It was a nail clinic really. Greta preferred to think of it as a beauty parlour. Even though they only offered manicures and pedicures. Well, foot massages too – that was enough to qualify it as a beauty parlour in her book.

This morning Greta woke up with a sour taste in her mouth. Larry’s late night phone call still resonated in her mind: how dare he tack on an extra two days when he had already been away for a week? He didn’t even acknowledge the extra effort it took for her to hold the fort in addition to her normal workload!

“It’s been a tough week, Gret.” Larry had sounded unconvincing. Why had he phoned so late anyway?

The suspicion that he may have formed a liaison with someone tightened around her chest like a metal clamp. She deliberately took a series of deep breaths as she wandered into the kitchen to make coffee. Instant coffee. She couldn’t be bothered to brew coffee for herself. Greta glowered menacingly at her tiny distorted reflection in the chrome panel of the Jura coffee machine Larry had insisted on buying soon after their business had started showing a regular profit – even before she began drawing what she considered a ‘decent’ salary.

Hot coffee splashed onto her pyjama top. Greta dabbed angrily at it with a wet cloth before wiping the kitchen shelf where the milk had spilled. She tossed the dirty cloth into the sink still filled with dishes and stared unseeingly out of the kitchen window whilst sipping her scalding coffee.

How dare he? Greta glanced at the calendar next to the fridge: Larry was going to spend two days at a nearby game lodge. “A few of us are going there, Gret. Just to unwind a little. You know.”

She yanked open the fridge: the yoghurt was finished. Greta frowned at the notepad on the shelf next to the kettle: she had started making a grocery list last night; had in fact been planning a fancy meal to welcome Larry home tonight. Had been! He was probably already enjoying a game drive – at whose expense? She felt the bile rising as her indignation increased.

Greta looked at herself in the mirror before setting off for work: beige slacks, olive-green long-sleeved blouse, sensible black shoes, and no make-up. She turned to see the rest of her more critically: her hair could do with styling again … there just never seemed to be time for such frivolities. On a whim, she kicked off her shoes and slipped on a pair of leather sandals.

She switched on her computer at work, sipped a mug of scalding coffee – why couldn’t someone else think of buying the milk for a change – and checked the figures for yesterday’s sales. That they were healthy ignited a small glow of satisfaction that didn’t quite reach far enough to soften her frown. Her introduction of items such as colourful garden implements and pretty gloves in women’s sizes, T-shirts in attractive colours and children’s shirts that were copies of the kind their fathers wore had resulted in more foot traffic and subsequently higher sales. The glow of satisfaction translated into a softer touch on the keyboard that had been stabbed at since the work day had begun.

Hardware would always be their core business. Greta knew that – and she suspected that she actually knew more about drills, generators and chainsaws than Larry did. After all, she was the one who usually met with the sales reps … the one who placed the orders … Larry liked chatting to the customers. Larry: the trip to the game lodge wouldn’t be cheap. Was he paying for himself – or did he have a companion? The metal clamp around her chest tightened uncomfortably.

“Cedric!” Greta glanced over her heavy-rimmed spectacles at the sales manager. “Why did you let Robert Oberman take the mini-generator on credit yesterday?”

“Larry’s always been so friendly with him, Greta. He said he was sure Larry wouldn’t mind. Cash is tight now you know.” Was that a sneer on his face?

“I also know that he owes us a vast sum of money. You didn’t think to check with me first?” She couldn’t prevent the steely undertone to her voice.

“Well, you know Greta. I’ve always worked with Larry and well, he’s not here and so I really thought he wouldn’t mind.”

Greta glared at him. How dare he casually lean on the counter like that? “Like you ‘wouldn’t mind’ not receiving your salary at the end of the month? Robert Oberman owes us more than three times your salary, Cedric. How am I supposed to pay you without money coming in?”

“Greta, you can’t do that to me.” Cedric, alarmed by her menacing tone, looked suitably crestfallen. “I have a wife and a young child to look after -.”

“And I live on fresh air!” Greta focused her attention on the computer screen. “No more credit to anyone Cedric. I mean anyone!”

Her neck muscles had contracted with tension and Greta was conscious of clenching her teeth as she scrolled through the orders that had gone through. What was Larry doing? Drinking beer in the sun with his mates? Think in the plural, Greta. The plural mates.

As Greta bent over the desk calendar to check when the vegetable seeds should arrive, her eye fell on the catchy advertisement for Sybil’s Nails. Why not? Greta typed the number into her cell phone and walked to the back of the storeroom to make her call.

A manicure was no good. Larry would notice it straight away and ask questions. No, it would have to be her feet. She chose the full option: nails, exfoliation, foot massage as well as an application of nail varnish. Why not!

At ten to ten Greta picked up her soft leather bag and iPad and then casually approached Wayne, who was assisting a customer with his choice of shifting spanners. “I’ll be out for about an hour, Wayne. Answer the phone if you will, write down the messages for me – and make no promises.”

Wayne watched her leave, noted the stiffness of her body, and turned to look at Cedric. Both men shrugged: they were used to Larry coming and going, but Greta didn’t even go home for lunch!

Greta felt uncomfortable as soon as she opened the heavy glass door emblazoned with the logo of Sybil’s Nails. The low murmur of voices washed over her as she leaned stiffly across the counter to confirm her appointment. “Let me pay you now,” she offered bluntly, handing over the business credit card. Why not!

To her relief she was directed to a chair in a quiet corner of the salon, away from the chatty young women occupying the seats in full view of the entrance. Don’t they need to work? A basin of warm soapy water was placed at her feet. When last had she enjoyed an opportunity to allow her feet to soak in warm water? She moved into a more comfortable position. This already felt good.

Greta pushed her spectacles to the top of her head, wincing as the rough sandpaper (as she thought of it) was briskly whisked across each foot in turn. She wondered briefly how the attendant felt about the ‘skin dust’ (she couldn’t call it saw dust, even though that is what it looked like) covering her arms and the towel in her lap.

“Would you enjoy a mug of coffee?” When last had anyone offered to make her coffee?

“Thank you,” she whispered, not trusting what the lump in her throat would do to her voice.

Her toenails were being cut and buffed. The sheer pleasure of having someone care to do that (even for the hefty fee she had already paid) made Greta feel guilty about the time she was spending away from the shop. She unzipped the cloth bag and withdrew her iPad. She could use the time to plan meals, make her grocery list, check their dental appointments, and look at the self-watering flower pots like the one her friend Rita had received a cyclamen in. She could order a few to test the market. Her frown returned.

“You’ve got a grumpy customer.” Deirdre whispered to Samantha when they met briefly at the sink. “She looks so grim. I haven’t seen her smile once.” Samantha shrugged her shoulders and collected the tubs of exfoliating gel and skin cream from the cabinet nearby.

She dried Greta’s feet and pushed the chair into the reclining position. “Perhaps you would like to put your iPad away now Greta,” she said gently. “Let’s place it and your spectacles on the side table here.”

Samantha watched as Greta leaned back in the chair. Earlier she had sat pressing her fingers to her temples. Now her hands were balled into fists resting on the arm rests. Samantha looked down at the foot she was working on. She could feel the ripples of tension in the ankles and in the arch. She set about massaging the right foot, deftly working the thick lotion into the dry skin. “Is the massage pressure enough for you?”

Greta swallowed and looked at her directly for the first time. “I’d like it as hard as is comfortable for you, please.” Then she put her head back and closed her eyes. That way she could enjoy the full sensation of the massage – as though the knots were being unravelled.

Larry had taken to calling her Regret – did he regret marrying her? Of course he still called her Greta in the shop. He used to stroke her arm in passing: she loved being stroked.

“It’s been a tough week, Gret.” Tough? Mingling with people at the trade fair. Listening to presentations or watching demonstrations. Really tough (Greta could feel her lips pursing into a sneer of derision). Larry would return with pamphlets and business cards galore – and leave her to make sense of them all!

Her other foot was being massaged now. Perhaps, just perhaps, she had inadvertently been pushing him out of that side of the business. Larry was so good with people. Strangers warmed to him and were easily taken in by his boyish enthusiasm and willingness to help them find a solution. She was better at the back end.

“Just to unwind a little.” They seldom spent time ‘unwinding’ together anymore. What if she left early sometimes to prepare some snacks and set out wine or beer …

Samantha winked at Deirdre: Greta’s stern mouth had softened a little. Her hands now held the chair loosely. Her eyelids oozed tiny trickles of dampness. Samantha patted both feet in a soothing gesture before wrapping them in a warm towel. “Do you still want the taupe nail colour Greta?”

Greta smiled broadly. “Remind me of the range of reds you introduced me to earlier?” She looked at the swatches of colour at the end of long lengths of plastic. “The brighter the better,” she said after little deliberation.

A tissue was woven between her toes before the ritual of applying various coats began. Perhaps we should eat out now and then, Greta thought as her toes were being transformed from drab to happy in front of her eyes.

“I’ll sprinkle some quick-dry drops onto your toes, but it will be at least an hour before the varnish is properly dry.”

Greta carefully wiggled her toes into her sandals. “Thank you Samantha,” she said, having noted the name tag for the first time. She stood up. “May I hug you?” They embraced lightly (when last did I do that?). “You have done more for me in this hour than you will ever know.”

Greta picked up her iPad and leather bag, looked down at her brightly painted toes and pushed open the heavy glass door with a renewed sense of confidence and a lighter heart.


26 thoughts on “GRUMPY GRETA

  1. Good for Greta! The rule of “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander” applies here, (though the “goose” and “gander” are reversed, the same principle applies).


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