Something really exciting happened the other day. I was rifling through my old papers and found the original story behind ‘Midnight Blue’, one I wrote many years in advance of even thinking about beginning that book. ‘Ben the Balloon Man’ it’s called, which sounds a bit of an Enid Blyton title, but it’s not an Enid Blyton-type story. Far from it.
I started 'Ben the Balloon Man' forty years ago, when I was living in a lonely cottage on a hilltop in Worcestershire, facing the Teme valley and miles off the road. It was before I married, before I had children, before I knew anything about country life except to sense that it, not London, was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
The cottage had no running water, which meant filling buckets from a tap at a cattle trough three fields away. It had no electricity, which meant getting up at dawn and making the most of the sun streaming through the cottage windows, and going to bed when darkness fell. It also meant cooking over the old range, which had once fed a family of six children and their parents, so I surely could make it do for me. And it meant no electric writing. If I wanted to write – and that’s what I was there to do – I had to pound out my stories on an old manual.
And 'Ben the Balloon Man', in embryo form, was one of them.
Short stories are like poems, and poems are like wine, best left to ferment. You can take them out, rack them, add a bit of sugar, leave them to ferment some more, then go through the whole process again before finally bottling – and then it’s always good to leave them some more. Time is valuable when it comes to wine, and stories too.
And so it has been with ‘Ben the Balloon Man’. It’s a lovely story. As good as anything I’ve ever written. The first draft was produced on that rattling old Remington typewriter in a damson orchard on a wooden-crate desk, overlooking the Teme Valley. The second draft was written in the farmhouse in Shropshire I later moved to with my husband. I had a few children by then, so not much time to write, but enough time to recognise that in ‘Ben the Balloon Man’ there was the germ of something more.
And that ‘something more’ came years later, after the last of my five children was born, when I set my alarm for five every morning, and got up before everybody else, in order to find the time to write. That’s how ‘Midnight Blue’ was born. With the memory of a story I’d once written before, but no idea that that story still existed. In fact, I didn’t realize it until a few days ago when I was down in the cellar rifling through old boxes.
So, in wine-making terms, it’s bottling time. I’ve taken the old story, dusted it down, developed some of the characters who, in retrospect, look a bit thin and done the one thing for the story which I couldn’t do back then – insert a passage where the balloon actually flies and the children in the story get to fly with it.
Back in the early days when I was working on this story, I’d never flown in a balloon and could only imagine what it might be like, which meant that, though the story begged for the experience of flight, I didn’t put it in for fear of getting something wrong. But a few years ago now, for my novel ‘Flying for Frankie’, I went up in a balloon [and an amazing experience it was as well]. And that meant that the flight-shaped gap in the middle of ‘Ben the Balloon Man’ could finally be filled.
So for the last few days, whenever I’ve had a spare few moments, I’ve been working on ‘Ben the Balloon Man’, bringing it back to life and helping find its final form. It’s an amazing experience to work on a story that I began so many years ago. So much may have changed over the years, including my writing, but I still have that same voice. It's the identifying mark of who I am.
If you want to know what else I’ve done with my balloon flight, see the last chapter of ‘Flying for Frankie’ when Charis conquers her fear of flying and Frankie conquers her fear of death. And if you want to read the story that inspired ‘Midnight Blue’, come back to my website over Christmas when, for a limited period, ‘Ben the Balloon Man’ will be up, as a Christmas present to you all, to be read and enjoyed.