Balloon Science – Part Six


Balloon science was mighty hard work.

Ben had done more than his fair share of loading and offloading in his service to Mr Mulbarrow and numerous customers, far and wide. But the days had been rare when he’d had to attend to this much offloading in one go. Never once in a blue moon or any other colour of moon, in fact.

He wiped a forearm across his brow. They were both sweaty, but the forearm was hairier so ought to soak up the greater part of the perspiration. He’d rolled up his shirt sleeves in preparation for all the hot work, but now it was getting a bit chilly and the beads of moisture on his skin – as well as the damp patches darkening his shirt – were cold. Although not yet turned to icicles, thankfully.

He glanced up and the Moon seemed no closer. Not to any particular degree.

He surveyed the deckspace, cleared from here in the ‘C’s to the bow. Hours of toil and he had that much to show for his efforts. More space. Some would call it having less to show for his labours – more stuff chucked overboard was, in certain respects, less stuff. Still, there was no doubting their gains in altitude. Obviously, if he sauntered into Tortenschloss market and offered altitude as coin many a merchant would tell him to take his custom elsewhere. But in this instance, it was the currency they were after.

And it evidenced itself with cold. And thinner air too. Every lungful he drank in seemed watered down compared to the rich summer cider he’d breathed down there in Professor Quatrechamps’ garden. Clear, but scentless. He scarcely noticed it going in and out of him. It was going to be tough going on his chest as he got to chucking out the chests and cabinets that formed the bulk of the next phase of his job.

He grabbed a clavichord as an alternative for now, it looking a delicate ornamental sort of thing, and hauled that to the side and tipped it over.

He watched it tumble down through the scattered daubs of cloud.

Clouds were more evidence of their heightened height. When he’d first seen them begin to obscure the landscape like sizzleless rashers of cotton-wool bacon, he’d worried about George and Equinox and the possibility of furniture or other household artefacts landing on their horsey heads. But the landmarks below, glimpsed between the wispy streaks, no longer included the mansion or the headland on which it proudly sat.

For every ten yards they’d climbed, Professor Quatrechamps informed him, they had probably drifted as much as ten times more. Beyond billing for deliveries, sums were not Ben’s fort, but while he worked he did wonder how that drift might affect their intended course.

Every time the Walrus sprang aloft like an eager spaniel could also mean ten or twenty yards in whichever direction the breeze blew. Which surely might place them halfway around the world before they reached the Moon. And he knew that the Moon only ever lingered over one half of the world at any one time.

It was a head-scratcher and a chin-scratcher, combined.

A scuffling and jangling distracted Ben from his scientific conundrums, but by the time he’d pinpointed the source of the noise, Professor Quatrechamps – Chloette, he reminded himself to call her – appeared from underneath a chaise longue. Emerging on all fours, she turned to retrieve a tea-tray that she’d presumably manoeuvred through the jumble jungle.

Balancing the tray in the crook of one arm, she swept the surface of a chest of drawers with her sleeve and set the tea things down. Assorted items clattered to the deck, but some must have sailed overboard because the Walrus nudged a teeny bit higher. “I thought you could use some refreshment.”

He could, at that. There was a plate of tempting biscuits, arranged like the baked and iced petals of some sugary flower, nestled next to the belly of the teapot. Ben couldn’t smell the biscuits but he could feel the warmth wafting off the teapot.

“Shall I be maman?” Chloette poured cream from the jug and topped up the cup with a golden brown brew.

Ben gratefully grabbed the cup, blew off the first draft of steam and slurped.

Chloette arched a single eyebrow and flicked her eyes towards the saucer she’d thought to provide and which Ben hadn’t thought to take. “I had thought we might bring civilisation to the Moon.”

“Oh. Beg pardon, miss. Chloette. I – ” Ben snatched up the saucer and tucked it under his cup. He took a second slurp with the saucer all ready for drip-catchment. “Must have left my manners on the ground.” He realised he’d almost made a joke, since they’d left her manor somewhere down there. But he reckoned it fell short of good enough to share, especially after his tea-drinking faux pas. “May I ask, Miss Chloette,” he pressed on to another topic, “how much longer we expect this voyage to take?”

“Approximately from this chest of drawers all the way back to the zithers.” She gestured airily back towards the stern. “We may have a few items to spare but I am certain I have calculated our mass-to-thrust ratio to within a bread bin or two.”

Ben had already gotten rid of four bread bins, but he thought he almost understood her meaning. He pictured a wide-open deck, devoid of clutter – relatively easy to imagine, but not without also picturing many hours of hard graft.

“Now enjoy your tea, Ben, and I will return shortly. There is something else I must fetch for you.”

Cake? he wondered. The biscuits looked more than sufficient for now, especially if the lady didn’t mean to partake. “Wait, Miss Chloette. It’s a minor point, I expect, and you’ll please forgive me if I’m a little slow, but I’m brand new to this balloon science lark. But, well, if we’re absolutely committed to using all of this ballast of ours in our endeavour to reach the Moon, how is it we’re planning on coming back?”

“Oh, cher Ben.” She wagged a finger and tapped her lovely nose. “You are like one of those people who speculates on the menu for tonight’s dinner when they are sitting down to breakfast. We are pioneers! We must have the vision to look far into the future, yes. But also the myopia to live in the maintenant.” Smiling, she plucked off her spectacles, breathed on them and wiped the lenses on her sleeve. Then slipped them back on, the glass still lightly misted in patches. “Adventure is a meal to be savoured. Now, enjoy your tea and help yourself to biscuits. We are amply stocked and we shall worry about dinner and return journeys later.”

She ducked down and disappeared under the chaise longue like a mouse into the wainscoting.

Ben plucked a pink-iced biscuit from the plate and nibbled at it, his mind far from the taste. As he munched, he dunked the rest of the biscuit in his tea. Heard the plop as a soggy chunk broke away and drowned in the brew.

For a fleeting moment, he worried that eating too many biscuits would be counter-productive. Neither sums nor science were his fort. But at the end of the day, he reasoned, the weight of biscuits ought to be the same whether on a plate or inside him, so he helped himself to five or six more and a refill of his teacup.

Whether they reached the Moon or not, he was going to need the energy if he was going to get through this adventure.

[To Be Continued…]

Balloon Science – Part Five


It wasn’t until the Walrus was some forty feet above the warehouse roof that the mortal dread properly took hold. Ben leaned over the side and almost hurled something over that was not part of the ship’s inventory. Two feet on the ground was the natural state of things – four feet if you were a horse or cat, say – and nothing, not science nor magic, should meddle with that.

George and Equinox peered up from the mansion garden but did not exhibit any special alarm. Equinox soon resumed chomping lazily on her mouthful of grass then wandered over to another patch of lawn.

Ballast, Ben thought. What he needed was ballast. Like a big slab of potato cake to steady his stomach. But as soon as he pictured it, he wished he hadn’t. He held fast to the railings and pushed the thought down.

When he’d embarked, he hadn’t expected to be stationed up on deck. Fresh air was bracing, but it was much less invigorating this high up. At this ‘altitude’, he should say, having learned a few key scientific terms from the ship’s Professor-Captain.

Yes, she’d been very helpful and happy to educate him as she’d briefly shown him around the fancy and plush, if a little cosy, interior, just before she’d directed him to the ladder. Curious as to where it would lead, he’d climbed the ladder expecting to find his own cabin with a nice comfy bunk and perhaps a side table and wash basin. Instead he’d opened the hatch and popped his head up to a whiff of outdoors in a space bound by the surface and four legs of a dining table. Mild breezes snaked their way to him through the myriad gaps in the clutter heaped up on the deck. Of course, he was at the bottom of the pile.

He’d crawled his way out, somehow finding a route through a forest of chair-legs and other intermingled jumble. Eventually breaking out somewhere forward of the hatch and near the left side of the deck. Larboard, he dimly recalled, was the nautical term, it beginning with ‘l’. Or he could think of it as the portmanteau side, there being a large suitcase among the disarray of items close to where he’d emerged. Perhaps just across from his position there might be a sideboard and he could think of that as the sideboard side. Although it didn’t seem likely, the items being untidily heaped in accordance with that strange alphabetical arrangement from bow to stern. Although he did ponder a short while whether maritime phrases were applicable in the air.

Now, as it happened, a measure of seasickness appeared to be applying itself to his innards, so he figured he was okay to stick with nautical-speak.

He heard some pottering and gentle, lady-like clattering from somewhere in the bric-a-brac barrow. Tales of oriental lands murmured of ancient kings buried with all their servants and belongings, but Ben imagined their tombs to be blessed with more free space than was available up here on deck. He wondered if similar myths had played any part in deterring the Professor’s servants from accompanying her on her mad voyage.

“Oh! There you are!”

Professor Chloette popped up like a rabbit from a burrow between the piano and assorted boxes of pans and pottery. She ducked back down. “One moment, I’ll be right with you.”

He listened to her scrabbling through the mound and soon she was standing up beside him, laughing at herself. “We shall have less trouble navigating our course to the Moon than through my collection of clutter, I think, no?”

No was exactly what Ben thought. But he was not about to shoot down the lady’s dreams. All being well there would be no shooting down of anything.

She glanced up at the belly of the balloon. It was at full bloat and far broader than the Walrus, obscuring any view of the clouds overhead. Or the Moon for that matter. As soon as they’d nudged above the warehouse roof the breezes had blown at them like a timid child at candles on a birthday cake. They’d drifted some yards astray from the mansion, but their direction had stayed predominantly upwards. Although now they seemed to have stalled and stabilised at this quite sufficiently dizzying altitude.

“Come come, we cannot idle here forever and a week.” Professor Quatrechamps smiled and rested her hands on the railing, sucking in the air in a reverse sigh. Like she was drinking the sky. And getting slightly drunk on it too. “You must head for the bow and start there.”

“I must?”

“Ah now, well, must is expressing it strongly, perhaps. But it is one of the natural side-effects of a scientific mind to prefer a highly ordered and organised approach, you see.”

Ben didn’t. Mostly, he saw his horse and wagon further below him than they rightly belonged. And a deck strewn and mounded with so much stuff there was barely room to think, much less move to the bow.

He scratched the back of his neck. “I’m supposing this is all part of your balloon science.”

“A little method to my madness, let us call it. The absolutely crucial element is the weight reduction. The more weight we shed, the higher we rise. That is my balloon science. Simple, no? Technically, the order in which you disposed of our ballast would not matter in the slightest. But for my own satisfaction, I would appreciate it if we went about the operation alphabetically. I am not so bothered if, say, you toss over the armchairs before the abacus that I believe is somewhere up there amidst the forward cargo, but it would mean a great deal to me if you would confine yourself to the As before proceeding to offload the Bs and so on.”

“Right you are, miss.” Ben gave a casual salute. It being the courteous sort of response he gave to clients on his general deliveries who wanted their goods placed hither or thither in their homes.

He ducked down and scuttled away on hands and knees, working his way back into the burrow. Plenty of the gaps were a struggle, requiring much wriggling and wrestling to get through. But at least the gaps were plentiful. The household staff had apparently chucked everything on board all higgledy-piggledy, with none of the care and attention to arrangement that Ben would have applied had he been in charge of the loading operation. Good job too, as with furniture and all manner of other items neatly interlocked he would have had no room for manoeuvre. Navigation was the tricky part, but as long as he made the occasional note of the objects he was clambering past.

Eventually, he hauled himself into a compact clearing, surfacing among the ‘A’s. Conscious of the time expended on his crawl, he got straight to work. Grabbing the abacus from the top of the pile just aft of the figurehead, he chucked it overboard.

He felt criminal, throwing away the lady’s possessions, but she was back there, throwing him an encouraging wave from among the ‘P’s. He would have returned the wave, but for the way the Walrus lurched. Upwards.

He grabbed the gunwhale, steadied himself.

He stared over the side and locked gazes with George and Equinox. Both horses appeared to have found the sudden movement disquieting. But not half as much as Ben.

The Walrus floated higher. Not by much, true. But a difference that could be measured with a pair of nervous eyes and a queasy stomach.

The Moon might remain a distant impossible dream. But his return to firm ground was beginning to look just as unreachable.

[To Be Continued…]

Balloon Science – Part Four


“Lift off!”

Ben thought the Professor’s grand, theatrical announcement was overstating the situation a touch. A sliver of an inch was not much to shout about, although he had heard vague academic talk of other systems of measurement by which it might amount to more. No matter what you called it, the gap between the vessel and its resting blocks was not huge. And yet, here he was turning full round to stand and marvel. With his lower jaw dropping closer to the ground than the ship’s hull.

Miss Professor Quatrechamps – Chloette, as he remembered he was supposed to address her – left off her cranking of the wheel as the ceiling doors clanged into place. Wide open. It struck Ben as the proper cue for him to shut his trap. He’d been raised to always cover his mouth when yawning in the presence of company and with both hands occupied that was going to be impossible.

Ben had guessed the balloon’s inflation was linked to the same mechanics that had opened the warehouse ceiling, but now that the machinery had fallen quiet the scaly fabric appeared perfectly content to keep on swelling and expanding and generally pumping itself up. Like a big green and gold cloud steadily assuming the shape of an enormous melon. Ben had seen toffee-nosed sorts and town officials – and even his boss, Mr Mulbarrow from time to time – puff themselves up in similar fashion, although they tended less towards imitating fruit and more towards vegetables exhibiting a great deal of self-importance.

This melonic (?) balloon was still on its way to fully bloated but, in contrast to all those hob-nobbers and well-to-do mayoral and municipal types, doing an important job and doing it rather better than Ben would ever have expected. The Walrus hung, suspended from this gigantic bag by stout ropes and cables, and wobbled only marginally. A good deal steadier, as it happened, than Ben’s knees despite their more direct connection to the ground.

“Well, now. That is something. Proper magical.”

He’d somehow recovered from being lost for words to merely short on grammar.

“Magic? Phah!” Professor Chloette clapped in an impatient way not the least bit like applause. She tutted and muttered some sounds that might have been foreign words or, equally possibly, random exasperated noises. Stooping, she retrieved a footstool from her corner and carried it over to the Walrus. Set it down just under the door set amidships in the side of the hull. “People are too ready to attribute any phenomenon they don’t understand to magic. This is science! Next you’ll be telling me motor cars and electricity are the products of sorcerous spells.”

“Well, no.” Although now that she mentioned them, he had often been wonderstruck by such machines and technological mysteries. Motor cars were rarer than dragons and Ben had only ever glimpsed one from his place in the crowd, waving and cheering as Mayor Harpsburg had been driven around Tortenschloss on one of his parades. It was a shimmering beast, but noisy and Ben’s nose didn’t care for the smell of the stuff they fed it on or, for that matter, the gases it expelled from its tail end. As for electricity, he’d made deliveries to a few houses that were illuminated by strange bulbs and it had looked a lot like bottled magic.

Professor Quatrechamps planted her right foot on the stool and grasped the door handle. “Never mind. Adventure is a learning experience. The most exciting form of education you could ever wish for. Now, you had best please finish the loading while I attend to a few checks and preparations.” She tugged the door open and trotted up inside.

Leaving Ben with much to take on board.

In several manners of speaking.


Perhaps an hour of toil later, Ben wandered back to his wagon and set about unharnessing Equinox and George. Fine draft mares, they were both accustomed to routine and met her freedom with uncomprehending blinks. After an encouraging pat to each rump, they welcomed the chance to shake their manes and stretch their fetlocks. Together, they clomped off the road and into Professor Quatrechanps’ front garden, swishing tails and dipping for a graze or two.

“I won’t be gone long,” he assured the pair.

As much as he’d been bowled over by the sight of the Walrus hovering against all probability, he still harboured profound doubts about the ability of such a heavily-laden vessel travelling far or for long. Indeed, set such a ship in the ocean, he would expect her to ride so low in the water as to provide a nice new playground for coral and fishes. In the air, she’d carry him a few more slivers of a few more inches at most.

“Just long enough for a real short trip,” he added. “And maybe a consolatory cup of tea, you know. Because the nice Professor lady is going to be disheartened and it wouldn’t be polite to leave her right away once we’ve come right back down to earth.”

If he was lucky and a little creative with the truth, he would be able to persuade Mr Mulbarrow that he’d lingered at the property to assist Professor Quatrechamps with storing her items (not a huge lie), thinking the extra help would garner more business from her in future. And Mr Mulbarrow might not dock the time from his wages on his return to town.

Adventure might well have been a learning experience. But it certainly wouldn’t qualify as a reasonable excuse for delays in the delivery schedule. Not in Mr Mulbarrow’s books. Regardless of whether that adventure amounted to inches or a mile off the ground.

Fetching the last pair of items – a washboard and an umbrella stand – from the wagon, Ben wandered back to the warehouse.

He slowed up some, so he could aim his head high and take a length look at the intended destination.

The Moon.

Still a hazy disc. Silver in blue.

A mile away? Or more? Ben had no idea how far it might be. Or, now he came to think on it, what kept it from falling.

As ghostly and distant as its visage seemed right now, it struck Ben that it always appeared an object of some weight. Sitting in the sky, floating or hanging, it was no less remarkable than the Walrus.

What if – ?

No, don’t be daft.

But what if – ?

A nervous feeling crept into his chest and perched among his ribs like a caged canary.

What if, he forced himself to complete the thought, he was gone longer than expected? What if he strayed further than a few paltry inches? The horse and wagon ought to be okay, but would he? And there’d be no placating Mr Mulbarrow with tales of a trip to the Moon.

Unless there were brand new customers to be found up there.

Which, whether you believed in magic or science, seemed less likely than the Walrus taking flight.

Ben trudged on into the warehouse, full of hope and fear and trepidation. Fearing and hoping for failure. And fearing and hoping for adventure almost near as much.

[To Be Continued…]

Balloon Science – Part Three

balloonscienceWhat on earth, thought Ben, was he worried about?

The ship was a monster. Like a huge brass-and-bolts shark with the top skimmed off, creating a sleek boatish hull with a door and portholes along the sides. There was a twin-rudder arrangement at the stern and a voluptuous walrus figurehead at the prow. Whorls like coiling octopus tentacles had been embossed into the metal and, as he’d previously observed, the upper deck was absolutely chock-a-block with cargo, very little of it block or chock-shaped. It just amounted to one lumpy, angular mess concealed under the tarpaulin that – now that he took a second look at the embroidered patterns of flowers and birds – seemed to have been stitched together from the manor’s entire supply of curtains.

A most bizarre vessel which would remain on earth. Indeed, the only reasons it wasn’t currently in contact with the ground were the two hefty wooden blocks on which it was mounted, like a ship in dry dock. So, again, what on earth did he have to worry about? Nothing. And if there were causes for anxiety off the earth, well, he need never know anything of them because they were the province of birds and dragons and other winged ilk. While even if he accepted the Professor’s ridiculous invitation to adventure he would keep both boots as firmly planted as weeds.

“It’s a fine craft, Miss.” He backed up his compliment with a wave of his cap.

“Chloette. Thank you. She is called The Walrus.

“Chloette. Professor. Walrus,” Ben mumbled.

“Well then, what do you say, Ben? I can’t go by myself, I simply can’t. For one thing, like any scientist worth their sodium chloride I need an independent witness to observe and verify my results. For quite another, I cannot lift many of the heavier items on board. And if we are to stand any chance of generating lift, we will need your muscle.”

Ben nodded his understanding. Perhaps prematurely. Surely she couldn’t be so mad as to expect him to lift her craft off the ground. Much as he’d developed his strength over years of service to Mr Mulbarrow he deeply doubted he could nudge the ship in its blocks, let alone propel it aloft. “Um, Professor Chloette, I’m not sure I can help – ”

“Nonsense. Self-effacement is endearing but it is of no practical purpose to either of us.” She turned to face him and gripped his arms. “These are the surest instruments we have at our disposal for generating lift. And what could be more appropriate than to have the man who helped supply all our ballast actually crew our proud venture?”

“Well, now – ”

Ben was flummoxed. She was by far the most attractive of ladies to have ever grasped him by the arms in such an insistent and complimentary manner. He felt a flush in his cheeks and was surprised at what a hot day it was proving despite having so far carried only two zithers from the wagon. He searched about for somewhere convenient to set the stringed instruments down.

“Come, I will assist with the loading. I was only joking about that. Scientist I may be, but I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty if necessity demands.” She rubbed her velvet gloves together. Then marched past him. Bee-lining, Ben would have said, for the wagon, except he’d never seen a bee move with so much purpose. “It is possible we will not need absolutely every item on the list, but it is best to travel prepared. I have endeavoured to gauge the Moon’s altitude as accurately as I can, but we must allow for my calculations being out by a few tens of yards at the very least.”

“Right. Absolutely.”

Ben set the zithers down, gentle enough to produce only the faintest of strums. Then raced after the lady once more, his chivalrous heart eager to make sure he shouldered the heavier burdens. Moreover, his mind was made up to humour her now, as far as he could, and have a shoulder in place for that terrible, awkward moment when her dreams came crashing down. Fortunately, in real terms, they would not have to crash from a great height, but who knew how far her aspirations soared?

Her promises of assistance, it emerged, only stretched as far as a single trip from wagon to warehouse. Because one minute she was swanning off with a few choice lighter items in hand, the next Ben was aware she’d disappeared. If her mansion hadn’t appeared so bereft of furnishings, he might have imagined her putting her feet up somewhere. But when he returned to the warehouse with his burden of a wine rack and a yodelmacher he spotted her in the corner.

She wasn’t idle. She was cranking.

Quite vigorously, it had to be said. And in her defence, Ben reckoned it looked more laborious labour than the offloading.

More machinery clanked and ground as she turned a brass wheel. The huge tarpaulin writhed like it had come alive. Steadily, it grew, swelling like the scaled chest of some dragon that only knew how to inhale. As it puffed up and up, it lifted itself from the heaps of jumble on the ship’s upper deck. Revealing, as Ben had suspected, all the contents of all those deliveries he’d made and a host of other items besides. Jumble was not a strictly accurate term, as he realised it had all been arranged in alphabetical order from bow to stern.

Balloon science. Well, there as the balloon at least.

Daylight began a slow invasion of the warehouse, conquering more of the interior by degrees. Ben looked up at the widening crack in the ceiling. Two halves slid leadenly apart, scraping like some thunder god’s battleaxe being sharpened on the turning stone of heaven’s blacksmith. Sky opened its eye on the Professor’s invention and gazed in with all its blueness and far less scepticism, it seemed, than Ben harboured.

It was like some great gateway opening. A majestic invitation.

Or a dare, almost, to enter.

Ben could understand how this had become a dream of hers. Grand dreams gave rise to mad schemes. Driving his wagon, he’d occasionally looked to the mountain range on the horizon and stopped himself from wondering what the lands were like beyond. Because like the Moon, he would never have cause to go there on his rounds.

He supposed such seeds found more fertile soil in more adventurous minds.

But this wasn’t adventure. This was a road to disappointment. He felt sorrier than ever for this poor deluded woman. Such a shame. She seemed so bright and smart in other respects.

The balloon continued to fatten up, beginning to blot out the sky and regain some territory on behalf of the gloom.

“Come on!” The Professor paused in her cranking long enough to wave. “No time to stand and gawp. Departure in – oh – seven minutes, I expect and we’ll be needing the rest of those goods.”

Dear oh dear. She really meant to go through with this.

Ben turned, as much to hide his expression as to stow the wine rack and yodelmacher next to the zithers and such forth. He was about to bend to set the things down when he heard an ominous creak.

Glanced over his shoulder.

The Walrus lurched a tiny sliver of an inch off its blocks.

[To Be Continued…]