They’re supposed to protect the matrix unguis, sometimes known as the keratogenous membrane. They’re supposed to be made of translucent keratin protein. Several layers of dead, compacted cells are supposed to cause them to be strong but flexible. They’re supposed to have a transverse shape. On average, they’re supposed to grow at a rate of 3.47 millimetres a month.

Molly’s nails don’t grow at all. They are in perpetual competition with her mouth, frequent victims to the shared efforts of a lateral incisor and canine. Therapy might help, the mannerism being an indisputable side effect of her recovery from a twenty-year marriage divorced. This and the inherent stress of a subsequent custody battle. To chart a reductive over-simplification of the connection: her right index finger belongs to her ex-husband, her left the fraught relationship with eldest son Sam, her right little finger the romance developing with her lawyer, her thumbs a personal history of debilitating social anxiety. She’d sought the comforting taste of the horn-like envelope covering her fingers as an antidote since as far back as she could remember.

The image was the constant thread running through forty-five years on this rock. Speaking to her future first boyfriend after class, entrance exams, job interviews, asking her husband to marry her, the birth of youngest son James… omnipresent was the unsightly snapshot of a hand held 2.5 inches from her lips, joined via this measurement of flesh and bone. It was the centrepiece to an array of landscapes: the window seat of the yellow school bus, the white picket fence with overhanging washing line, the runway of a flight from JFK to Heathrow (and their new life), the insipid brown bench decorated by the face set to deliver the indictment “split custody.”

More recently, the source of the restless habit has been Molly’s creative output. Novel One was an instant hit; Two the kind of gargantuan commercial success greeted by accusations of “sell-out”; Three the more polarising art piece nobody rated as much as her agent. The extremity of these trajectorial shifts has left her with a directionless early draft process for Novel Four. As such, she frequents South London coffee shops hoping inspiration will be swept in with the wind and slap her in the face as she lowers a macchiato with oat milk instead of full-fat.

Molly can be found at 15:24 on a Wednesday on Brixton Hill, one hand feverishly hammering a laptop keyboard, the other poised below her mouth, ready to offer her teeth a nail when the ideas at the end of hand one develop into something particularly exciting. Or she can be found at 12:03 on a Friday on Streatham High Road, tucked into a café that doesn’t allow laptops but serves the area’s best chicken and avocado wrap. One hand is occupied by a Zadie Smith title, the other entertains the left side of her mouth as she bites a nail rather than her sandwich, method reading as characters navigate dramatically worrisome sets of circumstances.

At present, these are her coliseums: the coffee shop and her husband’s apartment. Every Friday, she and James must tolerate Dad and Sam for an evening, complete with Indian takeaway and film selection whose runtime needs to be doubled to match the time spent deciding on it. The battles vary in severity: who’s making too much noise as they eat, who’s asking too many irritating questions about the film, whose turn it is to get a round of drinks from the fridge, whose fault last week’s argument was. Invariably, each debate is left unresolved. Goodbyes are said, forced hugs are exchanged, doors are shut… all until next episode.

This week, Molly contradicts the formula. On her way out, she pulls the pin from a hand grenade and tosses it into the apartment behind her husband’s 6’2” frame. The act will leave mess and debris to clear up next week, the week after, and the one after that; but she must tell him sooner rather than later.

She exhales deeply before words escape from the same exit:

‘I’ve met somebody.’

Her right index and little fingers are tactically repositioned to her mouth. This pair is sporadically switched out for the thumbs and vice-versa, for what feels like forever.

‘… Well… I didn’t expect to have This Conversation so soon –’

‘– Me neither.’

‘Is it Leo?’

‘It’s Leo.’


‘Look, I’m sorry.’

‘No, it’s… I mean, don’t be.’

‘This was always gonna happen.’


‘I guess I’ll see you next week.’

‘I guess.’

‘Don’t forget Sam’s dentist appointment on Wednesday.’

‘I won’t.’

The door closes and Molly stifles a cry, facing forward so James can’t see her from the car. Composing herself, she strides back to the Audi A3, an unconvincing bundle of bones and organs loosely stitched together, held upright by the hand of her ventriloquist. At the Audi, her Maker twitches her sewn head in a direction and squeaks dialogue from the corner of his mouth:

‘Let’s go home.’

For the next sixty-three minutes, Molly’s left hand inhabits her mouth as her right controls the Audi’s steering wheel – each a Siamese twin of the thing it wields immense power over, each a dynamic that could crumble at any moment. Translucent keratin protein is shaved from each finger like hairs being removed from a chin – as her husband’s used to be, as Leo’s do. Unlike both, she intends to rinse away the leftovers: she’ll take a hoover to the car this weekend, depositing any used coffee cups in the process. The mess will return, like her nails. She’ll return to the beginning of the temporal loop she’s willingly initiated.

This process will repeat, ad infinitum. The kind of metaphysical four walls she’s as guilty of trapping her fictional creations behind. Those 2D cut-outs masquerading as “characters” – dipped in one pot for background, another for personality, a particularly deep one for motivation… before being splashed across the canvas to whatever results the combination of dips is responsible for.


Peur, your French girlfriend calls it. Put through the British washing machine, this becomes fear. Your version’s vowel pairing comes with distance, with an that glides away from the e. Your girlfriend’s comes with claustrophobia, with a that cuts off the e and chokes it. It doesn’t matter that the words sound similar to the naked ear: there’s a world of difference in their implications.

Your girlfriend tries to reason with you when outlining the world between female peur and male fear. You consider yourself the liberal ally but still need to be taught. It’s ammunition to take with you into the skirmishes of virility: a landscape of bros and dudes and lads. Unlike many of your peers, you are victim to the magnetic pull of progressive openmindedness. But like them, you appropriate victimhood.

Male fear couldn’t possibly be on the same level as female peur, she tells you, comparing the comparison to apples and oranges. No: men against boys. You aren’t so used to hearing your own heartbeat that you wear earphones without music on when walking alone at night, she says. You’re allowed to listen to music, she elaborates, because you don’t have to be on high alert for approaching footsteps. You don’t have to establish a dictionary of codewords in WhatsApp groups with friends, she explains.

Your girlfriend knows that you’re aware of your privilege but reminds you how often you must check it. The Many nodding understandably won’t stop the next female thirtysomething being kidnapped and murdered by the Few, she clarifies, alluding to recent events in your capital city but never daring to suggest that these tragedies are unique to the UK.

Peur, your French girlfriend translates, means to thank the God you don’t believe in every day that your friend who commutes back from work in the dark made it home safe. Peur means watching YouTube tutorials on the secret hand signal women must make if in a domestic abuse situation that they’re in too much danger to open their mouth to talk about. Peur is memorising this sequence, she adds. 1. Palm out to camera. 2. Tuck thumb. 3. Trap thumb under fingers.

My peur is different to your fear, your girlfriend tells you, because in your country my gender has a codename written on toilet walls, for use at the bar if in a threatening situation on a night out. I didn’t know about that, you tell your girlfriend. Which name?

We have to ask for Angela, she says. Angela is the equivalent to pausing the horror film, turning the TV off, and picking up a crossword puzzle. Angela is my gender’s collective breath of fresh air when the barman tells me that I can come out of the staff room because the man with the red shoes who couldn’t take no for an answer has finally left. Please, have a drink on the house, the kind barman says. Angela, your girlfriend concludes, is survival