memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘tragedy’

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.


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.



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!

The Flowers of Doom


The 5th March here in Portugal marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic collapse of the central span of a bridge over the river Douro at Castello de Paiva. A coach and two cars, which were passing over the bridge, fell into the swollen river and were swept away; out of 70 people killed only two bodies were recovered. When I discovered the reason  for the passengers’ presence on the coach – they were returning from annual day-trip to view the almond trees in blossom in the upper-Douro – I thought it was so poignant that I was moved to record the event with the following (inadequate) words:


They went on a coach to view
The almond trees in bloom
You know, just a day-trip
To see the flowers of doom.

Hurry up Mum, we’re late
And Johnny, get your bag;
So tired! But it’s worth it
Always a nice little outing.

A concrete pillar eroded
By time and neglect
You know how it is – things,
Just waiting to happen.

Where’s Maria, not here?
She couldn’t come, sore throat
Poor little thing, but Aunty’s
Coming instead and pronto.

Over the river so high
Brown and swirling and
Angry and fierce, riding
Down to the Mouth.

So off we go, winding up
The brown Douro river
To Tras-os-Montes to see
The amendoeiras in flower.

A fierce swollen river
As later we’ll learn,
Three meters-per-second
And a bed full of junk.

A good day is had by all
Despite the bad weather.
The flowers look nice and
At least we’re together.

Down the cruel river
Past Freixo floating
And Foz knew them too
To the ocean’s deep swell.

Though the sky’s really grey
Hardly anyone moans;
We sit in the café and play
With our mobile phones.

Those currents moving
By Gulf Stream you know
Far out and swing back
To Cape Finnistere

Time for home now.
Work tomorrow
Doctor’s on Thursday
And the loan from the bank
And Silvia’s new boyfriend
And that pain in my side
And how rude she was
And that look he gave me
And the clothes must be dry
And feeling sleepy
And nearly home
And that look
And Sleep

Terror oh God
Pain oh Jesus
Water oh mother

                Forgive me Our Lady of the Flowers                                                                                     For I was lost in the Palace of Sorrows

High in the Douro valley
The almonds blossom still
With a cold, white beauty
The flowers of doom.

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