memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

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Polly and me

Polly is five, like me. I’m five too.

Polly is my friend.

We’re playing on the beach

A game with little stones and shells in the sand

Drawing a house for us to live in when we’re big.

Sometimes a wave comes in and takes the house away.

So we build it again: the shells are the roof and walls and the stones are the windows and the door.

Another wave comes up over the wet sand and drags our little house back down with it.

I kiss Polly.

Later as mum is putting me to bed she reads me a story … and the prince and princess got married and lived happily ever after.

And I’m going to marry Polly I whisper as I drift into warm sleep.

 ***

She stood at the kitchen sink, staring out at the back garden with unseeing eyes; she automatically folded and refolded the damp cloth before eventually hanging it up in its usual place on the oven-rail. Angie, her friend and neighbour, was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking nervously and biting her nails. Neither women spoke. The situation was just too sad, too tragic – the only thing one could say about the accident was that Robbie hadn’t suffered much and people did say that after the funeral, clasping the cliché and hoping that it would comfort her. Angie broke the silence:

–          How are the children bearing up, Pol? Here, sit down and have a glass of wine; they’ve all gone now and your sister-in-law is with the two kids. You’ve got to slow down, you haven’t stopped all day … don’t beat yourself up about all this, it’s not your fault you know.

–          Chloe is being very adult about it all but poor little Josh doesn’t really understand what’s going on. I should be feeling grief or anger or something but I don’t feel anything, just numb. You do realize that we were going to separate, don’t you? The papers didn’t mention that, did they? Only the Other Woman.

TABLOID HEADLINES

Polly closed her eyes; most of the papers had run the story, the broad-sheets with a discreet paragraph on page two: PROMINENT MERCHANT BANKER IN CAR CRASH or SIR ROBERT MACKENSIE IN FATAL ACCIDENT, but the tabloids went to town on the front page WHO WAS BANKER’S BIRD or CRASH MYSTERY WOMAN!

–          Look Pol the funeral’s over, the guests have all gone and you’ve given Immaculada and Magda the rest of the weekend off. Everything went as well as could be expected and now you’ve just got to try and relax …

(The front door bell goes).

–          I wonder who that is; I thought all the Press had gone, oh of course Magda’s not here, I’ll go.

PORTRAIT OF POLLY - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

PORTRAIT OF POLLY – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

I hadn’t exactly forgotten Polly, far from it but we’d drifted apart in our teens. Her family moved away to a more expensive part of the city and she went to a posh boarding-school while I slogged on at the local comprehensive, and so we never saw each other again.

I heard about her from to time to time. After university she drifted from job to job before writing a best-selling cook-book, so I couldn’t avoid seeing her glamorous face on the cover – in fact I bought a copy in Waterstones.

(The recipes were not really to my taste, being a fussy reworking of traditional dishes in the Nouvelle Cuisine style).

Marriage to a highly successful business man put her completely out of my reach. The years went by and I pursued rather unenthusiastically my career as a teacher, eventually becoming the assistant headmaster of a school in the suburbs. I married another teacher but it didn’t work out and after about a year we parted, amicably enough.

There was no passion in my life.

I was loveless, childless and middle-aged.

Thus it was until last week when I read in the newspapers all about the death in a car crash of Polly’s husband. The effect on me was surprising. I was inordinately stirred and moved with empathy for my childhood friend. After brooding about it for several days, I decided to travel by the underground to her Chelsea address which was splashed all over the papers. The imposing house was in a discreet street just off the King’s Road. I loitered outside her door, dithering and wondering if she was there and what on earth I would say to her. I noticed some press photographers on the side of the road and beat a retreat with beating heart and eventually returned crestfallen to my home in south London. That was yesterday.

Now today I’ve come back again and plucking my courage, I climb up the steps and firmly press the bell. I hear steps crossing the hall (probably a maid, I think, or one her children) and the door swings open – it’s her. A neat stylish woman (but with the story of the last months written across her beautiful face) is standing there looking at me enquiringly:

–          Please excuse this intrusion on your grief, Lady Mackensie. I’m sure that you don’t recognize me but we used play together when we were children living in Hastings

–          I’m sorry I can’t quite place you … oh yes of course I remember, we used to play on the beach together?

–          Yes, I’m glad you’ve remembered; it makes it less embarrassing for me.

–          Won’t you come in for drink, we’re in the kitchen.

–           No, I won’t bother you any further now, but maybe we could go out some time next week or something?

–          Yes OK, I’d like that.

Polly returns to the kitchen.

–          Who on earth was that?

–          Oh just a ghost from the past; we used to build sand-castles together when we were kids. We agreed to go out for a drink, sometime next week.

–          Surely you’re not going!

–          Why not. It’ll take my mind off all documents I’ve got to sign; besides he looked rather attractive in a pathetic helpless sort of way. There’s only one problem, though.

–          What’s that?

–          I can’t remember his name!

Fruta da Epoca

CHERRIES

CHERRIES

Sweet Cherry.

Vigorous tree with strong apical control with an erect-pyramidal canopy shape, capable of reaching 50 ft. In cultivation, sweet cherries are maintained 12-15 ft in height. Leaves are relatively large (largest of cultivated Prunus), elliptic with mildly serrated margins, acute tips, petioled, and strongly veined.

I love cherries – I reckon they are just about my favourite fruit, except possibly the-perfect-peach (do I dare to eat a peach?)

Consider the cherries which are harvested in due season from the orchards of the Douro valley – red, plump, succulent, delicious.

I doubt that these will end up on the shelves of Sainsburys or Safeways like the strawberries of the Algarve that are whisked away by the waiting refrigerated trucks, throbbing in the misty dawn and driven along the hot dusty motorways of Spain and France and through the Chanel Tunnel to the London vegetable warehouses at dusk.

No, these cherries will flood the fruit markets of Penafiel and Bom Successo and each kitchen-table in the region will have a laughing overflowing abundance and children shall dangle them from their ears and youths and maidens shall dance joyously in the church-squares of the golden valley.

GIRLS DANCING ON BEACH – PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

In the Home the appearance of cherries will be greeted by the incurious and unexpressed satisfaction of the continuance of the seasons – of course, cherries, what else? The old people will think.

Because we are not anywhere near this season, the presence of a bowl of shiny dark cherries in front of one of the old dears (brought that afternoon by a visiting daughter) drew tacit attention from some of us.

It was supper-time and the rest of us had boring old stewed apple; but not this old dear who set about her bowl of cherries with a will, spitting out stones while the cup of her curved fingers fed another one into her chewing mouth. From time to time she would lift her crouching face from the plate and glance around with a look that said: eat your hearts out, suckers and if anyone thinks that they’re going to get a bite of my cherries, well they’ve got another think coming …

Blessed are the Ungiven for they shall inherit … for they shall inherit what? … I know, for they shall inherit all the cherries!

Minnows in the shallows

There are lots of odd and surreal things about this place which lead me to think I have already arrived in that twilight zone between dream and reality.

MY SON - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

MY SON – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

Take the case of people tapping their head significantly (but medically dismissively) and jerking their chins towards some of the poor souls who get up from their places while a meal is still in progress and start to meander in slow motion between the tables as though exploring a maze to which they have forgotten the way out.

Logically we are facing a scenario whereby one half of the oldsters are tapping their heads significantly and jerking their chins towards the other half.

(Ironically there is only person here about whom they could validly tap their heads significantly and that person is me, with my recurring brain tumours, the fourth of which I’m about to have surgically removed any time now).

Tap tap they should go

Tap tap

Tap tap

We are all just

Minnows in the shallows

The mysterious case of the uneatable pears

An  inspirational book (for my generation at least) was CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller.

Wicked and hilarious this book with brilliant wordplay brings paradox to an inevitable  Zeno-like absurdity. Published in 1957 it dazzled our generations and spread across the Anglophonic world like a wildfire.

(Now, of course, we have spawned a generation which, not only has not read CATCH 22 but also hasn’t read much else either – poor them, so many lost conceits, so much lost irony).

Anyway there is a scene in the book where everyone on the base is issued with a pill to throw away into the bushes.

STILL LIFE WITH FRUIT - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

STILL LIFE WITH FRUIT – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

So it is in this place. Sometimes we are distributed with green pears so hard and unripe that those of us who still have our own teeth, should we actually attempt to bite into them … but not to worry the pears are not to be eaten but to be put into our pockets or bags and consumed in a couple of days when they are ripe.

That same impulse, the same força de vontade, which is so good for my physical improvement, impels me to be difficult about the pear situation.

I enter the dining room for dinner at 7.00 sharp and notice the small rock-like green projectiles – what’s this, I think, are we going to have a window-breaking contest after dinner or have some of us been distributed with uneatable pears again:

–          Excuse me, I don’t want this fruit because it’s not ripe, is it? I’ll have the fruit pap, please.

–          There is no fruit pap left.

–          No fruit pap left!

–          You have to warn us in advance if you want fruit pap instead of a green pear.

I’m entering The Twilight Zone again.

–          Can’t you just assume that I will prefer fruit pap to unripe fruit …?

Meanwhile someone else has tactfully produced one of the apples that they keep in the kitchen in reserve for difficult cases like mine.

STILL LIFE WITH APPLES - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

STILL LIFE WITH APPLES – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

Ambulacrum

St. Edmund's College - AMBULACRUM

St. Edmund’s College – AMBULACRUM

Here is an old picture of The Ambulacrum at my old school (from the Latin ambulare: to walk) where people would amble, saunter or stroll before mealtimes or during breaks between lessons. There was an obscure protocol concerning who could avail themselves of this privilege and when and why, the details of which have long since fled from my mind, I’m glad to say.

Walking (also known as ambulation) is one of the main methods of locomotion among legged animals and is typically slower than running and other gaits. Walking is defined by an inverted pendulum gait in which the body vaults over the stiff limb or limbs with each step. Although walking speeds can vary greatly depending on factors such as height, weight, age, terrain, surface, load, culture, effort, and fitness, the average human walking speed is about 5 kilometres per hour.

Let me just jump in here as someone who has observed walking from both points of view (can and can’t).

I can testify that walking suits people.

Locomotion makes people dynamic, whether the upright graceful carriage of an athlete or the haunchy waddle of the villager, walking makes you look good.

walking_person_silhouette_clip_art_15563

Not so much fun however is sitting round all day in a wheelchair watching other people walk.

To my chagrin I haven’t greatly improved the quality or speed of my walking on my frame. Always at the back of my mind is one of the (unwritten) maxims of this place: to stop is to die. Goaded on by this thought, in spite of the inherent indolence of my nature, I continue to doggedly sway across halls and lurch down corridors, sweating and stubborn … while I am thus ambulating, my mind sometimes stretches across the universe to grasp at some elusive truth … other times I focus on the matter in hand – to continue defying gravity for just one more step.

But we make progress my masters; courage my friends; keep on going for just one more step.

Don’t give up!

I leave you with a spot of oriental wisdom:

What the caterpillar thinks of as the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.

Lao-tzu

BUTTERFLY - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

BUTTERFLY – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

That damned shout

BEFORE THE SHOUT by THOMAS MILNER

BEFORE THE SHOUT by THOMAS MILNER

THE  SHOUT

Breaks my concentration

My brush jerks

Sour clashing colours

Stab into the heart

Staggering loops down

Writhing streaks

Smear the clouds

Obscuring my notions

 

I slump at the margin

Of the brown river

Swirling and turgid

Tethered to scruples

 

I gaze back up-stream

Whence I came

Blue clear waters

Sparkling in the sun

 

I contemplate the spoiled image

That’s not what I meant

Not what I meant at all

That’s for the bin

That damned shout

AFTER by THOMAS MILNER

AFTER THE SHOUT by THOMAS MILNER

And yet after that

the sunset taken from the terrace

that very evening

ABSTRACT.42

Eye-catching Headline

I must say one sees some rather odd headlines in our newspaper:

MUSEU DE ETNOLOGIA DO PORTO VAI SER EXTINCTO

(ETHNOLOGY MUSEUM OF PORTO IS GOING TO BECOME EXTINCT)

Due to lack of funding, one assumes.

WINTER TREES – PAINTING – BY THOMAS MILNER

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