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How old they are becoming, how scaly – almost snaky – with age.  In parts the skin is like tissue, the knuckle-bones obvious when a fist is made.  Because age is what’s happening to them, because the owner is becoming old, that’s the fact of the matter, the cold, hard, indisputable fact.  These hands are slowly, undeniably becoming claws.

Decades ago I had a friend who said I had ‘good hands’.  I remember seeing her stride purposefully into the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, elegantly dolled up for Friday afternoon drinks.  Like something from the past she wore shiny white gloves that stretched up to her elbows.  This was back when we were at university, so the rest of us would have been in Doc Marten boots and jeans with holes in the knees.  But there she was, my friend, the one with shiny white gloves up to the elbows, the one who’d told me in a moment of youthful generosity that I had ‘good hands’.

In the days after the flattering comment I looked at my hands over and over, turning them this way and that, thinking, Oh yes, they’re pretty special, aren’t they.  Not too big, not too small, although the maximum span is impressive, and such clear smooth skin – they are ageless.  If my hands were on someone else’s body I’d be attracted to them, I’d want to touch them, hold them, wrap my fingers within those good-looking fingers.

Today, however, right now, I think of my friend with the shiny white gloves up to the elbows and wonder if she’d still think that I have good hands.  The proportions of my hands haven’t changed, and both are still strong and can do what’s required of them – they can still open recalcitrant jars of Vegemite.  But they no longer look like they belong to a young man; they don’t look like they belong to someone with the majority of his life left to live.

My hands look like they belong to someone who’s been around the block a few times, hands that have known other people’s bodies, and known his own body, hands that have played pianos and guitars with dreamy ambition, hands that have known gardens – what damage well-loved soil does to well-loved hands!

There’s a persistent rumour that surgeons insure their hands against injury or total loss.

I’d like to insure my hands.  Against old age.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 6 November 2010.)

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The past