Sunset on the estuary, Hayle. Photo by Sarah MacKean.

 

In early 2017 I finished a collection of comic short stories for my sister Jane, featuring entirely fictional characters living in an anonymous English seaside village, whose many activities and adventures are based on largely true events.  It’s entitled Strange Fruit and my intention is to add to the initial twelve stories as the mood takes me, and upload them onto this website.

 

In the meantime, here is a short story I wrote in July 2017, based on something magical that happened to me as a child.

 

St Margaret’s Priory. Photo by Sarah MacKean.

 

The Balloon

 

“Ben says there’s no such thing as Santa Claus!”

Carrie is crying, but her sobs are about a whole lot more than a six year old’s grim discovery that a jolly resident of the indeterminate north, bearing gifts to every child in the world over a frantic twenty-four hours each December, is not an actual person.

“There isn’t!” says Ben. “Don’t be such a baby!”

Ben is one of the kindest boys I know. His crossness with his sister is about a whole lot more than the irritation every nine year old feels when someone tries to pull the wool over their eyes and treat them like a credulous baby.

“But I want Santa to find us when we move!”

Carrie’s voice holds real distress. Christmas is only a few weeks away, and by then these two young Australians will be living in the distant continent of Africa. If Santa cannot find them, to offload the rewards for their exemplary good behaviour, then how can the rest of us?

I wonder how to console the pair of them.  It isn’t for a grandmother, however loving, to take it upon herself to manage these things, not when there are two capable adults on the scene, whose direct responsibility the decision to uproot and relocate them is. But I would like to arm my grandchildren with something more than “there there, Carrie,” and “now now, Ben.”

“Santa’s real, isn’t he?” demands Carrie, glaring at Ben but addressing me.

But he is not, and I have no plan to betray her brother with such a pretence. Especially as Carrie is a clever girl, who has probably never believed in the jolly old rogue at any stage, given the logistic impossibility of his entire enterprise.

“He’s a magical creation,” I say.

Carrie smiles at this, as I had hoped. The ideas behind both words are pleasing ones to a six year old.

“Magic isn’t real,” says Ben.

But of course it is!

“Magical things happen all the time,” I say.

“Do you mean sunsets and stuff?” Ben demands, suspiciously.

He is well used to my wonder at the casual beauties of nature.

“I mean things that cannot be explained in any other way,” I say. “Sunsets can be explained and understood, even if each one is like a little miracle. I mean things that cannot be explained, except by reference to magic.”

“Like angels?” asks Carrie.

I am not religious. But their mother is, and maybe their father has taken on a faith we his parents know nothing about. The whole family will no doubt be relying on faith, as our son works on the new mining project and his wife and children undertake the equally daunting task of casting off homesickness and settling in. I do not wish to undermine faith in any sort of higher power, but the fact is, similar ground though it may be, I am hoping to arm them with magic.

“Angels owe their existence to the power of God,” I say. “I mean magical things.”

“Like fairies?” asks Carrie.

Ben grimaces. I shake my head. I’m trying to explain something bigger than fairies, and yet smaller too. Simpler. More human.

“The best way to explain is if I tell you a story,” I say.

They are sitting opposite me, the three of us at the kitchen table.

“Once upon a time there was a little girl with two younger sisters. It was the day of the village carnival, an English autumn day, at least fifty years ago. Four hundred years or more before that, you see, a Dutchman, at the request of the local earl, had drained the land around the village, and the villagers were upset about it. Once the village had been a seaport. When the land was drained, the village was two miles away from the sea. So every single year since then, the villagers expressed their disappointment by burning an effigy of the Dutchman on a big bonfire.”

“They burnt a Dutchman?” Carrie asks, in distaste.

“No, they burnt a symbol of him,” I explain. “Even though the village became famous for the fertile fields that resulted, and remains famous for them to this day.”

That’s a point I’d like them to remember. Sometimes people can be ungrateful for a lasting benefit, especially if what precipitates it is the loss of a valued identity.

“The carnival was based around that bonfire,” I say. “There was a big parade in the afternoon, with beauty queens and floats, and a fancy dress competition, and lots of things for sale as the parade went by, like toffee apples and candyfloss and chestnuts. The little girl and her sisters loved going to the carnival. And this particular year their eyes were caught by the most wonderful balloons!”

My grandchildren are listening carefully as I tell them about the man in the shabby coat and cap, who was selling enormous helium balloons. There were three designs on offer in his bobbing clutch. All three designs were magnificent, and the balloons were expensive. These were not spoilt children. The mother agreed to let her three daughters choose a balloon each, as a special treat. And naturally they were each to have a different design.

One was a pale blue balloon with white clouds all over it, as if bits of a sunny autumn sky had been sliced off and puffed full of gas. One was a transparent balloon with green tendrils waving up from the base, like a fishbowl, within which an orange plastic goldfish bobbed about in perpetual circles. And one was a black balloon with two round white eyes and a round white mouth painted on one side, with a band tied around it above the eyes, sporting three feathers, in green, red and yellow.

“Which one do you think the little girl wanted most?” I ask.

“I want the one with the goldfish,” says Carrie. “Though I’d like a piece of sky too.”

“I bet she liked the one I want,” says Ben. “The one with the feathers.”

“You’re quite right, Ben,” I say. “The little girl fell in love at once with the black balloon and its feathers.”

The little girl was the oldest, of course, and you know how it is in families. Usually the oldest doesn’t get the first choice when it comes to little things like balloons, however expensive. But today their mother agreed to let her firstborn make the first choice, and, even though the next sister down was naturally upset not to get the black balloon herself, their mother agreed that it was the little girl who got the prize. The next sister down consoled herself with the goldfish, and the youngest sister got the cloudy balloon, which their mother tied to her pushchair. They returned home for tea very proudly with their balloons.

They were lucky enough to live in a big old house, a house so old that it had been standing when the Dutchman drained the land, even if it was fairly new-built back then. This splendid old house had two entrances, one containing the front door, a great slab of oak with a heavy iron knocker, accessed by way of a porch so grand that it had a tower above it. It was said that it was once possible to see the approach of the Spanish Armada from this tower, but, since the Dutchman had performed his feats of engineering, the sea could no longer be seen, just the acres of trees and green fields all around. The back entrance was some way away from the front, a blue door right at the other end of the redbrick building, hidden by a magnolia tree leaning against the front wall, and the broad-rimmed low roof of the kitchen.

The little girl was standing near the front door, waiting for their mother to open it and push the littlest sister in. And a little gust of autumn wind arose and, quick as a thief, tugged the big black balloon right out of her hand. She watched it fly high, her feathered Indian, and disappear high, high above their heads, flying free to his hunting grounds. She watched it until it disappeared, lost in the gathering dusk of the sky.

“Oh no!” says Carrie.

The little girl, horrified at her carelessness, wanted to burst into loud tears, and beg her mother to return at once to the carnival with the pushchair and her three daughters, and let her buy another one, and all of them wait for their tea. But she knew that could not happen. She saw their mother’s harried face, and knew that she, the oldest, could not burden her with this, especially as her mother had been so kind as to let her make the choice, rather than insist that she did the thing expected of an oldest sister and let the younger ones have the pleasure.

“Can you guess what the little girl said?” I ask. “Can you guess what she said, to make herself and her mother feel better, when the balloon had flown away?”

Ben and Carrie shake their heads.

“’My balloon will fly away to some other little girl who deserves her, and make that little girl happy’,” I say. “That’s what the little girl said.”

They were brave words, reflecting well on the little girl’s upbringing, of course. When their father came home from work, he was very approving of her approach. To cheer her up, and because he loved such things himself, he insisted that all of them went to the carnival funfair that dark autumn evening. And so the little girl, her younger sisters and her parents went to the fair, and had a lovely time on the dodgems and the Ferris wheels. Even though the little girl was still feeling sad, she did not make a fuss. She did not complain when the youngest sister won a big blue teddy bear, their father having fished up a winning plastic duck. Nor did she object when the next sister down triumphed on the coconut shy, being very good at sports, and won herself an actual goldfish, to go with her fishbowl balloon.

Every child must learn about disappointment, in order to manage the rest of their lives, I think, but do not say.

The family returned to their lovely big house, and decided to enter through the kitchen door at the back, where the range was burning. It felt like the dead of night, although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock. The little girl skipped ahead, and was the first to reach the door. And there, bobbing gently beneath the low eaves outside the kitchen, like a shadow in the dark, was her balloon.

“It went to a little girl who deserved her!” says Carrie, happily.

“It was a little piece of magic,” I confirm.

“Maybe her parents did it,” says Ben.

“No,” I say. “They didn’t have either the time or the thought to do that. The man selling the balloons would have gone home with the parade, and even though I looked for him at the fair, he wasn’t there, and nor were his balloons. It was magic. The wind brought it back and kept it there until the little girl came home.”

“It happened to you,” says Ben.

“Yes, I was a little girl fifty years ago.”

“How lucky you are,” says Carrie. “You had magic!”

“We all have that sort of magic,” I say. “I tried to be good, and have a positive thought, a lucky little girl living in a happy time with a happy family, trying to share her luck with some other little girl. And magic showed me that I was right to think that way.”

My grandchildren are silent as they think about this.

“So be positive?” asks Ben, determined to understand.

I nod. He turns to his sister.

“Don’t worry, Carrie,” he says. “Santa will find us wherever we are.”

She smiles. We all smile.

 

 

© Sarah MacKean July 2017

 

 

 

 

Created 26th September 2017

© Sarah MacKean 2017

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