Chris will vomit uncontrollably over himself when he sees small lumps of his own flesh, glistening crimson with edges tinged dark purple, fall from his face as he wipes his eyes. And when his clawed arthritic hands reach up to wipe puke from his mouth, they will rub against teeth, not lips, though small crumbs of remaining flesh will adhere to the sticky blood smeared over his hand. And when, finally, he drags himself agonisingly into the study, he will throw himself down and sob inconsolably beneath the portrait of the handsome young man smirking down at him from above.
Chris will read Dorian Gray again today, but he will read it rapidly, conscious of the fact that he is sweating profusely, his heart is hammering and his hands are trembling. But when he finishes the story, he will have found no clue to what’s happened to him. Nothing to ease the cyclonic turmoil battering his soul and flinging his life into despair. Tears will come but they will not be enough to wash away the blood from the sores and wounds mutilating and contorting his face, nor will anything relieve the agonies persecuting every movement of his necrotising flesh.
Even though he knew "Dorian Gray" inside out, Chris read it again last night, seeking some reference in the story to the curse wearing off, or the painting changing back. He found nothing.
So maybe this had nothing to do with Dorian Gray at all.
Maybe this was something out of a different story, or even something not out of any story. A new occurrence: something magical, bestowed only upon him. And, of course, upon the glinting-eyed, enigmatically smiling mature gentleman in the portrait.
But no, Chris concluded this morning, this has everything to do with Dorian Gray.
This week Chris ran through his now daily inventory. Standing beneath the portrait, pen and tick-sheet in hand, he spoke aloud as his eyes darted from portrait to list, list to portrait.
“Ulcerated left cheek: ulcer smaller… ulcerated right cheek: minor skin blemishes remain. No evidence of previous ulcers visible… Facial scars… seven; two less.
“Pustules on neck: none. That’s six healed - I mean disappeared - in a month. Weeping sores: three, that’s two less. Cataracts… gone.
“Flesh around nostril apertures… regrowing.
"At this rate, Stan,” Chris said to him, “You’ll soon be quite the handsomest old devil about town.”
Standing in the study some hours later, Chris shook his head. Possibly the portrait was outliving a curse, and slowly recovering. But that was impossible, surely? There had to be a logical explanation for this - paintings don’t change all by themselves. In a few weeks' time there’ll be a handsome old man in that frame, Chris thought.
“I’ll have to change your name from Satan if that happens,” he said to the portrait, smiling. “Henceforth,” he decreed “I shall call you... Stan!”
And he was almost certain that a hint of a smile flickered briefly about the portrait’s disfigured mouth.
So yes, he knew The Picture Of Dorian Gray intimately. Which is probably why last summer he’d looked at the portrait and wondered if it had become slightly less… well, yes, slightly less hideous. A portrait that changes? How utterly ridiculous! It was obviously something to do with having just read Wilde’s story again, Chris reasoned. And then forgot about it.
Two months later Chris was so convinced something was happening to the portrait that he counted those disgusting pustules on the old man’s neck. Seven. A week after that there were six.
Tangible proof the portrait was changing!
Other people hated the portrait, often saying it was hideous, ugly, or plain evil. But Chris had a soft spot for it: he liked to think that when he reached ninety years old, he’d look like that: a life of excess, well lived. But hell, that was sixty years off yet. At thirty, Chris had a long way to go.
But he wasn’t like that anyway. He didn’t like company, rarely went out, just played computer games, and read. Lockdown suited him. Food delivered, beer too: everything he needed. Here.
Everything, including his friend and confidante on the study wall.
Chris had read Dorian Gray many times. Four, at least, when he was a teenager; twice again last year, when lockdown began.
Knew it inside out, did Chris. Much like he knew the portrait of the evil old git on the study wall. Satan, Chris called him, though for Chris the name was an affectionate nickname. He had no idea who the subject was, though there was an unmistakable family resemblance. It had been in the house for as long as Chris could remember, probably much longer, and though it was hideously grotesque, it wasn’t frightening. Not to him, anyway.