by Alex Howe

after ‘Fingernails’ by Ruth Fainlight

I often see an elderly woman in my Paris neighbourhood waltzing down the street to her own imagined music, flashing a slightly demented smile at everyone she passes. When she was really old, desensitised by age and time, she never cut her nails. Instead, she let them grow until they terrified whoever looked. She can no more imagine them on her own fingers than the silver-sheathed and tallow-coloured five-inch fingernails of Chinese mandarins. Anywhere else, I would cross the street to avoid her.

If there is a secret to aging well, Frenchwomen must know it. At least that’s what Americans think. They overwhelmed our minds with visions of cemeteries, of bodies disinterred from open coffins crammed with matted hanks of hair, and of fingernails like horny spirals. The feeling of their tips beyond the ends of her fingers is maddening. As a girl, she bites her nails to the quick.

She was wilfully determined to pre-empt Death’s worst indignities. And she makes me think that in France, women might forget everything else as they age but never their sense of style. She always wears a matching, if slightly kooky, outfit like the red print skirt, loose cardigan and scarlet cloche hat she wore one day this spring, has great posture and is beautifully made up. Soon, her nails will resemble opalescent polished women’s nails, those which in decades to come will be unimaginable elegant ideals. She clearly loves being herself.