The balloon was nothing more than an experiment to me. A ribald joke on the inhabitants of a town I never liked, nor trusted, nor felt a part of. I suppose that is what it was. It was a metaphysical something, a clichéd statement born out of amphetamine and tepid water. It was an empty folly and a hopeless gesture, loved in quarters and hated in others, held up for ridicule in Sussex and dismissed as hearsay in counties but a carriage ride away. I do not refute its ownership, I do not deny it belonged to me, but I do not speak of it with pride.
The notion came to me in the Fen Country. The night-times are truly black there and no oil lamp light or night nurses, measuring temperature and heartbeats, will convince you otherwise. Even with a bitch of a gale whistling down from some of the lesser known peaks, the evening stars are always visible. A free spectacle, a million tiny bulbs kept in order by a man with too much time on his hands. The Great Bear and Pleiades, I could see those alignments, plotted beautifully, placed with concentration and consideration, like a course plotted by a celestial commodore to the other side of here and there.
I dreamt of consistent spectacle, not spectacle dependent on the time of day or the paths of cloud, but a spectacle pinned on me and remembered through me, brief though, like an eclipse, yet unbroken in its beauty. Something better than the heavens.
Once inflated, the balloon, twenty miles across, expanded eastwards from Tetbury towards the Norfolk coast. Gently lifting off the slate rooftops on which it had rested for a good twenty-four hours, the balloon gathered in shape, taking breaths of the dewy morning air to power its ascent, diving and rising, leaping with greater confidence as its body was assumed, until, after an hour or so, it blocked out the new day’s sun. Then I ordered it stopped. And the Moroccan builders, who I had rounded up from a Calais seaport the previous Tuesday to assist with the logistics of the project, were happy to oblige. They had been paid several dinars each for their services and had been given permission to set up a small tent village near Valley Forge. Raucous frivolity and Moroccan music could be heard throughout the midnight hours, but there was nothing that could be done about it.
The balloon was kept in position by thirty iron chains, rooted in the ground at particular angles, so as to keep it tethered to the earth, but not to restrict its movements too much, or drag it downwards. From time to time I would walk around the edge of the balloon’s shadow and inspect the metalwork to ensure it was maintaining its grasp. The chains would soon become attractions in their own right, as the people’s only connection to the balloon itself. Messages would be left pinned to them, with questions or prayers, or requests for heavenly intervention. Every now and then I would see a girl, all of twenty, or less, early in the mornings, blonde and lovely, barefoot and brave, dancing around a chain in the silence, a hand outstretched towards the metalwork, links she had decorated in ribbons and wild flowers picked freshly, just minutes before, from Sudeley Dell, a chain transformed into a post holocaust maypole. I stopped for a moment, wrapped by the beautiful turns of her body. I am not too sure of her circumstances, but I think she missed the balloon after its departure.
Every now and then, a man or a woman, desperate to see the sky again unblemished, would rush towards the metal chains and attempt to hack away at them with axes and mechanical cutters. In such a case I would dispatch a gang of my Moroccan builders, still at camp in Valley Forge, to restrain the offenders and gently remind them that the spectacle they disapproved of so was done in love and nothing worse, and they were quickly returned to their senses.
The sun still shone through the balloon, giving a lovely grainy light, suspending the valley in a constant dusk. The street lights burned through the day and working hours were cut short by benevolent employers, so people could enjoy the refracted sunsets, the brilliant burning red, turned blue and green and vibrant turquoise by the differing shades of material sowed into the balloon’s fabric, reacting to the sunlight and the curvature of the earth.
The world went on, but the day seemed different, the clock meant as much to people as ever, if not more, but people looked up much more often and considered the mystery behind their existence a little more than usual. The sky was missed, the deep blue of a summer sky, like the ocean upturned, was missed, although shadows of clouds could still be picked out when the day was especially bright, like silhouetted figures, their cut-outs passing across the grafted skin.
Although the rain no longer fell, it still made itself heard, more so than usual, pounding upon the fabric and echoing through the helium filled chasm to the world beneath, as if some brazen farmer had taken to the roof and begun casting seeds across the cloth, in a vain attempt to sow a heavenly field. The rain would trickle down the skin to the edges and sheet off, creating vast, glassy waterfalls, curtains of water, hemming in the covered land totally and creating flat, laser-like rainbows which darted through forests and towns like colourful bars of seaside rock. Children would run through them and jump over them and stand in them and embrace all the colours and feel the coloured air and cup the colours in their hands, until the rain stopped and the rainbow bars receded to the edges agai and quietness was returned.
Bird song was constant, the one-time morning chorus stretching long into the late afternoon. Birds trailed the outline of the balloon, bristling their feathers against the material, as if to pay homage to the great lumbering creation, which had stayed so steady in the face of nature herself, and limited them, however briefly, to the lower echelons of the atmosphere.
At night-time the balloon could appear unsettling, a dark mass hanging in the sky. So between the hours of seven and twelve I ordered it flood-lit, bathed in a creamy light, a moon-like light, a gentle warm light, which people could gather under and feel settled. And people did gather, to sing and to strum acoustic guitars and to hold each other and to eat and drink with each other, under the balloon, and feel enveloped in its temporary aura. On nights when it was warm but rainy, the balloon protected them, and on nights when it was cool, the balloon insulated the heat from the homes and the factories and the places of business and kept the night time warm, despite the turning of the season from summer to autumn. Some would project pictures onto the skin, beautiful pictures of people and places that made them feel happy, and I would feel happy too.
Standing on Sudeley Hill I would look at the scene, outwards towards the shires and fells, the villages and farms which comprise this land of ours, and all the spires of England would seem to pierce it underneath and test its strength, yet still nothing broke the skin. “Oh rancid communion!” I would say to myself, “I will not tie my future grace to any one man nor to a distant kingdom, only to this green grass beneath my feet and to your sweet eyes, if ever they should return to me and if they do,” I would say, “I will free the sunshine, free the sky, to anyone or any country seat who wishes to use it for a better purpose than I.”
I was never fundamentally disconnected when the balloon was out of my eye-line. The opinions of others mattered little. I was only interested in the health of the balloon and the report I received every morning about its current structural integrity. If a tear was spotted as the balloon aged, it was fixed quickly, by inflating a second smaller balloon, with two skilled “patchers” as they were labelled, occupying a wicker basket underneath it and reaching out with needles and thread, to fix the tear when they approached.
I accompanied them once on this trip. The balloon seemed to whimper at the cut, to shake and to cry out, yet the “patchers” rectified the problem with care. I reached out with them, the three of us leaning out of the wicker basket, hundreds of feet in the air, looking from afar, no doubt, like a half hearted suicide pact. I touched it, I reached my hand out and I touched it, and the balloon felt warm and alive and real. I pushed and I pushed and my hand stayed gently pressed against the flesh, palm out stretched, fingers pointing. We were connected again, the shadowed land below, the blocked out atmosphere above and us in between. I had created it, and put it there, and it had stayed there for me, out of loyalty and love, unproven in fact or word , but physically tested and certainly resilient. I wished it luck, silently of course, and a steady and solitary few days in the heavens. I pulled the cord and the flame burned harshly and we descended, and my eyes remained skywards and fixed as we did.
I told her this was all for her, a subversive manifestation, something more than sky, more than a mere statement or a token, but a literal and real reflection of the effect she had had on my emotional life. If the people under the balloon woke and thought first, and only, of the balloon in the opening seconds of consciousness, then the balloon was doing its job. If they cursed it for stealing the sunshine one moment and then confessed a secret adoration for it when seen in a particular light or on a particular day, then, the balloon was doing its job. The balloon was always there, in the eye line, in the back of the mind, just as she had been in my eye line and at the back of my mind, for years. If it provoked debate and the racking of brains and the emotional exhaustion which comes only with over thinking, when words begin to lose their meaning and confusion ensues, then the balloon was doing its job.
She was ill impressed, she was difficult to impress, she didn’t get it, and struggled with the concept. I took her to Sudeley Hill, to view it from the outside in. There was a man there too, a painter, with an easel and a canvas and a jam jar full of cloudy blue water. He told me that what he saw was an oil painters dream, a principled and refined attempt at physical emotional articulation.
I remember, he wondered, “Who could it be for?” Before putting down his tools for a moment and taking in the air. I broke into a wry smile and shouted to him, “It’s for her you know!”
She didn’t even look up and the oil painter laughed, “I doubt it,” he yelled back.
The painter told me that he had rode through every town under the balloon’s shadow and had not seen a single smashed window, a single sign of unrest, only people continuing with their lives in order and tranquillity. But, he added, the words on everyone’s lips were not the talk of the week or the talk of the town, but words only concerning the balloon and how they were going to spend an evening under its watch. Then he wondered aloud again, “Was this true love, or simply novelty?”
Sooner or later, he predicted, someone was going to raise the thought of bringing it down and the talk would spread, he claimed, and swell and wagers would be taken and books opened in country taprooms on how long the balloon would continue to live. And lonely men and fathers and people with gainful skills, would gather in workshops and garages and front rooms with paper and markers and start to plot their own attempt on the balloon’s existence, a public lynching in the crafting, in all but name.
And the sorry days dawn would break, and with the rising sun would come a hundred, or more, homemade craft, crate paper airplanes and nautical vessels adapted with boosters and cranes, monstrosities of balsa wood and string, rented wings and military gliders, filled to the brim with men and boys, armed with pick axes and air rifles, lances and knifes, who would proceed to hack and pull and fight and scratch, until suddenly the balloon would give and a man would raise his arms in glee and claim he was the one who had killed the balloon. And then another, and then another, and then another would do the same in similar triumph.
The anecdotes would form and spread on the say-so of the so called tanked-up witnesses, the tales of heroism and grit, and the story would become the death and not the life, and the poetry and the beauty would dilute from the collective memory. The balloon would be hacked to pieces and people would walk around with snatches of its flesh hung around their necks on golden chains, like cherished handkerchiefs dipped in the blood of a dethroned monarch.
I went around personally, alone, to cut every cord and free the balloon from its temporary berth. With one chain left it pointed upwards, as if half weighted down to earth, in two minds as to whether stationary death and something to hold onto would far outweigh eternity in the sky. I drew my arms back and began to hack away and as the final strands and coils of silvery metal tore in two, the balloon hovered a while and then, gracefully, began to rise upwards, slowly at first and then faster and faster as it was carried away on the wind, erasing the streams of jet planes as it rose. And suddenly the sunlight poured through and retook its rightful place, as if the particles of light were bearing the balloon upwards upon their glittery shoulders, upwards towards the sun, to face the fiery giant it had tempered for so long, to look it in the eye, to face down its strength, to be pulled in by its power and then finally melted down, after inevitable submission, as punishment for dulling its heavenly majesty.
The people cheered the balloon’s departure and yelled and launched fireworks and shouted abuse and celebrated long into the night, forgetting the momentary joys it had provided for some. I stood an hour or so and watched it disappear into the sky, and wished it free and wished it safe and wished it home.