrote a common letter to the numerous friends, colleagues and associates I had come to know over 43 years.

I smiled wryly to myself on realising the whole process was that much easier because I was a bachelor. I left the most difficult task to the last – a letter to my brother and sister explaining the circumstances of my health and my desire to return home.

As I settled down for the long flight home, my thoughts strayed back to when I had left Malaysia for tertiary education abroad. First class honours followed by the bar examination and chambering opened the doors to a leading legal firm.

Hard work fuelled by the affirmation of others and the intoxication of praise drove me into a state whereby my work merged with my self. I was promoted to partner in a record eight years and had served as managing partner for the last five. I devoted my entire time to the firm; there were several relationships but none that led to the registry.

Back where I started

At the airport I hired a limousine for the 200km journey to my family home. As we rounded the bend in the road, I saw the village where I had spent my youth. Thatched roofs had been replaced with cement tiles, and satellite dishes sprouted from just about every rooftop. The long arm of technology had indeed reached this remote valley, aided by the country’s robust economy. Did I really have to travel afar to seek my fortune?

Even before the limousine could come to a halt, youngsters started crowding around it. Some looked curiously into the tinted windows as others checked out their grimy faces in the waxed paintwork.

As I stepped out, I was acutely aware of my designer clothes and glasses. One is expected to be old and wise, but I appear to have been denied the latter quality. As I paid the driver, I could see the questions on his face. But his professional training prevailed and we parted company on that note.

I hauled my weary bones up the garden path, the same path I had galloped as a child. Out of the corner of my eye, I could make out faces peering from windows. Word must have got round that I was ill and had come home.

Did they feel pity for me? Surely they would not equate me to the prodigal son; had I not provided for my family these last four decades? As these thoughts crossed my mind I recalled the poet Thomas Gray, who summed up success by saying, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”.

Surely that could not be my little brother running down the path? I then realised he must be the nephew I’d never met. And then they were all there at the top of the steps leading into the living room – my only sister looking every bit like my long-dead mother, my brother with receding forehead and a likeness of my late father, and children who I presumed were my nephews and nieces. There were hugs, kisses and tears; very few words were spoken and even fewer were called for.

In the morning, the pain came back with a vengeance. I sat on the verandah, downing painkillers with steaming coffee and watched people go about their business.

I first saw her when she turned the corner into our road; there was no mistaking the athlete’s stride and the petite profile. She lifted the latch of the gate and let herself in.

At closer range I rediscovered her laughing eyes, dimpled chin and a mouth with corners curved in a smile. Her hair had greyed in places but that added to her beauty.

As I rose to take her extended hand, I stole a glance at her other hand. My furtive attempt did not go unnoticed; she looked down at her fingers and back into my eyes.

“No. Never have been. You neither, I believe,” she said, ever so softly.

The full meaning of her words sent waves of agonising pain through me. I opened my mouth to say something, but she hushed me. As she took my hand and pressed it against her cool cheek, the pain ebbed and I felt an overwhelming sense of love.

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