Paul received a text advising him to go for an eye test. Some mistake surely. Could it really be two years since his last one? The years were just slipping by. He’d read somewhere that for most people it felt as if you lived your twenties at twenty miles an hour, your thirties at thirty miles hours, your forties at forty miles hour until eventually – this bit Paul made up for himself, taking the metaphor to its miserable conclusion – you veered off the road, myopically and catastrophically misjudging a hairpin turn in your eighties and driving over a cliff edge. If you were lucky. Well, perhaps he was due for an eye test after all. Paul was forty seven years old and married with three children. He had no wish to kill his family in a car crash. Not usually.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to hang around long in the waiting area to see the optician.
“Please follow me,” she said. She was tall and authoritative with a slightly unusual accent. Eastern European perhaps? He expected her to take him to a small, darkened room, show him letters and ask him questions. “Which one is clearer – this one?” he expected her to ask repeatedly. “Or this one?” But no, there was none of that. Instead she led him out of the optician’s store altogether.
“Excuse me,” Paul said, struggling to keep up with her purposeful stride. “Where exactly are we going?”
“Just come this way,” she said. “I will explain in one moment.”
They stopped at a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the green man. Paul wondered if this was a new component of the eye test, some kind of practical to check if he was safe to walk around town without bumping into people. The government was always looking to keep us safe of course and being a pedestrian wasn’t perhaps as easy as it looked.
“I’ve never had to do this before,” Paul said. He was taller than her but somehow felt shorter.
“Well,” the optician said, speaking loudly to be heard over the traffic, “we have never had light pollution like this before either. If we are going to check you properly we’ll need to get away from all….this.” She waved her hands around dismissively at the buildings and shops around them.
She led Paul to the multi-storey car park. “I presume you have parked in here,” she said. Paul nodded. “You okay to drive?”
“Is this part of the test?”
“God no! Do I look like a driving instructor? No, we are just getting into the countryside a little. That is all.”
Paul nodded, although he was a little unclear how light pollution could penetrate an optician’s testing room. But then it was two years since his last eye test.
They drove out of town, past where the shops spread out and flattened, past the new estates, through the pesky roundabouts and out into something approaching countryside. Eventually they came to a steep hill that Paul hadn’t noticed before.
“This should do it,” the optician said. She instructed him to pull over.
“Here? But there’s nothing much here. Where’s all your equipment?”
Off she went again, marching ahead of him up the hill. Paul already knew he could do with losing a few pounds. He knew it even more now. He knew it too much: he could feel a heart murmur coming on.
“You’re being a little rude,” he gasped. “It’s not really fair to keep me in the dark like this.”
“All will be revealed,” the optician shouted over her shoulder. “Well, not quite all perhaps. But you’ll be a little clearer. That I can promise you.”
She seemed to be almost laughing at him. They had to climb over a stile and then though a barren field, recently burnt by the look of it. Why do farmers do that? He must look it up later. Paul also made silent promises to himself to go jogging more than three times in five years and also, if at all feasible, to eat a little less cake.
Finally, she stopped at the brow of the hill, a little out of breath herself, and waited for Paul to join her.
“So,” she said, “what can you see?”
Paul was bent over, holding his knees and waiting for his breathing to settle down. “See?” he asked, playing for time.
“Yes, is that such a strange question? This is a test for your sight is it not? So I am asking you what you can see.”
Paul looked down at the town they had just left below. He looked at the leafless trees. He saw some sheep. A few houses dotted around. Mostly he saw the sky, cloudy and grey, potential rain in the air by the look of it.
“Not sure,” Paul said. “A town, some sheep…countryside.”
“What is the name of that tree?” she asked, pointing to a tree maybe ten yards from them.
“And what about that bird circling overhead? Do you know what sort of bird that is?”
Paul squinted and looked up. “No idea,” he said.
“Do you read Hungarian?” she asked him.
Where’s she off to now? “What? No. Of course not. Why?”
“If I gave you a novel in Hungarian would you be able to read it?”
“This is ridiculous,” Paul said. “That’s a stupid question.”
“You would be able to see the words,” she continued, ignoring him, “but you would not be able to understand them. You would not be able to relate them to other words. You would be unable to contextualise them. It would be impossible for you to make sense of them. So you may as well not see the words at all.”
Paul was losing his temper now. “If this is some kind of morality tale about the difference between seeing and looking – or, I don’t know, the other way round – then I’m going to be extremely angry. I have three children, I have a stressful job. My life is in no way easy,” he blurted out, surprising himself. “I’m an extremely busy….”
She held up her hand to halt his rant.
“The earth is round. Yes?”
Where does this woman get off? Who regulates these people? “What? Yes, of course the earth is round. But I fail to see…”
“I want you to stand here and to focus very hard,” she said quietly. She placed her hands on his shoulders to guide him to where he needed to stand. There was something in her manner that made Paul realise this was far more important than his passing rage.
“Now,” she said, speaking softly into his ear, “look as far as you can into the distance. On a clear day, it should be possible to see the back of your own head.”
It hardly seemed like ideal conditions. Paul could even feel a slight drizzle on his face. Yet he narrowed his eyes and stared straight ahead and yearned with all his heart to see himself somewhere out there in the distance.
“What can you see?” she whispered. “Tell me what you can see.”