He came every week. Never on the same street corner two weeks running, and that was half the fun. Kids would run all over Bridgetown looking for him, The Balloon Man. We’d never seen balloons like his before. Always animals, but they were so real! Beasts of every shape and size, but that wasn’t the only surprise about our town balloon seller.
After chasing all over town kids would eventually track him down. He only ever carried one balloon and we all wanted it, but being first in line had no bearing on who got the gift. He’d look at the kids, a slow, lazy consideration, and then he’d say the same thing every time:
‘Ah, that’s the one.’
He’d hand the balloon to the lucky kid, the rest of us pretty much green with envy, before walking away without further comment. Growing up we all wanted a balloon and I think most got one over the years. There didn’t seem to be much of an age limit. I’d seen kids as old as 12 handed a balloon, seen their eyes light up same as any toddler. I also knew dozens of locals who had kept their balloon long after it was flat as a pancake and earthbound.
I still had mine. I remembered the pure joy when I wrapped my grubby six year old hand around that purple string and floated on air all the way home, my snowy owl – almost as big as me – flying free in my wake. He survived for nearly a year and I cried a little the night he began to drift toward the floor. Once all the helium had dissipated I carefully rolled him up, tied him with the purple ribbon and popped him in my sock drawer. Over the years, through college and becoming a teacher and marriage and kids that owl stayed with me, a little roll of crinkled security. I held it close now, drawing on the vestiges of a happy childhood to get me through the day.
It had been all over the news, Bridgetown’s only claim to fame, and one I doubted it would ever live down. The bullied school kid who worked at the local coffee shop. His internet searches and strange purchases. The invitations to a reunion of Bridgetown school pupils before the place was bulldozed and lost forever. A school hall filled with laughter and memories blown away, half the pupils gone with it, more forever scarred in mind and body.
The mayor and town council had sent out elegant, black-edged calls for any remaining pupils to come, to attend a mass funeral and the laying of the first stone of a memorial park on the site of the disintegrated school. Two hundred and sixty-five coffins, generations of Bridgetown erased. I couldn’t stay away, but I took my owl with me.
The coffins were lined up row after row, all the families and friends lined in echoing rows, reminding me of a bizarre chess game. The first move came from the mayor. He called for a representative of each coffin to step up and place a memory which would go into the grave with their absent loved one.
In the drizzle, under leaden skies, specially bought funeral outfits saturated, new shoes slipping on the turf, men, women and children came forward and I caught my breath as I watched. The town was so silent I felt I could hear the rain drifting onto my skin, no-one needing to strain to hear the words spoken by each figure. My heart lurched as I realised every single person was laying a rolled up balloon on the coffins.
A series of people brought tears to my eyes. These were related to my classmates. Marge Graham’s wife laid her balloon gently:
‘She was so unassuming but she was my life.’
The balloon, I remembered, had been a mouse.
George Temple took his turn:
‘My brother had a sharp tongue, but a heart of gold.’
The balloon drifted in my mind’s eye, a crocodile.
Anna Lyons wept copiously, placing a balloon for her husband:
‘Everyone knew he was slow, but he never hurt a soul, and I loved him.’
His balloon had been a turtle.
I tuned out then because my gaze was captured by movement by the graveyard wall. The balloon man stood there, head bent, paying his respects. I was frozen for a moment, thrown by how he had not changed, not even his dated coat and hat, but then a child began to wander over, smiling, a bright spot amongst the melancholic litany of death and destruction. A chimp balloon rose up from behind the man. He smiled down at the girl, handed her the pink string and began to walk away.
I made to run after him, but the girl’s mother scurried over, embarrassed by her child’s brilliant presence in the depths of bleak despair, I heard her clearly in the sepulchral silence – ‘She’s such a monkey! – and I gazed after the retreating coat and hat, wondering who the child might have been had she not been given the chimp balloon.
Later, when the people had faded away I wandered over to the fenced off, ignored section of the churchyard. Behind the locked iron gate I could see where they had buried whatever they could find of Logan Miles, the kid with the lisp and chronic acne who had attained revenge on a whole town. A balloon had been left, tied to the crooked wooden cross at his head. I wasn’t surprised to see it flap pathetically in the wind, a hawk moth.