The eye patch slid down over my left eye as I focused on the orange dot.
“All I need now is a parrot.”
“Push your chin downwards. Tilt your forehead forwards. Stay still. Don’t blink.”
I began my staring contest with the laser scanner, fighting the urge. Both eyes prickled and began to water. I imagined all the other patients with their face pressed against this machine making the same pitiful pirate joke.
I looked up and caught the eye of a woman standing opposite me as we boarded the train. I quickly diverted my gaze as her face was disfigured. Her left eye had sunk an inch below her right one. She was a walking Picasso. My fascination bubbled over so I snuck another glance. Her eyes remained grossly misaligned. I felt guilty so I spun around. The man behind me had the same lopsided face. As did the seated woman before me. Everyone around me wore this grotesque mask. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples. I pulled up my brows in sweeping arcs to relieve the pressure.
I walked through Little India avoiding eye contact and feeling rude. I stared at my hand and my right finger was missing. Googlemaps was useless, a large white space filled the screen creating a blindspot. I ambled past the fruit markets, the garlands of flowers and the vendors selling suitcases. I clumsily navigated my way under the awnings of the shops as large splodges of rain started to fall. I entered a larger street where a crowd were gathered despite the rain. A street magician had placed a man in a guillotine. “Three…two…one…Any insurers out there? This man might need some help!” I had fallen into a nightmarish circus straight from an Angela Carter novel, but I couldn’t escape.
I had just returned from a wildlife spotting trip in Borneo with my partner Tom. We’d spent three days on boats tracking the Big 5 through binoculars, then three days in a jungle camp spotting sleeping rhinoceros hornbills, hunting Buffy fish owls and leopard cats on our night safaris. Towards the end of the week, my eyes felt overworked. I could not switch off the instinct to scan every tree for dark blobs and traces of movement. Arguably, it had paid off. I had spotted a white-crested hornbill, Wallace’s hawk-eagle, a wild male orangutan and a giant red flying squirrel through my persistent goggling. Compared to my usual jungle treks, there was so much more to spot out there.
“Your glasses make you look more intelligent,” a colleague told me as I dismissed my class. It wasn’t only for effect, I explained. My eyes had felt strained and I’d been struggling to read the pages as white flashes kept erasing out the words.
The children were also intrigued. “My eyes are tired and need some extra help,” I told them, although I was tempted to reinforce the urban myth of ‘square eyes.’ I adjusted our classroom Volume-O-Metre to a lower setting and admitted to my students that I had a stonking headache. I was touched as even the loudest of my pupils attempted to whisper in the shouty way children do.
Despite this, my right eye continued pulsing with pain and I popped more painkillers to get me through the week. In between lessons I closed my eyes, finding the lights overbearingly bright. Weird short bursts of compressed sound had been hitting me while I’d been teaching, with the children’s laughter slapping my ear drums like a sonic boom. I’d put this down to an old scuba diving injury and thought nothing more of it.
I finally succumbed and went to see the doctor. The first time I met him, he had been wearing an eye patch. He noted down my symptoms then examined the outer eye before dimming the lights. He shone a small torch to see the back of my eye. He checked the other one. Then looked at the first one again.
Without saying anything, he turned on the lights again. He sat down and slowly placed his torch on the table. I was surprised to see that his eyes were shining. He cleared his throat as a lump began to appear in mine. “The outer eye seems clear,” he began. “There doesn’t seem to be anything on the surface causing the flotsam in your vision.”
I’d been hallucinating and seeing insects running across the walls in our flat for weeks. Sometimes it seems like a larger object running in my periphery, like a budget horror movie. I’d told my partner about these but just put it down to tiredness and rubbed my eyes. Squiggly lines were normal, I thought.
“However, I’m concerned about the back of your eye. Now, it is difficult to diagnose accurately here, but I want to refer you to an eye surgeon. You may have a detached retina.”
I had heard of detached retinas before, but only in relation to bungee jumps. Unfortunate thrill seekers could effectively rip their eyes from the force of the jolt as their bodies careened upwards.
I told the doctor that I’d not experienced any trauma like that, or been bitten by any tropical bug while I was in the jungle. I hadn’t accidentally stared into the sun using my binoculars, but I had followed silhouettes in the fading light.
I imagined I would just cover an eye and read out rows of shrinking letters, then be told to update my glasses prescription. Or perhaps be given an eye patch to rest my strained eye and practice some muscle exercises. I was not expecting a prognosis that could lead to blindness.
Sudden tears plopped down my face. The doctor kindly pushed the box of tissues my way as he dialled his colleague at the Camden Medical Centre. He addressed the consultant on first name terms and said he needed an emergency appointment. I was given a slot two hours later.
He outlined how to get to the hospital and asked me if I needed a medical certificate to excuse myself from work. I said no as it was my day off and thought it’d be best to wait for the results.
I blurted out, “I’d rather lose anything but my sight.” He empathised and told me that he had actually undergone a retinal detachment but recovered. I considered that his own experience might have nudged him towards this hunch, but then I realised that this probably made him more of an expert having gone through it himself. My stomach gurgled.
I have always been squeamish about eyes. I cannot bear to watch many films for this reason, namely Clockwork Orange, Minority Report and 28 Days Later. There is something so vulnerable about these gooey organs holding the power of our vision.
One of my classmates in primary school had an operation and returned with a terrifying bloody eye. Climbing a tree to escape my captors in a game of manhunt, I stabbed myself in the eye with a twig. I got a black eye and have harvested a fear of puncturing them ever since.
Years later, a stray hockey ball zipped up my stick and hit my eye socket hard. I spent the entire journey home fearing that I’d become Quasimodo. My little brother had corrective eye surgery for a lazy eye and I couldn’t hack hearing about the procedure. As an adult, he is now considering laser eye surgery and the thought makes my mouth go dry.
Then, the other night, I dreamt about a schoolmate that I’ve not seen in years. He happens to have a glass eye from an accident when he was younger. Perhaps I did know that it was more than a headache after all.
Nausea gripped my insides as I inadvertently imagined a life without sight. My career as a teacher would be in jeopardy if I couldn’t read or respond to the faces of my students. I would lose my independence. My backup gig of proofreading would disappear. The reality of living abroad would be over. I would have to reconsider everything I had planned. I called Tom for some support, and more importantly, for some perspective.
The taxi driver apologised for going the wrong way. I was so distracted that I hadn’t noticed. She told me that the other customer I’d shared the ride with was wrong to demand the first drop off, but I was too preoccupied to be vexed.
I asked for an ETA as I was off to see an eye specialist. She fixed me in her rear view mirror and told me to go to a traditional Chinese medicine shop instead. “Red dates (goji berries) and dried longan tea will fix your eye problems,” she promised. “They will brighten your eyes.” I smiled weakly at her and said thanks. Paying homage to modern medicine, I then Googled ‘detached retina’ against my better judgement.
I had almost all of the symptoms listed, although not consistently or at the same time. Tom chided me for not disclosing the seriousness of my problems, but I had listed them at various points. It just sounded worse relaying them to the ophthalmologist all in one go.
Emergency surgery was a given for retinal detachment. I briefly scrolled down the treatment page and the words ‘laser’ and ‘freeze’ popped out. I didn’t read it. I swiped the tab away quickly and breathed slowly. I hoped the basic emergency insurance I had would cover it if it came to that.
The eye drops stung. After ten minutes, my vision was completely blurred. Another round of less-stingy drops were administered. My pupils were fully dilated. I hoped they looked more puppy-dog eyes than scary Halloween, but I had no way of telling. At the eye clinic, I sat through four hours of examinations in different rooms.
The first consisted of a machine that blew a whiff of cold air over my eyes as I stared down a tiny road towards an Amish homestead. The second had a machine that was an arcade style box which I placed my chin into. Every time a tiny twinkly star appeared in my periphery, I beeped the buzzer in my hand.
The third room had two scanners which I could only use once my pupils were the size of dinner plates. In order to see the back of my eye, I had to stare at a Tron-style background of red lasers with an acid green insect inset on top. Under command not to blink or move, I forced my gaze forwards as the red lasers shot up and down, left and right.
The last machine was a matter of precision. Squashing my eye socket into a squidgy leather pouch, I had to line up my eye exactly with a point and then apply the correct pressure to make the light change from green to blue, but not as far as red. Feeling disorientated from all the tests and not being able to see clearly, that one took a while to get right.
Feeling worn out from all the fear and excitement, I rested my head on Tom’s shoulder as we waited for the results. We shared macabre jokes about finally having an excuse to get a dog and updating the vernacular of, “It’s nice to see you.”
I had previously rocked an eye patch on Halloweens dressed as a pirate and Kill Bill’s Elle Driver. I asked Tom to describe the obscured painting of two gibbons hanging before us and he started by describing its dimensions in centimetres. He would have to do better than that.
Thankfully, there was nothing wrong with my retina or the back of my eye. However, the consultant said she wanted to refer me to the neurologist. Something else could be causing the pressure behind my eye and the optic nerve was outside of her domain. Best case scenario is that it is a mild infection from some unknown beastie in Borneo. It could be the quite rare and trippy ocular migraine, or the more sinister optical neuritis which would be good to rule out. Or it could be something completely different.
For now, I am trying to manage the wooziness from this intense headache. It feels as though I’ve just stepped off a fairground waltzer whilst someone is trying to remove my eye with an apple corer.
My students were very understanding yesterday despite me feeling under the weather. I’m amazed that the neurologist has slotted me in early next week, but I am secretly missing the NHS. I’ve already spent a small fortune and am looking at a hefty bill for an MRI scan. Yet I suppose that having peace of mind, and a mind at peace, is priceless.