Rebecca F. John
I stumbled across the image on the internet. Really, I did. Just as the unnamed character in my story does, I was scrolling mindlessly through an article one evening when I was captivated by the most unusual of photographs – that of a bat foetus, ‘the head twice the size of the body, the ten toes spread evenly before the wings which are furled over its face, their slender bones clawing outwards like rivers on a map’.
It was at once beautiful and alien. I felt I had to write about it.
The question was ‘How?’
My instinct, ordinarily, is to write colourful stories. I am a visual writer, I ‘see’ my stories, and so the backdrops are usually quite vivid.
‘Salting Home’ begins, for example, in ‘… the pale waking hours,’ when ‘… the estuary is sprinkled with cockle pickers. From the windows of the cottages which guard the land’s tattered edge, they are black dots on a flashing silver mudflat; their Land Rovers are dark squares grumbling against the dawn.’
In ‘Her Last Show’ the protagonist Rosa ‘… listens to the rain hitting the windows. It sounds sharp, like a pecking bird, and when it runs down the glass it glints with a hundred different colours. In the darkness beyond, London is vast and full and empty all at the same time. Earlier, she had stood and looked for the details, but all she could make out were blurs of indigo and ruby and gold on a thick black backdrop.’
In ‘The Saddest Jazz’, ‘Moody purple clouds clamber and crawl across the sky’ whilst ‘a crow squawks a string of black notes into the confusion.’
I’d been looking for a story I could write quietly, therefore, as an experiment. I wanted to strip away the description, the ‘painting’, and concentrate on my characters’ emotions through starker language. The image – a creamy white body against deep black – seemed, in its simple complexity, an appropriate vehicle for this exploration. It encompassed what I wanted my story to be – bleak yet full, small but as big as can be – because the subject, of course, is life. And hurt. And hope.
I have identified myself, of late, as a writer infatuated with hope. The short stories in my collection Clown’s Shoes are nearly all shaped by my investigation of it. And I suspect, perhaps, that my entire career – however long, or short, that might be – will continue to be moulded by it. Because the elusiveness of the state fascinates me, just as that bat foetus did. I want to explore the attainment of it, the retention of it, the methods by which human beings manage to cling to it when everything else is lost.
The protagonist in ‘A Knowledge of Bats’ is experiencing the break-down of her relationship, she is grieving that, but she is also hopeful – for her future, for herself, for the foetus she believes might be developing in her own womb.
‘“Dreaming,” she says. Her voice is muffled by her hands, but it doesn’t matter. She is speaking now to herself. Or maybe to the foetus. “Perhaps I should start.”’
And that’s where the story ends, where it must end, with a ‘start’. Because hope is a state people enter into every day, because it is always renewing itself, because it is forever beginning. That is what I love to write about. And that is what ‘A Knowledge of Bats’, for all its rumination on disappointment, is about.
Hope – that tiny, enormous word.
Rebecca F. John was born in 1986, and grew up in Pwll, a small village on the South Wales coast. She holds a BA Hons in English with Creative Writing (1st class) and an MA in Creative Writing (distinction) from Swansea University. Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. In 2014, she was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2015, her short story ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015.
‘A Knowledge of Bats’ is featured in the Winter issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be bought here.
© Rebecca F. John, 2016. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.