by Craig Burnett
Councillor Wilton adjusted his jacket and tie, then eased himself down on the top of the slide. Through the evening gloom he saw the swings, the merry-go-round, and the two wooden horses that danced on springs. Beyond these was a bench, where one imagined wayward young men would smoke cigarettes and leer at nude pictures on their mobile telephones. No young men out tonight though, thank God. Pain sliced through Councillor Wilton’s back, as it always did when he sat down too fast. The metal slide still held the heat of the day, he noticed through the seat of his corduroys. Its sides pressed against Councillor Wilton’s flabby haunches as he extended his legs forwards. He began to panic. What if he got stuck, wedged there all night? Discovered by the joggers at daybreak? Someone would call that awful woman from the paper. He wiggled a little, which put his mind at ease.
The rest of the park had been swallowed by darkness. When he was a boy, Councillor Wilton came here every few weeks with Huxby. Poor old Huxby. The smells he made, near the end. Farting mournfully on the living room couch, looking up at you with those big brown eyes. Not an athletic dog, but a loyal one. Loved having his tummy rubbed. Councillor Wilton looked down and found himself touching his own paunch, cupping it gently through his sweater. They had buried Huxby without ceremony, near the bramble bush at the bottom of the garden. His parents had wanted to throw Huxby out in the rubbish, but Councillor Wilton cried and cried until they relented. His father swore under his breath while digging the hole, the only time Councillor Wilton heard him use such words. As soon as the last shovel of earth was down his father stepped forward and gave the spot a firm stamp. Then he went to repaint the fence.
Councillor Wilton hadn’t thought of the park for decades, before he saw its name in a bundle of council papers, below the heading ‘underused civic sites’. No-one objected to this description, so the park joined Hepton Library and the meals on wheels service on the chopping block. Councillor Wilton had become a library volunteer when he retired, funnily enough, but that only lasted a few months. The silences brought his mind back to Audrey, and quelling thoughts of Audrey was the reason he’d started at the library in the first place. So Norman at the golf club suggested standing for the council instead. Councillor Wilton resisted at first. Not sure politics is for me, he said. Councillor Wilton thought the world needed fewer politicians and bit more common sense.
But Norman said there was no politics on the council. Not really. It was just getting involved in the community. Connecting with people. And that would be good, now that Audrey had gone. Norman was right, up to a point. There was no politics as such – just tinkering with budgets and meetings in fusty rooms. Not to say there weren’t occasional dramas, over swimming pools and rubbish collections and 20 mile per hour zones. But by and large, life on the council was about keeping things ticking along. Until a few years ago, when the money dried up and they had to start closing things. Now the fusty rooms were filled with tutters and lip-pursers and placard wavers. But what could you do?
The closures were a sadness for everyone at the council. Except perhaps Councillor Letsby, who was in his twenties and used phrases like transformation process and rationalising. When he did his voice quivered with excitement, and little flecks of spit appeared at the corner of his mouth. No council meeting went by without Letsby railing against dead wood, an enemy he attacked with crusading zeal. It was Letsby’s gift to spot dead wood where others could not. He unearthed it in primary schools, in care homes, in the pay packets of binmen and cleaners and minibus drivers. He even found it in the council chamber, if his glares at Councillor Wilton were anything to go by. The park was a classic example of dead wood, Letsby had argued in the council chamber earlier tonight. A barely used scrap of land, of considerable interest to the housing industry. The motion was carried. The park would be sold and built over.
Councillor Wilton stayed in the chamber long after the others had left, running his thumbnail up and down his tie and thinking of Huxby. The huffing noises he made as they ambled across the cricket pitch, his yelps as they sheltered from downpours under the big chestnut tree. Neither of them enjoyed exercise, but company made it bearable.
Councillor Wilton had only planned to drive past the park on his way home, but after a half-hour detour it seemed a shame not to get out. He wandered across the grass, browned by the sun, and then stepped over the low fence that divided the playground from the rest of the park. He peered through the dying light towards the church, searching for the roof of his childhood home. Just to the left of the steeple, from this angle. Or was it to the right? It hurt that the trees had grown more than him since his last visit. A few triangles jutted above the treetops, but none seemed quite right. Councillor Wilton looked around to make sure he was alone, then trotted towards the slide.
Perched on the top of the slide, Councillor Wilton wondered what would happen to the wayward young men when their bench was ripped out of the ground. He had never been wayward as a young man, partly through temperament and partly through a lack of opportunity. He reached into his jacket and pulled a cheese and pickle sandwich from the inside pocket. He couldn’t make them like Audrey had, even after a decade’s practice. The bits of pickle always seemed too small. Unless he bought the extra-chunky pickle from the supermarket, but the bits in that were clearly too big. It was a puzzle alright. Had she been whittling bits of pickle before putting them in his sandwiches? He smiled and shook his head. The things you think, when you’re left alone too long. He took a bite. The hot summer air and proximity to his armpit had made the cheese sweat.
It was too dark to see the house now – not that the extra height would have made much difference. Should probably climb down, Councillor Wilton thought. Leave with some sort of dignity. But Letsby’s words nagged at him. It was all so easy for Letsby, with his sterile language and promises of a better tomorrow. He didn’t face the weight of the past, every time he saw an old photograph or heard a song they’d loved or made a cheese and bloody pickle sandwich. Well, bugger Letsby. Bugger Letsby and bugger progress and bugger the future. Councillor Wilton opened his mouth and, much to his surprise, let out a roar that bounced off the trees. He shuffled forward launched himself down the slide. As he did so, a memory stole into his brain – his podgy boyhood self, stalled halfway down, without the momentum to reach the bottom.
But he had more mass now. Or was it volume? Never been good at physics. Whatever it was, his body had acquired buckets of it in the last 70 years. Councillor Wilton raced towards the ground, squawking with giddy joy and kicking his brogues in the air. Faster and faster, dragged earthwards by years of hearty lunches and Cabernet Sauvignon. A little too fast, he thought as the foot of slide raced appeared out of the darkness. But without a force to stop you, you just carried on going. That’s what he’d done at the office, going from report to meeting to report, and back for more the next week. It’s what he’d done in the council chamber, nodding and smiling as Letsby painted pictures of his brave new world. It’s what he’d done when he met Susan, the nice woman at the badminton club whose husband went away on business every other week. Kept going and going and going, to pubs and restaurants and seedy little hotels. Until Norman’s wife spotted them coming out of the Coach and Horses arm in arm, and rang Audrey to tell her.
Councillor Wilton found Audrey’s note by the toaster, wedged between the jams and a pot of quince jelly they’d won at a raffle but never really fancied. They sold the house nine months later, to a young couple who sniggered at the wallpaper and offered barely half what the place was worth. Councillor Wilton wondered what Audrey was doing now.
He flew off the end of the side and hung in mid-air for a moment, waving his limbs like a baby. His feet touched the ground first. He lifted one leg and tried to pivot on the other. But he pivoted too far, and the snap of bone echoed off the bench and the merry-go-round and the wooden horses that danced on springs.
Councillor Wilton screamed, fell forward and pressed his face into the earth. He clenched his fists, one of which still held his sandwich. The thin, mean bread disintegrated, and the sandwich vomited its cheese shavings and chunks of pickle between his fingers. He lay still for a few minutes, the relish drying on his skin. When he tried to move his ankle, even a fraction, he almost passed out. He cursed himself for not charging his phone. But he’d got out of the habit. Less point, nowadays.
Eventually Councillor Wilton raised his watch to his face, wondering how many hours would pass before he was discovered by the morning joggers. But the darkness was complete now. The pain had somehow spread from his ankle and risen through his body, into his teeth and the tips of his ears. A new giddiness, quite unlike the thrill of the slide, arrived. He screwed his eyes shut, but a nightmarish vision bubbled up into his mind. A bulldozer toppling the slide and driving his tubby body into the earth alongside it. And who was driving the bulldozer? Letsby, chanting mantras of progress and regeneration. Councillor Wilton pressed his face back into the earth, fighting the urge to scream again. As he slipped into unconsciousness he thought of Huxby and the bramble bush, and what might have been.
Craig Burnett was born in Scotland and lives in South London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has work published or forthcoming in Noble Gas Quarterly, the Flexible Persona and the Glasgow Review of Books. He Tweets @cburnettwriter.