My daughter has insisted on booking me a massage.
I’ve never had a massage before but she seems to think it’s a good idea.
‘It’s just what you need, Dad,’ Sophie said over the phone. She has taken to calling every evening punctually at 6.30pm. This timing, like the conversation itself, is deliberately thoughtful. I know that she knows I listen to the news on the radio at 7pm and I think it’s also her way of checking that I’m eating properly.
‘So what are you having for dinner?’ she’ll ask and she’ll try to say it casually and I’ll attempt to be equally nonchalant in my response.
‘Salmon and couscous,’ I’ll lie, while looking at the single slice of stale bread that I intend to toast once I’ve cut off the patches of mould.
Sophie told me to expect the therapist on Thursday afternoon.
‘I might be busy,’ I said.
I left the question unanswered. The point was, I could have made other plans. It wasn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility. The assumption that I had nothing better to do than be oiled up and pummelled by a total stranger was hurtful; a little patronising.
‘Dad, it’ll be relaxing,’ Sophie said and I could hear the suppression of her frustration and, in the background, the muted squeals of her toddler, my grandson Thomas. ‘You don’t have to leave the house but I just think seeing someone else, having a bit of human contact might do you good, you know? You don’t even have to chat!’
I agreed, of course. At a certain age, it is always easier to agree to one’s children’s plans. There is a point when your offspring start thinking they know what’s best for you, and you have to be willing to cede what little parental power you once had, even if it makes you feel you are being treated as an incompetent.
‘You’ll love it, you’ll see,’ Sophie said. ‘If nothing else, it’ll take your mind off it.’
It was the wrong thing for her to say but Thomas’s squeals had reached eardrum-bursting levels, and she had to go and calm him down. She ended the call rather abruptly.
I was grumpy and agitated for the rest of the evening. Couldn’t find anything on the box I wanted to watch. Didn’t want to read. Tried to go to bed and couldn’t sleep. Because the truth is, there is nothing – nothing at all – that can take your mind off the fact that your wife has died.
Sophie tells me the therapist’s name is Valeria and that she comes highly recommended and with a five-star rating on an app called City Masseur. I spend most of the day before Valeria arrives worrying about what she will need and what the protocol is for allowing someone you’ve never met into your home and then disrobing in their presence. Should I answer the door in my dressing gown or would that be presumptuous? Would she want a cup of tea? The milk I had in the fridge was substantially past its sell-by date. Where was she going to do the massage? In the bedroom I had until recently shared with my wife?
The idea was unsettling, not least because our king size had been taken out and replaced with a single for me and a hospital bed for Helena that the carers found easier to manoeuvre. The mattress is still covered with the crinkly waterproof bedsheet that Helena had once found so appalling.
‘I feel like a baked potato in tin foil,’ she had said. ‘The sheet crunches every time I turn.’
By the end, she had accepted it along with all the other indignities – the adult nappies; the open-backed nightshirt; the damp flannelling undertaken by other hands.
She accepted. I never could.
Still can’t. Not yet.
The council are coming to collect the bed next week, so they say. I’m not sure whether I will miss it or whether I will be relieved to have it gone. While the bed is there, I can remind myself that Helena is no longer suffering. I can use this as a way of cutting the vast blanket of my grief into a more manageable size. With the bed gone, I will have no option but to remember her as she was before cancer: her vividness, the specific curl of her hair, her secret recipe for roast chicken with a dusting of sumac, the soft bubbling noise of her laugh, the way she clasped my hand firmly as we walked even though I had thought I was embarrassed by the holding.
Valeria rings the doorbell at 3pm sharp. She is a doughy-faced woman and when she smiles, her eyes almost disappear into her cheeks. She is wearing a black top with the City Masseur logo of two intertwined hands, with a neat line of small buttons curving around the neck like a geisha’s kimono.
‘Mr Samuels, yes?’ she asks as she hefts a large oblong case into the hallway.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Mike, is fine.’
‘Ok, Mike. Where I set up?’
She motions to the oblong and I realise that it is a folding table, so I show her into the front room rather than upstairs to the bedroom and I draw the curtains. Valeria is busying herself unzipping the table from its fabric shell and hoisting it onto its feet with an impressive show of strength.
‘Is there anything you need?’ I ask.
‘Two big towels and one small, please Mike.’
‘And…do I…I mean…do I undress, or…?’
She stops unfolding the table and looks at me. She laughs, but not unkindly.
‘Yes. But keep on underpants. You go now, come back in robe, is fine.’
‘I’ve never had a massage before,’ I say.
‘This good! It means you have nothing to compare me to!’
Upstairs, I shuffle out of my trousers and shirt and tie the dressing-gown cord tightly around my waist. When I go back into the front room, Valeria is playing vague, ambient music on her phone. She lifts the towel up high so that she doesn’t see me slide underneath in my pants, and then she instructs me to lie face-down.
When she puts her hands on my back, I shiver. It is, I realise, the first time I have been touched in this way – skin on skin, woman’s palm pressed on the ridge of my shoulder-blade – for quite some time. Helena had always been so tactile. I had resisted it at first, and then over the years I had grown to rely on it. I miss the feel of her hand so much.
Valeria kneads and sweeps down the fishbone of my spine, stopping here and there to work into the knotty pockets of muscle with her thumbs and fingers. I can hear her breathing, heavy and regular, as she bends into the pressure. The oil smells lightly of citrus and jasmine. She works her way down my legs, moulding my flabby calves as though they are clay on a potter’s wheel and when she reaches the soles of my feet there is a ticklish sensation that feels almost exactly right. I begin to relax. My eyelids stutter. Sleep settles around my brain like sea-mist.
When I come round, Valeria is telling me to take my time sitting up. An hour has already passed.
‘You had a lot of tension,’ she says. ‘You might feel stiff tomorrow.’
I am confused, momentarily. It takes my mind several seconds to shift into gear and readjust to the familiarity of the room. And then I find I am crying. Tears on my cheeks; each one a mortification.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I say to Valeria. ‘I don’t know what’s happening…’
She pats my back gently.
‘Is ok. This sometimes happen.’
She waits until I stop sobbing.
‘I lost my wife, you see,’ I explain. ‘I haven’t…well, I don’t think I’ve…’
‘You no need to.’
But I can’t stop talking now. I, who have been so silent. I, who have been so unreachable.
‘My daughter booked me this massage. She’s worried about me, I know, but I just can’t seem to make the effort to be alright. It’s exhausting. Just waking up in the mornings and living without her is…exhausting.’
I am depleted by the end of this sentence. It’s the most I have spoken for months. And then, in a belated and misplaced attempt at social niceties, I ask, ‘Do you have children?’
‘I did,’ Valeria says. ‘He died.’
She comes around the table to face me, then, and she takes my hand in hers and stares at me with great forcefulness.
‘They say it gets easier. It don’t. But it gets so you can cope.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘I too. I am sorry too.’
She walks out of the room to wash her hands and I gather up my dressing gown and tie it around my waist in a sort of emotional stupor. When Valeria reappears, she has swept her hair back into a fresh ponytail, the stray strands loosened by the massage now smoothly back in place.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘For everything.’
‘I see you next week,’ she says, slipping her table back into its sheath.
‘Yes,’ I say, understanding the rightness of the decision even before I make it. ‘Yes, you will.’
About Elizabeth Day
Elizabeth Day is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist. She is the author of Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong, The Moment of Now, How to Fail: Everything I've Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong and many others, and she hosts the weekly podcast How to Fail With Elizabeth Day.
This short story by Elizabeth Day appeared in the July 2019 issue of Saga Magazine.