"Do it," said Kenny Evans, leaning on the weathered druid stone that stood just outside the park gate. "Seven turns on the roundabout, with the words."
"To prove you don't believe in it."
Kenny and I had been friends since infants. But lately he'd started hanging around with Brett Coombes instead.
"I've told you I don't."
Brett took over: "Yeah, but that dun' mean nothin'. You've got to do it to really prove you dun' believe in that kiddie shit."
I tried not to flinch when he said the S-word. Brett was the first in our class to swear.
"Why don't you do it first?"
"We already did it."
"I didn't see you."
"You callin' me a liar?"
"Then stop bein' a chicken and do it."
I didn't move. Couldn't. I just stood there looking at the yellow roundabout in the centre of the playground.
"Told you he didn't have the guts," said Brett, nudging Kenny in the ribs. "Why'd you use to bother with him again?"
"My mam knows his mam."
Brett laughed. "Come on. Let's go play football with the Taff Street boys." And off they went, leaving me alone in the park.
Seven turns. That was nothing. But with the words? We all knew what the words did—where they took you.
My eyes followed Brett and Kenny as they walked across the field to the football pitch, and I willed my feet to follow after them too. But their venomous smirks and their teasing would be worse than death. A thousand times worse.
A prickly itch, like a nettle rash, rose at the back of my head. I tried to shake it off, but the itch turned into a writhing, scuttling, burrowing thing that dug its way deep into my brain like my grandfather told me earwigs did and stuck in its pincers.
Do it, the earwig whispered, and my hands were on the grip bar. Do it, and my foot was pushing against the red rubber floor. And pushed again. And faster.
The words came without thought, like a memory resurfacing at a scent. I began to feel sick. But I forced the words out nonetheless, and when I passed the park gate for the seventh time, the world, with an almost imperceptible shudder, became washed-out like an old school jumper. The swings swung back and forth. The see-saw rocked from side to side. The climbing frame trembled. I glanced at the sun, to be sure. It shone a wintry blue, like a cornflower peeking through the patchy grey of paving slabs. Then the park gate came rushing towards me again; the playground flooded bright and was still.
I let the roundabout slow to a stop and took a deep breath. The air that filled my lungs was rich and real, full of earth and autumn, the deep red scent of turning leaves, the sweet twitter of blackbirds. But the swings that had a moment ago been in motion merely dangled; the see-saw slumped lopsided; the climbing frame stood stoic and calm. No one had seen.
I ran to the football field. Kenny and Brett were there with the Taff Street boys, in the middle of picking sides.
"Kenny," I shouted, "I did it, with the words."
"Did what?" asked one of the Taff Street boys.
"I went on the roundabout. Seven turns, and I said the words. I saw it. The other place."
There was a gasp from the Taff Street boys.
"Bollocks," said Brett, stepping forwards and giving me a shove. "Did anyone see you do it?"
"No," I said.
"Then it never happened, you little liar."
"I'm not lying."
"Then go do it again. And this time, if it is real, bring something back with you to prove it."
I didn't mind doing it again. But leaving the roundabout? Venturing into that place? That was another thing altogether.
"Come and watch me," I said. "I'll do it. You can watch me do it."
Brett snorted. "We're 'avin' a game of football," he said. "I'm not going to waste my time going to watch you swing round on some roundabout. Go, and if it's real, bring something back to prove it."
One of the Taff Street boys slid quickly to Brett's side.
"Whoa now, Brett. I don't think that's a good idea."
"Shut up, Chris," said Brett. "I want everyone to know how much of a chicken-shit liar he is."
I looked at him. I looked at Kenny, who wouldn't meet my gaze. I looked at the Taff Street boys, who were whispering nervously to one another.
"All right," I said. "I'll do it. I'll go, and I'll bring something back."
I turned on my heel and strode back to the park.
I placed my hand on the bar, stepped on and kicked off with my foot. I said the words again, and when that last turn tore the green from the grass and the warmth from the air and the bold bright colours from the park, I leapt off and landed roughly on the grey rubber floor.
The blue sun was back in the sky, but the playground was no longer empty. Now I could see children swinging on the grey swings, climbing on the climbing frame, rocking on the see-saw. They came to a halt and looked at me. A boy, about my age, came forward.
"Hello," he said. "I'm Carwyn. What's your name?"
I told him.
"Are you from the other place?" he asked.
I nodded as a crowd of children gathered about me.
"What do you want?"
"I have to go back soon," I said quickly, "but I want to take something with me—from here," I added.
The boy turned to the others and they exchanged hushed words in voices that rustled like dead leaves. After a moment, he turned back to face me. "Then you'll have to make a swap."
"What kind of swap?"
"Nothing important. Just a token. What do you want to swap for?"
I looked around; then I looked at the boy. His hair was lank, his cheeks sallow and thin. He wore a school jumper from a school that I didn't recognise, and his trousers were tucked into long socks that reached almost to his knees. All of a sudden, his body began to tremble, and he was gripped by a violent fit of coughing, which he did his best to stifle with a handkerchief covered in blotchy grey stains. As he raised the handkerchief to his mouth, I noticed, pinned to his jumper, a small yellow flower.
Glancing at the other children, I saw that they, too, each had an identical flower pinned to their chests—a little yellow star.
"I'll swap you something for your flower," I said.
"What'll you give me for it?"
I searched through my pockets: a few loose coins, a couple of Gobstoppers covered in fluff, and my conker—a sevener, hardened with vinegar. "I'll swap you this," I said, holding out the conker.
The boy took it, examined it, and then handed it back to me, shaking his head.
I looked at him desperately. The conker was the best thing I had.
"I'll take your shadow," he said.
I opened my mouth, but I didn't quite know what to say.
"It's just a shadow." The boy shrugged. "You don't use it for anything, do you?"
I thought for a moment. "I s'pose you can have it," I said at last. "Can I swap it back later, if I bring your flower back?"
The boy smiled, but did not answer. I was starting to shiver. I only had on a thin jumper, and the blue sun seemed to suck in heat rather than give it off. I tasted snot and realised my nose had been running.
"Better get back quickly, or you'll catch your death," said the boy.
The blood seemed to falter in my veins; pins and needles clawed at my arms and legs; my very flesh stood on end.
"All right," I said. "You can take it."
The boy nodded and then moved to stand behind me. Before I could look around, he gave me an almighty shove, and I stumbled forwards. I wanted to cry out, but the words floated away with the mist of my breath. My conker rolled away among the feet of the gathered children, and I quickly thought better of trying to crawl through them to retrieve it.
I struggled to my feet. The boy was standing there, his arm outstretched, the yellow flower in his hand.
I grabbed it and lurched back to the roundabout, grasped the bar, and pushed off limply with my feet. And after what seemed like an eternity, the sun warmed again and I collapsed off the roundabout and sprawled, shivering, on the red rubber floor, though it did little to ease the chill in my bones. The flower in my hand remained ice cold, stealing the warmth of the sun from me.
I stood, slowly, and walked to the football field where Kenny was standing in goal.
"Kenny!" I shouted. "Kenny! Guess what? I did it! I brought something back. Look!" I held out the yellow flower.
Kenny said nothing. Someone on the far side of the pitch scored a goal.
"Kenny! Look!" I said, brandishing the flower in front of his face.
Kenny sighed and kicked the dirt.
"Hello," came a voice from beside me.
"Huh?" said Kenny, and turned around. Next to me stood a boy, about my age. He had tousled brown hair and a full red face.
"Oh, hello," said Kenny.
"I'm Carwyn," said the boy. "What's your name?"
"Kenny," said Kenny. "New round here, are you?"
"Sort of," said the boy. "I used to live here a long time ago. I just moved back."
"Oh, right. Well if you want to join in, you'll have to ask Brett."
"I don't mind," said the boy. "Want a game of conkers?" He pulled a conker out of his pocket. "It's a sevener," he said.
"Wow!" said Kenny.
The boy with my shadow turned his head towards me and smiled. And as I looked at his smile—which was neither cruel nor victorious, but rather full of the joys of being a child in autumn—a feeling crept over me like the first frost over a pond. I realised that the midges did not circle anymore around my head; the orange sun cast no shadow at my back; I could no longer smell the leaves or the kicked up mud, or the heavy tang of perspiration after a day's play; only the sweet, strangely rotting scent of the yellow flower still clutched in my hand.