The best laid plans

It’s over! Beano’s gone. He drove off suddenly this morning in his little Lancia leaving only a cloud of dust (actually more like a smattering of dirty sleet, the weather having turned awful again). J-M is “standing down” as he puts it, prowling around the library, doubtless in expectation of some sort of explanatory de-briefing, meanwhile Mme “Arquair” is strutting her mysterious stuff between the master bedroom and the linen cupboard, gleefully humming Lloyd-Webber show tunes like a Palin drone (nothing to do with Ipswich) who has successfully sunk a North Korean submarine with a giant tube of lipstick.

So, what happened to the wizard scheme? I’m still dizzy! There I was with a long drawn-out perspective of logistical planning ahead of me, real men’s work, culminating in well-earned triumph at the end of May. Just the kind of thing I love: striking a blow for Machiavelli and Boccaccio, reuniting estranged lovers by devious stratagem, achieving noble ends by cunning and crooked means. Everything was set to go when it all ended (or began, depending on one’s point of view) with one of those déjà-vu thingies that scientists tell us are the result of the incorrect transferral of short-term memory data to the long-term hard-disc. Because I’m in the kitchen again, J-M is about to come in from the soggy garden again and Mrs Harker is drinking coffee again.

The Berlusconi gambit

Please don’t get the idea that Harker does no work: she huffs and puffs her way through enough bed-changing, ironing, vacuum-cleaning, stair-dusting and general sorting-out in a normal day as would already make a less confirmed and slovenly bachelor wince, but when it’s time for her daily java, the world stops and she likes to chat for a while before returning, much restored, to the dangers of life in a neo-gothic monstrosity where spiders on steroids lurk in every corner ready to pounce and dust-balls the size of mastiff paws huddle together under every chest and ottoman.

Today it is Silvio Berlusconi who receives the maternal breast of Harker’s concern. She likes Italians (as long as they stay in Italy) and considerers Berlusconi to be, not the boorish-thuggish-media-mogul-cum-power-banker we all know, but some kind of charming scallywag in need of a firm hand. As for all those stories of “bunga-bunga”, Harker wonders how a man in his position can possibly keep a clean wicket if little gold-digging strumpets (put up to it by their greedy mums, no doubt) insist on throwing themselves at him, poor man, and after such a cold marriage to that stuck-up, disloyal, fashion-plate Valeria … what else could one expect? Although my sympathies lie more with Valeria, I admit that it galls me too, to see Silvio, the bully of the North, being pilloried for peccadilloes in a nation where the age of consent is 14, rather than being right-royally impeached for running a mafia state, but we live in an imperfect world.

I am just saying this when J-M enters to forage for Ginger Nuts, and Harker, never one to miss an opportunity to put an alpha-male in his place says: “Speaking of marriages, mon Capitaine, while you’re taking a break from ruining M. Drood’s croquet lawn with your violent games, wouldn’t it be a good idea – before this “histoire” gets quite out of hand – to inquire of Signor Casanova out there whether he ever actually asked that dear girl to marry him?”

Of mice and men

Now Beano is about as Italian as a jar of Marmite; although nominally descended from Nicolai Arnolfini, an erstwhile merchant of Verona whose family settled in Flanders at the beginning of the 15th century, his own branch of that trading empire has been breathing the air of Albion at an 11% minimum profit for over three hundred years. But despite this, Mrs Harker is right in her assumption. Because upon being asked, point blank in typically bluff military manner by J-M, whether he ever actually got down on one knee and begged “cette jeune fleur” to marry him (actually she’s 32 and a professional ear, nose & throat specialist to boot, but to hear Harker and J-M talking, you’d think she was Juliet Capulet’s younger sister), Beano, the idiot, admits to his chagrin that, no, he did not.

While dwelling on cloud nine, too blissfully in love to even think about the future, the fool never once gives her a hint that she is in any way different from his other conquests. Blinded by his emotions, he is incapable of noticing her concern increase as the months slide by and is thus foolishly oblivious to the approaching hour of judgement. Miss William’s ardour becomes gradually tinged with unease. Unease changes incrementally into insecurity and finally into truculent resentment. Maybe she only intends to teach Beano a little lesson. But she meets Podger at the fatal party. Podger can tell a loose end when he sees one. He is a man who plans other people’s futures for a living. He immediately plans hers to include him and pops the proverbial. Good little chapel girl dissolves into tears: she thought it would never happen to her. Podger, the bastard, has freshly scented handkerchief and 450 horses gift-wrapped by Mulliner Park Ward at the ready. End of story. The best laid plans of mice and men, indeed!

The last of the Arnolfinis: redux

What to do now, asks a distraught Beano upon realizing this monstrous gaffe? Turn to the dratted Harker, apparently! So while Beano and Mrs H. overcome linguistic barriers in the library and J-M paces up and down in the hall, like an expectant father banished from the OP, I gaze out morosely over the wreckage of my grand scheme. It seems I was never destined to play Jeeves to Beano’s Wooster, nor to offer my ample, all-absorbing shoulder to set the Arnolfini wheel of fortune on its corrected course, after developing and refining a strategy of some considerable subtlety, of which I was rightly proud. My efforts and ingenuity have all been for nought, despite having enlisted the professional expertise of the deadly and skilful Jean-Michel, a man who now turns out to be surprisingly soft for one who has, at least on his own account, committed unmentionable acts of international skulduggery on behalf of his nation throughout the darkest heart of Africa.

A single phone-call from a contrite and humbled Beano, a heartfelt and genuine confession of love, a simple question put in all sincerity and the whole world looks different. The marriage is set for the 26th of March and Podger, the superb and magnanimous, in an act close to self-immolation, is apparently going to lend the couple his car for the day! Never in my life have I been so wrong about someone.

Edwin Drood

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