The soundtrack to this moment is absolutely another appearance of "In the Mirror," should you wish to imagine or play that on loop as you read.
Early in 1958:
She couldn't say what made her try them. Certainly, she could have selected another plain, round pair – either horn-rimmed or metal-framed. There was also quite a practical, squarish pair done in black or brown plastic. Indeed, she found there were many more options on the National Health than there had been even three or four years ago, when she had last had her prescription revised.
In truth, Sister Bernadette couldn't – or possibly wouldn't – tell what prompted her to look at new frames at all. As a trainee nurse during the war, she'd worn smaller, wire-rimmed spectacles – gold, she remembered, to complement her hair. Still round, they had conferred a slightly owlish look on her, simultaneously inquisitive and wise. All her life, young Shelagh Mannion had hated wearing glasses. She recalled it distinctly. She had shown up for the second year of secondary school and discovered that she was suddenly completely unable to read the writing on the blackboard. Moving her seat to the front row didn't help. She had been the first of her schoolmates to wear spectacles, and that owl-eyed impression was therefore not new to her. But then, she had always answered every question first and always scored at the top of her class, so it had, in its way, been apt. By the time she'd begun to train as a nurse, she had rather embraced the benefits of her inevitably academic appearance. Doctors and colleagues often assumed she was the smart one in the room, and behaved accordingly. It had its advantages.
After joining the order, she'd had her first visit to the optician on the National Health. It was 1949, and the service was in its infancy, especially as regarded eyeglasses. Eager to make herself acquainted with the full range of services, Sister Bernadette had elected to exchange her rather bent gold wire frames for the new horn-rimmed round ones from the NHS line. They had never been flattering, but then, few of the frames of 1949 had really suited anybody. And at any rate, as a still newly-minted religious sister, comfort and serviceability had rated far higher with her than cosmetic appearance.
What had been most surprising was that the completed set of frames and lenses had taken nearly 8 months to come in – there was such an unexpected demand for the new subsidized optical services. In the years since that experience, Sister Bernadette had chosen to save time by simply having the lenses replaced and keeping the round frame. But today – today, the optician's secretary suggested she might want to have a look at the new NHS frames.
"Some of them are only £1 per pair," the red-headed girl had said cheerily. "You can have any of the frames in the third case. And you can choose some of the t'others, too, at discount."
Intrigued, Sister Bernadette stepped toward the third case and surveyed her options. Before she had even completed her steps, she knew. There in a sea of black and brown, round and square, just at the top right was a beautiful pair of transparent acetate spectacles with a little sweep of shimmering gold along the top. They were feminine in every detail – graceful and light and achingly stylish. Before she had realized it, her hand had sailed out to grasp them off the rack, and she was holding their shining lightness in her fingers before she thought to stop herself.
Shelagh! Her inner voice interjected sharply. Who do you think you are – Trixie Franklin?
She turned the spectacles over in her hands. They were small in fit, rather narrow, like her own face.
She glanced up again and cast her eyes over the rest of the display. There were the practical, plain pairs, certainly. There were also some rather more exotic shapes, especially for ladies. On further examination, the gentle upsweep was really a rather moderate pair, she told herself. And she had worn the others for nearly a decade. Surely there was no need to go on wearing them forever, especially as new ones would constitute no great expense.
Unthinking, Sister Bernadette took a step sideways toward the mirror. She stared at herself, a long, hard look – wimple and habit and sober round-framed specs stared back. And then, she slid the old frames off her face, took a breath, and slipped on the upswept pair.
She didn't need her prescription to know that these transformed her being and gave her a bizarre feeling of giddy, swirling joy. Sister Bernadette of even a year ago might have had her defenses up against a feeling like that, but the Sister Bernadette who had stood in the hallway listening to the dansette during the Great Silence didn't. Perhaps Trixie Franklin was catching – a sort of communicable devil-may-care glamour. She didn't know, but she did know soon that she had let out audible "Oh!" upon trying them on. The red-headed secretary had glanced up at her immediately.
"Oh, those are the ones for you!" she exclaimed, smiling. "They're one of our newest pairs."
"Oh, I don't know," Sister Bernadette heard herself say, her accent coming in strong. "Novelty has its charms. But of course, I'll have to try on a few more before a decision can be rendered."
Forcing her unwilling fingers to place the clear and gold frames back on their peg, she took up the squarish black ones. 524, they were labeled. She put them on, and almost laughed. Even as a nun, she wasn't sure she could bear em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"that/em much of a daily reminder of humility. Black certainly wasn't her color! She stole a furtive glance at the secretary, who was now pretending not to be watching. The brown ones then, perhaps? The view in the mirror was still dismal. Regretfully, she lifted another rounded pair out of the case, but she put it back before she could bring herself to try it on. Almost magnetically, her hands took up the first pair again and turned it over and over.
"If you ask me," the secretary said (she hadn't), "the upsweep is definitely the one for you." The girl's sales technique was not lacking. "And they're quite functional, too – give a wider range in the periphery."
Did they? Sister Bernadette wasn't sure she cared. She took one fuzzy glance at her own glasses, lying on the edge of the display case. Then she settled the upswept pair firmly into place on her nose. There was a sharpness to them – a teacher-y air. She could see herself leading Mothercraft classes quite authoritatively in these. But their lightness also made them soft, approachable.
Oh, stop it, Sister! You're being ridiculous, she admonished herself.
But something inside her refused to stop swirling and singing. She felt as she had that night at the hallway mirror – tentative and daring, heady, light. But also, somehow less sad than she had felt then.
She knew why, too. This, at least, was an attainable vision.
"I'll take them," she said firmly to her own reflection, without moving to take them off.
"You won't regret it. I'll draw up the bill of sale, sister, and send off for your new prescription. I should imagine we can have them ready by Friday."
"So soon?" And here she had been stealing herself for a month or more to wait!
She did hope the nurses wouldn't think her extravagant. As for her sisters – well, presumably they would just be glad that she could see properly again. One must keep up with the latest innovations in health, after all. Her role practically demanded it.
Standing in front of an optician's mirror, Sister Bernadette surprised both herself and Shelagh Mannion by smiling at the effect of glasses frames upon her face. It was a new era for everyone, this truly post-war world. Hope was around every corner. Joy hid in the smallest of places. Even in translucent things made of metal and acetate.
Regarding glasses styles, I'm taking Heidi Thomas' word for it that the upswept style was available on the NHS in 1958. The NHS 524, the "squarish" ones I mention, was the most popular real style, and can be found in vintage versions or modern recreations today. I also located a picture showing the entire 1949 NHS specs range, which clearly includes Sister B's round frames in the middle row, thus leading me to conjecture that that was the year she got them. Wait times that year could be up to 18 months long, due to the incredibly high demand on the service, and often a prescription could be out-of-date before it arrived to its wearer. The subsidized price of £1 per pair was accurate for certain styles, as far as I can verify, though it may have ended before 1958. This has been a surprisingly fun research jaunt.