Laurie Taylor's feet by Martin RowsonFrom the first day it opened its doors in Leather Lane I began to hang around Nails Spa like a silly kid contemplating his first visit to a strip club. Should I ask for an Acrylics or a French? Did I even have enough guts to push open the door and ask the Vietnamese proprietor for a Full Normal?

I shouldn’t have worried. When I finally went in the young and very pregnant owner treated me as a routine customer. She clipped and filed and oiled and massaged away without the slightest hint that this was the first time her salon had entertained a client whose fingertips suggested that he’d spent most of his life digging up potatoes with his bare hands.

Matters only became tricky when I got up to go. “You can now have a special offer pedicure,” said my new friend, gently pointing out the high-backed chair and kidney-shaped footbath at the back of the shop.

A pedicure? For me? How daft could you get? I giggled all the way home. What sort of vanity, what type of pathological self-regard, what excess of narcissism, would ever lead someone like myself to spend time having their toes beautified?
Not, of course, that my feet are an attractive sight. I now find that bending double to cut my toenails is something of a trial so I tend to settle for a quick hopeful jab with the clippers which leaves them looking not unlike a junior portion of thick-cut chips.

For a full fortnight I couldn’t take a shower without noticing other disturbing features: the tendency of some toes to hide under others as though they were embarrassed to see the light, the strange mauve colour of the nail on my big toe, the unsightly lump of hard skin on my right heel.

Perhaps I could just allow myself a quick going over. Nothing fancy. Nothing more than the Full Normal. It would be fine if only I could keep my visit very private. So on the Saturday before last, when Leather Lane is silent as the grave, I slipped discreetly into Nails Spa, pointed to the high-backed chair and nodded.
It began well. Very well. I quickly settled into my seat, picked up a copy of Glamour and began a three-page feature on the boys’ chat-up lines that girls most despise. (It seems they don’t like jokes.)

What I hadn’t reckoned with was the therapeutic character of my high chair. For a minute I thought the slight tremor in the small of my back might be some residual nervous reaction but then suddenly without warning the tremor turned into a vigorous pummelling and I was forced to abandon Glamour and hang on to the arms for fear of being thrown forwards at full throttle into the foaming footbath.
I’d barely managed a degree of equilibrium when the shop door clanged open and a rather dashing young woman entered and was cheerily enquiring about the cost of a full varnish when she glanced my way and stopped in her tracks.

What was detaining her? It probably wasn’t every day of the week that she walked into a high-street shop and came across an elderly man with his trousers rolled up to his knees, jerking backwards and forwards in a high-backed chair while simultaneously dangling his bare feet in a trough of bubbling soapy water. But did it really merit quite so much attention? I buried myself in “The Craziest Place I Ever Had Sex”.

But something at the back of the shop had caught her eye. She advanced towards the footbath and looked me straight in the face. “I know you,” she said. “I know you.” She wrinkled as she sought to remember. Suddenly her face cleared. “You’re Professor Laurie Taylor,” she announced with the dreadful certainty of a child winning a game of Hide and Seek. “I”ve seen you in Broadcasting House. I used to be on Woman’s Hour.”

I was bang to rights. I knew that my only way out was to suggest that she’d encountered nothing abnormal, to intimate by my demeanour that it was perfectly commonplace for elderly male professors to have their feet massaged on a Saturday morning. If I could just talk casually I might even divert her attention from the fact that her co-conversationalist was even now having the hard skin on the bottom of his right heel filed away by an almost prostrate Vietnamese attendant.

I was still chatting wildly as I pulled on my socks, paid my bargain rate and climbed briskly out of the high-backed chair.

Had I done enough to distract her? Enough to make her forget the precise circumstances of our meeting when she next ran into a big gang of her old friends from Broadcasting House?

It seemed like it. Our goodbyes had a refreshing normality about them, as though we’d merely come across each other by the deli counter in Waitrose. “Well,” I said, making for the door, “must rush off home now.” “Oh, right,” she said, giving me a broad smile. “But, Laurie, there is one thing before you go.” “Yep?” I said, hoping for an innocuous exchange of telephone numbers. “Shouldn’t you put your shoes on first?”