James Knox Whittet p.2

James Knox Whittet

A Brief History Of Absence


3 a.m. At Newport Pagnell Service Station

A Brief History Of Absence

I read about your death in the local newspaper.
There was no grained photograph of you: you were
faceless to the end. In death, you took your
place among reports of road accidents; drunken brawls;
bingo wins; notices of planning consent; lottery
numbers; the latest football results – lower league.

Like me, you came from the Highlands to live in this
Lowland town but you were a stranger to me - you were
a stranger to everyone. I may have passed you many times on
the street; perhaps I brushed against you in the crowded aisle
of the supermarket: our shoulders may have touched, if only for
an instant: an unregistered meeting of separate loneliness.

The coroner could not ascertain how you died:
a precise verdict defeated by days, weeks, months of decay.
A soiled till receipt, dated 15 November, was found lying
like a fallen birch leaf beneath the Formica topped table
revealing the recorded details of your final purchase: three cans
of Del Monte peaches - on Special Offer in Spar that day.

I imagine bills and circulars flowing through your
letter-box each week to form an unstable cairn on the hall mat:
mail sorted by official fingers seeking for the address
of a friend or relative. Mould would form and creep across
unwashed dishes. The cold water tap in the sink might drip and
drip like a metronome measuring the beat of unheard music.

Time would go on passing even after the battery in
your wall clock died: its spindly arms shuddering to a halt.
The pages of your calendar remained unturned after November:
perhaps depicting, like mine, sunlit Highland cattle up to their
knees in a burn; those curlicues of smoke from a croft house
chimney stretching and thinning into a lucid, interminable sky.

I read that on the mantelpiece above your electric, barred
fire, the wedding portrait of your dead parents gazed out
helplessly from an oval frame, signed Lochinver Free Church, 1949,
as you lay silenced and slumped on that bed, guarding your
secrets to the end in that flat whose rented rooms resounded
with your absence more palpably than they did with your presence.

Some nights when sleep evades me like a dissolved dream,
I hear owls calling with the ghosted voices of lost strangers
hovering and swooping above the lives they might have lived.

Copyright © 2010 James Knox Whittet
A Brief History of Absence read by James Knox Whittet

The subsidence of mounds of leaves
that fold over in layers as they burn
when dusk shortens the drive to the castle
lighting oblongs on the river that folds
lines of smudged silver over the weir.

Apples folded in yesterday's news;
waxed skin printed with the lives of others:
all those traumas transmuted into scent
to fill the attic, its rafters articulating rain
which folds with flecks down drains.

Those pressed folds of sheets on hospital beds
starched by sunlight through wide windows
where emptied cars wait out afternoons in squares,
bordered by marigolds, liveried by dust
that falls in folds over spaced kerb stones.

The folds of soil as it descends on graves
when the green canvas, drawn in with strings of frost,
is folded back to reveal the opening below us;
our feet loosening the knots of sawn boards
diagramed with the folds of their grain.

Those folds of light when mist lifts up from lochs
like vinegared windows rained with sea;
the folds of water pushed aside by oars
with descended swans' wings drawn
back and folded in their resting place.

Copyright © 2009 James Knox Whittet
Folds read by James Knox Whittet
3 a.m. At Newport Pagnell Service Station

I slide my wood effect tray along
the smudged metal runway with iconic
images above my head of frothing cups
of cappuccino, Danish pastries, summits of glistening
baked beans and burnished beef burgers hung
like Vermeers from brightly painted walls.

I carry my frothless coffee to a table
beside the massive panes of the window
through which traffic, grown strangely
silent, forms six strings of a diamond necklace
of red and white lights into the darkness
with no beginning and no end in sight.

Across the aisle, a woman who has strayed
from a Hopper painting, sits alone and keeps searching
through her handbag as if in search of some
official document that might tell her who she
is and why she sits here in this room, laid bare
by fluorescent strips, at 3 a.m. on the 6th of March.

At another table, a man with a beard endlessly
rotates a tea bag in a white mug with a spoon.
I gaze at the slow rotations of the spoon and see
how the colour of his tea deepens and darkens.
An elderly woman with her hair in a bun, bends
her head over a crossword in search of answers.

I sip my chilling coffee and listen to Sinatra
crooning from the dead. With lowered eyes, I
create patterns from the varying islands of the spilt
blood of tomato ketchup left by former customers
and wonder what decipherable patterns I might leave
behind when I choose to rejoin the necklace of lights below.

I look up again at my few fellow pilgrims
who have entered, like me, by chance into
an unsleeping communion of silence in this glass
cathedral, scented not with incense but with frying oil,
built for travellers who take time out of their journeys
to destinations not wholly of their own choosing.

Copyright © 2009 James Knox Whittet
3 a.m. At Newport Pagnell Service Station read by James Knox Whittet


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *