In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.
We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.
By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”
He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.
At last I asserted myself.
“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.
“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”
A taxi came into view and I hailed it.
“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.
“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”
The taxi pulled over.
“What’s your address?” I said.
“I don’t need a taxi.”
I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”
“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”
So we fell in and went home by taxi.
This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.