It’s quite pleasant, really, the sound that the balloons make – a good-natured bop and squeak, like bright-eyed school children. They get along far better than the humans that manufactured them. Foil balloons with rubber balloons, latex with nylon, pinks and blues and yellows. Cheap multipack balloons, customised screenprinted balloons. Balloons twisted into animals, balloons shaped as swollen numerals, balloons tied with curled ribbons.
The cold wind is their ally; the gathering storm clouds announce their imminent arrival.
Lola Metronome and Calliope St Laurent have just opened the Moscato. They are sitting on a picnic blanket that the two of them made together when they were just schoolgirls. Their skin is as wrinkled and worn as the blanket, but sturdy – these are two well-made and well-loved women. Lola pours as Calliope holds the wine glasses. Thunder cracks overhead.
‘I suppose it was quite arrogant,’ Lola says.
‘Quite,’ Calliope says.
‘Who knew that this would be how humankind would meet their doom.’
‘Of all the ways.’
‘Yes. Of all the ways.’
‘But it’s as you said, Lola – arrogance.’
‘Yes. It’s quite fitting really.’
‘Yes. Very fitting.’
Some of the balloons are embellished with slogans or trademarks. There are emerald green balloons for a tax accounting firm, and purple and gold balloons for a first homebuyers’ loan scheme, and strident blue balloons for a residential supplier of natural gas. They look very smart as they bob together, the ink on their skins still crisp, advertising phone numbers that are likely now defunct.
Some of the balloons carry unretrieved prizes in their bowels. Some of them are tied together in ribboned bouquets.
There is even a lemon yellow giraffe dotted with black felt-tip marker – the work of a browbeaten birthday party entertainer, perhaps, or a child’s quaking hand.
‘What do you think of the cheddar, Cal?’
‘It’s very sharp. I love it.’
‘Do you know,’ Lola says, ‘that whenever there was one of those wretched get-to-know-you icebreakers, at clubs and speed dating and the like, and the organiser would cajole you into introducing yourself by saying what kind of cheese you are, I would always say that I was blue cheese.’
‘You? Blue cheese? Why?’
‘Because I make terrible first impressions.’
‘Ah. An acquired taste.’
‘I think of you as more of a Gouda. Tough rind, soft heart, a tad smoky.’
‘That’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said about me.’
‘What cheese am I?’
‘You? Mozzarella. You’re the stuff that holds everything together.’
‘That really is a terrible icebreaker. What if one doesn’t like cheese, or can’t eat it? What on Earth do they say?’
‘A dealbreaker of an icebreaker.’
‘All icebreakers are dealbreakers as far as I’m concerned. Just let everything be awkward and everyone can very well muddle through it. How else do you find out your true character, if not thrashing in the hot throes of awkwardness?’
And here they are – cresting the silver-tipped clouds, a kaleidoscopic rainbow swarm, balloon upon balloon upon balloon. Held aloft by their common purpose, bright with intent. There is no leader, there are no ranks.
Their number is large enough to block out the sun.
Their number is large enough to become the sky.
Calliope says, ‘I never learned how to whistle.’
Lola says, ‘I never mastered the French r sound.’
Calliope says, ‘I never convinced my avocado tree to bear fruit.’
Lola says, ‘I never sorted out the mess in my garage.’
Calliope says, ‘I never read the last Harry Potter book.’
Lola says, ‘I never finished learning that Chopin prelude.’
Calliope says, ‘I never tasted sashimi.’
Lola says, ‘I never successfully baked a meringue.’
Calliope says, ‘I never travelled to Spain.’
Lola says, ‘I never rode in a cable car.’
Calliope says, ‘I never placed a bid at an auction.’
Lola says, ‘I never consolidated my superannuation.’
Calliope says, ‘I never touched snow.’
Lola says, ‘I never used a fountain pen.’
The explosions are small at first. The sky becomes the sinister colour of cordial. Powerlines buckle. Skyscrapers tumble to their knees.
Some of the balloons seem to grow bigger, inflated by each small victory, each home they set alight.
A fleet of multicoloured bumblebees hurl themselves at a primary school until it turns into a crumbling pyre.
Lola and Calliope can see everything from their position on the cliff. The air is thick with smoke and balloons.
‘Remember the balloons at Frieda’s wedding?’ Calliope asks. ‘The colour of champagne. I didn’t know balloons came in that colour.’
‘And at the funeral of the Richardson boy, remember. The family released balloons after the burial. Those were blue. Pale blue.’
‘Who knew that we’d see them again, here.’
‘In this context.’
‘All our parties coming back to haunt us.’
‘I think your house just exploded.’
‘I believe it just did.’
And the balloons keep coming. The air smells like scorched rubber, like charred skin and hair and birthday candles. A large looming pig has just destroyed a community recreation centre.
When the balloons explode, they leave no skin behind. They commit themselves entirely to their cause. In a way, the balloons are becoming one giant body of gas, no longer confined by the membranes of their inflated forms. They achieve singularity.
Calliope unfolds her fan and flaps away the ash that has landed on the scones. Lola inspects her glass in the clotted sunlight.
‘Do you remember,’ Lola says, ‘the time that you helped me to gaffer-tape the ruined bumper of my mother’s car?’
‘That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes. I’d borrowed my mother’s car and backed it into the wall on the way out of her driveway. I was in tears when I arrived at your house. Just anticipating my mother’s anger, her inevitable interrogation of a few seconds’ worth of carelessness.’
‘It used to be The End Of The World, didn’t it, that sort of thing. We’ve endured many such Ends Of The World.’
‘You made a cup of tea for me and then together we went out to inspect the damage. You convinced me it wasn’t so bad. Just the bumper hanging off a bit. You fetched a menacing roll of black gaffer tape from the garage. You knelt on the wet lawn and tore off confident strips. You shoved the sagging part back into place and secured the bumper to the body of the car. Your handiwork kept the bumper out of trouble until I could get it repaired.’
‘Yes. I do remember that incident.’
‘You held me together that day.’
‘It was nothing.’
‘It was everything.’
The air is too thick for humans to breathe now, overcome by black haze, by some terrible and final colour, the vast sums of lives simplified into ash and heat. The Earth creaks under the balloons’ victory, a celebration to call their own, and finally, as if the clouds cannot hold it in anymore, their bodies burst with rain. The Earth belongs to these burnished vessels – clouds, balloons – they turn to amber in the fading daylight, and the slant of the rain animates their forms in quick fresh brushstrokes. They do not intend to build, or recreate, or colonise. They fly above the smouldering skyscrapers, the capsized bridges and train tunnels, all the crumpled castles of humanity.
To view the Digital Writers' Festival 'Under Construction' project, click here.