Dorian and Helen at Tea

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After a week’s acquaintance with Wotton, which included a single night in the blood-red-painted bedroom he kept on the ground floor of his Chelsea home, Dorian found himself suffering from a florid bout of woman-hating. He despised their shape, their smell, their genitals, their gooey secretions — lachrymal, vaginal, emotional — their hair, their faces, the lilt of their voices. All of which was particularly unfortunate for the young woman he had been making love to during his last term at Oxford. “Making” in the sense that he was making it up as he went along, while she was assembling a prefabricated illusion for herself to inhabit. “Love” in no sense at all.
   She came to see him in London after a two-week lapse in phone calls. On his part. She went to his penthouse, which was on the posh, park-facing side of Prince of Wales Mansions. He let her in and she kicked off her sweaty sandals so as to feel the tiled floor cool beneath her hot soles. Dorian made tea for her in the splendidly appointed kitchen, while she padded around the main room, combing the deep pile with her paws. She was feline and blonde, her name was Helen and she too was beautiful — if you like pudenda.
   — What’re all these monitors? she said.
   — It’s a video installation, a kind of TV sculpture.
   — I know what it is.
   — It’s by this guy Baz I met.
   Dorian went to a niche in the wall and dickered with switches. The monitors fizzed into life. On the screens naked Dorians effervesced. Helen stared at the gorgeous bodies. Baz Hallward’s piece was most cunning: it forced all who looked upon it to become involuntary voyeurs, Laughing Cavaliers, compelled to ogle the young man with eyes pinioned open.
   — Is he a poof?
   — What?
   — You heard. Is the man who made this a poof? You know what that is, right?
   — That’s how it went, possibly. It’s a mistake altogether to write off young women of Helen’s sort, scions of the upper-middle-class Hampshire convent-school set, who go wild when they discover what’s between their dewy thighs. She was smart enough to read theology, and perceptive enough to read what was in her tea leaves once she’d drained her cup.
   — Why the Earl Grey?
   — What?
   — Why’re you drinking Earl Grey? It’s such a cliché.
   — Oh . . . I dunno . . . this guy I know . . . he makes it . . . and he says the flavor’s incomparable.
   — Is that the artist?
   — No, a friend of his, the son of the woman who’s the benefactor for the Youth Homeless Project.
   — Does he have a name?
   — Wotton . . . Henry.
   The silence between them wasn’t awkward — it was boorish and stupid. Like a drunk, drooling student it bumped about the trendy minimalism of the penthouse, knocking into the blocky blue divans, the huge coffee table, the varnished wood pediments that supported Cathode Narcissus‘s nine monitors. Dorian was so easily influenced — they both knew this. He took on other people’s styles, modes and even habits the way kitchen toweling sopped up spilt milk. And was there any point in crying over this? When he’d begun fucking Helen he’d taken to drinking Lapsang Souchong — now he was getting infused elsewhere. Of course she’d known he was a poof, but only in the way we all know we’re going to die.
   Still, she unbuttoned the front of her dress, which was a hundred per cent cotton, and had a pattern of loose grey and black squares, like a plaid drawn by a preschooler. It had a vaguely 1920s cut — mid-length, with a tight bodice and a low waist. Remember, divide the decade of the original style by the decade of its revival to discover how many times it’s been revived before. This equation holds good for the entire twentieth century, which was an arithmetic cultural progression of modal repetition. We digress.


She unbuttoned her dress to reveal bull’s-eye breasts, brown on white on brown. Brown nipples on white flesh on brown ribcage. She hadn’t broken with her background enough, yet, to sunbathe topless. She unbuttoned her dress to reveal the gentle landscape of her body, its soft loam and softer thickets. She let the dress fall form her warm, mole-seeded shoulders, and, staying in the same decade, adopted an art deco pose by running a hand through her Eton crop before swallow-diving into the here and now of the penthouse. She held her position — her arms held back, chest thrust forward, like a static bonnet mascot.
   Dorian — who appeared tightly buttoned into a Delphic charioteer’s suit even when he was stark naked — had never looked more wrapped up than he did now. He propped himself against the wall, white shirt cuffs turned up over smooth forearms, tea steaming, chest gleaming.
   — You won’t see me again, then, not ever? Helen’s innocent gambit had failed. She sat with the lumpy inattention of a woman who has no modesty or allure, both having been stripped from her.
   — Yes I will. We’re friends. We were friends before we started screwing. Good friends, I hope.
   — But it means you don’t love me, doesn’t it?
   — Helen, I masturbate but it doesn’t mean I’m in love with my hand.
   — You used to do it with me and enjoy it. What is it? Aren’t I boyish enough for you?
   Exactly. She wasn’t boyish at all. Furthermore, the cropped hair, the straight lines of her period modern dress, they only hoodwinked us momentarily, and once the ruse was revealed we felt worse than cheated by Helen’s strident femininity: the ample breasts, the stippled aureoles, the healthy hips, all the generally insulting curvaceousness of her.
   — Henry Wotton isn’t boyish — Dorian spoke with some authority — he’s a man.
   — What — what’d you do with him? Does he . . . does he sodomize you? She did her best, but the term still sounded ridiculously technical when uttered in her plummy, pony-club accent.
   — Actually, I bugger him. He prefers that. It’s amazing, Helen — and this animality animated Dorian — when I fuck him he becomes completely pliant and emotional, like a straight-laced lady who’s lost her head. It’s an astonishing transformation.
   It was an astonishing transformation in Dorian as well, but paradoxically the utter callousness with which the intimacies of her successor were flourished won Helen over. She realized — as so many women have before in such circumstances — that this new liaison was of a different order altogether — non-equivalent, inaccessible — and that the change wrought by this in Dorian was irrevocable.
   — It all sounds perfectly revolting to me. Yucky.
   — Oh believe me Helen, it isn’t, it just isn’t.  

Excerpted from Dorian, © 2002 by Will Self. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press.

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