Did I just pay someone to bash me up? The horror of a rough massage

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author who hands in her manuscript must be in want of a good physiotherapist.

After more than two years working on a book about Stoicism, my body had calcified around my laptop. My joints were always stiff and sore, sleep was unrefreshing and one shoulder had moved inches up towards my ear, as if I were perpetually holding a telephone receiver in the crook of my neck.

When I finally handed in my book, I decided to begin to heal and have a massage.

But in the Melbourne CBD on a hot Sunday, it appeared that all my old haunts had shut – victims perhaps of long lockdowns.

After an hour of hobbling through the city, I came across a semi-deserted shopping mall (a tailor, nail bar, cheap tax return place, all shut or abandoned). At the back was a small red light, a faded picture of a bare back and a brochure stuck to the window. Could this be the place to fix me?

The door was unlocked, so I stepped in, activating a low-energy buzzer. Inside it looked like a disused storeroom. All the lights were off. There was a black vinyl couch that had been slashed in parts (yellow foam spewing out) and a pallet of bottled water on the ground. But otherwise it looked abandoned.

Quindi, from the gloom at the back of the shop, a woman I would later know as Deane came out to greet me. Deane would have been in her 50s with orange lipstick, purple Crocs and a blue apron with a wide pocket, like the women in tuck shops used to wear to carry stuff like spare change, raffle tickets, pens and a spanner.

I explained my problem to Deane, “mid-back issues, in the wrong chair, on a small computer, two and a half years!” and bent in half, walking in circles for a bit, a pantomime grimace on my face.

Deane said nothing but took out a large knife from her apron. Woah! I saw the flash of the blade as she suddenly advanced towards me, before bending at the waist, plunging the knife into the pallet of water and stabbing furiously at the plastic.

Handing me a hot bottle of water from the pallet, she commanded: “Drink this!” “But it’s too hot,” I didn’t say. I drank the unrefreshing beverage and enjoyed it the way someone dying of thirst would enjoy drinking seawater.

Deane promised to fix my back, as she led me to a small partition towards the back of the shop.

On the walls were posters saying the business offered no sexual services – which was fair enough – but also another poster saying that if any of the staff offered sexual services or asked for money for sex, clients were to contact the owner of the business on this number and report them. Huh?

There was not even a ceiling fan to stir the warm air, and as I lay down on the plastic table that was covered in sheeting used to protect furniture, I worried that my sweat would create a powerful adhesive and result in skin loss when I detached. I also wondered about the circumstances surrounding the poster. What had gone down?

Ten minutes passed. I felt vulnerable under the tiny towel. Then a door opened. I recognised Deane from her pair of Crocs. Then …

WHACK – I involuntarily yelped. It was as if Deane had hit me with a club. WHACK. “Argh … !” WHACK.

Deane must have had an implement – no human hand could be that strong. She hit me again, even harder this time, and I protested. “That hurts! It’s sore there.” Deane agreed. "Sì, it’s very sore there,” before striking me again with the club.

Suddenly the Crocs disappeared. I heard a grunt and felt the table buckle. Che cosa? Deane was up there with me. Perché? Oh no! No! Deane’s knees were either side of me so she could use her full body weight to press into my upper back. Argh! Deane was giving it her all – pounding me in the middle of my back, tenderising me like a steak. I too was making strange grunting sounds. I worried my nose might break, pressing it so hard against the table. WHACK! WHACK! I could see what Deane was straining for – the crack of the middle back as the errant vertebrae popped into shape.

The crack never came and eventually Deane dismounted. Before I’d had time to recover, Deane had thrown a bucket of oil over me. There was so much oil that she had trouble gripping the club, so for a short while it felt like a normal (albeit extremely oily) massage. Questo è, until she started working on my head. By this stage I had been turned around but Deane had thrown some sort of hood over my eyes, so I couldn’t see what was happening. But it felt like Deane was raking my scalp with an extremely powerful, possibly motorised implement.

This didn’t feel like the touch of a normal human hand – this was the touch of a CLAW.

I tried to recall whether Deane had long, talon-like nails (I concluded no, since she would have opened the pallet of water with her fingers).

The scratching continued, and I wondered – how is this helping my back? I also wondered if my scalp was bleeding. I felt a trickle of something down my forehead, but it could have been sweat or … the oil?

Deane did other confusing things: washed my feet with detergent, pulled my hair, pumped her hands on my chest like she was giving CPR. But the strangest was when she attacked my upper ear lobes – a place no one had paid much attention to before, and proceeded to strenuously knead and tug at the cartilage, like she was wanting to debone my ears. My sore back asked: What about me?

Losing only a small amount of skin getting off the plastic sheeting, I hobbled out of the room, feeling beaten up and raw. Deane was nowhere to be seen. “Goodbye and thank you!” I called out into the darkened shop. It sounded like a sob.

Throughout the night, each part of my body done over by the claw hammer of Deane took turns in throbbing with pain. The next day I was still hobbling, but in the manner of someone with cracked ribs and a bruised back. It was impossible to tell whether the infliction of the second injury had cured the original complaint.

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