Alan missed his bus. Swearing, he crossed the road to the park. If he could cut through there, he might be able to head the bus off and catch it when it had woven its way through the estate…
It was too early in the morning; the wrought iron gates were padlocked. A rusty chain sagged like a weary smile. Alan swore again and rattled the gates. Damn it; there was no way he was getting through there.
The chain dropped to the ground with a chink, landing like a dead snake. Alan’s scowl turned to a grin. Perhaps his luck was changing after all. He pushed the gates apart and entered the park.
He hurried along the path that twisted lazily around flowerbeds and rose in gentle slopes. Even though the park was unoccupied, Alan was loath to walk on the grass. Childhood memories of angry park keepers surfaced like flashbacks to bad dreams. Alan picked up his pace and tried to estimate where the bus might be. He glanced at his watch; there could still be time.
The park levelled out and the bushes cleared back to reveal an open expanse where kids would play football or just chase each other around. Beyond this was the fenced-off area, a square of rubberised coating to protect the knees of the children who spilled from the seesaw, the slide, and the swings.
They had always been Alan’s favourites. As his hurried feet brought him closer to the playground, Alan recalled the unadulterated exhilaration of swooping through the air, backwards and forwards on a swing. To see your own legs against the blue sky. To see the ground roll past beneath you before you were propelled upwards again. To feel like you could fly right over the crossbar, around and around and around…
Alan passed the swings and took the path that led to the perimeter fence and the exit. He hadn’t considered what he would do if these gates were also locked and he wasn’t lucky enough for their chain to drop.
“Will you push me, Mister?” A child’s voice rang out in the still morning air. “Come on; give us a push.”
Alan froze. He turned to look back. There was a child in black on one of the swings where there had been no child only seconds before.
Large dark eyes, like saucers of ink, looked at Alan, brimming with hope. The child’s pale face looked whiter against the blackness of his coat. Alan saw the boy’s legs were spindly, in black stockings, and they were far too short to reach the ground. Alan could remember what that was like, having been a bit of a runt himself.
He opened his mouth to make his excuses, gesturing vaguely at the gates and his watch.
“The bus…” he managed, but the little boy looked so sad and so downhearted, Alan found he couldn’t resist. Before he had made the conscious decision, his traitorous feet were already taking him back to the enclosure and his hand was reaching for the latch on the gate.
“Thanks, Mister,” the little boy turned his white face up to Alan’s and offered him a smile as thin as a crack in porcelain.
“Hold tight,” said Alan, taking position behind the boy. The boy shifted on his seat, and his small white hands clasped the thick links of the chains. Alan pulled the seat backwards – the child was as light as a breeze; Alan was worried he might push him off.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Oh, yes!” the boy cried with excitement.
Alan released the seat, shoving it into its arc. The boy gasped.
The keeper arrived to unlock the gates. The job wasn’t like it used to be. He was little more than a key holder, these days. It suited him, he reflected, as he gazed at the empty play area. This park always gave him the creeps. He always felt like there was something there…watching and waiting. He turned to go back to his van and thought he heard a voice – a man’s voice – asking for a push. The keeper shook his head. He got in his van and drove away without looking back at the swings.
In the staff kitchen at Alan’s office, a couple of his co-workers indulged in some gossip. Alan was looking pale that morning, they’d noticed. And his eyes – they seemed larger somehow. And darker. And…haunted.