Futuristic image of a sleek massage table.
[ This image was generated with AI. ]

You won’t have met this client before, Leon, but you’ll know of her: who wouldn’t? A glance through to the vehicle’s galley-style rear pod allows you to check the white towels, serried oil bottles and the table you’ll have already wiped down and sprayed with eucalyptus and lemon. You will gauge the temperature and adjust it, warm for the client and too hot for you.

Once parked, you’ll press ‘Find Client’ and after a few seconds see the football manager Emma Mauresmo in a thumbnail image. Then the real woman, in a voluminous black coat, collar upturned, and tall chestnut boots will bound through the glass doors of the football club and down the steps towards you. She will not strike you as physically large but her facial features will seem outsized, especially the dark eyes and russet-stained lips: a face made for television. She’ll have spotted the discreet charcoal sheen of the Spa Taxi Company vehicle and can now verify your registration against her phone.

You’ll get out, greet her and hold out your tablet for her fingerprint. At her touch, the back doors to the pod will open. From her boots, coat buttons and eyes to her long wavy nut brown hair, everything about her will appear extra large and lustrous. She’ll look back at you with a curious glance. Your fair hair, curly on top and cropped at the sides, amuses some.

‘Please make yourself comfortable, Ms Mauresmo. The same postcode as before?’ She’ll nod and step in, hand you her coat to hang up and throw her tan briefcase down in the corner. All the vehicles in the self-driving massage fleet will have the same layout so she’ll know her way around. Due to the black privacy glass few will even notice that self-drivers, legal for several months now, steer among them, apart from early adopters like Ms Mauresmo, a client new to you but not the service. With a crackle of cellophane you’ll peel open a plastic glass of cucumber water and offer it to her. She’ll gulp it down in two swallows and lob the tumbler into the bin.

You’ll step through to the sleek silvered plastic of the front cabin and set the vehicle to autopilot. The term lends the glamour of air travel to your urban shuttling.

Back in the mobile therapy compartment, the client will lie on the table with a towel draped around her. She’ll have left the changing cubicle door open and her clothes will lie jumbled on the seat, the hanger unused. You’ll run through the health questionnaire.

‘At least I managed to get a shower at work,’ she’ll say. ‘That’s one nice thing about working at a football club.’ Clients would always like to tell you how clean they were.

You’ll never memorise the code that therapists use if they ever need to lock the front cabin to get away from over-eager clients. It did happen, you’ll have known, but never yet to you. You’ll like to think your very ordinary school and college provides you with a kind of native cunning. If clients start to arch and wiggle against your hands, you’ll just perform a few vigorous Scandinavian therapeutic moves that breaks their mood in an instant.

‘Aren’t there other nice things about working for a football club? Managing one?’ you’ll say.

‘Of course.’

You’ll rub your hands to warm them. She’ll have pre-ordered Uplifting with Bergamot and Lavender.

You’ll fold back the towel. You won’t have registered the vehicle starting to move, but when you stand next to the massage table and ground yourself, granular vibrations from the road surface will rise though the grey rubberised floor and into your feet and legs.

You’ll leave the football club and head through Shepherd’s Bush in heavy traffic. Even through the dark privacy glass, the streaks of black cloud and tree branches across the low orange sun will look spectacular. You’ll wonder whether to say something about the sunset but she’ll already have her face wedged into the table.

You’ll want to mention her team’s performance, but some clients wouldn’t want to chat about work. On the other hand, others would like small talk to relax them.

‘Your AI team’s doing well,’ you’ll say, to show yourself as more than averagely informed.

‘Better than the real team at the moment,’ she’ll say. ‘Less trouble, too,’ she’ll add. You’ll glean from her voice her smile when she says this.

You’ll put a warm hand on her back and feel her effort to relax. You’ll run your fingers down her spine to wake up the muscles.

‘The muscles here feel a little creaky,’ you’ll say. ‘We’ll soon sort that out.’

‘Sorry, what’s your name?’ she’ll say. ‘It was in the message. I can’t remember.’

‘Leon,’ you’ll say, obviously. Asking your name was a good sign. Would she be a tipper? At £200 a massage, including the journey home, most clients would think they’d paid enough not to give more than a few pounds tip.

This woman would be something else, though. You wouldn’t be one of those people who talked about energy, but the tense emanations coming off her would make you feel a bit sick. You’ll have only just started on her back with long warm-up strokes when you’ll feel it. You’ll wonder what it was about her. She’ll have been perfectly nice and polite.

‘Is that pressure OK?’

‘Gnnyah,’ she’ll grunt. You’ll decide not to follow up.

You’ll apply more oil. The Spa Taxi Company will have forbidden employees from discussing fees because it will keep most of the money. You will receive £15 dollars plus tips for each job, and will have to pay for the oils and laundry. Still, you’ll feel rewarded in other ways. You’ll have helped so many people, just with your hands.

You won’t really see skin, just muscle tissue and knots. She’ll have tense areas like most people and you’ll work your way into them with light and then firmer pressure from your thumbs. She’ll lie inert, her ribs slowly expanding and contracting with her breath. She’ll have asked for no music so you’ll work in silence. Shoulders, neck, arms, fingers. Ow! Spiky energy like glass shards will rise from her palms. You’ll navigate away. Her arms and shoulders again. Slowly, methodically. Legs, calves, ankles, feet. Ow! The soles of her feet will feel the same as her palms.

‘I used to play football,’ you’ll say, startling yourself. A therapist should never talk about themself. But she’ll connect at once.

‘Oh yeah? Who for?’

‘I played for Watford Junior team,’ you’ll say. ‘I had a scholarship, but I dropped out.’

‘That’s a shame. Why?’

‘I just didn’t want it to be my life. I loved football, but I didn’t want to play four times a day seven days a week… to make it into my job. I loved it too much for that.’

‘Huh? You loved it so you didn’t want to do it.’

You’ll work hard on the big muscles at the back of her legs. They’ll start to loosen and you’ll move on; you would come back to them. She’ll help you lift her left arm and you’ll shake it gently to indicate she should let it flop. She will.

‘No, I didn’t want it ruined. Because I loved it.’

‘Who was the coach?’

‘Grant Chandler.’

‘Ah. A good coach.’

‘Yes.’

‘He ruined it for you, eh?’

‘No, no. Scoot over again, please.’ You’ll lift the towel slightly and replace it as she rotates. You’ll circle her belly with light movements. No scars on her anywhere. ‘I had another scholarship too, in California.’

She’ll half sit up to lean on her elbows and look at you.

‘Really? UCLA?’

‘I didn’t go,’ you’ll say quickly, and she’ll lie back down. ‘Yes, at UCLA.’

‘That’s pretty special.’

‘I know.’

You’ll work in silence. The magic of the oils and your touch will make her limbs heavier when lifted, and her breathing will steady.

‘How long ago was this?’ she’ll say after a while.

‘Two years.’

The feeling you’ll get from her palms and soles will soften a little now, but you’ll still avoid them more than you usually would.

‘Why?’ she’ll say. ‘Why really? Were you afraid to go?’

‘No. I don’t know. I thought it would spoil something I loved. Spoil kicking a ball around with my mates. Turn it into something else. I’d lose something precious.’

Of course, you’ll have lost it anyway.

You’ll scour her shoulders now, scooping under the shoulder blades and round the front. You’ll put your hand at the back of her neck to settle her but you’ll feel her mind whirling. You don’t imagine she’ll ever feel afraid of anything.

‘Do you still play?’

‘No.’

‘You’re a great massage therapist, anyway,’ she’ll say. ‘There’s talent in your hands as well as your feet. I’d never book one of the AI massage taxis. You can’t beat the human touch.’ The company won’t have to pay staff on the AI taxis at all, but they’ll be called ‘therapy assistants’, not massage therapists, and those taxis will only cost £100.

~~~

She’ll lie completely still, deeply relaxed. You’ll check the navigation.

‘You’re seven minutes from home,’ you’ll say. You’ll place one hand at the back of her neck and the other in the dip of her lower back, anchoring her for a few moments.

‘You’re still, what, 20ish, a bit more? I could arrange a try out for you, if you wanted,’ she’ll say, her voice muffled. Without waiting for you to leave she’ll sit up, rearrange the towel and swing her feet to the floor. You’ll think, this is no good. Her brain should be idling, relaxed, not ticking over like this. You’ll think, this woman has too much going on upstairs. ‘You’d have to train for it, after two years out.’ She’ll fling this over her shoulder before she disappears into the cubicle.

‘Oh! That’s kind. But I’m happy with my career now.’

‘You find massage therapy as rewarding?’ she’ll say from behind the door.

‘It’s very different, of course,’ you’ll say. ‘But you meet all kinds of clients. You can practically read their life stories through their muscles and skeletons. It’s a tremendous privilege. You collect someone from work in a state of stress and overwhelm, and deliver home a different person.’

You’ll hear the zip of her boots, and she’ll emerge.

‘What about doing some massage for the club?’ she’ll say. ‘We have a physio but we always need good massage therapists. And you know about the sport.’

‘That’s kind of you to say that. But no, it’s too close.’ You’ll pick up and fold her discarded towel.

‘Too close to the thing you really love?’ she’ll say.

You’ll laugh. ‘Maybe.’

The vehicle will find a space and halt outside the tall grey gates of a modern riverside apartment block, home to oligarchs and film stars.

You’ll help her into her coat, and she’ll take your tablet and dab her fingertip to pay. The payment will unlock the doors which will open with a cool hiss, allowing her out into sodium-lit crepuscular gloom. You’ll stand in the vehicle doorway. Your own home with your mother will be in a similar block, but not refurbished with glass and steel balconies like this one. Behind the dark solid gates will rise the song of a blackbird, and you’ll imagine a silver scene of floodlit trees and vegetation.

‘Thanks so much, Leon,’ she’ll say. ‘I feel wonderful.’

~~~

You’ll get back into the front cabin to check your next location, but good news, it’s  your last job for the day. Your mum will most likely have your dinner ready soon; even at her sickest, she’ll usually manage a gesture in that direction. With a small clench of anxiety, you’ll wonder how you’ll find her today. You’ll press ‘Completed’ on Emma Mauresmo’s job. She’ll have left a really small tip.