James Aitchison

Behind the Waterfall

He hated his day job
unplanning and replanning planners’ plans
for garages, conservatories, pigeon lofts.

He painted when Richard and Franny were asleep
and I lay waking for him to come to bed.
‘I paint by moonlight,’ he said, ‘when the moon is full.’

Painters should live in cities or near the coast.

He kept his studio locked until – days, weeks
or even months – a painting was complete.

I loved his work. I’ve seen nothing of his for years.
I soon learned not to ask him where or how.
‘Talent’ was one of my earliest mistakes.
‘It isn’t talent,’ he said. It’s accomplishment.’

He said of one of his paintings
‘It’s the earth seen from a satellite in space
and so it’s the earth in space.’ Of another he said
‘It’s mosses and lichens on a boulderstone.’

I said something about shadows in one of his works.
‘Yes. Can you see them lengthening and deepening?’

One of his paintings was layer upon layer
of different weathers in a day and night:
frost, mist, clouds, sunlight through falling rain
and strands of moonlight slanting through the dark.
‘A view,’ he said, ‘from behind the waterfall.’

No. No. No. I make it sound as if …
No. Not the work of a dabbling amateur.
That painting was beautiful,
abstract, factual, severely beautiful.

He needed women. He didn’t need a wife.
He should have lived with childless mistresses.


[Behind the Waterfall – 2]

Switzerland? The Tyrol? The Hebrides?

When anyone asked him where, he would say
‘They’re anywhere you like and nowhere you know.’

He took them when we split up. They were his, of course.

Some people felt – They didn’t say ‘bleak’ or ‘harsh’
but he knew what they meant, and he was pleased.

His landscapes were illusory and real,
remote, immediate, austerely beautiful.
Not light and darkness but what he called dark light.

Trees were skeletal and purple-black,
thin-streaked with snow and skewed by the west wind.
They vanished in rising mist or lowering cloud.

Vertical and diagonal drystone walls –
mould-blue, dove-grey and tipped with off-white snow −
climbed the foothills and faded stone by stone.

Clouds might have been mountains and mountains clouds.
Horizons were indiscernible;
I couldn’t see where earth ended and sky began.

They were self-portraits, of course.

He said he’d burn them all. I’ll never know.

James Aitchison © 2017