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.”
“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…]