What with the new year, with having just returned from New York (about which more, possibly, later) and with the visit to London of our friend S, I have been thinking back to a New Year’s Eve at the beginning, give or take a year, of the century. The better half was then living in New York and I was courting her. I would travel there every weekend for that purpose. Later we took an apartment together on the Lower East Side, her daughter and dog joining us, but she was still then living at her previous home and I was a secret. I flew over for New Year’s Eve. She was holding a party to which I was not of course invited, but she promised to get away when she could.
Previously I had stayed in a hotel. I had a range of them that I had used before on business, but once for a treat we went to the Waldorf Astoria. That was a disaster. The prevailing smell of cabbage was the least of the problems – of the more substantial of which the less said the better. Anyway, this time the better half said that I could stay at a loft in SoHo. It belonged to her friends the Gs, who were away for the season. I was mildly surprised, as I had always got the impression that the Gs didn’t like me at all. I made the mistake of assuming that the Gs knew that I would be staying in their loft.
The loft itself was spacious, if perhaps lacking a little the human touch. The heat was regulated remotely somewhere and kept high: heating’s being organised for the entire building being one of the many ways in which the United State resembles the Soviet Union. Because the pipes were old and industrial they were rarely silent, particularly this evening when the temperature fell rapidly outside from the congenial to below zero, or as they say in America, to below thirty-two degrees. Night fell and, having settled me in, the better half went off to her party. She would come by later, she said; also, her friend S would probably come on to sleep there after the party.
I looked out of the back window. Across a scrubby area of what appeared to be but no doubt wasn’t waste land there was a similar building to the one that I was in. Lights came on there and faint sounds of country music could be heard. The snow fell. (I was going to write, as people tend to do on these occasions, ‘The snow fell silently’. But of course it fell silently.)
Goodness, I thought:
Lights flicker in the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off…
It was many years since Bob Dylan had written the lines and I had first heard them. When I first came across them (London, 1966) I had no idea what a loft was, nor that the Visions of Johanna were taking place in New York. Now it all fell into place. I revisited the rest of the song in my head and felt very grown up.
Bored with distant country music I took out a book. I had brought Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The better half had told me to. It is one of those works that people often tell you is the best they have ever read and a touchstone in their personal lives. The Magus is another like that. I liked it a lot, but by no means to those standards. Having a cat is a black mark for me, in novels: dogs yes, cats, unless from Cheshire, no. I laid The Master and Margarita aside at a suitable juncture. I checked my mobile. No one had called. I texted an old girlfriend. (In those days, texting was possible both in Europe and the USA, but in the latter people just didn’t. That all changed quite soon.)
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
People still texted in Capitals in those days.
AND TO YOU!
WHERE ARE YOU? I’M IN NEW YORK.
S came early. She had a man with her, whom she had met at the party. He was dressed in brown and avoided my eye. He did look weedy, especially by the standards of Louise and her lover, so entwined, Johanna and the rest. They went off into a designated sleeping space; they don’t have actual bedrooms, often, in lofts, so S and the man in brown – soon, of course, no longer in brown – remained audible, though curtained.
Eventually the better half appeared, looking piratical.
“Come out,” she said. “It’s snowing.”
And so it was, and the snow had covered everything. The streets of SoHo were pristine and lovely. New York is often lovely, but I have never seen it pristine like that, before or since. We stomped around, absurdly happy.
That should be the end of the story, but there was one more drama. The better half called the following morning.
“You have to clear the loft and get out fast. The Gs are coming back early.”
“I’ll stay until they return and thank them.”
“Don’t be silly. They don’t know you’re there. There was a sort of invitation for S – possibly – but not you.”
So I tidied my stuff and then the designated sleeping space, in which there was disarranged bedding and a condom on the floor, which I disposed of. I rang the better half and reported. She called me back.
“S says there’s two condoms. You’ve got to find them. The Gs have children. Hurry!”
Well, it must have been flung aside with some passion, but I found it, just in time. As I slipped out I heard sounds of the industrial lift being manhandled some floors below. I located a dark place to hide while they went past.
Behind me the heat pipes just coughed.