featuring Will Shakespeare the gay optometrist
The moment of truth came when my driving instructor said, “Read me the number of that car over there.”
It had never occurred to me that other people might be able to see better than I could; I mean, everything in the distance faded off into a blur, that was just the way things were; and if I remembered seeing more clearly when I was younger, why then I knew things changed as you grew up. I could see all that I needed to see, as far as I knew, and I was happy with that. I suppose if I’d been in an ordinary school I’d have noticed the other kids could read something in the blur on the blackboard—but there was no blur, because there were no blackboards, at the Stage School where I had a scholarship. It wasn’t so much a drama school as a place where young actors could combine their stage work with getting a decent general education. Quite a lot of the teaching was on a one-to-one basis and the rest in small groups, in small rooms where nothing was very far away. Except when exams were looming, our general education was dovetailed in with our professional engagements: auditions, rehearsals, stage performances and studio sessions for TV and the big screen. I was certainly a privileged kid—and I had just landed a good part in a soap opera that looked as if it might run for years. Parts like that can get you off to a good start, as long as you don’t get typecast; and they provide a steady income when you’re ‘resting’ as they say from other work.
I was pretty well accustomed to public transport—as far as I knew everybody waited till the bus reached the stop to see where it was going—but it was going to be really handy if I could drive myself, maybe get a runabout of my own if I went on earning well. So of course I booked in at a driving school as soon as I could manage it.
Then, as I said, came the crunch: “Before we start, just read me the number of that car over there.”
I looked where he was pointing; certainly I could see a car, a big blue car, and it didn’t take much imagination to persuade myself I could see where the number plate was, but read the number? No chance!
“What do you mean?” I said. “You can’t expect anybody to read at that distance!”
“Sorry old boy,” was the response; “it’s not quite twenty metres, so if you can’t read it you can’t have a driving licence. The bad news is that I can’t give you a lesson this morning; the good news is that you won’t have to pay for it. I can tell you now you won’t be able to drive without glasses, so you may as well spend the next hour getting your eyes tested or at least booking a test. Come back this time next week if you’ve got your glasses by then and we’ll get started on the course.”
Your glasses—MY glasses! what a strange idea. I had no objection to wearing glasses; I didn’t find the idea attractive either. It was just something I’d never thought of.
I pulled out my mobile phone. My brother Victor was my legal guardian till my eighteenth birthday since our parents had died in a road accident. I missed the days when he and I shared a bedroom, and often a bed. I missed the warmth of his body against mine. I missed the adolescent gropings that never came to anything but still gave me intense pleasure and a feeling of belonging to somebody. I didn’t yet know if I was gay; I hadn’t the least interest in girls (though I knew I had admirers of both sexes in the hothouse atmosphere of the stage school) but I certainly missed the closeness Vic and I had had.
Vic had got glasses the year before, not so much (I suspected) to improve his vision as to please his boyfriend, an optometry student who wanted to practise on him and also (another of my suspicions!) liked his men to wear glasses. Soon after Victor started at dental school he’d met Will at a Gaysoc meeting and fallen for him hook, line and sinker. They seemed thoroughly happy together, in spite of, or was it because of, being so different. Vic was quiet, dignified and self-contained, while Will...
Anyway Vic could tell me what to do next.
“Hi, it’s me...I’ve just been for a driving lesson and the instructor says I need glasses before I can drive...”
“...no big deal; the optometry school is always short of patients for clinical practice; how would you feel about letting a student do your test?...I’ll give Will a call and ring you back.”
After a few minutes the mobile rang: “...Hi kid; can you get down to the optometry school this afternoon? Will needs patients himself and can’t wait to get his hands on you. In more ways than one, I suspect. Just tell them at reception you have an appointment—but listen, any hanky-panky with my Will and I’ll scratch your eyes out, and then glasses won’t do you much good.”
On the way to the optometry school I looked at the world with new eyes. Shop signs, street signs, bus numbers; I’d always wondered idly why they made everything so hard to read. Now it was dawning on me that the problem was my own eyesight. I began to look forward to seeing everything clearly through ‘my’ glasses.
The experience of being tested in College was pretty much like that in a big optical practice—I know that now though of course I didn’t then. A receptionist took my particulars and then led me to a machine that shone a light into each eye in turn and printed out some figures. I discovered later that this machine took a preliminary reading of my eyesight by getting an image reflected from the back of my eye. Then she asked if I had my glasses with me.
“Glasses?” I said. “I don’t have glasses, I’m here to get glasses.”
“Really? I mean, I beg your pardon. I didn’t realize this was your first prescription.”
“Are my eyes really bad then?”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about; let me see, it’s Mr Shakespeare you’re going to, isn’t it? He’ll sort things out for you.”
Mr Shakespeare, of course, was Will (“What a name to be saddled with, I ask you, William Shakespeare! I could have changed it but in the end I decided to make the most of it”) and before long I was being shown the way to a darkened consulting room, where I was welcomed with a hug and a kiss and a “Hi Philip sweetie, you found your way then?”
“Sure; but since the driving instructor told me he thinks I need glasses I’ve begun realizing just how bad my eyes are.”
“Right. Well, that doesn’t surprise me. Every time I’ve met you I’ve noticed the way you squinted at things in the distance (but then it would be odd if I didn’t notice things like that) and if I’d known you better I might have dropped a hint that you ought to have an eye test. Anyway, I’m honoured to have you as my patient, so if you’ll just get into this chair I’ll have a look into your eyes.”
I quite enjoyed the test; Will took a lot of trouble to explain what was going on. He took off his glasses (as gay lovers he and Vic hadn’t gone in for rings; instead they wore identical frames: black wire oblongs, shaped like letter boxes) As he inspected the inside of my eyes with his ophthalmoscope he commented that my eyes looked healthy—“but you are pretty short-sighted, aren’t you, darling? How have you ever managed in school—oh, but I was forgetting, you’re one of those drama queens, aren’t you?” He made it easy to relax, apart from the occasional hand on the thigh—eventually I said, “Look, sunshine, it’s my eyes you’re supposed to be examining, not my old man. My big brother warned me about men like you.” Then came the business of the eye chart and the trial lenses. To start with, first with one eye and then with the other, I could read the first two lines and the rest was a blur, but as he increased the power of the lenses the whole chart got clearer and clearer, till finally I could read the bottom line without hesitation or deviation.
“Right, pet,” said Will. “That’s about as strong a first prescription as I’ve seen, minus three in both eyes. My guess is that your sight has been deteriorating for a good while; under normal circumstances you’d have been wearing glasses a couple of years ago. But the stage school makes fewer demands on your distance vision, and things have gone a bit further without your noticing. So your glasses are going to be quite strong, stronger than mine in fact, and this is my third pair. Look, try these on for a minute; you’ll see a lot better but you still won’t be able to read the bottom line.” Gingerly I put the specs on and experienced the thrill of seeing clearly for the first time in ages, years maybe; but it was just as Will said, I couldn’t read to the bottom of the chart. He took his glasses back and put them on. “Right then, it’s time to get the tutor in to check my results.”
Will was a different person—correct and a bit formal—in front of the staff member who came in, checked my eyes with his ophthalmoscope, and made me show him how well I could see with the test lenses. “That seems all right, Shakespeare; quite strong for a first prescription as you say, but you’ve managed to account for that. Anything else?”
“Well, sir, I was wondering: this patient is a personal friend; would it be in order for me to dispense the prescription here?”
“Oh; well yes, I think this is a case for taking advantage of your staff privileges. Young Watkins went down with a young lady twenty minutes ago, so... yes, well...”
Will explained then that most people have to take their prescription to a dispensing optician to have it made up, but a limited number are dealt with in the school, again because the students need the experience, so this meant I was going to get my glasses at cost price. “...and if you decide you want contact lenses later on we’ll be able to supply you with them too. I guess you may well want contacts to wear on stage; but honestly, petal, your best bet is to start off with glasses. OK?” I agreed with that; I had no reason not to; and he took me off to the dispensing department and left me browsing over the racks of frames while he went to see about the lenses. By this time I was feeling really excited about the clear vision I was going to have when I put on my very own glasses—but I was bemused by the choice of frames. I had tried one or two when Will arrived back; but plainly I wasn’t going to be left to flounder. He gathered up a handful of frames and led me to a table with a mirror.
The first pair he tried on me were like his and Victor’s: “This suits me and looks great on Vic, but I don’t think it’s you...no?” And I had to agree, the effect was weird.
“How about this though? Ovals aren’t the latest style, but they suit a lot of people.” This was certainly better, but not obviously right.
“Plastic, maybe?” Black, not too heavy, oblong...umm.
“Or these?” ‘These’ were the simplest style imaginable, plain, round preppy frames, just a bit more substantial than the old NHS type. The face in the mirror smiled confidently back at me. “I think so.”—“I think so too; I think these are the ones for you.” He sang under his breath “I think she’s got it; I think she’s got it” as he measured my eyes and nose and seemed ready to burst into “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” as he took the frames to the technician who would fit the lenses into them.
“Right! Time for a cup of coffee while Steve makes your glasses up,” and we headed for the cafeteria.
Over coffee and a sticky cake Will gossiped about various people, most of whom I didn’t know, but his outrageous comments had me in stitches; but after a while he said, “Look love, I’ve been thinking. You’re going to be pretty dependent on your glasses; how are you going to cope when you have to perform without them?”
“There’s a thought,” I said. “But look, I’m used to seeing badly; surely I can just carry on as before?”
“Well, you might; but your eyes aren’t going to like going back to straining without correction. What I’m thinking is you may find you need contacts for the times when you can’t wear your specs.”
“I see what you mean. But let’s see how I get on without for a start, and I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” The truth was that I didn’t like the idea of putting anything in my eyes—and besides, I was getting too excited at the thought of wearing glasses to want to consider an alternative.
“Fair enough. In any case you know where we are if you change your mind.”
Back we went to the dispensing area, and in a couple of minutes the technician appeared with my glasses in a plastic tray. “Right,” said Will. “This is IT!”
I didn’t need to be told: my stomach was full of butterflies, my head was going round, and there was a faint twitching in my groin. I closed my eyes as Will picked my glasses up and slipped them on to my nose and behind my ears.
“Come on, come on duckie!” he exclaimed; “We’ve made these specs for you to look through, so open your eyes!”
Nervously I did as I was told. There was my reflection, looking unbelievably sexy in those beautiful specs. The twinge in my groin became a definite arousal. What was this? (I thought with one bit of my mind) Was I a narcissist (not that I knew the word then), turned on by my own reflection?
“Well, I think we have made a sexy spexy boy of you,” said Will. But there are other things to look at besides your own beautiful reflection. Come over to the window.” I was amazed by how clear everything was now; when I looked out at the world I almost wept with delight. When had I last seen like this? Had I ever?
“Another satisfied customer, I think,” said Will. I turned and grinned. Suddenly I wanted to hug and kiss him, I was so happy. But the dispensing room was a bit public—his outrageous remarks had been made in a low voice. “To bring you back to earth there’s a little matter of a bill to settle; but that’s a lot less than it would have been on the high street. Just see the cashier; and remember, any problems, get in touch. If it’s just a matter of adjusting your frames I can deal with it anywhere, so come round to the flat if you like.”
I settled the bill, and certainly it was less than I’d expected. Then there was an embarrassing erection to be dealt with. I made for the gents’, half wishing Will was there with me, but never mind, I soon managed to get comfortable again.
If I’d looked at the world with new eyes on the way to my test, it was a new world I looked at on the way back to school. Everything sharp and clear. No more wondering what the signs said; no more wondering what was in the shop windows. No more wondering whether it was the right bus approaching. I was as happy as a sandboy—and supper was my favourite, steak and kidney pudding!
My glasses caused a minor sensation when I appeared in the dining room. My neighbour greeted me with “Glasses? “Trouble with your contacts then?” and seemed quite surprised that I’d never worn glasses before. A few people (of both sexes) said they looked smart; it was nice to have my opinion confirmed. One of the girls who had had her eye on me looked as if she’d lost a shilling and found sixpence, but I wasn’t going to worry about that: I was still delighted to be wearing my glasses and seeing so well, the motto for the time being was definitely ‘Love me, love my glasses’; the difference it made to hang two bits of plastic in front of my eyes—I still couldn’t believe it.
After supper the Head Boy, a slim dark guy of nearly 19 with a great future as a dancer, called me over. “Can you come to my room later on this evening? I’d like a chat. Nine o’clock OK?”
I was puzzled; was I in trouble? what had I done? what did Jonathan want? My anxieties were relieved when I knocked on his door at nine; the response was a cheerful “Come in!” and there was Jonathan sitting at his desk with a bottle and two glasses in front of him—and a pair of glasses on his nose! Clear plastic frames like ice, and strong lenses that magnified his brown eyes. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you wore glasses.”
“No?” was the reply; “I’m wearing them in your honour. I use contacts most of the time, but when I saw you’d given in and got specs at last, I wanted to give you some tips, and I changed so that you’d see I know what I’m talking about.”
“What d’you mean, at last?” I wanted to know. “I only discovered when I went for a driving lesson this morning that my eyesight isn’t up to standard—actually it’s well below—but that’s the first I knew of it.”
“Good grief, you mean you didn’t know? I could have told you any time in the last year that you’re short-sighted; I couldn’t help noticing you squinting and straining at anything more than a few feet away. Anyway, you’ve got glasses now and I hope you’re seeing everything properly. The only thing is, you’re going to have bad problems when you take them off to perform.”
“D’you reckon? I was thinking I’ve been accustomed to blurred vision for a good time and should be able to cope.”
“It’s not so easy. You’re short-sighted and I’m long-sighted, but it comes to the same thing: we both see badly without correction—and once your eyes are used to specs they won’t want to make all the effort you’ve put them through in the past. I canNOT manage without either glasses or contacts—and how often are you offered a part you can play in specs? A part like Harry Potter comes along once in two generations if you’re lucky—and then they give it to a kid who doesn’t wear specs and kit him out with plain glass lenses. Just a friendly warning, you understand.”
“OK, thanks, I appreciate the thought. I think I’ll try without for now and see how it goes.”
“Well, the best of luck to you, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now how about a drink to our new sexy spexy guy?”
That was twice in one day I’d heard that phrase! After a couple of glasses of wine it seemed natural to reciprocate when Jonathan ran his hand along my thigh...I’m not going into details; my first spexy day was also my first sexy day (brotherly gropings don’t count!) but I didn’t lose my virginity. Not quite.
As the months went by I found Jonathan’s warning had been well-founded. My eyes didn’t appreciate being deprived of the -3 lenses that made life so much easier, and lost the will to squint and strain. On stage or on the catwalk (I was getting quite a few modelling engagements too) there were compensations—life is sometimes easier when you can’t see the audience! The main problem was in the TV studio, where the camera picks up so much, especially in close-up. Time after time a scene or a clip would have to be re-shot because I was squinting; but eventually I learned to stare wide-eyed into the blur.
Work was keeping me busy (and earning me a good income) and I had plenty of school work, so the driving lessons came a bad third. It was the best part of a year before the instructor told me to apply for a test appointment, and a few weeks more before the day came. I reported to the driving school, drove the car to the test centre under the instructor’s eye, and the examiner got in.
“Before we do anything else,” he said, “Will you read me the number of that car over there?”
“Yes, of course,” I answered, and then got a nasty shock. The number wasn’t as clear as it should have been. I could see the digits; but was that a 3 or an 8, or even an S? There was definitely an A at the end, but was that a C or a G before it? “Surely that’s more than twenty metres,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” said the examiner. “We can measure it if you like; but I have to warn you that if you’re wrong I shall have to record that you’ve taken your test and failed—unless you can read the number correctly.”
Well, I’d got myself all psyched up for the test, I wanted to get on with it, so I held out for having the distance measured...
“Will, it’s Philip here. I’ve failed my driving test...No, my eyes again.”
“Bloody hell darling, isn’t this where we came in?”
“That’s what my instructor said.”
“OK sweetheart, I can fit you in this afternoon.”
Things weren’t quite the same the second time round. This time I was nothing like as blind with my year-old glasses as I had been as a bareyed -3 myope. This time the receptionist was a fan of the show and asked for my autograph. This time Will was a qualified optometrist with a junior staff job at the eye hospital. This time I was ready to give in and get contact lenses as well as glasses. The new prescription was -4 in both eyes—no wonder I couldn’t read a number plate—and the new frames were gunmetal ovals—“My God,” said Will; “I could eat you in those.” I said nothing.
I hated contact lenses. Going bareyed on stage and in the studio was getting more and more difficult. Although I hadn’t noticed my eyesight getting worse, the cameramen had been complaining again about my squinting, so I gave in to what seemed inevitable... I tried soft lenses, I tried RGPs, I tried lenses that cost an arm and a leg. In every case the result was the same. Twenty minutes, thirty at the most, and my eyes were red, the tears were overflowing, I was blinking nineteen to the dozen and the cameramen were complaining again...squinting was less of a problem. I thought so too. I asked tentatively whether my character couldn’t start to wear glasses, but there was nothing doing on that one. I began to wonder about surgery.
Another year, another dioptre...but I thought twice about ringing Will when the familiar blur made its appearance. For one thing he was now working in the private sector; more to the point, because on what I was earning I could surely pay full price for my specs, we were no longer ‘brothers-in-law’.
My mind went back a few months, to Vic’s anguished phone call: “Look, I’ve got to talk to you, the most awful thing’s happened. I’m on my way.”
When he arrived he was not only very distressed but also (entirely out of character) very drunk. And he wasn’t wearing his glasses; I knew he could see far better without them than I could without mine, but he usually kept them on because it pleased Will...(they had both changed over to silver ovals by this time)
“Vic, what’s up? If Will’s left you I’ll kill him.”
“No, no, it’s worse than that—Phil, I think I’m turning straight!” and my poised, phlegmatic brother burst into uncontrollable weeping. After the worst had passed he managed to stammer out between his sobs that he had got friendly with this girl in his year at dental school—“...and I keep thinking about her, and I get a boner just as if she was a good looking guy. Oh, poor Will! How am I going to tell him?” He made a dash for the bathroom where I imagine he was violently sick; he emerged pale, a bit more composed, and comparatively sober.
Will’s first reaction (when I drove Vic home) was entirely predictable, his second less so. When Vic stammered out his story there was a moment’s silence—the calm before the storm—and then the father and mother of all queeny fits. Will’s language would have shocked an Aberdeen fishwife—“...frigging trollop...bloody wanker...fucking tart” were a few of the things he called my sobbing brother. Then, at the height of his tantrum, he stopped, gave the sweetest smile imaginable, and said in a totally different voice, “Oh come here, you silly cow.” He put an arm round Vic’s shoulders, led him to what had been their bed, and stroked his head while he cried himself to sleep. When he was sure Vic was asleep, he got up and took his glasses off. His eyes were full of tears but he smiled at me through them. “Well, they say all good things come to an end, and it was good,” he said. “He’ll be all right. See you soon.”
It was the memory of that “Promise?” that decided it. Will obviously wanted to stay friends and an eye test was the obvious way to get back in touch.
I rang him, and he sounded pleased to hear my voice. To my surprise he asked me to come to the hospital: “Your records are there, and I still do half a day a week there—and you don’t want to pay Dollond & Aitchison’s prices for their crappy selection of frames.”
Yes, my new prescription was -5: coke bottles were on the way, not to mention worse problems than ever in performing without them. But when I broached the subject of refractive surgery Will went ballistic: “Philip DARLING, you are NOT having your eyes cut about. For one thing no responsible surgeon will look at a patient your age. Your myopia is sure to increase a bit more, and then you’d be back with all the problems. I don’t rate LASIK anyway. Just look at these sites on the net..” I did. One of the most telling was ‘I know why refractive surgeons wear glasses’ but the problem remained. This time I opted for bronze-coloured semi-rimless glasses. “As I may have said on a previous occasion,” said Will, “I could eat you.” Again I said nothing, but...later that night I rang Vic: “Thought you’d like to know Billy and I have just got matching specs.”
“Hey, that’s great news! Imagine, my two favourite men! I never asked you to look after him, but I always hoped you would...thanks.”
My eyesight was getting to be a serious obstacle to engagements, especially as I had so much trouble with contacts; but my part in the TV series gave me a comfortable living.
Then the producer sent for me. “Philip, you have to believe I hate saying this to any member of the cast, but we’re intending to write your character out at the end of the year. I’m sorry, because you perform well and the viewers like you, but we can’t disguise your eye problems, and you just don’t look the part any more.”
“No chance of playing it in glasses?”
“Look, we’ve been into all that, and the answer is nothing doing. I’m sorry. We’ll sort severance terms out with your agent—and of course we’ll be as generous as we possibly can.”
Was this the end of my acting career? Maybe I could get some advertising work—short scenes that I could manage in contacts or bareyed; maybe even some I could play with my glasses on. But I thought thankfully of the Stage School and my decent group of A-levels. I could get a degree—build a new career.
I underestimated the power of the Press—and, though I say it myself, my popularity.
Malcolm Wildblood was another of Will’s patients. He was also a gossip columnist on one of the tabloids. He was also gay, with a taste for guys in glasses. Finally he was a fan. When he heard the story he was outraged.
“He’s dying to meet you,” Will reported; and an autographed photo—with your specs on of course—will have him eating out of your hand.”
Malcolm’s campaign was that rare phenomenon, the work of a journalist who actually believes in the cause he’s promoting. Having got the basic story out as an ‘exclusive’ in his own paper, he then leaked extra details to his friends as exclusives and unsubstantiated rumours to others. ‘Gay News’ was tipped off about my sexuality; the real reason for my sacking, my increasing myopia, was reserved for Eye Scene and other internet sites that would mobilize the world’s eyesight freaks.
The response was phenomenal! Letters and postcards poured in; indignant phone calls and faxes jammed the lines; there was a record number of emails.
My agent rang. “The TV company want to know if you’ll carry on.”
“That depends on the terms.”
“They’re offering double. That means, I’d say, that they’re expecting to pay treble at least.”
“OK. Ask for eight times and go down to four if you have to.”
“Yes. I wear glasses on set—and that’s non-negotiable.”
“Fair enough; they’ll be expecting that.”
“One more thing. The character comes out as gay within two years.”
“My God, why don’t you ask for the moon while you’re at it?”
“Just try it anyway.”
“Well, you’re the client.”
I must say the company came across handsomely once they knew I had them by the short and curlies. As a result I’m now a popular gay actor playing a popular gay character, and now that I play in glasses (with anti-reflective coating) the cameramen are happy. The modelling agency still finds engagements; and now that I wear glasses on TV everybody expects them wherever I appear. I’ve even been approached about modelling frames for one of the optical chains. And I have Will. With the help of my six-fold increase he and I have gone into partnership in an optical business that is thriving thanks to his professional skill, high standards—and specialized interests. No unnecessary prescribing, except for people who are longing to wear glasses. He’s popular with the gay crowd (of course) and known to be understanding with glasses fetishists and people who want to get into GOC.
Then there’s his TV and film work.
After two years—more than that—a bareyed character had to appear in thick glasses. One possibility was for me to appear in one episode with my contacts in, obviously suffering, complaining bitterly and talking about going over to glasses—and then to make the change. Another option, favoured by the scriptwriters, was for me to be a new wearer; but I persuaded them to get Will’s advice, and he was adamant that -5 was too much for a first Rx, and this would be obvious to any viewer, not just to optic obsessives.
It turned out they were intending to screen an actual eye test scene, so Will and I got weaving and thought up a compromise that we were all happy with. I appeared first wearing contacts, with eyes red and streaming—and squinting because I needed another -1—and complaining bitterly on both counts. Then in the next episode came the eye test scene. I’d persuaded them to use Will’s services as an adviser in the interests of accuracy, and in the end (their idea I assure you) they wangled him an Equity* card and engaged him as a guest actor to play himself, and the scene was a masterpiece, complete with shots of an eye chart, totally blurred at first, then getting clearer and finally crystal clear to the very bottom. Will became quite a celebrity in the world of TV, and at last the idea of getting the optical details right is catching on. Nowadays in most cases when someone is to appear in glasses Will makes sure they have the right lenses—and sometimes contacts to reverse the effect!
I don’t know if we’re all going to live happily ever after; not many people are that lucky. But Will and I are certainly happy. Victor and his Emma are happy too, even though Vic isn’t sure enough of his heterosexuality to go the whole way and marry her; and she has a flair for TV consultancy on dental topics. He still wears his glasses—and comes to Will for testing and dispensing
What I can say is that for all of us, so far, ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL!
* Equity is the UK actors’ trade union which excludes non-members from performing professionally. If Will had appeared as himself without becoming a member he could have been in trouble for impersonating an actor!