It was true: my glasses - pink plastic frames and owlish in shape - now looked decidedly Seventies in comparison with the neat, metal-rimmed numbers everyone else seemed to be wearing. But style - or the lack of it - wasn't the only issue. My sight had deteriorated alarmingly of late, something I had first noticed driving on the motorway, where I was finding it hard to read the signs on time and sometimes swerving dangerously for the right junction. It was time for an eye test, something I had been putting off for years. Trouble was, there were too many painful memories.
I must have been about nine when the teacher noticed me creeping along the row of desks to the front, trying desperately to see what he had written on the blackboard. I was sent for an eye test, found to be moderately short-sighted and prescribed a pair of NHS glasses: pink and plastic, but distinctly unfashionable. I cried buckets over the piggy-eyed look my glasses gave me, and when the same teacher called me "four eyes", and when classmates laughed at my pebble lenses. In my teens, I swapped the pink plastic for black rectangles. They went well with my beehive hairdo; but I still did without them at the local dance hall.
I was 16 when contact lenses came into my life. Pricy, uncomfortably hard (no gas permeable or disposables then) but definitely worth it: I could finally see who it was I was snogging on Saturday nights.
I wore contacts quite happily for the next 20 odd years, but taking them in and out got a bit wearisome when, either pregnant or at home with a baby, I started to need a nap in the day. The lenses were left in their case until one day I found they had turned to gunk, dried up for ever. I, meanwhile, had reverted to glasses: the pseudo-NHS pink plastic look was by now quite trendy.
But the shame I felt at nine has stayed with me. Which is why, perhaps, I had not been able to bring myself to have an eye test for years. Possibly 10 years, if not longer. Not until a friend took notice and driving became hazardous.
The test took place in my lunch hour at a very chic optician's near the office: serried ranks of designer frames by Klein and Armani. It was lengthy (30 minutes), and involved rather more than the simple eye charts of my memories: the various lights shone into my eyes were, said the optometrist, to check the health of blood vessels, pupils and the eye muscles; the puff of air which took me by surprise was to check on eye pressure.
Yes, the myopia had got considerably worse (the prescription was -4.75 in the right eye, -6.25 in the left). This was not surprising since the earlier the disorder develops, the more time the eye has to grow longer. There was a small amount of astigmatism. I had also developed problems with near vision, or presbyopia, a condition of middle age caused by the lens growing stiff. But didn't one condition cancel out the other? I asked. Not in your case, replied the optometrist mysteriously.
Never mind, she added, you can have varifocals: these start with distance vision at the top of the lens and work progressively through middle and to near vision at the bottom, and are worn by more than 70 million people worldwide. Having steered clear of opticians for so long, I had to admit I had never heard of them. But if it meant avoiding the dreaded bifocals with the line across the middle, they were OK with me.
Thanks to modern technology I was told, my considerably stronger lenses need not look ugly. A high index lens would reduce the thickness, while an anti-glare coating would do away with rings and reflections associated with the swotty took. All of which would come at a cost of course: somewhere in the region of pounds 300-pounds 400.
The next step was to choose the frames. I headed straight for a pair of the small metal ones I yearned for. Hang on a minute, said the style consultant, you can't have those: they're too shallow for varifocals. And with your colouring, nothing too dark. And your face is round, so nothing too round; something wider at the temples to slim it down, to "lift" the face - perhaps a cat's eye shape?
An hour and numerous frames later, I was sweaty, confused and panicky about making a decision, especially as without my glasses, unless I virtually pressed my nose up against the mirror, I was unable to see what I looked like in any of the frames I had tried on. I could have done with my outspoken friend but she was on holiday. I decided to flee, promising sheepishly that I would be back soon.
It took several visits to different opticians before I finally took my courage in both hands and opted for a pair of copper-coloured Calvin Klein frames: cat's eye shape, high index, non-reflective, scratch resistant and of course varifocal. You can always change them if they don't work, I was told. I held my breath as I wrote out a cheque for pounds 450 (as well I should have - it bounced two days later and I had to send them another).
Three weeks later I went to collect my new glasses. They made me feel as though I was on board ship: and if I looked down or sideways too quickly, the world went fuzzy. Varifocals are always like that, said the assistant: you'll get used to them.
A few days later, the varifocals were still making me dizzy. I also felt a bit like a chicken: having to turn my head to see anything sideways. To cap it all, my boyfriend admitted he didn't like the frames. You look much sweeter in your old pink ones, he said.
I put away my new glasses, retrieved my pinkies and avoided the motorways.
Two weeks later, we went together to choose a replacement. I abandoned the varifocal idea and went straight for distance vision (I'd read the paper at arm's length if I had to) and eventually chose a pair of non- designer titanium half-frames which, without varifocals, came to two-thirds of the price. My Calvin Kleins, said the assistant, would be donated to the "Third World".
I went to collect my new glasses this week, some six months after that lunch with my friend. They came in a matt silver case which looks a bit like a small bomb. Wearing them, the world seems a different place: sharper images, stronger colours even. Sometimes they make me feel quite heady, as though the brain is adjusting to too much new information. The new- style frames are lighter and far smaller than the old plastic ones: I can peer over the top like a 19th century schoolmarm.
I am still getting used to them, wear them "for best" and tend to use my old pink glasses to shuffle about in the mornings - though my boyfriend likes the new ones nownReuse content