I was standing in front of the Rocket, just like twenty years ago. It welcomed me with its three vibrant colours - blue for the sky, yellow for the sun, and red, the meaning of which my friends and I pondered endlessly as children. Although as bright as I remember them, the paints were now cracked, sharing the limbs of the Rocket with rust, which took hold of the ladders and frames we used for swinging around in our imaginary starry space. A ray of sun sat on the spire and I peered up, shielding my eyes; the highest frame, that hosted the pilot’s cabin where a shy quiet girl used to sit for hours and gaze into the sky, was still red as flame.
My old kindergarten in the sleepy neighbourhood of Riga was now completely silent. It was around midday - bedtime for the youngsters, and I thought I could hear the creamy walls and the playground outside them breathe peacefully, slumbering together with the kids. All around me were other climbing frames. Some looked like boats, painted in turquoise and gold, that could easily take ten of us on a voyage, perched on the metal mast and sails. Others were cars, with orange wheels and red roofs, that could carry five to ten kids, depending on whether you wanted to bring a cardboard suitcase along. Surrounding the middle of the yard were pits of coarse sand, which we loved to play in, especially after rain, when it would become much more malleable. I remember leaving a big blue bucket out to collect the rain water and afterwards mixing it with the sand. I would then streak the mixture onto the castles other kids built, decorating them with ornaments.
Beyond the sandpit circle stood four wooden gazebos, each with three sturdy walls, that sheltered us in winter. There we would pretend to light a fire that a wilful Baltic blizzard couldn’t put out, and lay down plates of snowballs around it, imagining we were on a picnic thousands of miles away, in a land where winters were mellow and people spoke a strange language and drank lots of tea. At least that’s what I was thinking.
On this warm spring day I felt at home in the kindergarten yard, among the oaks and chestnuts, now lush and green, whispering stories to each other in the warm breeze. My new yellow shoes, sprinkled with sand, jeans with batik patches and a pendant in the shape of a sun looked like they belonged in the same time and place as the bright cars and boats. It occurred to me that my love affair with vivid colours had probably started right here, when I was half as tall.
Behind me the rusty gate creaked and an elderly woman in a brown woolen coat entered the playground. Behind her a slim boy in a black hoodie and torn jeans slid into the yard on a bumped and scratched skateboard, narrowly missing the heavy gate shutting in his face and having his board snapped in two. The old lady frowned at him:
‘Will you look where you’re going?!’
The boy's lips tightened. He gently picked up the board, as though it was a kitten or a puppy, turned it horizontally and carrying it at his side, headed to the middle of the yard, keeping his head low. The silver-haired lady came up the steps and went into the quiet building without acknowledging me.
The boy noticed me at the Rocket and stopped abruptly about five feet away. The board drifted from his hip to his stomach, its green wheels glaring at me. I smiled and raised a hand in a wave.
‘Hey there! Am I in your place?’
He shifted, shoulders slightly raised, casting a glance to the top of the Rocket.
‘Umm no, it’s not exactly mine, I just like to sit on it.’
The boy looked around the sleeping yard.
‘What are you doing here?’
I sat down on the lower frame and bumped my feet together, shaking off the sand.
‘I came to visit an old friend.’
‘And you?’ I attempted a reassuring smile again. ‘You got any siblings here?’
‘Yeah, my sister. My Gran always comes early - her friend works here. They chat until pick-up time.’
The noses of his black-and-red high top trainers started digging into the sand, excavating its cold layers, that the sun hadn’t touched. The boy looked determined to keep staring down.
‘My school starts in an hour and Gran won’t leave me alone at home. So I come with her and sit on the Rocket... Nice shoes.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, taking a step away, and motioned to the ladder. ‘Be my guest.’
A nervous smile darted through the boy’s face as he started climbing, cradling the board with one hand. I followed and we were soon sitting together at the top of the red frame, on the pilot’s seat, holding onto the spire in the middle. Dangling my feet in the air, with the breeze ruffling my hair, I squinted through the midday sun.
‘What’s your name then?’
‘Jan.’ He finally looked me in the eye and his cheeks blushed, warming his pale face. I pulled out the biggest smile I could manage.
‘People here knew me as Julija.’
Jan shifted a bit, keeping a grip on the red frame and the green board and looked around.
‘So... who did you come here to see?’
My pendant caught a ray of sun and refracted a few colourful glimmers onto Jan’s ripped jeans.
‘Myself, twenty years ago.’
Jan cocked his head, fluffy with chestnut curls. Smiling at the lights dancing on his lap, he stretched out the hand that rested on the spire and they jumped up on his palm, making him blink.
‘You went to this kindergarten?’
I nodded, observing a seagull poking its head curiously through the half-open kitchen window, looking for scraps.
‘Why did you need to come back?..’
A gust of wind from the sea tore through the yard, coming from the other side of town, where the River Daugava carried its waters out into the Baltic Sea. This salty wind, mixed with sun, whose touch I had all but forgotten, still carried something important I once entrusted to it. Ten years ago, on a warm summer night, lit by bonfires, my classmates and I were sitting by the sea, each with a small square of paper and a pencil. The last bell had rung out for us at school and we were about to go our separate ways in life, but before we did we were writing a note to ourselves in the future, the single most important thing to remember. When all the notes were collected, our Head of Class put them in a bottle and hurled it to the sea, saying:
‘Try to remember what you wrote and when you can’t, come back here. You may well find your dreams washing out of the sea, like amber.’
‘So why did you come back?’
The wind died down and now I couldn’t smell the sea.
‘I came because I was beginning to forget some things that I want to remember.’
‘Like where I come from and where I’m going.’
Jan clutched the board again, scanning the top floor of the Rocket for glimmers of the sun, which hid behind a lone fluffy cloud, nudging its way across the sky like a lost sheep.
‘I don’t understand.’
I crossed my legs on the seat and lent back, feeling the cold frame digging into my back.
‘A lot of things happened since I sat here last and dreamed about what my life would be like, and not all of them were good.’ As I looked down I thought of the wedding rings Anthony and I left lying on the dining room table the morning I took the flight.
Jan perked up his head and suddenly let go of the board, shuffling closer to me, his green eyes fixing on mine. He opened his mouth with an intention to share a thought, but then changed his mind and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. A nervous spasm ran through the young face, sending chills through my skin. I waited. Eventually he dragged out:
‘Two years ago my mum left us and then my dad gave us to Gran to look after. He’s a sailor.’
I reached over the spire and squeezed his hand gently.
‘I am sorry for your loss. I remember it being hard when my dad died.’
Jan’s face turned away from the sun, still shadowed by the wandering cloud.
‘She didn’t die. She went away.’
He twitched lightly as the sentence escaped into the air between us, then cradled the board, crossed his legs and put his face on the flat side of it, his eyes pools of dark reeds. My hand reached out in his direction, but I pulled it back. He didn’t move, but kept staring down to the ground.
‘So it’s you, your sister and Gran.’
‘Yeah. And my board. I practice on it every day until it gets dark.’
He patted the skate board so lovingly that for the first time I found myself looking intently at it, rather than the boy. The board had been used often - its lime green belly was so scratched that it was hard to make out the logo printed on it. The metal shafts, onto which the wheels were fixed, had been reshaped by numerous tricks. And at both ends, where you could see the four layers that the board was made up of, two had been eroded.
I used to have things I adored this much as well; the yellow shoes I now wore were the second of their kind in my possession. I bought the first pair when I was seventeen, and they kept my feet on the ground throughout all my adventures. A smile banished the forming tears, as I remarked:
‘It’s a very good board. Where did you get it?’
Jan sat up, holding the board length-ways against his chest.
‘Mum got it for my eighth birthday.’
He looked remarkably like a boy soldier with a battered shield. I found his hands, wrapped around the board, and squeezed them gently.
‘How often do you see your dad?’
‘A few days every month. He cooks for us and even plaits Kira’s hair when he’s around. And he always brings something from the sea - last time he brought us this huge shell. I can always hear waves in it, really loud!’
The wayward cloud finally drifted beyond the horizon, leaving the bright blue sky entirely to the sun.
‘I wonder if your dad found an old bottle filled with pieces of paper,’ I chuckled.
‘Because one of those pieces is a note I wrote to myself. I always wondered whether I’d see it again.’
Jan’s grip on the board weakened for a moment and it fell down on the metal floor with a thud. He inquired, trying not to sound too eager:
‘What did the note say?’
As I was about to respond, a flock of seagulls lifted up from beyond the tall rooftops. They flew over the yard in perfect formation and were carried off on the wind together with tiny sea salt crystals.
‘It said “Don’t settle for less than your dreams”.’
Jan picked up the board and looked it over for new scratches.
‘Sounds like an easy thing to remember.’
‘Easy to remember, but not easy to do. You need to be brave.’
Jan climbed to the very top of the spire and, looking down, announced:
‘Dad says that being brave isn’t the same as not being scared. He says you are brave if you do something, even if you are afraid of it.’
‘Your dad’s right,’ I answered, watching his feet balance on the thin frame, in case I needed to catch him. Throwing his head back proudly, Jan demanded:
‘Then what’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?’
I didn’t have to think long.
‘I gave my wedding ring back to my husband.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Because I didn’t want to be with him anymore. But see, when he gave it to me seven years ago he also gave me a home, a child and everything else I had. So when I decided that my dream was elsewhere, I was scared that if I gave back the ring, he’d take everything else away too.’
‘Did he?’ Jan’s brows curled in a frown.
‘No,’ I smiled. ‘He was a perfect gentleman. Now, what’s your bravest deed?’
With shoulders pulled back, leaning on the Rocket precariously, Jan declared:
‘I got Kira out of the river when she was drowning.’
‘You’re braver than me, then,’ I smiled.
The bell rang inside the kindergarten and I heard the patter of bare feet, yelps and cheers behind the shut windows. Soon, the kids burst out of the doors. Paying no attention to us, they swarmed all over the Rocket, laughing and swinging off the wings. The cars vroomed and whooshed into a parallel reality, changing drivers whenever one child ran out of sound. The boats swung on the sandy waves, with pirates exchanging blows with cardboard swords across two yards of air. In the sandpits, castles and creatures were built, destroyed and made anew. The sun smiled and the wind was back from the sea. It caressed the kids’ heads, whispering dreams in their ears. And sitting atop the Rocket, I was glad the little girl that first thought that bravery was a good idea was still alive, right here. I thought she was proud of me.
I climbed down after Jan, who let me carry down the board. We stopped at the gate and as I glanced back I saw a girl swinging in the air, long dark hair escaping from a loose ponytail. She waved in Jan’s direction from the spire of the Rocket.
‘Kira looks a lot like you,’ he said, standing up on the skate board.
‘So she does,’ I had to agree. ‘I hope one day she’ll discover why the spire is painted red.’
‘Why is that?’ Jan asked, balancing on the board that began drifting away, but then stopped abruptly and turned to me with a triumphant expression. ‘Wait, I know! It’s for being brave, isn’t it?’
I nodded and ruffled his soft hair.
‘Goodbye, Jan,’ I said as he checked his watch, ’it was nice to meet you.’
‘And you. Bye.’
I waved, watching him scoot off towards the school. When he disappeared behind the corner, I turned to go the opposite way. A great chestnut, guarding the entrance to the kindergarten, moved its great boughs in the breeze and dropped a jagged green leaf in front of me. I picked it up and folded it between the pages of my notebook; then I went back to my hotel to pack for the three hour flight back to London.