memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘The Waiting Room’

The Flooded Plain

Annaba, Eastern Algeria.   January 1972

algeria

I stayed at the Paradise Hotel for about a month before the Company managed to arrange a furnished flat for me.

It was my very first flat – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen and I was not yet 21 years old.

I bought a Telefunken sound-system – tuner/amplifier, turntable and two speakers, which I artfully placed at the requisite height and distance apart, angled for maximum effect for the sofa at the centre of the living room. I was fussy, I was finicky, I fiddled with them and adjusted them until they were just so.

(It was all new to us in those days – creating sound-stages, woofers and tweeters and so on).

The living room window had a tiny balcony which overlooked the dusty parched football stadium which proved useful in January as an emergency landing pad for helicopters from the American 6th Fleet during the extreme weather conditions which caused the flash floods from the mountains which inundated much of the coastal plain.

THE FLOODED PLAIN

THE FLOODED PLAIN

The previous evening the road between the site and the town was under about two feet of water in some places and it had been quite a little drama for us to get home.

The Company’s small fleet of cars consisted mostly of identical little Renault R8s, which were unequal to driving through the water and were stranded on the small islands along the road.

I however, not having yet been allocated a Company car, hitched a lift with two others in a VW Beetle driven by a visiting fireman from Head Office in Sheffield called Earnest, a field accountant (the first I’d met of the breed). He was a slow-talking, patient, pedantic and dogged Yorkshire man. He wore a rumpled dark suit and a white drip-dry shirt with a dark tie; a pork-pie hat and a pipe clamped between his teeth completed the effect.

While we expressed our doubts about the viability of the expedition he remained firm. What-yer-have-to-do-is-to-keep-the-vehicle-in-low-gear-and-keep-yer-foot-on-the-gas-pedal-so-as-avoid-stalling, he explained sternly, pointing the stem of his pipe at my chest.

So we set off though the darkness and driving rain and soon got to where the road disappeared in a large lake of dark grey water. Earnest crouched forward slightly at the wheel, pipe clenched between his teeth and drove the little car into the water. The level of water rose until it was an inch above the door-sills and started to leak into the cabin, but the gallant engine continued to turn over and the car didn’t stop its progress (although the exhaust-pipe was under water).

Thus we glugged and gurgled our way across the flooded plain, phutting and farting sedately past the stranded R8s until we reached terra firma once again. There was the smell of tobacco smoke in the little cabin – it was Earnest puffing away triumphantly at his pipe.

Returned to life

Suddenly I heard the sound of someone whistling, a cleaner perhaps or a technician of some sort and something in me flickered back to life.

I gathered air into my lungs, help me!

Get me out of here!

But my voice echoed silently around my head; there seemed no escape from that grim chamber. After what seemed an eternity a small door opened in the wall of the cave and two nurses came in and transferred me onto a trolley and wheeled me into the subdued lighting of the intensive-care-unit, all in complete silence.

Now there was an attempt to insert tubes of various colours (blue, yellow, red) into my lungs   (colour-coding, I thought automatically) and fought it and worried about it for hours and days. Every now and then someone from my past life appeared at the door of ward and pleaded with me to accept the tubes, but I still resisted. Then a new rather forbidding-looking doctor appeared, a middle-aged woman dressed in a green smock, and said let me get at him I’ll sort this out and then managed to cut the right colour (blue) and I, the bomb, was defused, problem sorted what a relief!

I felt myself ebbing down and sideways and agonized and struggled with my demons. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. I was trying to run across a muddy field in winter but I could not move. I stared down at my feet – they were buried up to the ankles in clammy ooze; I changed direction towards a cliff to jump over – and thus wake up – but I couldn’t get near to the edge I just couldn’t get near enough to that edge to jump I just couldn’t get near the edge I just couldn’t …

I heard the clatter of a helicopter landing outside, bringing someone to visit me no doubt; who on earth could it be I wondered; but it was only some boring local politician whom I had never even heard of. The doctors urged him to try to make me speak but I wouldn’t, I was completely unimpressed by him and even refused to shake his hand. I was too busy trying to concentrate on a new voice saying my name, calling me to wake up. I want to but I’m still down here below the surface of the water … I tried to raise myself to the surface into consciousness but you know what it’s like, that sinking breathless sensation trying to stay in a dream, trying not to wake up … Tom, Tom the soft voice repeated, can you hear me? I woke up holding my sister-in-law’s hand, nodded weakly to various people and then went to sleep.

And dreamed and dreamed – terrible dreams.

One night in the ICU I heard a faint hissing sound. From my bed I could see the corridor to the left of the open ward and saw an extraordinary sight, a double figure gliding by on silent wheels, a male dwarf driving the contraption with his wife bolted to his back facing the opposite direction. Apparently they only came out at night (they lived in one of the private wings of the hospital). It was a tragic accident said one the nurses, impossible to operate, just imagine it, I thought, stuck together forever, what horror! One night I woke to find them at the foot of the bed staring intently at me, the man then wheeled round for the woman to have a look.

More macabre hallucinations followed. I used to wake from these with my bed soaked in sweat and my body thrashing about. Sometimes I used to cry out so loudly that the nurses, (back in the neurology-ward now) used to have to wheel me into a special room so as not to disturb the other patients. My paranoia persisted – I imagined that some of the medical staff were conspiring to do me harm, (probably because of that vision of the doctor in the crypt).

I suffered.

I did not endure it.

Every morning the doctor would make his rounds and at my bed he would read the report of my night’s delinquencies, glancing at me from time to time quizzically. I asked him for ever stronger medication to sleep.

One day after lunch a new doctor appeared beside my bed and talked to me gently and sympathetically. She evidently specialized in patients who were mentally disturbed or were suffering from drug-induced paranoia or post-operation trauma. She came every day for about ten days and patiently listened to my babbling rants. But she helped me to start rebuilding my shattered self-esteem and dismantled psyche. She said she found me an interesting person and that one day I should write it all down, which is what I have just done.

All this was over five years ago and I still survive, living in care, wheel-chair bound, fractious at times and obsessively neurotic.

I am an alien in this place and read much of the time.

At night I go elsewhere in my dreams but in the morning here I am again.

The anguish of that time will never really leave me.

COMA

(The following two posts are extracted from my memoirs THE WAITING ROOM pub. January 2011).

HALLUCINATION

During the course of my second brain procedure I died.

I heard the surgeon calmly call the time of my death and the nurses disconnect me from the various machines and screens which had been monitoring my existence, wash my head and change my bandages, straighten me out and fold my hands decorously over my heart. Then the last of them quietly left the operating theatre and I was left in silence.

The silence deepened as the floor beneath my bed opened and slowly and soundlessly my bed descended on hydraulics, the flaps of the floor, now the ceiling, closing smoothly above my head. I found myself in a sort of crypt and my dream started to turn into a nightmare.

To stay the series of shuddering images and visions and in order to fix them in my mind, I will attempt to describe the vast vault.

It stretched away to a horizon in the same dreary flat monochromatic tan colours of the desert under a dull sky (even the sky was sand-coloured). The bed on which I was lying was in a murky cave giving out onto the landscape and had pieces of furniture carved out of sand around it: a chair, a table and a pré-dieu in front of a tablet or icon. There were figures about the place too – silent sand-effigies, one kneeling at the pré-dieu and the two others standing at the foot of the bed – inanimate, frozen.

Outside the hospital I heard the fire-engines’ sirens giving two mournful wails; of course, I thought, with the logic of dreams – one for a birth and two for a death (one for a girl, two for a boy, three for sorrow and four for joy).

Presently I noticed some stairs cut out of the inevitable sand ascending to a door in the ceiling. Sometimes a doctor would appear in his white coat and begin to descend the stairs slowly and backwards, the image was smooth and coherent at first but began to break up towards the bottom of the stairs, like a person flickering jerkily in a flashing strobe-light … then he was at the top of the stairs again and would repeat the backward descent … an extraordinarily sinister manifestation.

The horror of my situation grew on me.

Presumably the morticians would presently fetch me from this sullen hall.

I despaired.

A day trip to Oran

DESERT ROSE

We had been having problems with securing exit visas for our people in the Field from the obdurate local authorities who seemed determined to frustrate all our efforts with a pedantic and tortuous insistence on a bureaucratic system inherited from the French. In desperation my boss chose the time-honoured method of cutting corners with judicious payments of money: so many Algerian Dinards for such and such a number of passports.

He called me into his office one morning in late spring and instructed me in his soft drawl to fly to Oran the following day with all our US and UK passports and a considerable wedge of cash in my briefcase. Once there I was to rendezvous with an ex-official of the Oranese administration, who would smooth the progress of the whole situation. I soon perceived that I was being set up to be the fall guy.

So there I was the next morning at the airport all psyched up and waiting for the eight-thirty Air-Inter flight to Oran, nervously trying to convince myself that this was all in a day’s work. On board the aircraft all was disorder and confusion as people scrambled their way to their seats. I was sitting beside the only other foreigner, an American engineer with glasses and a baseball cap who, during the short flight, explained to me that the Air-Inter pilots were usually trainees for the Algerian air force completing their training by flying airliners around the country. The sky had been clear in Algiers but Oran was shrouded in thick fog and, as we descended into it, I noticed that none of the other passengers seemed at all concerned, no doubt fatalistically putting their faith into the hands of Allah. Not so me or my companion – we strapped ourselves in and gazed intently out of the window as the big plane, going too fast, bounced on the tarmac and then finally slammed down, the plane bouncing and swaying and the wings dipping from side to side, before the retro-thrust brought the shuddering aircraft back under control. Yes, I thought, those Air-Inter boys could certainly do with some more training. The American, who had also been mesmerized by the dipping wings, hoped that I would have a nice day.

I arrived at the arranged meeting place, a large café in the city centre in front of a sort of mini Place de la Concorde with traffic frenziedly swirling round a little monument. I sat at a table outside and ordered a coffee, paying for it in advance and nervously trying to concentrate on my copy of Newsweek. After a while I noticed a tiny little Fiat detach itself from the surrounding traffic, mount the pavement and, to my horror, head towards my table. The driver who was flamboyantly dressed in a brown leather jacket and long white scarf called out: Monsieur Tom … Monsieur Tom … allez, montez montez! Well so much for discretion I thought as I clambered into the small car beside him. Ali, as I shall call him, was a jovial friendly little chap with grey hair who seemed to know the score. He suggested going to his house for lunch, which was served rather eerily by his wife from behind a lattice screen; every now and then a slim brown arm, covered with bangles, would extend to the table with a new dish of food. Ali chatted away merrily, with me answering in monosyllables. It seemed that he had often done this kind of thing before, always for foreign companies. Apparently some of the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia had been shot here in the desert and he’d done a similar service for the film crew. He proudly showed me a much-creased letter, which he kept in his wallet, signed by the director of the film David Lean thanking him for his cooperation and so on and so forth.

After lunch we went into his office to do the business. I produced the passports and he produced his rubber-stamp and an ink-pad. With a flourish he stamped the precious visas firmly into each passport, one by one, and in less than five minutes voila all our expatriates were authorized to leave the country – nice work if you can get it. He then smoothly spirited away the wad of cash into his desk and I snapped shut my briefcase. We both stood up and shook hands. He offered me a lift to the airport which I politely declined, saying that I’d take a cab back to the city centre to do some sightseeing.

In the cab however I changed my mind and asked the driver to go straight to the airport. There, having time to kill before my evening flight back to Algiers, I headed for the bar to sink a couple of beers and read the little volume of Under the Greenwood Tree that I had in my briefcase. I noticed that the only other inhabitants of the bar were the very same crew, pilots and air hostesses, of the plane that morning; they were evidently crewing the flight back that evening. Oh well, I thought, if you can’t beat them, join them and ordered the first of a couple of whiskeys. Hours later as I was nodding off on the flight back I was thinking of my impending leave which I was going to spend in Paris. I landed at Algiers with my flaps well down and took a cab straight to the hotel. I heard voices from Jonathon’s apartment and went in.

Hi Tom they said how was your day-trip to Oran?

(I thought of the near crash that morning, of lunch at Ali’s house, of his wife’s arm extending from behind the screen, of David Lean’s letter).

Rather unreal, I replied.

Please allow me to introduce myself

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste … thus the opening words of a famous song from my youth – Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones.

Not particularly wealthy and of uncertain taste, I am an Englishman in late middle-age who, over the last eight years, has endured three brain operations to remove benign but aggressive brain tumours. For reasons, which will in time become clear, I have somehow managed to end up in an Old People’s Home in the north of Portugal overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

I didn’t survive unscathed however; after the second procedure (six years ago) I was left with what the surgeons rather euphemistically described as a slight deficit in my right side.

I couldn’t even sign my own name! Part of my rehabilitation therapy was to draw and paint for about an hour each day.

I also had lapses of memory and after a long while in a very dark place I pulled myself together – It’s sauve qui peut in this place (pardon my French), I thought – and began to tap out with one finger my memories in order to fix them in my mind.

So here, in this slightly strange and surreal place, I produced and (self)published my book THE WAITING ROOM.

What therapy! What catharsis! I can’t recommend it enough for fellow victims – your memories will lead you into rich meadows in which you may graze at will …

COURAGE

(Pardon my French)

S.JORGE - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

No Country for Old People

With more than 1,000,000 old people, Portugal has one of the largest (proportionate) ageing populations on an ageing continent.

I live with about 35 of them.

THE OLD PEOPLE'S HOME

There is a tradition in most of Asia of reverence of and respect for the old. Here in the West however, owing the urbanization of society, the disintegration of the extended family-unit and the frenetic nature of people’s life-styles, we stick our old people into Care-Homes where they are sometimes neglected and disrespected.

I am not in such a Home, but even so dining downstairs can be a depressing experience indeed – the atmosphere muted, senescent and crepuscular. The three carers, who are nearing the end of their working day, are impatient to get home and who can blame them.

After the meal, which is rushed through at record-breaking speed, the walking wounded stagger off to their rooms while the wheel-chair brigade are briskly lined in the hall up in front of the elevator; one or two of them are dribbling slightly from the corners of their mouths.

They are patient, silent and exhausted.

Painting entitled 'flight attendant' by Thomas Milner

Painting - Flight Attendant - by Thomas Milner

And what am I (also a wheel-chair job) doing? I have stayed at my table near the double doors of the dining-room and am writing this.

There’s quite a crowd of them, by now, waiting for the 8.00 take-off; the queue is tailing back into the dining room, the last two old dears are sitting here beside my table; they are both wearing black; one of them is telling off the beads of her rosary and the other pulls a tired smile at me. I smile back. The others are all in serried ranks now, as though on a tired and murky Gatwick evening, waiting waiting waiting.

Oh, ye daughters of Jerusalem, cry out, cry out!

What a year!

It is about a year now that I published my book The Waiting Room.
And what a year it hasn’t been!
I travelled to neither North nor South Carolina. (Ditto the Dakotas).
I didn’t occupy squares in Tunis, Cairo, New York or London.
Rome, Florence and Venice knew me not.
I took a cruise down the Nile as far as Luxor only in my imagination.
(Q: What’s denial? A: The longest river in Africa) I didn’t read that on the back no cornflakes pack.
I didn’t take no lady to no fancy restaurant, not no how.
I neither witnessed nor wondered at the Northern Lights or the Southern Cross.
Yes, it hasn’t been quite a year!

NOTHING (WITH NO SKILL WHATSOEVER)

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