London is a pulsing mass of flesh – its busy bodies weave to and fro so frantically they seem to forget that they are only part of a whole. Like determined ants blindly marching around an assault course, commuting Londoners are at once absent-minded and hyper-aware of those around them. For a while I thought they were prickly, but really they’re thick-skinned survivors, simply waiting for the right opportunity to shed that protective layer. Mine was wearing thin as I wandered nervously into the hollow belly of Liverpool Street Station. I’d forgotten to paint my nails. No colour on my hands – no colour in my soul. It was a travesty.
Sliding across the murky cream floor, attempting to find a rhythm that would ease the pinch of my cheap pumps, I made my way straight to the empty seat at the foot of the stairs. Chewing on my lip, I scanned the station aimlessly before examining my nails. Angling my body towards the empty seat to my left, away from Mr Potato Head to my right, I dug into my hand bag in search of that refreshing minty-teal polish. As I pulled it free from the clutter, a suited older man was turning on his heel and making himself comfortable in the empty seat – with an unreasonably large sushi platter on his lap.
“I’m sorry,” I grinned, sheepishly, “I’ve been really disorganised – I’m just going to paint my nails real quick…” Tittering apologetically, I selfishly continued to unscrew the varnish before adding: “This is not what you want to smell when you’re eating your dinner!”
The man poured a mediocre helping of soy sauce over his sushi while shaking his head, before fixing on me with his pale blue eyes. “Or,” he said slowly, “You’re just really organised…” His eyes sparkled, he looked away and popped a sushi roll into his mouth. I chuckled, liking the idea as I carefully wiped the brush against the bottle. With each stroke of the glistening icy green, the echoing chaos of Friday’s rush-hour drifted further away.
Examining the first hand and blowing pointlessly over it, I scrunched my nose up and grumbled, “I’ve done a rubbish job anyway – that’ll teach me.”
The man glanced at my nails. “No, no you haven’t.” He placed the lid back over his platter and covered it with a plastic bag. “Can I have a look?” He held his hand out, to take mine. I took a breath, suddenly unsure of myself. As I exhaled, I put my hand in his. His eyes narrowed seriously, focusing on the streaky nail polish. “I can do them for you.” He said, finally. When he looked up again his eyes danced, daring me to say yes. I laughed – held my breath and looked at the man to my right.
“You’d have to be crazy to let him do your nails.” He murmured out of the corner of his mouth, his feature filled face unmoved. When I looked back to the man, his middle-aged neighbour was watching from over his shoulder, nervous amusement emanating from behind her spectacles.
“Okay!” I uttered excitedly. There was something deliciously, ridiculously, surreal about letting a strange man paint your nails in the bosom of London’s financial centre. In an instant, a thin pearly bubble seemed to encompass our bench. The man stood up theatrically, attempted to push up his sleeves and daintily slipped the nail varnish out of my hands. As he removed the brush and attempted to blot the oozing colour, it jumped from his grip. I leapt out of my chair as the open bottle rolled back into my seat, the man dove towards it and the old woman’s hands flapped to her face.
“Well that was a great start!” I laughed. Mr Potato Head grumbled inaudibly, his head still fixed straight ahead despite seamlessly pulling a tissue from his bag. I passed it on to the man, who mopped up a small, striking green puddle from his hands.
“Okay,” the man took his glasses from his top pocket,” Okay.” He beckoned my hand in his direction once again, this time looking determined. Sitting back down, I acquiesced. Now, a stillness fell upon us. The old woman peered earnestly over his shoulder as he slowly dragged a coat of colour over each nail with wizardly precision. The woman and I registered our surprise with wide-eyed, conspiratorial nods.
“You’ve done this before…” I said, incredulously. He remained focused.
“Do you want me to do the other hand?” He asked, his eyes skimming the slim silver rim of his glasses.
I looked at the flickering clock across the station.
“I actually don’t have time for another coat to dry,” I said apologetically. He smiled and twisted the brush back into its little bottle as I examined his craftsmanship.
“That’s amazing,” I said looking at him questioningly as he gathered up his sushi. His eyes twinkled again.
“I have to run,” he smiled infectiously and shook his head.
“Well, thank you!” I said, “Lovely to meet you – have a good weekend.”
Still smiling, he raised his hand and said goodbye over a hi-five. As he turned to leave, he returned again with a fist-pump, before disappearing into the scurrying crowds. A sense of euphoria hung over us. The woman now leaned over the empty seat.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, “to have a moment like that in London.’’ A broad, disbelieving smile seemed to connect her ears. “Where”, she asked, “did you get that colour nail polish? My daughter would love it.”
“Sure, it’s only cheap.” I said, “It’s Rimmel.”
*Featured image: Christopher Sweeney via Flicker