When I was nineteen, I saw an advert in the back of a TV guide. Choose 10 books for £10 and get a free luggage set!
I thought this sounded like the deal of the century! I loved books and luggage. I filled out the application form, picked my books and wrote a cheque for £13.50 (P+P). It seemed too good to be true so I was delighted when my books arrived. Legible, brand new copies. Wow.
Unfortunately, I’d missed the small print. I was contractually obliged to keep picking books for the next 6 months and pay for them. And subsequent books were full price. Plus P+P. It was one of two extremely poor decisions I made that year that left me flat broke most of the time despite having a job (the other was a free Motorola V3 with an expensive phone contract I couldn’t afford).
Anyway, one of these consignments came with some other leaflets, one of which was a voucher for a free pedicure at a participating beauty salon.
And a nearby salon was participating. It was in Cheadle, which was the next town over. Barely an hour’s bus ride. Perfect. So I phoned the salon and booked for my pedicure.
On the day, I carefully straightened my hair and applied make-up because I had this idea that you should look nice to go to a beauty salon. I walked all the way to Uttoxeter bus station and got on a bus to Cheadle. I hopped off in the high street and walked to the salon. Opened the door and went in.
“Hi I’m here for my pedicure.”
I held out the voucher, half-thinking this couldn’t possibly be true, and I was going to have to pay for something.
The salon owner took my voucher and nodded to a chair. I assumed she wanted me to sit so I did. She turned back to the client she was doing the nails of, and I was left sitting extremely awkwardly on a weird black leather chair that looked like something that might be used for interrogations (or Mastermind).
Should I take my shoes off? Was I allowed to cross my legs? I was being ignored so much that I felt like an interloper so I just stared at my trousers feeling more and more self-conscious and wishing it hadn’t been such a hot, sweaty bus ride to get here.
Eventually, a spotty teenager appeared. I was a teenager myself, but this one was in the throes of mid-adolescence, that painfully awkward becoming period when everyone expects you to be a butterfly but you’re still a very hungry caterpillar and all you want to do is eat and sleep in your cocoon until forever.
Orange fake tan clashed with the white concealer she’d applied to the top of the spots in that very specific way that makes them stand out more than if she’d just left them alone. It was like snow on a mountain range at sunset.
“What’re yer here for?” she asked in a thick Cheadle accent. I wondered if we’d gone to the same schools at any point. I didn’t recognise her.
“I had a voucher for a free pedicure.” I wanted to make it really clear to anyone involved that I did not have any money to pay for this. It had better be free, or I imagined they’d have to un-pedicure my toes and bar me from ever returning.
I should probably tell you at this point, I actually didn’t know what a pedicure was except something to do with toe nails.
“Oh. Pick a nail polish.” She held out some colours.
I looked at them, a bit confused because I hadn’t really thought nail varnish would factor into it.
I picked a colour. Maybe it was for after the pedicure.
“Take off yer socks an’ shews,” she told me.
I removed my shoes and socks. Now I felt exposed and bared in a place that still had a slightly hostile atmosphere. I felt like an interloper.
Kevinette the Teenager got a nail file, rubbed it over my nails a couple of times, then opened the nail polish and smeared a fat dollop on my toes. And, no, I don’t mean my nails. I mean this nail varnish went all over the skin and between my toes. To her credit, she did get it on my toenails as well.
I’m pretty sure I was better at applying nail varnish in primary school. And this person was in a beauty salon. Had she just wandered in off the street and got bored waiting for her own pedicure? The older woman was doing someone’s fingernails, chatting away to her client completely oblivious to what was going on over here.
The first, thick coat applied, she put the brush back into the bottle. Phew, I thought, she’s realised what a cock-up she’s made of this and she’s going to get some acetone.
She pulled the brush back out and put another thick dollop of varnish over my poor toes. It reminded me of the time I was six and sneaked into my mother’s make up cabinet, and played with her pillarbox red nail varnish.
I didn’t really know how to say anything without being a complete bitch. Excuse me, do you have eyes? Can you see what a mess you’ve made? was on the tip of my tongue stopping any other words coming out.
It took all my energy not to say it.
There were five more coats of nail varnish.
The best part, though, was that this whole debacle took place in complete silence.
I was tempted to ask her where she was going on her holidays.
It was like this task was taking all her concentration. I felt really bad for her because she obviously hadn’t been taught how to do a pedicure and was making it up as she went along, badly. It was clear the older woman had taken on an apprentice because she could pay her almost nothing and have a dogsbody, rather than because she actually wanted to train the poor girl.
So I couldn’t say anything to her. Neither of us were wanted in this beauty salon and I’d be damned if I’d make her job worse by dobbing her in. The owner was obviously too wrapped up in her own world and telling her client how amazing and important she was to actually know what was going on.
At the end of the nail varnish, Kevinette got this spray out and sprayed it on.
“That’ll make it dry quicker. When they’re dry, just put your shoes on and you can go.”
She left. I was in the weird leather chair with my shoes off and my mis-shapen toes on display, now slathered in half a bottle of nail varnish, and she thought two little sprays of some liquid would dry it quicker?
They were marinaded in nail varnish. I wanted to ask to borrow a hairdryer to sort this out. Or some acetone to remove it all. The boss lady finished her appointment and tidied up, never saying a word to me or acknowledging I was here.
To this day I don’t know why she signed up to participate in this free pedicure scheme. Surely the point of a freebie is to attract new customers? Which means the freebie shouldn’t be awful.
I’d like to point out that this was 2005, and there was no mobile internet. It was a couple of years after the days of the Nokia 3210 etc with that snake game. You couldn’t just go on your phone to pass the time in 2005, you had to sit and wait and really absorb every second of your life you would never get back.
Usually I’d read a book, but there was no way in hell I’d do that in a beauty salon when I was getting a vibe that rising damp would be more welcome in the building than I was. I got bullied at school for reading at breaktimes by people who looked just like this.
It was ironic, really, that I had gotten the pedicure voucher in the box with the book subscription. I could have burned through Angels and Demons again in the time I was sat there.
They didn’t even have a table full of magazines like at the hairdresser’s. I had no idea if any of this was normal or not, though, because I’d never set foot inside a beauty salon before.
Forty-five minutes passed and my nails were still wet.
The teenager came back.
“Aren’t they dry yet?” She gave me a look that implied it was something I’d done wrong. Or like I was lying to spend more time here. I mean, it was the place to be.
All I wanted to do was leave but my nails were so wet, I couldn’t put my socks on.
“No. Look.” I touched one. It rippled.
Any self-respecting person would, at that point, have… well, I don’t know what, because whatever it was, I didn’t do it. I just waited, because I didn’t know what else to do.
I’d already had enough of a bad day from wasting £2 in bus fare on a terrible pedicure in a horrible atmosphere. I didn’t want to also wreck a good pair of shoes by putting them on when I was a human bottle of nail varnish. Anyway, if I went outside there was a chance someone might be smoking (okay, I would be smoking), and this nail varnish had strong enough fumes that I was worried I might be a fire risk.
They had effectively made me a prisoner.
So I sat there and waited for it to dry.
I think more than anything, I wanted to believe it would dry eventually.
Another forty-five minutes passed while the salon owner ignored me and the teenager hid in a cupboard or something.
It was now after five. I was suddenly very aware of the bus timetable. If I didn’t get out of here soon, I didn’t know if I could get a bus home. And if I didn’t get a bus home, I’d miss dinner.
Dinner was an institution at my aunt’s house, where I lived. My waistline at the time was testament to how good the food was. I’ve never eaten so well on a regular basis before or since. The idea of missing dinner was horrifying.
I touched my big toe. It was still sticky.
I contemplated going home barefoot just to get out of there.
The teenager appeared again.
“Isn’t it done yet?” she gave me a look and I gave her the thousand-yard stare back. Maybe their marketing plan was to attract new customers, treat them like shit, but imprison them here long enough with wet toenails that they got Stockholm syndrome and came back again and again.
It was the only explanation for what happened next.
“Oh I know what’s happened. I forgot the top coat!”
I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. She thought the solution to the fact she’d put too many, too thick layers of nail varnish on my toes so they wouldn’t dry, was to add more nail varnish?
“I don’t think more nail varnish is…” I began, but she interrupted me.
“This isn’t nail varnish. It’s top coat.” She said it so the word ran together. Topcoat. She opened the bottle. Short of kicking her, there was nothing I could do to stop her as she embalmed my toenails with clear lacquer.
Then she sprayed it with the spray again. This time, she held the spray bottle half a centimetre from each toenail and sprayed and sprayed like her life depended on it. The force of the spray was enough to make indentations in the now-even-wetter nail varnish.
After ten more minutes sitting in this chair being ignored, I gave up. I touched my toes. They felt about as dry as the cheese on a takeaway pizza. In fact the only thing drying in this chair was my mouth as I went longer and longer without a drink. None had been offered, of course.
I’d had enough of this shyte. I put my socks on, put my shoes on, and walked out.
No one noticed.
On the bus home, I reflected that, really, there was no such thing as a free pedicure. When I got in, I was just in time for dinner. I ate it slowly, savouring the buzz of conversation of eight people chatting at the dinner table.
When I got upstairs, around eight o’clock, I took my shoes off and peeled my socks off. The nail varnish was still wet and now had indentations with the pattern of my sock fabric. I reached for my nail varnish remover pads and spent fifteen minutes carefully removing every last bit of it off my nails. It was three more weeks before the splodges on my skin fully came off.
I have never, ever let anyone near my nails again. Not even for my wedding.
And that was how I learned sometimes free stuff just isn’t worth it.
But I’m not a fast learner, and I forgot again several years later, which is how I ended up with a garden full of 800 bricks in 2013.
On the plus side, it was surprisingly easy to cancel the book subscription as long as you called exactly 28 days in advance of the next deadline for ordering books and paid a nominal cancellation fee of around the cost of a month’s books. You also had to put the cancellation in writing and effectively synchronise it with the phone call. Dead easy when you followed the smallprint to the letter.