Once Upon A Time I had a Very Stressful Job, and the less said about that the better. In fact, during the later months the only way I coped was by developing a policy of not talking about it to anyone other than my colleagues, and keeping it totally separate from the rest of my life. When Captain Tact asked how my day was, there was no way I was going to make him listen to it all again, so I just said ‘fine’, ‘rubbish’, or ‘usual’.
My teenage monosyllables were not enough to fool him into thinking it had all got better, however. He’s quite canny when the need arises. So he decided to help by buying me a relaxing beauty treatment for my birthday. Don't laugh, I have inner beauty.
He wanted to surprise me, so he dispatched a flatmate to deliver me unto a mysterious facility at Ocean Terminal whereupon I would be offered a choice of treatments. Something involving getting my nails done, or a facial, or whatever. You probably know more about spas than me.
Unfortunately, this is not what transpired.
Flatmate got me to Ocean Terminal OK – we’re not idiots, we can catch a 36 bus. She then delivered me into the hands of a bevy of beauty experts and said she would see me in an hour or two.
The exact nature of what Captain Tact had paid for was unclear to us both, although it later transpired he had told the spa it was a birthday surprise and he wanted to take advantage of this offer they were doing where you can have one of three treatments, according to your whim. He wasn’t sure which of these I’d choose, but vaguely thought maybe I might go for a massage, maybe.
Beauty therapists apparently don’t do nuance. I was bundled through the back with a dressing gown, and told to get my clothes off and await further instruction.
Standing in the changing cubicle I did my best not to panic. Was I supposed to get totally naked, or could I conserve a smidgen of dignity by keeping my knickers on? I considered texting someone to ask, but who would know the answer to this question and be sitting on their phone just waiting to reply to a message from me? Nobody, that's who, and anyway there wasn’t time, the beautiful people were expecting my imminent arrival in a room filled with sofas and fish tanks.
You might think it strange, but I have never seen the attraction of lying in a darkened room and being rubbed by a stranger. It strikes me as a violation of privacy; something that’s probably fun between two consenting adults who know what’s planned but not one to be farmed out to bored looking girls who probably compare notes on which of their clients feels the most like a manatee. That’s what I’d do, anyway.
Given a couple of months notice and some giggling female company, I could probably build up a tolerance to the idea of being massaged. But with five minutes warning and the pressure of having to pretend you’re up for it because it’s a thoughtful birthday gift, the experience is actually pretty stressful. It certainly isn’t long enough to get over a lifetime of disinterest / outright mistrust of the practice.
The woman was probably nice enough, but it’s hard to say that for sure when you’re lying face down on a table in the dark, taut with the tension of knowing you’re about to be touched but with no idea which part of you, or for how long. I don’t know whether it’s common to carry out a massage in complete silence, but that's what happened in mine. Silent but deadly, like the ninja. I flinched almost every time she touched me.
It genuinely never occurred to me to just say no. It would have been churlish, I thought, after the Captain went to such trouble to come up with a thoughtful birthday surprise. At this stage I had no idea he hadn’t just booked a straightforward massage, and I spent most of the time trying to concoct a convincing sounding lie of gratitude.
The best I came up with was that it was ‘an experience’, although by the end of the ordeal I was nearly in tears and fairly sure that anything I said to him later on would bring on an attack of the weepies. The masseuse later admitted (when Captain Tact phoned up to complain) that I hadn’t seemed entirely comfortable. But what was she supposed to do? She presumably had no idea that I hadn’t signed up, and was probably a bit confused as to why I was there if I was so averse to the idea.
Nearly a year on the anxiety dreams have subsided, and I think we all learned from the experience. The spa learned that when a customer says they want a choice of three treatments as per the advert, they may not mean 'rub my girlfriend'. Captain Tact learned that sometimes you should not concentrate so heavily on the aspect of surprise. And I learned that I was right to fear masseuses, and if anything I should have been actively arming myself against them for years rather than dispassionately saying 'it'll never happen to me'.
You have been warned.