Healing Hands

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When writer and mother Hannah Shuckburgh needs to recharge and refocus, she needs just two things: half an hour and a cheap high street nail salon.


About two months after my baby was born, I knew it was time. I was in that delirious phase when days drift, dreamlike, into nights, when you don’t get out of your pyjamas and forget to brush your teeth.


I needed to feel normal. I needed to be alone for a minute, just to breathe. I needed to walk down the street without a baby in a sling, go to a café, order a coffee, stare into space. It was a Saturday morning, and I left my tiny newborn son with my husband to go and do the thing I’ve always done when I need an instant high. I went to Pretty Nailz. They don’t take bookings, so I just showed up. I selected carefully from the plastic, wall-mounted Polish Station, choosing a burgundy (toes) and a deep, forest green (hands), and took my seat in the queue of four plastic chairs by the door. “You”, pointed the manicurist when my turn came, and I sank luxuriously into the leatherette as she cranked up the backbreaking massage facility. I submerged my feet in the plastic tub, into which three capfuls of electric blue granules had been spilled. For the next hour I sat meditatively as she buffered and polished…


I’ve had a passion for high street nail salons since I was a teenager. The shabbier the better. I like the kind with neon signs, strip lighting and cheap, chipboard shop-fits. I look for places called Nails Number One or American Hot Nails, the kind with hazy photographs on the walls of ghostly white-fingered hands with French manicures opening ring pulls. Or of dainty toes tiptoeing over pebbles.


I’ve been to the posh places, the chains where everyone’s uniformed and trained and it’s non-U to bring your own colours, but for me, the magic is lost. Because even on the most run-down high street, inside the door of a nail salon, you are in a place of hope. They are spaces of transformation and of healing and of faith in feeling better. Getting your nails done is about optimism, about being the best version of you. The women who wait silently for their turn at Pretty Nailz are possibly not women I would ever know or meet outside of that place (and few of us ever utter a single word to each other over the tinny MTV soundtrack) but I know we agree on the reviving effect of a few coats of polish. Not all problems can be solved, there is no magic bullet for feeling happy, but you always can get your nails done and feel a bit better. And how amazing that something so miraculous can happen just there, down the road, on all our high streets, for just £5 for a polish change or £20 for a mani-pedi.


Life is messy, of course, and none of that really changes just because I’ve had a manicure. It will always chip after a day or two, particularly now I have a toddler. But when my nails are cut very, very short and freshly, glossily painted inky blue, for some precious moments, the cracks just seem to smooth over.




Hannah’s first book, The Set Table: The Art of Small Gatherings (£17.95, Cicada), a stylish guide to setting the table, was published last year.  


Photo credit: Gaby Av

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