The marriage of the Arnolfinis (1)

The young man I’m sitting next to is gradually turning into a lizard. By that I don’t mean that he has a face like a lizard (although he has) or that he dresses like a lizard (which he does), it goes far beyond that. In addition to faux lizard-skin clothing and shoes, Mal (his given name is Malachi) has shaved his head and had a row of semi-precious stones mounted in his skull. They run from his forehead to the nape of his neck. As he was unwilling to undress at the wedding dinner, probably due to some ancient reticence typical of the species, we must take on hearsay the continuation of this line of stones (mainly Malachite) as it marches on down his spine all the way to his vestigial, reptilian tail. “If I were a plumber, I’d have the most awesome cleavage south of the river,” saith he.

For a self-confessed “quiet guy”, Mal cannot avoid attracting vast amounts of attention wherever he goes. It’s not just the crest of stones, but also the ridged implants shaping his cheeks, the line of jasper inserts where his eyebrows used to be and the extensive and sophisticated body painting. As soon as the surgery is sufficiently state-of-the-art, he intends to have his irises modified, but for now he makes do with some very convincing contact lenses. His lips have already been surgically reduced to thin muscular lines and he claims the only disadvantage is that he can no longer play the trumpet properly, but then he “never could play properly” anyway. What about kissing? I ask. Mal says that before reaching his decision, he weighed the slim possibility of actually one day having a girlfriend to kiss against the overarching cool of becoming a lizard. The reptile won.

The last of the Arnolfinis

Although the couple wore traditional white and dove-grey for the wedding ceremony, they have changed for dinner. Diana now looks even more stunning, her chestnut hair offset by a shimmering, dark-green moiré-silk dress. In keeping with this look, Beano is wearing an anthracite suit with a fur-trimmed cape. The intention, of course, is to mimic Van Eyck’s famous painting, without the obvious fertility references but with a 21st Century edge. There is even a convex mirror behind them as they eat. Yet the overall effect has something more of Christopher Lee weds Evelyn Nesbit than of 15th Century Flanders. I have the feeling that Beano, the original party animal, will for once be glad when all this is over. He looks as if he hasn’t slept for more than three hours this whole week, and that was in a coffin. Diana, on the other hand, is quite impossibly fresh and girlish, as if nourished entirely on nectar.

The clear and evident presence of the Williams family: a host of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins in all states of removal, little nephews bursting out of their suits and rosy-cheeked nieces in ruffles and bows, – is held in a curious equilibrium by the almost overpowering absence of Arnolfinis. I already knew that Beano’s family is dying out (he has always referred to himself as the last of his line), but just how crass that would appear at a wedding feast, I am only now beginning to realise. His parents are both here. They come from separate lives and eat at separate tables, yet each is as ethereal and diffident as the other. Then there is a maiden Aunt, from Oxford, of such beady-eyed meanness as to scare off the wine-waiter, a young Pole who must be cajoled to her end of the room and even crosses himself en-route. There is also a long, thin, very dapper relative from Lucca in Italy, the family’s original hometown, who rather resembles a Mediterranean Bowie in his White Duke period. This curious gentleman has had five wives, all of whom have run off with someone else; a golf trainer, a stock breeder, a racing driver etc. One would think that after the first three he would have learned his lesson, but no, he is here today with an unreasonably beautiful girl from Porto Venere who could almost be his great grand-daughter if he had only been able to reproduce at the time of wife number one, and who appears openly keen to be wife number six.

Finally, the only living link to the grand epoch of the Mayfair Arnolfinis is in attendance, a great-aunt of undefined ancientness who once baby-sat the Royals or something, though whether Charles and Anne, Elizabeth and Margaret, George VI or Edward VII is uncertain, as she herself is utterly silent on all matters historical (“There’s no use trying to draw her out, Edwin, Laetitia will not be drawn!”). What is certain is that she was of sufficient service to the Windsors or Battenbergs – a clue: Beano claims she speaks fluent German and is familiar with pre-1914 Darmstadt – to have earned the right to live out her declining years in a Grace and Favour apartment in either Ken Palace or Hampton Court. She herself doesn’t seem entirely sure which, though it can’t be both. And that, my friends, entirely wraps up the Arnolfinis, all six of them and none younger than 55. They are so close to extinction now, that if you Google them, you will only come up with the art gallery in Bristol and a great deal of comment on the famous double portrait, some of which centres on the controversy of whether it depicts an Arnolfini marriage in the first place or that of Van-Eyck himself. This melancholy catalogue of failed relationships and sterility explains why Beano has spent the last forty years desperately trying to impregnate anyone with the right complement of limbs, charms, gender and wit, while diligently avoiding marriage up till now. Let’s hope that there is some magical alchemy in Diana’s obviously fertile family, such as is capable of quickening even the most arid loin, and that the wedding augurs well enough for this dodo lineage to scrape by into the second century of the new millennium.

If music be the love of food

My rather Jurassic neighbour, Mal, turns out to be the son of Beano’s former bass player from his early eighties incarnation as Punk-Rock singer. That band, “Well Sorted”, still exists, though with none of the original members. After Isaac “the Wol” Berlin (so-called because he was both unusually literate and dyslexic) died from sudden heart failure in 1998, Mal needed some kind of connection to his Dad’s world, so he joined the band as general factotum: roadie, lighting man, sound man, ticket sales person, beer vector, website design and maintenance body, rudimentary management service etc. And because the band is here, all members past and present, Mal is here too, both in his own right and representing his father, giving the entire gathering a touch of rock’n’roll attitude.

This effect is heightened by the presence of “The Otterbury Incident”. This is Diana’s erstwhile girl-band, whose name is borrowed, typically, from one of the best boys’ books ever. “The Incident” is somewhat younger than “Well Sorted” and definitely better-looking. They deliver an edgy, jangly pop of the “take no prisoners” variety (think Bangles and add some piercings). Diana used to play “slightly dodgy rhythm guitar” (her words) in the band’s earliest incarnation, before the rigours of medical school forced her to give it up. Having mercilessly group-stalked the waiters with their trays of finger-food for an hour, the two clans are now dispersed throughout Diana’s cunning mix & match arrangement of long trestle tables, yet still manage to communicate with one another, while tucking in with great gusto, by means of winks, nods, loud guffaws and the keywords of inside jokes. For example, “boom boom” is not the sign-off to a Basil Brush punch line; it is the sound of a bassist and a drummer committing simultaneous suicide off a tall building. The girls are probably rowdier, but the guys are definitely getting more nutrients converted into muscle and fat.

Beano has known some of this lot since primary school and Malachi Isambard Berlin since his birth. Apparently Mal has always been interested in saurians, but only started becoming one a few years after his bar-mitzvah. Beano and Diana have both told me not to be “taken in by appearances”, Mal, they insist, is “the nicest guy in London” (he’s certainly the nicest lizard) and will probably be godfather to their firstborn. I somehow can’t imagine good Jewish boy Mal preparing the young Arnolfini for his first holy communion, though I’m sure he’ll readily stump up for a mountain bike or an electric guitar if and when the time comes.

Opposite Mal and I is Amanda Crispin, formerly Lady Amanda, who theatrically renounced her title after a pivotal meeting with left-wing legend Tony Benn (ex Sir Anthony Wedgwood-Benn) when still in her teens. Mandy, who used to work for a pittance as an activist for diverse worthy causes until her parents cut her allowance, now deals in 60’s antiques (“… nothing naff, darling, big-ticket Conran, lots of good clean Scandinavian and Finnish stuff and some Americana, just to keep the window lively”) out of one of the few warehouses in docklands that is still a place where goods are stored, rather than a firm of lawyers, brokers or a block of smart condos.

Miss Crispin hates everything from the seventies; she also hates the eighties and a tiny bit of the nineties, too. Put precisely, the period Amanda hates stretches from the death of Jimi Hendrix on 18th September 1970 to the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on the 24th September 1991. The reasons for this are complex and have to do with her own childhood in the eighties, her father’s collection of Monk, Brubeck and MJQ and the rejection of the aesthetics of glamour and excess. Yet moderate Mandy clearly finds excessive Mal more than “nice”. Scintillating she is fascinated as fascinating he scintillates under the radiance of six large chandeliers and any amount of candles. I begin to see the term “lounge lizard” in a whole new light. Before the evening is over he might wish he’d kept up the trumpet.

[To be continued ...]

Edwin Drood

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