Note: Milan was a real person I knew in my twenties but I have changed his name and some other details out of respect for his memory and out of fear of being sued by any living relatives unbeknown to me. 😉
Milan was a painter. His parents were Slovakian, immigrants to Australia after WWII.
I met Milan through friends of mine who’d grown up with him as teenagers and I remember thinking at the time that he was the first person I’d ever met who personified the word ‘exotic’. There were elements of the bohemian about him, and perhaps even the earliest manifestations of what came to be known as hippy culture, but Milan transcended those stereotypes.
He was just Milan, with the traces of his accent clinging to his dramatic form of expression, which was animated by passion and his search for the truth.
His paintings, often on odd-shaped canvases and plyboard, involved labyrinths, nether worlds, heavenly worlds, snakes-and-ladders worlds, painted in primary colours and populated with characters from mythology or ones he simply invented.
He never sold his paintings; he gave them away to people close to him that he felt would be good custodians. He despised the art market because he believed it had turned artists into prostitutes. I was never a close enough friend to receive one. Perhaps he simply didn’t like me enough or felt I didn’t truly understand his work or I wouldn’t take sufficient care of it. Who knows? I knew asking for one was a certain route to disappointment. But we had sufficient mutual friends for me to sit and puzzle over his works in their homes and admire them, without really knowing why.
He funded his modest needs and his painting by taking on labouring jobs for a few months a year and painting the rest of the time. Concerned at the physical toll this was taking on Milan’s thin frame, a friend persuaded him to sit the public service exam. In those days, many sections of the public service were little more than sheltered workshops, with little or no work required in return for a steady income, and many a novel or book of poems was produced in this benign environment. His friend’s theory was that Milan could spend most of his time sketching and then paint at night or on the weekend.
Milan had no difficulty passing the exam, which required little more than being able to read and write and handle basic arithmetic. Soon he was summoned to commence employment with the Railways Department and duly presented himself on time on his first day.
The Senior Clerk led Milan to a cavernous room in which eighty-nine clerks, six across and fifteen deep, sat at desks making an effort to be seen to be working diligently. Milan was told to occupy the vacant thirteenth desk in Row 4 and await further instructions. Milan surveyed the scene and walked slowly down the aisle between Rows 3 and 4 and kept going until he reached the rear door, exited and never returned.
Many women wanted to experience Milan, if only briefly. Some wanted the frisson of being associated with an artist. Some wanted to mother him and dreamed of putting some flesh on his stick insect limbs and torso. But then along came Simone.
Intelligent, witty, earthy and, most importantly largely, imperturbable, she provided the stability for Milan that only comes from being loved, warts and all. They were soon a couple in residence with each other.
One day Milan came in from his backyard studio (aka the garden shed) and heard Simone’s mother, Eve, lecturing Simone in full-fired outrage. Eve thought Milan was a dissolute, a sponger who would wring Simone dry and throw her away. She thought he was talentless herself but clearly he had a following and not selling his paintings was a pathetic affectation.
Simone patiently explained, again, that Milan earned money when he needed it and had never asked her for any from her. She said she’d told Milan he was free to leave anytime he wanted, which was why he chose to stay. She didn’t own him and he didn’t own her.
Milan picked up enough of the conversation to recognise it’s familiar pattern, before filling a plastic bucket with water in the laundry. As he came quietly into the lounge room, Eve had her back to him and was too wound up to notice Simone’s eyes widening slightly just before Milan tipped the bucket of water over Eve’s head.
Speechless in shock, Eve let the water drip from her face and down her hair. Milan came around to face her, went down on his knees, took her hands and said ‘Sometimes we need an ego hit to bring us to our senses. I am happy, Simone is happy and I would like you to be happy.’
Eve began to cry and Milan leapt up in frustration and said ‘Oh, Eve, does everything in your life have to be a drama? Now go and dry yourself before you catch pneumonia and blame me for that too.’ Eve looked into Milan’s face and then Simone’s and began to laugh. They argued many times about who began to laugh first but Milan and Simone accepted that Eve laughed the loudest and longest.
Buddhism found Milan during one of his truth-seeking journeys of the mind and soul and for reasons he couldn’t articulate, he stopped painting. When he wasn’t working or with Simone, he preferred to spend time with the monks at the Temple, seeking whatever wisdom he could gather about the way forward or even what the way might be.
One night, after a simple evening meal, Milan was helping the Abbot with the dishes and trying to understand more about karma. Milan said, ‘So you are saying that my understanding is …’ when he stopped and fell to the floor. One of the monks ran to get help but the Abbot could see that Milan was dead and that his soul had already left his body, a sure sign of someone whose journey to enlightenment was well advanced.
The autopsy revealed that Milan had suffered a severe brain aneurysm and had seemingly died instantly. He was twenty-nine.
Simone spent the next year tracing all of Milan’s works and on the anniversary of his death they were exhibited together for the first and last time. There were the obligatory pleasantries but most people had brought their own chair and sat at length in front of each painting. Like me, most had no idea what they meant or even if they had any genuine artistic merit. Ultimately I decided that the paintings were just like Milan; instantly likeable, in your face and incomprehensible.
Unless you were a Buddhist perhaps.