A short story inspired by the thought of a surprise balloon trip. With apologies to Jules Verne.
It is difficult to daub the thick paint onto the sandy rocks, but once dry, the colours will brighten and the paint is tough. Only Adrian knows how long it will last for.
He finds painting difficult since he lost two fingers to frostbite, but his skill is admired widely, and artists from other clans sometimes visit to exchange ideas and techniques. Without his skill, Adrian would have been banished to die of cold and hunger, because he cannot contribute to the welfare of the clan in any other way. Here, artists are the most valued of people, more so even than hunters.
The painting shows an unusual scene. Men are hunting mammoth, but they are travelling above them in hot-air balloons, hurling spears at their unfortunate victims. Mammoths and the balloon seem to move in the flickering light. Adrian has chosen the site carefully and the natural contours of the rock emphasise the shapes and movements. Even now, several children are watching him, amongst them Ciera and Eve, Adrian and Tula’s daughters.
Other folk are also at work in the cave, chipping flint into arrow-heads, sewing, or chewing sealskin boots to soften them. Every one of these skilful tasks is essential to the survival of the clan. Tula sleeps by the fire. She is dreaming again. Her eyes moved restlessly beneath their lids and her breathing is fast.
He knows the dream about the balloon trip is always the same.
“And so the weather in the south-east will be warm and sunny. Bye-bye for now.”
Tula turned off the television, leapt to her feet and punched the air. Her normally excited hair stuck up in great orange tufts as she danced around the room. Adrian peered cautiously out of the window in case neighbours were looking and then smiling, loosened his tie.
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he said modestly.
Tula was still dancing around the room but eventually stopped and threw herself on him, crushing his thin frame into the sofa.
“After ten years – Oh Adrian, I won’t sleep tonight.”
The next day Adrian awoke at six am and packed the car for the balloon trip, and finally woke up his wife. She thundered around the house pulling on her violently coloured clothes and crammed some breakfast into her generous mouth. Adrian drove maddeningly slowly to the field. They could see the orange dome of the balloon as they reached the turn-off and Tula’s pulse was surely racing when they entered the field. Adrian took an age to park but finally she was running to the balloon. She could hear the roar of the jets as the pilot kept it inflated. The basket hovered off the ground and strained against its mooring ropes.
“Hello there, you must be Tula and Adrian. I’m Roger, your skipper.” The speaker appeared from behind the basket and grinned. Tula had expected a younger person; Roger appeared to have been dried out like a raisin and his teeth were nicotine-stained. They clenched an ancient and offensive pipe.
“You’ve got warm clothes? Good. It gets chilly up there. Now, let’s go over the safety rules.”
The safety rules seemed to take forever but eventually they were ascending gently over the Surrey countryside and below, the landscape was laid out like a tapestry. A flock of geese skimmed across the fields and treetops and Tula called out to them in excitement, whilst Adrian studied the distant horizon thoughtfully through a pair of large binoculars, his pale, sensitive face impassive. Roger leaned casually against the side of the basket and a trail of blue smoke from his pipe marked out their route.
“This is just heaven, Adrian. Heaven; I never want to come down,” said Tula.
There was too much to see from their vantage point. The slow curl of the Thames, settlements nestling along its banks. Far below, the shadow of the balloon skimming across the fields, still faint through their misty breath. Their skipper interrupted the reverie.
“Sorry to spoil things, but it looks like a storm’s brewing up ahead; we’ll have to go down just in case we get caught in an up-draught. When we get down we’ll see if it blows over. Nothing to worry about.”
Up-draught. That sounded dangerous. Adrian turned his binoculars towards the storm clouds and then wished that he had not because the dirty brown billows looked more like a sandstorm than ordinary clouds. Lightning seemed to be flickering everywhere and sprays of purple light were shooting out of the top.
Roger turned the burners down low. “We’ll start to drop now,” he said confidently.
“Roger, this one shows height, doesn’t it? It’s still going up,” said Tula.
Their captain tapped the dial with his pipe. “Hmm. That’s odd; the air must be getting drawn up into the storm. However, we will go down soon enough.”
Roger resumed his pipe and hummed a tuneless tune, but he sounded nervous to Tula. The three balloonists stood silently in the basket, as the fields far below gradually vanished beneath a thickening layer of mist. The temperature was falling rapidly. Even with all their spare clothes on, they were all shivering. The balloon was surrounded by whirling specks of snow and ice was forming on the rails of the basket.
“It’s growing darker,” Adrian said almost calmly.
A blinding flash of blue arced across right in front of the balloon. The thunder that accompanied it left Tula and Adrian stunned. After a few moments, Tula screamed in pure terror.
“Oh my god, Adrian – Roger’s gone. He’s gone and we’re all alone. This isn’t a balloon trip, it’s a fucking balloon nightmare.”
She pointed at the smouldering stump of his pipe and then she curled up in the bottom of the basket.
Adrian leaned pointlessly over the edge of the violently swaying basket, and then wished he had not. Below them the clouds were a raging black maelstrom. Large lumps of ice were being blown upwards around them, some the size of golf balls. Overhead, the flimsy balloon fabric flapped and billowed frantically as it fought against the storm.
They hung on to each other, shivering with cold whilst the lightning blazed continuously, and the thunder crackled and tore the air. The showers of ice hammered against the balloon and basket so that Adrian had to bale it out.
“Adrian, leave the ice in the basket. It’ll make us heavier,” Tula yelled above the wind. He sank back against her and closed his eyes. Soon they were praying together.
They were not aware of travelling any distance, but eventually the storm bored of the balloon and spat it out. Tula saw a small patch of blue appear between the sickly green billows of cloud, then another.
“We’re coming out of it,” she whispered to herself.
The wind dropped, and the thunder separated itself from the lightning, its voice falling to a familiar rumbling. There was no doubt that the balloon was now on its way down.
“How fast are we falling, Adrian? Are we going to die?” Tula screamed.
He looked at the altimeter, and at his watch. “Much too fast – we need to be going really slowly or the basket will smash to bits. I’ll use the burners a little. The ground must be a few hundred feet now.”
As the burners flared, Tula peered over the edge, gripping the wickerwork tightly. At her feet lay the ominous black stub of Roger’s pipe. The landscape below was not Surrey or Berkshire. They were crossing what appeared to be a river made of ice. “Adrian – for God’s sake, look,” she hissed.
Adrian looked, then stared at her, his eyes huge through his glasses. He looked again. He could not say anything useful and so he closed his eyes. When he opened them it was still there. “It’s not possible,” he eventually gasped.
They watched the land come up to meet the basket. It was clearly some kind of tundra landscape. In the distance they could see the dirty grey mounds of ice and rock left by the melting glacier. Something like a vast hairy elephant stood watching with solemn eyes. The basket swept towards sickly yellow grass and patches of snow, and then thumped down hard, spilling over. As they crawled clear the burners set fire to the balloon. Dense black clouds of smoke billowed into the air. Tula and Adrian watched it burn.
“Don’t ask me how, but we have somehow been blown hundreds of miles – to somewhere like Iceland, Switzerland, Russia…”
“Or the Arctic?” Tula cut in. “That’s impossible. We were in the air for a few hours. How can a balloon travel five hundred miles an hour? We wouldn’t have gone that far.”
“We can’t just stand here. We need to find somewhere to wait until rescue comes,” he replied as calmly as he could manage.
“The balloon trip was your idea,” she said, putting down a permanent marker.
They looked for shelter, and found the cave by virtue of the flickering firelight that was a welcome sight as the weak sun set. When they walked in, groups of people dressed in furs were standing, waiting for them.
It took a long time to learn the language.