Chapter 14 – Hugo has a massage
This. Is. The. Life! Hugo floated – in navy blue Speedo swimming trunks – in the middle of the swimming pool. He was the sole bather. That awfully nice chap in the orange shorts, that he’d met in the morning, had been spot on – the afternoon had indeed imposed a veto on children. So, no little buggers splashing about making a racket and spoiling the adult’s fun. Yes. Lovely. Peace and quiet at last, he thought.
Hugo exhaled deeply, and tipped over in the process, sinking a little under the water. As he swam over to the edge, he contemplated all the fuss of the afternoon – for the hundredth time. And the near brush with disaster, almost insulting that lovely girl, Veronique. How stupid of him. Sometimes I can be – no, not stupid, he decided – but people can often take things the wrong way. Yes, that was it. It was the way people misinterpreted things. Jumped to conclusions, got the wrong end of the stick. They didn’t think things through, failed to grasp what was actually said, rather than what they thought had been said. Yes, people can be very stupid, Hugo agreed, as he paddled about.
Goodness, not that Veronique was stupid. Goodness no. She was far from it. Just a silly misunderstanding. That was all. Like the Tako restaurant incident. Hugo stopped his paddling and considered the latter.
Fuck. That had been a costly misunderstanding. He shivered. Not because the pool was cold, but because it had cost him the better part of – well, no sense dwelling on that now. And then the club sandwiches in the room to make up for what had happened: £21.95! For a sandwich! Each! Christ – how do they justify that? For three slices of bread, a rasher of bacon, a slice of tomato and some lettuce. And Cressida’s didn’t even have the bacon, or the butter. And then the extra plates of chips. And the Cokes. And the olives. And then Cress’s hummus thingy and crudités. And the mini-bar was emptying at a rate of knots: between his whiskies, the kid’s soft drinks, chocolate bars and crisps. He’d contemplated topping up the empties with water, and slamming them back in, but thought better of it, probably wired up to some device to detect that sort of thing.
Still, what was done was done. He’d given up totting up the damage on the plastic. Couldn’t even start to fathom the end total. But there was absolutely nothing to be gained from worrying about that now. In for a penny, in for a pound, was Hugo’s jaunty motto today, as he sank to the bottom of the pool.
Still, Dana seemed to be having a wonderful time at least – all that shopping and luxury hotel. And a lovely dinner to come, and the presents. And maybe, just maybe, a spot of the other, later. See how things went. After a nightcap. Maybe some dancing in the cellar piano bar – he had read that they had a jazz trio and a dance floor. Dana liked that, music, romance, that sort of thing. Women did. It got them in the mood, if it was on the cards to start with.
The spa and pool were deserted as Hugo emerged from the water and towelled himself dry. The lights had been dimmed around the pool so that the water glowed a kind of green, he noticed. Some sort of tropical music was playing. Very agreeable. Not that it would last beyond five thirty, Hugo conceded. That was when the child curfew ended and the little darlings would have full sway, be like the municipal baths or the lido during school holidays – kids bombing into the water, narrowly missing, or sometimes not, those already in. The older ones checking out the girls in their bathing costumes. The younger ones practising their front crawl, legs kicking up a flume in all directions. And some smart arse doing the butterfly – leaving a trail of destruction as tsunami-size waves rose up in his wake, and the weaker swimmers coughed and spluttered to keep their heads above the water.
Suddenly Hugo was 13-years-old again. He could smell the overpowering chlorine – more like bleach in those days, feel the ice cold disinfectant foot-bath you had to step through before you got near the pool, heard someone screaming his name.
“Veruca!”Hugo froze. It was Mr Mulloney, head of sport. “I’m talking to you Veruca! Get that small, insignificant, good-for-nothing body over here now!”
The Voice boomed from the towering life guard’s chair at the top end of the swimming pool. He had the megaphone to his mouth.Hugo plunged blindly into the freezing foot-bath and walked falteringly over to Mr Mulloney.
“Where the hell do you think you’re sneaking off to?”
“Nowhere sir. It’s just that matron said I mustn’t swim until my foot is cleared up.”
Hugo lifted up his right leg and wiggled his foot. It was covered in a rubber sock.
“You still got that nasty little disease, you nasty little boy? Don’t answer that, I don’t care. No more excuses. Get in that water now and I want to see ten laps, front crawl.” Mr Mulloney’s voice still boomed through the megaphone, despite being inches from Hugo’s face.
Most of the activity in and around the swimming pool had ceased and all eyes were on Hugo. “I haven’t quite managed to do that in the deep-end yet sir.”
Mr Mulloney looked at him. Got out of the chair, laid the megaphone carefully down on the seat, bent down, lifted Hugo’s right foot up, looked up into Hugo’s now terrified eyes, ripped the rubber sock off, picked Hugo up and hurled him headlong into the deep end.
Hugo shuddered. Even now. It was part of the reason he had paid – sporadically admittedly – for Alex and Cressida to go to a hand-picked private school. Not that any of the events of Hugo’s childhood would be repeated nowadays – any hint of that would end in prison sentences in present times.
But one thing Hugo had never done was to tell his children that schooldays were the best days of their lives. Anyway, all in the past. Can’t blame anyone for all that, well apart from Mr Mulloney, he supposed. He had blamed his parents at the time. Had hated them for it in fact. Sending him away to a boarding school. But he came to realise that that was what parents did – things that they believed to be in the best interests of their children.
Still, he found out in later life that his father had been savagely bullied himself at school, and so Hugo wondered why his father had then sacrificed his own son on the alter of a public school education. But no point either in dwelling on that now. They were all long gone – his parents, Mr Mulloney. Many years ago, Hugo had taken some trouble to find out about the latter’s demise, and had intended to derive a measure of satisfaction – as you do when you are young – from hearing that the man had died a painful death, and endured great suffering. The curious thing was, that he’d heard from someone else at an alumni reunion that Mr Mulloney only bothered to pick on the kids that he actually liked. What he wanted to do was make a man of them. The ones he thought had no potential he left alone. In his perverse way he was trying to help them.
The irony of it all, Hugo thought. Still, look how I turned out – perhaps old Mulloney wasn’t wrong after all.
The intensity of the morning and afternoon activities – not to mention Hugo’s bad back, brought on by leaping out of bed in fright to answer the door to the room service – suddenly gave him an idea, as he passed the reception desk on his way to the changing rooms. A sign on the desk proclaimed – Offer of the Month: Full Body Massage Half Price. Gosh, Hugo thought, that would be nice. Work out some of those knots in preparation for the dance floor later. On a whim and spur of the moment – no flies on him, he thought – Hugo strode boldly back to the reception desk, and asked if there were any availability for a massage that very moment.
The skinny young girl behind the desk consulted a computer screen and frowned.
“Is that hot stone, aromatherapy, Swedish, shiatsu or Thai massage?” she said, in a vaguely Welsh accent, as she looked up.
Christ, thought a massage was a massage. Hugo was bewildered.
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, your Swedish is good for stress relief, your hot stone massage is good for centring yourself and relaxation, your shiatsu fixes imbalances in the flow of energy in your body, your aromatherapy can help treat specific problems with perfumed oils and your Thai improves flexibility.”
Hugo was no less bewildered.Then he had another brainwave. “The one mentioned here, full body massage,” he said, pointing to the sign on the desk.
“They’re all full body,” the skinny girl responded.
Hugo looked around the reception for inspiration. What would Clint Eastwood choose? Wouldn’t even be in a poncey spa in the first place. But if he were – which he wouldn’t be – but if he were forced to be, then he would – be a man. Yes! He’d be a man about it. Which meant? What exactly? He wondered.
Hugo’s gaze fell upon a well-thumbed copy of Men’s Health magazine on the desk. It had a man smiling on the front in sports gear, in a gym.
“Sports massage please,” Hugo announced definitively, smiling. Good old Clint, always came through for him in the end.
The skinny girl tapped away at her computer again. She barely reached over the top of the counter. So waif-like, that a breeze could carry her away. Looked about 14-years-old, probably on work experience, he decided.
“And what would you like that combined with?” she asked him.
The skinny girl sighed. “Do you want a hot stone sports massage, an aromatherapy sports massage, a—”
“Yes, yes, I’ve got the idea,” Hugo replied irritably.His enthusiasm for the event to come diminishing with every added option. He’d thought asking for the sports version would have been the end of it. Why is nothing ever easy? “Whatever – er, Thai I suppose,” he ventured.
Hugo had chosen this option because he couldn’t pronounce shiatsu, supposed that the perfumed oils was for women, couldn’t begin to fathom what “hot stones” meant – probably something uncomfortable if he had to lie on them, like a bed of nails, he speculated – and didn’t want to sound like a pervert asking for a Swedish massage, as its subliminal meaning was Swedish girl. Ha! well he wasn’t going to be caught out on that one.
Hang on – then what the heck did Thai imply? Oh God, that was even worse. Too late now. Anyway, at the very least it would be relaxing: as all those brochures for exotic holidays, in far flung places like Phuket, always featured someone lying on a massage table, while a serene Thai lady, with a flower in her hair, stroked the recipient’s back, and the latter lay there with a calm and tranquil face, in a blissful, massage-induced slumber.
He wondered, briefly, what Dana would make of it all, as the skinny girl directed him down the corridor saying, “Treatment Room Two, where your therapist will be with you shortly.”
As Hugo walked down the sand-washed golden walls – in reality painted magnolia – to the sounds of whales calling to each other underwater, not sure why they play that kind of thing, he was looking forward to having the knots eased out of his muscles, and, with any luck, a bit of a nap, before going back up to the room to make sure everyone was okay, and that the kids had written Dana’s birthday cards.
But for now, it was Hugo time, and at £35 a pop – the price of the massage – he was determined to enjoy it. A dark, mahogany door with a large white plaque proclaimed – Treatment Room Two. Hugo stopped, looked around and then knocked.
There was no reply. He knocked again. Still no reply. Tentatively he turned the handle and opened the door a crack. “Hello?” he said. No response. “Can I come in?” he asked, as he opened the door further.
The room was empty. It was brightly lit and no whale music played. This was a little disappointing. But perhaps the therapist or massage person would sort it out when she came in, and make it a bit more relaxing. In the centre of the room there stood a large, white, leatherette massage couch covered in white towels. Hugo stood by the door and waited. Then he moved into the room and stood by the couch. No sign of anyone. Then he went out again and looked at the plaque on the door, just to double check. Treatment Room Two, no mistake.
Behind the door there was a white towelling robe, and on a chair behind it, a little see-through bag containing pair of white towelling slippers. Hugo tapped his foot. And waited. He sat up on the edge of the massage couch.
Perhaps this massage malarky wasn’t such a good idea after all. Come to think of it, he’d never had a massage before. Well, not a proper one. In their early days together, Dana had not been averse to slapping on a bit of baby oil and rubbing his back – as a prelude to, well, the other. And he’d had a rub down on the side of the pitch, by the physio at a university rugby game, and a couple of times in the locker room afterwards, when he’d got an injury. But never in a massage parlour, whatever that meant. Or a fancy hotel spa.Or, he just realised to his horror, by another woman. No woman, other than his wife, had touched Hugo for the last twenty-three years. Even their GP was a man.
Hugo continued to wait. The attraction of his spur-of-the-moment whim was rapidly receding. And, come to think of it, £35 would buy a jolly decent bottle of wine for dinner. Or several large Speyside single malts. Hugo jumped down from the couch – having decided to abandon the massage mission – not without a measure of relief, it had to be said, and walked over to the door.
He collided with the skinny girl from reception. Probably come to tell me there’s no one to do the massage, he concluded. He begun to formulate his understanding and was about to say, “It’s quite all right, no problem, I’ll come back another day,” etc, when the skinny girl came into the room and closed the door behind her.
“Sorry about that, I had to get Tony to relieve me at reception, and he was in the gym doing a session with a guest so I had to wait a few minutes, what with it being kids hour in a bit as well.” The skinny girl proceeded to take all the towels off the massage couch, and using the electronic control, lowered the couch several inches.
Hugo stood where he was. He was very confused. “Where’s the massage therapist?” he asked, with some trepidation.
“Here,” the skinny girl replied, and laughed.
“Where?” Hugo looked around, cutting his eyes without moving his head.
“It’s me, silly.” The skinny girl was still laughing.
“You!” Hugo took a small, but to him significant, step back.
The skinny girl looked every one, but not more, than her fourteen years. “Of course. You look surprised. How else did you think I knew so much about it?”
She swung her long hair – plaited in a braid, like Cressida used to wear when she was younger – over her shoulder. The skinny girl turned around and started fiddling about in a cupboard. She produced an oil burner, lit a candle and placed it underneath. A soft fragrance started to waft around the room. Then she went over to the corner of the room and turned on a CD player and suddenly flutes, pan pipes, waterfalls, and chirping birds sprung up all around him.
Hugo stood rooted to the spot. “But, well, I thought it would be someone else, a therapist, a—“
“I am a therapist,” the skinny girl said, as she went over to the light switch and dimmed the lights.
“Yes, but I thought when I booked it that it would be an adul—” Hugo was going to say “adult”, but instead said, “an older person.”
At this point every ounce of anticipated relaxation and enjoyment had been sucked, like a vacuum, from the event.
“I’m fully qualified, don’t worry, I can’t cause any damage.” She laughed.
Hugo noticed that she still had spots, like an adolescent. And had he glimpsed a brace on her teeth when she smiled? He remained rooted to the floor. The sweet fragrance, the soft music, the dimmed lights, the candle burner – it all seemed so, romantic. Seductive.
And it was a Thai massage. Oh God, Hugo groaned to himself. I’m in a small room with the lights dimmed, and I’m about to take off my clothes and lie on a couch, while a child puts her hands on my naked body.
Jesus Christ! Men went to Thailand for that very thing! It was on the news regularly.
And then – they went to prison!
He was about to bolt from the room, when he heard himself asking, “Have you done, er many massages then?” He immediately realised that he did not, under any circumstances, want to hear the answer to this question.
“Hundreds and hundreds. Probably late hundreds I suppose,” the child replied, and then added, “now, I will leave the room for a few minutes while you make yourself comfortable. Just get under the towel on top of the couch and lie face down, and I will be back in a mo.”
She moved towards the door. Hugo had decided that this would be his opportunity to escape before he was arrested, until she said, ”I’ll be just outside the door, call me when you are ready.” With that the child left the room.
Christ Almighty! Hugo ran from the door to the couch and back again, like a headless chicken.
He put his ear to the door and listened with bated breath. He couldn’t hear a fucking thing with the birds chirping and the pan pipes blasting out. He stepped back from the door and looked wildly around the room. There was no other exit. He took it all in, all of it, as the enormity of the situation gathered momentum and threatened to overwhelm him. Hugo sat down in the chair behind the door. Felt something uncomfortable underneath him. He reached around and pulled out the towelling slippers.
There was a knock at the door. “Is it okay to come in?” the child asked from the other side of the door. Hugo sprung up out of the chair.
“Er, not quite. Ha,” he replied in desperation. He was holding the bag with the slippers in it. He took them out, put them on. Not that wearing a pair of slippers legitimises any of it, he thought. An insane notion. There was something else left in the bag. He rummaged around, and pulled out what looked like a white, transparent, paper cloth. He held it up, examined it. To his horror they looked like disposable paper pants. See-through. Was he meant to put them on? She hadn’t said so. And why were they “disposable”? Christ, what would necessitate them having to be thrown away afterwards?
Oh God, where was Dana? She always knew what to do in these ghastly situations. And that thought sent another wave of terror through Hugo. How in God’s name was he going to explain this?
Another knock at the door. A little louder this time.
“How’s it going?” the child asked again, her voice seeming to become more juvenile with every question.
“Just be a jiffy,” he lied. Hugo was starting to feel a little numb. He wouldn’t do well in prison. He was too soft. He’d never last the course. And it would be full of barbaric men like Mr Mulloney. Or worse. Mind you, didn’t they segregate the sex offenders? Oh God.
Hugo took off his towel, revealing his navy blue Speedo swimming trunks underneath. He sucked in his tummy. Let it out again. He’d never realised how figure-hugging the Speedos were. Wished he had gone for Alex’s surfer shorts instead. Regretted being so old-school now. Despite the navy Speedos, towelling slippers, and bit of a tummy, he didn’t think that he cut too bad a figure. But now was not the time to admire his own physique. Much more pressing matters were to hand. What should he do? He tried to think.
The child asked again, “Shall I come in? Are you under the towels, can you manage okay?”
“No!” he cried, then realised what he’d just said, “I mean yes, yes I can manage, er, just, er sorting myself out.” Truth was, Hugo was starting to feel rather cold: what with finishing his swim, not having had a shower, the tepid temperature of the room – as he now realised – and the fact that the Speedos were still soaking wet.
Right. A decision needs to be made. He nodded his head. I either leave this room and explain firmly that I must reschedule for another time, or I get my kit off and get under the towel on that couch. Yes, that’s the ticket, action. Either way. Trouble was, what course of action to take. If he abandoned the massage goodness knows what the child would think of him, not that that mattered too much if he was clear of the situation, but she might make trouble if she was cheated out of the treatment and a tip. Or offended, the latter could be even worse. On the other hand if he stayed, well that was an entirely different set of circumstances.
Hugo looked around the room again, spotted the massage oil and little mixing pot that the child had taken out of the cupboard, ready and waiting. And beside it her jewellery. He’d seen her take it off earlier. Presumably so she didn’t scratch him during the “procedure”, as he now thought of it.
He picked up two bangles and a Tissot watch. And a small diamond and sapphire engagement ring. And a large gold wedding band.A wedding band.
Hang on – she was married!
She wasn’t a child, she just looked very young. Married. Thank God. A wave of relief washed over Hugo. How utterly foolish of him to jump to conclusions based on appearances and supposition. How foolish.
Right, action needed. Massage will go ahead as the girl is clearly of age, and so nothing untoward can be inferred. So. I need to get under the towel on that couch. He removed the slippers and looked down again at his Speedos. He pulled them down, looked at himself – horrified – and pulled them back up again.
Another knock at the door. “I don’t want to rush you but I do have another massage booked in forty minutes,” the massage therapist said.
“Righto, nearly ready!” Should he keep the Speedos on, or take them off? What was the form? He didn’t know. Must be off, surely, if it’s a full body massage? Hugo pulled them down again and took them off. Stood with them in hand, wavering. He looked over at the couch again to gauge the size of the towel, and then cast his gaze down towards his bits and bobs.
The obscenity of it hit him, and he stepped into the Speedos and pulled them up again. Only they were wet. So down they came again.
Oh Fuck. On or off?
Another knock on the door. “Only I probably won’t have time for the full body massage now, most likely just be a back, neck and shoulder massage,” the therapist said, her voice seeming much deeper now.
The Speedos went up again. That’s it. They’re staying put. Hugo went over to the couch, got under the towel and lay face down. “Okie dokie,” he called out.
He heard the door open and close behind him. The skinny therapist came over to the head of the couch.
“Sorry about that, I was fiddling with, I mean I was trying to, er” – shut up Hugo, he thought, you’re just making it worse – “anyway better late than never!”
“That’s okay, sorry to rush you, but the evenings are always busier than the afternoons on a Saturday,” she replied. She rubbed a liberal amount of oil between her hands as she said, “Now, it was a Thai sports massage you wanted, wasn’t it? Which is my speciality actually. Now Thai is a very vigorous massage, and very deep tissue, so combined with the sports element it can work on specific areas. So two questions. One, is there any area you think needs work in particular, and two, would you like it firm or gentle – some people can find it a little uncomfortable?”
Hugo bristled at the idea of gentle – that was for the women, wasn’t it? “Well, my lower back has been causing me some discomfort after I, um, did something in the gym, as are my hamstrings, so if I could have the hamstrings rather than the neck say, as time is short. And very firm please. The firmer the better.”
The therapist gave a little laugh and folded the towel down over Hugo’s bottom. “So how long have you been doing this then?” he asked her.
“About four years. I went back to college to retrain as a sports massage therapist after my last child was born,” she said, as she began work on Hugo’s back.
Hugo breathed a huge sigh of relief, now that the issue of her age had been clarified, and the horror of the Speedos sorted out, Hugo intended to lie back and enjoy the experience. Safe in the knowledge that it was legal and decent.
As the birds chirped, the water fell and the pan pipes echoed, Hugo began to feel a little chilly with the towel turned down. There didn’t seem to be any heat in the room. And the massage was getting more vigorous by the minute. And Hugo’s wet swimwear was beginning to feel icy cold. Not good so close to his nether regions. Any notion of a massage being remotely sensual had now well and truly been dispelled.
The therapist’s fingers worked, her palms pressed and her fingers dug. Deeper and deeper. Hugo realised that he was clenching his teeth. His jaw was locked shut. His arms clasped either side underneath the massage couch. His nails dug into the padding.
The massage continued. Hugo suppressed a series of little gasps. Which he couldn’t have uttered anyway as his teeth were clenched. He began to hold his breath, letting it out only when the sadist therapist released her grip temporarily to move to another area. He closed his eyes tight. Tried to focus upon relaxing thoughts. The joys of the evening to come. The delightful company of his family. He breathed in, held it, gasped, released the breath. All he could think about were negative things. The front door lock, the partially written book, the cock-up in the Japanese restaurant, the credit card bill, the letter from the bursar.
That was the clincher. Hugo didn’t realise that he had been holding his breath the entire time, until he found himself turned over, on his back, with his knees raised, and the head end of the electronically-controlled couch lowered towards the floor.
“I think you fainted for a moment or two there,” he heard a voice say.
He opened his eyes to see the sadist therapist standing beside him. The towel was pulled up to his neck. The massage apparently over. The lights had been turned up bright, the oil burner extinguished and the chirping birds etc had stopped.
“It can be a little too much for some people, especially when combined with the sports massage element,” the sadist therapist said as she came into focus.
“Oh,” was all Hugo could manage. He felt screaming pain in every one of his muscles.
“Usually it’s the men. Women have a very high pain threshold.”
“Oh,” Hugo said again. He was breathing once more, although his knuckles were white from the pressure exerted clinging onto the underside of the massage couch. The sadist therapist pushed a button, making the top end of the couch fly up and Hugo’s head reverberated against the head rest. He now also had a throbbing headache.
“Right, I’ll leave you to get sorted, and when you’re ready just come back into reception. But drink this water first – massage can dehydrate you.” She handed him a white plastic cup of cold water. He took it and watched her depart.
Hugo wasn’t sure how he had managed to get off the couch unaided, as he left the room and made his way towards the reception desk. He was limping in both legs. It felt like he had spent one hundred hours in the gym straight. Doing leg squats without a warm-up. He was certain that he would need painkillers to get through the rest of the weekend. The type you could only get on prescription. How he would manage to get his trousers and shoes on, God only knew. It was at this moment an utter impossibility. He’d have to throw a towel around him and go up to the room like he was. A hot bath might help. If he could get into it.
The sadist was waiting for him at reception. “I’ll just hand you over to my colleague to pay. It was lovely to meet you and remember to relax now and not do anything strenuous.” Off she went with a cheery smile.
Tony behind the counter said, with no expression, “That’s £85 please.”
“What!” Hugo replied, “it says here, ‘half price massage’, and I checked when I came in, and she said it would be £35!” Although he was in no condition to argue, he couldn’t help but point out the mistake.
“That’s for the basic massage, you had the Thai, that adds another £50. It’s very specialist and not everyone can do it you know.” Tony did not crack a smile. Deadpan.
Hugo slumped. Oh fuck it, he was in too much pain to dispute it. “Just put it on my tab,” he said, gingerly shuffling away towards the door.
Wonder if I can sue them, he speculated on his way out. Dana will know. Second thought, better not to mention the incident at all. Women can be funny about these things. Could get the wrong end of the stick.
At least his back wasn’t causing him any more discomfort. The pain in his legs now transcending any other sensations in his body.
Dirty Weekend in Brighton
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