Richard Smyth discusses his new short story in Issue Twelve.
I’ve never been to Greenland. I spent a week in Inverness when I was ten (1458 miles away), which I think is the closest to Greenland I’ve been, unless you contend that the fractionally closer cultural connections of Stockholm, where I took a city-break in 2016, make up for the greater geographical distance (1829 miles). But I did once spend a lovely afternoon wandering around the Greenland port of Qasigiannguit on Google Streetview, so in a very specific sense I have been there – I went all around it, and I’m sure I paid it more attention than I’ve paid to a number of towns I’ve visited in person (Stevenage, for example). Then I wrote the story ‘Hannah Rensenbrink’s Postcards From Qasigiannguit’.
The story – let’s call it ‘Postcards’ – is one in a series of stories that I wrote while researching my non-fiction book An Indifference of Birds (Uniformbooks, 2020). I was spending days at a time rootling around in the journal Environmental History – seriously, a fascinating read – and turning up a lot of stuff that I couldn’t fit in the book but that got my brain fizzing and sputtering anyway. This is the state of mind in which I tend to write stories.
‘Postcards’ is about, one, a woman mourning the end of a relationship and, two, a pair of gyrfalcons who occupy a centuries-old nesting site on a precipice above Qasigiannguit. It takes, as the title suggests, the form of a series of postcards. You can fit (I checked) about 95 words on the back of a picture postcard. It’s a strange way to tell a story. It’s a strange story. I think the postcard form struck me as a good way of characterising the broken thoughts that can occupy us when we’re dealing with loss or pain – snatches of thought, feeling and memory that seem disconnected but in fact have so much more to do with one another than we realise.
Birds, it’s been said, are good to think with. That’s what Hannah does, alone on what ought to have been her honeymoon, watching the gyrfalcons, drinking wine, wondering if she could learn the language, buy a pickup, work a halibut boat. Gyrfalcons have nested above Qasigiannguit for two thousand, seven hundred and twenty years. ‘You can find out what it’s like to be with a lot of people for, say, one year,’ Hannah writes. ‘Or you can find out what it’s like to be with one person for a lot of years. You can’t do both. That’s what I ought to have said to him: Mark, you can’t do both.’
It’s a story about place, belonging, love (sort of), Brexit (sort of). It’s certainly a story about people. But it began with the birds.
Richard Smyth’s novel The Woodcock will be published by Fairlight Books in July 2021. You can pre-order here