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…]