The Reluctant Optician
The car pulled over to the side of the country lane. The polluting fingerprints of the city still lingering on its paintwork. For a moment, angry music mumbled through the windows, stopping when the engine was switched off.
The driver’s door opened with a well rehearsed creak. When the driver moved, they gave the impression of being able to harmonise with it. They were too gangly for the little hatchback. They were forced to unfold themselves out, before slamming the door shut and marching around to the boot, muttering to themselves. Complaining about the morning mist. The puddles, the mud. The smell. The time.
They retrieved a doctor’s bag that was showing the early signs of stress and a small, brightly coloured net hanging off a short, white handle. The sort of thing children bought when they went to the seaside and decided they absolutely had to be fishermen, for all of fifty seven minutes of their lives. Fifty seven minutes, of course, being the exact time it took for a child’s excitement to peer behind the curtains of a new interest and learn exactly how much waiting was involved. It was also, coincidentally, the exact amount of time required for an exhausted parent to believe their child had finally found a nice, quiet, relaxing hobby to enjoy. It’s this sort of thing that lets you know that, whilst the universe rarely cares about you, it certainly harbours a sense of humour.
The driver of the dented little car clutched their net and bag tightly as they stepped beneath the canopy of the damp, buckled trees and headed towards the banks of a small, rather subdued stream. They stumbled over the slippery roots and cursed the muddy kisses left on their boots and trouser legs. Still, a job was a job. He had to go where the money was.
His father had run the shop when he was a boy. It’d been opened under the guise of a D.I.Y. store, but it had changed into a double dare with a counter. Every customer who had come through that door had attempted to order the strangest, most impossible things. Little, odd shaped joints of copper pipework, ancient carpentry tools. Light bulbs for long discontinued gas fittings. Feet for Victorian cast iron baths in the shape of all manner of animals. Handles for Georgian chests of drawers. Mounts for stuffed animals. His father, forever dressed in a stained shop apron in his memories, would never say no or send them away. He would tell exactly how long it would take to obtain their item and then, in a very logical sort of way, that’s exactly how long it took. It was a magic trick that very rarely received the applause it deserved. Certainly it wasn’t as flash as some. No ladies were cut in two. No one stepped over a bed of scolding nails or guessed the capital city that someone in another room had written down and sealed in a golden envelope. Still, it was magic none the less. Just of the more everyday variety. Similar to the strain that occasionally left a fiver in a summer jacket pocket.
He was attempting to do the same since inheriting the shop, only the world was different now. People had little supermarkets in their phones that could deliver absolutely anything at the press of a button. They didn’t even need to leave the house or get dressed to summon a tired van driver in one day or less. Clutching a pristine, branded cardboard box and a handheld, electronic device that could render any signature, no matter how ornate, into the shape of a dead slug.
That was why he’d been forced to seek out more a technophobic clientele. It’d started by accident. Some old girl looking for a new wooden mount for her antique glass ball. He hadn’t realised what it was until she brought it in for him to fix and the damn thing had shown him his future. Nothing life changing, mind you. Just a quick glimpse of Saturday’s weather. Still, it’d saved him getting the mower out.
After that, they’d all begun to appear. Always coming either first thing in the morning or right at the end of the day. They stepped out of the shadows, and quietly requested new legs for their tarot card tables. New handles for their wands. New ironmongery for hanging cauldrons.
Then, yesterday evening, she’d appeared. A long, grey raincoat hanging over her bony frame. Her plastic hood seeming to raise to a point over the sort of face his mother would’ve referred to as having ‘plenty of character’. Particularly around the nose and chin area, in her case.
Some of what she’d wanted, he’d been able to supply straight away. A new litter box. A new broom handle. Pruning shears for herbs. The only thing he’d been missing seemed a little too tricky to obtain. He’d tried asking if she could take a whole one, but she said it was far too much faff. Easier just to take the part she needed, she said.
“Leave it with me,” he’d told her and tried calling a few pet shops. Only they’d gotten a little suspicious once he’d asked what their return policy concerning small lizards. Inquiring if they happened to keep a count of limbs and appendages to check off before offering either cash or a credit note.
Now, here he sat, net in hand, tweezers ready in the bag beside him. Thinking this was no way to spend a Sunday. Thinking back to when he was a boy. He’d gone to Paris on a school trip and one teacher had insisted on eating frog’s legs. All he’d been able to think about were little French frogs, hopping about on tiny crutches. Certain they’d possessed knees and toes before some towering chef had come at them with a saw.
Suddenly something small, wet and slimy twitched across the bank. He dove at it with the net, missed and ended up going headfirst into the cold, dark water.
He came back up spluttering, looking like something that would’ve made his little girl shriek and change the channel. Much like with his car, he couldn’t simply step out at his size. He was forced to untangle his limbs in the direction of the bank. It appeared he could add streams to the list of things not suitable for a man of over six foot.
Shivering, sodden, missing the sort of warmth that only comes from a Sunday spent in front of the TV with the kids, he noticed his target on the other side. It blinked. With one eye.
Clearly someone had been here before him.
Muttering again, he squelched back to the car and fumbled about in his pockets for the keys. He smelt of the stream now. Stagnant and unloved. He didn’t bother with the boot this time. He threw the net and bag into the backseat, crumpled himself into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut.
The engine started, the music leapt back into life and he was off. Driving deeper into the countryside. Searching for a newt with an eye to spare.