Jewels Not Tools

Jewels Not Tools

What’s in a finger nail – or a toe nail for that matter?

What is all the fuss about?

Why on earth does anyone care about nails?

Finger nails and toe nails. Little lumps of smooth skin on the ends of fingers and toes. For most people they are unremarkable things. They serve a purpose I suppose, to protect the extremities. Animals have hard pads of skin on their paws, so they can pad up and down on a cushioned surface. And claws, they have claws. Our nails are not claws. We can’t grip onto a surface, or climb a tree, or rip our prey to shreds with our nails. Human nails are just nails.

But here’s the thing, a nail never stays still. It’s always growing. As soon as you’ve cut it, or shaped it, filed it or bitten it, it’s back again. Your nails are faithful friends. They signify health. They reveal prosperity. They can be a marker of disease. You can ignore your nails, and many people do. But once you take a hard look at them, and acknowledge them, if you look after your nails and feel proud of them, it’s a truly wonderful thing.

Beautiful nails equal happiness. I know all this, because of what has happened to me.

And if you are reading this, it could happen to you too.


I’m on the motorway and its only 8am. I haven’t had to be up this early for work for 6 months. But today, as I sit in the 3 lanes of non-moving traffic, I am back in the workforce. Well kind of … I’m a student again today – I’m on my way to the Nail Course.

It’s ‘All You Ever Needed to Know About Nails but were Afraid to Ask!’ Yes, it’s a proper, serious, up close and personal, one week Nail course, run by that well known company Crown & Beauty. I found it on the internet. It said that you can learn all you need to know to become a Nail Technician on this one week course. Unbelievable – in only one week! I am sceptical, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

It’s all coming back to me now.  The intense frustration of sitting on the motorway in a fog of petrol fumes, going nowhere, and worrying about being late. I did a commute to work for 30 years, which could take anything up to 2 hours each way. 4 hours a day for 30 years, that’s 31,200 hours of my life stuck in traffic. That’s 1300 days, or 3.6 years of my life, spent sitting in the car. I never did this calculation before but what a complete way to waste my life. Another reason why I’m jacking in the day job, and I’m going to do something else. Read on and all will become crystal clear.

You see the interesting thing about this is that I’m 54, and I’ve been an NHS doctor for 30 years. I’ve read a lot in the press recently about people changing careers. Banker to Beekeeper. HR Manager to Home Jam making Industry. Mortgage Advisor to home Travel Agent. State Registered Nurse to Cleaning Company Franchisee. Numerous examples. People fed up with working for heartless institutions, and being bossed about by officious management, while their youth ebbed away.

Now it’s my time to climb out from under the weight of medicine, and just be me.

The traffic is moving and I start to shuffle along. Luckily I know where I’m going as I used to live right near there, more than 30 years ago, when I was first qualified. It’s a coincidence. But, I can drive past my old hospital and feel smug. I can drive on past and its someone else’s problem. Heart disease, and cancer, asthma and diabetes, can all be looked after by Dr someone else. As of today, I lay down my stethoscope. It’s nails for me. I’m going to be the best Nail Technician I can be.

The course is being run in the training room at the back of the huge, Crown and Beauty shop. I had to walk past all the rows of beauty products to go in there. I felt self conscious getting out of my car. Am I supposed to be beautiful myself to work in the Beauty Industry? I suddenly wish I had spent a bit more time on hair and make-up this morning! As I walk through the shop, the local radio station is playing and I feel a frisson of party atmosphere. There are rows and rows of beautiful polishes, not just pinks and reds, but violet, lilac, oranges, daisy-yellow, and sparkles, glitter silver and gold. I just love looking at them in their beautiful bottles. Orderly rows, like bottles of medication in my office drug cupboard, but I banish that thought. No medicine today. And guess what? In truth – I’ve never even held a nail varnish brush in my hand! What kind of madness is this? No-one gets this, but me.

So I’m going to start at the beginning, if I can decide where that really is. You see nails never featured in my life either, for nearly half a century, they were just useless lumps of skin on the end of my fingers and toes.

My mother despaired of me. She had naturally beautiful nails, and she would sit in the kitchen, listening to Radio 4, and do her own nails, quite regularly. I didn’t understand it, as I shot in and out of the kitchen to retrieve the biscuit tin, or a can of diet coke. Why would she bother to do that? It was usually when she and my father were going to some sort of do. She would show me her hands very proudly, and I have to say I would shrug my shoulders and look nonplussed. I do recall her making pastry with bright red nails. That day I recall, her scarlet nails pounded the dough. I was kneeling on a kitchen chair, staring into the bowl, aged 10 and about to be sent off to boarding school. She chose that moment to tell me about periods.

I was horrified. What bleeding. From my private parts. Every month. Forever. Why hadn’t anyone told me before? Where did the blood come from, or go to? What did you do about it? How could you go out, or ride a bike if you were bleeding? What if it didn’t stop? What was all this about eggs and seeds and babies? And all the time her red nails were pounding the pastry. I jumped down and ran down the road to share this important piece of adult information with my little friend Emma.

I bit my nails until I was 50. I don’t even know when, or why or even how I did it. I just knew no-one could ever look at my hands. No one, more or less including me. I guess I chewed them in bed, as I have never been able to sleep. And at boarding school in my little 2 foot six metal bed. And as I sat hunched over my textbooks for all those years of study. Pre and post innumerable exams. And through the stresses of marriage, parenthood and divorce.

Here’s the thing, in medicine you use your hands a lot. Whether you are just doing a consultation with a patient and filling in their medical records on a computer keyboard, or examining a patient, or doing a procedure, or writing a prescription. Your hands are always on display. Moreover in the last decade or so of my career, I was a trainer, so I was showing young doctors and nurses how to do things, like pass a vaginal speculum, take swabs, fit contraceptive coils and implants, or give injections. The fact my hands were a disgrace was a constant humiliation. I would do anything I could to hide them.

In family photos you will always see me with my hands in my pockets, or behind my back, or holding a cup or a mug the wrong way round so my nails are not in the picture. It was something I rarely explained to anyone. It was just something about me, I didn’t like, and didn’t want to acknowledge even to myself. But now I think back, and it’s all true. This was something that greatly affected my self confidence. Or perhaps my low self confidence was why I bit my nails? It’s a chicken and egg situation. And I didn’t realise this at all, for 50 years of my life. I find that totally extraordinary.

So my mother died. It was truly terrible. She had bowel cancer, and was ill for 6 months. They operated, twice, to relieve the obstruction, but she vomited and vomited. To be totally honest I don’t think the team looking after her knew what to do. She had a nasogastric tube in place for almost all that time, and was hooked up to an intravenous drip and had artificial feeding in a food bag they gave her into a vein in her neck every day. In the end, we had to accept this wasn’t going to end well. Everything was disconnected and she made her final journey to the hospice. My father sat and slept by her bedside for 2 weeks before she finally took her last little breath.

I was devastated. It seemed so sudden to me, although it was a 6 month decline. And not just the pain of seeing my wonderful mother go through so much, to watch my father suffering too. And when she had died, and the funeral was over, I supported him in his loneliness for the next 3 years, until he too died of cancer.

I bit my nails all this time.

But my mother had her nails painted throughout her illness. We had a close family friend whose daughter came every fortnight and filed and polished her nails. I didn’t take a huge amount of notice. Not as much as I should. But it was a talking point as I held her hand in the corner of the surgical ward, and then in the hospice, for that 2 weeks when we were waiting for her to die. We would talk about the colours, usually a vivid red but sometimes a rosy pink, or something more like a burnt orange. The nails felt smooth under my fingers and I would stroke them, quite involuntarily. I liked the firmness, and the slippery shine. Even when she was asleep, or drifting in and out of consciousness, her bright nails shone out from the bed covers. There was even a beauty in death. A death with dignity.

I have a picture of her hands, as she lay unconscious in the bed. Her fingers had become swollen and her wedding ring was too tight. We had mentioned it to the nurse who had told us not to worry. My mother adored her wedding ring and her engagement ring. I had heard the story many times, about how soon after she met my father, a young Army soldier, he was posted to the Middle East. They wrote to each other every day, and during this romantic exchange became engaged. They had to wait a year for my father to come home, and for the wedding to take place. So he wired over some money, as you did in those days, and my mother went off shopping to buy her own engagement ring.

My grandfather was a local Bank Manager, and was well known and respected in the town. This has to have been the reason why, my mother, who couldn’t choose between 3 exquisite rings, was allowed to take all 3 to try on at home, before she made her final choice! This would never happen today! So she chose a square diamond ring set in white gold. And a formal black and white photograph was soon winging it’s way to Jordan!

In the Nail class I am now facing the realisation that I am the oldest student by a couple of decades! Shall I admit to being 55 or could I wing it at 50? – There are 5 of us. Three are twenty somethings who have all done nails before. The other is a very charming girl in her early 30’s who is a buyer for a London Fashion store. She’s always liked nails, hates her commute and wants to start a nail business. However, with a degree of heart sink, I realise I am definitely the only one who has never even held a nail varnish brush in my hand. Humiliating it is indeed.

Here’s the thing about getting old. There are so many issues. You get the importance of it all as you are so old, you’ve been round the block a bit and can’t afford to make any more mistakes. So you are a good, even a fastidious anxious student. BUT, and here’s the BUT. Everything is harder. Your brain is slow, you want every detail, the others you find irritating, you can’t write so fast or if you can you can’t read what you’ve written, your eyes are poor. Yes even with my new varifocals, I need a very bright light. It seems ridiculous. And it’s harder even to sit in the right position across the table to hold the hand and do the nails. And after a few minutes of filing and shaping, your shoulders and neck ache, there is warm smell of polish that is vaguely sick making, and you just wish you were at home with a cup of tea.

Here’s the other thing, for me, who drinks about 10 cups of tea a day, I can’t drink tea!! My hands are just too busy! I never realised it would be like this! Honest!

Our tutor Miranda, is very inspirational. She arrives and makes an entrance, standing framed in the doorway. She has thick curly dark hair tied up with some sort of bandana, purple eye-shadow and permed lashes, ruby lipstick, and her nails. OMG the nails. Crimson pointed with jewels. It’s nail art, and at it’s finest. I’ve never seen such a thing. What a display! And interestingly, she used to be a nurse! – but hated the nursing life in the NHS. I feel a kindred spirit! Can there be any more of us about? NHS nail hybrids?

She carries a host of beauty apparatus all in pretty boxes. It’s like Christmas as she unclips, unloads and sets up. We have 3 work stations complete with every type of nail implement you can imagine. Nail files, thick, thin, wide and narrow, or high grade and low grade as I was to learn. And the white block. Don’t forget the Nail Technician’s best friend! The white block! Cuticle pushers, orange sticks, elephantine nail clippers to clip artificial nails of course, scissors, and oh yes, cuticle nippers – but- we’re not allowed to use those apparently!

And the endless rows of bottles and jars, creams and lotions and potions, and the polish. So pretty! The polish!

“First stop! Hold up your hands!” Says Miranda. We do this obediently.

“These,” she says, “are ‘Jewels Not Tools!’ – Don’t you forget that!”

I had never thought like that about my hands, and my nails, but I knew instantly I would always view them differently. I needed to value my hands, and she was absolutely right.

I photographed the nail stations as they look so neat and fit for purpose. I need to own a nail station that looks like that. I need to copy it. First point taken. It’s very calm and orderly here. When I’m doing medical procedures at work, there’s always a degree of anxiety. How many times does my HCA fly down the corridor because something is missing from my trolley! But here, all is organised, little bottles in a row, fluffy piles of lint pads. Each station is made up with pink paper roll, pink and black towels, and a plastic flower. Mine’s a Daisy by the way!

But here’s the thing. Guess what we did in our first lesson? And I thought I had got away from all that! –  Anatomy of the hand and forearm!  After all – I did that 30 years ago!


Daisy Mae. June 2017



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