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The Power of a Small, Shaggy Mongrel

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THERE are certain mornings here in Scotland when I wake with a sense of oppression. Then I remember: It is my week for voluntary duty at the Centre in the nearby town, serving breakfast to the down-and-outs there. I leave just after dawn, driving from the green countryside, and enter a bleak townscape hit hard by the recession. A steep cobbled street leads down to the Centre where the warden, familiar after many years, opens the door for me. He has a world-weary look that seems to say: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

The old building may be repainted, new linoleum laid, new appliances added to the kitchen, but sometimes it seems as if nothing essential changes. The same distinctive smell hangs in the air, one of poverty, misery, unwashed clothes, damp, and despair. Our routine, too, never alters - we begin at once to stir the vast pot of porridge, spread bread, make toast, fry eggs and sausages. We rush along to the dining room to ask who wants corn flakes instead of porridge, who would like jam, and to ask the warde n how things are. We hear the invariable reply: "Not much different".

One of the laws of the Centre, as inviolable as those of the Medes and the Persians, is that the inmates must be served first. The outmates make their bed under a railway bridge, on a park bench slumped in some shadowy corner, or in a run-down building.

I always dread the Monday morning atmosphere in the dining room. The men and women sitting around the tables have gray faces filled with self-disgust. Some are aggressive, resentful, glowering at the volunteers who hand them their plates. They are slumped in apathy and gloom, some with a sense that life has let them down, others with a dim realization that they themselves have misused life. The tables are awash with tea, egg yolks, lumps of congealed porridge. I have not been in the Centre since the summ er months, and I wonder if perhaps the inmates will glare at me a little less, but it seems unlikely. The bleak November day increases my sense of failure and my inadequacy to communicate with these people.

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