Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Balloonist in Enemy Land

The balloon's buoyant red and yellow stripes began to slowly wilt, whereas only moments ago it had cast a pleasing shade over the terrain beneath. A flock of blackbirds with talons as razor-sharp as hunting knives had attacked with warbled cries, leaving small puncture wounds and a defeated balloonist. Here was a guy who considered himself a friend to all nature, but the nature here had made their feelings quite clear.
It was only right that he should feel dejected. How easy and quick it was to make enemies here, to be unwanted. In other lands, he'd always been welcomed; the sight of a hot air balloon brought peoples out and there would be dancing in traditional costumes, but the likelihood of that happening here was remote.
He searched the basket's floor for his telescope, extended it as far as he could and put it to his favoured eye. He must try to steer the balloon to a spot where it could land. The scenery was lush and reminded him very much of the Surrey Hills in all its spring glory, except the lay of the land was a little flatter and not as craggy. He spied what appeared to be a some sort of viewing platform, which was overhung by a clump of umbrella-shaped trees; he couldn't see any branches or leaves, just a smooth capped top, but as the injured balloon was sliding gracefully in this direction, he decided it would be the best place to touch down.
He adjusted the solid-fuel brazier, still helping to keep the balloon somewhat afloat, to aid the emergency landing. The balloon dropped even more from the position it held in the white cloud-filled sky, steadily lowering until it dangled above what turned out to be gigantic fungi trees. The basket bounced off their velvety domes, swung a little wide like a clock's pendulum and landed with a bump on what looked to be tarmacked ground, whereupon it toppled over and the balloonist found himself sprawled on a surprisingly firm, yet squishy surface. The cracks oozed a gooey blackness like how you expect to find the inside of a chocolate fondant if done perfectly, but it didn't smell of tar; he sniffed his palm and licked it – it was cherry with just a hint of sourness - which sent the receptors on his tongue into overdrive.
Now wild for cherry jam, he turned into a jabbering man and hunted for a tool to dig with, halting only when he heard an orchestra of car alarms and the rhythmic march of feet. This army, if indeed that was what was coming, sounded terrifying; the boots and alarms pierced his skull like nails being drilled into his head.
He sprang into a different sort of action: he righted the basket, climbed in, scrunched himself up and peered over its edge, but to his horror he saw the spongelike ground had betrayed him and it was far too late to cover his hand, knee, foot, and body prints or dive behind a mushroom for the green foliage ahead was visibly shaking.
A hundred-plus grey squirrels wearing spiky black helmets marched as a disciplined band; their eyes flashing a dangerous red, their front and hind legs keeping time with the ringing alarms. They lined up on their hind legs ten to a row – five on the right, five on the left, leaving a centre aisle – and awaited further instructions; unmoving, their flashing eyes died and the alarms were silenced. The balloonist by this point had broken out in a cold sweat, and the eerie calm that now descended did nothing to alleviate his fears.
There was a toot of a horn and a tiny car rolled up the centre aisle as smooth as a marble or metal ball bearing. It locked its wheels by braking too late and pulled up with a screech to face the grey squirrel army. Unperturbed, they shuffled to the left, then to the right and twice saluted their general. The car driver's window slid down and a high-pitched voice like that of a flea boomed out, “Okay boys, let him have it!” About eighty squirrels charged, snipped the deflated balloon from its basket with their pointed teeth and fastened it to an enormous sycamore propeller which they wound with fifteen quick twists and let go. The basket shot up and across the foreign sky with the cherry-stained flyer's last ever cry: GERONIMO!

Picture credit: Peter Francis