Milo and the Diva

by Joanne Richards

Milo and I are in the kitchen. We have our backs to one another. Neither of us speaks; we are communicating nonetheless. Milo sits in lamp-lit silence at the table; I am at my urban Aga stirring béchamel sauce. Dusk deepens outside. We must – the two of us - present a perfect diorama to the world behind these windows. I ought to close the blinds - but I do not. Deliberately, I slow my breath, relax the powerful muscles of my throat and concentrate upon the rhythm of the spoon. I try to conjure from this simple task the meditative calm that I am hoping to transmit.  

Beyond the limestone tiles and granite tops that mattered to me once, Milo’s wide shoulders beam a message of their own. I need not turn to understand that every sinew radiates frustration and his rage. Milo is trying to write an essay; he seems unlikely to succeed. I feel his tension resonating through my bones. The sauce is thick and glossy now. Complete. I cannot hold this moment any longer. Soon, Milo will explode.

 

Three years have passed since we brought Milo home from school. The housemaster’s first call went through to Gerald’s office; his people had arranged my flights before I even heard the news. The car met me at Inverness and we drove on together, knowing that underneath the reassuring tones they feared the worst. The hills were snow-covered and Milo had run away at night taking with him nothing warm. Then, thank God, they found him collapsed scarcely a mile beyond the grounds.  By the time we arrived, he was already swaddled in metallic blankets and an ambulance was on its way.

Gerald threatened to sue, hiding his confusion behind activity and anger with the school. I reacted differently: everything was instantly and absolutely clear as the relentless, sequinned treadmill of my life stopped dead. If you had told me that I would abandon without a backward glance everything I thought I held most dear, I would have laughed. Yet even as my assistant moved mountains to cancel all engagements for a month (a recital I expect; costume-fittings certainly; a long-anticipated master-class) I knew it wouldn’t matter if I never sang again.  When I set eyes on Milo I recaptured the ferocious mother-love that, with Gerald’s help, I had made such efforts to dilute, ring-fencing my career with nannies, housekeepers and boarding schools. Milo was my precious child again and this was no-one’s role but mine.

As I cradled Milo in my arms, appalled at the jutting bones beneath his baggy clothes, I promised I would never let him fall. I have kept my word. Milo remains alive and safe at home but I… I am diminished. All through the early crises of Milo’s efforts to destroy himself, I was unflinching. I held my poise each time we combed the London streets for him or confiscated knives and broken glass - even when sombre, courteous policemen searched the garages and attic. Then gradually, the urgency died down. Milo fell quiet. Gerald returned to work and soon continued at the pace that high office demands. Life went on.

At first I felt entirely alone for sound, co-ordinated help was hard to find. I learned some bitter lessons in the hostile, virgin, therapeutic jungle. How little you control no matter how you plead - or pay. No matter who you think you are. Thanks to well-timed brouhaha over a deviant MP, Milo’s moment on the Marylebone flyover escaped the press but afterwards, the State took charge: a tired-eyed psychiatrist; a tattooed ‘therapist’ whom Milo deigned to talk to; an on-call crisis team. And drugs; always drugs. But we kept him out of hospital - I’m proud of that – and I did all the rest. Milo began a slow return to health.

We spent all our days together. I absorbed myself in Milo’s every want and need with the attention of a mother to a new-born babe, tempting him with dainty morsels packed with secret goodness - the sort one takes for granted in hotels. And despite his monstrous mood-swings, sometimes there was humour, company and conversation in return. It was special for us both I think. As Milo grew stronger we began to venture out – first to the chichi cafes and private galleries near home, later to the cinema and theatre. Serious music, by unspoken understanding, was out of bounds. To hear - let alone to sing - was more than I could bear. I filled the gap with Radio 2, coming almost to enjoy its gentle innocence and cheer. Milo was unaffected by this loss; his indifference to my world has long been very clear. Against the odds we had some fun, rediscovering London as if through newly-opened eyes. We visited museums and rode the London Eye. I’d always wanted to do that - but there was never time. At the zoo, in the rain, we balanced like flamingos, whistled ‘Cruella de Vil’ to the leopards, laughed until we cried.  

Milo had always been a lovely child but it was still a shock to see how the etiolation of his illness elevated him to pale and modish beauty. Sometimes I found it hard to tear my eyes from him. The first modelling scout – a bird-boned creature with an outsize handbag and the most bizarre pink hair - approached us near the house when Milo was barely strong enough to walk. Gerald was aghast. Milo, who looks no-one in the eye, would drop their business cards as if they burnt. Secretly, I picked one up and kept it, daring to fantasise the future, until the day that Milo read my mind and searched my bag. The honeymoon was over.

Immediately, Milo began to eat. Literally, he filled his face, devouring anything and everything with the dogged hopelessness of one condemned to spend eternity in Hell’s third circle until, at last, his feline features came to rest among the pallid cushions of his neck and chin, and those exquisite zygomatic bones sank deep into dumpling cheeks.  Needless to say, the agencies troubled us no more.

 

It has been a heavy trudge uphill since then. My voice remains silent; I am bone tired; I too have gained weight. Behind locked cupboard doors my concert gowns hang uselessly in their chameleon hues.  Recently, by chance, my agent bumped into Gerald at The Ledbury and began to call again. His insistence is unsettling for his plans make little sense to me. Euterpe is a jealous and demanding Muse: once forsaken, she will hardly welcome me again.

Milo, meanwhile, is doing rather well. Physically, he is much improved. His scars are fading. He runs in Regents Park and works out with a trainer at Gerald’s club.  Malnutrition at a crucial age has cost him a little height but he has muscle now and a powerful, sometimes intimidating presence. Women notice him. He has learnt to drive and he loves the little car that Gerald bought to celebrate.  Occasionally I hear him talking on the phone. Upstairs, metallic music blares behind closed doors.  

Gerald assures me that all this is good and healthy and encouraging but although I know he’s right, I struggle to believe. Milo still fills the space that used to be my own. I fret when he’s away and chafe when he is here. Increasingly, I wake at night filled with a sense of dread and accusation that I neither recognise nor can explain. It is as if Milo’s darkest thoughts and feelings have the Vampire’s power to penetrate my bedroom door in incorporeal form. An oppressive fog of loss and guilt has displaced my former clarity of thought and I find myself repeating our sad story from a mental witness box.

More even than his bodily suffering, I feel Milo’s isolation: the passing of those precious, fragile, irrecoverable years when a boy becomes a man among his peers. My own losses are best not dwelt upon and there are more to come. If Milo manages a ‘normal’ life, he will abandon me. If not…the image comes to mind unbidden of a motel cellar and a mother’s desiccated corpse.

Milo is studying again; he visits private tutors and a language school. There has been talk of Oxford. I refuse to join this fantasy when his mess pervades my once well-ordered home and every task he undertakes becomes a mountain that I must climb beside him, step by agonising step. This damned essay, which he is capable of writing in his sleep, is the latest in a long and tedious line. Why, with so many rooms to choose from in this house, must he write it in my kitchen? My own fist tightens on the wooden spoon as Milo thumps the table, sending books and papers crashing to the floor.

‘Fuck!’

He speaks! I stir faster, refusing to react.

‘Fuck! Idiots do this! Why can’t I?’

I keep my voice low. ‘Idiots can’t, Sweetheart. You can.’

‘Fucking can’t!’

A mug half full of coffee hits the tiles. He is about to storm away to God-knows-where.

‘Can I make you something? Would you like a drink?’

‘Fuck!’

‘Darling, please…’

‘For God’s sake, fuck off, mum. Leave me alone!’

Suddenly, it is too much! I feel my diaphragm draw down, my lungs open, and my palate and tongue prepare to articulate the vile, vulgar word that I have never once allowed to soil my lips!

‘No, Milo! Fuck off yourself!’

Then, mustering Tosca’s suicidal splendour, I sweep from the kitchen, leaving in my wake a saucepan dropped and Milo, open mouthed, aware that he has seen Elektra in my eyes.

I walk swiftly, as if summoned, straight to the music room and I unlock the door. It breaks my heart to see it like this: dark, forlorn and cold. I turn the heating up and switch on soft lights and the sound system. I pour whiskey into one of the Irish crystal glasses sparkling on their lacquered tray - a gift from Gerald who has always loved this room. I drink it down in one and pour some more. It is delicious - as dark and nuanced as the ebony curves and planes of my grand piano gleaming in the lamplight. There’s not a speck of dust. Someone has kept my sanctuary clean. I feel light-headed, disembodied, almost dreaming as I lift the lid and touch a note or two. It’s fractionally out of tune.

I seem to watch myself sink down into my favourite place on the longest sofa, pick up the remote control and press PLAY. So absorbed am I in this strange moment, and so certain that I will hear in my own forgotten voice the yearning wistfulness of Strauss’s Four Last Songs - exquisite elegies to loss, that minutes pass before I notice that technology cannot yet follow fantasy! Nobody is singing; I am listening to a string quartet. By the time I get my bearings and recognise the A minor opus 132, the greatest of Beethoven’s towering, mystic late quartets, the Allegro ma non tanto is already underway. Notes leap and swirl, hurting my head. I cannot catch their meaning. Then I remember what comes next, close my eyes and wait.

The Heiliger Dankgesang is a hymn of thanksgiving and redemption, composed during Beethoven’s convalescence from agonising, near-fatal illness. Reams have been written about it; it has inspired great poetry. Heretically perhaps, it makes me think of sex: transcendent, absorbing and prolonged, with a lover endlessly inventive and surpassingly tender, but to whose miraculous prowess one may yet, without fear or shame, aspire. It is sublime beyond words.

I stop the music as the shimmering climax fades. Only then do I realise that Milo too is in the room. He stands just inside the door, transfixed and weeping silently, open-eyed and unabashed. Neither of us has an ounce of anger left; we are washed clean.

Suddenly embarrassed, I fall back upon a platitude. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ I say, ‘Almost too much to bear.’

Milo is silent for long moments, deep in thought. ‘No, not that,’ he says at last. ‘Not that. He’s just… talking to God.’

Milo turns away. I let him go and close my eyes again. When I come to, Gerald is sitting quite at ease in his accustomed chair by the piano. He smiles across at me, raises an eyebrow – and his glass - and whispers, ‘Welcome home?’

Time stops. Blood surges fortissimo into my ears; I command it to be silent. I wonder, does this man - my husband - actually remember what I am? Does he not understand that I have power in my very breath to burst that heavy crystal into splinters in his hand? I search his face. Only if I am satisfied will I consent to take his cue.