It only took about fifteen minutes of walking along the road before they could see the balloon festival. It was not, as they had thought, a bunch of store brought latex pockets of helium waiting to be realised. Hovering above the tree tops were at least a dozen boldly coloured hot air balloons, heading for a nearby field to land in. This revitalised the girls’ spirit. They sped up, ready to race the balloons to the field.
A low breeze was almost unnoticeable around the roaring flame torches that heated the air in dozens of brightly coloured balloons around the girls. The sun bounced off the round edges and down to the grass. Between the fire and the sun, everywhere you walked was lit like a spotlight. It also choked you with the smell of propane gas.
That terribly, chemically, smell caught at the back of your throat and made your nose burn from the back. The girls were desperately grateful to the food-trucks that had come out to feed the drawn crowds. Scents of sizzling meat and half-burnt onion filled the air alongside the propane fuels. Neither smelt any good, but were more tolerable together. The only scents that tempted them, was that unmistakable, mouth-watering smell, of chips.
Ravi had to remind them all that they didn’t have the money to afford chips, and even if they did, Kelly had given them so much food they couldn’t possibly carry them too. Still, as they passed the trucks and the smell got stronger, their full stomachs tried their best to rumble. Not that they would have heard their stomachs if they had. After all, they were surrounded by crowds who were chattering loudly, with excitement, and balloons with roaring flames being navigated by a team that was split between ground and basket. To keep communication going, they were shouting between each other.
You don’t realise how astonishingly huge hot air balloons really are until you’re standing beside them. They towered over everyone. Some even out reached the trees. Where ever you looked, there were brightly coloured balloons. Scarlet, navy, bubble-gum, flamingo, lilac, mauve, emerald, and orange. Sometimes single coloured, and sometimes multi. One that really caught their eye was black, but had strips each colour of the rainbow along each bulge.
All the balloons had bulges. They were far less smooth than they appeared.
Tiana was taking pictures left right and centre. There wouldn’t be many more opportunities for photos like these in her life, so she grabbed this with both hands. As did everyone else. Snapchat and Instagram pictures were being taken all over. The only thing they could hear over everything was a pair of ballooners yelling. The closer they got, the louder they got.
“BRING IT DOWN FURTHER!”
“THROW THE ROPE!”
“YOU WONT CATCH IT UNTIL YOU’RE LOWER!”
“THIS IS WHY WE NEED JEAN!”
“I KNOW THAT!”
“NO NEED TO SNAP!”
One of them stepped backwards and hit into Simi who was in the way.
“Hey!” Simi yelled.
The balloonist glanced back. “Sorry kid.”
She was a ginger. Like, properly ginger. Like, so orange it was basically red. It was tied up in a long pony tail from the top of her head, to the base of her neck. She was muscled and strong and beautifully lean. Like a ballerina.
“What are you doing?” Tahati asked curiously.
“We’re packing to leave, but I can’t get high enough to get the rope to him, and he keeps getting blown higher by the wind,” She explained impatiently.
“Why don’t you climb on the car?” Tahati asked.
The woman frowned at her. “I can’t do that.”
“What if one of us did it?” Tahati indicated to the others behind her.
The woman glanced along the line, and then looked back down at Tahati.
“Well, Zangi’s tall but light as a feather. She wouldn’t hurt your car, and she could throw the rope from higher,” Tahati suggested.
The woman frowned. There was a long pause she held Tahati’s gaze that made Tahati shift uncomfortably.
Then the woman muttered, “That might work...”
“WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?!” The guy in the balloon yelled.
“JUST WAIT!” The woman yelled back.
Tahati waved over Zangi who, reluctantly, came. The woman flashed her a smile that died almost instantly.
“I’m Joan, that’s Sam,” she pointed to the basket of the balloon hovering above them. “You need to get up on the roof of my car, and throw this rope to Sam, so he can use it as a guide to get back down to the ground, do you understand?”
Zangi had been rather taken aback by the sudden responsibility thrust upon her. There was a very, very fast procession from Zangi standing on the ground, to Zangi stood on the roof of a blue seven seat car, clutching a rope with a hot air balloon attached to end, like a huge balloon on a string.
Fortunately Tiana was there to accidentally blind her with the flash of her camera. At least the moment was captured for her to remember.
As the balloon descended safely to the ground, Sam became close enough to be seen. He was about thirty and looked way older. He’d shaved his head (or burned it on the fire) but the ruff stubble was beginning to grow back. It was black and patchy. He faintly resembled a scrubbing brush.
Ravi side eyed Tahati. Tahati had similar coloured hair, and she didn’t like it being in her face either, hence the plait under her green hijab. Ravi couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Tahati shaved her head too.
Probably like a scrubbing brush; It already looked like a mop.
Sam’s eyes were covered by reflective sunglasses, so wherever he looked got reflected in his lenses. This was made apparent as he climbed out of the basket, and looked at each of the girls. Their faces looked back. When he turned his gaze to Zangi to take the rope, she wrinkled her nose. Was that really what her hair looked like right now?
“what?” Sam asked, confused by this girl’s sudden disgust.
Zangi’s eyes widened as she realised what she’d done. she felt hot as the blood rushed to her cheeks.
“Oh I – N- I – err,” she stammered.
Sam suddenly remembered his glasses, and took them off, revealing the greenest eyes Zangi had ever seen. She gulped. She could feel her face burning.
“I was checking my reflection in them,” Zangi told the roof.
Well she was looking at the roof anyway. Embarrassment would do that.
Whenever someone was standing on something that made them taller than Tiana (which wasn’t hard, she was five foot three) something in her said they needed a piggy back. Instinctively, Tiana stood in front of Zangi, with her back to her. Instinctively, Zangi climbed onto Tiana’s back so she could be carried. It was a subconscious decision and neither of them really knew why they had done it. Now though, Tiana could walk away from this strangely embarrassing situation, and take Zangi with her.
Sam frowned at both of them, with genuine concern.
“What’s the damage?” Joan asked.
“Just the one tear. It’s small, but too much exposure and it’ll grow,” Sam explained.
“I’ll get the sewing kit,” Joan said.
“Shouldn’t we let Jean do that?” Sam asked.
Joan twitched. It was time to come clean.
“Jean can’t get here till morning,” she explained.
Sam was furious. “What?! We have to wait here all night?!”
“it’s fine, we can repair and refuel and be ready to leave by dawn,” Joan insisted.
“will she be here by dawn?” Sam demanded.
Joan nodded. There was a hint of anger in her tone as she said, “she’ll be here tonight. But we can’t fly at night, remember?”
Sam just grumbled. Joan opened the door of the car, leaned in, and came back with a regular sewing kit, which took Simi by surprise.
“I didn’t know you could patch these with thread,” she said to no one in particular.
Joan shrugged, “it’s just nylon. Anyway, these are just temporary patches to keep her flying. Anything major needs a proper professional job.”
“I’m sure you can find someone like that around here, why don’t you?” Tahati asked.
Sam glanced at Joan. Joan gave him an apologetic look. She glared at them.
“what do you lot want?”
“money,” Tiana answered on reflex.
“what?” Sam asked.
“sorry, mistimed joke. We going then?” she asked Zangi.
Zangi was still on Tiana’s back. She didn’t want to leave just get.
“why can’t you fly at night?” Zangi asked.
Sam glared at her, irritated. “there’s a guy over there called Rob. See the sign?”
Immediately they glanced the way he was painting. There was a huge banner in front of one of the balloons that had “Rob: The Balloon Guy!” in rainbow letters written across it.
“he’s doing a demonstration with a Q&A. ask him,” Sam said.
“But I asked you,” Zangi said.
“so?” Sam asked rhetorically.
“so why can’t you fly at night?” Zangi repeated firmly.
She didn’t much care about the answer anymore. Really, she’d already thought about it and decided that, logically it had to be something to do with planes not being able to see them. Continuing to ask was really just because she was spiteful. Zangi had helped him. The least he could do was answer her questions.
Sam clenched his jaw and rolled his eyes at them.
“we can’t fly at night because we’re not insured to,” He explained, “happy now?”
Zangi was not. Zangi was stubborn. Zangi slid down from Tiana’s back to plant her feet firmly on the ground. Zangi was not leaving until Sam had answered every question she could think of.
“Where are you going now?” Zangi asked.
“Glasgow. Where you won’t be hopefully,” Sam stated.
“we’re going to Edinburgh. Glasgow isn’t too far away. Maybe we’ll visit,” Zangi said.
“delightful,” Sam tutted.
“how long does it take to fly to Glasgow?” Zangi asked.
“depends on the wind.”
“what about the wind?”
“how strong it is and which direction it’s coming from.”
“how long would it take in this wind?”
“about four hours,”
“none of your business.”
“why can’t you fly without her?”
“because we need more people to manage everything. Spotters and navigation and everything. Why?”
Zangi opened her mouth to answer, but she was cut off by Simi having an idea that she didn’t have time to run by the others.
“I think we could help you.”
All eyes clamped on her. Literally none of them had thought that was what she would say.
“You could help us? How?” Sam asked suspiciously.
“We can help you fly to Glasgow.”
Now she said it out loud the idea caused Simi’s stomach to drop. She’d opened herself to ridicule from the others. But it didn’t come. The girls were either halfway through considering it, or staring at Sam and Joan for answers.
“no, you can’t,”
“why not? There’s another of us. you can’t fly without Jean. You can show us what to do, and we can replace jean!”
“No what jean does takes a lot of effort. Too much to train all of you in such a brief time!”
“Then just train one of us,”
“And the rest of you will get under our feet!” Joan tutted.
“The rest of us will be your assistants,” Tiana insisted.
Joan frowned at her. “Our assistants?”
“Yeah! We’ll fetch your tea and coffee and carry heavy things, and load the car, anything you need. That way you can focus on repairs or whatever,” Tiana insisted.
Zangi leaned into Tiana’s ear and muttered, “Um, Ti, What?”
“It’ll count as work experience on your CV, shut up,” Tiana whispered back.
“That could be useful,” Zangi muttered as she pulled away from Tiana.
“Plus, you can’t fly without us,” Ravi said.
Sam scoffed smugly. “We can. Jeans coming down tomorrow, she’s just... stuck in Moffatt right now.”
“If you wait for jean she has to travel for hours, and you get delayed. If you take us to Glasgow, she doesn’t have to go so far. You can meet up with her faster, and carry on without us faster,” Ravi insisted.
There was a long silence as Sam thought about it, and Joan looked fed up with everything. Sam turned his back on the girls and made Joan do the same, as if that would somehow stop them being able to hear.
“She’s right Joan. We can still stand a chance of winning,” Sam said.
“I thought you didn’t want to win,” Joan tutted.
Sam shrugged defensively. “I don’t. but it would be nice to have a chance.”
“It would, wouldn’t it?” Simi said, pointedly.
Sam and Joan turned their heads to glare at her for eavesdropping. Not that the others weren’t. They were. It was far too easy.
“We can be useful fam. You need us as much as we need you,” Zangi said.
Sam gave Joan puppy dog eyes. She rolled hers.
“I can’t fit all of you in the car,” she said.
“It’s a seven seater,” Ravi pointed out drily.
“I need a lot of space for the fuel and stuff. You’ll be extra weight that I can’t afford,” Joan stated.
“What if I take one of them?” Sam offered.
“What?” The girls chorused.
“Yeah, what?” Joan asked.
The game had changed. One of them could be about to fly into Scotland in style. Things had gone up a gear.
“You can’t, they’ll weigh the basket down,” Joan insisted.
“But if I have someone with me, they’ll be able to keep communication going while I focus on flying. Then we won’t risk as many tears and can save money on repairs,” Sam insisted.
All the girls were ready to beg now. Sam clearly was too. He was desperate to fly, and they were desperate to get to Scotland. They just couldn’t let Joan get in the way.
“C’mon, you’ve got to go three hours in that car, with only me to talk to, through a radio, as well as navigating and driving on your own. It’ll be safer if there’s someone else doing communications,” Sam insisted.
“I have a medal for orienteering!” Tiana announced.
“Good for you?” Zangi said, confused.
“It means I’m good with maps. I can help navigate while you focus on driving,” Tiana explained pointedly.
“Oh.” Zangi said.
“C’mon man you need us!” Simi insisted.
“Yeah, come on Joan. Just say yes.”
Joan’s gaze travelled between each girls’ face, and ended on Sam’s puppy dog eyes. Winning meant more to him than he was willing to admit. She couldn’t bare to let him down.
“I don’t think I have much choice, do I?” She sighed.
Sam beamed, revealing a bug caught in his teeth. “Atta girl!
Immediately all the girls had second thoughts about flying.
“Who are you going to be training then?” Joan asked.
“Which one of you is the fastest learner?” Sam asked.
None of them said anything. They glanced between each other instead. Ravi had the best GCSE results because she could work hard, and Tiana could understand and explain but not do, Tahati could do but not understand. Together they made one excellent student. (Theoretically. When they were really together in class no work got done because they’re too busy messing around.) Apart, not so good.
The others shoved Ravi forward.
“But I panic when it’s a hands-on deal. Tiana pulls us through our science experiments,” Ravi said.
“I almost exploded the school, I don’t think it’s wise to trust me with a hot air balloon,” Tiana argued.
“Tahati’s good at hands on,” Simi said.
“What?!” Tahati squeaked.
“Yeah, Tahati’ll do it!” Ravi declared.
“But what if I lose my hijab or something? It’s windy up there!” Tahati insisted.
Simi shrugged. “Add extra pins before you go.”
“Tahati, have you ever been in a hot air balloon before?” Ravi asked.
“No…” Tahati muttered.
“Do you want to?” Ravi asked.
Tahati bowed her head. “Kinda.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Ravi demanded.
Tahati stared down at her feet anxiously. She didn’t say anything. Tiana laid a hand on her shoulder.
In a low voice she said, “Come over here so we can talk.”
They took a few steps away from everyone else, but it didn’t take long for Simi to follow.
“I’m scared,” Tahati muttered.
“Don’t be.” Simi stated.
Tahati glared at her. “Very bloody helpful.”
“Why are you scared? You play with matches so it’s not fire. You planned to stand on the school room and throw water balloons at teachers so it’s not heights. It’s not him because if things go wrong you can throw him over board. Why are you scared?” Tiana asked.
“Because I know you lot. You’ll run off and leave me on my own in Glasgow because it was inconvenient for you to wait,” Tahati said.
Simi kissed her teeth. “What?! That’s bullshit!”
“You’ve done it before,” Tahati insisted.
“I can guarantee we’ve never left you alone in another city fam,” Tiana stated.
“No but you left me in Sutton on my own and buggered off instead of waiting!” Tahati argued.
“Wait, when?” Simi asked.
“Sapphire’s laser quest party,” Tahati stated.
“You mean when you were waiting for your mum so we went home because you were gonna be safe?” Simi asked sarcastically.
Tahati bowed her head and shifted awkwardly. “Yeah…”
“You’re an idiot,” Simi stated.
Tahati scowled at her.
“You’re gonna be in constant communication with the car we’re in, and we’re gonna be helping you get down to the ground. How could we leave you?” Tiana asked.
“You’ll find a way,” Tahati spat.
Tiana rolled her eyes. “If you’re that scared, take this.”
She pulled Tristan’s pea jacket off her shoulders, and shoved it at Tahati’s chest.
“try not to get it burned on the flame. I’ll want it back,” she warned.
Tahati wrinkled her nose. “Really?”
“Damn straight, that things warm fam!” Tiana insisted.
Tahati put her bag on the floor as she pulled the coat on over her shirt. She moved her arms robotically to see how it felt.
She nodded. And was immediately shoved towards the hot air balloon.
“If you get scared again, look at your arrow tail. We didn’t leave you then, and we were all going to get into trouble,” Simi muttered.
There’s something about running away from everything you know that opens you up to new ideas and opportunities. Maybe it’s the fear of trying to fit in. to cling to the familiar. Tahati was terrified that her friends would leave her if she went in that balloon, but the idea that she’d lose them if she didn’t was too much to bare.
also entirely wrong.
All of them had a deep-rooted fear that they were going to lose each other before they were ready. That’s why they were here.
The problem isn’t knowing who to let go, and who to keep close, but knowing when it’s time to let go of who you fear losing the most.
Sam and Joan weren’t exactly nice to the girls. They were tolerant of them, but didn’t make them feel welcome. Not like the farmer’s family had. That wasn’t possible. Sam at least was happy to force a smile at them, and thank them for whatever they were doing. He thanked Ravi three times in thirty seconds when she brought him over a coffee, handed him a wrench, and offered him one of Kelly’s tarts.
they were working through those tarts quickly. Before long they had eaten enough that they could get rid of one box and stuff the remaining food into the others.
Joan didn’t try to smile at them. She just barked orders at them and snapped when they did something wrong. It’s amazing how beautiful someone can look when you first see them, and how hideous they become once they open their mouth. There was no praise or gratitude when something was done right either. She just told them it was “about time you came in useful!”
They didn’t much like Joan.
Joan was a bitch.
None of them complained though, because they needed to get in that car, and get that car moving, before Tristan found a way to track them down. Actually, I say none of them, but it’s not entirely true. Simi complained. About everything. Loudly and nonstop. Eventually they tuned her out and carried on working while they ignored her.
“I need to get the car refuelled. You stay here and help Sam inflate the balloon. Take this in case you need a quick repair,” Joan handed a thick roll of silver duct tape out to Zangi.
Zangi took it without question. She’d seen The Martian. If you can patch up space equipment with this, hot air balloons were nothing.
“If you’re in charge of that I’ll have to take you up too, so you can see where the tears are,” Sam joked.
“Ok!” Zangi grinned.
Sam’s face fell. He could tell by the way her eyes lit up that she really, really, wanted to go up. Sam sighed. He had offered.
“If she gets to go up, I want to!” Tiana insisted.
“I can’t take all of you,” Sam said.
“Why not?” Zangi asked.
“I cant fit all of us in the basket,” Sam shrugged.
“Bye Ravi,” Zangi grinned.
Ravi kissed her teeth and shoved Zangi. “Shut up fam.”
“Who said you needed to come?” Simi asked Sam.
“The law. You need at least one licenced ballooner at all times,” Sam stated.
Good answer. Certainly put Simi in her place.
“Tahati’s coming up with you all the way to Glasgow, she doesn’t have to come now!” Ravi declared.
“Is that ok Tahati?” Tiana asked.
She would have stayed on the ground too if Tahati had said no. they all would have. Tahati knew that. Just as she knew that all of them were dying to be in the air. so how could she stand in their way?
“Sure. At least you can’t get away from me when I’m holding you down!” Tahati shrugged.
Putting up the hot air balloon took the same concentration and team work as unfolding (and refolding) the rainbow parachute that your primary school had. They put that focus in, because the reward was just as exciting.
Before the balloon was even upright, a flamethrower appeared in Sam’s hand for him to fill the balloon. No matter how much she begged, he wouldn’t let Tiana try. Or Tahati. Or Zangi. Which, to be honest, was probably the smartest thing he’d ever do.
Despite the deafening roar of the fire above their heads, and the whistle of the wind, and the yelling of the teams around them, it was quiet up here. Above the world. up here it was cool. Even with the fire. The cold breeze stole away most of the smell of the fuel, but they still couldn’t smell anything else. They felt incredibly safe given that Tahati was their first port of call if there was an emergency and she couldn’t help unless she ran off to find someone who could. it was more like one of those carts you’re send up in on a Ferris wheel. Secure, just high up.
But the view!
From the ground, there was a sheet of blue, with hundreds of bold balloons stretching up above you. From above, there were hundreds of huge bold spots of colour, shining in the sunlight above a bright green carpet. The treetops were close enough to touch. If you looked through the branches, you could see squirrels and bird hiding behind the leaves. The clouds were so much closer, but still so far away. It was fun. Pure fun. No excitement, but pure joy.
When Sam turned the burner is off, they could hear everything! People chatting, even without yelling, birds singing, bike bells, everything. It was indescribable.
Then the basket hit the ground, and dragged along the grass, making the girls scream with laughter, before the all came tumbling out. Joan came back ten minutes later. The girls packed the car up, ready to leave when they were. Which was almost instantly. Simi bit her lip as she held onto the snake of rope. Tahati was going to be on her own for hours now. It felt weird.
Have you ever let something float along the river just to see how far it would go, and then followed it because you felt responsible? That’s what it felt like to climb into the car and follow the balloon.