Look into my eyes, you will see/ What you mean to me . . .

“A big day tomorrow,” I say to the Beloved as we stir our cocoa and retire to bed. As she well knows that I have to do a week’s work in two days in order to deliver a manuscript in time, she is somewhat surprised when I add, by way of explanation, “Eye test.”

But I do have an eye test; and they’re important, I gather. I tend to skimp on them, counting contact lenses as an expenditure bordering on the frivolous, because they are a matter of vanity, more than utility, as I have a pair of perfectly good glasses and another emergency pair; and I now have to wear reading glasses if I’m wearing lenses, thus defeating the whole object of not wearing glasses in the first place. But the sun has come out and I want to wear my spiffingly good sunglasses, which cost only a fiver and are probably for women, but look as though they cost a lot more. The lenses also make my eyes hurt, which is probably bad. (Although having them in is an infallible prophylactic against tears when chopping onions. I pass that tip on gratis.)

Vid . . . or vidout?

I am also mindful of the various other things that are going wrong with my body, all part of the ageing process, whose relentless march I am doing little to prevent. Touch wood, it’s been nothing serious, at least so far, although I would really like to find out what’s going on with my hands and anyway the old lenses are beginning to bug me, so off I go, having negotiated a lunchtime appointment.

I am met at reception by a young woman whom I’d place roughly in her mid-twenties and of what seems to be, on casual inspection, astonishing pulchritude. She also speaks with what sounds very much like a Russian accent, which is, for various reasons on which I need not elaborate, one of the world’s sexiest. Oh dear, I thought, shame on you, Specsavers, for reserving your eye candy for the reception of your clients. I have been having my eyes tested since before the Beatles broke up, and she does not fit the mould of Eye Inspector I have become accustomed to.

But she is not eye candy. She is, in fact, as it turns out, my Eye Inspector. This alarms me slightly, and not just because I now recall her rather stern manner when I gave overly careless answers to her questions about whether I drove and which doctor I was registered with. For an eye exami­nation is one of the more intimate non-invasive encounters that one can have with a professional dedicated to your health. One is leant into; one’s eyes are probed deeply by another’s; it’s all about eye contact. Or, to put it another way, and as William Empson’s lines from “Courage Means Running” have it: “It is the two/Most exquisite surfaces of knowledge can/Get clap (the other is the eye).”

The eye examination proceeds. With her face close enough for me to feel her breath on my neck, she passes the little lorgnette over and then away from the trial frames. “Is better vid . . . or vidout?” she asks. “Vid,” I say, in a strangled voice. Her clipboard presses into my thigh. I cross my legs like a terrified debutante.

This goes on for an hour and a half – there is a lot of ground to make up. Because of my insouciant lens habits, the exquisite surfaces of knowledge that are my eyeballs are all scratched up. “You hef been very naughty,” she says. Oh Christ, I murmur to myself, think of my Beloved and change the subject. “How long does it take to train as an, er, ophthalmolmolmologist?” I ask suavely.

“I wish. I am an optometrist. If I was an ophthalmologist I would be performing surgery on eyes and cutting them open.”

Even this, frighteningly, is not quite as much of a cock-crinkler as it might look on the page. “And four years.” Then she tries to invert my eyelid, but that, I decide, is going Too Far.

“Normally I’m quite brave, ha ha,” I say. “No, you’re not,” she replies.

Shrine to the Beloved

In the end, feeling like Gawain, I manage to get away without making a huge fool of myself. (Having a girlfriend like the Beloved, whose only fault is a tendency to value the works of Handel over those of Haydn, is a great help, and after this I really should build a shrine to her.)

I mention all this to my friend the Moose, who funnily enough says he, too, was examined by an improbably beautiful optometrist, at Boots in Cambridge. How did he cope? I ask. “I invented a seven foot tall, 300lb boyfriend with a pathologically jealous streak. That just about got me through the final minutes, and stopped me from howling.”

I was glad to discover that I am not the only one suffering out there.

Anyway, she’s Iranian

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.