Hands are fascinating,perhaps the more so because we take them for granted. In spite of the prevailing popularity of manicure, you’re stuck with what your hands are, rather than what you would have them be. Hands are often as indicative of personality as faces. You can “fix” faces but all you can do with hands is maintain them. It isn’t as simple as how hands look, it’s how you feel about how they look. Many years before Hilary Mantel wrote about Cardinal Wolsey and his “best boy” Thomas Cromwell, I remember a portrait of one of them in a school history book which showed a hand with strangely conical fingers and thinking quite clearly “wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you.” You can argue of course that styles of painting vary and a photographic record would be more accurate but if the image has lasted sixty years, it must have made quite an impression.
By the same token, hands are often not what you expect them to be. You might expect a dancer, actress or model to have graceful hands – slender and artistic – and I am sure some of them are. Though the only ballerina I have ever met was Makarova, who danced with the Kirov Ballet and her hands were large and coarse, what we used to call “gravedigger’s hands” – but how she could use them ! On her arms they became feathers, chiffon, smoke – even in our brief conversation, you could see the difference between what they were and how she used them. When I interviewed the actress Glenda Jackson, I remember noticing her hands, not for what they were but what she could do with them. They were marked out for her use of them onstage as Lear only this week, and I remember her hiding them in folds of material on stage in a completely different production, keeping them out of the light and minimising them cleverly.
Years ago I noticed that one of my favourite Christmas cards, a snow scene in old Quebec, was painted with the feet by a woman who had no arms. I was humbled. That gave me a whole new respect for my hands. True, I often list what I can’t do but I have got this far through picking up and folding, dusting and polishing, painting and lugging, brute force and cake recipes, baby and keyboard. And I fondly recall my small hand going into my bullterrier’s throat to retrieve the earring he had just removed and was going to swallow.
Twice in my life somebody really helped me with my hands – apart from successfully dressing a burn with Manuka honey. The first was an aromatherapist in a long established practise which fell into the wrong hands (!) and was gone before I had time to get used to it. I went in the winter when my hands hurt, not rheumatically but because I couldn’t break the cycle of dryness for more than two days at a time. Essential oils smell as if they will help before you start and Claire (not her name) knew what she was about. After all sorts of anointing and massage she wrapped my hand in linseed poultices for 20 minutes. I am sure the sitting still and waiting affected me too – after which I went home through the winter evening, looking at my hands from every angle in the light from the street. The phrase “good as new” comes to mind.
The second time was when I was buying some replacement in a high toned cosmetic outlet and after my purchase, was offered a hand massage by a young obviously observant European educated Muslim. She massaged from elbows to wrists with rose oil, stretching and manipulating my fingers. “Where did you learn all this ?” I asked fascinated. “From my mother and grandmother in Zanzibar.” God bless Zanzibar. And it was free.
I thought about hands this week when I had to have skin biopsies and the surgeon worked so carefully. I thought about hands this week because I wondered whose hands we are going to be in in America. I thought about one of my favourite cards, a Chinese saying I used for the title, “fragrance clings to the hand that gives you roses.” I thought of weak handshakes and damp hands and the primitive electric charge that advises you to wipe away every trace after contact with something or somebody you don’t like. Hands are quite a handful.