"Hand To Mouth" by Gill Hoffs

Categories: ISSUE 01: Babe

Hand To Mouth

Though it only takes nails a few months to regrow, I knew a single bite of cotton white crescent would sever me from the agency for good. Hand Jobs Ltd. only covered beauty modelling; it left the crumbs of character work for smaller, uglier businesses. In the world of hand modelling, Onychophagia (as the doctors call it) is a sin beyond the pale, on a par with a cellist's calluses or jail house tattoos.

HJL's contacts and contracts would certainly help knit the wound Jenna's shopping had clawed through our account. Providing close-ups of the hero's hands in a safe breaking action flick would mean my name in the credits, a five figure cheque, and the solid promise of future work. I'd been after it a month now and since it was between me and another guy, I couldn't help hope.

The schedule might mean staying in the city tonight, depending on buses and call backs, so I packed as I waited for Jen.

Sunblock for hands and arms: packed.

Cotton buds for plunging ear canals (bad habit swap): packed.

Underwear, nicer than usual: on.

Quick spill of aftershave onto palms that had caressed a bevy of bottles and beauties on paper and screen, but few in real life. Gentle pats on stubble. Rinse of hands under tepid tap. Dab dry on soft towel. Moisturise using the careful choreography of a surgeon's routine, sheathing each finger in sensuous cream.

I think of my fingers as pets, each digit a different character, and I sometimes find myself chiding them individually if they twitch during a long contortion of a shoot. Thumb was sensible, tough, necessarily apart from the others but stronger for it. Pinky was the baby of the family, tiring easily, first to ache, last to fall into place on the product. Ring was mum, stabilising Pinky and the rest, though as an artist I never wore jewellery outside work; the rubbing would stop work. Middle felt like anything but, eager to insult, easy to callus if forced to labour with a pen, the leader of the pack. And Index, the first to submit to a paper-cut, to split the white, to scroll back a hangnail. The martyr of the set, the canary in the mine; I took special care of her.

I was waiting by the front door as Jen stepped through, her boyish figure draped in grey. Coarse features meant she had to choose hairstyles carefully if she was bothered about shop assistants and the like guessing her gender right. I enjoyed the ambiguity, or had, until she too substituted one bad habit with another. At least when she smoked, she'd used a pipe. Now her fingers were cracked and composted, nails grey, cuticles lifted from the smooth pink keratin like the duvet on an unmade bed. I piss in the flowerbeds whenever I can.

Jenna wafted noodles into the kitchen as I shrouded my hands in thin muslin gloves, then soft leather ones, a necessary precaution despite the heat. I knew fellow travellers stared, thinking me a germaphobe, murderer, art restorer, or thief. Let them look; inky newspapers, wet printed tickets, scuffs, scratches and scars could break me.

O Typekey Divider

Someone was reading a magazine in the waiting area: my competitor had thrillingly even hands and a devil-may-care attitude I couldn't help but admire. After introductions to the receptionist, I sat on a bobbled blue chair, unveiled my hands, and flexed. Studying my rival's long, pale phalanges and mother-of-pearl nails, I wondered at his casualness. The pages lowered as if a bed-sheet by a hesitant bride. Here was a face with stories to tell, bedtime stories at that. Lime slice eyes assessed me, and I remembered lie-ins at Uni, takeaways and toilets, choices made and regretted.

After, when the agent dismissed us for dinner, telling us to keep our mobiles on, my competition said to me:

"D'you know where you are, for restaurants and that?"

I shrugged.

"If you fancy cheap and cheerful, there's a greasy spoon down the road from my flat. I only live ten minutes away."

"You sure? It sounds alright, but I don't want to impose…"

My competition clapped me on the upper arm, perhaps for slightly longer than other colleagues might. He was taller than me, refreshingly so.

"My flatmates have no time for shop-talk. You'd be doing me a favour. I'm Dom."

"Paul. Yeah, I know what you mean. It's hard finding people with the same interests."

Dom held the door open as we left. I pocketed my gloves in the heat.

Eggs, beans, toast … I forked it all in with cutlery, careful but still naked of hand. Dom seemed to derive more pleasure from the use of his fingers than the taste of the food itself, licking yellow yolk from his pale columns of thumbs.

"That filled a hole, right enough."

I agreed, dabbing myself with the dimpled paper napkin, wondered what to do next.

"I'll settle up here, then how about my flat? Relaxing till we get the call?"

"I'll get my share, at least."

But Dom had already slapped a note beside the register and was making for the door. Dismayed – did I look that desperate? – I caught him up.

"Let me give you something towards it."

Dom carried on, those eyes sliding towards me.

"No need for that," he paused outside a mini-mart. "Sort us out some nice cold vodka or something for the flat instead?"

We settled on schnapps and a tub of ice-cream. Through a brown door, its frame decorated with buzzers, was a set of concrete stairs, dust sticking charcoal in patches where someone had dropped a melting rainbow of sweets. Cobwebs showed no symmetry, no architects, old and empty save for dust motes trapped from the stairwell's fetid air. We went up a floor, Dom unmindful of the welts reddening his handle-clad hands. He juddered the door open.

"Everyone's at Uni. I'm working on my thesis, so I can make time for hand jobs as I please."

I felt out of my depth, out of my life.

Dom gestured to the generous sofa, and I noticed the narrow palm and knuckles that swelled those long creamy fingers like the rings on maturing bamboo rather than the papers and crisp packets littering the couch. Sitting, crinkling, I watched Dom fetch mismatched tumblers.

He relaxed back beside me, and we drank. The heat, the alcohol, the heady atmosphere of hope and camaraderie led to closer sitting, kisses melting in mouths, the sensitive touch of fingers dancing near throats. Stroking, bristling my stubble, circling my jaw. A necklace of fingers tightening, choking. I tried knocking his arms away.

"Relax…" sighed Dom, "Supposed to heighten the pleasure."

But I couldn't breathe. I managed to slap his face. Hand models don't punch, too much damage to the knuckles, and you're unlikely to harm yourself with an open-palmed slap. Except you're unlikely to harm anyone else, either.

Colours glimmered across my vision. I curled my fingers in, lashed out, my punch landing only on the sofa.

"Relax! You can do me next."

I brought my fingers up, arms collapsing at the elbows, hands meeting hands, scratching, clawing, drawing blood and a scream from The Competition.

"What'd you do that for!?!"

His eyes pinched narrow with fury. Lunging to deliver a head-butt, he succeeded only in falling against the coffee table as I rolled clear. We lay there, sprawled on the soiled and stinking rug, breathing noisily. Seconds passed, then minutes. Slowly, I stood. Dom lay where he fell; face down, breaths escaping in bubbling snorts from his ruined nose.

On the street, I looked for a phone box. One that worked. In case it took a while for the flatmates to return home. When my phone buzzed in my pocket, I couldn't quite remember what it was for a moment.

"Hallo?" I rasped.

"Hi, Elaine from Casting. We've decided on you for the role! Go home tonight, we'll send a car for you tomorrow."

"Uh – thanks, Elaine… A car, huh? Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Be ready for nine. What's wrong with your voice? Not coming down with something, are you?"

"No, just had something a bit too spicy. I'm fine."

"Alright. You still with Dom? We haven't been able to reach him."

"No. Sorry."

There was red under my nails. The whites blushed pink. Gloves protected me on the buses home, where I rushed to the bathroom for a scrub. Scraping, filing, soaping, soaking, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Jen sat with me on our sofa, CSI on TV, making me shift and worry in my seat. Fingers kept creeping into my mouth, hiding, tasting of blood, soap and sex. Sucking a sweet, I found my nails scraping cuticles instead. Gloves kept slipping off; I dabbed my wrists with PVA glue.

The doorbell rang. I fidgeted to the hall. A haze of words, only some standing out.

"…routine, sir…fingerprints…the ink washes off after just a few days…"

--Story by Gill Hoffs