Gallstones are more painful than a broken heart or at least that’s what I’m told

She had already booked a ticket to Australia when they broke up. They met in Wales and they dated for a while and then he moved to Australia. She was going to see him and live with him but then they broke up and she got gallstones. She said the gallstones weren’t related to the break up and I wondered which one was more painful.

I told her that Australia is a big place and it’s not like Belfast. I told her that Australia is big and it’s warm and you don’t run into people you don’t want to, though I knew that last bit was a lie. She smiled and said: that’ll be 4 pounds. And I smiled and tapped my bankcard and as I walked away I wondered if she snuck a look at my name because she wasn’t in Australia and that meant she didn’t have a boyfriend, maybe.

I took my Guinness and sat in the corner next to a group of women drinking prosecco. There were three of them, so technically they were a crowd, but then one stood up and left and instead of a crowd they became company. The woman closest to me watched her friend go and said, ‘we’re getting old’. Then she sipped her prosecco with a look on her face like she wanted to say something else. Then she put her glass down and said, ‘she brings it on herself you know.’ The other woman clucked her tongue and tsk tsked and took a bigger sip of prosecco and said, ‘I know.’

I don’t know what their friend brought on herself but it wasn’t another round of prosecco. Maybe it was divorce or menopause or scurvy but I couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore because the band was playing Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked, and the singer was singing ain’t no rest for the wicked, and I looked at the two women and I thought: there ain’t no rest for the wicked.

Then I looked at the bartender and she looked at me and we both looked away.

I thought about all the things that I had brought on myself and how everything I had ever brought on myself had brought me here, to Belfast, to sit and drink Guinness. Would my life have been different if I had brought other things on myself? Or are we all just bringing ourselves to where we are, bringing ourselves to a small pub in East Belfast on a Wednesday night.

I looked at the bartender but she wasn’t looking at me, so instead I took a sip of Guinness and thought about all the things that I hadn’t brought on myself.

I thought about all the half-chances and missed opportunities and the girl in the library with the nose ring. I thought about the afternoon we sat opposite each other at a big wooden table and how she looked down at her notes when I looked at her. I thought about the way she looked up at me and how I looked down at my notepad and wrote that life is nothing but an attempt to hold someone’s gaze.

The band was playing that Umbrella-ella-ella-ey-ey-ey song and two couples were dancing. When it came to the line that says, ‘when the sun shines we’ll shine together’, both the couples pointed at their partners and danced closer and tighter and moved across the wooden floor as one. Maybe there’s a secret rulebook for couples and it tells them when to point at each other and when to hold each other close and when to let each other go. Maybe they don’t even finish the rulebook. Maybe they just assume it will be a happy ending and they stop reading and that’s why it’s so hard to let go sometimes.

The couples stopped dancing but the band kept playing because the music doesn’t stop when the dancing does. There’s always music, it’s just that sometimes you need to find someone new to dance with. At least that’s what it says on the last page of the couples’ rulebook.

I drank the rest of my beer and put the glass down and picked it back up and licked the creamy froth on the sides. Then I walked to the bar to order another. The bartender saw me coming and when I asked for a Guinness she smiled and nodded to the one she was already pouring and said, ‘I’ll bring it over when it’s settled.’

And I smiled and said thanks and I thought: that’s settled then.

The band was playing Seven Nation Army and I imagined being so set on something that a seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back. I imagined jumping over the bar as the combined strength of the Allies and the Axis and the Soviets screamed nein and nyet and non and sacré bleu. I imagined jumping over the bar anyway and asking the bartender if she wanted to hang out sometime, maybe, if she’s single and her gallstones are okay.

She brought the beer to my table and I smiled and said thanks and she smiled and said that’s okay. I smiled again and she hovered for a couple of seconds and then she went to the next table and cleared the empty prosecco glasses. There had once been a crowd and then there was company and now there was just me. I took a sip of Guinness and thought how strange it is that a seven-nation army can’t hold us back but we manage to do it every day. That should be in the rulebook, I thought, that should be the very first line.

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