A shapely leg clad in fishnet tights hovered horizontally in shadow, the rest of her body for the moment out of vision. Then the rest of her emerged, or rather erupted: a small, middle-aged woman in black tux jacket, and holding a shiny top hat.
Marge Mallen had the voice of a corn-crake but she belted out ‘New York, New York’ like everything depended on it. Marge was warm and goodhearted, she could be argumentative, held feuds for a time, but above everything else Marge Mallen was fun. She put me in mind of a raucous sparrow and, like me, found kindred spirits in two men, Bob and Tom.
Marge’s last days were miserable, and she died in a way no one would want to experience for themselves, but then she sang New York, New York, Edith Piaf with a Brooklyn twang.
Bob and Tom lived in the apartment immediately below mine. For me they epitomised the best of New York, generous, urbane, sometimes outrageous, and imbued with a razor sharp wit. Tom was, is still, a very successful interior designer and their apartment took my provincial breath away. The highlight of the week was their telephone call inviting me down for a drink.
Memory is willful and not always accurate, but in my mind I’m sprawled on a deep and comfortable chair, holding a generous Manhattan. The lighting is dim, rich plum-coloured walls highlighting various pieces: small statuettes, in metal or porcelain, vases and bowls.
In the half-light we could have been in Babylon, or Greece, Syracuse, Pompeii. Talking was easy, often ribald, and the scotch - sometimes wine, strong and red was sipped between laughter until the small hours of the morning. Fortunately the elevator always worked and I never needed the stairs.
My own attempts to reciprocate were not entirely successful. I remember them asking me about ‘ethnic’ English cooking once, and racking my brains I came up with Tripe and Onions. Tripe is the inside of a cow’s stomach, cleaned and bleached to a pristine whiteness. Cooked with onions in milk and served with mashed potato it has a sweet and earthy taste and for some, admittedly a diminishing number, it remains the ultimate comfort food.
Bob and Tom looked mildly perturbed but gave me the benefit of the doubt and they came for dinner the following weekend. In the meantime I scoured the shops for tripe, meeting little success. New York doesn’t do tripe.
Eventually I struck lucky, or at least convinced myself that I had. I stared at it. American tripe looked different. It was brownish and had a strong smell. For a second or two I hesitated, then, possessed by fatal optimism, I bought two pounds of the stuff.
Within thirty minutes I knew I’d made a dreadful mistake. The stench was foul, rich and all pervasive. My apartment had become a tannery. Only later did I learn that American tripe is used for dog food and in consequence not cleaned for human consumption.
I forget what I eventually served Bob and Tom, but the windows were open, and it wasn’t dog food.