It was a brisk ten-minute walk to the playground. Owen relished the crisp morning air as he strode along under a beautiful, sunlit morning. It was getting easier as time passed and this morning was almost devoid of the dread and hollowness the trip often initiated.
But this morning, he whistled a happy tune and kept his eyes on the distant park, which peeked over the top of the hedgerows in places. Already, he could hear the sounds of the children, echoing in the quiet streets.
As usual, his first duty when he arrived was to stand at the bottom of the slide with his arms outstretched to catch his daughter, Anne.
Now she sat at the top of the slide, her expression tainted with reticence as her tiny hands gripped the sides, turning her knuckles white. All around him, children squealed in delight as they scampered about the playground.
“It's all right, honey,” said Owen reassuringly. “Daddy will catch you. I promise.”
His words were like magic and seemed to make her fear evaporate. She released her grip and closed her eyes as she slid down, shrieking at the sensation. Owen caught her in both arms and swung her around and around, laughing with glee.
“Again, Daddy! Again! Please?” plead Anne.
Owen laughed, unable to resist the desire in her eyes.
“Okay, honey. Go and climb up again. And be careful!”
But she suddenly pointed over his shoulders.
“Look, Daddy. Swings! Can we go swing? Can we? Will you push me? Can we go high?”
Before he could reply, she had darted off towards the swing set. Her face, eyes wide and cheeks rosy red from excitement, was the epitome of simple bliss as he lifted her into a seat. Her long hair cascaded in the breeze as she swung back and forth, laughing ecstatically.
Owen watched the other children as they played on the various obstacles while doting parents looked on with pride.
“Can we try the roundabout now, Daddy?” said Anne, pulling Owen back to reality. He brought the swing to a halt and helped her out. Her feet had barely touched the ground before she had shot off towards the roundabout, giving it a quick push and jumping aboard.
“Look, Dad! I’m going round and round!” she shouted.
Owen watched, his daughter’s elation reflected in his own expression. He cupped his mouth in his hands.
“I see, honey! Hold on tight!” he shouted as he ran over.
“Whee! It’s making me dizzy, Daddy! My tummy’s being tickled!” she whooped at the sensation. Owen gave the roundabout another push to keep it spinning.
And then, like spectres, one by one the children disappeared, followed by their parents. Anne's radiant, smiling face slowly faded, became translucent and then it too, vanished.
Owen sighed and looked around. The playground was once again deserted. Fresh snow lay on the ground. With sagging shoulders, he walked over to an empty bench and sat down, removing a small book from his coat pocket.
With barely a sound, a smart young woman approached Owen. She faltered briefly then sat down beside him, keeping her eyes on the playground ahead. Owen smiled at her, nodded a silent greeting and turned his attention back to his book.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” said the woman, unexpectedly. Owen looked at her, momentarily distracted and unsure if she had addressed him.
“I’m sorry?’ he said, politely.
“The play park,” the woman continued. “I sometimes come here. Especially when it's quiet like this.”
Her eyes moved to take in the entire playground. Owen lowered the book into his lap, looked around and then nodded.
“Yes,” he conceded. “It is very peaceful.”
The woman continued to stare into the distance. When she spoke again, her voice was almost dream-like. The flicker of a smile played across her features as she lifted a hand to one ear.
“You know, if you listen very carefully,” she said, “you can almost hear the children's voices, imagine their smiles, feel the warmth of the sun on your skin.”
Owen looked first at the swings, then at the roundabout and finally at the rest of the deserted park which was silent apart from birdsong. The sound of nearby traffic was muted and distant.
“Yes. I know exactly what you mean,” he said.
The woman looked around for a while and then suddenly let out a long, sorrowful sigh.
“Michael,” she said.
Owen looked at her. “Sorry?” he said.
“His name was Michael,” the woman repeated, smiling with her lips only. “He had just turned four.”
Owen stared at her. The single tear that coursed down her cheek glinted in the sunlight. She made no attempt to wipe it away. He turned to look at the now motionless swings again.
“Anne,” he said, his voice relaying no emotion. “She was five.”
The woman thought for a moment and then turned to Owen with her hand extended.
“Hello,” she said. “I'm Sara. Mother.”
Owen gently took the proffered hand and shook it once.
“Owen,” he said. “Father.”
Her smile flashed again. “Do you come here often, Owen?” she inquired.
Owen looked into her searching eyes.
“Not really,” he said. “Just when I . . . need to.”
Sara nodded. “Yes. I know what you mean,” she said, managing another weak smile. “Fancy a coffee?”
Owen looked into her open, honest face. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? Perhaps two?”
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