Kenneth isn't like normal people. On the outside, he looks just like a normal person; he knows how to act like one. He lived a normal life, once- a happy life, with a wife and a daughter. But on the inside, he's always been different. With no-one to turn to, he'd always kept the dark secret of who, what, he really was locked away deep inside. He'd never acted upon his urges, and he never will. But he couldn't conceal it from them forever.
He is a man who loves children.
Every day, I find myself here. Every day, I go to the park just down the road, to just sit on my own, all alone, on the vandalised bench in this corner of the children’s’ playground, every afternoon. This, this isolated, charred wreck dismissed as nothing more than an eyesore, any support he once had to lean on brutally splintered with ease. Cast aside in the play area, the worms had already set in, rotting the proud oak into nothing more than wood chippings strewn under the assault course. Was I still talking about the bench, or myself? Who knew?
“Mommy, I want to play on the swings, I want to go on the swing…”
“Now, Cynthia, what’s the magic word? If you want to ask for something, first you have to say?”
“Please? Please, please, Pu-leeese…?”
“O.K, o.k! You’re so hyper today; it’s those sweeties you made me get on the way over here, isn’t it?”
A little redhead girl, probably early nursery but still small and delicate enough to pass for a toddler, squirmed in naughty pleasure at the accusation, sprinting across to clamber on the swings only two or three metres away, already pushing away on her tiptoes in anticipation, even before the mother had managed to get back to her feet.
Rising from one of the benches across on the other side of the playground, the child’s mother slowly made her way over; the pregnant bulge of an impending newcomer might be barely visible, but the shuffling, spread gait was instantly recognisable from past experience… She wasn’t alone, not by any means- in this community playground, at this time of day; just after the mothers came to the nursery almost next door to pick up their children, this place was crawling with activity.
The atmosphere; carefree, but caring at the same time. The deepest chords of love ran through the hearts of these families, but only the lightest rhythms of joy and harmony were allowed to infiltrate these walls of wooden posts, boundaries to guard against infiltration by the dark, harsh realities of the adult world. This is why I come here, every day. Not just to remember the undying, immutable, pure and sparkling love once shared between a parent and his only child, but to forget. To forget everything.
It was barely half-past three, but I was still the only one in this playground who wasn’t shackled up in a thick overcoat. It was November, and the long, skeletal shadows of the thick cluster of trees behind already cast this secluded sanctuary into darkness. In all my extremities, the only sense of a connection left was the sharp sensation of ice-needles boring their way further in, further up. But the physical pain was irrelevant, insignificant.
In fact, I realise now that, these days, I actually take comfort from it. That still, even after so much has been taken from me, I have still retained the ability to feel pain. But little else- the emotional wealth I once possessed has been stripped to its last few coffers. These scenes being played out in front of me, when I come here and watch the joy of these innocents, are the last that can still raise even a counterfeit of the emotion which I once felt every day and every night.
But while I take solace from the innocent joy that flows through this place, the same could have been found in virtually any children’s play area, any nursery or leisure centre. The real reason I come here, to this same unkempt playground every time, is for the memories enclosed within these wooden walls. Back then, the happiest days of my life were those when I came here- not as a solitary outcast, but as one of them. Those chatting parents over there, camped together on the opposite wall, throwing their suspicious gazes and accusing glares my way even now. When I still possessed my own bundle of joy to bring in tow…
“…Daddy? Daddy, come and push me, pull-eease…?” He blinked. The slate grey ceiling above dissipated into a clear blue sky, the cold of the shadows retreated into nothing more than black spectres unnoticeable beneath anything other than the encroaching trees, lost in the light and warmth of a sun that had been pulled back to almost the very centre of the sky, the vibrant colour of every flower bed in full bloom. Lost in the memory…
His hand lifted to shield his dazzled eyes, struggling to adjust to the sudden change in light, straining to pick out the all important speaker as he got up off the bench, moved towards the centre of the playground towards the apparatus he knew he had left her on last. “O.K, Claire, Daddy’s coming…”
Children, other children, began to materialise, laughing, yelling as they explored the play area laid out all around him, the glistening metal climbing frame, the slides, the walking beams… One other parent, a father just like him, spinning the overloaded roundabout as fast as he could, three of the five aboard shouting to go faster, and the other two screaming to stop so they could get off… All around, but all fading away into nothing but scenery and background noise as the cutest, most beautiful little girl of them all materialised on the nearest of the swings, ghosting into mere ambience as her innocent, joyous face turned his way and came into focus, those beady, almost cinnamon brown eyes staring into his in excitement, uncontained anticipation.
“Here I am. Ready…?”
“Yes yes yes…!”
“And- WHOOSH! Whoosh!”
“Wheeee…!” He grinned at the sight of Claire’s own attempts to go higher, trying to gain momentum by swinging her feet forwards but without the patience to wait, kicking out two or three times in one swing, but it didn’t matter so long as he could put in the hard graft, push harder to do it for her. He was out of shape, and he was already panting, sweat running down the bridge of his nose, but her joy was all the fuel he needed. So long as she didn’t tire of it, neither could he…
The memory faded slowly, blurring with reality as I avert my gaze. Just enough to see the little red-haired girl- Cynthia? Sitting in the swing, being pushed higher and higher by her lightly pregnant mother, in my peripheral vision. The exact same swing in which I’d once pushed Claire. I kept my face blank and expressionless, keeping my pupils focused on the variegated leaves of the holly bushes bordering the far side of the playground- but inside, I couldn’t help but smile at the sight. The girl was just too cute not to; almost as young, gleeful and full of joy as Claire had been, just a couple of years ago.
These scenes, these reminders of what once was and hints of what could have been, are all that keep the little residual heat which my heart still retains from ebbing away altogether. But they are also my greatest source of guilt, of regret and self-loathing. Here, I am constantly reminded of who I am. Of what I am…