I have about 60% vision in my left eye. It should be 0%. That it isn’t is due to three amazing slices of good fortune, each a million-to-one shot that shouldn’t have come off and yet did.
The story starts in the early summer of 1986, back in the Thatcher days – she comes into this story too – when I was kicked quite hard on the left side of my head while playing football. It hurt but I thought nothing of it at the time. Three days later, however, I was forced to think about it again when, in the middle of a business meeting at my office, my left retina detached itself.
For those of you who have ever worried about this I can give the reassuring news that it’s completely painless. The visual effect, however, is really most extraordinary. It was if I was suddenly viewing everything on that side of my head underwater and through a stained-glass window. After a while, my brain refused to process these alarming and confusing signals. Perhaps to compensate, my right eye briefly became super-sensitive. I saw flashes of light and strange explosions of colour every time someone moved as if this side of my head was caught up in an electrical storm.
By common consent the meeting was abandoned.
That evening I was having a drink with my friend Chris. With the insouciance of youth, I saw no reason to cancel. He’s the kind of person who, if you describe to him a problem with a car, a cat, a computer or any number of other things, will say, “ah, that’s a…” and normally be right. He was this time. He drew a rough approximation of a dart board on a beer mat and asked me, using only my left eye, to shade what seemed odd. I did so. “You’ve detached your retina,” he concluded. Feeling slightly self-important at this news, I ordered another round.
The next morning found me less chirpy. I went into work as usual mainly because an optician I’d used before was just down the road.
“I’ve detached my retina,” I announced.
He gave me an ‘I’ll be the judge of that’ glance and sat me down. After a brief examination he produced a sheet of A4 paper on which was printed a circle with a right-angled grid of lines, a rather neater but no more functional version of Chris’ dart-board beer-mat. “Shut your good eye,” he commanded, giving me a pencil, “and shade in the bits of the paper where the lines are fuzzy or not straight. Do it as carefully as you can.” I did this. Nearly half the circle was shaded. He then wrote a brief note which he stapled to the diagram. He put both in an envelope, sealed it and gave it to me.
“You’re lucky,” he said. Oh yeah? I thought. “Moorfields Eye Hospital is about three hundred yards up the road. You know it?” I did. “Walk slowly and carefully and give this to the reception in the Casualty Department.” This was an alarming sentence to process at 9.15 in the morning. For the first time I realised that there was something seriously wrong with me.
The Casualty Department at Moorfields was, even at that early hour, filled with people who were in a lot more distress than I was. I remember a builder with blood streaming down his face and a woman who was rocking back and forth with a tissue over her eye and occasionally screaming. An hour ticked by. Pain-free though I was, my own reflections were becoming more and more gloomy. I saw a call box and decided to share the misery.
I was between relationships at the time and the first two calls were to my ex-girlfriend and the person who, for want of a better phrase, I’d had my eye on for a while, indeed had already had a quick snog with in the back of a taxi. Were I to have been able to look at her with two eyes I might have spotted what a mad crazy woman she was: but that’s another story. My ex was very sympathetic, the new lady rather dismissive. This also should have given me a warning. I finished my calls and went back to my seat. Finally my name was called out.
The doctor who saw me was about my age. Once he’d looked at my eye he became quite excited: not quite the reaction I was expecting. Without apology or explanation he picked up the phone and dialled a number. “Tom – it’s Mike,” he said. “Could you come to B12? I think I’ve got another one.”
There was a brief silence in the room. From the next-door cubicle I heard a doctor say, “Well, that’s it, I’m afraid. It’s irreversible.”
Tom turned up a few moments later. Neither of them gave my eye more than a glance. Instead they started measuring my fingers.
I was in a state of shock and in the control of professionals. At that time one did not challenge or question what professionals told you. If they wanted to measure my fingers then that was the way it was. My main impression was a heightened sense of unreality, as if this wasn’t any longer Moorfields at all but some manual clinic into which I’d unwittingly blundered. After a few minutes I was shunted out of the room. I sat down next to a man, also of about my age and whom I faintly recognised, who was cupping and blinking his right eye in much the same way I was my left. “I’ve detached my retina,” he said.
“It’s a fucker,” he said. This was the most sensible remark I’d heard for some time.
Being kicked in the head was my first bit of good fortune, for reasons I shall later reveal; working near Moorfields was the second. The third happened now. “Mr Bird will see you,” the nurse said to me and led me into a rather grander room.
Mr Bird was a silver-haired, middle-aged man who precisely matched my idea of a senior consultant at a major hospital. He gave me a brief examination, glanced at my notes and made a quick decision. “I need to operate as soon as possible,” he said. “You’re lucky – I’ve had some cancellations the day after tomorrow.” He described what he was going to do. It seemed to involve using a laser to burn the back of my eye and the back of the retina, the scar tissue then spot-welding the two back together. I didn’t then know how new this technique was but he spoke about it as if he’d been doing it for twenty years. It was certainly an improvement on the treatment given some time before to someone I knew: she’d had to lie motionless on her back in a darkened room for three months. He asked me if I had any questions.
Emboldened by his confidence, I mentioned the two young doctors measuring my fingers. What had that all been about?
His expression darkened. Flecks of lightning – similar to what I’d seen during the meeting – lit up his eyes. “Could you excuse me a moment,” he said and reached for the telephone. He stabbed the numbers and waited, drumming his fingers on the desktop. I hardly dared breathe.
The call was answered. Mr Bird turned away from me but the fact that I could only catch half of what he was saying made the effect all the more impressive. He was using a tone of voice quite different from the one he’d employed with me. This was the terrifying headmaster speaking. “…I’ve told you on numerous occasions…if you ever…don’t ever want to hear…never work in any hospital again…the last warning…do I make myself perfectly…” He slammed down the phone and swung round to face me. Even though I had not been the object of this onslaught I felt I’d been raked with machine-gun fire.
“I’m so sorry about that,” he said, his confidently urbane manner now perfectly back in place. “The thing is that these two idiots have this theory that retinal detachment in someone as young as you is linked to a genetic problem. This tends to result in preternaturally long fingers.” We both glanced at my fingers. “Anyone can see that doesn’t apply. Your fingers are long but quite normal for your height.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t think they’ll be doing that again.”
The scene shifted to a two-bed ward where I found myself with Steve, the young man I’d briefly spoken to in reception. “We’re gonna get cut on Thursday,” he told me. There was pause. “I’ve met you, man.”
“I think so too.” We pondered this for a moment. Then, about ten members of his family turned up, briefly turning the tiny room into a huge Jamaican party. One had brought a beat box. The TV was turned on and up. Robust jokes were exchanged. I was included in all this through necessity. Eventually a nurse had to come in to tell us to calm things down. Steve seemed glad to see them all go. “Feeling a bit knackered,” he said, flicking the remote control. “Do you like football?”
I said I loved it. “Hey, the World Cup starts today.” We watched a bit of the opening ceremony. “We can watch it with one eye each.”
“One more than the ref.” Bulgaria v Italy kicked off.
When I’d come in I’d thrown my clothes over the chair next to the TV. Just before half-time, Steve sat up and with trembling fingers pointed at them. “The trousers!” he shouted.
This was just the latest in the series of strange and alarming things I’d heard that day. “What?”
“Top Man! ’bout two weeks ago!” I now remembered: I’d been shopping in Oxford Street and had bought these rather strange checked trousers from a man I now realised was Steve. The pattern on the fabric looked a bit like the diagrams I’d been asked to shade in by Chris and the optician. All these events seemed to have happened half a lifetime ago.
“That’s it,” I said. “It’s been bugging me.”
“Me too.” Steve said. He examined them morosely. “It’s them that fucked our retinas.” Looking at them now, shimmering into my one-and-a-bit eyes, it was impossible to disagree.
The next two days were dominated by a series of examinations I prefer to forget. The main articles involved were a pair of devices on the doctor’s thumb and index finger very similar to the long clip-on finger picks I occasionally used – but have never been able to use since – when playing guitar. The purpose, I was told, was draw an accurate picture of the back of my eye for the lasers. Finally I was shown the result. It seemed identical in every respect to the one I’d drawn for the optician.
My mother came to visit, at one point co-inciding with Chris who had read up about my condition and was able to supply her (though not me) with quite a bit of information of what was about to happen to me. “He’s a very clever man, your friend Chris,” she told me when we were alone, “but he’s a bit frightening. He knows so much.” I agreed with her.
The horrors were not yet over. While I was on the stretcher outside the theatre, a perky young nurse came up with a marker pen and drew a cross over my right eye. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked.
She laughed. “Nothing to worry about. I’m just marking which eye they have to take out.”
“Take out?” She shrugged as if this were just some form of words. “But it’s my left eye they’re doing!”
“But you’ve put the mark over my right eye.”
Her expression clouded. She held both hands up and half turned her shoulders, still looking at me, as if for the first time struck by the fact that things are reversed when seen at 180 degrees. She started rubbing the mark over my right eye. It didn’t come off. She spat on a tissue and tried again. Then she drew another cross over my left eye. “There,” she said. “That should be clear, I hope.”
Another nurse appeared and rolled up my sleeve. “Just a small prick,” she said. The needle went in. “Count to ten.”
“But it’s my left…” Then I fell backwards into the night.
The waking up was horrible in a different way. As the nurse admitted, in an operation only one part of the body is of any interest and the rest is twisted into all kind of terrible shapes. I could hardly move my right arm: Steve could hardly breathe. Neither of us could turn our heads. His bed was on the left and mine on the right so for thirty-six hours we couldn’t even look at each other. The World Cup was the salvation and, one-eyed, we watched two days of matches.
On the second day, Mr Bird visited us. “You’ve both done very well,” he said. “No problems.” He told Steve he should make a full recovery. He turned to me. “Did you have a serious head injury about twenty years ago?”
“Yes,” I said after a moment’s thought, “I was in a car accident when I was about seven.”
He nodded. “That makes sense. Nearly half your retina had peeled off and died,” he said. “The brain is, perhaps unfortunately, very clever at disguising symptoms of things like this if they happen gradually. In about another twenty years you’d have been blind in that eye.” He paused to allow this to sink in. “Did you receive another head injury recently?” I told him about the football game the week before. “Best thing that could have happened to you,” he said. He stood up and shook our hands. “Good luck to you both. Come back in a month for a check up. You can go home now.”
“You better burn those trousers,” Steve said as we got dressed. “Big bad luck.” I can’t remember what I did with them but I never wore them again. I never saw him again either, which I’ve always regretted: there was, however briefly, so much that we’d had in common.
For the next month I had to apply eye drops of Atropine four times a day which froze open my pupil to aid the healing. For the first couple of weeks I kept on with the eye patch but after a while gave it up. The effect for an onlooker was alarming. The eye was about two thirds its normal size. The bit that should have been white was red, while the bit in the middle that should have been bluey-green was, because of the Atropine, jet black. In Earls Court where I lived this kind of weirdness passed without too much comment.
It did, however, spook one guy I was talking to at a party towards the end of the month. We were chatting and I noticed his gaze flicking from one of my eyes to the other in a rather excited way. I was half-way through a sentence when he held up his hand. “Sorry, gotta ask – what drug are you on?”
Had I not been making much sense?
“The eyes, man! Your fuckin’ eyes. One’s blue, one’s, like, black – it’s spookin’ me out…”
Many years later, I went to have a routine inspection of my left eye at a clinic in Swindon. The doctor was about my age and gave it a good going over. He switched off his equipment. “All seems fine.” He hesitated, as if about to embark on a confidence. “If I may ask, was this operation done in Moorfields by Mr Bird?”
I confessed that it was. Could it be possible that this was a big cheat and that the consultant had lasered his initials into my retina? One hears of such stories.
“I recognised his style,” he said with pardonable smugness. “I studied under him.”
I wondered if his name was Tom or Mike and if he had at one time been fascinated by finger lengths, but said nothing.
“How come you ended up at Moorfields?” he asked. I told him. “Do you know how lucky you were?” I said I didn’t, although admitted that the word kept cropping up.
“I’m not surprised.” He sat down. “At that time there were only half a dozen hospitals in the world that could do this operation. Three were in the USSR, one in France, one in the USA. Moorfields was the other. Mr Bird was the best, probably the best of all of them everywhere. How come he operated on you?”
“He had a cancellation.”
He shook his head. “Lucky you. He was about the only person who knew what he was doing. Same sort of time, Mrs Thatcher had a detached retina. She went into a fancy private clinic. They screwed it up. She went blind in that eye.” My mind went back to my awful, but successful and free, experience and tried to contrast this with what Mrs T would have said when confronted with a hefty bill for 50% vision. I shuddered. Lucky, lucky me.
“All OK?” Penny said when I came out of the consulting room.
“It’s all fine,” I said. “I’ve been lucky. I’ll tell you in the car.”
So, Mr Bird, this is for you. And Steve, my fellow detachee and trouser-sharer. Wherever you both are, I wish all the very best things in life to both of you. As for Chris, you still know so much. I just hope you don’t have to diagnose anything else for me. Even Tom and Mike I’ve forgiven – though I doubt Mr Bird ever did.