by Ruby Cowling
Tuesday comes round so quick. I’m on reception, sneaking Jaffa Cakes and fidgeting at my uniform, the trousers riding up tight. The top keeps gaping, too; these last few weeks I’ve been constantly tugging it closed. I must be washing them too hot.
I’ve just finished the packet when in he comes.
We get a lot of regulars at Sabai Sabai. The stressed, the knotted-up, the office worker treating herself, because she’s worth it. We’re clean, the atmosphere’s the whole jasmine, nag champa, gamelan music thing, and we’re not expensive. We do offer threading and pedicures, all of that, but it’s mostly your traditional Thai massage. I went on the course when too much Swedish gave me RSI, and started here after one of the real Thai girls got deported.
With Thai, you do use your hands, but you use your feet too. As long as the client’s up for it, we’ll walk on them – there are these wooden bars on the wall up by the ceiling that we hold on to – it gives us that extra pressure for when back muscles really resist.
The other girls are all lovely. “English in body, Thai in heart”, Kha says, nodding and pointing at my chest. We look out for each other like sisters, and they’re always giving me chocolates and cakes they don’t want. On the whole, it’s a nice place to work.
But I hate Tuesdays. Tuesdays are when Mr Smeed comes in.
He’s a white slug. Skin like rice paper, flesh like jelly underneath, as if he’s spent his life on a damp mattress in a cellar, eating margarine. At his first three appointments he asked whether we did extras. Usually we warn once and then it’s zero-tolerance, but he got away with it until I mentioned it on Kha’s hen night and it turned out he’d tried it with three of us in turn. Now he comes every week and knows not to ask for extras. But he always asks for me.
Every time he comes in he says, “Hello, Lindsey.”
It’s the way he says it.
I show him to the Lotus Room, let him undress and settle with his face in the hole and a towel over him, and take a few slow breaths before I go in.
I oil my hands and get going. His calf and soleus muscles are thick and stodgy.
“How’s that pressure for you?” is the question we have to ask.
“That’s lovely, Lindsey,” says Mr Smeed, as always.
I move up to his thighs and focus on my breathing for five cellulite-filled minutes. When the thighs are done, I pull the towel down over them, baring his back. The pocked skin is thinly strewn with hairs, like some sick sea bed after a chemical spill. I sweep the area, up-down, up-down, and the flesh ripples under my thumbs.
“Mmmm,” he says into the hole.
Now I clamber onto the edges of the table, grab the wall bars and place a foot on his lower back.
“Ooof,” he says. “Mmmm.”
Drool hits the floor under his face. I lift my weight and rest the other foot in his soft mid-back.
“Urgh. Mmmm. You can go harder, Lindsey, if you like.”
I’m still holding on to the wall bars, but I let some weight down through my heels and rock slightly, transferring the pressure either side of the spine. I step along gradually, away from the dough of his buttocks. Mr Smeed gurgles like a blocked drain.
Then – I don’t know why I do it – I let go of the bars.
He squeals: a wheezing yelp of shock, like a dog hit by a lorry. There’s another sound, too, a sudden wet squidge. The bursting of a meat balloon.
Then it’s quiet.
For a few moments, I freeze. Instead of his papery skin, it’s the table I feel, solid, under my feet. I’ve gone straight through. I reach for the bars again even though it’s too late. Holding on, I don’t look down, already knowing the awful thing I’d see from the hot, slippery mess I’m up to my ankles in.
Of course, there are consequences. We close for half a day with a note on the door saying Sorry! Staff Training. We were glad of our clinical waste licence: the lorry comes twice a week and those yellow hazard bags don’t exactly make you want to look inside.
The girls are great about what happened. In fact, they bring me a sandwich every day now, as well as chocolate biscuits twice a week. “Is good for you,” says Kha, with that quick nod she has, “Good for all of us.”
Ruby Cowling was was born and brought up in West Yorkshire, and now lives and reads and writes in London.