I began going to this Thai massage place about a month ago. Admittedly, it looks a little the worse for wear, but the girls have matching T-shirts, and they take you into a cupboard with slatted saloon doors, and walk on your back and thoroughly unknot you. So far, so happy.
It was on my second visit that they took delivery of a slot machine, and on the third that the cigarette smoke of waiting patrons wafted into my cupboard. Not exactly Champneys. I'd never seen any other clientele. I'd only heard gruff voices in adjoining cubicles saying things like, "What little hands you've got..."
After one particularly good massage - ruined only slightly by the piped disco music - I emerged from my cupboard to find four middle-aged men, naked but for a tiny threadbare towel they'd each wound round their waist. We all stood there. They nodded at me in a knowing fashion, and I left.
Desperate to hear a reassuring voice, I got on the phone to my best friend. "I think I've been going to a knocking shop for massages!" I screamed. "And now all the men think I'm a pervert. All I was trying to do was get rid of the pain in my neck!" Silence. Then my friend said, calmly, "Why are you are visiting prostitutes?" My shriek of outrage made a passer-by ask if I needed 999.
Realising that I was a touch fragile, best friend then tried to comfort me with the suggestion that the men were probably just waiting for massages, too. And anyway, she said, if it was a sauna-type place, it'd be open 24 hours. "It is," I simpered. Again silence. "Did you ever think to ask them why it's open 24 hours?" "Of course I did. It's so that they can help the taxi drivers who work nights and get back problems from driving. And that's what makes it convenient - sometimes my neck hurts at 10 at night."
The signs were there, but wouldn't I have been racist to assume that a massage place run by Thai girls was any different to a normal massage place? At least I'm not the judge who last week told a Chinese man that he couldn't rightfully convict him because "you all look the same". Amazingly, instead of having the judge hauled in front of a race tribunal, the man muttered, "We do", and snuck off.
In the end, I found myself a New Age-y massage place. When I got there, two girls were dealing with a beakishly good-looking customer who was inducing rictus grins in both of them. He was wearing Aviators, a trilby, a long scarf, a Crombie coat, a paint-spattered shirt and scruffy cords, and was, inevitably, carrying a battered guitar case. Depending on which side of the fence you're on, he was either the epitome of rakish charm, or a raging pillock. Personally, guitar cases send me screaming for the nurse.
In his whisky-on-the-rocks voice, he asked for a massage. He then did that thing I never understand: he asked the girls what he'd like. When people do the equivalent thing in restaurants, I want to strangle them. Why would you ask a person you've never met before what they recommend? That is, what would suit your taste buds. The taste buds particular to you, inside your mouth, that only you know. Decide for yourself between the chicken and the fish. So, already annoyed by him tenfold, I naturally had to linger and listen.
"What kind of massage do you recommend, for me?"
"I don't know, what do you like?"
"Then John's good, or David, or Tina. They're all working tomorrow."
"Which one is best?"
"They're all good. David's strong, but Tina and John do deep tissue."
"Which would you say was brilliant."
"They're good in different ways. Why not take a leaflet and read about them?"
"Who would you go for? David? Did you say he was good?"
"OK, if you say David's the best..."
"Not best, good. They're all good."
"If you like David, I like David. Done."
Sigh. "Right, one o'clock tomorrow?"
He left with much swinging of guitar case, but suddenly he was back. "Someone's just asked me out for lunch tomorrow. What can we do?"
"You can have John at three."
"But I want David. David's the best."
"Not the best. Good."
Long pause. They eyeball each other. He leans in slowly and says, "Then why did you lie to me?"
Strangers often talk to me. I use the word "stranger" advisedly because strange is normally their defining characteristic. In the past week, I've had two incidents. One was when I came out of Volver and a desperate-looking Spanish woman ran up to me, asking, "You have just seen that film, what did you think of it?" "Um, I liked it. Are you OK?" "No, I am not OK. Why did you like it?" "Well, because..." She held her hand firmly up in front of my face. "Stop. I CANNOT talk to you if you liked that film. I don't want you to speak", and with that she huffed off on her heel.
The next day, I pulled my car over to pick up a friend. This time, a smart woman knocked on my window and gestured me to open it. "Take me to Kentish Town," she demanded. When I told her I wasn't a taxi, she said she knew that, but couldn't I give her a lift? Without waiting for an answer, she turned and started hurling fruit at passers-by. My friend got in. "Why's there always a weirdo near you?" she asked.
Maybe like attracts like.