The last time I posted here was just after the appalling bombings in Paris. The shock of those events, and the intensity of the subsequent debate about the appropriate response, both for us as individuals and collectively as an international community, left me somewhat lost for words in the form of blog posts, although I have been actively engaged in discussions on Facebook. In short, I have to confess that I have not been feeling especially creative – angry and impotent, yes, as if suffering from some kind of intercontinental road rage, but not in the mood for wordsmithery.
But, as is often the way, I found myself jolted out of my funk by something completely unrelated.
An eye test.
Advancing years and the onset of Type 2 diabetes meant that a couple of years ago, I was handed a prescription by a local optician and was finally forced to become a paid-up wearer of spectacles. And boy, the “paid up” bit is no joke!
Last week, two years on, it was time for another visit, which resulted in handing over more cash for a new prescription. No surprise there; but it was the test procedure itself which, strangely, lifted my mood.
SpecSavers in the high street may be an oh-so-mundane location, but once your name is called and you enter that little room, you’re in another world, where the rules of physics no longer apply. That’s rubbish, of course – on the contrary, the rules of physics are being applied in the most rigorous way possible – but I bet for most of us, it’s one of those rare occasions when we are confronted with what seems like science fiction in the most direct way: we are made to question whether we should believe what we are seeing.
“Lean forward, placing your chin on the rest there and your forehead against the bar at the top.” He’s a nice enough chap, with an eager and ever so slightly over-enthusiastic voice. “That’s it. Now, look at the flashing light.”
Already, we’re into surreal territory, because the little, green, blinking dot appears to be floating in mid-air. It’s not inside the machine, it’s outside it, first on one side, then the other. I’ve already been made to look at a long, desert road which has a hot air balloon floating above it, which blurred and then re-focused, before a hidden vent blasted a tiny jet of air into my involuntarily-blinking eye. “Try to relax, Mr Hyde, we really must get a good reading.”
“Sorry,” I say for the fifth time.
Then it’s across to another machine and another chin rest, where I’m treated to sudden blitzes of bright flash as images of my retina are taken. I stumble back to the waiting room chairs with purple and green amoeba leading the way.
A five minute wait, and then my name is called by a young Asian man called Hussein. I can just about make out the title “Optometrist” on his badge as he leads me down a short complex of corridors to his cramped diagnostic booth. I feel like asking whether he has experienced any more prejudice than usual in the last couple of weeks, but think the better of it. He’s just a guy, this is my eye test, not a political interview. I shut my mouth.
I’m handed a black plastic thing and told to cover one eye and direct my attention to some letters arranged on a screen behind his shoulder. “Read the middle line, please.”
The questioning continues, up a line, down a line. I give my name, rank and number, trying not to sound alarmed as my left eye refuses to focus in the same way as my right.
Another device on an anglepoise arm swings down towards me. It resembles a strange pair of binoculars, in which the calibration for the two eyes is distressingly out of sync. A fuzzy letter “O” appears on the screen and then my left eye is blocked. “Which is less blurry and more rounded, one – (pause, click) – or two?”
A slight sigh. “Mr Hyde, which of these is less blurry and more rounded? This? (Pause, click.) Or this?”
“Ah, the second one.”
“Two. Good. And now one (pause, click), or two?”
“Oh, I get it – two.”
The game continues, and gradually the capital “O” becomes more distinct with each click of his machine, fine-tuning the lens required for that eye; but alarmingly, sometimes the “O” seems to look like a backward “Q”. Does that make it more or less rounded? The process is then repeated for the other eye. Time passes.
Eventually, he tells me to sit back and relax for a minute, but I’m thoroughly confused. None of those “O”s looked quite right to me and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve actually been blinded, the recipient of some kind of weird torture reminiscent of that meted out to Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, but without the screechy music. Or, even worse, perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong, but I’m too British to say anything, lest he have to go to the trouble of starting all over again. I can almost hear the tsking.
“Okay Mr Hyde, look through the lenses again and tell me whether you can read the paragraph marked 5.” I hold up the card he hands to me, and begin reading the somewhat blurry lettering. “That is your old prescription for the glasses you currently wear,” Hussein tells me. “This is your new prescription.”
I have stepped into another world, where everything is pin-sharp, crystal clear and in perfect focus. Paragraph 5 virtually jumps off the page at me, followed closely by the even smaller paragraph 4 above it.
“Oh. My. God.” I just blurt it out, not pausing to consider the irony of these words being uttered by an atheist, nor pondering the potential awkwardness, if I were a believer, of having called upon a deity who might not be the same as that of my companion in the room. I imagine that, at least, an opticians would be seen as neutral territory.
Besides, when I glance at him in this moment of metaphysical confusion, Hussein is smiling with the satisfaction of a man who has performed, if not a minor miracle, then at least a pretty neat party trick. And fortunately, my British sense of decorum in public prevented me ejaculating the expletive that actually came to mind first.
“Your prescription has changed, Mr Hyde. Your distance vision is now almost perfect.” I swear, he almost winked and flashed his dazzling teeth, before continuing more earnestly, “but your near vision has, I’m afraid, deteriorated”. I feel a strange sense of shame, as if I’ve done something wrong.
Another beaming smile. “However, Mr Hyde, your eyes are extremely healthy, take a look!” A large computer screen flickers and there they are, the images of my retinas, six inches in diameter apiece, glaring down at me like huge petri dishes filled with octopus, with blood vessels fanning out from the central optical nerves.
I have, indeed, seen the insides of my own eyes.
My credit card takes the strain, and as I step out into the rain-streaked street, I feel strangely relieved, not only of around £200, but also of my cares. I have looked into the magic lens and seen the light. I have been smiled upon and given new hope.
I have seen the future, and the future is bright.