Balloon Science – Part Seven


With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

Throw it all over the side!

Not a day past age ninety-seven

Grandpa flew quicker to heaven

But only on the day that he died!

We’ve all kinds of stuff

More than enough

To take us up over the clouds!

The higher we go

With a heave and a ho!

We’ll make our old Grandpappy proud!

We sail through the blue

But we won’t get wet through

To the silvery Moon we are bound!

With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go –

Ben suspended his sky shanty as he heard the hatch clank open somewhere under the warren of clutter, heralding Professor Quatrechamps’ return. Ahead of her actual appearance, he brought his song to a rousing finish:

At least there’s no danger we’ll drown!

Originally, his intended lyric had run thus:

With no way of coming back down.

But he really didn’t want to go disappointing the Professor by airing and sharing his fears any further. She’d been that nice to bring him tea and biscuits. Luckily, after an hour or two of composing sky shanties to spur along his hard slog, he’d developed the quick-thinking skills of a freestyling bard.

As though getting into the musical spirit of things, Professor Quatrechamps chimed in, figuratively speaking, with an improvised percussion section. Thunks, clangs and scuffles accompanied her progress through the jumble pile. Sounding like she was hauling something cumbersome and clunky from below. Thanks to Ben’s labours, she had a shorter distance to negotiate but he couldn’t believe she’d come lugging more up on deck after he’d cleared more than half their ballast.

This, of course, he remembered now, would have to be the thing she promised to fetch for him. It didn’t sound at all biscuity or indeed edible in the slightest.

The Professor’s head poked out from under the occasional table, not far from Ben’s right boot. She smiled up at him, but her face blushed and shone and her fringe slicked to her brow. She perspired – or, being a lady, glowed – heavily despite the chilly air. Although Ben noticed she’d furnished her shoulders with what appeared to be an extra thick knitted cardigan. Anyway, she grimaced as she yanked something past some hidden obstruction.

After a final resistance, it shot loose a bit too obligingly and fetched her a passing bump on the noggin as it tumbled out onto open deck. Ben stuck a leg out to stop it rolling too far.

It looked like a big copper cauldron with a porthole set in one side.

While Ben studied the artefact with a measure of mistrust, Professor Quatrechamps dragged herself clear and tugged the rest of her gift into the open.

She stood back, recovering some breath, rearranging her skirts and tidying her cardy. Nudging Ben, she gestured, inviting him to appraise his present.

All in all, to go with the cauldron, she appeared to have brought him a canvas suit and some lengths of rubber hose.

‘Thank you’ and ‘It’s what I always wanted’ were the two most popular customary responses in these situations, but Ben wasn’t sure he could apply either with any conviction. He nodded, mopping his brow and pretending to be too breathless for words.

The suit called to mind the engineers who worked the steamers out of Tortenschloss harbour. He’d hear them and other sailors singing their competing shanties in the taverns and inns along the harbourfront, the sailmen crowing from their alto nests about salt winds and true loves left behind, the steamermen bellowing in their bass about soot smoke and wives who’d left them. And rum. Both factions sang plenty about rum, by the glass, by the tankard, by the barrel. Whether powered by wind or coal, Ben got the impression that song and drink were what fuelled a ship’s crew.

Anyway, this suit was very like the boiler suits worn by those steamer engineers, minus the grease and grime but plus the extra accessories of cauldron-helm, hoses, a big metal collar and brass boots attached to the ends of the trouser-legs. Being as how steamer engineers were differently clad to sailmen, he supposed he shoudn’t have been too surprised to discover that balloon scientists had their own specialist attire.

“For me?” he managed at last, aware he’d been staring at the suit for some time now and feeling pressure to say something.

“Of course, for you. I have my own, but your need is more immediate. The air is growing chillier and thinner.” Chloette rubbed her gloved hands. “The suit has a lovely thick wool lining and you can wear it over your clothing for added warmth.”

Good. Ben didn’t like the idea of getting undressed out here in the open. Even though, once the Professor popped below, there was nobody but clouds and passing albatrosses to see him. And the clouds were growing scarcer and he hadn’t seen a bird in hours. You knew you were in dangerous territory when you’d strayed higher than birds dared to fly. And one thing it was best not to do in dangerous places was get undressed.

He plonked himself down on a nearby pouffe and yanked off his boots as there was no way he’d get the suit on over those. He picked up the suit and started pulling it on. It was quite an operation, but not the sort of heavy repetitive labour that demanded a shanty.

“Bon bon bon!” said Chloette. “Attach the hoses to the valves there and there.” She pointed to spigots on the suit’s collar. “When you don the helmet, give it a twist and make sure it is good and tight. When we have acquired a little more altitude I will go and start the pump.”


Ben wriggled and wrestled the fabric up his torso.

“Of course! The air is growing thinner, yes? We will draw air up from below like water from a well.” Ben blinked. With all his composing of sky-shanties and offloading of furniture and assorted articles, he really hadn’t given the question of breathing much thought. Clearly, there was more to this balloon science than he’d considered. “Here, let me help with that.”

He’d stooped to lift the helmet but uncertainty stalled him halfway. Chloette grabbed the big copper cauldron from him and lowered it over his head as he straightened up.

It was strange. Like, he supposed, sticking his head in a large round bucket. Which was not something he’d ever done.

On a whim, he sang softly to himself:


With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

There was a nice reverberation, almost an echo, as though he’d become a small choir, accompanying himself. His voice was stronger, at any rate.

That was a kind of courage.

He gazed up at the Moon.

No larger. Not appreciably closer. But somehow – and maybe it was only the distortion through the helmet’s window – the ghost-silver disc looked rounder, more solid. More reachable. Like a shiny pale apple he could reach up and pluck.

“Right then,” he said. “Best get back to work.”

He strode past the Professor and grabbed hold of the occasional table, carried it to the railing.


With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

Throw it all over the side!

[To Be Continued…]

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