Photo: Katherine Lowe
"You mean, you're not gay?" He asked me with surprise, as if a young straight man was not something he'd ever encountered before. "Nope," I said. We approached a painting depicting an engorged male member. "Well I hope you're not shocked by..." he gestured at the art. "I'm sure I'll survive," I said.
My first invitation to His stately home came a couple of nights after I'd met him at Michael Lett's gallery opening. I received an email from his assistant to say that a guest had cancelled at the last minute and that I was welcome to eat with the man should I wish. Having other plans, I politely declined but said any other time I'd be keen. A few days later, the assistant emailed me again inviting me to a dinner party that He was throwing for some friends. The day arrived, and as instructed, I parked my car on the main road then walked down the private lane to His gate, which I buzzed, and was let in.
The house, flanked by a circular driveway and an overgrown jungle garden, rests on the side of a hill in Epsom overlooking the motorway. The garden is as famous as the house itself, and contains enormous sculptures by some of New Zealand's most noteworthy artists.
I was escorted into a sitting room and introduced to the other guests, all of whom were male and under the age of 25. One was an opera singer, another was a contemporary dancer, one was a student, one was a flight attendant, and then there was me. We all sat making polite, if nervous conversation, while the assistant poured drinks. If you've ever read an Agatha Christie novel, this was a similar scenario – none of us knew each other, none of us knew our host, none of us knew why we'd been invited and none of us knew what to expect.
He appeared about 30 minutes later and stood in the middle of the room. He told us to follow him for a tour of the works. From the outset, it was obvious he was in his element. He cited facts about the artists, many of whom he'd started collecting while they were still at school, recalled anecdotes and discussed the importance of each work. He also took the time to talk to each of his guests. When he came to me, he questioned me about my job, my family and my background, and seemed very surprised to learn that I had a girlfriend. Every so often over the next couple of hours he'd return to me and once again question my sexuality, with the disclaimer that he hoped I wasn't offended by anything that evening. I assured him that I was fine.
After dinner was served (a Papua New Guinean curry, cooked by a surfer-artist whose work He had bought extensively), we were given another tour, this time of the basement collection. Oh look, more penises.
Then things took an interesting turn.
He told the dancer that he should perform for us. "Oh, I couldn't," he said very modestly. "No, you must," He said. "Oh, but I don't have my music," said the dancer. "We have plenty of music here, young man," He said. "But I don't have my costume," he said. "I'm sure what you're wearing will be fine," He said.
"No, but it won't be," said the dancer. "I only dance in white, and I'm not wearing any white." (He was wearing head to toe black.) "Well in that case," He said, "You're going to have to dance naked."
The room went quiet.
"You see, after dinner there must be entertainment," He said. The dancer thought for a moment, and smiled. "Okay, I guess I'd better get out of these clothes."
At this point, I thought to myself, 'One of these days the story of how I sat and watched a strapping 23 year old gay man dance naked at a wealthy elderly man's dinner party is going to make a great blog post.' But I just couldn't bring myself to do it. So I stood up, thanked JHim for his hospitality and walked out without a backward glance.
And that was the last time I was ever invited to dinner at His stately home.
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