Peahen (2020)

Charles R. Knight, A Tiger with Peacock, 1928


I haven’t written a new short story in years. I read lots of short stories, and at one time I wrote lots too. The majority of these efforts are now stuck in limbo on 3 inch floppy discs (that’s how long ago it was), and I am currently in the process of seeing if I can retrieve some of them from this netherworld of obsolete technology. This might be a mistake. They might be better left where they are, but my memory of writing them is a powerful one of conjuring entire worlds into existence by using very few words. I’ve written a number of novels since, children’s books, and books most definitely not suitable for children. I’m nibbling away at a new novel now – fifty-thousand words and counting – holding character arcs, plots and multiple places together in my head through an act of will.

I wasn’t really looking for any more fiction to write – it can even feel disloyal to start up with something new when you’re still so involved with an existing project – but the prompt for the Kick-About #7 demanded a short story of me, for how else to respond to Sickert’s suspended atmosphere, those arrested individuals, that gloomy little room?

The decision to make Sickert’s seated cigar-smoker a notable ornithologist originated from the painting’s bell jar of sparrows and somehow too from the patrician configuration of his face. I thought to myself, here is a man who is used to talking. Here is a man who is used to being listened to. I thought too that experts are not always sentimental towards the subjects of their specialism, that empiricism and scrutiny are not affectionate orbits, so I decided to make my bird specialist a keen amateur in the art of avian taxidermy.

The peacock idea came next and I was inspired by two things, the first thing being Charles Darwin did indeed write a letter to Asa Gray on April 3rd, 1860, in which he expressed his intellectual horror of the peacock’s tail, for its luxuriance seemed so contrary to the theory of evolution he was arriving at the time; and the second being the 1928 painting by Charles R. Knight of a peacock slain by a tiger. I liked the way Knight’s painting mirrored the Sickert composition, with one subject positioned behind the other. This made me think of the power-relations in Sickert’s painting, the way we are encouraged to think of the woman as ‘background’. I wondered about that. I wondered about that a lot.

I titled the resulting story Peahen, after the female peafowl, a creature considered drab in comparison to the much showier male. I did have another idea for the title, but considered it too leading. I nearly called it Tiger.



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