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Unrequited Growth

Liz told him to trim his toenails more often. She said his long toenails snagged the insides of his socks making them ragged and inelastic.

That was yesterday before he set off for work.

It is 6pm Saturday. Mike sits at the end of the queen bed with one leg dangling over the end while the other is bent at the knee and locked between his chin and the bedspread.

Nearly finished and about to snip the last toenail, he is swept away to a crowded arena in Spain as the final seconds of a bullfight unfold.

In the centre a man and a bull face each other.

The matador wears the uniform of his trade. A flat black hat, more decorative than protective, fits tightly on his head. It bulges each side over the front of his ears merging with his sidelevers. A short black embroided jacket, enclosing the whitest of shirts and thin black tie, sits above above tight fitting pants, which reach just below his knees. The black shoes are narrow and pointed.

He tilts foreward. His arms bending at the elbows and his hands holding the small sword at eye level he aims at the middle of the space between the bull’s shoulders.

Its thick muscular neck, punctured with short wooden spikes with little coloured tags, oozes dark blood. Its mouth drooling viscousy streams of saliva, the exhausted bull eyes its tormentor.

Still and quiet - it is the moment of truth

Suerte Suprema


In one lightning fast movement he rises high on his toes and plunges the estocada deep through the neck and pierces the beast’s aorta.

Its eyes still fixed, its front and back legs giving way, the bull slumps to the bloodied ground as the last toenail drops onto the patterned bedroom carpet.

It is not the first time Mike has had this happen.


Between cuttings Mike rarely thinks of his weird experience. An old poster or a book cover might distract him briefly but is quickly shuvved aside. Recently he saw a pop up nail salon in the shopping centre that he thought of trying until he realised it was for women.

Some years ago the electrifying music of Bizet’s opera Carmen stirred Mike to learn more about Spain and bullfighting. He entertained visions of travel and downloaded information.

More recently after one intense toe cutting session in which he listened to the tantalising Habanera on the bedroom radio he rented two DVDs - Carmen and Carmen Jones. This was before he embraced streaming.

Carmen, made and screened in the 1940s but without the composer’s exciting music, dramatises the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier seduced by the fiery gypsyCarmen. Apart from the female lead’s firey red fingernails there was nothing for Mike.

Mike had high hopes for Carmen Jones, which adhered to the musical score of the opera but had different lyrics and setting - an American army base in a southern state. The entire cast were Black Americans whose accents and idioms contributed nothing to explanating Mike’s toenail bullfight conundrum.


Liz always arrives home later than Mike.

‘I have a present for a good little boy who regularly cuts his nails’. Hoping for a bottle of red he feigns a smile and gratefully pecks her cheek.

‘TAH DAH – roll of drums – trumpet fanfare – I give you …’

She pulls out three sets of socks from a white plastic shopper’s bag

‘Spain was featured in a magazine at the hairdresser – bullfights, fiestas, flamenco - that sort of thing. I thought you would like them. I ordered them online – pure wool’.

A shiny label with a stylised sheep holds the socks in pairs.

‘Gracias Senora’ Mike says and reads the lable out loud

‘Lana Andaluz - Hecho en España –

Andalusian Wool - Made in Spain’


Liz’s gift disrupts his sleep that night.In bed, wide awake and restless, his mind struggles for an explanation of what he privately refers to as ‘losing his marbles’ which seems less harsh than ‘psychosis’. He keeps his fears to himself while his disturbed sleep continues for some weeks.

Respite arrives from the least likely place.

It is the busiest time of the year in the suburban accounancy practice in which he is junior partner. Some clients are pressing him to complete their taxation returns while others have to be reminded. He leaves the office quite late for nearly two weeks. Bulls and toenails vanish ‘from his radar’.

Liz is a dental hygienist and always busy. Mike envies her capaciity to space out patient appointments. Rarely does the dentist with whom she works upset her schedule.


Pulling teeth is like trimming toe nails Mike thinks as he waits for Liz. He is inside the ground floor entrance to the Family Wellness Centre where she works.

He is pleased to see her name with other professionals on the directory. They are listed in a pecking order with the doctors prominent then dentists down to the last name, a podiatrist.

Podiatry is about treatment of feet and dealing with ingrown toenails among other things he muses. Somewhere he had heard that podiatrists spend most of their time cutting toenails for elderly people unable to do it themselves. Nearly as exciting as Accountancy.

He is still privately smiling when Liz breezes out of the lift.

‘Hi José

‘Hasta la vista’ he replies. ‘Where are we going to eat?’

‘I booked a table at La Paella for seven fifteen’.


He has a premonition the evening was going to be about toenails.

He had come to believe that restauramts were second only to real estate agents in fanciful language and La Paella did not disappoint.

Intrigued by the offering of ‘Cooked Meatballs in Burnt Butter’ he chose it rather than the ‘Traditional Catalonian Saltamontes’. The waiter was unable to tell them what burnt butter was, apart from saying its origins were in the Basque región. He told them Saltamontes were grasshoppers boiled in sea water.

Later at home.

‘Here are some more socks from Spain. The others are wearing well but showing signs of ’.

‘Burnt butter’

He ducks as she throws the shop bag at him.


Mike hasn’t told Liz of his appointment with the podiarist. Peter Nowak’s rooms are on the floor above Liz’s office and Mike fears they might run into each other.

Nowak has a pleasant countenance distinguished by his head of thick red hair. Framed diplomas in Applied Science (Pod.) inform patients he has overseas qualifications as well as Australian. The small red and white flag on his desk confirms Mike’s assumption that Peter Novak was Polish.

Taking his shoes and socks off Mike answers the usual questions – date of birth, health fund and the reason for his visit.

‘I injured my back playing Rugby and it is difficult to cut my toenails’

Nowak baths his feet, cuts the toenails, massages both feet with moisturising cream and then as Mike puts his shoes and socks back on asks

‘Were any of your ancestors from Spain?’

‘What?’ Mike is taken back. ‘Spain? Why do you ask?’

‘Your feet remind me of a former patient. I was an intern at a hospital in Barcelona and he was a champion bullfighter. I was there for a year and a half and after I treated him the first time he always asked for me.’

‘How do my feet remind you of him? I am a fourth generation Australian who has never been to Spain let alone a bullfight’.

‘Well you see bullfighters wear shoes with no laces to trip on and specially treated soles to minimise slipping in the bull ring. Similar to a ballerina’s slippers’


‘Well being narrow and pointed those shoes are responsible for some bullfighters developing either ingrown nails known as unguis incarnates

or specific to some bullfighters their toe nails grow over the tip of the toe and curve inwards into the back of it’.



‘There are several names for this latter condition but I favour uña encarnadaregresión which, roughly translated, is regressive toe nail syndrome. Your nails display this tendency and had they not been cut they would have started to regress’.

Mike is stunned.

Without thinking he taps the credit card reader and accepts the receipt and a date for follow up.


‘Those Spanish socks are wearing well’ as she empties the clothes dryer. ‘Either that or you are cutting your toenails’.

It is four weeks since seeing Nowak during which time Mike has suspended toenail cutting and widened his knowledge of uña encarnadaregresión, via Google.


Most of the information concerns the socio cultural aspects rather than the health implications of UER, as it is referred to by anthropologists.

Employing carbon dating technology researchers have established UER had its origins at the time primitive peoples initially started clothing themselves and coverng their feet. No evidence of UER was found in equatorial regions where clothing for warmth was unknown.

However, in the temperate and more particularly frigid regions, remains of early peoples revealed UER. The Scandinavian countries proved to be a rich source of evidence. Scholars have been able to identify its decline when with the adoption of metal implements during the late Stone Age people started to cut their toenails.

As well Mike is informed by National Geographic Channel that in some societies UER assumed cultural standing and was encouraged in much the same way as Sikh’s turbaned hair, New Guinean penis gourds and foot binding of young Chinese girls.




‘You have’nt worn the last two lots of socks I bought you’

‘Well its a long story that begins with a fellow health professional in your building. For brevity’s sake I will refer to him as PN.

You mean Pete Nowak on the fourth floor

Mike tells Liz about his visit with the podiarist and for the first time she learns of his toenail-bullfighting experiences. He further tells her how he is allowing his toenails to grow while participating in a global longitudinal study being conducted conducted by the John Hopkins School of Medicine, Department of Podiatry, Baltimore, Maryland.

Liz’s look is not quite shock and horror; she is unable to speak for some minutes.

Mike is relieved at having shared what he had kept private until now.

‘Could you please tell me again’

He does.

It is still and quiet – the moment of truth


Exploding with laughter she screams ‘what a lot of bull’ and buries her head among the lounge cushions


‘Olé’ from Mike despondently glancing down at his exposed toes curled over the front of his new sandals.

Her eyes follow his

‘The sandals are made in Poland ’.

‘They’re over the top’ she implodes and convulses on the floor her eyes producing tears as she allows her laughter free rein.

‘Put a sock in it Liz’

‘OK José’


El Fin





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