"Ped-o-Matique": a short story by Jane Rogers

In this gripping short tale Jane Rogers explores the pleasures, and unexpected pains, of using a Ped-o-Matique.

The boots tightened their clasp around Karen’s ankles. They began to vibrate. Karen tensed for amoment against the unfamiliar sensation, finding it oddly intimate. She half-tried to remove her feet, but they were firmly clamped in position. Relax. She drew a deep breath and settled back into the squashy comfort of the leatherette chair. She had a full half-hour before she needed to be at the gate. Spoil Yourself, the instructions urged. Enjoy Ped-o-Matique Free Foot Massage. Time to relax.

She began to review her list. She had forgotten to change her dollars into euros, but there would be time for that in Paris. It was surprising how much there had been to do. At first, a sixhour connection lag between flights had seemed intolerable, and she had scoured the net for something better. But direct out of Adelaide, Qantas and Malaysian Airlines were equally bad. Once the wait in Changi Airport had become inevitable, it began to acquire a dreamily elastic nature, in her mind. She might go for a swim in the airport pool after visiting the fully equipped gym. She might take the free bus tour of Singapore laid on for transit passengers. She might take the opportunity to “be enchanted by our themed gardens from the serene Bamboo Garden to the ancient Fern Garden”, or even visit the cinema.

In the event, this yawning gulf of time had been all too easily filled. Leaning forward in her seat, she studied the buttons on the machine and switched VIBRATE to Fast. The vibration sent tremors all the way up her legs to her thighs. Embarrassed, she glanced at the other passengers gliding past on the travellator, and at the group further down near the Palm Tree internet access site. It felt almost indecent, to be sitting here in public receiving such sensations.

Since landing she had phoned home to check that Zac was happily tucked up in bed; picked up her emails and sent a message to all her students reminding them that she would be absent this week; found a chemist that sold melatonin, for the jet lag; found a quiet seat in a restaurant and spent two hours re-revising her paper for Monday afternoon; bought an irresistible shell mobile for Zac, a length of batik cloth for Faye, and a green silk blouse, which she hoped would look smarter than her turquoise shirt. Finally she had selected a postcard of a smiling lion and posted it to Zac with lots of kisses. He was too young to understand, but Faye could tell him mummy had sent it. And now she was treating herself to a foot massage, which, according to the notice, not only entailed the benefits of stress relief and improved circulation, but also reduced the likelihood of deep-vein thrombosis on longhaul flights.

Leaning forward again she switched off VIBRATE and selected MASSAGE. There commenced a slow rhythmic squeezing of her feet. She flicked the switch through Lowand Medium to High. The squeezing intensified to an almost alarming level. It began by tightening over the toes, and moved swiftly upwards, tightening in turn over the arch of the foot, the heel, the ankle, the lower calf, clasping her so tightly it was almost painful, before repeating the sequence. She switched her choice back to Medium. It was almost like dancing, she thought, passive dancing. The machine danced your feet for you. How did it know how much to tighten, considering the different shapes and sizes of everyone’s feet? Hers were small: if someone with big fat feet were as tightly squeezed as this, bones would be broken. It would be like Chinese foot-binding. The machine must contain sensors to programme it for each size of foot.

Karen checked her watch. Fifteen minutes till she needed to be at the gate. She had not really succeeded in relaxing yet. Her stomach was churning with anxiety, as it had been ever since she climbed into the taxi and waved goodbye to an oblivious Zac, wriggling in Faye’s arms. But it was ridiculous. He was nearly eight months old. If she could leave him to return to work, as she had done when her maternity leave ran out, then she could certainly leave him for five days to go to a conference. Everyone thought so. She was fortunate, her head of department was really behind her career. He had encouraged her to submit an abstract for Paris. He had been more thrilled than she was when her paper was accepted. And Zac couldn’t be in safer hands. Faye was her favourite postgrad, quiet, responsible, thoughtful. Karen had it all. A baby and a career and no man to tell her what to do.

She was tired, that was all. She had forgotten how to relax. She tried to remember the meditation instruction from her old yoga class. “Focus on the moment,” the teacher had said. “Our minds are always running to the future or the past. Gently draw your attention back to this present moment in time. Try to live in this moment.” The kindly Ped-o-Matique squeezed and caressed her feet, and she laid her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes, and told herself, “I am living, I am living, I am living in this moment.” But what time was it now in Australia? Zac might be waking up and crying for her. He would be shocked when Faye picked him up. She hoped Faye would hear him from the next room. It had seemed rather much to ask her to sleep in Zac’s room, as Karen herself did. But it would be terrible if Faye were a heavy sleeper. Karen imagined Zac screaming, red hot with distress.

Forcing her attention back to the machine, she glanced at the controls; she had not yet tried MASSAGE and VIBRATE together. Switching MASSAGE to Low, she pressed VIBRATE. Now that definitely was the best of all – the movements felt less mechanical and more random – she upped MASSAGE to Medium, oh yes, very nice. Her feet were tingling and fizzing with life; she imagined them sparkling with tiny champagne bubbles. The squeezing movement just below the ankle felt particularly good. There was something wonderfully soothing, almost caring, about it. She thought about P, whom she had loved and who was married, and the way he would clasp her ankles, gently and firmly, when she bent up her knees either side of his head. He used to hold her securely, manipulating her into another position when they were both ready, the movement continuous as a ballet. When things were good, they seemed effortless. She was dancing and being danced at the same time.

Karen’s feet felt wonderful. She was already looking forward to using the Ped-o-Matique on the way back. Briefly she allowed herself to imagine coming back. It was only five days. In five days’ time she would be coming back! It was no time at all to be away – Zac would probably hardly notice. She had agreed to go to Paris because they all said she must, and because it would have been childish and ungrateful not to. But it was a strange thing to have to do, to fly to the other side of the world to talk to people she didn’t know, when they could just as easily read what she thought in a journal. Of course, she knew academic dialogue was important. Conference attendance was essential, if she wanted to further her career. Networking, her head of department told her; networking is vital. But that meant hanging around at coffee time or in the bar before dinner, striking up conversations, trying to ask intelligent questions. When all she would be able to think of was running back to her room and ringing Faye to check on Zac. She was already eight hours’ flying time away from him. And there were another 14 to go. How could she bear to be on the other side of the world?

Karen tried to remember why she had agreed to go. When she said she didn’t want to, people had been incredulous. It was an honour – an accolade! It showed she was a real high flyer. Ha ha. And why would anyone in their right mind not go to Paris? Lucky her! Even her mother said it would be good for her. “You spend too much time in that flat. You need to get out and meet people.” Her mother wanted her to meet a man. But I’ve met the man, Karen said toherself. I’ve even had his baby.

How could she relax? How could she relax when she allowed everyone around her to push her into doing things she didn’t even want to do,which were allegedly for her own good? “It’s a subtle straw that bends and doesn’t break,” she recited to herself. It was an old saying of her grandmother’s and it meant that you should bend to the prevailing wind. You should go with the flow. Or was it a “supple straw that bends”? That would really make more sense, because how could a straw be subtle? Was she subtle? Was she supple? Was she doing the right thing? They should have Ped-o-Matiques for every part of your body, she thought; hands, arms, shoulders, neck, head. A head massager was what was needed. Something to pummel and smoothe all these anxious rebellious thoughts out of her head.

It was time to go to the gate. Leaning forward, she switched MASSAGE to Off. The machine seemed to hesitate, then continued its slow, roll ing, juddering squeeze. She switched VIBRATE to Off, and the juddering stopped. The squeezing continued. She stared at the controls. Both MASSAGE and VIBRATE were off. She switched MASSAGE to Low and then off again, to be sure. The rhythmic squeezing continued without pause. Feeling a little foolish, Karen checked the sides of the machine for the on/off power switch, which she had clearly forgotten. But there were no switches on the sides. Leaning right forward, she glanced under the chair. Nothing. She double-checked the machine again. MASSAGE: High, Medium, Low, Off. VIBRATE: Fast, Slow, Off. VIBRATE was off. MASSAGE was off. She switched them both on and off again, just to be certain. The Ped-o-Matique continued imperturbably.

There must be something wrong with it. Karen stared at her legs, which disappeared at midcalf into the black pulsing oversize boots. It should be possible to wriggle out between squeezes - the thing was only on Low, after all. She tentatively flexed her right foot but the toe-squeeze tightened on it instantly. She concentrated on the movement of the squeeze. Squeeze toes, squeeze instep, squeeze heel, squeeze lower ankle, squeeze ankle, squeeze calf, squeeze toes. The movement was a rolling one, so as each portion of foot or leg was squeezed, the hold was already tightening on the next. The toes were being squeezed again before the calf was fully released. The instep was being squeezed before the toes were free. Given the crushing strength of the thing, attempting to jerk her legs out might result in serious injury. In fact it said as much on the warning plate, which she had not previously noticed. Safety warning. Do not attempt to remove feet while Ped-O-Matique is in motion. It was clearly powered by electricity, so there must be a switch. But where where where was the switch? She must keep a lookout for an airport employee who knew how the damn thing worked. Several had already walked past; another would come by any minute.

What on earth was it that made that rolling squeezing motion? Springs? Paddles? The image of a bread-making machine sprang to Karen's mind: its action while kneading dough. She remembered how she used to make bread, back when she was a student. She had enjoyed kneading and pummelling. When she had been working too long on an essay and her mind wouldn't stop racing, the feel of the soft elastic dough under her palms, and the pungent scent of yeast, grounded her. Once she began lecturing and doing her own research, of course, there was less time for bread-making. So her mother kindly bought her a bread-maker. The timer was a real boon, she pointed out: Karen could pour in the ingredients before she went to bed, programme it, and wake to delicious warm bread. But the machine took up an inordinate amount of space in Karen's small kitchen. When inactive, it reproached her; if she bought a sandwich she felt guilty. Its open maw devoured a torrent of in gredients, and she realised her housemates had eaten up the loaves she used to bake. Her freezer filled with quarter-eaten loaves, and she came to understand that the machine had appropriated the only aspect of bread which she truly enjoyed: the yield and stretch of the dough under her fingers. Now it languished in the cupboard under the sink and she only got it out when her mother was round. Perhaps it would come into its own when Zac was old enough for solid food.

Karen glanced at her watch. The gate had been open for ten minutes. She shifted the massage switch through all four positions again, ramming it to Off. No change. It was embarrassing but she couldn't wait any longer.

"Excuse me. Excuse me!" The Chinese couple walking past glanced at her and smiled without slowing their walk. At the Palm Tree internet station, everyone was engrossed in their screens. There were no more pedestrians at that moment; she would need to attract the attention of the people on the travellator. "Excuse me! Hello! Hello there!" A few people turned to stare in her direction. They wore the tranced expressions of people riding a conveyor belt.

"Hello, excuse me!"

A plump, grinning boy waved at her and shouted back, "Hello!"

"Help, please! I'm stuck!"

The passengers on the travellator stared at her blankly while they were carried down towards their gates. There was no way off the moving walkway until the toilets, 200 yards or so down the corridor. Why would anyone take the trouble to get off and walk back to see what she wanted? There must be a power switch. She carefully checked the machine again, then thumped it hard and hurt her hand.

"Hey! Help! I'm stuck!" she shouted loudly, but the emailers continued slaves to their machines. "Help! I can't get up!" One of them glanced up from his screen, then shook his head fractionally and continued tapping on his keyboard. Maybe he didn't speak English. Eventually someone who worked here must pass: security, cleaning staff, check-in girl. But eventually was no good. The gate had already been open 20 minutes. It would close in half an hour. At 23.50 the flight for Paris would depart. "Help! Help! Help!" Now she was yelling and people glanced up then quickly away. For god's sake, what did it take? Must she drop down dead at their feet?

Karen realised how utterly stupid she had been to time going to the gate so finely. What had possessed her? Why had she not gone straight there? How could she be in the airport for six hours waiting for her connecting flight, and then miss it? Suddenly she remembered her mobile. Thankfully, she drew it from her bag. But who to ring? No one at home could help her. The relentless mechanical squeezing of her feet was making them ache. The machine was grabbing each foot in turn in one spot after another, tighter than handcuffs, holding her fast: it was beginning to make her feel giddy. For a moment of pure terror she imagined being trapped here for ever, and never seeing Zac again. What was the international emergency number? 111? 999? She didn't even know. And was it an emergency? Did she require medical attention? No! She tore through her travel documents, willing a number for the airline. The only one was the Australian booking office. Well they could ring Singapore for her. She tapped in the number, feeling the sweat prickling in her armpits, and a niggling pressure in her bladder. The phone went straight to answer. Staring at it in rage, she noticed the time. It was 00.18 in Australia.

Closing her eyes against the horror and the shame, Karen began to scream. When she looked again, two middle-aged women with rucksacks were hurrying towards her.

"What's the problem?"

Thank god, Americans. "I'm sorry, but something ridiculous has happened." After she had explained, the pair of them tried all the controls, crawled around the chair and neighbouring wall in search of a socket or an on/off switch, and suggested she try pulling her legs out between squeezes. A few other people drifted over from the internet station and began to make helpful comments. Some who spoke English suggested finding the on/off switch, unplugging the machine, or quickly pulling her legs out. A man advanced offering to help her yank her legs free.

"Please," she begged the American women, "please run and find someone who works here for me." The American women had an anxious debate about the time of departure of their own flight, then one of them set off at a half-run in the direction of the shopping mall. A young Indian woman in the growing crowd said that there was a real massage place a little further down, and she would ask the man there. A kindly elderly couple said they had to get on to their gate, but what was her departure gate number? Because if they passed it they could tell the staff to hold the flight for her. "Your baggage will already have been loaded," they pointed out. "And they won't fly with unaccompanied baggage. It would take them a lot longer to unload it all and find yours than to switch off the foot massage." Karen told them her gate number. It would be closing in four minutes. Her feet were hot and throbbing and she was beginning to feel sick. People were starting to pull up the carpet tiles behind the chair, looking for a switch.

She remembered how P had changed, early last year. He had started grabbing and shoving and making bruises on her arms. Shifting her about to suit himself. With hindsight, of course, she should have ended it straight away. Instead of anxiously wondering what was wrong, thinking she needed to be different, appeasing him. He was trying to end it, she understood that now, and two miserable months later he finally did finish with her. Because she had been too stupid and blind to take the hint, she had allowed him to use her, to the greater misery and self-disgust of the pair of them. If only she had come out cleanly and said It's not working any more. Then he wouldn't have had to operate his scorched-earth policy. He wouldn't have had to make himself hateful. But while they were in that downward spiral she had never seen it clearly.

Maybe she was still getting it wrong. Did he really start to hurt her because he knew he would go back to his wife, and he felt guilty? Or did he decide to go back to his wife because Karen herself was too passive? Didn't it take a victim, to make a bully? Where did the imbalance begin, and the effortlessness end? Maybe it had never even been effortless, only seemed so to her. Maybe for him it had all been effort. How could she trust her own judgement?

Time passed. Karen's confused brain began to sound other alarm bells. If the thing had gone completely haywire, maybe it would give her an electric shock. How many volts of electricity were behind that pulsing, squeezing, insanely repetitive movement? She jerked at her legs in terror and was rewarded by a savage clamping on to the wrong part of each foot and ankle - a jarring pain which winded her. It took all her concentration and a couple of rounds of the massage to force her feet down into their original positions again. People peeled away from the crowd to catch their flights, and new people joined. They made helpful suggestions like "Try switching it all on and off again" and "Try whipping your feet out of it". The Indian girl came back with the man from the massage shop, who felt all round the chair for a power switch and shook his head in disbelief. "Hang on," he said. "I will ring security." He hurried back towards his shop. The American woman appeared at a run and nodded to her friend to set off for their gate. "I've told them on the Info desk. They are trying to get hold of someone in maintenance. They are trying to get someone out to you."

"Thank you, but did they say how long - ?"

The breathless woman shook her head and began to trot after her friend. Karen glanced at her watch. The gate would have closed by now. The flight would be taking off in ten minutes. If there really was no switch, they would need to turn off a whole circuit to stop the machine. It would disrupt lighting and flight departures boards. They wouldn't do that in a hurry. Maybe they would need to dismantle the machine around her feet - the bruising, crunching, pummelling machine. It wasn't massaging any more, it was masticating. It was chewing up her feet and legs - she imagined them when they were finally extricated, limp and mangled, boneless, hanging uselessly from her knees. Maybe they would end up cutting her out. She had a sudden lurid vision of the girl in the old story of the Red Dancing Shoes. Those shoes would never stop dancing, and they danced the poor girl all the way to the executioner's house, where she had to ask him to chop off her feet with his axe. It was the only way she could be still.

A woman was kneeling beside her patting her hand and saying, "Never mind." Karen realised she was crying. She also realised with acute embarrassment that the crying had set off another fluid release. If the seat was electric as well as the foot thing, she would certainly be electrocuted now. She found herself beginning to laugh.

The affair with P had ended so wretchedly, it had taken her a long time to become aware of the astounding symptoms of pregnancy. She was never going to see him again. But she was expecting his child. By the time other people started noticing, it was six months, and the fact of the child had become inevitable. It was what her body was doing, just as it had grown and shed milk teeth and replaced them with bigger ones and even, in time, wisdom teeth. She had Zac, who was hers, and nothing to do with anybody else.

A small Singaporean man in blue overalls was coming towards her; the crowd parted to let him through. Karen started to explain but he shook his head, No English. The woman who was patting Karen's hand, and who seemed to have developed a proprietorial interest in her, began to ask the crowd to leave. "Please, if you can't help, why don't you move on? Can't you see you're upsetting her?" The man in blue overalls took up more of the carpet tiles, then spoke at incomprehensible length into his mobile. When he was done he smiled and nodded at Karen and began to walk away. The sharp aches in her feet had now become duller and deeper, as if the bones themselves had started to hurt. Most probably her feet would be extremely bruised and swollen. When she finally got them out, she probably wouldn't be able to get her shoes on. How could she possibly go to Paris? In clothes she had peed on, with damaged feet that couldn't fit into shoes?

A young woman in smart airport uniform was hurrying towards her now. "Please madam, very sorry. The boys from maintenance are here. This will be no problem. Please to relax." She shooed away the remaining onlookers. Karen watched in a daze as the man in blue overalls directed two men in brown overalls to prise up a block of flooring in front of the Ped-o-Matique. They probed among a nest of wires. After some discussion one of them inserted a long, thin pair of pliers into the tangle, and decisively snipped one wire. The Ped-o-Matique gave a convulsive shudder and fell still. It held Karen clamped tight at heel and ankle, but now it was still she managed to twist and wriggle and wrench her feet through the tight part, and haul them out to freedom. They felt ready to explode.

"Oh my god, my god!" she heard herself crying, and thought angrily that she sounded melodramatic, and she hoped none of them were religious. The man in blue overalls nodded and smiled. The girl from Information squeezed her arm. "I am very sorry for this trouble and any inconvenience it may cause," she assured Karen. "If there is anything I can do to assist, not a problem."

Her feet were free. She wasn't trapped. She was free!

"I think I've missed my flight," said Karen, feeling her toes with one hand and assessing the size of the wet patch with the other.

"I can seat you on the next Paris flight. It is not a problem."

"It'll be too late. My reason for going to Paris is - is tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" echoed the girl.

"Yes. I think I should return to Adelaide."

"No problem. Not a problem at all," the girl smiled. "I will check availability." The men in brown overalls were replacing the floor block and re-covering it with carpet tiles. The man in blue overalls came up and spoke quietly to the girl, nodding at Karen as he did so.

"He says," the girl translated, "he is very sorry for this machine fault. He says, he will look into the problem deeply."

"Thank you," said Karen. "I think I'll just sit here for a minute. I'll follow you to the desk."

"Not a problem," said the girl. "I will be seeing you." The girl and the man in blue overalls set off back to the concourse, followed by the two men in brown overalls, carrying their toolbox. Karen relaxed back into her wet seat. She felt almost happy enough to dance.

Jane Rogers published her first novel, "Separate Tracks", in 1983. Her second, "Her Living Image", won the Somerset Maugham Award the following year. Her most recent is "The Voyage Home". There are four others, including "Mr Wroe's Virgins", which was dramatised by the BBC in 1993. Her website is www.janerogers.org

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism