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James Aitchison

Household Ghosts


If you asked me, I’d say this house has no ghosts.

And yet two or three times a year

a thud on the bedroom window jolts me awake.


I switch on the bedside table light –

Nothing. No one. The curtains are undisturbed.


I know my brain plays tricks on my dreaming mind,

but the sensation, the abrupt awakening,

feels too extraneous to be a dream.


Is the wakening jolt

an extra-early morning wake-up call

from a barren little segment of my brain

that wants my mind to dream about these rooms

and make promises to household ghosts?


Nothing. No one. I switch off the light

and curl again into my sleep-shape self.    



Their Names


Even then those six women’s names

couldn’t have matched their faces

or their sitting, standing, walking body-shapes.


He spent so little time with each of them

he never found out who they really were,

and yet he remembers their names.


In reverse order, from first to last, they are

Ellyse Ancund, Anjano Pwello, Njeta Hessdil,

Luija Denord, Nussa Tewleth, Sabilela Mandaso.


He heard from a friend of a friend when he still had friends

that one of the women was dead.


And the others?

The edges and curves of their faces might already be blurred

and boneless beneath their withered frost-bitten skin.

They’ll have purple half-moons beneath their eyes,

little vertical lines on their upper lips,

double chins, dewlaps?



He’s just found two of the women on Google Chrome:

Ellyse Ancund and Anjano Pwello.

No bags or folds or shrinkages,

but he doesn’t know when the photographs were taken:

the older the photograph the younger the face.

James Aitchison © 2017

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

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