I passed the optician’s shop every day on my way to work. The display in the window never seemed to change. Two rows of transparent acrylic noses, each with a pair of glasses. The sign above the door read “Optician”. There was no name or logo.
I had no interest in spectacles or eyepieces of any kind as I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. The optician’s display was scored on my mind from a thousand unconscious glances. One morning I spotted a notice in the corner of the window. It jumped out at me, a jarring note in what had become a familiar view; “One Time Offer”. Underneath in smaller font: “Free one day trial of prototype Insight Glasses”.
I was intrigued, my curiosity piqued. It was ten to nine; I could be late to work for once. Pushing open the front door, I entered the optician’s shop.
The room was small, little more than a vestibule with two glass cases containing more fake noses and glasses that were separated by a counter. An alcove behind the counter led to a larger area with tables bearing microscopes, trays of intricate tools and instruments I did not recognise. The optician stood up from one of the tables and walked towards me.
He was a blocky man with iron grey corrugated hair. The frameless thick-lensed glasses he wore were functional and not cosmetic. His magnified eyes behind the thickly bevelled glass were disconcerting. A white laboratory coat strained across his broad shoulders and was unbuttoned to reveal a garish floral shirt. The optician was either colour blind or had poor taste.
He coughed, adding an extra “ing” to morning. He spoke with an accent that was familiar though I could not place it.
“How can I be of assistance?”
The space in front of the counter seemed restricted by his presence behind it. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia.
“The notice in the window, something about an offer.”
My voice trailed off but he knew what I meant.
“You are certainly quick on the draw. I put up that advertisement no more than ten minutes ago.”
I did not like the optician’s glib manner.
“What does it mean; Insight Glasses?”
He withdrew a handkerchief from the pocket of his white coat. Removing his glasses, he pulled down the skin of his cheek and used a finger sheathed in the cloth to rub the lower eyelid along its length. I looked away and regretted entering the shop. I should have continued on my way to work as normal.
“I understand your curiosity and can appreciate your keenness to learn more about the glasses.”
There it was again, that intrusiveness.
“But first you must take a visual acuity test before I can reveal any secrets.”
“I have perfect sight, 20/20 vision.”
“No doubt you have, how else could you have seen my discreet notice.”
I chose to ignore this comment.
“The test is required by the supplier.”
Another cough, possibly a nervous reflex; “ing”.
“Who is that?”
“I am not in a position to divulge that information. You can appreciate there is a certain sensitivity in these matters.”
I had no idea what he meant but resented his attitude. Where did this profound dislike come from when I had never met the man before? The short interchange regarding the glasses was surely not reason enough.
The optician retreated to the back room and returned with what looked like a standard eye chart.
“Please stand by the door.”
He supported the chart on the counter with a finger at each corner.
“Three lines from the top, what is the vowel?”
The letter was clearly visible to me.
“Which two letters appear in the bottom row?”
This was more difficult, the difference in size must have been a hundred-fold. I strained my eyes to focus and craned my neck forward.
“M and U.”
He let the chart fall, beckoned me forward and placed two cardboard sheets on the counter. Each one bore a single black line.
“Can you align these two segments?”
I did so without hesitation.
“Excellent, full marks.”
“I told you my eyesight is perfect, 20/20 vision.”
“Seeing is believing and now I can present you with the Insight Glasses.”
He put a silver cylinder on the counter. It was not the standard hard flat case that snapped open and shut.
“So why are they called Insight Glasses?”
“The clue is in the name.”
I refused to engage in senseless banter that had me at a disadvantage.
“What we have here is not a pair of conventional spectacles. The wearer is granted unprecedented vision, comprehension beyond normal comprehension. Once you put on these glasses you will see the true nature of whomever you observe.”
“Warts and all.”
“Is that the case?”
“You will see with a clarity that cuts through the superficial, a sharpness that strips away the veneer of pretence to reveal what is beneath. These glasses provide 20/20 perception in vivid colour.”
I lifted the cylinder and began unscrewing the lid. The optician placed a restraining hand on my arm.
“You must not open it.”
“How am I to use the glasses?”
“But not here.”
“It is a necessary condition of the transaction that you do not wear the glasses in my presence.”
I did not know what to say to this.
“And above all you must under no circumstances look at me when you are wearing them. This is an absolute requirement, a sine qua non that can not be contravened.”
“Why is that?”
“It is a stipulation of the transaction.”
“By the supplier?”
“It is a stipulation.”
I put the unopened cylinder in my pocket.
“I understand your annoyance at this tedious fuss. If I were in your position I would feel the same.”
His way of addressing me was disagreeably familiar. It was possible that all opticians were like this. I did not know for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision.
“It is a binding term you must agree to, a minor proviso that should not present any difficulties for you.”
I nodded impatiently, anxious to leave.
“There is one more thing.”
The optician held an envelope.
“This contains a short questionnaire. Basic details, age, height, weight, employment, standard questions. Something of a nuisance and if you’re like me then you hate filling forms.”
He was correct there; if possible, I avoided answering questions.
“Nothing to be concerned about and you are not required to respond to all the queries. You need only answer the final question, which merely requires circling “yes” or “no””
Were there any further demands I wondered, as this was becoming a complicated contract. Then again nothing was free, there were always strings attached. I began to remove the seal on the envelope but the optician raised a hand to stop me.
“Don’t read or fill in the form until you are ready to return the glasses.”
He checked his watch.
“Which will be tomorrow morning at nine fifteen.”
“And there is no charge to use these glasses.”
“I can assure you the transaction is free of charge. There is no financial cost to you, not a penny.”
He smiled, the same smile that must have appeared on the face of the snake when explaining the conditions regarding the apple tree. That appealed to me; already I was experiencing unfamiliar insight. I had to have these glasses, whatever the optician’s senseless rules.
“Is there anything I need to sign?”
“What is to prevent me from keeping these magic specs?”
His answer was immediate.
“No one else has.”
This brought me up short. The optician had taken a folder from somewhere and was occupied in examining its contents. I turned to leave. At the door, I heard his distinctive cough and looked back. He was cleaning his glasses with the handkerchief.
“Remember, you must not be wearing the glasses when you return them tomorrow.”
Nine thirty, I walked into the office where my five co-workers were seated at their computers. I hung my coat on the sixth peg of the communal coat rack. No one noticed me enter or so it seemed. Each of them was aware of my uncustomary late arrival. To all appearances preoccupied with paperwork or concentrating on the numbers lined up in rows on their computer screens, they were acutely attuned to any conspicuous sounds that could explain my tardiness. I had enough insight to realise this and did not need special glasses to know what made my workmates tick.
I turned on my computer and read the new e-mails. It was a normal workday morning. The whisper of pages being turned, the thrum of computer hard drives, standard background sounds. I took the cylinder from my pocket. One of the others was talking in hushed tones on the telephone. A surreptitious look to my left and right, no one was watching me. I removed the lid from the cylinder and took out the glasses. They looked like standard issue spectacles, lenses mounted in thin black frames.
I put them on. They fitted neatly over my ears and sat comfortably on the bridge of my nose. I decided not to go to the bathroom to check how I looked. I had no vanity regarding my appearance. My vision was unaltered, no blurring nor was there any added clarity. It was just plain glass. This had been a hoax, a prank but to what end? The optician did not seem the joking type but who can fathom the motives of others.
“I didn’t know you used glasses.”
From my right, it was Stephens. He caught me unawares. I looked up uncertainly and was thrown back in my seat by the horrendous sight I beheld. A ferocious slavering beast rose above me, saliva dripping from its pointed muzzle. Curved yellow canine teeth were bared in a deep growl that pierced my innards. Impressions, thoughts rushed through my mind; self-disgust, loathing, an all-consuming hatred, a bottomless rage that demanded punishment, blood and pain.
I pulled the glasses from my eyes and flung them on the desk.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
My brain was in turmoil, the hairs on my neck coated in ice. I could not catch my breath. What had I just seen?
“Are you alright?”
Stephens was staring at me, concern drawing his features into a frown.
“Yeah, yeah, you just startled me, I was miles away.”
“Do you use them for the computer?”
“The glasses, are they to correct for the glare?”
“No, they’re not mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m testing them for a friend.”
“Really, how does that work?”
“It’s a bet, my friend; he’s always coming up with ridiculous games.”
I was floundering, no idea what I was saying. What had I seen?
“I have something I need to finish here.”
“Sure, don’t let me hold you.”
I was aware of Stephens sneaking glances in my direction, monitoring what I was doing. Inoffensive Stephens, always willing to help, always so courteous. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth Stephens, not a bloodthirsty rabid animal straining at the leash to tear me limb from limb. What had I seen? I allowed some time to pass, arbitrarily opening and closing files and documents, pretending to add notes in my logbook. My hands were trembling. I could not hold the pen steady. When my breathing returned to normal, I picked up the glasses and looked over at Stephens. Tentatively, a slow upward movement of my head, eyes downward and gradually raised. He appeared as he normally did, eager and slightly gormless. Head bent towards his screen, his incipient tonsure visible. What had I seen before? What had I witnessed through the Insight Glasses? Had that been Stephens? The real Stephens.
I was distracted by movement and voices at the other side of the room. It was McCrae in to gee up the troops. He worked his way around the room, five minutes per station. The uptight McCrae in his pressed suit. McCrae and his risible stratagems to extract the maximum output from each of us. He stood before me, fingertips beating a light tattoo on my desk.
“Everything in hand for tomorrow’s pitch to Baker-Levine?”
It was a question in the form of a statement.
McCrae’s presence made me nervous. I coughed, a truncated hack, no more than a clearing of my throat.
“Good man, you know how important this contract is to us.”
We played our familiar two-hander, he in charge and encouraging, I withdrawn and passive.
“I’m counting on you to take the lead on this one.”
McCrae expressing confidence in my abilities, upbeat.
“No problem, we should get their business.”
I establishing my competency but with an implicit reservation, remote.
“Good, send over the summary for review before you finish today.”
McCrae moved on to Stephens. I cautiously attached the glasses. McCrae had bent down and was pointing to something on the screen. I looked at them with my eyes half shut. The slavish Stephens was displaying his customary puppy dog enthusiasm. Seen through the Insight Glasses, McCrae was crouched on the ground, a quivering mound of skin and bone, tears streaming from raw pleading eyes. Dialogue played out in my mind, a loop of disconnected utterances…… take me away from here, please take me away, I want to sleep, just to sleep, away from here, far away, please take me away…..
I removed the glasses as McCrae stood up from Stephens’ desk.
“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”
Stephens was nodding apologetically.
“I don’t have time for this now.”
McCrae flounced away, the commanding boss with his deep-seated insecurities and on the verge of a complete breakdown.
They worked, the Insight Glasses worked. They penetrated the carapace of deception and stripped away pathetic camouflage just as the optician had said. I was aware of Stephens’ presence. He emanated a hum of discontent. All my senses were more acute thanks to the glasses.
“You shouldn’t let him treat you like that.”
Stephens recoiled from my reproving stare.
“I know but he’s right, I keep making mistakes.”
“It doesn’t matter; he has no right to behave that way. You should stand up to him.”
“No way, I don’t want to lose my job.”
“That’s not going to happen. Stand your ground. I’m telling you, he’ll back off.”
Stephens retreated into embarrassed snorting and took refuge in his numbers. I wanted to test the glasses again but was reluctant to let anyone else see me wearing them. I was deterred by the attention they had drawn from the diffident Stephens. Or should that be Stephens the snarling wild animal? The ringing telephone dragged me back to my surroundings. It was a partner at Baker-Levine with queries about the contract, details we had already discussed. His tone suggested fault finding but was difficult to read. I idly wondered if there was an Insight Hearing Aid before forcing myself to pay attention to the anxious client.
I needed coffee after responding to the barrage of questions, qualifying particulars and negating caveats to reassure the people at Baker-Levine that everything was in order. Christ, how I hated this job. The coffee pot in the makeshift kitchen was empty. Nothing for it but to put on a fresh pot. I stood in the doorway as the coffee percolated. Goodwin was at the photocopier. Hapless Goodwin, the most boring man in Christendom. He was struggling with a heavy book, pushing on the covers to flatten the pages on the copier glass. Pressing the start button, he hummed inanely, checked the copy and sighed in exasperation. He moved his conventional rimless glasses further up his nose and tried again, bending his elbows to apply more pressure on the pages. The idiot would probably break the copier. Now there was a man who lacked insight.
I reached into my pocket, unscrewed the cylinder and observed him from behind the door. Goodwin was slumped over the photocopier, weight loss immediately apparent, the arms and wrists hanging from his suit as thin and fragile as twigs, his skin yellow and waxy, the hair sparse on his shrunken skull. And the words driving through my head, a grotesque dialogue…. tired, too tired to move, must sit down, the pain coursing through me, the cancer eating away at my gut, eating its way through me, eating me whole…..
I turned back into the kitchen and leaned against the wall, my heart beating wildly, my mind a whirl of incoherence. I folded the glasses and stuck them in the cylinder. Back at my desk, I sat staring at the computer, the screensaver, geometric shapes coming towards and veering away from me.
“What, no coffee?”
It was Stephens; he was staring at my desk. I had left my cup behind.
“We must be kinder to Goodwin.”
“What do you mean?”
Goodwin was dying of cancer. God Almighty, I repented all the nasty and vicious things I had said about him. He had been the butt of so many despicable comments. He was an easy target. I was sorry, so sorry and so shamed.
I felt sick. I should not have eaten the sandwich, an inedible triangle of dough filled with a vinegary paste. Reaching for a glass of water, I caught Goodwin’s eyes and looked away. I coughed to hide my discomfort. These lunch meetings were intolerable. After two hours, the ordeal showed no signs of ending. The Chairman looked in my direction. I tried to appear as though I was concentrating on what he was saying. Outwardly authoritative and in control, what were his real thoughts? What was he actually feeling? And his secretary who recorded every word of this dreary gathering, what lurked behind her forbidding demeanour? Was her expression of disdain the result of conflicting forces that threatened to tear her asunder? Was she struggling to suppress shrieks of agony as she strained with every fibre of her being to hold herself together?
I needed the Insight Glasses to see clearly but I had locked the cylinder in my desk. Stephens sat across from me. I noticed how tightly he gripped his pen, his left hand clenched in a fist, fingernails biting into the soft tissue. The howling crazed wolf was poised beneath a thin layer of social convention. Why had I not seen this before, how had I been so blind? Too caught up in my own affairs. McCrae raised a point and referred to the agenda but his heart was not in it. The resolute McCrae was wilting within.
It was so obvious, now that I had experienced the truth through the Insight Glasses. Now that I had seen it all, sliced off the sham outer layer, dissolved what was false to reach the truth, the core of identity, the genuine self. If only I had those glasses now to perceive the reality concealed by the bumptious Nolan. And the sycophantic Donovan who simpered and grinned at the Chairman. Would I see him writhing in torment, a scaly lizard tortured by a duplicitous nature he was powerless to alter? What of passive aggressive Adams, what lurid secret was buried beneath the sheen of his ambiguous mask? I needed the glasses to see the truth.
Back at my desk, only an hour to go before knocking off time. I was due to meet Henderson for a pint after work. I had known Henderson since childhood. He was my best friend. We had many shared experiences and complementary tastes in music, books and films. He would get a kick out of the Insight Glasses. I needed to work out the best way to tell my story, spin it out and hold him spellbound. I was looking forward to seeing him.
Stephens had Waites helping him with something on his computer. Waites was the office know-it-all, oracle of all things computational. The shaven headed Waites, always with an unfunny quip to hand and the impregnable defence that was his knowledge of computers. Stephens was nodding his acquiescence, his tonsure bobbing up and down in synchronicity with the left to right emphatic sway of Waites’ hairless head. I unlocked my desk and retrieved the glasses. Waites rubbed his feIine chin against the computer monitor, the fur black and sleek, whiskers spread and twitching. I could hear the rolling harmonics of his purr and the words he breathed…. rub me, caress me, touch my lustrous fur, show me more attention, see how soft my fur is….
The glasses were truly amazing. Henderson would laugh loud and long at this example.
There was time for a final coffee. Whyte was in the kitchen. He was part of the backroom staff and I had little to do with him. With his permanent wide-eyed expression, nervous tics and erratic hand gestures, he was something of a pariah in the office. I did not attempt a greeting and there was no question of small talk. Whyte took no notice. Glasses in place I examined him. He appeared the same as ever, surprised and mildly demented. There was no veil to lift, no hidden alternative. I supposed that in Whyte’s case, what you saw was what you got, whatever that was.
I arrived at the pub before Henderson and ordered two pints that I took to a vacant table. I placed the cylinder beside my drink. Should I start with the optician or leave him to the end. He was essential to the story but there were many ways to tell it. Henderson was in for a treat.
I felt the weight of a hand on my shoulder. It was Henderson.
“Sorry I’m late.”
He sat in the chair across from me. In jeans and t-shirt, the slouching Henderson was the picture of relaxation. His broad face bearing two days growth of beard broke into a grin. To say he was laid back would be a gross under-statement for Henderson was the most placid man I ever met.
“Still surviving the cut and thrust of the commercial world.”
It was a typical Henderson opener. He had never managed to hold down a regular job and survived on bits and scraps, irregular work for hire, part-time and replacement stints. I kept pressing him to take greater responsibility and join the nine to five brigade but he refused to listen to reason. Nonetheless, the devil may care Henderson was someone I could trust with my life. He was my dearest friend. I looked at that uncluttered honest face, which was such an open book.
“What do you have there?”
He indicated the cylinder on the table. I coughed before responding.
“This thing, well I have a story to tell you that will take some believing.”
I unscrewed the lid and pulled the glasses over my ears. Straightening the frame with both hands, I looked up and time stood still. Henderson’s grimace was an excruciating rictus, his eyes wild, his back pushed against the chair as he tried to claw himself away from me. And the words, the undeniable, impossible words pulsing through my head…. must get away from him, it’s unbearable, I can’t stand him, this is torture, look at his smug face, the self-centred prick, why am I here…..
“Is there something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Henderson was calmly reaching for his pint. It was the normal Henderson, my affable friend of many years. The Insight Glasses only provided perceptive vision on the first view. I could not remember if the optician had said that.
I must have stayed in the pub for some time, long enough for the second pint that Henderson no doubt insisted on buying. We must have talked about neutral matters, the books we were reading, football results, inconsequential things. I know I avoided any reference to the glasses and did what was necessary to block that line of disclosure. Henderson did not follow it up. He was used to being browbeaten. I must have walked home or taken a bus.
“What’s that in your hand?”
It was the cylinder. I was standing in the middle of my living room, holding the Insight Glasses in their case. My wife was straightening the cushions on the couch.
“It’s a pair of glasses.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I’m looking after them for someone at work.”
I had no idea what I was saying.
“I’ve never seen you in glasses; let’s see what you look like.”
I unscrewed the cylinder, removed the glasses and put them on.
“It really makes a difference.”
I forced myself to look at her. Her head was turned away, arms outstretched and palms flat to ward off an unwanted presence, pushing me away. I could not see her face but I heard her thoughts…. so much to do, why is he still here, I have no time for this now, his neediness makes me sick, forget about him, he bores me rigid, there is so much to do, those glasses look ridiculous, is he trying to appear intelligent, forget about him, it’s not important…..
“I think they suit you.”
I walked into the hallway, glasses still in place. My actions were automatic. I turned into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. I reached for the tap and stared into the mirror. I saw the twisted sneer, the disgust, the malice, the markings on the hair below my dark mean eyes, the twitching black snout. No words, no sound save for a constant internal hum that rose in pitch, increased in frequency and intensity.
I could get no sleep. I was besieged by images, assailed by rabid Stephens, petrified McCrae, disgusted Henderson. The words of the optician played in a soundtrack that would not cease. As the first light penetrated the curtains, I fell into exhausted semi-consciousness. I awoke sitting upright, hand on the button just as the alarm was about to sound its klaxon. I dressed in the same clothes I wore the day before.
Down the stairs to retrieve the envelope from my coat. I tore it open. Two pages of single spaced text, font size 10. I did not need glasses to read the words for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. A list of questions, those the optician had mentioned but others that were offensive. What gives me pleasure or irritation? Prying enquiries regarding sleep, appetite, energy levels, feelings of failure and anxiety. I came to the final question: would I recommend this product to other customers? Yes or No. This was outrageous, treating the glasses as though they were common merchandise, like a kettle or a microwave oven. I took a pen and drew my circle.
As I walked to work, my anger grew. The optician’s face burned in my brain. His snide expression and those thick-lensed glasses. Who was he to make demands, having me take an eye test when my sight was never in question? His audacity and false flattery; how dare he? After the horrors I had witnessed, seeing myself as a hyena, a cowardly scavenger. Who was he to demand that his real self remain hidden?
So I was a hateful concoction of jealousy and inadequacy. My best friend could not bear my company. My wife viewed me as a bore, a pathetic creature she despised. It was unacceptable. I would not accept it. Once I returned the glasses, I vowed never to go near the optician’s shop. I would take McCrae, Stephens and the others as they were, at face value. I would help Goodwin and try to engage with Whyte.
I was aware of the internal hum, the vibration in my head. The optician was waiting for me at the counter with his devious smile, white coat and gaudy shirt.
“You said everyone else returned the glasses.”
I handed over the cylinder and envelope.
“And nobody held on to their free pair.”
“That is correct.”
I pulled out the glasses I had kept in my pocket. I acted too quickly for the optician to stop me. I looked at him through the Insight Glasses. What I saw was not possible. I stared and I saw. How was it possible? I felt simultaneously hollow and leaden. Every organ shifted in my body. My heart was liquid, my brain seething. Dropping the glasses on the counter I stumbled out the door.
Walking, walking, my mind roiling with contradictions. Everything was internal, the external was irrelevant. The turbulence in my head was unbearable. I sat on a bench. Minutes passed, I took no notice of my surroundings. The internal hubbub quietened. My breathing was even, my body calm. I tried to understand what had occurred.
What I saw could only mean one thing. I had the gift of insight, the ability that is innate to each of us though it is deeply buried. Insight was a skill to be honed, a measure of man’s intellectual acuity. It was not visual. It was an awareness and self-knowledge too terrible to behold. I wanted none of it. Those damnable glasses. When I looked at the optician through the glasses, there was no head of wavy grey hair or Coke bottle glasses. It had been me. It was my face that I saw through the Insight Glasses.
Biography: Mark Keane is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and lives in Edinburgh (Scotland). Aside from dry academic journal publications, previous fiction has appeared in LabLit and Bewildering Stories.