Vanessa J. Horn
Daisy slipped on her cardigan and rose from the table. “Well, ladies, I need to leave you now – I’m off to get ready.” She walked away briskly, a heady mixture of perfume and expectation.
“See you later then, and good luck!” Marie called after her friend. Turning back to Lilian and noting the quizzical expression on the other woman’s face, she quickly added, “It’s Daisy’s Balloon Time.”
Lilian nodded. “Yes, I gathered that much. But what exactly does she need to do to get ready; surely all she needs to do is to be there?”
Marie laughed. “You can tell you haven’t had your Time yet, hon! There’s so much more about it than that. You have been informed?”
“Of course.” Lilian’s voice was matter of fact. “It’s all in the welcome pack that they went through with me when I first arrived. I know that it’s the only occasion when you are able to have that link, that connection: the arrival of the balloon from your loved one on your birthday.”
Marie nodded. “Yes, that’s the gist of it. Straightforward enough, supposedly, but the whole event – wonderful though it can be – brings all your emotions to the forefront. You know, the feelings and sensations you experienced when you were at – ” And here she nodded downwards.
“Home,” supplied Lilian.
“Exactly.” Marie sighed. “And don’t forget, it’s not a done deal that a balloon will arrive - there’s no guarantees that you’ll definitely get one every year. Or any year, really. I think that’s one of the reasons why Daisy dresses up in her finest, because she reckons that if she makes the effort then she will be rewarded with her balloon. Almost like a game of chance.”
Lilian looked thoughtful. “It makes sense, I suppose. Though I don’t know that I’ll necessarily do the same when it’s my turn.”
Marie smiled. “No, you won’t know exactly how you feel until then. But I can’t think of anyone here that doesn’t hold the whole Balloon Time in high esteem. No-one that doesn’t make a big thing of it. It is, after all, the one occasion that you’re able to have contact with the ones you love. A message from home. It’s not as if we’re able to find out any other way how our friends and family are doing, is it?”
Lilian shook her head, exhaling. “No peeking, as the Elders keep on reminding us. Not that we could easily anyway, with them milling around watching us all the time.”
* * *
As she sat in the dormitory later, Lilian thought some more about her Time. Although she hadn’t mentioned it to Marie, her birthday was imminent. “Five more days,” she murmured to herself, smiling wryly at the fact that she was still counting in Earth time. To be quite honest, she didn’t think she’d ever get used to the day/night combination here, any more than she’d get used to the lack of seasons. The word bland
flickered unannounced into her mind and she shook her head in exasperation. She knew she should be grateful - if she had to be anywhere but Earth, she’d much prefer to be here than… well, the other place.
So, soon she would be waiting by the huge ornate gates for an angel to deliver her balloon from the clouds. Lilian reflected: the first of their birthdays that she and Alfie would spend apart. Surely he’d make a big deal of it? She had seen the balloons received by the others here - large, brightly-coloured illuminations – carried around proudly by the recipients, with the tiny white envelopes which contained the special messages tucked carefully into their pockets. Alfie’s efforts would equal or even surpass anything she’d seen previously, she was sure of it. His balloon would certainly be worth waiting for.
She looked up and smiled as Daisy entered the room, holding a large pink balloon aloft. “Ah - it came then?”
Daisy smiled back. “Darling Martin – he’d never forget.” She lowered her voice. “Though Agnes – she has the same birthday as me, you know – is still there waiting. Just in case.”
Lilian’s eyes widened. “What – no balloon for her? Poor soul.” Then she frowned. “But doesn’t she know that once the angel has delivered, then that’s it? It’s not like the old postal system at home, where you had two deliveries a day.”
Daisy sighed. “Well, I think she hopes that maybe they’ll put on a special delivery, just for her. Bless her, she’s gone through this for twelve years now.”
“I don’t think I could face arriving there year after year to nothing,” Lilian muttered. “Surely after the first no-show you’d lose hope?”
Daisy sat down on her bed and carefully re-read her message. Then she looked up and shrugged. “Well, you have to have hope, don’t you? Otherwise, what else is there? For all the Elders keep on about honing our skills and working toward becoming angels, I’m sure they know that it’s really only the love and news from home that sustains us. Keeps us motivated.”
Nodding, Lilian then bit her lip, feeling disloyal for having doubts, but needing to share her thoughts nevertheless. “It’s my Time soon – I’ll be waiting for a balloon from my husband, Alfie. We’d been married twenty-eight years. I hope… I hope he remembers.”
Daisy smiled. “Wow – you had a good innings; I’m sure you have nothing to worry about, in that case.”
“I hope you’re right. It’s just… well, because it’s my first Time, I’m not sure. Suppose Alfie doesn’t know the procedure, doesn’t know what to do?” Lilian wrung her hands together anxiously. “I don’t think I could cope if my balloon didn’t arrive.”
Daisy reached over and patted her friend’s hand. “We all feel like that on the first Time but don’t fret – Alfie will have been told what to do, in his dreams, just like every other bereaved person is told. You will receive your balloon, just like I did today. Just like most others do, in fact.”
“Except Agnes,” murmured Lilian, only a little reassured.
* * *
However, when it grew nearer to her Balloon Time, Lilian felt more optimistic about the forthcoming event. More confident. There was no reason that she should doubt Alfie; he had, after all, been her soul-mate. Her forever love. Eventually, like Daisy, she had decided to dress up, not so much to ward against the non-arrival of her balloon but more to mark the occasion – set it out as the special event which it would be. One of many, she hoped. So, after deliberation, she had put on a purple skirt and blouse; she and Alfie had always laughed about the old woman in the poem wearing purple and running her stick along the railings. Therefore, this ensemble would be entirely appropriate.
As Lilian walked through the sectors on her not inconsiderable journey toward the golden gates, her thoughts focused on the message which Alfie would send. She hoped he would give her news on their daughter, Poppy, as well as the two gorgeous little grandchildren.
She sighed. Wonderful – and pain-free – as the existence was here, she couldn’t help but miss her family badly. That’s why this message would be so special to her; maybe it would hold the sustenance she needed in order to keep optimistic – not to keep looking back, but to look forward instead. To the future.
Spying a glimpse of gold in the distance, Lilian’s step quickened and her excitement mounted. Not long now. Already, she could see small groups travelling toward the gates and beginning to gather there; hers was obviously a birthday shared by many. She smiled at her naďve thoughts – had she really expected to have an exclusive Balloon Time all to herself? Hardly. Anyway, it was nice that all these folk were there to share in the celebrations. Made it altogether more commemorative.
Upon reaching the gates, Lilian was surprised to see Marie amongst the waiting assembly. She touched her friend lightly on the arm. ”Hey – I didn’t know we shared the same birthday?”
Marie smiled sheepishly. “I tend to keep it quiet. It’s a superstition I have; if I don’t tell anyone it’s my Time until the actual event, then I’ll still get my balloon. I know it’s silly but, well, it’s worked so far.”
Understanding, Lilian nodded, and then turned her attention to the vast golden gates in front of them, admiring their splendour, their magnificence. Alongside these were the Guardians of the Gates, protecting them, she assumed, from any random soul who might try to force their way through and make their way back to Earth. She hadn’t heard of anyone who’d actually tried this, but she imagined that newcomers thought it a possibility – she had herself at first - not realising that once you were here, here you stayed.
Suddenly there was a murmur in the crowd. Lilian put aside her thoughts and looked up, expectantly, as the golden gates slowly began to open. She saw that, on the other side of them, the angels were waiting in a line; waiting with balloons. Soon, one by one, the Guardians began to relieve these messengers of their bounty, announcing each name one by one and giving them their long-awaited treasure. There didn’t seem to be any particular order in the proceedings and, initially, Lilian was happy to wait her turn, enjoying the happiness experienced by others as they collected their balloons and read their messages.
After a few more balloons had been given out, it was Marie’s turn to receive a lavish heart-shaped offering. She beamed at Lilian, murmured, “See you later,” and then quickly hurried away. Presumably, she wanted to savour her message in private; relish the words from home. Lilian supposed that she herself would do the same when…
All of a sudden, she gasped as she realised that, although there were three people waiting, there were only two more angels with balloons by the gates. Someone was going to miss out. Lilian held her breath as one, then a second balloon was given out to the two people alongside of her. Feeling the tears begin to well up, she realised that she was the person who wasn’t going to get a balloon.
Alfie hadn’t sent her one. He hadn’t remembered. Hadn’t cared.
Suppressing a sob, Lilian turned away from the gates, away from the angels and away from the Guardians. She wasn’t sure exactly where she intended to go, but just knew she wanted to be alone, somewhere where she wouldn’t have to face questions or talk about how she felt. Somewhere solitary.
However, just as she began to retrace her steps, she heard a shout, “Lilian!” One of the Guardians was calling after her.
Her heart soared; there must’ve been a mistake – her balloon had obviously arrived late; maybe it had been delayed? She turned around eagerly, looking for the brightly-coloured object which was going to bring her joy. Joy and peace.
However, there was no balloon.
Puzzled – had it been a trick, a joke? – Lilian looked to one of the Guardians for explanation. “The angels have a balloon for me?”
He shook his head. Spoke in a soft voice, “No, not a balloon.”
Just as Lilian was forming her question, she saw, beyond the gates, a small figure accompanied by two angels, travelling toward the gate entrance. She squinted; there seemed something very familiar about this figure, and as he grew closer, she realised why. It was someone who she had known for years; shared her life and raised a family with. Someone very familiar indeed.
Lilian began to run, pushing past the Guardians and racing towards the approaching trio. “Alfie?” she cried, then, “Alfie!”
Meeting halfway between the gates and the clouds, Lilian and Alfie merged as one, hugging tightly as though they would never let go.