The windows of the high street shop are darkened so as to prevent anyone who is passing by from surreptitiously glancing into the interior. The window surround is also black. Above the windows, stretching across the full width of the shop facade, the green, red, and white Perspex sign advertises ‘Out of Focus’. The overall effect is smart and modern, but gives no clue as to the purpose of the store. This does not matter; everyone knows what their business entails anyway. There is a greater than average quantity of discarded cigarette butts directly outside the entrance, that have been stamped into the pavement and left there by nervous customers.
Jones checks his watch, notes the time, looks around behind him, and then up and down the street, to see if there is anybody watching him. He no longer smokes, so forgoes the opportunity to add to the scattering of cigarette ends. He is five minutes early, but decides it is time to enter anyway whilst he thinks that the coast is clear, and he walks straight up to the reception desk as the door automatically closes behind him on its soft sprung silent hinges.
‘Jones, I have an appointment for twenty past two,’ he tells the girl at the desk, trying to appear nonchalant and unconcerned about what her opinion of him may be. He is not to know that like most of the Out of Focus employees, she has made use of the company’s services herself, and so has no opinion of him one way or the other.
The receptionist looks at the computer screen in front of her and checks down the list, pointing at each line with the end of her pen, tapping on the screen whilst manipulating the mouse with her other hand. She mouths the names silently as she carries out her search. Jones suspects that she is deliberately taking longer than necessary in an attempt to make him feel uncomfortable. He is right; she does it to all of the customers and it helps to make the time spent at work pass more quickly.
‘Ah, yes,’ she says, once she has finally located his name, ‘here we are. Mr Jones. Specialist eye test, two-twenty. You’re a little early, do take a seat and one of our operatives will be over to see you in a few minutes.’
Jones politely thanks the woman and, as suggested, takes a seat, consciously avoiding sitting next to anyone else in the waiting area. He has been here before and is continually surprised that visitors try to look smartly dressed for the occasion, and they nearly always put some effort into their appearance. The effect is negligible, as the clientele are all, by and large, fashion victims, leading him to the conclusion that he is by far the best turned out person here today.
He is experienced enough to know that being five minutes early doesn’t mean that he will be seen any quicker. He continues to scrutinise the other people who are waiting, without looking directly at them, so that they are unaware of his investigation. Everyone always does this at the opticians, the dentist, hospital, or anywhere else where they have to wait their turn, but here, the subterfuge is not quite as pointless as it is elsewhere. Jones is pleased to note that he knows nobody else in the room, and is fairly sure that none of them know him.
He relaxes. There is nothing more embarrassing than bumping into somebody in Out of Focus that you have hit on in a bar. It is generally held that if such an event occurs, then it is best, if possible, for both parties to pretend to have been too drunk to remember. Although this is the generally accepted social convention, there is always the worrying possibility that the other party actually was too drunk to remember.
Meeting other bar flies that you drink with on a regular basis is not much better.
At least one of the people waiting is giving the impression that he might pass out at any minute. He looks like a marionette controlled by strings, his eyes closing and his head drooping downwards towards the floor, before being rapidly jerked back up at the last second. Perhaps he has been topping up in the pub before arriving here for his appointment. This is in direct contravention to the advice given in the pre-examination leaflet that he would have been sent in the post if he had booked his appointment over the phone, or via an email if he booked online. If he had made his appointment in store, then he would have received it there, but most people book remotely, preferring to restrict their appearances at the shop as much as possible.
The security guard is watching on with interest in case he needs to step in. He is a large muscular man wearing a uniform with the Out of Focus logo above his left-hand, button down, breast pocket, but the customer appears drunk enough that Jones thinks that even he could eject the offender if it became necessary. This is not the sort of place for alcoholics, he thinks, condescendingly. It is people like this that give the shop a bad reputation.
When the shop had first opened, there had been an outcry by concerned citizens, but after a while, their interest had waned and they had moved on to interfere and force their opinions on others elsewhere. Occasionally, there would be a religious nutter outside, handing leaflets to customers and passers-by, but mostly the punters were now able to enter unmolested (after first putting their cigarettes out).
Jones always carries a book with him everywhere he goes, and he crosses one grey chino clad knee over the other and opens American Psycho and starts to read, ignoring the security guard as he finally removes the inebriated miscreant and sends him on his way.
He is engrossed in the book when he is disturbed by a voice calling out his name, ‘Mr Jones, would you like to come through now, please.’
Jones inserts his bookmark between the appropriate pages, shuts the paperback, and tucking it under his arm, follows the assistant to a desk where he seats himself opposite her. She opens up his records on the computer screen, and readies herself to check his details.
‘Just a few questions, and then we’ll get started. Firstly, did you drive here today?’
Jones tells her that no, he hasn’t driven, he walked to the clinic (in his best trainers).
‘That’s good, because, by law, I have to remind you that you are not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car for twelve hours after the examination. And I do hope that you haven’t had any alcohol before coming here today, as it does rather tend to mess things up, as I’m sure you may have witnessed a few minutes ago.’
Jones affirms his sobriety, and together they fill in a form on the computer, providing details about his postal and e-mail addresses, past illnesses, whether he is on any medication, and brief queries about the medical history of his relatives. He has no allergies to confess to the assistant. She also takes his payment details, telling him that it is always best to do this in advance, as it is not always so easy to get the details correct later.
‘Okay, if you could just come through here with me, and we will weigh you, measure your height, calculate your Body Mass Index, and give you a little medication to facilitate the tests.’
Jones thinks that he is under thirteen stone, but weighs in at just over thirteen and a half stone, and when he is told that according to his BMI he is overweight, reflects that perhaps he should lay off the pints and stick to the shorts for a while if he wants to look more attractive to women. On the other hand, if they have been here before him, then it wouldn’t really make any difference. Further consideration leads him to conclude that the scales are probably malfunctioning.
‘If you could drink this for me - it’s a lot stronger than you will be used to, but it is the correct calculated dosage for a man of your height and weight.’
She hands him a glass containing a clear liquid, about the size of a triple vodka. He wants to look manly and create a good impression, and so he knocks it back in one go, despite being aware of the strength and the kick. He just manages to stop himself saying ‘fucking hell’ out loud. As a social drink, tasting as bad as it does, it will never catch on but there is no doubting its ability to get the job done very quickly. There are rumours that some rugby clubs have been buying black market versions and using them for drinking games. The safety aspect is questionable – there have been some reports of alcoholic poisoning and temporary sight loss. Jones is glad that he has been administered the strictly controlled authentic version. He is told that he might start to feel a little fuzzy.
Jones is directed back to the seating area to wait fifteen minutes for the drink to take effect, and for the ophthalmologist to call him through for his examination. He takes out American Psycho, opens it up, drops the bookmark – an old train ticket – on the floor, and has to retrieve it whilst giggling at his own clumsiness, whilst looking around to see if anyone else has noticed. A woman sitting opposite him, who has already seen the assistant before him, is watching and trying not to laugh.
For the first five minutes there is little problem with his ability to read, but after that he finds that he has started the same paragraph three times and not understood it once. He mumbles an obscenity, and decides to give it another go, but finds that the print is starting to slide across the page. He has encountered this problem before, but usually late at night after a long evening in the pub, and then often wakes up the next morning with the book still open next to him on the bed, and requiring a re-cap of what little had been read the previous night.
A tall man in a white coat – undone and held back by the hands that are in his trouser pockets in an attempt to look cool – calls his name. The breast pocket has the same logo on as that on the security guard’s shirt, and contains several pens of different makes and colours. A badge informs anyone who is still able to read – which doesn’t include Jones – that his name is Graeme Barnes.
‘That should be long enough, Mr Jones. If you could come through to the examination rooms with me please.’
He is escorted back into the next room along from what he now considers to be called the bar, where there is what looks like a video game machine with a violin chinrest attached to the front. He bangs his shoulder on the doorframe as he enters.
‘Oops,’ he says, but is ignored, the ophthalmologist having seen the same thing happen many times before. Jones is not to know, but Barnes had once thought that it wouldn’t hurt if the doorway was made a little wider, before realising that it would make very little difference at all. Inebriated people are drawn to doorframes like magnets.
‘If you could sit here and place your chin on the support please, I’ll adjust it to the correct height. Right, that should do it. That looks fine There’s a control on the table with a button on it. I want you to look straight ahead at the figure in the centre of your field of vision. When I start the test, small pictures of breasts and bottoms will randomly appear around the periphery of the screen. I want you to click when you see the breasts, but ignore the bottoms.’
In the centre of the screen, there is a woman in a short tight low-cut red dress in a classic pose sprawled across the bonnet of a gleaming silver performance car. Jones stares at her and says to the ophthalmologist, ‘Ok. Ready when you are.’
It is a lot more difficult than it looks. The stylised breasts and bottoms are very similar apart from the nipples – deliberately so, Jones thinks – and the drink hasn’t helped. With the confidence of the slightly inebriated, he is pleased with his attempt – although at this stage he doesn’t know how well he has done – and sits back with a look that says, ‘beat that then’. He thinks that the experience would be enhanced if there was a hall of fame chart where the highest scorers could write their names. He would like to see ‘Jonesy’ written at the top.
The results are collated, and Jones is happy to find that he is more of a tit man than an arse man, and his peripheral vision is unlikely to miss a decent pair of boobs entering a bar. This is in keeping with his earlier efforts on previous visits, and he is relieved to find that his current celibate status hasn’t had any effects on his sexuality.
The next test measures pressure and dilation. Jones shuffles across to another much more comfortable seat by the side of the first, with another screen and a rest in front of him that are very similar to those of the previous test. He places his head on the rest and the ophthalmologist adjusts it.
‘There will be a flash of light and the camera in front of you will take a picture. Ready?’
Jones assents, and in front of him on the screen is a woman dressed in a silk robe. As she pouts her lips towards him, the robe drops towards the floor. The seat vibrates violently and there is a blinding flash in front of him and the screen goes blank. It doesn’t matter how many times he has done this test before; it still makes him jump every time.
‘Very good. Let’s put the picture up on the screen for us both to look at.’
On the computer screen to the left of the machine a picture of Jones’ eye is brought up. The dilation of the pupil is measured and declared to be more than satisfactory.
‘As good as I’ve seen,’ Barnes confides, ‘On we go. If you would like to follow me, please. I get quite fed up with saying that, but what else am I to say to people to get them to tag along? It doesn’t take long to run out of any variations on the theme. If you could take yet another seat please. You can put your book down there on the shelf. Oh, American Psycho. More of a Fifty Shades man myself. The bondage is a lot less sadistic and violent.’
The door is shut behind them, the screen on the far wall is illuminated, and the lights dimmed. A pair of large glasses with dials and buttons on the sides, supported by an arm extending out from the main machine, are placed in front of Jones’ eyes. Barnes makes an adjustment so that the left eye is black, and Jones is only able to see through the right.
‘Just relax now. I want you to look at the screen and tell me which is better. February or March?’
The ophthalmologist adjusts a dial. ‘And now?’
‘Is this better or worse?’
‘Better. They’re very similar now.’
‘Ok. June or August.’
‘Oh. August. Definitely August.’
‘That’s fine. Let’s try the other eye.’
The process is repeated until they reach an agreement that September is the best of the bunch.
‘Yes. I always like September,’ Barnes says.
The ophthalmologist then shows Jones the result of his corrected vision with both lenses. Jones is very pleased with the outcome.
‘Have you got other calendars?’ Jones asks.
‘Oh yes. We have male ones for the women, and for the gay men. People who are bi, or those that are trans-sexual, can be a bit of a challenge – they never seem to be quite sure what it is they want. There are those that think that the examination can only be carried out by someone of the same sexual leaning, but that is just unsubstantiated fantasy. We must move on now. I want you to look at these breasts and tell me which is biggest. Left or Right.’
Another adjustment is made. ‘And now.’
‘Still the left.’
‘And now. Left, or right?’
‘It’s the right one now.’
There is much to and froing until Jones declares that both breasts are now the same size. Next, Jones has his reading vision tested.
‘Could you hold this magazine at the distance that you would normally hold it at, and read the caption beneath the young lady’s picture.’
‘Oh, I never bother to read the captions… ‘
‘Okay. That’s fine then. Moving on once again. One last test. Let’s have a look at your orientation.’
A book is produced with pictures that are a little ambiguous, and Jones is asked to interpret them as they are randomly shown to him.
‘Brunette, brunette, blonde, bloke? Oh… no, sorry, it’s another blonde. Brunette, red head, silver grey fox! Blonde, brunette. That could be a transvestite, maybe…’
‘That’s fine Mr Jones. I’ll just fill that in, heterosexual. Your prescription has changed a little since your last test, so I would recommend new goggles. You can return to the reception area now and pick some frames, whilst I prepare the paperwork. You’ll be okay finding your own way?’ Barnes asks.
Jones assents, but still nearly turns the wrong way. ‘Left,’ Barnes tells him, without looking up, clearly bored with the oft seen scenario.
Back in the front of the shop, Jones looks for the cheapest frames that look like they have a symbol on them that might be mistaken for a designer logo. He tries various pairs on, and looks in the mirror to see whether they suit him or not. He selects a pair that he thinks make him look both intelligent and desirable. He asks the assistant on the reception desk for her opinion.
They do not suit him at all, and make him look like a complete jerk of limited intelligence, thereby failing both criteria that Jones has attached to the option.
‘Perfect choice, sir,’ she tells him. ‘If you would like to take them over to the desk, I’ll measure them for you.’
He places the glasses on, and she measures up the distance between his eyes to find the perfect fit.
‘Bigger, or smaller,’ she asks him.
‘Bigger, I think,’ Jones decides, and she makes a note to ensure that the frames are too big and will keep sliding down his nose every time he wears them. He prefers this to the too small option, whereby the arms cut into the flesh on either side of his face, leaving angry red marks when they are removed.
When the order arrives, she will bend one of the arms slightly so that they will never sit quite square on his face after a couple of pints.
‘We’ll text you when they are ready for you to collect,’ he is told.
‘Thank you,’ Jones replies and is about to stagger off home when the receptionist calls him back.
‘Perhaps sir would like to take advantage of a fifteen percent off voucher available to customers volunteering for our associate charity venture?’
‘I’d heard about that,’ Jones says, considering the benefits of the financial saving, ‘Ok, I’ll give it a go.’
‘Just follow the signs down the corridor on the left, and I’ll apply the fifteen percent discount to your order,’ she informs him, ‘have a nice day.’
Jones wanders off down the brightly lit corridor. Classic pictures from old Out of Focus calendars have been framed and mounted on the white painted walls. His eyesight is still a bit hazy, but fortunately they have made the ‘Sperm Donor Clinic’ signs with extra-large bright fluorescent green lettering in anticipation of the problem.