By Darragh Ambrose
How long was he standing at that gate? One look around, a quick flash of his greying face either side, and pushed it open. Into the park for the first time in months. Outside on the road, a small car sputtered up and down over the ramps. It slowed at the corner, and the man saw a small child’s head poking out over the back seat, her little neck craning to get a look in at the playground.
It was a small park. Surrounded on all sides by houses. The only remnant of a time when all the land here had been green countryside. Skeletal trees queued either side of the black asphalt path that ran around the edges of the grass. Thin branches. Without their leaves now, but starkly elegant in their colorlessness. They formed a tunnel, funneling the man towards the playground: rusting slide and pair of swings.
He went further until he came to the bench that sat in front of the playground. Faded, flaky green paint, happiest memories. He stood with one hip against it. Hands in the pockets of his long coat as he watched the breeze raise the swings and gently drop them. Why was nobody here? They should have been here. They were wasting time.
The park was silent. In a busy suburb, houses looking in onto the green, the black, the brown. Purest nature. And not a sound. The death of sound felt correct to the man. Like the birds knew.
He looked at the bench. FUCK OFF PEDO was written in black marker across the back of it. Must have been after the last time. Not a day like this, but late summer, just before the schools went back. Kids everywhere, trying to wring the last bit out of their freedom. The worst time to go. But the back to school ads were constant, and they haunted him.
He had been going out of his mind. Had wanted to unzip himself from the neck down and be rid of his tortured insides. Endless ropes pulled taut around a gnawing black hole. He thought he could run and keep running until his legs fell away from his body, and he would crawl and continue to crawl towards the end of thought and some final peace.
That day, he’d sat on the bench alone for hours. The park got busier. He was in a trance, fixed to the wood beneath him. Two little girls came up after a while and sat beside him. They asked questions. Their voices filled his soul to aching. He smiled and answered. But men aren’t meant to sit in playgrounds for hours and talk to children.
The first mother came up to him. “What are you doing? Where’s your child?” The man could not engage with her. He asked to be left alone. The second mother shouted “dirty paedo,” and the man wanted to protest, but he had no fight in him.
That was then. There was nobody now. He pushed away from the bench, towards the slide. He wondered what he was doing, but it didn’t matter anymore. This was what he’d come to do, even if he hadn’t realized it. He went around the back of the slide. In a couple of steps climbed the ladder made for tiny feet, tiny hands. Sat down at the top. He squeezed his eyes as tight as he could with his fingers and got out his phone. Into his photos and began to scroll. Scrolling. Scrolling. What he needed now was buried. He’d made sure.
Finally, he came to the one. Always this one. From his 5th birthday. The big smile, the cuddly toys. Birthday cake all over his little face. The man got the photo up. He held his phone in front of him like it was his son and went down the slide with that smiling face staring back at him. The man got to the bottom of the slide. Slumped. Stayed there. The wind came through the barren trees and over the top of the autumn grass to rock the swings.