The gauche fitout of the salon was far from calming. As she lay naked under the towel, Irena took in black drapes with satin red trim – a look that sent her straight to the adult type of underwear store. She wondered whether they played different soundtracks for different clientele. For her, gentle pipes conjuring rustling leaves and burbling brooks; for others, the heavy breathing of Jungle Fever.
Candlelight flickered across the back drapes, and Irena began to feel almost cosy after all. She allowed herself a deep exhalation and closed her eyes. A massage, a tour and then Christmas. Relax, she told herself. Relax. Her mind began to let go, unclenching itself from a tight, white-knuckled fist. Ugly little thoughts had been spitting like spots of frying fat, assaulting her with imagery she didn’t want to see. Flashes across her mind: fat old men with young Asian girls like you saw in Bangkok. She felt a surge of irritation at the salon’s marketing team. What did they think? Why didn’t they make it clear in their advertising? But those sizzling fat drop thoughts were slowing, cooling as she relaxed into the candlelight and the quiet. Sleep lapped at the edges of her mind.
Scuff, scuff. Footsteps down the corridor. A displacement of air, and the masseuse entered the curtained room.
Irena dreamily watched herself as if from outside her body. The masseuse started at her feet, and her touch was gentle and firm. Irena peeked. The woman felt her gaze and looked back at her. The masseuse flashed a sharp grin, before fixing her eyes pointedly on the corner above Irena’s head. It was not a reassuring grin. There was something greedy and gloating about it. The thought half-crystallised in Irena’s mind before she sealed her eyes shut again and submitted to the gentle, pleasant sensation of pressure releasing from her body and blankness enveloping her mind.
* * * * *
Irena was unhappy about this tour. She felt at a disadvantage, as if she were being screwed over, taken for a ride. Taken for granted. Something had changed since the last tour three years ago. Maybe it was her.
She remembered the feeling last time, refreshed by Australia’s clear light and a kind of innocence. She had had the feeling, flying in to Sydney, of years of complicated history falling away, falling off her bodily, like shackles dropping from her wrists and ankles. She had felt light, leaving London with its grimy buildings and habitual snobbery.
It was the thing she liked least about her profession: the ballgowns worn by the soloists, the tuxedos forced on the orchestras. Instead of elegance, she saw oppression and walls placed between music and the audience. This, combined with the pressure of the build up to Christmas made it all the more oppressive.
“I am not a model; I am a musician!” she railed over a pint at her local London pub, aware of the sharp edge of her accent. Irena would perform in a tracksuit if she could, despite or maybe because she came from a place associated with great formality. “Does my music sound better when I have to suck my stomach in?!”
So when her agent had come to her with an invitation from the performance company MusicALL, with its democratic ideals and friendly language, she had jumped at the chance. She was proud to take music to the great Australian outback, and happy enough to be lodged in a motel. In Sydney she would stay in luxury and play, if not at the Opera House, in the city’s premier recital hall.
This time, however, it was different. The city seemed less friendly, the hotel light harsher, the support staff less supportive. “You’ll need to be at the hall by 8 tomorrow morning for the piano,” Reg had said. “It’s early, but it’s the only option.”
“Eight!” Irena had gasped. It was 9pm already, and Reg had called at her hotel room. The porter had only just delivered her luggage, she had so recently stepped off her long-haul flight.
She had not met Reg, but knew the type. She pictured him with a pointed nose and glasses you would call spectacles, a woollen vest from an expensive shop and polished Italian shoes. She doubted he cared much for MusicALL’s welcoming vision. She was about to ask whether there was any way to change the timing when his voice came sharply down the line.
“You don’t have a problem with that, do you?” Irena was too exhausted to react. “Little creep,” she thought, but instead she said: “No, it’s fine. Of course.”
“Good. We need to keep the artist happy,” he said, and signed off.
Irena put down the phone and stood still. Alone in this hotel room, devoid of identity, movement or sound, Irena felt as adrift as an astronaut lost in space. She hated these untethered moments. She felt her insignificance. The years of practice, achievement and even adulation were tiny and distant as earth viewed from the Moon, or somewhere further still. She looked down at her hands, stretched her fingers and closed them on the empty air. At these times she felt worthless, her artist’s ego more fragile than glass. She wanted to call Matthew and hear home, but it would be middle of the night in England and she would not admit she was that desperate yet. With any luck she’d get there in time for Christmas.
Reg had made her feel dispensible, just another part of the show. They could dress it up with studio-lit headshots and posters, but at these moments Irena felt unloved and commodified, her music only as valuable as the box office dollar. Irena needed to move, to get outside her head. She stepped outside the hotel room, took the elevator to the ground floor and within minutes was walking, bathed in that refreshing, restorative Sydney spring light. She would walk, and then, a massage.
* * * * *
By the end of the massage, Irena’s mind was pleasantly mushy. Half-thoughts ebbed and flowed on a gentle tide of semi-consciousness. She lay on the bed, musing on the nature of first impressions. The unsettling décor and demeanour of her masseuse had really been misleading, she thought. Perhaps she had read it wrong through her exhaustion and anxiety. She let the gentle music wash through her reflections and let time pass. She was brought back to the present with three sharp taps on her head, delivered by the therapist with the long side of her cupped hands, signifying the end of the massage.
The woman then stepped around to the side of the bed, and did something surprising. With one swift action, she pulled at the towel that was covering Irena’s belly and breasts. The shock of cool air was succeeded by a stab of pain as the woman pinched each of Irena’s nipples hard between finger and thumb and gave a sharp twist.
As Irena gasped, the woman said breezily, loud enough not to hear: “There you are! Finished!” She looked brightly into Irena’s face, flashed her strange, quick grin again, spun on her heel and walked out of the room.
The door latched shut and the heavy black curtain whooshed back into place.
Irena was blank with astonishment. What had happened? The empty room did not answer. She sat for a second clutching the towel against her front, conscious of the cold hitting her back.
* * * * *
When Irena had dressed and made her way back to the front desk, her masseuse was not there. There was the sound of a tap running in a back room, so perhaps she was washing up. Another therapist was at the desk.
“I hope you enjoy,” she said brightly, in broken English. She reached her hand out for Irena’s credit card. She was brisk and professional. Irena heard herself give a hoarse laugh, but she couldn’t think of what she should say. Was she mad? Had that woman really twisted her nipples? Since they were still smarting, the answer was yes. But was it a normal part of the regular massage here? Maybe that’s what people expect of a massage in Australia.
“It was,” Irena stumbled in response, “… not exactly what I expected at the end.”
“We never like the end of the massage, do we?” said the woman behind the counter, smiling through her too-red lips. Irena wondered if she misunderstood her on purpose.
“You got a problem? You can tell me.”
Irena jumped. She had not noticed the man before, sitting in an armchair behind her.
The man stepped forward, filling the room. The woman at the desk shrank, pretty much disappeared, and Irena registered a sudden sense of menace. The man was wearing gym clothes that showed powerful arms and shoulders. He was sleek, with short hair trimmed sharp and highly glossed. You could see how he might alternate charm with anger. Irena pictured a small mirrored disk hanging on a wire, swivelling in the wind, flashing with each spin.
“What do you mean? It was weird? Something I should know?” he said.
He leaned over her and sought her eyes, with just a sense of threat. “Tell me. I’ll fix it. Right, Steph?” He commanded the young woman without glancing away from Irena. He smelled powerfully of aftershave or cologne.
“Who are you?” Irena was bristling, but she was on her guard.
“Me? It’s my place. These girls, you know? They just don’t get it”. He made a signal with his hands, bouncing two fingers off his temple to show his frustration with the girls’ stupidity, or perhaps to blow his brains out. Metaphorically speaking.
“Tschhhhhh” he said, long and low. It was a sibilant sigh of exasperation. “They don’t know how to treat a lady. No matter how we try. Right, Steph?”
Irena’s skin was crawling, her blood beginning a slow simmer, her pulse beating loud in her head. She was not going to tell this man about the strange ending to her massage. At once, her allegiance switched. She felt a sudden solidarity with the woman who had left her with her nipples smarting.
“It was fine,” she lied, smiling through clenched teeth. She walked out, though she didn’t leave a tip.
By the time she was back at her room, a tempest was raging in her head. It was the worst thing about solo travel, she thought, being unable to cross-check the unexpected and outrageous things that sometimes happened. She put the keycard into the door and stepped into the sanctuary of her silent room.
The light flicked on and Irena forgot her anger. An enormous bunch of flowers was standing on the windowsill. Backlit against the black night outside, the deep and vibrant colours warmed the room: crimson, orange, green. Clashing, beautiful Australian colours. “Oh!” she said, aloud. She was smiling, and this time her face did not feel tight.
The card was vintage Matthew, all rounded English vowels.
“We miss you my darling. We are so jealous of those Australians right now, but we know they will love the greatest pianist on earth. Bring us back some red dust on your fingertips for Christmas. Yours, Matthew and Evie. “
She reached for the phone. An hour later, she was in bed, tomorrow’s music mingling with the voice of her lover in her mind. The incident of the nipple twist had been laughed at and defused, filed in a tiny mental drawer where it might be safely forgotten.
* * * * *
The 10 day tour of the outback would seem like a dream, later. A whirl of flights and stages. She remembered every piano she played and every audience, she just couldn’t have said exactly which was where. She should have kept a diary, and on the last day she scribbled a list of places with a sentence to describe each one. Already it was confusing. She had to think hard to untangle each memory. The list was a mess of words crossed out and arrows by the time she had finished, but she was pleased she had done it.
Irena was back now in the same hotel in Sydney, energised if exhausted. The woman at reception had recognised her. “Will you be wanting a massage this time?” she asked. “The salon upstairs has shut down, unfortunately. Let me know if you would like a recommendation as there are several good places nearby”. Irena wondered how she knew she had a massage last time. An unwelcome prickle of memory itched her neck. “At least my nipples are safe,” she said, and looked into the receptionist’s face. Was she trying to hide a smirk?
The room she had this time was just like the other one, just without the extravagant bunch of flowers. Noticing their absence, Irena remembered the hollowness she had felt on first arriving: her anxiety about leaving Eva, her apprehension that the tour would be a folly and a flop.
She looked back at the photos on her phone, thinking about the stories to tell Eva. She pictured her daughter’s eager face poring over the screen and guessed she’d like the snake pic best. It showed Irena wearing a python around her neck, with Irena hardly daring to breathe. The strangeness of that muscular cool form would not be easy to explain. Irena could not now believe she had done it. Great photo though. One for the wall, for sure.
Later she would tell Matthew about the concert in Townsville. The hall had been full. The lights on the stage were warm, but she was cooler than she had been all day.
That night the music had surged through her and out to the audience. These relaxed people from the north of Queensland. What did this mean to them, so far from the place where this music was born? She felt that she was not the one on tour. It was the audience who was on tour. She was taking them back centuries, back to Europe, to the time and place where Beethoven wrote these notes on the score. And yet, from the applause at the end she knew that the music was the language of this time and this place too. The music used her to work its fathomless trick of speaking to all people, everywhere.
Outside again afterwards, the air was warm, the sea was a postcard picture, people wore singlets and shorts.
* * * * *
In her room now in Sydney, Irena realised that she needed dinner. She would go out. She would eat alone tonight, the first night without a performance in a while. “Freedom!” she said aloud. It was how she always felt at the end of a tour. Freedom until next time, when she would feel the weight of her contract again. Plus, she’d be back in time for Christmas, with a collection of wonderful memories.
She walked round the corner towards the lift, running through the list of cuisines she might find. Japanese tonight, perhaps?
A housekeeping cart stood at the open door of an empty room, clearly in use. Irena looked through the door and paused to take in the magnificent view of the harbour in the falling light of dusk. A sudden movement drew her eye, and a uniformed worker stood up from behind the cart. Their eyes met and the woman flashed a sudden, knowing grin.
Her nipples remembered before she did. Irena was at the lift before she realised where she had seen that grin before.