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Set at the twin poles of life and death, Sight is a novel about being a parent and a child, what it is like to bring a person in to the world, and what it is to let one go. With forays into the history of psychoanalysis and the origins of modern surgery, our unnamed narrator shines a light on those hidden parts that lie at the heart of us, to reveal an examined life laid bare in all its desire and grief.

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Excerpt: Sight


A Novel


Copyright © 2018 Jessie Greengrass
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-525-57460-6

The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again. In front of me is all the ordinary and useful disarrangement of my desk and beyond it the rain-smudged window with a view across our garden to where my daughter plays, watched over by Johannes. She has begun to lose, lately, the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood. I notice it when we walk together, our strides separate, or when we sit face to face across a table—how she is taller now and straighter, and inflects her actions with intent. Once her thoughts broke like weather across her face, but that readable plasticity is gone and she is not so transparent: complexity has brought concealment. The weight of her body when I lift her takes me by surprise, its unfamiliarity a reiteration of the distance between us. She used to clamber over me, her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck, as though I were furniture or an extension of herself, unthought-of or intimately known. Now she stands apart and I must reach for her, on each occasion a little further until it seems her progress towards adulthood is a kind of disappearing and that I know her less and less the more that she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be, her going away while I remain, but still I think that if I could then I might reach across to where she stands, outlined against the violent yellow mass of a forsythia bush, and pull her back to me, to keep her always in my sight so that she might be nothing more than the sum of what I know of her.

On 28 December 1895 at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, presented to the public for the first time a screening of a selection of their cinematographic films. All that afternoon along the Boulevard des Capucines a line of people waited, their breath rising through the freezing air, in expectation of a wonder. Later, sat in rows on slat-backed chairs, they saw it: the flickering black-and-white image of Auguste holding his baby daughter up to a fishbowl, balancing the child on her feet so that she might look down at the water inside, the tumbling elision of the film’s frames making manifest inside the winter darkness a months-old summer afternoon—and at the same time, 600 miles away in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, chair of physics, ran through the streets to hand over a paper to the president of the university’s Physical Medical Society, a first description of the X-ray. For weeks, while the Lumière brothers had prepared their films, Röntgen, alone in his laboratory, its windows draped with heavy cloth to keep the winter’s weakened sunlight out, had seen all that had been solid grow towards transparency. Opaque materials—wood, stone, his own flesh—had been reduced for him to shadowed outline, leaving the image of a substrate world spread out across a photographic plate, a catalogue of metal and bone and all that would not rot to set against cinema’s preservation of surface—

There was a point, some years ago, when this concatenation of dates preoccupied me. I was trying to decide whether to have a child. For months, all through a wet spring and an early, lightless summer, Johannes and I sat side by side in the evenings on the sofa or in the garden and we talked about it, or we didn’t talk about it, but it seemed that we never talked of anything else, all our words mere surtext to my inability to find a way out of the bind in which I had placed myself. I wanted a child fiercely but couldn’t imagine myself pregnant, or a mother, seeing only how I was now or how I thought I was: singular, centreless, afraid. I was terrified of the irrevocability of birth and what came after it, how the raising of a child, that unduckable responsibility, might turn each of my actions into weighted accidents, moulding another life without intention into unpropitious shapes, and caught between these two poles—my desire, my fear—I was miserable and made Johannes miserable, too. Minute by minute I would be sure that a decision had been reached but they wouldn’t stick: I felt that I was staring at a fissure to be leapt across, and each time, making my feint at its nearer bank, I would run out, and over and over again that year I knelt on the floor in front of Johannes and said

—I don’t know what to do, what should I do?

until he could only hold my head in his hands and say

—I love you

because he had exhausted all argument. For him the answer was obvious: we would have a child, and the rest would follow. He didn’t fear himself to be inadequate, insufficient to the task of making someone whole, nor see how afterwards, when it was too late, the ground might give beneath our feet to let us fall, the child that we had wanted tumbling through the air between us; and although he was never less than kind he didn’t know what to say to me and I began to catch, at times, a hastily suppressed frustration in his voice. During the day, instead of working, I sat at my desk with its view across the garden, empty then, and watched the 42-second-long La Pêche aux poissons rouges, the Lumière brothers’ film. This is what we cling to at such times: the illusion that in the world there is a solution, if only we can find it, and it seemed to me that into that infant’s face, turned towards the curiosity the camera made on a hundred-years-ago Lyon afternoon, a whole childhood had been distilled, and that if I looked hard enough, absorbing into my own body each detail of the way Auguste’s hands held his daughter, of her responding smile as she reached down to pat the surface of the water, then I might understand what it would be like to be either of them. I had no idea how it might function, Johannes and me and a child inside the same house. My own father had slipped out halfway through my childhood, leaving little of himself behind, and my mother had died when I was in my early twenties, her death so desolating that for months afterwards I had been unable to recognise my unhappiness, mistaking the joyless pall I wore for adulthood’s final arrival: the understanding, come at last, that the world was nothing but what it appeared to be, a hard surface in a cold light. To fill the space that even grief refused to occupy I had read, at first indiscriminately and widely and then, as I began at last to reconstruct myself, building piecemeal on the foundations of all that had been demolished by my mother’s death, on Wilhelm Röntgen and the early history of the X-ray. Now, happening on the coincidence of that single darkening afternoon at the end of the nineteenth century, I began to believe that if I could see how these two events fitted together, the way that simultaneity tied them, then perhaps I might see also through their lens the frame on which my own life had been constructed, its underlying principle, or how it was that I should find myself considering motherhood when it seemed that I had barely altered from unhappy adolescence. Perhaps, too, I might find the guarantee I wanted that in the future I would not fail or fall—but after all there was nothing to it. What I had mistaken for significance was mere concurrence—the burghers of Paris waiting in the street while elsewhere Röntgen ran through an empty university—and so as each long afternoon bled towards its close, as the cat began its plaintive cry for food and as Johannes, working in the room above, began to shift and stir, the floorboards creaking out their sympathetic indication of his winding down towards the evening, I remained as I was, La Pêche aux poissons rouges playing over and over on my computer screen, the image of the child and her father, a key which failed to fit a lock.

As a child in the Netherlands, where his family had moved from their native Germany when he had just turned three, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen showed no particular academic talent. He was marked out, if at all, by little more than a precocious skill with machinery, an imagination articulated from cogs and levers, and a manual dexterity that he would later use to make his own laboratory equipment, believing that it was with this intimacy of construction that insight might be bought. Beyond this he was an ordinary child without particular aptitude for lessons, easily distracted, although possessing a kind of outdoorsy curiosity, an interest in the natural world which in a less solid boy might have been called dreaminess. At the age of seventeen, for refusing to divulge the authorship of a caricature of one of the masters, he was expelled from his technical school in Utrecht without the necessary qualifications for university admittance, becoming instead a student of mechanical engineering at the polytechnic in Zurich, where entrance was by examination rather than qualification; but even after he had moved from there to the university and gained his PhD, coming under the influence and patronage of Professor August Kundt, his lack of a school certificate was a stumbling block, so that it was some years before he could secure an academic position in his own right, moving instead between Würzburg and Strasbourg as Kundt’s assistant. By then, though, he had learned the habit of application, an unfaltering dedication which appeared imagination’s opposite, and he tackled these obstacles with the same solid determination with which he approached all aspects of his life—his marriage, friendships, interests, his work: a steady, undeflected, incremental progress towards a goal, each step taken cautiously, tested and retested so that at the end he could be sure that what he had made was sound. He retained the meticulousness which as a child he had used to make mechanical devices, developing an interest in photography and in player pianos alongside his scientific work, buying a Welte-Mignon for the drawing room to demonstrate to guests. He also kept his love of the outdoors, a fondness for snow and winter sports, spending his autumns in the Engadin mountains and his springs at Lake Como where he took his wife, Bertha, whose health was not always good, on excursions in a horse and cart. By the winter of 1895, six months past his fiftieth birthday, it seemed that his life had attained a kind of coasting form, the satisfactory shape of one of his own mechanisms: something soundly made and set upon a steady course, well-tended, gently oiled. His position in the university was assured and his career was an ordinarily distinguished one. He was respected in his field and his name would be remembered, if not in chapters, then in footnotes and appendices: those places clarity inhabits, the carefully worked-through detail in which a subject’s virtue lies; and afterwards, after the few short weeks that he spent working on X-rays before returning to his previous work, after he had written the three papers which were all that he could find in himself to say on the subject, he seemed to look back on this smaller renown as something lost, its sudden overturning an act to be regretted.

My mother fell ill shortly after my twenty-first birthday and for a long time, despite the fact that I became responsible, by increments, for her care, I tried to carry on as if nothing was happening, living in the shared flat behind the Elephant and Castle roundabout that I had moved to after leaving university and travelling each morning out to my mother’s house, an unprepossessing mid-60s’ villa set back behind a driveway deep in the eliding sprawl that seeps for miles beyond the city’s boundaries, small towns running into one another under a canopy of trees. This was the house I had lived in all my life but I felt little affection for it, and nor I think did my mother. Our place in it had been built not on choice or fondness but on circumstance, a constant provisionality defined by our wish to leave if only those things which kept us there—work, school, a habit of thought or of routine, the convenient proximity to the city which we valued in principle but rarely took advantage of—could be evaded. Leaving for university three years earlier I had thought myself to have escaped from it at last, the process of growing up an inevitable upward curve, exponential and away—but then my mother became ill and once more I was pulled back. I gave up my attempts to find a job and instead each morning I sat in an empty outbound train to make this journey backwards, watching through the scratched windowpane the full carriages run past in the opposite direction, heavy with their complements of lives. The unfairness of this forced return angered me, but I felt too the impossibility of my anger, the imperviousness of events towards it; and sometimes as I struggled in the morning to force my way to the ticket barrier against the suited tide I felt again the disempowerment of childhood, that awareness of injustice and the futility of its protest. Then, in the evenings, after the hospital appointments and the hours on drips, after the loads of washing done and the twin plates drying in the empty kitchen, after the silent afternoons, the long gap between lunch and tea filled with nothing but the anxious, empty tedium of the ends of lives, I would travel back the other way; or, more often than not, some minor crisis would keep me where I was so that instead of going back to the city I would lie awake in my childhood bedroom listening to the sounds from the garden, the bark of foxes and the hoot of owls where the roundabout’s traffic roar should be, and feel that the world was turning elsewhere while I lay, still and confined, rerouted from that easy future which I had assumed would be my right.

By degrees, over the course of the months after her initial collapse, caused by a sudden burst of blood into the soft substance of her brain which, while stemmed, could not be stopped, my mother’s illness stripped her of strength and agency. Her muscles were unsprung, her joints unlocked. The medication which she took to keep the worst at bay caused her body to swell, doubling in size to a facsimile of health, her face plump and ruddy. For a while, with a diagnosis made and treatment-regime established, with radiotherapy a fortnightly inconvenience, she had seemed almost well, until that first week during which she had lain pale as paper in a hospital bed became a memory that left us giddy with relief for all it had marked an end to unchecked time. She was tired, perhaps, a little unsteady on her feet, and down one side of her skull, surrounded by a fur of regrowing hair, a scar ran that was the length of my hand and pink and smooth, but although she was not what she had been, neither had she become what I had feared she might, as I had sat amongst the tangle of tubes and monitors, the drips and beeps, and waited for what was left of her to surface from the surgeon’s work. Those first weeks, when it still seemed to us that we might pick up our old lives again somehow, had the stolen air of holidays and our sorrow was exultant, a pouring forth of hope and love, because we had not yet felt the truth of it: that there would be no afterwards from which we might look back and count ourselves lucky to have escaped. My mother needed help at first only with domestic chores, with cooking and cleaning and trips to the supermarket, and someone to accompany her on hospital visits, to sit next to her in hot rooms and stare out of windows as bad news was delivered and explained; but as time went on these solid remains of her health began to erode and more and more things became impossible for her. She started to need help moving about the house, climbing steps and manoeuvring herself in and out of chairs and, when her left arm began to weaken, with cutting up her food and washing her face; and so our lives began to fold in around one another, tangling, contracting, her need for me forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation which was the work of adolescence. We both felt it. As I sponged her head with water to get out the last of the soap from what was left of her hair or as I helped her dress I tried to be kind but for me to be so, for me to try to comfort or to shield her, to be more gentle with her than was necessary for the completion of the immediate task at hand, would have been only to more brutally invert our natural roles, and that itself would have been a kind of violence towards this woman who had always sought to protect me, to soften the impact of the world and keep me safe. We were often silent with one another. It began to seem that the only solution to our physical closeness was an emotional distance—we hid from one another, we shrank apart, until all affection was leached from our touch and only pragmatism, necessity, was left. We allowed practicality to stand in for compassion and my nominal residence elsewhere acted as a boundary line, a point of principled separation, until one morning I arrived at the house to find her curled up on the bathroom floor, asleep, a child’s steroidal plumpness at her elbows and her wrists. For weeks, since that part of her brain which governed spatial awareness had begun to fail, she had been unable to dress herself, her knickers having come to represent a geometrical puzzle that she couldn’t solve, but now she had lost the ability to navigate from one room to another, becoming confused in doorways, turning herself in odd directions. Although she still recognised the house, although she said that nothing really looked any different to her, and although she still knew that, for example, the kitchen was on the left of the living room and the bathroom at the top of the stairs, when she tried to translate this knowledge into action it confounded her. That mental construct which she had of the house we had lived in for the entirety of my life—the two of us echoing backwards through the sheltering closeness of its rooms, our arguments, our gestures of anger and our reconciliations, our particular celebrations and our daily grinding still present in the marks across the walls and floors, the ghost stains on the carpets, the wonky handle to the study door—this no longer bore any relation to the space through which she moved, the fact of it unparsable even while her memory of it remained clear and detailed. Her body, too, had become strange to her, its shape no longer matching the map she had of it, so that her idea of where she was in space floundered and was unreliable and any movement was a conscious effort of attention, a matter of watching, pushing her body about as though it were mere mechanism while elsewhere, on an empty plane, its mental analogue moved freely through a steady silence. The following day I packed up my room in the Elephant and Castle flat and moved home, stuffing my belongings into a holdall and, when that was full, into plastic carrier bags. I took a taxi to the station and then at last I found myself going in the same direction as everyone else, sat as the evening rush hour began in the corner of a commuter train on top of my unwieldy pile of things. Changing at Clapham Junction one of my bags split, sending a cascade of jumbled paperbacks and underwear slithering down into the gap between the train and the platform to settle on the tracks. I stood in the crowd of homing workers, my dirty jeans and high-tops squalid amongst the multitude of suits and brogues, the remaining bags slouched about my legs, and I watched the trains run again and again across my things—

and if, afterwards, I was unable to see quite how deeply grief ran, if I felt I had no right to my unhappiness, then in part I think it was because I was ashamed that this last journey home was one that I had made, not out of love, nor even from compassion, but only from expediency, because it was necessary and because there was no one else to do it.