A story about balloons has been brewing for quite a while.
I’ve been promising myself to write something ever since I wrote the story about foiletti and my slightly more ranty but factual post about foiletti and balloons, and there have been various times when I’ve said to myself that I’ve got enough photos of balloons now and it’s time to write. But it has taken until now, and another Halloween ushering in another All Souls Day, for me to put pen to paper and then fingers to keyboard.
Like foiletti, there are balloons everywhere. Like foiletti, foil balloons are made of an exceptionally strong, durable, lightweight material so that they can circulate around the world for decades, drifting through air and water, snagging in branches or washing up on beaches.
The number of balloons on beaches is remarkable: like shoes, tyres, toothbrushes and ducks, there’s (almost) always the shrivelled scraps of a latex balloon, recognisable largely by its ribbon, or the better-preserved foil of a once-helium-filled metallic sack.
Somehow these don’t surprise me: everything ends up in the oceans eventually, and so everything ends up on certain special stretches of coast, like the northern shores of the Solway Firth.
But despite repeated encounters, I am still surprised by balloons in remote, rural places, far from rivers or seas, let alone the site of any party. Over the course of the last two and a half years, as George and I have meandered around Scotland, we’ve come across balloons – shining red, gold, silver and pink; shaped like stars, hearts, animals or simply balloons – caught in the branches of trees or hedgerows in places miles away from anywhere, including the dense sitka spruce plantations that George always refers to as mirkwood, on worryingly dry moorland, and alongside muddy farm tracks.
It was after seeing something glinting at the top of a tree in the plantation to the north of North Third reservoir in Stirlingshire that I made a connection with Will o’ the Wisps, or ignis fatuus – foolish fire: appearing in out of the way places, glinting and shining in the sun as if lit with their own light.
The Will o’ the Wisp is known across the world, from the Americas to Oceania, with versions leading and misleading travellers in many countries, or marking or guarding deeply buried treasure in others. In Sweden, they are the souls of unbaptised children, unable to progress to either heaven or hell, leading people towards water in the hope of being baptised and so being able to escape the trap of the mundane world. (I didn’t know about this when I wrote All Souls Day). In Wales, they’re fairy fire, carried by a pwca either in his hand or in a lantern, and used to lead lone travellers to the edge of a deep gorge and then leave them there in pitch dark. In some parts of Scotland, they’re lights carried by spunkies: malevolent beings that lure travellers to injury or death, and that sometimes guide ships onto rocks. What is common to all these stories is an ever-receding light, just out of reach … like a balloon drifting on the breeze. Could these shiny balloons be mischievous or evil spirits, luring people into the deep, dark woods, or entangling them in the grasping arms of thornbushes?
I was so determined that this would be “the” balloon story that we walked all the way back the following day, this time armed with a device that our friend Brian gave us that lets us attach the camera to George’s binoculars.
That way, we could get a proper picture of this particular pink balloon.
I knew that this story would be connected with The Patient Bride, and so be part of the series of stories that started with Flower Food. And I wanted it to join up with Julia and Lotte and the shoes, seeing as shoes are as common as balloons. But time is often my enemy, and it has taken another year, and dozens more balloons in unlikely places, for me to finally write the story of Lotte and the brattea fatua (foolish foil).
It was the night before the wedding.
Lotte and Julia had spent the day decorating the Scout Hall, ready for the party that would follow the service in the church across the road. The window sills were adorned with candles surrounded by brightly-coloured flowers – glorious colour in the driech Scottish autumn. Matching sprays stood in glitter-covered vases at the centre of each table. It had been Julia’s idea to use plastic flowers, and Lotte realised now it was a stroke of genius. Not only was there no danger of wilting or shedding petals, or spilt water if the dancing got a bit energetic, but there would be no fading in the future: Lotte’s bridal flowers would stay perfect forever, just like her marriage.
Lotte like the flowers, but she liked the balloons even more. Ever since she was small, she had loved anything that glimmered or shone – she remembered being so jealous of Julia’s sparkly shoes, so much prettier than her own plain white ones. She had spent the last half hour attaching a single balloon to each of the floral displays, carefully anchoring the glossy ribbons to the glittering vases that held them.
Now, Lotte and Julia stood at the doorway, taking stock of their efforts. The balloons bobbed gently on their strings as a draft passed through the room, casting reflections across the white table cloths and around the walls. Lotte smiled, delighted.
‘Come on – time for bed. Tonight of all nights you’ll be wanting to get your beauty sleep.’
‘I’ll go soon. I’d just like a wee minute to myself.’
The balloons danced and settled as Julia opened and closed the outer door, leaving her friend to a moment’s solitude. After all, from tomorrow she would always have Edwin at her side.
The balloons moved again and Lotte wondered where the draft was coming from – was one of the windows open? No, they were all firmly shut. Perhaps the door had not closed properly as Julia left? Lotte turned to check, and when she turned back she realised that the pin star balloon – her favourite, and the one she had attached to the table that she and Edwin would sit at tomorrow – had come loose and was floating towards the back of the hall. The back door must be open! Lotte crossed the empty space that in a few hours would be filled with dancing guests. She stretched out her hand but could not quite catch the dangling ribbon before the balloon floated outside.
Lotte followed into the dark night. The balloon sped before her, caught by a gust of wind. She slipped off her high-heeled shoes and ran after it as it passed over the old town walls and drifted towards the forest …