In the January mud, the playground has that winter quality of waiting. The light at the end of the day extends ever that little bit longer, before there’s a sudden tipping into darkness as the sun falls behind the tenement roofs. The playground seems to be waiting for its mudded roots to dry out. It lies, not growing, just breathing. Last week, one day late still in the morning, the hardest frost I’ve known there lay on the mud-woodchips. The sand in the sand-pit was solid in the shade of the thinned-out tree that was once the fully-leaved cover of a now-dormant den. The sand crunched under the weight of my extra boot pressure. The sun sliced up laboriously and sheered the frost on the bench into a very slow wave of thawing. I had a need for a few photographs just to nudge me again of this in future summerness.
When one of the children asked me to help her with moving the tyres so she could make a castle (though in a queenly manner, she pointed and said ‘put that one in the wheelbarrow’), I saw the deep marks they left because they haven’t moved for months. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘you move some’. She made a feeble attempt at shifting one, then shook her head as if in actual fact regal. I imagine rings of small depressions where the playground lets out little long wheezes of air, just there where the tyres were, in appreciations no-one will really see.
Darkness is a feature of the playground wintering. Even when it’s light, there’s the expectation of light’s absence. This isn’t to suggest a negative. When the light has shifted over the roofs, and the individual and collected tumblings of children, once clearly seen, seep into shadows of only possible people known somewhere out by the tyre swings, the playground offers up the secrecies of hiding in open space. The children are out there somewhere. The fire takes on deeper resonance when the light leaves too. The children have incinerated three Christmas trees, at the last count, and when they do this the flames reach up high, and this and the crackle and pop of the pine needles sends those children screaming and squealing. They come, also, from far-off hidden open spaces to gather and collect at the burning of the trees. When it’s good and done, some short time later, with the black bones of the branches stuck in the pit like fish scraped of flesh, the children reel off again to wherever they’d come from, dispersing, and re-entangling into new knots of groupings unseen.
In the late morning, an act of developing satisfaction — as a word that best fits — is, strangely, that of the litter pick: especially so on a perfectly crisp, brittle-aired day. It’s easy to forget being in the middle, or along the spiral arm, of a city when on the quiet playground. The pick is not just a mindless pick. There is the dropping into something slow, sure, but this is an opening. There are all the hidden messages of the playground to be seen, in their great or minute details: things that have happened and that can be discerned and ‘listened’ to. I use this verb carefully and not totally in terms of the ‘conventionally heard’. The squeak of the spring of the litter picker seems to communicate with the playground: the birds, on occasion, seem to reply in the same tones. Grey squirrels hop along, watch me, hop along, climb. A cat might wander through and by.
In the old pond casing, which is now ensconced in the wooden block boat, which itself is fading from a drain of colours, as if slowly washing away, I see a silvery radio or CD player, incarcerated beneath the ice layer of the water. I know who put this there, even though I’ve not seen that play. I know this is an experiment, poor thing like a baby mammoth in the perma-frost, but I leave it be because I know all this. It waits too, for its near-future demise at the hands of the boy who likes to smash such things into the oblivion of techno-afterlife! It’s almost as if he’s teasing it, left out here in the cold as it has been.
The playground waits in other objects that have fallen, laying where they fell, whilst everything else moves on around it. The whiteboard that we propped against the fence has fallen, I saw, and the metal frame of the old bin shell that was a makeshift post to tie a rope around, early in November when we had the bonfire, lies exactly there on the concrete, still. I picked it up every so often, propped it up, like picking up a fallen old person from the ground. It ended up back where it was the next time I saw it. I’ve taken to leaving it. One child asked about it last week, in a general just-looking-out-that-way kind of way. We talked about the bonfire and the makeshift post and the rope. ‘Oh,’ she said.
In between the fallen, I’ve taken to tracking objects that I know are moving, and some that I wonder whether they might. There are deliberate considerations of placing before the children come, mapping and logging like an archaeologist, the next day, seeing where I find things. I don’t know what I’ll draw from this: a curiosity borne of noticing how one thing in particular has been moving (though, sadly, this is one thing now missing presumed dead). I looked in every place, for every trace, but it was gone. Such is the irony of something that has moved around almost ceaselessly but now, when I tag it, it loses its momentum and falls from the place by way of being deposited in the bin.
The playground waits amongst all of this. The January mud persists, and the expectation of darkness lingers. The frost or ice settles because the playground won’t move or shake it off, not like the summer bees around the rosemary bush, or the autumn breezes taking gold paper and other leaves to the very edges of the place, sticking them up against the fencing. The fire exerts its winter gravity on the children, and the playground’s objects lie or leave indentations or move almost silently. There is the possibility of seeing the wildlife attempting to listen in. There is more than meets the eye if we’re open to what’s around.