memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

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Between you, me and the gatepost, dear

You might not believe this but I have little better to do after lunch than to come up here to my atélier that I’ve made for myself in the book-museum, which is situated (open-plan) directly above and separated from/by a waist-high parapet to/from the entrance and reception area.

So I’m obliged to concentrate a fraction of my attention in ignoring the mind-bogglingly uninteresting and unwanted information and opinions often expressed in ringing/rasping tones beneath me (gobby cows).

Another smallish part of my brain is occupied with a new sketch/painting;

A while ago I gave up searching for a new style – this isn’t an Art Course after all; so I curve the curves and colour the colours in my usual self-indulgent fashion.

STAGE 1

There was a teacher, I remember, in the school in Lisbon all those years ago, middle-aged, pleasant and with the forceful delivery of a person born and bred in Dublin.

If she had a fault it was that she was frankly a bit of gossip; she would lure one into a corner of the staffroom and start in a loud whisper with the words: between you, me and the gate-post, dear …

STAGE 2

Tomorrow is the 8th birthday of the Home so the Bishop and other nobs are visiting us plebs for lunch (different food, mind you – reminds me irresistibly of the prefects and masters troughing away at The High Table, raised up on a dais in the Refectory at school).

Eight years, eh – between you, me and the gate-post, dear it looks and feels like rather more …

STAGE 3

Between you, me and the gate-post, dear, I sometimes get sick of living in an Old People’s Home and wish I lived in a Young People’s Home instead.

What a commotion down there!

Mouthy mares!

STAGE 4

Back in my room now and I’m watching the dénoument of Amanda’s trial in Italy – what a result!

I think I’ll name the painting after her.

AMANDA ACQUITTED – PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER

The Municipal Goddess

Starting the day with a swim is highly recommended.

So I enrolled at my local Municipal Baths at Feira. These were modern, strategically located facilities with a 25-metre pool (half-Olympic size) and a circular shallow heated pool for children and for hydro-therapy for the physically-disadvantaged (such as I am now).

I opted for the free regime three times a week during the dead middle-of-the-week morning and started building it into my routine.

I must confess at this point that I am not a very good swimmer.

I was simply never taught how.

When I was at my Prep school the sadistic gym-teacher would herd us 9 year-old, white and shivering boys down to the deep-end of the pool and, one by one, we had to jump in … sauve qui peut … in a water-gulping splashing panic most of us managed make it to the side of the pool which we gripped, gasping for air. (One poor little wretch, doubtless assuming that all was up with him, refused to move his limbs and sank like a stone to bottom of the pool, so that the gym-master had to spoil his fancy track-suit by diving in and fishing him out).

I never learned how to breathe correctly, for example, so I ended up with a limited repertoire of only two strokes – the breast-stroke and the back-stroke. Nevertheless I read somewhere that swimming exercised more muscles of the body then any sport.

So I would slowly churn (or ripple) my solitary furrow along the watery lane towards the future.

Sometimes there was a swimming class for a group of middle-aged women who used to cluster at one end of the pool and exercise the only part of their bodies that didn’t really need it – their mouths.

From time to time a white-skinned girl, a Municipal Goddess, with the wide shoulders and streamlined hips of the professional swimmer would dive in and cover 20 lengths of the pool in an unbelievably short time, cutting through the water efficiently with her lazy powerful strokes and her flashy racing turns. Then she would unhurriedly climb of the pool and stalk gracefully from the hall (leaving us, the doggy-paddle brigade, feeling somewhat rueful and chastened).

THE MUNICIPAL GODDESS

Yes, there’s nothing better than a good swim to start the day.

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.

The Silent Ones

WINTER FLOWERS AT SUNSET

The time has come to consider the sometimes anonymous inmates of the Home.

The patients that one never sees because they are bed-ridden, isolated and never quit their rooms.

 

They are the silent ones and little sound reaches them from the outside world.

Everything is for done for them

(Existence in the Passive Voice).

They are washed and changed twice a day.

They are spoon-fed little bowls of soup or pap four times a day.

They are visited once or twice a week by their families but they are not edified nor are they stimulated.

They endure.

Oh, those lethargic and inert mountains,

Those skeletal ghostly wraiths with their sunken collapsed faces

Speechless in Gaza,

Now they’re on the last leg of the race,

Inching silently towards the finishing line,

They have run of steam and interest.

Thoughtless,

They are dying of old age.

OLD HANDS

We honour them.

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.

The strong silent type

When John Cage, the American Experimental Composer (1912-1992) first performed his work entitled 4´ 33”, which comprised no music, just silence for four minutes and 33 seconds, fellow composer Igor Stravinsky allegedly commented I look forward to hearing his longer works.

LAST NIGHT’S DINNER by THOMAS MILNER

Invisible Paintings

AN INVISIBLE EXHIBITION - by THOMAS MILNER

Since last Thursday there has been a little show of my paintings up in the entrance hall.

So far, not only has no one commented on them, but I don’t believe that anyone has even noticed them, which certainly puts me in my place, doesn’t it?

I do believe that I’ve discovered the formula for producing an invisible painting.

What you do is the following:

First you contrive your life in such a way as to end up in an Old People’s Home full of nice, but culturally innocent, inmates.

Then you take a sheet specially treated A4-size gummed paper and with a pencil in your right hand (because you’re experiencing slight tremors/twitches/tremblings/spasms/shakes etc.on the right side of your body because your tumor was on the left side of your brain) and sketch vague lines and shapes in the hope that eventually they get to resemble something or other (anything will do) so that you can later impute an intention or purpose.

Next, with your paint-brush in your right hand, you apply various coloured tinctures, water colours (acrilics only to be deployed in an emergency) onto the prepared surface to see how it turns out and with any luck you’ll produce a painting.

Repeat this periodically over several months and then, and this is the tricky part, get someone to group them together and display them on a large stand in the entrance hall.

Et voilá, there you have it – invisible paintings (painted by The Incredible Shrinking Man).

ANOTHER INVISIBLE EXHIBITION - by THOMAS MILNER

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