Read The Playground Online

Authors: Julia Kelly

The Playground

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by

Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
Floor, South Block

Copyright © 2014 Julia Kelly

The moral right of Julia Kelly to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Excerpt from ‘The Child', a poem by Michael Roberts, reprinted with kind permission of the Royal Literary Fund. Every attempt has been made to attain licences to reprint lyrics from the following songs: ‘MacArthur Park' by Jimmy Webb and Richard Harris, Universal Music Publishing Group; ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Paul Simon, Sony/ATV; ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)' by Paul Simon, Sony/ATV. Any omissions should be notified to the publishers, who would be happy to make amendments for future editions.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

TPB ISBN 978 1 84916 256 2
EBOOK ISBN 978 1 84916 780 2

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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With My Lazy Eye

Julia Kelly was born in 1969, studied English, Sociology and Journalism in Dublin, and escaped to London for the mad, bad years of life. Her first novel,
With My Lazy Eye
, won her the Sunday Independent Best Irish Newcomer of the Year Award. She now lives in Bray, County Wicklow with her partner and their little girl.

For Ruby Mae and Lucia

How can I teach, how can I save,

This child whose features are my own,

Whose feet run down the ways where

I have walked?

Michael Roberts,
The Child

Chapter One

If you'd been down on the seafront that Saturday, you may not have seen us. Everyone was out: the bony old man child in school shorts and brogues bouncing his rubber ball against the end wall of Martello Terrace, the power-walking, whippet-like woman with her whippet dog, the homeless man reclining on the low wall of the promenade – where toddlers like to take tentative steps – staring dead-eyed at the sea. Traveller boys in togs, gold chains and spiked, water-wet hair walked on their toes to the chipper, towels hooked round their necks like men, above jutting shoulder blades, neat whistles of spines, ahead of Italian tourists in scarves and quilted jackets, who didn't understand how the Irish called this summer. Old folk trundled along in mobility carts, overtaken by kids on rollerblades and scooters. The hulking, grizzle-bearded cyclist, too big for his boots and his bike, weaved through the throng, overseeing everything, like Poseidon on wheels. Billy Flynn was there that day too, before it all happened, balancing on his unicycle in an animated conversation with himself.

Everything was in motion: the sea, high, grey-green, crunching stones; the slap of the stays on yachts in the harbour; the rattle of cars on the big dipper; the slamming swing doors of the ghost train; the pink lights of the carousel flashing on and off as it rotated, horses gliding up and down in the air. A fat woman was hula-hooping on
the promenade on her own, smiling to herself as she gyrated her hips. On the Sky Master above her, a blur of hair and feet – laughing boys, screaming girls.

It was that time of the day – four o'clock – in a seaside town when things could get a little ugly. The litter bins were overflowing, the bars filling up. Clouds had been folding and expanding all day, and now they'd spread out in a vast grey fug and had taken the shine off everything – promenade, esplanade, harbour, beach – covering it all in the sort of dull light that incites arguments, forces the abandonment of plans.

By the train station a sombre swell of local community had come to a halt with their banners, neon bibs and megaphones. Children were hoisted onto shoulders, TV cameras positioned, local TDs handed microphones. Along the roadside, residents stood still in tribute and support.

‘What do we want?' asked a lone, angry voice.

‘A full-time fire service!' the crowd roared in reply.

‘When do we want it?' she shouted again.

‘Now!' they yelled in unison, their voices shaky with emotion about two voluntary firefighters who had lost their lives as they fought a blaze at a disused warehouse several weeks before.

‘And in the words of our president, Mary McAleese, may we praise their heroism and selflessness and may we never forget the ultimate sacrifice these two men made to ensure the safety of others.'

We kept walking and I kept singing to stop me from thinking and to entertain my child.

My Aunt Jane she's awful smart

She bakes wee rings in an apple tart

Past Marconi's, inhaling its sharp, vinegary reek, and on by the old hotel. All the windows in its sea-worn facade were black, aside from an open dormer at the top of the building from which a dull curtain billowed. No one had taken advantage of the special B&B rate of thirty-five Euro for the night. No one was serving in the empty bar. The dozen tables in the conservatory were draped with pink linen over white and laid with cup-saucer-spoon-sugar, but a handwritten sign Blu-tacked onto the adjacent window read:
Residents only. Absolutely no tea or coffee served

And when Hallowe'en comes around

Fornenst that tart I'm always found

And on up the incline at the base of Bray Head, where the dog dirt gets under your feet. The missing woman was still missing, still smiling from torn and mildewed posters tethered to lampposts; moisture had penetrated their laminated covers, making her face appear gangrenous. The wheels of the buggy buckled on ridges of broken concrete. All terrains, the website said, that's the beauty of the Bugaboo. We almost broke up the night we tried to assemble it. The only instructions we could find online were in German and demonstrated by a smiling woman in slacks with slim, manicured hands. After three hours of effort, the damned thing still wouldn't recline.

I was pushing not a child, but a small plastic doll, like one of those unhinged American women who dress them up and talk to them, pretend that they're the real thing. My own real thing had stopped and was squatting on the ground twenty paces behind me, playing a private game with woodlice and stones, an impatient little hand
shooting across her face as she concentrated, spreading snot from nose to hair.

We'd been moving at this stop-start speed for the past hour, aside from twice when she took a notion and set off, her little legs thumping downhill and away from me, still excited by this new skill and even more by the thrill of pursuit.

‘Hold you,' she whined, arms outstretched, from where she stood, unwilling to walk any further. I lifted her and she settled into the baby-shaped space on my hip. ‘Hood up,' she said, as we set off again, yanking it over my head. I imagined for a ridiculous moment that I looked exotic, Russian, as we walked along the cliff edge. She slapped her hands over my ears, sealing my face, insulating everything.

Now that she'd seen how cosy my head – the world – looked in its dark, fur-lined interior, she wanted to come in too. I told her it wouldn't work, that it was a physical impossibility, but it somehow did. Addie – Adelaide in trouble, Narky Nora, Bubbalicious, Little Miss Stink-a-lot – was always right about these things.

On up into the greyness we went, our cheeks pressed together in the hood of my parka like a two-headed Eskimo.

My Aunt Jane she has a bell on the door

A white stone step and a clean swept floor

Candy apples, hard green pears

Conversation lozenges

Though we were moving away from everything, sounds travelled across the sea towards us: disembodied voices, the thump of internal music from the Martello,
Sweet Caroline
, children's screams. I told Addie I couldn't carry her much longer, that she was getting too
heavy for me. ‘Don't worry, Mummy,' she said, rubbing my back with her starfish hand.

This was where we came at the beginning – Joe noticing everything: the thousand different shades of green on the hills; the graffitied penis at the old widow's house which made him giggle; the litter and days so perfect that he couldn't handle the beauty of the light, the sea, the land – before hurrying, when the weather turned, as the weather always did, to the snug of the overly blue Harbour Bar at the other end of the bay where cats curled on sofas and students chewed on dope, snogging and nodding to second-rate imitation bands while waves beat against the land outside and swans gathered, disdainful but tolerating the oily filth of the harbour. I'd been happy, but frightened, not understanding any of it.

‘Two, three, four,' Addie said, knowing that I'd gone; needing to bring me back. She was counting the chimes of a church bell ringing somewhere beyond us, taking big, deep breaths between numbers. ‘Eleven, twenty-ten, seven.'

Above us masses of jagged grey stone bulged and jutted through a wire mesh, caged to prevent further rock falls. Below, the Wexford train clattered through Brunel's tunnel along the coast; beyond that fulmars fought for territory on white-flecked rocks. The sea was immense and seemed, as we got higher, to be disappearing into the curve of the earth.

The path we were on was now no longer a path, but a muddy track with pools of dirty water on either side of a tufty grass centre. It was the wrong time to be going uphill; walkers coming down, returning home, eyed us with curiosity; two sprite women, cropped hair, pink-cheeked, fleece sweaters tied round waists to conceal ample posteriors – stopped, hands on hips to watch us, in that frank, unapologetic way of the old.

‘Mindless thugs.' One said to the other.

‘Local lads no doubt.'

‘Just think of all those poor animals. Nesting birds, little mice running from the flames.'

‘Oh don't, Deirdre. And rabbits, young hares, desperate altogether.'

‘You wouldn't want to bring that child any further.' One of them said to me.

‘The gorse is on fire up there.' The other added.

I smelt it and heard it before I saw it. It was taking hold on the hills above us, crackling and sparking as it spread. Flames were rising, licking the air, carried along by the wind.

Now a heavy, general dullness took over, clouds of smoke combined with the darkening sky. And when the rain came it was sudden, violent, driving, monsoon-like in its intensity, soaking everything, making teenage girls squeal in their shorts and flat hair. Paper bags became hats, toddlers stomped in puddles, there was a rush for cars with wet picnic rugs, armfuls of kids and belongings. Awnings were lowered at the Beach House cafe, tables cleared in a hurry.

I grabbed my little girl and carried her to shelter under a struggling tree, squeezed in beside the two walkers we'd just met, and another mother whose baby looked so snug in her buggy – hat, blanket, waterproof cover – it made the older women's faces crinkle and turn to each other in silent approval. ‘That's how it's done,' they seemed to be saying, ‘that's how to look after a child.' In my panic and rush I'd abandoned our buggy – it was sodden, still out in the rain, Addie damp and red-nosed in my arms. As we waited we watched the muddy water cascading down gullies, forming vast puddles around the barriers by the beach, and inhaled, not just the smoke from the dying fire, but the stench of seaweed and other stuff thrown up at
that end of the strand: rotting kelp, beer cans, plastic bottles, single shoes.

‘Uh oh,' Addie said, studying my face, ‘spot.' She pressed her finger against the tip of my nose, her tiny nail cutting into my skin. ‘Kiss better?' she asked, holding my face steady, knowing what I needed, aligning our mouths and putting her lips on mine.

Crows crash-landed on the promenade for last pickings, a lone runner, florescent in Lycra, slapped his feet in a rhythm on the wet concrete and Billy Flynn was still there, circling around puddles in the rain, waving his arms in the air as he balanced, his face held up to the sky.

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