Toes, nails and clippings

‘Cut my nails, Hannah,’ my father asked, and not for the first time.

Hannah dragged herself out of her chair and took up the clippers from the table beside him. I watched from the corner of the room, eyes towards the television screen, but every so often back in their direction.

There was a rhythm to this task. My sister’s bottom close to the ground as she squatted and moved from one of my father’s feet to the other, from one toe to the other, big toe first.

My father’s toes were long, finger like, much longer than my own, relative to the length of our respective bodies. His toes looked as though they could get up and start doing things, rather like the toes of children I had seen on television, children born without arms who could paint with their feet.

These children were nimble, not like my father who was tall and awkward and who had trouble bending over.

Clip, clip, clip, and the nails flew up and around his feet. My sister then gathered up the clippings like so many bits of twig and chucked them into the waste paper basket.

‘You haven’t finished yet,’ my father said and threw out his hands, palms down. ‘What about my fingers?’

My sister straightened, then took a deep breath as she picked up the clippers again. This time she leaned into my father’s body to get closer and then held each finger aloft and separate from the other as she moved from one hand to the next.

My father’s expression suggested he had complete confidence in her, while her matter of fact manner did not convince me that she had any such confidence in him.

Like me, my father was right handed. Even I had trouble trimming the nails on my right hand with nail scissors, but his toenails and the nails on his  left hand must have been easy for him to get to. Even so he sat like a rajah on his throne while I cringed and looked down at my own toes in their blue plastic sandals.

My baby toes peeked out of the holes at either side of my shoes, the nails thick and stubby. They reminded me of miniature rams horns only their layers were not even. I had too often worn shoes that did not fit me when I was little and when my toes were in their formative stages such that my littlest toes had developed nails that were hardened and deformed.

I would never ask anyone to cut my nails again I decided even as I remembered my older sister trimming the nails on my fingers short. She could be careless with my nails, not like with my father who never once winced. With me my sister had a way of getting under the nail too close to the quick. Sometimes she drew blood.

I learned fast to cut my own nails or to leave them long and dirty and to watch the thin line of black that day after day crept underneath them.

‘In future, wash your hands before you do your needlework,’ Mother Mary John had said the day before. ‘This is a disgrace.’

How could it be that the dirt from my fingers could spread so easily to the pattern on my needlework? Sky blue cornflowers and red poppies with bright yellow and black stamens. We held the fabric firm with a circular frame the nuns had lent us.

I kept my needlework in a paper bag.

The nuns taught us to keep the thread at an optimal length, too short and you would be needing another thread too soon and your work on the back would be full of knots and finishings off. Too long and the thread would get tangled and knot up to the point it could no longer pass through the fine weave of the fabric.

My fingers pricked blood on the sharp point of the needle, faded brown spots appeared between the cornflowers.
‘You’ll need to ask your mother to wash this once it’s done,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘You can’t present it like this.’

My insides blazed with shame whenever Mother Mary John looked my way. She dressed entirely in black, apart from the white band across her forehead. She smelled of mothballs and musk. She wore an apron, also black, over her long black dress which never seemed to attract a fleck of dirt.

It was then I decided that nuns did not have bodies. They were machines underneath. They did not eat, and because they did not eat, they never used a toilet. The nuns gave off no signs of being human apart from their faces where their eyes, ears, noses and mouths suggested they could see smell, hear, and speak.

The fact of their legs and arms suggested they could walk and carry things, but their thoughts were circumscribed to quotes from the bible and injunctions about what to do and what not to do.

I figured the nuns did not sleep. They only taught and prayed.

These semi-human creatures were my first teachers for the first fifteen years of my life. They terrified me. And taught me about the sanctity of the body as if preserved in aspic.

My father, on the other hand, taught me a different sense of my body.

I looked across to the neat line of his toes, as he admired them from his seat.

‘Good job,’ he said to Hannah.

She said nothing, put down the clippers and looked over in my direction.

Once again the clippers sat on the coffee table beside my father’s chair, silver and squat.

My turn next.