Belfast, my haunted city

I could write about what there is to see and do in Belfast. Dance around its delicate political situation and history. Jot down some personal nuances, like much of its architecture feeling prudishly conservative in a way I can’t put my finger on. Tell irreverent stories about my stupid scrapes and shenanigans around the city.

But I can’t. That’s not what Belfast is to me. Belfast is your city.

I spent another day there this year; the first time I’d been there for the city, and not for you. Valentine’s Day, without intention. I had a pleasant time, because I had pleasant company, and Belfast is a pleasant city – so far removed from the war-torn hellscape my nan thought I was heading into back in 2013.

But even though I couldn’t smell your cologne or hear your perfect accent, you still suffocated the place. We left enough footprints around Belfast that I stumbled over our ghosts and dredged up long-dormant memories by accident.

On my arrival at the bus station, I thought about when we got the bus to the City airport that first time. I squeezed your hand so hard at the thought of leaving that I thought I’d crush it. I thought I’d be back soon, maybe permanently, but we didn’t share that vision.

Ormeau Park, cold and green; I’d forgotten we went for a walk there one afternoon after you’d washed the dishes and I’d seen your romantic messages to a girl in Albany. As we walked around, I rationalised it with a racing pulse – after all, it was me in the park with you, not her.

The road alongside it, where you used to live. In spite of everything, I smile at the rose-tinted memory of running down the street unprovoked, holding hands and laughing after a mediocre pub quiz performance. I played that memory on a loop for a year afterwards.

The fish statue on Donegall Quay, where we went the last time I was here. Seeing you platonically was nice. You were nice. We revived old in-jokes and caught up on the 2 years we lost when you vanished. I absolved you – well, until you vanished again.

Somehow, my friend and I ended up in the same branch of Boojum we went to that time, before you went back to work and I walked around the city sobbing for hours, thinking about all the years-old lies you’d just confessed to. And we visited the pub next door, where you and I drank and played board games one time. Was it in 2013, or 2017? I don’t remember.

Things change in time. I finally took an open-top bus tour of Belfast. At last, I saw the Peace Walls and both sides’ sectarian murals. The bus even went up to Belfast Castle, which I didn’t know existed. I briefly resent that you didn’t show me the basics of your city, until I remember that you suggested taking the bus tour – I just didn’t want to pay attention to anything that wasn’t you, back then.

The whole time, I was thinking: What if I run into you? What if my friend’s housemate is you? I heard every mash-up of the half-joking accusations you used to make, and got angry goosebumps thinking how you’d see it: through your lens that no-one’s feelings change after the age of 21.

You’ll always be here, whether it’s really you around the next corner or just a relic from our past. But I didn’t see you. It’s for the best.

I felt lighter when I went over to the Causeway Coast to spend the weekend with Tamsyn. I love it there. In the beautiful, endless sea and rugged coast, I’m free of my reminders of youthful naivety and besotted exuberance; definitively 26, not half-stuck in the head of a lovestruck 20-year-old.

As I reluctantly sat in the airport departure lounge a few days later, I realised I was leaving Northern Ireland dry-eyed. You always made me cry.

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