Cataract by Rachel Genn

To your waiting rivals on this half of the city, you are the most prized, the tenderest of all idiots. No. 1- SPECIAL, your bus says, and through the window comes:

“Ha Ha! Special bus! Fucking mongs.”

To prove them wrong in the same way each day, you alight with stiff legs, jarring your steps, finally dripping onto the pavement like bored solder.

Behind your rivals, you spy her car in a lay-by. You don’t often have the opportunity to see your mother between her jobs because she has brought you up to understand that she isn’t your saviour. But that is her embarrassing car and she is waiting in it, radiating limited patience. Not once will she try to explain why she has come for you today, but instead smokes and stares over at the trees across the road where the underside of their crowns has been carved into an impending wave by your daily bus, something definitely worth a look.

We are reluctant to consider that the mind’s eye might be the wrong instrument of perception or retrieval, instead we persist in the visual search, forcing the focus to cinch, finally invoking a cataract rather than admitting that what we are looking for cannot be seen. Some scenes from your history hand themselves to you so starkly that it makes you mistrust and dislike them. How do we write what Jack Underwood describes as “not something definite, but definitely something?”

She was the only dinner-lady who didn’t wear clothes under her overall. A sea swimmer and accomplished diver, she never bragged about her talents but paraded her tanned litheness by the other puddingy dumplings that worked beside her in the kitchen. If she knew there was going to be payback for every ounce of that vanity, she would have committed the sin even more unequivocally.

While she is intent on the trees, you bend your knees to look in through the passenger side window, knowing that under that municipal blue nylon, her skin is still young and pliant, lying heavy and poreless as caramel across her shoulders, her elbow on the steering wheel, her fag ash grown an inch long. You knock on the window with one knuckle and this tiny opaque event begins to clarify. It starts with the cocky look that says you are her most perfect gift and she thoroughly deserves you.

It would not be pretentious for her to admit that she modelled herself on the sea. She even smelled like power, like potential – metallic and fertile. She was dogmatic and a pounding bully but would heal you in waves, or with one confident touch. Very free with caprice and cunning, there was love that got washed up, but none of what snagged on the extremes were words.

Making sure the rivals don’t see, you hurl your bag in the footwell then get in ‒ tobaccoey air belching through a rip in the upholstery as you sit down. She had bought her car brand new and you were glad when she’d ruined it so quickly. The white of the sky outside had been bleak when it hung over your enemies, but in the car, even with the smoke, the whiteness has become positively inflatable, ozoney with a spearmint tang, rejuvenating and promoting of growth. With just you and her in it, the limits of the car miraculously come to contain the equal pressures of what could and what should be.

Her left hand stays in her overall pocket until you look at it, then it appears knuckles-first from the nylon flap, remaining suspended until your own hand slips underneath. She places her fingertips in your palm, they open then close, laying with factory efficiency, an egg in your hand. A cream egg. There’s no wonder you gobble it down like a fox in a story. Your eyebrows stay up long after it has been eaten.

The mind’s eye pulls you back doggedly to the dashboard: strictly speaking the structure is a present absence ‒a way of fixing important parts together, but just a necessary monstrosity ‒ no more than grisly future landfill. The parent who can’t drive has been known to rap it sharply to prove a point, pressing the driver more resolutely on her course. Or if the driver drops her cigarette, one can jam out one’s arms toward the dashboard in a brace. Is this simply a safety issue?

Only slowly does this symbol reveal how it has earned its place. And it starts with the sound of the sides of the soles of your school shoes pressing against the creaky give of the dashboard, as you let your knees bounce apart to their childish limits, splaying wide to allow the taut gusset to span the untouched scoop between your thighs. Your pants are a tiny tented temple stretched perpendicular to what curiously resembles a worn stone step in a cathedral tower.  You bounce those knees apart, apart again, as unchewed chunks of chocolate make it down your throat in an emulsion of fondant. Don’t send the eye to do a tongue’s job.

After all, you have no idea yet what to do with all of what you have inside. You are still a girl; liquid and tight. Living, up to now, seems a lesson in just how much of yourself you should not spill. When people watch you, it’s because they suspect how much power you have. From the depths of your charged whiteness, in her Austin Allegro (estate), a silent understanding between your mother and yourself has breached your collective waters and until you describe it, perhaps even after that, it will have to be held on trust.

You couldn’t have got here alone. This needed the involvement of the small copse over the road, the dashboard, your gusset, and the whiteness of the sky in a sophisticated, cantilevered formation. The trees held you in place but at a distance and anyone could run their hands around the car to make sure there weren’t strings or struts that allowed the trees their influence over this. Throughout all that didn’t happen in the car that afternoon, you were aware of even the road under you as accomplice to the illusion. Your desires had fought off words that could not come close to what happened. Words are the beginnings of meaning, not the end, you are discovering, and you have learned to take meaning where you can get it. You believe trees can be magicians. You believe in the magic of trees making this memory. You will, wherever you can, tell complete strangers about the potency of your mother.

She gets ready to pull out of the lay-by. Your legs stay wide open because you have melted into future tense, worshipping the sacred actions of driving the car; these will be the clicks and nudges that you string together to call love. Seeing her exit clear over her shoulder, she turns her face forward to home, her small even teeth working on the chewing gum, the muscles of her jaw bunching, fine hairs along her jaw-line. There’s the muted slap of her calloused palms on the steering wheel as it turns while you push the outsides of your shoes further into the hard bounce of the dashboard. Your keenest happiness. One last look at her. The stalky tendon sinking back into her dancer’s neck as she pulls out into the traffic.

You can also watch a live performance of this piece below, from Rachel’s appearance at ‘The Real Story: In the Half-light’ on 17/05/18, as part of the Not Quite Light Weekend 2018.

A former neuroscientist, Rachel Genn now teaches at The Manchester Writing School. Her first novel THE CURE was published by Corsair in 2011.  Her second novel WHAT YOU COULD HAVE WON follows a failing psychiatrist who turns his singer girlfriend into a drug experiment; funded by ACE, it is currently entered for The Northern Book Prize, 2018. Her writing has featured in Granta, Five Dials and 3am magazine. She is a contributor to the forthcoming gorse editions anthology, UNDER THE INFLUENCE, edited by Joanna Walsh. She was Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence (2015/16) at the University of Sheffield, Department of Psychology, creating a quasi-institution called THE NATIONAL FACILITY FOR THE REGULATION OF REGRET; an idea which continues to span installation art, VR, film and non-fiction. She tweets as @RachelGenn

Featured artwork by Sally Anne Wickenden