The Christmas of 2005 was the first I spent with Kit, my new partner and the man I’d marry 18 months later. We’d met in London where we both live, and as the holiday approached I spontaneously invited him along to my family celebration in Canada and he spontaneously agreed. He arrived a few days after I did, and I recall with grim clarity the drive to the airport in Ottawa to pick him up, my knuckles white and hands trembling as I imagined the mother of all clashes between my Tory politician boyfriend and my left-of-centre Arab-Canadian family. ‘Just don’t mention the war!’ I exhorted both sides, referring to the Iraq conflict which my family and friends had vociferously deplored and which he had supported. As it happened, best behaviour ruled the day (the accent and tweed flatcap helped) and relations remain warm and lively.
We decided to spend that first New Year’s Eve in New York although the city was actually our second choice: first we set our sights on Las Vegas. Neither of us had been there before and we figured wallowing in its vulgar charms would keep us entertained for a few days at least, and we could go to our graves knowing we’d ‘done Vegas’. In the end, it seemed too far to go for such a short time so we opted for the Big Apple with a bit of Vegas bling: we would stay in Times Square.
It would be an exaggeration to call our decision the mother of all follies so let’s just say it was less than it was cracked up to be. Our hotel felt like a posh nightclub, complete with dour doormen clad in floor-length Armani coats, and a ‘pillow menu’ beside the bed. Post 9/11, the iconic Manhattan district went into lockdown on iconic holidays and penetrating it made security at JFK feel like the sign-up desk for a shuffleboard tournament. The restaurants we’d booked from London weren’t bad enough to complain about nor good enough to recommend.
There were some great things, too, of course: the concierge at our hotel secured us impossible to get tickets to see Sweeny Todd with Patti Lupone on Broadway. (‘Do you think they’d tell Julia Roberts there were no tickets?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘There are always tickets,’ he assured us with a camp and knowing wink.) After refusing to queue at the Guggenheim we chanced upon a wonderful Egon Schiele exhibition. And we shopped. But the fact is that no one stays in Times Square at New Year’s other than the kind of tourists locals probably call ‘schmo’ – as in, ‘he’s a real schmo’ – and by the time we left that’s exactly what we felt like.
We hadn’t booked anything for New Year’s Eve on the basis that we both hate prix-fixe forced-fun affairs, and anyway wouldn’t it be more fun to be spontaneous, to see where the city would take us? As it happened, the only restaurant in town with a table to spare was Counter, an unspectacular (and now defunct) vegan joint in the East Village owned by the singer Moby. You’d think the star appeal alone would have filled seats but it seemed that in those days vegan trumped celebrity, even in New York.
I think we were poking at a soy-based dessert when a woman in her early 30s approached our table and started talking. I don’t remember whether she was another customer or someone who’d walked in off the street; if it was the latter, the management didn’t seem to mind her approaching customers for a chat. I don’t even recall what we talked about or why we indulged the conversation at all except I suspect we were simply too embarrassed by her forwardness to do anything else.
What I do remember is the playing card she gave me from a miniature pack. It was a 10 of spades with a common, vaguely Celtic pattern in red on the reverse. Unremarkable really, except that its size has allowed me to carry it with me ever since that night, shifting it from wallet to wallet as zips have faltered and leather wore out. My current wallet is big with lots of slots so my playing card has its own little space now, which means I only see it when I’m frantically searching for a business card I’ve probably forgotten to bring, or a months-old receipt I probably should have kept. Still, whenever I come across my own private playing card I wonder why I’ve bothered to keep it for so long. It was given to me by a woman I wouldn’t have recognised the very next day on a relatively unmemorable evening in a restaurant I can never return to. What symbolism could it possibly have?
So far this talisman (if that’s what it is) has spared me no pain I know of, insofar as you can know what didn’t happen, what lurked and pulled back at the last minute. It didn’t save me from a traumatic miscarriage or a severe ankle fracture that left me immobile for months and whose effects I still feel today, five years later. It failed to halt the illness and death of my sister. Arguably, though, its tug derives from the suspicion that it might yet be an antidote against the random evil that sometimes turns up unannounced on your doorstep and invites itself in. Indeed, occasionally I’ve sensed that unremarkable little card making itself comfortable in the corner of my psyche where I store the things I might well need one day, the things I’m poised to bin when superstition throws itself in my path. Or perhaps it isn’t really a talisman at all, just proof of my own hunger for magical thinking. Perhaps it’s just crossed fingers, offered up by a stranger in a restaurant.