I just couldn't believe my eyes: Susannah Frankel gives in to glasses
I always wore them as a child - pink, NHS glasses, often broken and held together with Band Aid. The boys in my class thought I was about as erotic as Jack Duckworth in Coronation Street, but I didn't care. Not, that is, until I was about 13. By then, self-conscious and blighted, I decided I'd rather be blind than ugly.
Fifteen years later, I was still managing without specs. True, I would walk past friends waving frantically at me in the street because I hadn't seen them. Sure, there came a point where I had to close one eye to be able to focus on things I was reading or, more alarmingly, people I was talking to (boys thought I was winking at them). But that didn't stop me. I told myself that my brain had adapted. As long as I didn't want to learn to drive, what did it matter?
A friend persuaded me that it might be worth having my eyes tested. I made an appointment at one of those opticians who promotes glasses as a fashion accessory, promising me intellectual sex appeal, with designer names - Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani. A far cry from the outmoded institutions of old.
I was greeted by a beautiful woman who led me downstairs for my test. Surely this couldn't be the opthalmologist? Shaking, I was beginning to have a change of heart. 'But I've got a hangover,' I protested. She laughed, and I knew there was no escape.
The eye test itself isn't anything like it used to be, either. Gone are the yellowing charts of big letters. (I used to try to memorise them while I was waiting for the test, and then recite them parrot fashion.) Now, in a dimly lit room, you look at a tinted mirror. It's not until a weird (and frankly, quite scary) machine is put in front of your eyes that you can see anything at all.
'Which is clearer,' asked the opthalmologist, 'the red or the green?'
'Well, the green looks clearer but the red is bigger,' I said, hedging my bets.
'The 1 or the 2?' she asked, changing the image. 'The black or the white? Better or worse?' It all seemed much worse. Colours, shapes and numbers flashed before my eyes, making me feel dizzy. I was sure that the last row of letters had spelt 'B L I N D I D I O T'.
The test was over. 'Well?' I asked, getting ready to leave.
'Let's sit down, shall we?' said the opthalmologist. I gulped. She had the look of someone about to tell you that your husband has been arrested.
'The thing is,' she said, 'you are extremely long-sighted. (Was this a compliment?) And then there's the astigmatism. In layman's terms (a turn of phrase that sets off alarm bells), most people's eyes are round, but, in your case, your left eye is the shape of a rugby ball.'
She told me reassuringly that it could be corrected. I had visions of her putting my poor eyeball in a metal clamp and squeezing it into shape. Surely this would hurt.
I gave the results of my test to one of the assistants. 'What's made you decide to change from contact lenses to glasses?' she asked. 'I don't wear contact lenses,' I snarled. 'My God, how on earth do you get about?'
I tried practically every frame in the shop. ('No, those are awful,' said the shop assistant, or, 'Not those, they make you look like Jeremy Beadle.') I ended up with a pair of unobtrusive, reasonably priced (pounds 70) frames. Glasses are incredibly expensive these days, with designer frames starting at around the pounds 80 mark and going up to around pounds 200.
A week later, and pounds 230 poorer, I went back. 'Don't they look wonderful?' beamed the opthalmologist. 'I can't believe that with such a strong prescription they can look so neat, especially with that astigmatism. Try them on.'
Before I could say that I thought I would prefer to suffer the humiliation of actually wearing them for the first time in private, six or seven shop assistants gathered round me.
The opthalmologist sat me down and plonked the glasses on my face. The ground sloped up before me. She lurched forward horribly into pristine focus. She had chapped lips and I could see the thick hairs in her nose. She also had a moustache.
'You'll need to break them in very slowly,' she warned. 'They'll probably make you feel a bit sick and disorientated to begin with. Only wear them sitting down, for half an hour at a time.'
I couldn't believe it. Was this supposed to be helping me? I scuttled out of the shop downheartedly and went home. I could look in the mirror and see what I looked like. Susannah Magoo, peering out of a pair of bottletops. My eyebrows needed plucking. I had open pores. I had wrinkles. I felt tearful. If this was what it was like to see, I thought, I was better off beforehand, when everything just looked like a blur of beautiful colours and soft shapes. Now here I was (here the world was), larger than life, warts and all.
'You look adorable,' said my friend. I glowered.
'You look, er, mysterious.' I growled.
'OK, so you look a bit weird. It's better than being blind for God's sake.'
The aforementioned friend, by the way, had a spot on the end of his nose. (I couldn't resist pointing this out. An early symptom of wearing glasses is that you're so surprised by everything you see you can't help commenting on it, however undiplomatic.)
I had terrible problems judging distances, too. I bumped into walls, stubbed my toes, lit my cigarettes in the middle. At dinner, I poured the wine into my guests' laps. On the plus side, though, everything looked new. Crossing the road was a joy. Gone were the days of hoping nothing was coming and making a dash for it. Colours were brighter, shapes more defined. Television looked fantastic and, at the cinema, complicated plots seemed a lot simpler now I could see all the characters.
And I also have the best of both worlds. I can see what I want, with the option of taking the glasses off and retreating into my former happy, hazy blindness.
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