A few months ago I met an old man standing in a clearing of the park. He was gray and withered, like a tree that has been overturned by flood waters. He spoke to himself, looking at the sky. And as I listened, he seemed to perceive me, and told me a story that, well, I will let you decide what you think of it. I have written it down here in hopes to preserve some memory of a time which has all but faded away into obscurity. Some of his soliloquy was unclear, so I have included my best estimations of the scenes he described. Perhaps someday this mystery can still be resolved, and the fantastic claims of a lonely old man can finally be reconciled.
The Hot Air Balloon
A soft rain pattered on the cobblestones. Motor cars and horse drawn carriages splashed through the shallow collections of water in street. An old man was rambling on the damp grass. I stopped, and I listened.
“A storm at sea. Can always tell. It was so clear. So sparkling. But there's a storm today.”
Twenty minutes after eight. The day of the balloon. The sun is shining brightly. It glows through the yellow fabric of the great hot air balloon, illuminating the Adventurer. He is dressed in an African safari suit, with tall boots and a pair of aviator goggles shoved up over his hair, which curls dark and wild around his head.
“Today is the day I will fly over the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to South America!”
Cheers and applause from the crowd. A young assistant climbs into the balloon carrying suitcases, and the last of the supplies. He is dressed like a young English gentleman. His tweed breaches are tucked into the ends of his stockings, and his cap is pulled low over his eyes, while the baggy coat is blown stiffly in the light wind.
“I will sail through the clouds, explore the unknown lands, and return with artifacts of great scientific and archaeological worth!” - Never been done before.- “A feet of engineering, and human intellect!”
The sun has risen high in the sky, and the Adventurer finally shakes the last hand from inside his balloon. A champagne bottle is broken, and the balloon is released into the air. The crowd watches for a while, but soon everyday life must continue, and the crowd evaporates like spilled water on a hot summer day.
“Ah! This is the way to spend a lifetime! In prestige and adoration of one's colleagues! What, don't you think so Cedric?” No answer. A pair of dark eyes peer out from beneath the cap, considering the Adventurer thoughtfully. The wind rustles the fabric of the balloon, and threatens to snatch
's hat, which he adeptly prevents with one hand held onto his head while he continues to handle the mechanics of the balloon.
“Yes, yes, yes. A beautiful day! Take good note of it Cedric. This is how you have an adventure!” The Adventurer leans back, closing his eyes, and lets the wind whip in his hair. They are far above now. Far above the tiny island. The gaping waters swallow it up, leaving only a speck of dark, to show that, indeed, somewhere down there is London, and its buildings and Operas and people. Somewhere down there is the puddle left over from a broken bottle of champagne, soaking into the ground for the bugs to feed on.
The wind has gotten quite strong now, and the sky has gotten darker. The little ropes and streamers hanging down the side of the balloon are thrown about in the wind, and Cedric's hat has retreated to his oversized pockets. The flame flickers.
A storm has broken out. The harsh winds throw the balloon, which now seems small and insignificant amongst the vastness of the raging sky. In amongst the clouds it is but a tiny puff of air, not much different than the clouds which are being blown to mist all around. Inside, the Adventurer and Cedric are braced against the sides of the basket, and cling to the ropes helplessly.
The balloon no longer floats upward of its own volition, but is being heaved and tossed higher and higher by the violent thrusts of nature. The air becomes thinner and thinner as the balloon is swept upward with the current. And the Adventurer and Cedric, in danger of falling from the torrenting balloon, begin to lose consciousness.
There are basically three layers of sky that we know of today. The lowest layer, is the space just above sea level. The second space is the cloud layer. Human eyes and technology have not, so far, been able to see through the cloud layer to really discover what is beyond. But the third it is believed, must be some sort of empty space where heaven and the stars are. This is only partially wrong.
As Cedric and the Adventurer, were just beginning to drift off into a thoughtless sleep, suddenly, the air was breathable again. They had emerged from the cloud layer-upside down.
The flame is out. The balloon falls into the ocean. Or the sky? The earth has seemed to flip, and water has soaked the fabric of the balloon, and the safari outfit of the Adventurer.
“Cedric! Grab the case!” he shouts, sputtering up from the surface.
Cedric, who resembles a wet cat in the water, skulks to grab a floating case on the surface of the water.
“Well! That was unexpected! I say, what are those shiny bits down in the water? They really are something, quite attractive you know...”
Under the gently pushing waves, bright glowing objects can be seen shimmering somewhere in the depths. The basket of the balloon is still floating on the surface. Cedric and the Adventurer were apparently adept swimmers. The Adventurer seems preoccupied with the glowing objects below the surface. They seem to call to him, uttering his name in sweet familiar voices.
Cedric feels no such connection, however. The Adventurer tries to swim down, and reach the glowing objects, but Cedric grabs him by the shirt collar and pulls him up. Cedric was apparently an extremely adept swimmer. In the distance, a small shadow on the sky line can be seen. Cedric pulls the Adventurer with him, and the tide helps to push them towards their destination, the Island.
I returned to the park the next afternoon. My curiosity at the old man compelled me to listen again to his story, and make sense of his ramblings. When I arrived I found the remnants of some sort of scandal. Police officers were stomping about inspecting things. One was taping off a large platform near the center of the park, and some others were interrogating some rather exhausted but talkative witnesses. Evidence remained of some sort of altercation. One young man in a white suit was nursing a black eye, and there was a disgruntled looking farmer dramatically retelling how he “would 'ave 'ad, if it weren't fer that damned left shoulder” of his.
Among the characters was a business gentlemen of about sixty, wearing a hat that was pulled low over his eyes, and carrying a briefcase with the initials “C. F.” He was talking in a low voice to another reserved gentleman of venerable age.
“He always was a disturbed man. Ever since that blasted bout of Malaria, he's been going on about women in the sky and dead people in the ocean. He should have been put away years ago, if anyone had had the heart to do it.”
“Hm. Indeed he was an eccentric old chap wasn't he? Something like this was bound to happen eventually.”
The business gentleman nodded looking out beneath the rim of his top hat at the empty platform in the park. An expensive looking car pulled up, and an unseen hand opened one of the doors for the two gentlemen. As they began to get in, I stopped them and asked the business man a question. He looked at me briefly, then gracefully sat down in the car.
“Ah. Yes.” His partner answered for him. “Funny old thing that. Seems some lunatic stole a sport balloon and went gallivanting off into the sky. Can't imagine what was going through his head, poor old goat. Well, I suppose that's the end of that drama.”
I asked him what he meant.
“Well, the poor chap has been certifiably insane for years. He was rather damaged after an unsuccessful trip by balloon to south America. They wouldn't have made it back at all if it weren't for Mr. Fullinhammer, and that freighter. I'm afraid he was quite preoccupied with the idea of islands in the sky, and well I suppose he never quite got her out of his head. Good day.”
He smiled pleasantly, and signaled the driver to leave. As the car splashed slowly through left over puddles on the road, I caught a glimpse of dark eyes glistening under the low brim of a hat through the window, before the car turned its back to me, and joined the traffic of the main road.
The police were still busying themselves with witnesses in the park, as I strolled through the leftover people, who were still clinging on to the last shreds of excitement, before continuing with their everyday lives. The sun was shining through the clouds welcomingly, as if greeting an old friend. Perhaps it missed the sight of dear old England, that little blot of land on the great vast ocean, or perhaps it really was reunited with a friend that day. I cannot say. I am only a small man in a huge sea of lovers, but I do think, that, perhaps, as I looked up at that sky, I saw the glow of sunlight through yellow fabric, and a tiny balloon with the flame blown out, being thrust upward through the clouds by the very arms of nature herself.
The sun on the ocean. The smell of salt on the waves. The shining objects in the depths, and the call of familiar voices. Her voice. Finally. Finally.