The perfect massage

Take a deep breath, get comfortable, and close your eyes.

Ah. That isn’t going to work.

Take a deep breath, get comfortable, and metaphorically close your eyes. Imagine that you are in a warm, dark room. Soft Ludovico Einaudi soundscapes lap at your ears. Your bare belly presses against cool sheets while your soles are swaddled embryonically in hot, damp towels. There’s the pop of a stopper, and the glug of oil, and the scent of a Babylonian garden fills the room: rose and cinnamon and neroli, hand-warmed. There is a perfect moment of anticipation, suspension; a blossoming vacuum of contact above your prone form.

And then the hands, and the guilt, descend.

For most Brits, a massage is an outrageous and rebellious act of shame-laced luxury. Booking an aroma rub or a deep tissue rolf is a wildly extravagant gesture in a country where ‘time out’ is the mouldy chocolate bar you find at the bottom of your laptop bag and ‘grooming’ means picking fleas off the dog. If you pile warmth upon music upon fragrance upon touch, our pleasure principle abruptly short-circuits and we spend the next hour trying to make noises appreciative enough to assuage the guilt at employing someone to handle our feet, and self-consciously instructing our nerves to Enjoy Every Minute because they’re costing two quid a pop.

This spring, I had a massage of such unbearable sensuality on the Maldivian island of Baros – straight off the speedboat, involving cold sweet ginger tea, scented face towels, outdoor rainwater showers, candles, dusk, and ninety minutes of unspeakable joy – that bad things happened. Very bad things, involving failure to complete to-do lists, ‘lying in’, random acts of spontaneity, and naked outdoors sex. Well, quite.

So in the UK, I tend to seek out massages with a medicinal tinge, a whiff of something brisk and bracing and Nanny-knows-best, with gritted-teeth-tough pressure punctuated by cracks and socket-squeaks. In Cardiff, I found Glenda, a cheap and indecipherable baker-cum-massage-trainee, who smelled of lard and kneaded me into a brain-dead pool of dough. In London, I favour Genesis New World, an unlovely parlour on Porchester Road filled with the tang of disinfectant, the slap of plastic flip-flops and tiny, charming Taiwanese women who can properly make you cry (ask for Dai).

Then last weekend, I wavered. After a shamelessly sapid brunch, I sidled into Shoreditch House and washed up in a warm, musical, sweet-smelling, well-lubricated room at the Cowshed Spa being pummelled to a patchouli-scented pulp. Again, bad things. I impulsively bought a multipack of mini Essie fall collection nail varnishes at the till, went up to the sitting room, ordered two Amaretto Sours, read Vogue instead of Wolf Hall, and picked all the cashews out of the free nuts.

Less than perfect, I think you’ll agree.