Sharon Stephenson recalls a New York Christmas where the icy atmosphere was not solely due to the winter.

"Let's go to New York for Christmas," he said. "We can go ice skating at Rockefeller Centre, drink mulled wine at the top of the Empire State and let Jack Frost nip at our noses."

What he really meant was let's see if six days in the most magical city in the world can salvage our relationship.

We were living in London and, at the time, sterling ran circles around the greenback. We wouldn't be staying at the Waldorf Astoria, but neither would we be returning to the dive in Brooklyn we'd rented the previous summer, where the air conditioners refused to work and bed bugs the size of my thumb gnawed upon our hot, irritated flesh.

So we bought our tickets, along with ear muffs and snow boots, giant fur-lined bandages to be wrapped around the festering wound of our relationship.


We'd been together for two years, on and off. He was British, I was not. I naively hoped he'd marry me so I could extend my time in the UK; he was just thankful to have someone to do his laundry. We were braided together by boredom and laziness, but neither of us could summon the energy to do the decent thing. And so we limped on.

We arrived in New York to a blizzard, the wide avenues slick with salt and snow ploughs. Alighting from the subway, we watched as a yellow cab took a corner too quickly, plunging into a bank of snow by the side of the road. The driver managed to dig his way out, shouting the entire time into his cellphone in a language thick with vowels.

We arrived late and hungry but, because of the weather, the manager of our hotel had sent the kitchen staff home. We walked two blocks to find one of the few open restaurants; too late we realised it had a very loose grasp of what did and did not constitute vegetarian food ("Just pick the ham out of the pasta," suggested the bored waiter). By then I was so ravenous I would probably have gnawed on Donner and Blitzen, given the chance.

Every morning we awoke to a thick white duvet outside our sixth-floor window, a scene so postcard perfect I would have oohed and aahed, had I not been so depressed. But we tried to make an effort, forcing ourselves from the warm cocoon of our room to paddle in the shallow end of the festive pool. There was a freezing Christmas cruise on the Hudson River, where I compensated for the loss of feeling in my toes with too many cups of sickly sweet mulled wine. There was ice-skating in the shadow of a 28m Christmas tree, a bucket list item in which we were briefly united by our mutual incompetence. We braved the present-buying madness at Macy's and I was rewarded with the cheapest jeans I've ever found.

We started drinking earlier and earlier each day, a cosy bar with blaring televisions and drunk revellers preferable to filling the minutes with loaded, twisting conversations. On Christmas Eve, at brunch a block from our Midtown hotel, we shrugged and nodded when the waiter offered us rum-heavy eggnog. It was 10am.

In the end it was a stupid argument about when to ring his mother for Christmas that tipped us over the edge. There were expletives, angry, snot-filled tears and words that couldn't be taken back. When he stormed out, I packed my suitcase and fled, squashing on to a crowded subway train full of loud and largely inebriated passengers heading to JFK Airport.

I couldn't get on a flight until Boxing Day and changing my existing booking had wiped me out financially, so there was no chance of checking into a hotel. In the end, I spent Christmas Day in Terminal 4, alternating between an uncomfortable plastic seat and a scratchy, stained carpet.

I wasn't, of course, alone: there were a couple of students from Texas, gambling with standby flights to get home, and a droll Londoner with tobacco-stained fingers and the worst comb-over I've ever seen. He was clearly on the run from something but we forgave him his dodgy background and follicular choice because he kept us in tall tales and laughs. Rounding out our number was a woman of an indeterminate age and occupation (a stripper, we suspected) whose arms were smeared with tattoos.


It would be hard to imagine a collection of people with less in common but we bonded in adversity, playing endless games of cards and pooling our meagre funds for a Christmas lunch of McDonald's and warm beer.

Shortly after the clock ticked over to Boxing Day, I boarded my flight to London, tired, sore and heartbroken.

By the time my ex-boyfriend returned to London, I had filled three bin bags with my clothes and books and moved out of our flat. I never saw him again but I think about that Christmas with greater frequency than is probably healthy.

And every year, as December 25 gets closer, I'm always pathetically grateful to put even more distance between myself and my worst-ever festive season.