The chains meant for someone much smaller screeched and strained beneath her weight. Lifting her feet from the squelching ground, Grace gave herself up to the gentle, persistent breeze, rocking slowly back and forth while the swaying swing screeched in protest. As the light faded, Grace cast her gaze over the rusted roundabout, watching the ghosts of the two girls who had played there once.
Cheeks red, Ella puffed with effort but ran faster nonetheless, pushing the roundabout around and around until her feet struggled to keep up.
‘Now jump!’ Grace cried. ‘Jump on!’
Setting her face in a determined grimace, Ella clung to the roundabout and lunged forward – but her short legs were left behind. She tripped, feet thrashing in the air with the frenzy of a trapped animal, and cartwheeled across the ground. A few moments passed before she sat up, dazed, eyes wheeling around until they found Grace, who had leapt from the spinning roundabout and bounded to her side.
‘I can’t do it,’ she said, mouth drooping in a frown.
Grace grasped her arm and pulled her to her feet. ‘Try again. One more time.’
‘Do you remember how we used to try and jump onto the roundabout while it was spinning?’ Grace asked.
A high childish peal, the voice of Ella’s long lost youth, replied, ‘That was just one of many games.’
‘We could play here for hours,’ Grace mused. ‘And we never got bored.’
‘This playground was our kingdom and these fences were the borders.’
Opposite the creaking swings stood the wooden climbing frame, home to a thrilling network of ladders and slides and tunnels and nets. A beaten palace, a crumbling castle: the ravaging attack of time had left it haunted with the shadows of its former magnificence. Cracks snaked up the wooden poles, the rungs on some of the ladders were broken and the roof over the peak lookout point, once the ruling throne of this great land, had been eaten away by rot.
‘When we were young, it looked like it was made of gold,’ Grace said.
‘We used to dig through the stones on the ground, searching for diamonds. All sorts of riches were hidden here.’
‘I don’t remember when the spell was lifted. When did it stop being…enchanting?’
‘It never stopped. As long as there are children to imagine it to life, it will always be enchanting. We were the ones who stopped. ’
Grace closed her eyes, wiping from the slate of her mind the image of the playground around her, and trying to sketch in its place the way she thought it had been. The slate remained blank.
‘So it was always like this,’ she said after a while. ‘Damp. Rotting. Paint peeling. And we never even noticed.’
‘What did it matter? Once we came in through that gate, nothing that was real meant a thing.’
‘It mattered because we couldn’t stay here forever. We had to learn that the real world wasn’t clad in gold.’
Uncertainty rattled Grace’s tone. ‘I had to move on. I had to live life outside these fences.’
‘And did life outside these fences ever bring you the joy you felt in here?’
‘It doesn’t matter if it did. There was never a choice between in here and outside. In here was just a mirage. Nobody can stay here forever.’
A gust of wind caught the roundabout and nudged it, provoking a tired groan. Once more, Grace remembered the thrill of jump, the rush of air against her skin, the giddy dizzy feeling she always felt after the roundabout stopped spinning.
‘You never really liked that game,’ she murmured. ‘You said I always left you behind.’
Her companion had no words to say.
Grace turned to look at the empty swing swaying next to her. It had been Ella’s favourite, although no one really knew why. She had latched on to it in the way that children do. Nothing had distinguished it from the rest, but now it was distinguished because of her, by the etchings of Grace’s young hand on the smooth wood.
Ella Clare Myers
The wind swirled about her, this time accompanied by an icy bite. Darkness was settling in fast and she could no longer see the weak December sun. A shiver ran through her spine, but it was not only the cold that caused it. It was the chill inside that made her shake. The bitter shock, the arctic remorse – a tidal wave of remembrance crashed over her as she retraced each letter with her eyes, recalling the night she had carved her friend’s memory into the place she had loved.
She remembered how the blade – a tiny pen knife, plucked from her brother’s desk drawer – had slipped and scraped her fingers, and she remembered how the flayed skin seemed to smoulder. It had not halted her progress. Once the act was finished she had rocked back on her feet, kneeling with her arms wrapped around her legs, contemplating her work.
She had pledged to visit every day.
The playground was a place where Ella could live forever.
She had pledged to visit most days.
The playground was a place where she could remember her friend.
She had pledged to visit on special days.
In the playground Ella could turn twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Outside it, Grace grew older without her.
She had pledged to visit now and then.
The playground was where she had played as a child and she was not a child now.
One day, she didn’t pledge to visit anymore.
Time, unyielding, ticked by.
Today she had returned. She was not quite sure why.
She hunched her shoulders, hugged her arms to her body, tugged at her jacket sleeves, all in attempt to hide her numb fingers from the harsh air, but the cold would not depart so easily. Not even a roaring fire would thaw the winter that had set inside her.
Grace could not remain any longer in this place, it echoed of a past that could not be reclaimed. Across the playground, a flickering streetlight stood guard over the entrance, and as she departed, she passed beneath its meagre glow. When she pushed open the gate, it let out a low moan. Behind her, it shut with a click that felt like a resounding boom in the quiet night.