Every spring, I paint my toenails with the loudest shade I can find. The name on the bottle escapes me, but as far as I’m concerned the colour is ‘shriek pink’, a phrase I first heard from my friend Debora, one that has stuck with me ever since. Not for me salmon, blush, or pearl. Here in London we don’t do tropics and for the last couple of years we haven’t done much in the way of fun. But my toenails never got the memo. As far as they are concerned, every day is a party.
Pink toenails were exactly right for the dinner I had with a school friend on an unexpectedly balmy evening late last autumn, a long and meandering meal in a crowded restaurant. When I rewind back to that evening I picture bearded, red-faced men, heads thrown back and roaring with laugher, plates whisking past us piled high with meat that glistened. At the end of the meal, flushed and smiling, we signalled for the bill, and, still talking, took our phones from our bags.
I was midway through my usual schtick, some story told against myself complete with hand gestures, when I noticed that my friend wasn’t listening. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have to ring…’ I was still talking as she made the call.
It was a short conversation, and as it ended, I remember her expression because it was so particular, almost textbook. Her mouth in a round o, her eyes wide. ‘My mum’s dead,’ she said.
It’s not about me, none of this is about me. That was my thought at the time, and it is my thought now. To be with someone when they get that kind of news is to watch a chasm open at your feet. To stand, helpless, on the side of safety, as the wind whips your hair. Where, a minute or two before, we were the same, now, my friend had been touched with something, had become almost holy, and I wanted to help even as I was afraid of her, the magnitude of what she was containing, what she had to contain, as we staggered from the restaurant out into the warm night.
To say just the right thing, or at least, not the wrong thing, that was what I was thinking, even as my friend was wrestling with the unimaginable. My words could not make it better, but it was fully within my power for them to make it worse. Perhaps that’s why, later, as I tried and failed to sleep on her spare bed, my mind replayed the foolishness with which I carried on my half of the conversation about nothing at all, even as what she heard would change everything, always.
It was the third day of our holiday last week, and the paint on my toes had begun to chip. No matter, I was finally unravelling from my usual state of barely suppressed panic, buying the kids too many sweets, dragging the whole family into a shop to watch me try on clothes. Upon seeing me emerge from the changing room, my smallest child’s response was to defecate into his nappy. My husband nipped out to change him, never much fun, especially in a public toilet, and that, I assumed, was why he looked somewhat haunted on his return.
Still. ‘Let’s buy meringues!’ I remember saying, whirling us into a bakery. ‘I can’t decide on the dress. It clung, a bit. I might go back, have another look at it? Maybe tomorrow,’ and on, and on, and on. It wasn’t for another five minutes that he managed to enter the conversation, say that he had received a call.
At the funeral for my husband’s mother there wasn’t a dress code, precisely. The night before, I fished about in my wardrobe for something summery but solemn, something quiet. The dress I found did the job well enough, and it was only when we were gathered around the coffin I noticed every woman but me was wearing closed-in shoes. That in the hushed room of brown and cream and black, my feet were shouting, still.
His mum liked a manicure, I said to myself. She wouldn’t have minded. No one cares. Even so, I spent the entire service with my toes curled tight.
And then yesterday it was me whose phone lit up, another friend in hospital, and I message her now, something funny and flippant, something that I hope she will like. For even after all that has happened, I am still silly, still frivolous; it is, I find, the only language I have. And it might be wrong, it might be foolish, but it’s better than silence, isn’t it?
Please, let it be the right thing, I think, as I wait for the blue ticks to say she has seen my words; look around the room, around my life, for something, anything, to say to her, to tell us both that it will be OK.
My toenails are pink, and when we meet again, I will paint hers, too. Shriek pink, the loudest colour I know.