About a year ago, on a weekend wander through Kensington, I looked idly through a shop window — and then stood stock-still, unable to process what I was seeing. Through the glass, inside this dimly lit room, was a row of 10 empty chairs, each with an illuminated fish tank at its foot.
I squashed my face against the glass, squinted — but couldn’t for the life of me work out what I was looking at. Was it an aquarium, with chairs for fish-spotters?
Was it art? My friend Pat explained: ‘It’s a spa treatment. You put your feet in the tanks and fish nibble them,’ he said. Don’t be stupid Pat, I said. There’s a recession going on. People don’t pay to watch fish eat their feet. That’s just daft. Well, they do, as it turns out. And now, six months later, so do I.
In the gloomy underworld of Aqua Sheko’s Soho centre, the only light comes from the tanks themselves, arranged in an ominous, glowing square.
Once again, the seats behind them are empty. Spooky. I remove my shoes and socks, as directed by a man dressed as a stage-hand, and let myself be led to a my designated tank.
Two thoughts swim around in my mind: One: didn’t the Emperor Caligula like to let fish nibble his testicles? Two: that bit in A Fish called Wanda, when Kevin Kline scoops up and eats John Cleese’s pet fish straight out of his aquarium.
I look down. Wanda? A hundred tiny black-backed tiddlers with huge, gluey lips look up. The stage-hand nods his encouragement and my naked feet begin their approach.
The real weirdness begins as my toes break through the silvery ceiling into the fishes’ world. In the watery wild these little Garra Rufa fish laze around in Syrian hot springs eating algae off logs. But in the absence of logs, the fish react to the presence of a human foot in their midst as a thirst-crazed desert explorer might to an oasis: they fling their whole bodies at it, mouth first, jostling for a sucking position. For them, my dead skin cells are like caviar … no, that’s wrong. Well anyway– they go a bundle for feet.
Do I go a bundle for them? Well, for the first few minutes they are so unbearably ticklish that I’m paralysed by anxiety. What if I leap up and flick-kick the little suckers across the room, leaving Aqua Sheko looking like a massacre in Yo Sushi?
Then the intense tickling fades and I pluck up the courage to examine exactly what they’re up to. I lean over my knees and watch the Garra Rufa closely. Each tiny carp has its own particular technique: some hoover away in straight lines; others become fixated on a particular spot. A few eccentrics bounce around in a playful (if worrying) way, grabbing passing mouthfuls.
After a few minutes of observation, I decide that Aqua Sheiko should market itself not as a complicated and surreal pedicure but as a religious experience. Yes, my feet do become noticeably softer, and I suppose if you are dating a foot fetishist it’d be worth every red cent.
But for me, it’s more an emotional experience. I can’t remember when I saw anything as touching as these fish: they’re so diligent; so dedicated to their horrid task. As I watch them busy away, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Yes, I know, they’re only in it for themselves, but it still feels like love.
I want to do something for them in return, so I move my feet in a way I hope mimics the motion of a log from their native Syria. A girl in a hijab (the only other customer) looks up from a bit of virtuoso texting, and eyeballs me anxiously.
But as with any religious experience, 30 mins is quite enough. The love gets old, the nibbling, though still moving, begins to get on my nerves. One of the stage-hands dips a net into a tank opposite. Is he scooping out dead fish? Yes he is. Time to dry my feet and hop out.
After the fish, the next course at Aqua Sheko is a massage — foot or shoulders, you choose. I choose shoulders (the feet are too overwhelmed) so I’m led to what the massage man enticingly calls ‘the cave’.
It’s a nice massage, of the oily, slidey variety, rather than the kneady, knot-dissolving sort.
I suppose if the Aqua Sheko team actively asked me for advice, I’d say that some of their more inhibited lady customers might find it a little full-on to be asked to remove their bras for a chair-based, 15-minute shoulder rub. And that it’s tricky to keep one’s breasts from sliding around if the chairs are upholstered in black leather.
But no matter, my glow of good will from the Garra Rufa experience keeps me pacific, not just during the massage but for a good few days afterwards.
So long and thanks for all the fish.