Balloons - A short story



It was no place for a fifteen year old, even before what happened. When I asked my father if I could go he was only half listening, busy spooning porridge and poking the cat with his toe. My friend got lost within a few minutes, leaving me alone walking slowly, trying not to gawp. I remember the clash of too many music systems, the ragged stage curtains, the hordes of women in sequined panties who stroked my chest and spoke in languages I didn’t understand. One had a bulge in her crotch. The ground was cluttered with cans and broken glass and shoes the mud had swallowed. Everywhere I smelled the sweat and the smoke breathed from different mouths. She was in the middle of a group of sequin girls, bored. The kind of exaggerated boredom meant to deter people. “I’ll fuck you with the enthusiasm of a blow up doll”, that’s what her expression said.

I was a virgin then. I’d brought money and clasped it in my pocket with a sweating palm. Some of those girls made me ache, but all I spent it on was a stick of kebab meat. At intervals some sour man or other would grab a girl’s arm and take her away. Someone called me "young’un," it seemed an oddly old fashioned word. I ignored him, and the hand that stretched towards my food. 

When a body hits the ground from that height it makes an inhuman sound. I was so close I had to sidestep the lines of creeping blood. Before the crowds pulled me back I looked at her face again, the boredom was all gone.

"I can’t remember what the ground feels like." That was the last thing she said while she hung over the edge, looking at the grey-hooded man above her.  She said it wistfully, staring into his unreadable eyes. Someone got crushed in the stampede that followed. My knees and knuckles scuffed from tumbling in the moving crowds. By the time the police arrived, her body was gone. My father never found out what happened, “why so quiet?” was all he asked me. I shrugged and he turned back to the cat.


The technology to plant voices in the ground was not witchcraft after all. I found this out while digging the fields, in search of a woman’s voice in the mud. It came from speakers, encased in waterproof plastic, connected by webs of wire. The discovery might have been proof of my sanity, had I chosen to share it. I was twenty-six. My wife would greet my gaunt, spade-carrying figure on each of my returns. I didn’t tell her when I found the source of the voices. Nor did I tell her when I met the man in the grey hood. He told me to dig deeper, and I obeyed.


My remaining teenage years were quiet ones. Often I thought about the sequin girl, her sullen lips and the dip of her waist. I had wanted her so badly it made my breath shallow, but I didn’t have the courage to barge through the crowd and hand over my money. Maybe I could have saved her. Once I dreamed she was walking through the corridors of my house and into my room. When I woke I had to change my sheets.

For a while in my early twenties I discarded her memory, along with the rest of my teenage angst. I found a girlfriend who didn’t charge for twenty minute sessions. My father died, leaving me with the cat and the house and all the money he’d saved. His last words were mumbled and unintelligible, they made him chuckle though. The cat scampered through the empty rooms, chewing lightly on my socks while I watched TV. My girlfriend became my wife.

The talking in the ground started one evening when I was sitting in the living room, the cat next to me cocooned in a beanbag. Her wistful voice - I mistook it for next door’s television coming through the wall. It was well into the night before I realised who she was. From then on I heard her every day, first in the walls, then in the garden lawn and the paving stones in the street. Different voices from everywhere, but every one was her. I asked my wife if she heard anything. She told me I was going mad and ruffled my hair.

My schoolteacher once told us about ghosts. He was an easily distracted man - the right question would keep him rambling for a whole lesson. He talked about different world religions, about the arising of global consciousness, and who exactly was Beelzebub? He mentioned ghosts casually, as though they were his uncles and aunts - perhaps they were. "Talk back to them if they talk to you," he said. "Don’t run away, you’ll only piss them off."

The voices didn´t keep me awake, in fact they were melodic and could send me to sleep when I was half way through breakfast, or tying my shoe laces, or sitting in the bath. I went to the doctor, he sent me to the audiologist, who sent me back to the doctor. The same doctor sent me to a psychiatrist, but I didn’t keep the appointment. Instead I went to the hardware shop and bought a set of chisels, a hammer and a spade. First I set to work on the bedroom wall, but my wife stopped me before I got deep enough. Instead of upturning the lawn and blaming it on moles like I’d planned, I packed up my tools and drove back to where she’d fallen.

The tower blocks were empty, so were the fields and the car park. I began where the ground looked softest. After three weeks I hit the first wire. The network extended into the concrete and even tree roots, and every foot of earth I had the strength to dig. Each speaker was the size of a penny, but they projected loudly. Some of her voices were meek as if she was talking to a memory; others were hyped like inane girl-to-girl phone conversations. Mostly she spoke in a repetitive wistful singsong.

The night I met the man in the grey hood was the same night of the first bomb. The war sprung up around me, a background rumble that I barely noticed. People were fleeing, the streets became rubble, some parts of the road were blown open exposing more webs of wire, more speakers. Our house survived, my wife fled with the others. The cat remained. During my long absences it worked out how to open the fridge. 

The man in the grey hood told me to dig until I was the last one left in the town. Once everyone had gone the ground would be lighter. I didn’t understand him. The mounds of earth from my digging only grew to a certain height, and then seemed to remain the same. This also happens with dust, when you stop cleaning your house, as I discovered on my brief returns. My back and legs were aching and my hands were swollen with blisters, I asked him what I was digging for. "Balloons," he said.

One evening, when he thought I’d gone home I hid among the wreckage and watched him speak to her. She stopped and listened. "You should never have followed me," he said. She answered with a hundred voices at once. 

When I dug up the first balloon I turned to look at him, but he was gone. Then I knew I was the last one left in the town. It was spherical and grey and rose up into the air tugging the wires after it. The speakers hadn’t said a word all day. I levered the wires with my spade, until the network lifted a few centimetres, and another balloon popped out. They rose up slowly, with a force stronger than their size. Once the third appeared, they ripped up the ground all on their own. I staggered back as wires cut through un-dug earth. The fourth and fifth came at once, then more in clusters.

My house was the last to be destroyed, it happened sometime in my last days of digging. I was walking back just before midnight, spade slung over my shoulder, when I saw the cat darting between slabs of concrete and twisted wire. I slept on my flattened front door, dreaming about the arch of her shoulders swaying as she walked away from me.

When the balloons broke through, I ran until I reached the top of the furthest pile of rubble. And from there I watched her being lifted out of the ground by a tangle of wires, clumps of earth falling from her body. The whole web slid out from under the town and followed her upwards. So high that I blinked and forgot where to look. 


(Balloons cover design by Jamie Kyle

debut novel

A surreal story of mental breakdown, infidelity, a disappearing man and a city built of folded love letters. Click here to see it on Amazon.


Website banner by Kathryn Rodger