It was the kind of accident that could happen to anyone. A misjudged step, a sudden spill forward, his hand reaching out just in time to grab the bannister - and there they were on the ground, his spectacles, broken neatly into two where the bridge had snapped, two orphaned circles staring mournfully back at him.
He had a spare, of course, but his prescription had changed and he'd never bothered to get the spare updated, so that wearing it now the world was blurred at the edges and a half an hour of reading was enough to make his eyes burn. Still, it would do for now. Tomorrow he would go across to his optician and order a new pair. No big deal. It was time for a change anyway.
The next day he left work early, stopped over at the optician's. But the shop was closed. Rows and rows of blank frames stared back at him from behind the shuttered shop window, refusing to meet his eyes. Was it the optician's day off? No. Had he come too late? No. Why wasn't the shop open then? He asked around. The hairdresser next door smiled and sympathised, but knew nothing. The chemist on the other side just shrugged. Two shops down the watchmaker looked at him accusingly, telling him that the optician was always there at this hour, and seeming to imply that it was somehow his fault that the shop wasn't open today. In despair, he jotted down the phone number of the shop on a piece of paper and went home.
He tried calling the optician the next morning. No answer. He tried again in the evening. Same thing. For three days he fished that scrap of paper out of his pocket, stared at it blearily, dialed the number and listened to the phone ringing on the other end, its ring growing hollower and more plainitive as the conviction grew on him that it would never be answered.
What could have happened to the optician? Had he closed the shop and gone away? It was a tough neighbourhood and small businesses were closing all the time. In his head he could see the story of the optician - a sincere, hardworking man whose poetic temperament and much too generous nature made him a poor entrepreneur, so that much as he loved his work, he could never make it pay, never make enough from it to make ends meet. For it was a noble profession wasn't it? This business of bringing light and colour into other people's lives, helping them to appreciate the beauty of the world around them. A task almost priestlike in its beneficence, and made all the more intimate by the way it was practised - the moments spent staring deep into a stranger's eyes, the slow revelation of the lines of letters, their descending font sizes becoming gradually clearer to the short-sighted mendicant.
But perhaps it was something more temporary. Perhaps he'd simply gone on a vacation somewhere. (Did opticians take vacations? He supposed they must, though he'd never really thought about it before). Perhaps there had been an emergency of some kind - a sudden illness, an unexpected death in the family - and the poor optician had been called away. As he sat clutching the receiver to his ear, listening to the phone ring in the deserted shop, he wondered what he should say if the optician did answer. Should he mention that he'd been trying to call for the last three days now? Wouldn't it be insensitive of him to bring this up, to talk about his own petty inconvenience while the optician was suffering god knows what bereavement?
Meanwhile the strain on his eyes was beginning to tell. He had a headache every night now and his eyes ached all the time. He could always go to another optician, but he was reluctant to do so. He liked this optician. The thing about him was that he didn't treat you like you were a child of four, incapable of understanding the oh so inscrutable science of optometry. Instead of behaving as though making a pair of glasses were some sort of occult magic trick, this optician would carefully explain the properties of the different lenses, debate their pros and cons with you, discuss your needs and figure out what would serve you best. The point was, he listened.
On the fourth day, he went back to the optician's store, thinking maybe the number had changed and that was why he couldn't get through. But the shop was still shut. It was time to admit defeat. He found another optician in the next block, told him he needed a new pair of glasses. It was an ordeal. First he had to have his eyes tested again (the old optician had kept records of every customer on his computer). Then he had to listen to a long sales pitch about how particular lenses were the best because they came from Ee-yorope and were made with The Best German Engineering. When he asked why this was an advantage the shopkeeper just shook his head, implying that it was self-evident that things from abroad were better than things made at home. Then there was a long argument about which frame to buy, with the shopkeeper insisting that he go for something thin and rimless because it would make him look younger and more fashionable. Explaining that he didn't care about fashion, and that he didn't want to look younger because life was hard enough for a 25 year old consultant working with clients in their 50s, didn't help. The shopkeeper wasn't interested. He just wanted to sell the most expensive frames.
As he left the market, he passed the old optician's shop again. As though hoping that it might have opened up in the last half hour, so that he could go back, cancel the order he had just placed and return to his old favourite. But the shutter was still down on the old shop, like a veil cast over the question of where the old optician had gone.
Three days later, wearing his new glasses, his world finally restored to its original sharpness, he stood by his apartment window, staring out at the anonymous buildings with their confident, self-contained lights, thinking about all the people who pass from our lives unnoticed. The waiter at the restaurant that we never go back to; the jolly old great-aunt we meet once or twice, at weddings, before learning that she has died; the drinking buddies from college we lose touch with at some point; the kind nurse; the jovial janitor - all the people who brighten up our lives in their small, limited ways. People whom we felt close to, connected with in some way, but whom we shall never meet again now, never learn who they really were or what became of them. People we not only lose, but also forget.
He realised after a minute that his eyesight was blurring. Only this time it wasn't the spectacles.