Isabella’s smile grew wider and wider as she released red balloons from her ninth-floor balcony. She felt lighter, freer as she watched them glide through the air and sail over the park. She wondered how far they’d go. Then she wondered how far she’d go. She knew Michael wouldn’t understand. Maybe later, in time.
He’d first presented balloons to her last year when he proposed. Placing a large refuse bag tied with a bow before her, he said, ‘Balloons expand and grow. Like our lives together will.’ They were picnicking in her family’s back garden. Puzzled, she pulled the bow and red balloons had emerged, gently floating out of the bag, their long tails of white ribbon trailing after them, gathered together at their ends and tied to a stone.
She’d been so enthralled by her bouquet of balloons, she’d almost missed the ring that was tied to the stone as well. She extracted the ring, but couldn’t take her eyes off the balloons, opening and closing her hand around the stone as it hovered just above her hand, sometimes nudging it through the air, watching how the balloons moved weightlessly, effortlessly, whispering of far off places and adventures. A balloon that wasn’t tied down could float off anywhere. That’s what she had said yes to. She hadn’t been listening to Michael’s words or looking at the ring. She’d been looking at and listening to the balloons.
Instead of floating away, however, she’d found herself carried along a current of expectation. There were decisions to make on venues and menus, gift and guest lists, invitations. The gravity of her yes dragged her down. In the fitting room, she burst into hysterics until they took the dress away.
‘Nerves,’ everyone said. ‘She’s always been so delicate.’
Then, at work, a six-month posting abroad became available. When she saw the location, a memory rose from childhood. She’d gone to the circus with her father. They’d watched the spectacle from the front row of the big top. Sitting on a hard bench, the sawdust made her sneeze. Then Isabella took in the din: the smells of popcorn and candy floss, the buzz of excitement from the crowd as they sat close together in the dimly lit tent. Then the lights blazed and voice bellowed from beyond the brightness making them start.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen. Boys and Girls. Prepare. To Be. Amazed...’
The ringmaster, with his top hat, crimson red coat and booming voice, captivated her. She was dazzled by the spotlights and the ornate costumes of the performers. There were other animal acts, but what she remembers is the bear – a huge beast. Under the command of the ringmaster, it reared up on its hind legs and advanced towards the crowd in a zombie-like stagger, claws out, growling through its muzzle. While the crowd gasped, oohed and aahed, she did not feel threatened or afraid, but intrigued.
‘East Siberian brown bear,’ her father said in her ear. ‘A fearsome animal, you wouldn’t want to tangle with one of those.’
She’d misheard the end of his sentence through the noise of the crowd and thought it would be wonderful to dance with a bear. She didn’t know how to tango, but she could waltz. Maybe they’d let her do that when she was bigger – join a circus and dance with a bear.
She applied for the post, telling Michael it was a good opportunity and that she’d always wanted to go abroad. They’d been together this long; a short time apart would make no difference. They could tie the knot once she got back. She’d be ready then.
‘You’re so flighty,’ Michael had said. ‘That’s why we’re good together. I keep you grounded – otherwise, who knows where you’d be.’
‘Yes,’ she’d responded, looking off beyond his shoulder.
‘Don’t worry,’ he added, directing her gaze back to him, ‘I’ll visit.’
‘It’s very far away,’ Isabella said. ‘And difficult there. You might not like it.’
‘Then why would you?’
The night before she departed for her placement, she dreamt of waltzing with a great brown bear in a grand ballroom. They danced in perfect step, her small hand in its large paw. She felt a completeness, a perfect harmony as they moved across the room. At some point, Isabella noticed her feet weren’t touching the floor. She wondered if Michael was there watching, but she couldn’t see him. The song finished, and the bear bent to kiss her hand. She stood on tip-toe and whispered in its ear. Without warning, Michael appeared at her side. Isabella woke with a start, wondering what she had said to the bear.
On arrival in the town, she busied herself with settling in. She noticed a strange sensation in her chest when she inhaled deeply, as if her lungs were being stretched. She wondered if she should see a doctor, but there were so many other things to do. It didn’t feel bad, this sensation of her lungs expanding. Just different. She made of point of spending a few minutes every morning breathing deeply. Thinking of it as taking in her new surroundings and putting out the old. She found the idea exhilarating. She’d never been on her own before. There was always her parents or Michael. Usually both. The son of an old family friend, she and Michael had grown up together. He was familiar, solid, suitable. When he proposed, she remembered it as a statement rather than a question; a fact, rather than a choice needing an answer. It hadn’t occurred to her to consider her answer. It might never have occurred to her if she hadn’t met a man in a bear costume holding balloons.
They’d gone to a fairground. She’d left Michael to find the loo. When she came out, a bear was standing in front of her, holding a large bunch of balloons in its paw. It spoke to her in a muffled voice.
‘Could you hold these please? Just for a minute.’
When Isabella simply stared, mouth agape, the bear thrust the knot of balloon strings into her hand, and removed its head. Now there was a human face in front of her. Of a tall, young man with light blue eyes and sharp cheekbones. His dirty blonde hair was damp and stuck to his head in odd angles. He smiled at her and she found herself smiling back.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Yes, of course. Sorry. I was just a bit...’
‘And maybe this too, please?’ he said, pointing to the bear head. ‘It gets a bit cramped in there otherwise. I try not to while I’m working, but it’s all that water I drank. It gets hot in the suit.
‘You work in the circus?’ Isabella inquired, not knowing what else to say, but not wanting the conversation to end.
‘For the fairgrounds,’ he said. ‘Selling tickets, working the crowds, passing out balloons. Creating atmosphere and fun. Encouraging people to enjoy themselves.’
Isabella looked up and saw the balloons carried the name of the fair and its logo. She closed her eyes to better remember the unusual name and wasn’t prepared when he thrust the bear head into her arms. She accidentally let go of the balloons. They rose quickly, untangling themselves from each other and sailing off like multi-coloured fireflies, zig-zagging in different directions over the crowd through the sky. They watched them float away high over the crowd, Isabella in dismay, the bear man with a bemused expression on his face.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Isabella cried. I didn’t mean to–’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said.
‘But the balloons are lost now. I’ll pay you.’
‘They’re free. I’m supposed to give them away.’
‘But won’t you get into trouble?’
‘Nah… This is perfect. Look!’
Isabella looked and saw the crowd was watching the balloons as well. Pointing and smiling and laughing.
‘They’re gifts, you see. For whoever finds them. They’ll make people happy. Bring them to the fairground. For more happiness.’ He scratched his head and grinned at her. ‘You’ve just given me a great new marketing strategy.’
Standing together, laughing, Isabella felt an odd sensation in her chest as she looked at this funny stranger. He looked about her age. But she thought of him as a boy. Maybe because he made her feel like a girl.
‘What makes you happy?’ he asked. The sudden question made her blink and brought her quickly out of her thoughts. As she looked over his shoulder, she saw Michael making his way towards them. Flustered, she left to meet him without saying goodbye. Later, when she was in bed, the boy’s question floated back to her. She didn’t know the answer. In fact, the question had never occurred to her.
Michael arrived for his visit. Like he said he would, because it showed they could be apart but together. But after six months on her own, Isabella wasn’t sure she wanted to be together. She knew he never dreamt she wouldn’t come back. Maybe that was the difference between them: Isabella dreamed.
She’d met him at the station and dutifully showed him the town’s points of interest. It didn’t take long. They had a meal and then walked along the river. Michael spent most of the walk talking loudly of events and people back home, unaware of people’s stares. She made the excuse of a necessary errand to run and gave him the keys to her flat. She came back to discover he’d filled the flat with balloons, throwing open the door when she arrived, shouting, ‘Here’s to our future!’
She blinked. Balloons covered nearly every surface. She’d be sealed inside one soon, with him, and a mortgage, and children, and pets. Far too many obligations to float. She watched as they rocked back and forth, shaking their heads in sadness. He looked at her, waiting. She put on her best smile, nearly looked him in the eye and kissed his cheek.
Isabella decided what the boy said about balloons wasn’t true. Balloons didn’t always make you happy. These got on her nerves. They jumped and bounced accusingly at her when she crossed the room or opened doors, hovering uncomfortably close. They didn’t want to be confined. Her flat was not large. With Michael there and now these balloons, it was too much. She needed some space.
When Michael went out for a newspaper, she went to the balcony. A balloon darted out. Without thinking, she squeezed it between her palms. Nothing happened. She squeezed again, wincing, waiting for the pop. Then she stopped and opened her hands. The balloon caught the breeze, lifted, then glided over the road, descending into the park. It touched the ground once, twice. A granny walking past snatched it in her long fingers and tucked it under her coat. Isabella smiled.
She corralled the balloons onto the balcony and let the second one go. It flew into the park, dropping near a mother and child. Isabella heard his shrieks of joy as he captured it. She nodded.
At first, she released the balloons one at a time, but soon began throwing them with abandon, no longer waiting to see what happened to each one. A trail of twenty, thirty, forty balloons danced through the air. People noticed, gathered and pointed. Some ran after the balloons, wanting their own. Michael could take solace in that. Then she spotted him in the crowd, looking up at her.
‘Sorry,’ she whispered, hurling the last balloon. ‘I’m just not ready to land.’
In the flat, Michael tried to talk to her, but his words no longer reached her. There was too much space. After a while, he gathered his things and left. She knew she wouldn’t see him again. She knew this should make her feel heavy and sad, but she felt lighter, as if filled with air. An oval of red in the corner caught her eye. A lone, unblown balloon lay forgotten on the floor. She smiled, picked it up and headed to the balcony.
Originally from America's heartland, Missouri, SHERRY MORRIS writes monologues, short stories and flash fiction which have won prizes, placed on shortlists and been performed in London and Scotland. After almost twenty years in London, she moved to a farm in the Scottish Highlands where she watches clouds, goes for long walks and writes. Her published work can be found on www.uksherka.com or follow her @Uksherka