Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Barrage balloon

Her name was Hattie and she was a barrage balloon.  She wasn't an actual barrage balloon that the defense-folks had nicknamed Hattie, she was an actual woman, a little on the pink-and-plump side, and she was an actual barrage balloon.  She had a helium-filled jacket that she put on while it was deflated, and then secured two ropes to it.  One was a short rope that meant she stayed on the ground while the jacket was filled, and the other was a long rope that soon would be her only tether to the earth below.  Once she'd checked both the clips to make sure that they were secure she'd raise her thumbs and the crew would turn on the helium pump and inflate the jacket.  While they were doing that she'd put on her orange helmet and black goggles, check her lipstick in the mirror and make small-talk with the hangar staff.  When the jacket was full and she was blimp-shaped she'd wave a hand farewell to everyone, and unclip the short rope.  Most of the time she would start to rise quite slowly, then speed up as she got clear of the ground and the air could push her around with impunity.  Sometimes it would take a little longer, and she might have to hop and jump a little to get things going.  But always she would ascend into the sky where the planes flew and spend six hours serving as a barrage balloon.
I interviewed her once, curious as to what possessed her to do such a strange and foolhardy thing.  She met me at the station and invited me to join her for coffee in a coffee-shop just opposite.  I smiled and said yes, my hands already shaking from having had to spend twenty minutes on the train without a coffee.  There was a short queue which did nothing for my already short temper, and so I started asking background questions while we waited.
I asked her where she was from, and she smiled coyly and said she didn't know.  A little more probing revealed that she'd been discovered by her parents under a hawthorn tree.  They'd picked her up and taken her in in the hopes of getting a reward, but their reward had only been to see Hattie growing up, reaching seventeen before they died in a seven-caravan pile-up after an avalanche in the Scottish park where they were renting a summer caravan.
"Were they proud of you being a barrage balloon?" I asked, wondering why it was taking so long to make our coffees.
"Oh, I waited till after they were dead," said Hattie.  "It was a close thing in the end."
To my surprise, it turned out that there was an upper age limit on when you could become a barrage balloon: as soon as you were deemed old enough to make your own decisions you were deemed too likely to sue to be employed as a barrage balloon.  Although Hattie seemed oblivious to the implications of her words, I understand her to be circumlocutorily saying that only stupid people became barrage balloons, and they did it by signing a waiver that affirmed they were old enough to take the decision, but too young to understand what it meant.
"Do you see any planes?" I asked, expecting her answer to be no.  Clearly there couldn't be many near here, as she wasn't riddled with bullet holes, or as flat as someone who's hit the ground at terminal velocity.
"Oh yes, all the time," said Hattie.  "I throw things at them."
"You... throw things at them?"  My voice was doing that thing legs do when someone's described as going weak at the knees.
"We take ammunition up with us, in our pockets," said Hattie.  "Small things, but they explode.  They can rip open a cockpit, and then the air-pressure sucks the pilot out like toothpaste when you stamp on the tube."
"But isn't it dangerous?" I said, thus demonstrating that I was just as stupid as Hattie.
"It's for the good of the country," she said, her voice taking on a sing-song quality as though reciting something learned by rote.  "I am privileged to be a barrage balloon."
"Have you been shot at?" I said, trying to recover my poise.
"Lots," said Hattie.  "But they usually miss."
I thought about asking what happened when they didn't miss, but to my credit I managed to keep my mouth shut this time.  "You're very brave," I said, wondering how sincere I sounded.  "Where's my godddamned coffee?"

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