The motel is the basic no-frills variety. Although there is a new super king bed and a mini spa bath, as James points out. That is, the motelier pointed this out when they checked in and James is upselling. According to James, Annie will have ‘time on her hands’ to relax. As if she could sleep and bathe all day. Her hands, she notices, support James’s cliché. Her skin has thinned to the point where blue veins are mini mountain ranges on liver-spotted terrain.
Although it is idyllic autumnal weather – soft blue skies, wispy still clouds and warm by lunchtime – the sun does not penetrate the stucco façade of the purpose-built, one-night-only motel block. Just along the road are the truckers, their tankers impressively nose-to-tail overnight. At least they aren’t in that motel.
Three whole days stretching out before her. A freedom often imagined when busy with work but seldom acted on. What to do? When James suggested she join him on his business trip, she’d leapt at the chance. From Auckland, she had blissfully imagined a sea view, a balcony, sunshine, deck chairs and a good book. Even the book she has seems less appealing on a budget sofa beside a low-lying glass coffee table in a small room with a wall-mounted flat screen TV showing BBC World in full-colour blurry pixels.
A walk it will be. It is about four kilometres from the port to the city centre and she can exercise while ‘filling in time’. En route, instead of observing the sights, Annie re-runs last week at work. The moment when a co-worker, frustrated by a malfunctioning steel filing cabinet, threw the cabinet sideways until the contents spilled across the floor. Witty, pithy and acute remarks come easily in this seaside sunshine. But actually, last week, she’d been without words, dumbstruck and furious. James says she is passive aggressive being silent and it is best to deal with such anomalies there and then and move on. Today, for four kilometres, she rewrites the script, holds conversations with the offender, co-workers and herself. Once that is settled, she interrogates her reasons for staying in her job. James is always saying she ought to give up work. Insists he is earning enough for the two of them, which isn’t strictly true if they are going to retire in comfort, but relatively true if she is willing to make a few adjustments. But it isn’t the material comforts she will miss, it is a sense of importance; that she matters and, more to the point, what she does matters. Of course, not everyone agrees that CYFS matters or makes a difference and the latest news is all about yet another restructure.
It seems no time at all and she is in the city centre having missed most of the scenery, intent inside her own head. At one point in the journey, a person walking towards her smirked. Annie’s mouth had been moving and her hands remonstrating as she re-ran the falling filing cabinet.
The town is sparkling. It is both leisurely and lively. People say hello. She needs a new pair of trousers and a nice top for winter but the thought of changing rooms and disappointment keeps her walking. She hates disrobing in small cubicles, catching sight of herself up close, the necessary scrutiny of flesh not fitting, and nowadays her grey hair. No, she’ll find a spot to drink coffee and read her book.
$25 manicure SPECIAL TODAY.
Annie never has manicures. Whereas she often has a pedicure because her toenails are brittle and harder than ever to cut. But the thought of having her hands massaged, and sitting for a while, appeals. There is just one other customer. A young woman, her feet soaking in a foot bath.
At the counter is a young girl who looks eight or nine, playing on her iPhone.
‘Are you in charge?’ Annie asks jokingly, using her warm empathetic charm that works when talking to children who are in transition from one caregiver to another.
The young girl looks up and without stopping whatever it is she is doing on her iPhone, acknowledges Annie and then looks away.
A voice calls out ‘What you want. Choose colour.’
‘A manicure’ Annie answers, not sure if she is talking to the young girl or the anonymous voice.
‘Let Lady choose.’
A laminated colour chart is produced from under the counter without the young girl removing her eyes from her iPhone. Annie finds colour charts confronting. She struggles with spreadsheets at work too. Words are like pictures, but colour charts and numbers became puzzles she can’t solve. Annie’s job requires making life-changing decisions on behalf of other people. Outside of work she often becomes passive, unable to assert herself. She dithers, feeling anxious and diminished, choosing what turns out to be a sparkly frosted pink – so very wrong.
From somewhere out the back a young woman is summoned to deal with the problematic pedicure. Annie tries hard not to judge the whining detail with which the young woman assays her attentive pedicurist. Consoling words in broken English punctuate the whining.
‘I fix your feet, no war-ry.’
Annie is then directed to a row of empty tables to wait, her wrists resting on rolled beige towels. The area is lit by funky turquoise lamps and a brightly coloured lava lamp mesmerising in its garish convolutions. To the right just above her is a giant plasma screen on which beauty queens parade in swimsuits: something she finds abhorrent and yet more mesmerising than the lava lamp. It appalls her that all her efforts as a ‘70s feminist haven’t made a scrap of difference to the popularity of such pageants. The sound is down but she is drawn to the moment when one of the contestants is interviewed and tries desperately to lip-read even though Miss Ecuador is speaking Spanish and Annie only knows hola and hasta luego.
‘What you want?’
It seems another customer has arrived. Thankfully, at the same time, a young woman, probably from Thailand or Vietnam, Annie decides – she leans towards Thailand but without any actual evidence – comes over to do Annie’s manicure. Without a word, the young woman begins clipping Annie’s nails, efficiently, silently, and then skillfully to trim the skin from her cuticles, gathering the flesh in little bundles that accumulate, and once the bundle is big enough she wipes the flesh off onto a beige flannel so that the surplus skin disappears in the camouflage of the fabric.
‘You want manicure?’
‘I do.’ The voice behind Annie is someone who is used to being noticed, provincial, authoritative – someone who isn’t going to buckle under a colour chart.
‘I’m having a rest from shellac.’
The imperious voice is moving towards Annie and then seated beside her. Annie glances sideways and finds herself both the appraiser and the appraised. Briefly they catch each other’s glance and then lapse into silence. But not before Annie takes in the smart short grey hair, the designer red-framed glasses, possibly older than Annie but she can’t be certain. Somewhere between sixty-five and seventy-five, and this was how it was now, the range of a decade meant nothing – nobody cared – you were grey and over sixty and all the same genre, she knew.
Another young woman from Thailand or Vietnam sits down to attend to the handsome tanned hands on the rolled beige towels beside Annie.
‘Can I see ring?’
Now Annie’s manicurist has stopped her careful clipping and is gazing with fondness at the handsome hands of Annie’s neighbour. Actually, she and her fellow manicurist are gazing at a whopping great diamond on the left hand of Annie’s neighbour. Annie follows their gaze. It was like the beauty pageant on the plasma screen, an involuntary curiosity. The diamond seemed to flash like a lava lamp the harder Annie tries to ignore it.
‘Where are you from?’ she asks the young woman who has finished gathering cuticle flesh and is now rhythmically rocking the little bottle of sparkly pink polish from side to side with one hand, the other hand busy tidying the flannel away.
Annie has been to Hanoi and is about to engage on this topic but before she can speak, another diamond (this one on the right hand) becomes the focus of attention.
Annie’s fellow customer tilts her right hand back and forth in studied nonchalance as if unaffected by the admiration of her jewellery, but look, here it is, if you must. Annie’s hands are left stranded and unattended as both the young manicurists gaze in awe at the oversized sparkly rock.
‘Michael Hill Jeweller. I buy ring, was $6,000, I love that man – he gave me ring for $5,000. Michael Hill good man.’ The young woman from Vietnam is speaking and there’s doubt in her voice as she compares her own purchase with the sparkly specimen in front of her.
‘Is bargain?’ And now there’s definite doubt in her voice.
The older woman is aghast and she looks at Annie and winks.
‘I hope you got a certificate. Are you sure it’s a diamond?’
Annie looks down at her own hands arched over the rolled towels, bare and forlorn, her wedding ring back at the motel on the ledge below the bathroom mirror. She doesn’t have a diamond ring and she doesn’t want a diamond ring, but it’s like the colour chart, and spreadsheets, sometimes she’s just out of her depth. She watches as her neighbour (almost a friend now since the conspiratorial wink) takes off her two rings and places them regally on a small beige flannel that pales into insignificance under the weight of its bounty.
‘We girls have to earn our diamonds, don’t we?’ She almost nudges Annie as if they are one and the same – older women who’ve ‘earned’ their diamonds.
Soon, they are chatting like old friends, and sharing stories about the aches and pains that come with age. Annie’s new friend has had to reduce from eighteen holes to nine nowadays. Annie has never had time to play golf. They compare ganglions. Annie’s popped up a year ago on the underside of her right wrist. It’s annoying and ugly but out of sight. Her new-found friend has an even larger ganglion on the top of her index finger. Annie feels faintly smug that her ganglion is both smaller and less obvious.
‘Awful isn’t it?’ says the woman, rolling her finger around for everyone to admire as if it’s another diamond ring.
The two manicurists are oblivious to the ganglions and intent on manipulating the tiny brushes to paint the proffered fingernails. Serious work, Annie wishes the women were wearing face masks as they breathe in the toxic chemicals. She thinks about mentioning it, but decides not to. Instead she admires the deftness required to shake the varnish bottle, tilt it just the right angle, and apply the nail lacquer smoothly, in fluid economical movements.
‘Where are you staying?’
Of course, it’s not necessary that she answer this question, but she enjoys the look on her new companion’s face when she mentions she and James are staying near to where the truckies stop overnight. The road is lined with shiny yellow tankers, ‘The Yellow Rose’, ‘Stor Vin Rubba’ and ‘Chur’. She doesn’t mention that she whined to James when she saw this. Doesn’t mention that the motel has no sun, no balcony and no sea view. She turns the canary yellow tankers into trucks of wonder, shiny, magnificent, important and necessary, transporting whatever it is (and here she speculates, perhaps it’s wine in the tanks… or milk) perhaps to Auckland or down to Wellington. Useful shiny big yellow tankers.
Her neighbour seems bemused by this segue and turns back to inspect her nails, engaging the manicurist in a conversation about her reasons for resting from shellac. She’s lost interest in Annie, her bare hands, her motel by the sea with no view, no sun, and ‘goodness look at the time, thank you, my nails look fabulous.’
Hands flapping as she departs, and over her shoulder, head barely turning, Annie’s new friend calls out.
‘Enjoy your stay, I have to dash, meeting friends for lunch down at the marina.’
Annie is waiting for her nails to dry. On the plasma screen Adele is dialing up to apologise to an ex-lover. Annie only knows it is Adele because her grandson, her only grandchild, is a fan. He is fifteen now and she rarely sees him. Her daughter-in-law doesn’t approve of Annie’s ‘clients’, her focus in South Auckland, and it was such a trek from the North Shore, and Matthew had soccer in winter, cricket in summer and sooo many friends. Her nails dry, Annie thanks the young woman from Vietnam.
(She’d practiced it over and over on their trip to Hanoi trying to decide whether it was ‘game on’, or ‘come on’ and she could never quite mimic the right sound, the correct tonal register).
The young woman smiles for the first time.
Annie heads back into the sunshine. She waves her fingernails in the air and watches the sun catch the sparkling pink, so inappropriate and yet strangely uplifting.