Devon Prize (2011/12) - Long Legged Balloons by Andrew Lavender

Long Legged Balloons
by Andrew Lavender

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin said. His wife smiled and kissed him. It was the fifty fifth day he’d seen Felicity off with that comment since the redundancy.
      “You ought to go out, get some fresh air. There’s a Surrealism exhibition at the gallery and we need bread,” she said, and closed the door.
      Kevin poured milk onto his cornflakes. Where would he go for fresh air? The gallery’s indoors, that air isn’t fresh. Swimming pool air has chlorine, town’s full of exhaust fumes and Tesco full of other shoppers breath. Anyway he couldn’t just drop everything and go out. He had a routine. BBC Breakfast and then over to ITV for Jeremy Kyle. Coffee and a pack of Hula Hoops around ten thirty. Lunch was soup or a sandwich in time for Bargain Hunt. Afternoons were on the internet, first emails and then blogs. Technology ones for interest and financial ones to see where to invest the money he didn’t have. Finally a quick peruse of the local paper on-line, before he prepared tea. He didn’t have time for fresh air.
      Kevin picked up his bowl and mug walked into the lounge, settled down in his spot on the sofa and turned the television on.
      Kevin was still in his spot watching television that evening, when Felicity’s key scraped the outside of the lock as she located the hole. She barged into the lounge and put her briefcase down by the bookcase.
      “Usual hectic Monday,” Felicity said, undoing her coat, “I sacked someone. Rachel, software engineer, couldn’t get to work on time. You been out?”
      “It was raining,” Kevin said.
      Felicity slung her jacket over the arm of the chair. “She’s been late eight of the last ten days. It’s not the first time we’ve told her,” she said and sat on the chair to remove her boots, “verbal and written warnings already. No choice this time. You got the bread?”
      “Glass of wine?” Kevin asked. Felicity nodded and plonked herself on the sofa.
      “What’s for tea?”
      Kevin went to the kitchen, took a box from the freezer, pulled out a pizza and shoved it in the oven.
      “Did you know some of these hot air balloons are homemade,” Felicity said, indicating the television. She took the glass from Kevin. “I’d assumed you’d buy them from Balloon IKEA or something.”
      “Pizza will be ready in about ten minutes.”
      “Building your own balloon takes real effort, unlike your tea.”
      “I forgot the bread, with all the rain,” Kevin said.
      “For heaven’s sake Kevin. I asked you do one thing today, one thing. How am I supposed to have toast in the morning?”

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin said.
      “Get some bread. I don’t have time today,” she said, then kissed him.
      Kevin returned to his spot and ate his cornflakes. These days Felicity was always telling him to do something or go somewhere. It hadn’t been like that when they’d first met at Beechside Financial Systems. She was the slim blonde Human Resources Assistant all the desktop support officers talked about. Way out of his league. To his surprise Felicity asked him out two weeks and four days after he’d resolved her printer’s frozen spooling queue.
      Once together, Felicity encouraged him to fulfil his potential. They had a pact of a European city break when either of them got promoted. At Beechside Felicity had become Head of Human Resources and Kevin a project manager. They’d spent weekends in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan, Paris, Prague and Tallinn.
      That was until the meeting with the Finance Director five months ago, where he’d told Kevin they were upgrading the product set to scalable platforms with one hundred percent resilience via cloud based virtualisation services.

Felicity’s words from the previous night were unrequested echoes all through BBC Breakfast and into Jeremy Kyle. Despite the internet being an afternoon activity, he turned on the broadband, booted the laptop, and typed ‘how to build a hot air balloon’ into Google. In a third of a second, four million five hundred and seventy thousand results were displayed. Kevin clicked on the top link. By late afternoon he understood the history and principles of hot air ballooning, two books were on order from Amazon with guaranteed next day delivery and emails sent to the British Balloon & Airship Club, the Ballooning Federation of American and Firefly Balloons based in California. In addition, he registered online with Tesco and they’d had a delivery slot available that afternoon.

A scraping key indicated Felicity was back. “I’ve had Gladys from Accounts on at me all day, you remember her don’t you? Still mad as a hatter. Complains it’s discriminatory changing the department title to Management Accounts,” Felicity said, from the hallway, “What’s for tea?”
      “Tesco’s frozen Beef Cannelloni with garlic bread,” Kevin said.
      “You’ve been shopping. About time.”
      “I’ve followed your advice.”
      “You went to the Surrealism Exhibition?”
      “No. To build a balloon,” Kevin said.
      “I want to see the Dali original. I loved the Persistence of Memory sculpture we saw in London, so representative of modern life.”
      “There are plenty of places you can buy balloons from, or you can design and sew them yourself. It takes about ...”
      “How long till tea’s ready?”
      “One hundred and eighty hours.”
      “I’ll get changed then.”

“Have a nice day at work,” said Kevin.
      “You going out today,” said Felicity.
      “We’ll see,” he replied. Felicity kissed him and left the house.
Kevin picked up his breakfast and moved to the laptop. He’d downloaded some Excel based calculators yesterday to help determine balloon size. He rooted around the cupboard for a notepad to write down his conclusions. He could do it on Word, but, as a project manager, he was more comfortable with information in paper format. He found the empty black moleskine book Felicity bought home the day of the redundancy meeting, and he remembered her tears. She’d sat to the left of the Director during the meeting and kept her eyes on the floor. The Director fidgeted throughout the conversation, explaining how difficult the decision had been and how well respected Kevin was. However, this was cutting-edge technology and new graduates understood it.
      Re-training at Kevin’s age wasn’t sensible from a financial viewpoint. The Director said sorry again and turned to Felicity. She held out the envelope containing the notice of redundancy she’d signed that morning. He saw the tears in her eyes, but she didn’t cry until she got home. She gave him the moleskine book and said it was a blank canvas to fill with dreams and opportunities. They held onto each other all that night, not sure who was comforting who.
      For the next two days Kevin focussed on the balloon envelope, deciding on the shape, number of gores and whether to have bulbous, semi-smooth or flat. Jonny from Firefly Balloons replied with a catalogue and price list. Everything was noted down in the moleskine. On Thursday, Felicity arrived home to two bowls of microwaved chilli con carne.
      “Anything exciting today?” Kevin asked, as they sat down to eat.
      “Training managers on the appointment process. Ashanti, the apprentice, was with me. Doesn’t say much. Not surprising with that metal bar in her mouth,” Felicity said.
      “I’ve made a decision,” Kevin said.
      “You’re not having anything pierced,” Felicity replied.
      “I’ve decided to go with an eight gore bulbous tear drop. I know it’s not traditional, but I think it’s magical.”
      “You’re not getting a tattoo either.”
      “Talked it over with Jonny. He felt it was the right decision for my first one.”
      Felicity’s fork hovered above the chilli. “You’re first one! How many tattoos are you having? You know I don’t like them.”
      “I’m not getting a tattoo. I’m building a balloon. I told you yesterday. Just need to sort out colours,” Kevin said, picking up their plates. “Apple pie and custard for pud?”

Kevin viewed balloon images on Friday morning for ideas. He discounted single colour as lacking imagination, whilst multi-coloured versions were over the top. By lunchtime he’d settled on a yellow envelope with a black skirt and two horizontal black stripes. He called Jonny via Skype a little after three; they’d just opened. The design was straightforward to manufacture and Kevin took Jonny’s advice on material. Within half an hour they’d signed a contract by email. His envelope would go into production next week.
      Kevin turned his attention to the basket. He’d already decided on traditional wicker, modern aluminium didn’t look right. He began searching for a small open gondola on Ebay and the Zebedee list. The latter recommended by George, from the British Balloon & Airship Club, as an excellent place for second hand equipment. He’d got a good idea of the options, before he stopped to make boil in the bag haddock with white wine sauce.
      “Thank heavens that week is over,” Felicity said, as she entered the kitchen, “you had a good day?”
      “I’ve ordered the balloon.”
      “Fantastic, fish on Friday. Traditional,” Felicity said.
      “Yellow with black stripes and skirt.”
      “I hope we aren’t having chips, I had chips for lunch.”
      “It’s a one point three ounce ripstop nylon base fabric with a silicone coating. Little heavier, but the upside is zero porosity,” Kevin said. He took a green salad from the fridge.

Kevin spent the weekend hunting for baskets, burners and fuel tanks with the same enthusiasm he’d applied to his initial job search. Then he’d sent out CV’s, registered with recruitment agencies and read trade papers. No-one was interested. As a Recruitment Consultant told him, a forty two year old computer systems project manager is not ‘what the market wants at this time’, he should consider sales. Kevin wasn’t a salesman.
      After looking through various classified sections, he decided George had been right about the Zebedee list. Armed with the weekend’s research, Kevin went shopping on Monday morning. The ordered envelope had a ninety thousand cubic feet capacity, and would support a four person gondola. He found two Thunder and Colt wicker versions for sale. His preferred burner required a gimbal mount, piezo electric spark lighting and a whisper burner. By the time Felicity was on her way home, he’d sent off a number of email inquiries and paid for the envelope through PayPal.
      “Something smells good,” Felicity said, as she came through the front door.
      “Home made green Thai chicken curry.”
      “Sounds good. Sarah’s pregnant.”
      “The sauce came out of a jar and it’s boil in the bag rice, but you know what I mean,“ Kevin said, stirring the wok.
      “She hasn’t told anyone yet, but the floaty tops are fooling no-one. There’s a sweepstake on when she’s going to announce it.”
      “I registered my interest in some Cameron Mark Four Double Burners and two baskets, one with leather trim and the other with green suede.”
      “I’ve got Friday lunchtime.”

“Have a nice day at work,” Kevin shouted to Felicity from the table, whilst checking his emails. The guy selling the burner offered delivery later in the week, Kevin bought it immediately. The basket was more complicated, as neither seller was close. The brother of one had a van and agreed to drive it down for thirty pounds which clinched the deal.
      Kevin was pondering the lease or buy decision on fuel tanks, when an email arrived from Jonny. The envelope had gone into production, with an expected shipping date of Saturday.

Kevin spent the next three days sorting out the shed, making room for the future arrivals. He ordered a pair of brand new titanium fifteen gallon propane fuel tanks from Cameron Balloons. Second hand baskets and burners were fine, but he’d decided not to take any risks with the propane tanks.
      The first deliveries were due on Friday. The basket, burner and Tesco all came in the morning. The wicker basket was a set of tightly packed breaking waves. Its uniformity only spoilt by the odd broken strand, as if someone had removed a strip of the sea. Kevin ran his fingers over the smooth surface of the leather trim, absorbing the fear, excitement and sweat of its previous passengers. He got into the basket. Above him the frame formed a triangle without corners through which he could see a single cloud in the sky.
      The silver burners were cold to the touch and Kevin smelt the last flight lingering within the metallic coils and valves. He tapped the two pressure gauges. Nothing happened. He matched the valves with the pictures in the manual he’d downloaded. The one finger activated whisper valve. The blast valve and pilot light valve, both one finger operations too, but they also required a handle to be pushed. The cross flow valve was bigger; Kevin slipped his fingers around the t-shaped handle and turned it. He didn’t touch the piezo lighting mechanism in case the spark ignited fumes. He put the balloon components in the shed, padlocked the door and went inside to cook sausage, mash and onion gravy.
      After seeing Felicity off to work on the Monday, Kevin roamed around the house cleaning and tidying. Nothing to do on the balloon, except wait. He tried watching the television, but couldn’t stick any of the daytime programmes for more than a few minutes. He was restless and had an energy he couldn’t burn off. After a couple of hours of mooching, Kevin went out.

Over the next few days Kevin went for walks, swimming and to the pub. Felicity was greeted at night by roast chicken, pasta carbonara and mushroom risotto. The envelope arrived on Friday. Despite it being light weight material, it took two delivery men to carry it into the garden. Kevin opened the box and ran the tips of his fingers across the nylon. He wanted to see his envelope design, and cut the sides of the box away with a pair of scissors. With a couple of grunts, he slid the envelope onto the lawn and began to unfold it. By the third unfold Kevin was stood in Felicity’s rose bushes and the other end was hanging on the apple trees at the back of the garden, but neither the black skirt nor the parachute valve were visible.
      Cursing himself, he refolded. After twenty minutes of dragging and pushing, Kevin managed to get the envelope inside the shed. The need for unfolding space gnawed at him while he prepared salmon fishcakes.
      The weekend was spent trying to work out where to inflate the balloon. On Monday after rejecting all of his own ideas, Kevin called George. As well as the national representative, George was the local contact for British Balloon & Airship Club. In their email exchanges George had offered to give Kevin some piloting and safety training on his first flight. When Kevin described the lack of space issue to George, he laughed, and then suggested that local farmers were a good source of take off sites.
      Kevin watched a flock of birds swoop down onto the fields behind the estate, all after the treats unearthed by the combine. He realised he had a great take-off site minutes from the house and called the Farm Shop. After explaining his request to the shop worker, the shop manager and the farmer’s wife, he got the farmer’s mobile number. Kevin watched the farmer answer the phone from his window. The farmer wasn’t too keen, until Kevin offered the small financial compensation George had suggested. This changed the conversation. The farmer also offered his wife’s bacon sandwiches and supplies of coffee.

“So how’s your day been?” Felicity said, walking into the kitchen.
      “I went to the Surrealism Exhibition,” Kevin said.
      “Oh god. That looks good, what is it?”
      “Long Legged Elephants.”
      “For tea?” Felicity said.
      “The Dali picture. Long legged elephants. Tea is Thai Green Curry, made from scratch,” Kevin said, pointing to the dirty implements, “served with jasmine rice.”
      “It smells amazing darling,” Felicity said.
      Sunny days and warm nights were forecast for the rest of the week. Not a large amount of wind, but George felt it would be fine for the test flight. At seven thirty Thursday morning, Kevin received a text from George confirming that today would be inflation day.
      Felicity packed her laptop away, and slipped her feet into a pair of black stilettos. “I’m presenting the Recruitment and Retention Strategy to the Board today,” she said.
      “You’ll do fantastic and they’ll love it,” said Kevin, and then he kissed her. She stared at him for a few seconds.       “What?” Kevin said.
      “I’m not sure ... never mind. Have a good day.”
      George arrived at ten o’clock with a two man ground crew. All three helped Kevin carry the components to George’s van. They were interested in the Cameron Mark Four Double Burner which, in their opinion, was in fantastic condition and hadn’t done above a few hundred miles. Kevin directed George through the lanes to the farmer’s field, a route he’d driven a couple of times the previous day.
      The team unfolded the silky envelope, and laid it down like a field of instant rapeseed. Kevin began making copious notes in his moleskine pad, on every instruction or suggestion George issued. The crew brought over two inflation fans on red steel frames, and began the process of packing the cold ground air into the envelope. George and Kevin walked fifteen metres inside the balloon and watched the parachute’s Kevlar cord ascend. As the envelope reached three quarters full they climbed into the gondola and George encouraged Kevin to press the piezo button. Kevin watched through the triangular frame of the basket as the burners scorched and the taste of gas filled his mouth.

© Andrew Lavender, 2012


Hugh of Plymouth said…
A worthy winner. Most uplifting and enjoyable with a great sense of building exhileration. Well done.