Susie Lau on the joys of the local nail salon

·3-min read
 (Susie Lau)
(Susie Lau)

I’ve had a thing about my nails.

Mine are inexplicably long ever since giving birth. It means there’s more natural surface area to try out all the weird and wonderful finishes that you only find in certain nail salons. I have a very strict prerequisite for what salon I’ll take my talons to. Do they have some kind of pleasingly garish floral decoration hanging from the ceilings? Do the technicians yell at each other? Is there a microwave in the back room from which the waft of their nourishing soups comes at you? Basically, if a salon is asking me if I want a chai latte and playing a Spotify indie playlist, then I’m afraid it’s not my nail vibe.

I’ve developed a particular attachment to my super local salon, Tom Nails on West Green Road. It’s very clear that even though the salon is named after Tom, it is actually his formidable wife Lee who runs the joint. She inspects her team’s work, correcting mistakes swiftly and is the fastest and most accurate filer I’ve ever had. Alongside the TV playing Modern Talking music videos on loop (you’re missing the point if you’re questioning the music choice) is the din of lively customer chat. Right now, it’s peak mani/pedi time with the arrival of open-toe season. The clientele are out in force, coming in, hollering at Lee by name. Some cheekily ask for price reductions on their full sets. It’s always a firm no from Lee.

The best part about visiting Tom is what you can’t help but overhear. Just after the second lockdown when salons were allowed to open, the nail rush was real. ‘I did my nails, my toes, I’m gonna go shave my fanny, I’m ovulating right now, and the sex will be good,’ said one lady in full confidence to her friend on the phone. We collectively cheered her on. At that point, didn’t we all need some good sex, preferably accompanied by non-gnarly toenails?

I love the women who send their other halves on errands while they’re getting their nails done. The partners shuffle in and out of the salon with the shopping and then wait patiently for their loved ones to finish getting their infills done. The row of waiting chairs is always a hive of activity for kids and friends. The hot topics are usually bad boyfriends, issues with Haringey council and upcoming holiday plans to Jamaica. Lee is the matriarch overseeing this raucous rabble, proffering advice where needed alongside the clean cuticles. Because as Legally Blonde taught us, even if our life is falling apart, having someone touch your hands for an hour will uplift you in mysteriously magical ways.

The other day I realised there’s a deeper reason why I over-maintain my nails at Tom (fortnightly — yes they grow incredibly fast). I recently re-read Ocean Vuong’s heart wrenching ode, Time is a Mother, dedicated to his Vietnamese mother who passed away in 2019 from breast cancer. She too worked in a nail salon. In interviews Vuong has spoken of the memories of the empty desk next to her nail work station, where she encouraged him to work and practise his craft alongside her. Lee too has a set-up in the salon where her kids dutifully do their homework while taking in the chatter.

I too did homework next to a takeaway counter once upon a time. All of these many makeshift desks soaking up the smells of acetone, sweet and sour sauce and customer chatter. And all of that parents’ graft putting all their hopes and dreams into these workplace desks where their children sit. As I sift through the nail palette of chrome finishes and glitter shades, I watch Lee’s kids diligently working and wonder about their hopes and dreams.

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