issue 28: January - February 2002 

  | author bio

A little extra?Relief
Brian McCabe


The sins of the flesh are innocent, compared to some.
      Who had said that? Somebody must have said it. Or maybe the thought had just floated to the surface of his mind. Could you have thoughts without thinking them in the first place? Maybe thoughts arose of their own accord, or were set in motion by external forces. And what about beliefs? Maybe they too could rise from the depths of one's being unbidden, like serene corpses of the drowned.
      He doubted if they would be serene - they'd be horribly bloated. All the same, it might be true about the sins of the flesh, and he comforted himself with that thought as he hurried down the steps to the door of Sensations, the sauna he favoured. Unlike the others he'd tried, it was discreet. Lurking in a quiet lane just off London Street, in a basement with blacked-out windows, with the barely legible name hand-painted on a board above the door, Sensations was tacky, but it had a low profile. All there was was a door that was barely open, the padlock still hanging from the bar.
      He stopped a moment in the hallway to get his breath and shake out his umbrella. There was barely a spit of rain, but the umbrella had been useful as a shield against curious glances. For a city, Edinburgh was still a big small town and there was always someone who knew your face and wanted to place it. And he had the sort of face people felt the need to place. For as long as he could remember, people had looked at him in this way, as if they remembered him from somewhere.
      He suspected it was something that set him apart from them, had always set him apart. But what was that? That he was too clean-shaven, and smelled too clean? Maybe that was enough to set you apart from other people. It was a kind of respectability people didn't trust. They could recognise the thin, astringent smell of his ruined celibacy. He shook out his umbrella.
      A delicious guilt ignited his innards, like the first mouthful of a pakora. Later, when he was home, if things panned out the way he hoped they would, he would lie down on his bed and feel that same sensation of mingled transgression and satisfaction spreading through the cells of his entire body, like the afterburn of a good lamb bhuna. A carry-out was definitely the next thing on tonight's menu.
      He took off his glasses and wiped them clean with his handkerchief, then he stepped through the doorless doorway into the inner sanctum.
      The cubicle wasn't warm enough. The oil felt tepid on his skin. She had strong hands, large enough to encircle his ankles. As she worked her way up, he felt the unpleasant prickle of her nails against his calves. Although he felt cold, he was sweatmg. As she spread the lukewarm oil up the backs of his thighs, he began to feel peculiar, like some amphibious creature coated in slime. The music wasn t helping. Usually they had some slow reggae stuff throbbing away in the background. Tonight it was something harsher. Like a slowed-down tape of someone trying to howl while having a car crash. Nothing was working. When she massaged the loose flesh around his middle, she kneaded it too hard, like someone trying to squeeze the inner tube on a bicycle wheel into the tyre.
      'Would Sir like to, y'know, turn over?'
      Her voice had a shadow of something in it, behind the professional politeness. She slurred her words a little, not as if she was drunk but as if the habit of drunkenness had sloshed over into her sober hours.
      He rolled on to his back and looked at her through halfclosed eyes. He had taken his glasses off before lying down, and he saw her as a dyed-blonde blur in a low-cut top. Then, as she leaned forward, she almost came into focus. Even without his glasses on, he could tell that her face was unnaturally puffed, and her eyelids looked swollen under the mascara - as if she'd been crying, or had had too much to drink, or hadn't slept. Or maybe it was a combination of all three. Her movements seemed reluctant as she poured more oil on to her hands and began to rub his shins.
      This wasn't how it should be at all. There was something wrong here. She seemed nervous. If anyone should feel nervous, it should be the client, not the girl doing the massage. But he could feel the tension in her hands as they circled around his knees. Was she new? She didn't look new. Was there something bothering her - the fact that he was at least twenty years older than her, maybe? His misgivings didn't affect his cock which, despite everything, stretched and hardened in anticipation as the tips of her fingers, slick with oil, coasted up the insides of his thighs and skimmed his balls. Her hands hesitated around his groin and then travelled on up to his stomach, where they began to fuss around his navel, as if they didn't know what to make of it.
      He sat up a little and cleared his throat, then reached for his glasses. When he put them on, something lurched in the pit of his stomach as she loomed into focus. He knew her face. It was shockingly blank of expression, but he knew it. He didn't know where he'd seen her. Church? More to the point: if he knew hers - wouldn't she know his?
      She looked at the ceiling and asked: 'Any extras?'
      She pulled her top open. Between her dangling breasts swung a thin gold chain. She had tied it in a knot, and a small crucifix hung to the side at an odd angle.
      When she noticed him looking at it she said: 'I have to tie it up so it doesn't get in the way when I, y'know, do this.' She lowered her face so that her mouth was in position, then looked up and asked: 'Is that what Sir would like?'
      'Thank you, no. I just want . . . relief.'
      'Sure. You want relief, right?'
      She made a question out of the word as she went to work on it, and he wondered why. It was what they called it, after all. Yet now the word sounded odd to him, and faintly obscene. Relief - was that what he was coming for? Was it just a question of emptying his balls? Or was it relief from his position, relief from the instinctive distrust people felt towards him when they caught a whiff of his loneliness? Was he coming here and doing this, or rather having this done, as a way of humbling himself, declaring himself to be no different from an ordinary man with ordinary needs? But that was sophistry. An ordinary man, even if he frequented the sauna with the monotonous regularity he practised, wouldn't always crave it on a Sunday.
      The Sunday thing was, it had to be admitted, in the nature of a turn-on. After mass there was the congenial afternoon drink with a few of the younger Catholic intellectuals, all intent on trying to be liberal and loud, as if Christianity was a new fashion, arguing the toss about whatever ethical dilemma had surfaced in the papers that week, whether it was cloning or decriminalising cannabis or that old favourite, abortion.
      When he went home at night, he felt the need for something else. For a long time he had simply made himself a meal and fallen asleep in front of the TV; or while praying. He had gone through a phase of using videos, which were easily obtained by mail-order from advertisements in Escort or Penthouse, but they made him feel ashamed of himself, the shame of his loneliness, and of course he had to throw them out or hide them. It worried him that he might have hidden something like that somewhere in the house and forgotten about it. One day, somebody might find it. In the meantime he had found a solution to Sunday night, and it was called Sensations.
      The askew crucifix dangled on the knotted chain between her breasts as she worked on him - too energetically for comfort.
      'Slow down,' he admonished.
      The blank eyes didn't look up from what she was doing, but she slowed down. 'How's that feel? Is that slow enough, Father?'
      He sat up and convulsed, as if he'd been winded by a punch in the gut. Her hand tightened around his balls and he felt the sharpness of her nails.
      Her puffed face was an inch or two from his as she spoke in a bitter whisper: 'Don't worry, Father. I'm not into blackmail or any of that shit. Lie down, now, lie down.'
      Although she was whispering, it sounded like an order. Her grip relented as he sagged back on the bed. Not that it was really a bed. It was more like a doctor's examination table. He felt too far from the floor. She spread her left hand over his chest, as if holding him in place. Her right hand went on doing its work down below. She had raised her eyebrows and lowered her eyelids, as if she faintly disapproved of him.
      He had to stop her. She knew him. She knew he was a priest. 'My child…’
      'Don't "my child" me, Father.'
      'How do you know me?'
      'Just you lie there and relax. C'mon, smile, Father, smile.'
      He obeyed, then felt the smile congeal on his face as he looked at her: she wasn't smiling back. Her eyes had hardened on his mouth, and the coldness of her look scared him.
      She answered his question before he could repeat it: 'You came to see my dad. When he was dying.'
      'Your father? Did he come to my church?'
      'No, he was like - lapsed. He'd stopped going to mass and all that years ago. I think he turned against it, y'know, when he got a book out the library on the Spanish Inquisition and read about this scientist guy called Bruno.'
      'I think it was Bruno. They tortured him.'
      Bruno. He couldn't believe that the girl giving him a massage was talking to him about a sixteenth-century scientist who had been burned at the stake in the Piazza Campo di Fiori because of his belief that space was infinite.
      'Bruno. The Inquisition. I see. The Catholic Church has been responsible for many terrible things, but I'm sorry if that shook his belief in God.'
      'It didn't. He asked for a priest, one of you, on his deathbed.'
      The way she said 'one of you' made it sound like something cheap and disdainful. As if priests were ten-a-penny, prostitutes working for a pimp called God.
      'What was his name?'
      When she said it he remembered. A narrow living-room in a ground-floor flat in Easter Road. A bed made up on the couch. A pale, gaunt man watching the racing on Saturday afternoon, his newspaper and his tea and his cigarettes on a coffee-table in front of him. He had heard his confession, unremarkable as far as he could remember, and had recommended a hospice on the way out. That's when he'd met her - she'd been looking after him.
      She poured more oil on to her palm, rubbed her hands together and smiled down at him.
      'I'm sorry.'
      'What for? You do your job, I do mine, right? Just relax.'
      Her hands resumed doing what they were doing - stroking and restroking, pulling slowly and squeezing with a slow rhythm.
      He looked up at her and tried to guess what she was thinking. She was smiling, but he found it impossible to know what her smile meant. It could mean she was going to phone the News of the World tomorrow and tell them her story of the priest who came to her for relief. She didn't know where he lived, but they'd sniff him out. Or maybe she was smiling because she was thinking of phoning him up any time she was short of money. She'd said she wasn't into blackmail, but what if she changed her mind about that? To get rid of her, he might have to involve the police. But no, he was in no position to do that. Maybe that's what the smile meant.
      'How's that feel, Father? Just relax.'
      He wished she wouldn't call him Father.
      She smiled down on him with her lipsticked mouth, the crucifix dangling between her breasts.
      She would never go away, this believer from hell. She would watch over him whatever he did, this unholy Madonna, and he would pray to her for forgiveness as he prayed to her now and heard her answer his prayer, calling him Father, telling him just to relax.
      He let himself dissolve into the orgasm as the fluid catapulted out of him and spattered on his chest, like the first spots of a downpour.
      There would be no relief.

© Brian McCabe
This electronic version of  "Relief" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the author´s collection A Date with My Wife, published in 2001 by Canongate Books, Edinburgh. Book ordering available through amazon.co.uk
See TBR review of A Date with My Wife

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author bio

Brian McCabe is the author of two other collections of stories - The Lipstick Circus (Mainstream) and In a Dark Room with a Stranger (Penguin), a novel, The Other McCoy (Penguin) and three collections of poetry, most recently Body Parts (Canongate). Every book he has written has received an award. He lives in Edinburgh with his family.

tbr 28              january - february  2002


Steven Rinehart - Burning Luv
Lawrence Schimel - Water Taxi
Brian McCabe - Relief
Marshall Moore - Sunset Over Brittany

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