Helen doesn't like saliva. Whenever we accidentally meet in the basement room of Broadcasting House, which the BBC reserves for smokers, she somehow brings the conversation around to the way in which her love life has always been marred by her refusal to bestow anything more meaningful upon her would-be lovers than a dry, tight-lipped kiss. From time to time I've tried to reassure her with allusions to literary figures who've displayed a similar disgust of bodily emanations, but her horror is too distinctive, too specific, to be squeezed into any ready-made categories. "I don't like the way it bubbles. Look at anyone who has drops of spit on their lips. It doesn't just stay there. You can see it spluttering. Like lava. I don't want any of that horrible stuff getting in my mouth."
I don't take any prurient pleasure from these revelations. I've never leant forward and asked whether she's horrified by other lubricious possibilities. First things first. Until something can be done about her saliva fixation there's little point in considering how she might react to the average male insistence that true love depends upon her being the happy recipient of enough spluttering fluid to fill a small test-tube.
You don't need to have led a particularly gregarious life to know that Helen's aversion to saliva is only one of the many concerns which arise among men and women when the talk turns to body coupling.
After a few pints, my best friend Dave would rather shamefacedly admit he loathed any form of oral sex because of the cultural requirement never to comment upon the odours it aroused. "Nobody ever tells you what to expect. You're simply supposed to ignore all those molecules buzzing round your bodies. And it's the women I feel sorry for. Men smell absolutely awful after orgasm. Like the shallow end of a municipal swimming pool." Neither was Dave the only man I knew who regularly treated the pub crowd to some or other version of Joseph Heller's insistence that, like coal-mining, cunnilingus was dark and dangerous work but someone had to do it.
Most standard texts on love-making treat such examples of physical disgust as evidence of personal repression. Brad MacCauley, in Adding Zest to Your Sex Life, insists that "many people can feel hesitant about tasting and smelling and touching every part of their loved one's body, but these aversions, so often the result of inhibitions induced in childhood, must be overcome if one is to know the all-consuming delight of being completely at one with your partner". There is then a long paragraph on how a subtle use of oils and deodorants can gradually help one towards "a complete and healthy acceptance of every aspect of the other person's body".
I don't think such prescriptions will do anything for Helen, and in a perverse way I hope they never will. When we're routinely propelled by so many bland normative prescriptions of how to find orgasmic bliss in our sex lives (whether our passion is for mere heterosexual coupling or the full sado-masochistic monty), it's a relief to encounter an impenetrable lump of thoroughgoing disgust, an emotion which cannot be smoothed or diluted by the blandishments of advertisers, the percentage results from nationally conducted focus groups or the gentle reassurances of friends and lovers. Disgust is splendidly singular.
I once asked Helen if she hoped that some day she'd meet someone who felt as she did about other people's saliva, who'd talk with an identical precision about how it bubbled and spluttered on their lips. "Oh God," she exclaimed, "now that would be disgusting."