It’s just keratin. Just the protein-like, horny substance that forms hair and hooves. Nails protect our fingers. That’s it. Periodically, we trim those of our dogs, rabbits and grandchildren. When my dad was old I used to cut his toenails and it felt like an intimate act of filial duty. Nowadays when I cut my own, it’s hard to see them over my spectacles and the nails themselves are thicker and more truculent. Picking the ragged bits off the bathroom floor is more troublesome than it used to be.
Nails get brittle and split, sometimes far down the nail bed, exposing soft, painful skin. I have one nail that split vertically, and the BBC make-up lady said it would never repair itself. Barbra Streisand has immensely long fingernails, no matter what part she’s playing. This is regarded as sexy for some reason. I imagine the idea is that she can do something erotic with them, which the rest of us can’t.
The nail salon has taken the place of the Moroccan wall-hanging shop of the 1960s. Rows of them pepper every high street. There are more nail bars than coffee shops, all filled with women who have time on their hands — literally — and are spending it being filed, glued and decorated by flower-faced Eurasian girls who live in fear of their boss and treat the customer as ten digits in need of a makeover.
I’d never been in a nail salon until I took the role of Beverley in the sitcom Bull, coming shortly to your screens. Beverley Bull sits in an antique shop all day, chain-smoking and reading TV magazines. She would have acrylic nails, so the make-up supervisor arranged for me to have them done in a west London salon, and buy a bottle of the polish so she could patch them up over three weeks of filming. I obeyed, and was greeted by a very, very small man who explained, loudly, the difference in price between gel and acrylic. I didn’t understand one syllable but was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it. I gave him £45 and my virgin appendages were handed to a pretty Vietnamese girl who began to file them with enormous enthusiasm. After a few minutes, she and the therapist beside her embarked on a heated argument in Vietnamese, which grew in volume and aggression. Finally, as the hissing blossomed into howling, I heard someone say loudly, ‘Excuse me. I am a customer. Could you please not do this. It is very rude.’
I looked around. Everyone was looking at me. The combatants glittered and glowered, and I knew I had broken some kind of cultural law. For the next hour the salon was muted, until I was offered a colour-chart. I pointed at my therapist’s purple-and-silver nails and said, ‘Exactly like yours please.’
At 12.35 thus began a cycle of painful cuticle-removal, building up of gluey layers, clear varnish, warm water, a blow-drying machine, testing, painting, more drying and wafting. At this point I asked to buy the polish and was told by the manager in no uncertain terms — in tone, at least, for the words were lost on me — that I could order but not buy. I still had no idea whether my talons were to be gel or acrylic.
At 3.15 pm, my nails were purple, silvered and shapely. At 3.20, the therapist wiped something over them ‘for shine’ and reader, the whole bloody thing wiped clean off, leaving only a purple smudge. She gasped. I gasped. She reached for my pinky. I flinched and stood up: ‘I want my money back,’ I said, dangerously quietly. The miniature manager appeared.
‘No no — you sit down lady — you sit down — she fix!’
‘I’ve been here for three hours. I’m taking this home to do it myself.’ And I put the polish in my bag.
The next scene was straight out of Midnight Cowboy. Lunging nimbly, the tiny manager grabbed my arm with a grip of steel and demanded his polish. I demanded my money. He refused. I walked away. He clung on to me. I tried and failed to shake him off. I strode through the shopping centre dragging a small, shouting man on my arm. He clung to me like lichen on an Antony Gormley bronze. I made it as far as the exit to the street with him screaming for his polish and me growling my dissent.
At this point he got his hand inside my bag. So I stamped on his foot. He yanked my bag strap, which snapped. I dug my elbow into his ribs — he jerked me round with venom. Finally a security man appeared and told my assailant to take his hands off me. A kindly female witness rang the police as I sat down on a wall, my heart banging like a kettle-drum.
Two months (and two trips to a different salon) later, I’m still unable to remove these pesky nails. My fingertips are bulbous with gel or acrylic and layers are splitting off in chunks. The police closed the case immediately on the grounds that I shouldn’t have taken the polish. Sisters, stick to home-buffing your keratin. And next time I get a glamour role, remind me to wear gloves.