‘How is he?’
Zach took a deep breath. Even worse than having to deliver the news of his father’s deteriorating health was hearing the hope in his aunt’s voice every time he rang her.
‘Not well at all I’m afraid. The infection isn’t showing any signs of abating, and he’s still refusing to eat. We’re not holding out much hope for a recovery.’
There was silence on the line for a few seconds. Zach was worried his aunt was about to burst into tears, but all she said was, ‘Right. OK.’
‘The nurses say he’s been talking nonsense. Something about a mill house and rollers. They can’t make head or tail of it.’
Zach had expected this revelation to be met with dismay. To his amazement, Aunt Emilia sounded positively relieved.
‘Not a mill house,’ she said, ‘the Mill House. Oh Zach, he’s not talking nonsense at all. He’s remembering. When are you next going to see him?’
‘Tomorrow evening. Why?’
‘I’ll come with you. If that’s all right with you?’
‘Yes, of course. It’ll be nice for him to see you.’
‘That’s settled then. We’ll see how he is, but hopefully he’ll be lucid enough to tell you the story himself.’
George was indeed lucid enough to tell the story himself. At seven o’clock the following evening, Zach and Emilia ambled into the ward to find him sitting up in bed, looking more alert than he had in weeks.
‘How are you doing, Dad?’ Zach asked, pulling up the chair to the left of George’s bed.
‘I’m fine,’ said George in his usual chirpy fashion.
He wasn’t fine-he was suffering from chronic pneumonia. He was simply too stubborn to admit it.
‘Zach tells me you’ve been talking about the Mill House,’ said Emilia, taking a seat on her brother’s other side.
At the mention of the Mill House, George’s pale face lit up. For a moment, he looked like the mischievous young boy he once was.
‘The Mill House,’ he said, his voice warm with nostalgia. ‘I loved that place.’
‘Zach doesn’t know about the Mill House,’ Emilia prompted. ‘Why don’t you tell him about it?’
‘It was a pub on the Cannock Road,’ George began, delighted now that he had an audience. ‘We went there all the time as kids. They used to have an indoor play area. Pirate Pete’s it was called. I tell you, Zach, it was the best play area I ever saw. Such fun we had there. I’d happily play in it now, if I wasn’t here that is.’
He spread his arms wide, indicating his hospital bed and shapeless, diamond-patterned gown. Despite the situation, Zach was unable to suppress a smile at the thought of his eighty-year-old father charging around a play area built for children.
They spent the next fifteen minutes reminiscing, with Emilia and George taking it in turns to describe the play area they had both loved so much.
‘There were three levels to it. The top one must have been what? Ten metres high? It doesn’t seem like much now, but when you’re little, that’s huge.’
‘There was a yellow plastic slide that was so steep at the top it was almost vertical.’
‘We used to try and climb up it, do you remember?’
‘And that tunnel on the top floor that you had to crawl along,’ said George. ‘I didn’t go in there much. I was worried the bolts would come undone when I was halfway across.’
‘Yes well, you were a bit of a wuss when you were little,’ Emilia teased.
‘I was always too scared to go through the rollers as well.’
‘You were? How come?’
‘I didn’t know where they led to.’
This was news to Emilia. Bemused, she stared at George for a few moments, then she burst out laughing.
‘What do you mean, you didn’t know where they led to?’ she asked between bouts of giggles. ‘Where did you think they went?’
‘I thought you went through them and then you died or something,’ George admitted, a bashful look on his face. This only made Emilia laugh harder. A besuited, middle-aged woman visiting her husband in a nearby bed shot them a disapproving glance.
‘You just dropped down to the floor below, silly.’
The rollers in question were located on the first floor of the play area, and could be reached in a variety of ways. You could scramble up a series of cargo nets, or alternatively you could scale the miniature climbing wall in the back corner. Personally, George had preferred to clamber up a trio of diagonally sloping blue platforms. You got fewer blisters that way. That being said, if you didn’t come away with your fingers covered in callouses, you clearly hadn’t played hard enough.
As a child, George had watched a great many children go through the rollers, but he had never braved them himself. He had watched them clamber up onto the platform and poke their feet into the gap between the two large, red cylinders. From there they wriggled backwards, their legs and torsos disappearing. To six-year-old George, it looked like they were being eaten, like the rollers were a huge, toothless mouth and these children were voluntarily feeding themselves into it. This wasn’t helped by the fact that most of them clung on for a few seconds before letting go, their fingernails curled around the edge of the platform. George was always tempted to rush over and pull them out, but his fear of being swallowed up as well prevented him from doing so. So instead he watched as the children let go, plunging backwards through the rollers and vanishing from sight.
Where did they go?
It would be years before George figured it out. Before he realised that the rollers were not the gateway to the afterlife, but an obstacle like any other, and all that lay beyond was a six-foot slide down a padded slope.
‘I know that now,’ he said, laughing along with his sister and son. ‘But at the time I genuinely thought you disappeared.’
‘But there must have been times when you were on the ground floor and saw kids sliding down the slope?’ Emilia said. It was a habit of hers, assuming that other people’s deduction skills matched her own, when nine times out of ten they did not. ‘Surely you figured out that the rollers were directly above it?’
‘I was six,’ George reminded her, ‘I wasn’t Miss Bloody Marple.’
‘Is it still there?’ Zach asked when they had all stopped tittering. ‘The Mill House I mean?’
‘The pub itself is,’ Emilia replied, ‘but it’s not called the Mill House anymore. I think it’s The Pear Tree now. As for the play area, they ripped that out years ago. Health and Safety reasons I think.’
At the mention of Health and Safety, George tutted and pulled a face.
‘Bloody Health and Safety,’ he scoffed, folding his arms across his chest to emphasise his disapproval. ‘Knocks and bangs are what playing’s all about.’
‘They are,’ Emilia agreed, ‘although I did have to go to hospital once, do you remember?’
‘That time you were climbing on something you shouldn’t have been, jumped off and whacked your head off the ceiling?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Were you all right?’ Zach asked, his eyes wide with concern for an accident that happened decades ago.
‘I was fine. It was just a precaution. I wanted to carry on playing but they insisted I go and get checked out.’
‘You know, I’ve often thought there should be play areas for adults,’ George said, his eyes shining. ‘Places like the Mill House, only bigger, where we can run around and let off steam. I think adults would appreciate it more.’
Zach and Emilia smiled as they each pictured their ideal play area for grownups. For a moment they were all lost in thoughtful silence, then Zach patted his father’s hand and said, ‘You know Dad, I think you’re right.’
George’s improved condition did not last. His sudden burst of lucidity was followed immediately by a severe downturn, and he spent the majority of the next few days asleep. When he was awake, his eyes had a glassy, faraway look and he babbled almost incessantly about the Mill House, even when there was no one there to hear him.
‘Confusion is not uncommon in elderly patients,’ one of the nurses informed Zach when he came to visit on Thursday evening. He nodded along as she updated him on his father’s condition and treatment, but her words seemed strangely distant, as if she was shouting them from the far end of a football field. Bracing himself, he entered the ward, treading the now familiar path to the farthest bed on the left-hand side.
Had he not known that the man beneath the blankets was his own father, he might not have believed it. George seemed to have shrunk overnight. His skin was so pale it was almost grey, and what little hair he still had seemed to have grown thinner. The eyes that had been so full of light just yesterday were now dull and sunken, his breathing quick and shallow.
‘Hello, Zachy,’ he said as Zach pulled up his usual chair. His voice was significantly raspier than yesterday, as if he had spent most of the night coughing.
It was almost too much for Zach. His father’s rapid deterioration, coupled with the use of his childhood nickname, threatened to undo him. His eyes grew misty and his throat constricted so much he could hardly breath. He looked up at the ceiling and blinked rapidly. It was a trick his wife had taught him years ago as a way of fending off unwelcome tears. Mercifully, it worked.
This is not about you, he told himself firmly. You can cry about it later. For now, you’ve got to hold it together.
‘Hi Dad,’ he said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. He didn’t ask how his father was doing today. To do so would have been ridiculous, like enquiring about the weather while looking out of the window at a torrential downpour.
‘I was at the Mill House this morning,’ said George, his expression wistful.
‘Yes. I was running around for hours. They were all there.’
‘Who was there, Dad?’
‘All my old friends from school. Nick and Harry and Joel. Some of my teachers as well.’
‘Yes. I saw Mr Mills and Miss Munford. They were playing in the ball pit.’
‘That sounds like fun.’
Afterwards, Zach would wonder how on earth he managed to keep talking when everything inside him was coming undone. A large hook seemed to have snagged somewhere in his chest, and was now being jerked back and forth to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. Of course, all the people his father had mentioned were already dead. Most had been dead for several years.
‘I saw your Mum too.’
It was strange. George was the one nearing the end of his life, and yet in that moment, it was Zach who felt his soul detach itself from his body and flit off elsewhere. Had it remained, the conversation would simply have been too painful. Better for it to go, leaving him with a curious hollow feeling in his abdomen.
‘Oh yes? What did she say?’
‘Lots of things.’
George pushed himself up a little on his pillows. If he was going to tell the story, he wanted to do it properly. That meant sitting up as straight as he could manage, folding his hands neatly in his lap (a little tricky owing to the cannula and pulse monitor) and looking his audience directly in the eye.
He talked with an eloquence that belied his deteriorating condition. He told Zach everything. How he had arrived at the entrance to the tunnel on the top floor and stuck his head in to check there was no one coming the other way. No one was, but something caught his attention up ahead: a whip of dark brown hair vanishing around the corner at the other end of the tunnel. It was visible for less than a second, but he knew, instinctively and unequivocally, that it was her. He scrambled through the tunnel, hoping she hadn’t gone far, and she hadn’t. She was waiting for him round the very next corner.
‘I was wondering when you’d show up,’ Anna said, treating him to one of her radiant smiles. She looked as she did back when they first met, when they were eighteen and had just started university. Wavy brown hair hanging loose down her back, large hazel eyes and a smattering of freckles. She was wearing her old playsuit-the red one covered in tiny white stars that he had loved so much. It showed off her long, slim legs, the product of many years of cross country running.
‘Have you been through the rollers yet?’ she asked, leaning against the wall with one foot crossed behind the other.
‘Not yet. Have you?’
‘Is it scary?’
‘Not at all.’
‘What’s on the other side?’
‘Another play area, even better than this one.’
He thought about it for a moment, taking the opportunity to study his wife’s face. The arch of her eyebrows, the jut of her cheekbones, the curve of her button nose. She had always been pretty, but there was something indescribably precious about seeing her as she was in the beginning.
‘Do you think I should go through them?’ he asked at length. ‘Through the rollers I mean?’
‘When you’re ready,’ she replied, ‘but not before.’
‘And will you be there? On the other side?’
‘Of course. We all will.’
He nodded, infinitely comforted by her words. There was more he wanted to say to her-so much more- but now didn’t seem the right time. So instead he reached out and stroked one of those long brown tresses, trailing its silken length between his fingertips. She watched him, and it seemed to George that there was candlelight burning behind her eyes. When his fingers reached the end of her hair, she leaned forward and planted a single, delicate kiss in the centre of his forehead. And then she was gone.
How is he?
Emilia didn’t say it. Not this time. Months later she would tell Zach that she had known straight away. That the tone of the phone’s vibration sounded different somehow, as if the device itself was warning her of what was to come. She didn’t even say hello. All she said was, ‘He’s gone through the rollers, hasn’t he?’
‘In the early hours of this morning.’
‘Oh Zachy, I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, you let me know.’
‘Thanks, Em, I will do.’
Zach was about to hang up when she said something else. Something he would continue to mull over long into the night, and many nights thereafter.
‘I hope he was right. It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? If, in the run up to your death, your mind takes you back to your favourite childhood playground? If dying is just one long, uninterrupted playing session, and at the end of it, you brave an obstacle you never had the guts to face before. I hope it is actually like that.’
It was a comforting thought-the idea that the mind of a dying person could transcend the pain of physical deterioration, and revert instead to a time of childlike joy and wonder. Zach may never have seen the Mill House in real life, but through listening to his father’s stories, he felt as if he knew it well, as if he too had been there multiple times. George’s earthly body may have been confined to a hospital bed during his final days, but his mind most certainly had not been. Knowing this would bring Zach enormous solace over the coming weeks and months. And if George was right, and death really was just one big playground, then it really didn’t sound that bad.