Up, Up And Away
There’s an adventure in the sky in this engaging complete story by Maggie Cobbett, set in Yorkshire.
A feel-good story by Maggie Cobbett
HOW do you feel about balloons, Nicola?” Helen Barber asked, walking into my classroom late one Friday afternoon. My pupils were all long gone and I was working alone. The last time I’d had anything to do with balloons was a few years ago at my little sister’s birthday party. I’d blown up so many of the wretched things that I nearly passed out.
“Well, as long as there aren’t too many of them, I suppose I could . . .” Helen laughed. “Not that kind of balloon! I mean a hot-air balloon. Invented by the Montgolfier brothers just before the French Revolution, but you’d know all about that.”
Of course I did. There was even a picture of one on the front cover of the course book I was working through with some of my younger pupils. Maybe that was it. Helen had dreamed up a joint project between Science and Modern Languages and needed my help.
“Well, I’m all for cross-departmental co-operation,” I said cautiously. She laughed again. “So am I, but this is nothing to do with school. James just phoned to say we’ve been let down at the last moment and I thought you might like to give us a hand. If you’re free tomorrow, that is.”
Helen had been friendly ever since I joined Weaverthorpe High as a newly qualif ied French teacher, but I rarely saw her outside the staff room and had never met her husband. What help could the two of them possibly need from me?
“James and I have been working over the last couple of years to qualify as balloon pilots. Now we’ve both got our licences and we’ve bought a small balloon of our own.”
“That’s wonderful, Helen, but I don’t see how –”
“I’m just coming to that. The weather forecast for tomorrow is very promising – light wind, good visibility and no rain – and we were planning to fly, but one of our ground crew can’t make it. If you’ll take his place, I promise James or I will take you up. You’d be doing us a real favour.”
“But why me? I don’t know a thing about ballooning.”
“We just need an extra pair of hands. The others will show you what to do. Of course, if you have other plans . . .”
Helen had hit a nerve. I hadn’t been in Weaverthorpe long enough to establish a social life and was sorely missing my student friends. A weekend of solitary meals, marking and lesson planning was all that awaited me. These days I almost looked forward to Monday mornings. “No, I haven’t,” I admitted. Before I had time to think it through any further, Helen was writing down the details of the launch site and advising me to dress up warmly.
“You’ll need trousers and flat shoes with a decent grip, and you’re tall, so I’d wear a hat as well.” Without waiting to explain the relationship between my height and the need for headgear, Helen thanked me again and headed for the door.
THE sun was just rising on that early October morning when my bus dropped me off at the gates of Windy Bank Farm.
Some way from the main house, and in a field from which it was very obvious that cattle had only recently been moved, a large wicker basket was lying on its side and a group of people was unloading other equipment from the back of a van. A battered Land-Rover stood alongside it.
I was halfway across the field when Helen spotted me. Her long blonde hair was tied back and she looked very businesslike in her navy fleece jacket and matching trousers.
“Nicola! Glad you could make it. Come and meet everyone else! This is my James,” she announced proudly, seizing a stocky, redheaded young man by the arm and pulling him forward to shake hands with me. “And Angela, David and Charlie.”
They were all very friendly, particularly Charlie, who had floppy dark hair, warm brown eyes and the kind of mouth that looked as though it smiled a lot. He took it upon himself to explain everything to me and I started to feel that it was good to be outdoors and working as part of a team.
Once the propane burner system had been f ixed to the basket, we all set about laying out the brightly striped balloon, which was much bigger than I’d expected. The next step was to inflate it, using a powerful fan at the base.
“It’s like a huge marquee,” I marvelled. “You could almost hold a wedding reception inside.”
“Now there’s a thought!” Angela giggled and shot David a meaningful look.
“Women!” He grinned, but he gave her an affectionate smile. “Come on, let’s get this baby into the air.”
Once James and Helen were satisfied that there was enough air inside, the next step was to blast the burner flame into the mouth of the balloon – which I’d already learned was called an envelope. It wasn’t long before it started to rise.
By no means as ornately patterned as the balloon made famous by the Montgolfier brothers, its rainbow colours still made it an impressive sight to behold.
“This is the tricky bit, Nicola,” James warned. “We don’t want the balloon to take off before the launch crew’s on board. Helen and I will be going up first to make sure everything’s OK.”
The basket was still f irmly attached to the van, but the rest of us helped to hold it steady until they were safely inside.
As soon as James signalled that they were ready, Charlie untied the rope. With a steady flame shooting upwards from the burner, a cheer rang out as the basket lifted right off the ground.
“How long until they get back?” I enquired, watching the balloon climbing higher and higher above us.
“Oh, they won’t be landing here,” Charlie informed me. “Didn’t Helen explain? You can’t really steer a hot-air balloon, only take it up or down into different air currents. That’s where a lot of the skill comes in.”
“You can’t control the speed, either,” David added. “The balloon can only travel as fast as the wind blows.” “Then how . . .?” “It’s our job to follow them. Have you locked up the van, Angela? Come on, then, everyone, let’s go!
It turned out that Charlie’s battered old Land-Rover was the “chase vehicle” that day, and off we went down roads he seemed to know well, some of them scarcely more