Alex Russell’s iTest
By Alex Russell
The day for my eye test with Doctor Gerbil has arrived – I’ve only had to wait five weeks. It’s early May but Vichy, the spa town, feels like a sauna. We find the ophthalmologist’s surgery not at number four, as we had been told, but at number eleven.
Jane shrugs. “Well, whatever the number, it says Dr Gerbil on this door – surely there won’t be two medical Gerbils in Vichy.”
At the desk I give my name, then spell it – the receptionist writes it down ending with one ‘l’.
“Two ‘l’s,” I say, helpfully.
She writes another ‘l’, then adds an ‘e’.
“There’s no ‘e’ at the end,” I say.
“Yes there is – see,” she replies, turning the form so I can see what she’s written.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I haven’t explained properly. My surname has two ‘l’s but no ‘e’ afterwards.”
“There’s got to be an ‘e’ if there are two ‘l’s.”
“I’m English. My name’s English. It’s spelt with no ‘e’ at the end.”
She pulls a face and strikes out the ‘e’; then she brightens and strikes a line through the last ‘l’ as well. I admit to myself I’ve lost this round.
When I ask about their address she shrugs and replies, “It’s always been number eleven – there’s no number four in the street.”
“How can there be a number eleven if there’s no number four – surely four comes first?” I say to Jane as we walk toward the waiting room. That, at least, is correctly named.
The room gradually fills up with clients and in silence we share the same stifling atmosphere. The only sound is the buzzing of a bluebottle in the window and of magazines being indifferently flipped through. Finally (an hour after my scheduled appointment) Dr Gerbil collects us. We follow him into his surgery which is dominated by a large capstan with telescopic arms – it looks like a pale green dalek. I am directed to the adjustable chair – it seems to have been adjusted to fit no-one. The Gerbil sits on his swivel chair, then whizzes across the floor to a computer and taps furiously at the keyboard.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“I’ve come to get my boots mended,” I’m tempted to say. Instead I tell him I need a prescription for some new glasses and say that it’s been a long time since I last had my eyes checked. I take off my glasses and hand them to him.
“They’re rather old,” I say.
The lenses are nearly opaque and the arms are twisted and have lost much of their plastic coating. He winces slightly as he places them on a side desk – as if handling a dead cockroach.
The Dalek sticks out an arm. I put my chin in position and look through an aperture. There are large letters on the wall. I can read them. To the side of my head there are some clicks – the letters are now much smaller.
“Can you read them?” he asks.
I am not sure – I can remember what the letters are. More clicks.
“Not really,” I reply.
The Gerbil whizzes on his chair to the keyboard, taps furiously, then whizzes back. Suddenly my chin is struck as the telescopic armature is pushed back into the housing. The turret rotates and the next arm strikes the back of my head.
“Well?” he asks.
“Well?” I wonder in reply.
I look through the porthole – I can see blurred smudges.
“Um,” I say.
“About the same,” I reply.
More clicks; the same questions; the same responses. He looks at his watch.
“Which was clearest?” he says, with a touch of exasperation in his voice.
“Um, the fourth one?” I suggest.
He nods and smiles to himself – then he is back to his keyboard.
“I must have chosen the right one,” I think to myself.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a movement – the Dalek is turning its head and extending a new arm. I duck. It misses. I look up – The Gerbil is gone – off to collect another patient. At the reception desk we pay the bill – it works out at three Euros a minute.
“Just as well he didn’t take longer,” I say to Jane.
As we leave I glance at the prescription. At the top is my name – one ‘l’, but someone has inserted an ‘o’ in front of the ‘u’.
The afternoon is building up to a storm, which breaks just as we arrive at the Opticians’ Training College. Someone has let me into ‘a little-known secret’ that you can get glasses much cheaper here than on the high street.
We go in and are greeted by a young man – a student optician. I hand over my prescription and tell him I’d like a pair of glasses. The Lad smiles and asks me if I am a foreigner.
“Not in England,” I reply. This puzzles him but he’s still smiling. “Oh, by the way, my name’s not Roussel – it’s Russell. It should have two ‘l’s and that ‘o’ shouldn’t be there.”
“O?” he asks.
” That ‘o’ there,” I say, pointing at my prescription.
“Oh,” he says.
We seem to be communicating quite well.
The Lad looks at the prescription and says, “How many pairs of glasses do you want?”
“Just the one pair, with varifocals.”
He looks down at the prescription again and slowly shakes his head.
“Noooon… I’m sorry, this prescription is for two pairs of glasses – one for general and one for reading.”
“But the ophthalmologist himself suggested that I should have one pair with progressive lenses,” I say.
We stand there, looking at each other, wondering what to do next.
“I’ll give him a ring,” he says brightly. He phones The Gerbil’s office. There’s no reply. The Lad leaves the room for a moment, then returns holding a pair of heavy optician’s test-glasses.
“Put these on – this is what he’s prescribed for reading. How are they?”
I put them on and pick up a magazine from the desk – at arm’s-length the letters are blurred. I move the magazine closer to my face – and closer. At about a foot the words are in focus. Another inch closer and they are out of focus again. The Lad frowns and goes to find his tutor.
The Tutor comes in and asks me, “Whose eyes did he test?” Then he takes a strip of dark plastic from a drawer and holds it in front of my eyes.
“How many eyes can you see in the mirror?” he asks.
“I can see one of mine and two of yours,” I reply. That seems to satisfy him.
“Why don’t you come back for an eye test – Thursday morning?”
“It’s a pity I didn’t come here for an eye test in the first place,” I say.
“No, we’re not allowed to see you if you don’t have a prescription – we’re not registered to do eye tests,” says The Tutor.
“But you’re giving me an eye test on Thursday.”
“We can do that because you’ve already got a prescription,” he replies.
“But that prescription’s wrong,” I protest.
“That’s why we’re giving you an eye test.”
The storm returns to greet us as we make our way back to the car. On the way home Jane tries to cheer me up.
“Look on the bright side,” she says, “it’s all interesting experience. You can write about it in your diary.”
“I’m trying to look on the bright side – I know it’s there, but it’s out of focus. Bloody Gerbil.”
Thursday morning we drive back through another thunderstorm and arrive at the teaching centre exactly on time. It is shut and the lights are off.
The minutes tick by. Suddenly The Lad appears. He beckons us and we follow him round the back of the building to a room full of vacant booths which contain no daleks but recognisable eye testing equipment. I sit down and the tests start. The Lad is slow, but thorough.
I test the lenses for ‘near’ – I can read a magazine clearly close up but not at arm’s-length, so I won’t be able to focus on my computer screen or saw accurate wood-joints. Then I try ‘less near’ lenses.
“They seem better,” I say.
But The Lad says I’ll get headaches if I try to read with them. “Do you want headaches?” he asks. When I reply “no” it seems to resolve the question of which lenses I should have.
The ‘far’ lenses take even less discussion.
“Can you see the bus outside the window?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Sorted,” says The Lad.
After an hour and a half he has worn out nearly all my vision and my head aches. I just want it to be over. He unlocks the shop and switches on the lights so that I can pick the frames. There’s only one design.
“They’re the fashion,” says The Lad.
There are, however, variations in terms of colour and how much metal surrounds the lenses.
“They look nice,” says Jane, pointing to the minimalist ‘frame-less’ design.
They are the ones I choose. On the arm is a tag that says, ‘Less is more’. When I am told the price I understand why. With added extras – like lenses – the bill is enormous.
“It’ll be a couple of weeks, I’m afraid,” says The Lad. “I’ll give you a call.”
“Well at least this stage is faster – I had to wait five weeks for my eye test with Dr Gerbil,” I say.
“Five weeks? You were lucky. Most people have to wait five months in France,” says The Lad.
“But his eye test was no good,” I say.
“Yes, but five weeks… that was lucky.”
We drive back though another thunderstorm.
“Well, at least your new glasses shouldn’t go out of fashion quickly – there’s hardly anything to them to become unfashionable,” says Jane, encouragingly. “They’re the optical equivalent of a thong.”
A month goes by before I get an email from The Lad – the glasses are ready to collect – but of course, I have to phone him to make an appointment to collect them. Jane is in the UK so I have to navigate my own way to the centre – I only get lost once.
The Lad is there; the glasses are there. The only snag is that there is only one case for the two pairs.
“Because the cost of the glasses is discounted we can’t afford to give you two cases – anyway, at any one time you’ll be wearing one of the pairs so you won’t need two cases,” he says brightly.
I write the cheque and walk back to the car. My new long-distance photochromic lenses are a very pale beige in the glaring sunlight and, driving home, the circular stop-signs have all become egg-shaped. Half-way there I take off my new glasses and drive without.
Later, I try my new reading glasses. After half an hour my left eye is aching. I take them off and continue reading.
“That’s better,” I say to Billy Bean who is curled on my lap.
In the evening I send an email to Jane, bringing her up-to-date with my news. Her reply follows soon after: “Alex, that sounds great – it looks as if they’ve cured your eyesight so you don’t need to wear glasses any more. You wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t bought the new ones. All you need now is a cheap pair of sunglasses to wear when it’s bright – I’ll bring you some back from Boots.”
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