When I was a very small child I loved balloons. What very small child doesn’t? Well, for me that all changed very suddenly one fateful day.
Growing up in the country, and being too young to frolic in haystacks for weekend entertainment, my parents took me and my sisters to a country fair. We piled into the car with glee and filled the vehicle with excited chatter and out of tune nursery rhymes as we trundled through tiny country roads, flanked by hedgerows bursting with unruly floral summer tributes and abandoned porn magazines that taught the local children what the older generations got up to in haystacks. The sun was smiling and the day, like our lives, was full of promise.
We arrived at the country fair gates and while Mother fussed with our picnic basket filled with cheese sandwiches and Capri Sun pouches nestled against melting ice packs, Father paid the jolly gatekeeper a crisp five pound note to grant us entry into the hullabaloo of pastoral delights. Our eyes and ears couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of motion and spectacle and widened with glee, while our noses wished they were less quick to take in all that nature and a field full of excitable farm animals could produce. A shady parking spot was secured and we were free to explore this vast field of marquees and make-shift animal pens.
Having grown up surrounded by our own menagerie of beasts, we were not likely to be impressed by any common-or-garden dog or pig, but imagine a wondrous place where all the largest, sleekest, proudest creatures came to prance and stomp, showboating wildly for all to admire – which people did from a safe distance and with half an eye on the ground for rogue cow pats. Mother had to sprout extra eyes as we wildly dashed to pet flared-nostrilled bullocks that towered menacingly above our naive forms, and promises of a trip to the craft fair for a prize and a whirl on the merry-go-round were all that could tear us away from gawping at the curly horned sheep that emitted the loudest farts.
The craft fair tent was hot and stuffy, with the sweet smell of straw that formed a semi-civilised carpet. Each trader beaming a warm smile as we toyed and fingered the trinkets they had lovingly carved and woven. Every table promised a new and fascinating treasure that we simply couldn’t live without – until we saw the next table, and the next and the next! Wooden gnomes painted red, blue and yellow, silk scarves with tiny bumblebees sewn along the edge, solemn-faced owls formed entirely from shimmering sea shells; we wanted them all and couldn’t understand why mother kept denying us each superfluous nick and over-priced nack.
All the treasures of the craft tent paled into insignificance when outside in the bright summer sun, the balloon man ambled into view, loudly boasting his trade and clutching more strings than you’d find in an empathetic heart. High above his head were bright bouncy orbs of pure joy in every colour imaginable, including your favourite. My sisters and I had been good, we must have been very, very good, or nagged with needlepoint accuracy, for Mother and Father concurred, we were to be allowed a balloon each. I didn’t need a minute to choose, I wanted that one right there, the blue one near the top, the shiniest, plumpest of all the blue balloons. My heart soared with elation as I tightly clung to the string and gazed skyward adoringly at my very own balloon. How happy I was!
Still mesmerised by my little sky orb of joy bobbling above me, and most probably stepping in every sheep dropping and cow pat within range, I followed my clan back to our car, to sit in the shade of an accommodating tree and tuck in to our feast of sweaty sandwiches and Monster Munch. The sickly sweet orange juice drink quenching our dusty throats and reviving our weary limbs as we braced ourselves for round two of the excitement and buzz of this rustic country gathering. I barely noticed the musty smell of sweaty cattle or the yapping of an over-excited dog tied to a nearby fence, in fact, all the world could have been trampled under horse’s hooves for all I cared, for everything important to me lay right at the end of the string tied to my tiny wrist.
Father wanted to talk to other rugged grown up men about boring rugged grown up things (possibly which were the best hedgerows to discard old porno mags) and so Mother took us to ride the merry-go-round and point at more flatulent ovines. Mother, that most trusted of all beings, was allowed to hold tightly to my blue balloon as I watched it with eagle eyes from the fairground ride. My sisters’ laughter and whoops of glee mixed with the jolly organ pipes as we sat atop ornate wooden horses, galloping through the afternoon, not a care in the world. Well, I had a care, I had a blue balloon.
The ride finished and I was reunited with my prized sky trophy and clutched the string in my sweaty little paw as we set off through the maze of welly boot-clad legs and vintage farm machinery and that’s when it happened. Somehow my mind must have wandered to the highly polished giant claws of a 1950’s tractor, or I must have been jostled by a cider-sozzled farmhand. Maybe my hand had grown weak from lack of ice-cream, but it happened. The string slipped from my clutch and I stood helpless and slack jawed as my precious blue balloon sailed slowly away from me. I cried out with alarm, begging and pleading my sisters to use their superior age and height to catch it for me but they just laughed. I tugged at Mothers’ jeans, begging her to reach up and pluck it down for me but she refused, rushing us to return to the car in order to beat the fast-forming queue of departing traffic.
I leapt, I jumped as high as I could, reaching my arms up as tall as I could, willing them to grow just an extra few inches. Surely if I could still see the end of my balloon’s string, I could reach it. As hot tears streamed down my ruddy cheeks I willed my useless human body to levitate, to fly after that diminishing blue blob in the clouds and catch it, hold it close to me and never let go. I couldn’t. It was lost forever and my nearest and dearest, those who I trusted to kiss-and-make-it-better had failed to defy gravity’s cruel hit and run.
I tearfully followed my sisters’, each still proudly toting their own colourful balloon back to the car, where I ran into Father’s arms, begging for him to rectify the horror that had befallen me, but he too was more concerned with the journey home and assured me that even if there were time, the balloon man was long gone, done with peddling his wares so a replacement could not be got.
There I sat in the back of the car, weeping inconsolably, gazing out the rear window into the sky, hoping that somehow my balloon would float into view and follow us home. One of my sisters offered me the use of her balloon in a kindly gesture aimed at consoling me (or stopping the inane whining coming from beneath the veil of snot) but alas, it was too late and my day of summer sun, picnic, brightly painted wooden gnomes and flatulent best-of-breed Jacobs was ruined, all because of the loss of my beautiful blue balloon.
You see, what we hold dear as simple instruments of childhood amusement are nothing but little bubbles of disappointment that ultimately float away or burst in your face. Is this a metaphor for life? Is it a cautionary tale of childhood innocence lost and of harsh lessons learned? Is it a tale of how I came to know human fallibility? No, it’s just the reason I hate balloons.