It rained for a week up on Higholly Hill. Then it stopped and the sky turned a soft, tender blue and the sun shone. That was the day Ben the Balloon Man appeared. The Gaskeline family was spread out across Highholly Hill, the grown-ups working the fields, the children celebrating the return of good weather. The drumming of feet could be heard down in the wild wood, the chatter of voices along the stream, shrieks down by the pool beneath the waterfall and the cries of cowboys, outlaws, soldiers, bandits, witches, elves and fairy folk as they chased each other and leapt about.
In Grandpa’s barn, Ory and Morris were building hobbit holes in the hay. On his pot-holed drive, Will and Maggie were racing a make-believe Grand Prix. Beneath the bonnet of Grandpa’s tractor, Phibby was covered in oil, surrounded by nuts and bolts, a spanner in his hand.
Beyond them all, down and drowsy in long meadow grass, Felicitation Gaskeline lay looking at the sky, dreaming of growing up one day and what it would be like. Away in the south, a pale moon moved across the sky. She watched it drawing closer, idly aware that moons weren’t meant to move this fast. Soon it hung over the hill, as big as an August moon, and she could see markings on it like the ripples of a sea.
Felicitation propped herself up on her elbow. The moon gave off flashes of what looked like fire. It skimmed along the hill almost low enough to crash. Beneath it hung a basket in which a figure moved about. He was close enough for her to see his sky-blue shirt, silvery beard and bobbing plait. He could have been the man in the moon. Except that it wasn’t a moon, after all. It was a hot air balloon.
‘Watch out!’ yelled Will, skidding to a halt on Grandpa’s track. ‘Look out, stupid. Don’t just stand there. Duck!’
Maggie didn’t duck. This was bound to be a trick. Instead she peddled furiously, knowing from experience that her cousin, Will, would win any means, fair or foul. Only when she reached the winning-post and turned round, did she realise he hadn’t been joking. A hot air balloon flew overhead and Will was already peddling after it, heading for the garden meadow where it looked as if it just might crash.
‘Wait for me!’ yelled Maggie. But Will didn’t hear. Or, if he heard, he didn’t care. Maggie was yesterday’s news. So was their Grand Prix.
Will didn’t even stop when he punctured his bike. The balloon hung over the meadow, low enough for him to see the pilot’s face. Will waved to him and he waved back. A moment ago nothing had been more important than beating Maggie in some pointless race. And now here was Will’s future up in the sky, and he was chasing after it. And what he meant by that he didn’t know.
What was going on? Phibby banged his head on the tractor's bonnet. Dogs were barking in the yard. Sheep were bleeting on the hill. Cattle were rushing about the fields. He could hear them thundering up and down, and now here was Uncle Os, emerging from the milking parlour shaking his fist.
‘What does that bloody idiot think he’s playing at?’ he yelled in the voice he usually reserved for walkers who’d left gates open for cattle to get out.
A balloon flew overhead, casting its shadow across the yard. Uncle Os hurried off to settle his cattle, leaving Phibby ducking back under the bonnet, screwing back all the caps and wiping the grease off his hands. That balloon was low enough to crash. He slammed the bonnet shut, and headed off across the yard, curious to know what would happen next.
Close up, Felicitation could see patterns printed on the balloon’s cloth with silver dye - waves and whirlpools, birds and trees, stars, planets and a burning sun. For a moment, it hung over her, an entire world in a single globe. Then the balloon shivered as if something had frightened it. The air came out of it in a single sigh, and it started crumpling.
After that, everything happened very quickly. The balloon plummeted and struck the ground, and bounced and struck again and was dragged along the garden meadow. Its basket ended up on its side, half its contents spilled out and its silvery cloth lay spread across the ground like a evening gown discarded at the end of the party. Felicitation drew her knees up to her chin. Everything appeared to be in one piece, but what had happened to the pilot? Was he buried under all that cloth? Or had he fallen out of the basket? Was he lying wounded somewhere? Was he dead? For a moment, terrified, she could hardly breathe. Then something made the basket move. A hand appeared. She saw a face. She caught a glimpse of sky-blue shirt. The man was alive.
Felicitation’s mouth formed a silent ‘oh’. The man clambered out of the basket and stood brushing himself down. His plait was so long that it almost reached the ground. Felicitation’s eyes formed silent ‘ohs’ as well.
Bicycling furiously, Will hit the garden meadow. If he saw his sister, Felicitation, he certainly didn’t acknowledge her. Instead he headed across the meadow in the direction of the basket. The pilot turned and saw him coming and called out hello, his face breaking into a smile that ran up his laughter lines and lit up his eyes like jackpots.
‘I’m Ben,’ he called, holding out his hand. ‘Ben the Balloon Man. Is this your hill?’
Will flushed with pride and said it was. He took Ben’s hand and the two of them shook. Will introduced himself as William. Somewhere down in the valley a church clock struck for noon.
‘So, the sun passes from east to west,’ Ben said. ‘An interesting time to come to earth. But then these are interesting times, don’t you think?’
Will was still trying to think up a clever answer when Maggie appeared, pushing her bike and red in the face. He only had to look at her to know how cross she was at being left behind. Ben smiled at her too, and then Will felt left out. This was meant to be his moment, yet here she was telling Ben her name, and offering her hand to be shaken, and he was bowing over her as if she was some bloody princess.
‘I’ve never met a woman who wasn’t beautiful and wise,’ he said.
What a corny line! Will felt let down, but Maggie loved it, obviously. She blinked at Ben like a battery-chicken confronting grass for the first time.
‘I can tell you’ve never met a sky gypsy,’ Ben said.
Felicitation continued to sit across the meadow, strangely unwilling to get involved. While she watched, Will and Maggie helped Ben right his basket, pick up his scattered belongings, spread out his silver balloon and check it for tears. All the while he told them stories about what he called ‘his people’. His voice drifted across the meadow. Felicitation could hear every word. Once the skies had been full of sky gypsies, Ben said, but now there was just him. Planes had killed off the airways, and satellites had killed off space. It was hard to find anywhere to fly any more.
‘But you managed to fly here,’ Will said. ‘You found your way to us.’
Ben said he hadn’t found his way to anything. Chance had brought him here, blown by winds beyond his control. And, wherever they blew him, they never brought him back. His world was getting smaller all the time. He was running out of places, running out of sky.
‘But, do you know what,’ Ben said, ‘the smaller it all gets, the more there is to find.’
Felicitation couldn’t get her head around the world being small. All she could think about were the places Ben might have visited. The Pyramids. The Himalayas. The jungles of South America. Venice with its canals. Maggie started asking where he’d been, listing places one after another, to which Ben always replied yes. Even from her distance, Felicitation could tell he wasn’t lying. There was so much realness in his voice. It was rich with things he’d seen and done. And he really was a sky gypsy. When Will asked, just to check, you could hear he really was in his tone of voice.
‘Some people don’t believe in us,’ Ben said. ‘They think that sky gypsies are just a myth. But old myths die hard, and old races die harder still. Besides, I’m not just any sky gypsy. I’m the king.’
Noon wore down and other people appeared from across Highholly Hill. Phibby arrived smelling of engine oil, closely followed by Ory and Morris fresh from Hobiton. Then a couple of soldiers and a captured prisoner emerged from down in the wild wood. Then a collection of cowboys and outlaws appeared, followed by witches, elves and other fairy folk from the pool down by the waterfall.
Every time someone new arrived, Ben invited them into his basket for tea and cakes. There were enough for everyone, he said. And no matter how many people turned up, the basket was always big enough. It was a sky gypsy’s basket, always exactly the size it needed to be. That's what Ben said.
Will said he’d be proud to be a sky gypsy, but Ben shook his head. ‘It’s easy to be proud when you’re anchored to the soil,’ he said. ‘But when your home’s the air, there’s nothing to be proud of. And when you’re the last of your people there’s precious little joy.’
Across the meadow, Felicitation shivered. She knew her brother well enough to know what was coming next.
‘I’d like to live like that,’ Will said.
‘You only think that because you’ve never done it,’ Ben replied.
‘I’ve never done anything,’ Will said. ‘But that doesn’t mean I won’t one day.’
Two young men cleared their throats. Berry Gaskeline and best friend Mick Woodvine had come up the hill on quad bikes and no one had noticed until they’d suddenly switched them off.
‘What’s going on here, then?’ they said, sticking their heads over the side of the basket.
‘We’re having a party,’ a chorus of voices replied.
‘Tea and cake,’ said Maggie, who’d taken possession of the kettle.
‘Join us,’ said Ben.
Berry and Mick were too old for kiddies’ tea parties. Everybody knew that. But much to everybody’s surprise - including their own - they accepted the invitation, and the kettle went on again and the cake did the rounds. Then Uncle Os arrived, fresh from settling cattle and calming sheep, and he too succumbed to the offer of tea and cake.
‘Don’t mind if I do,’ he said – and, instead of scolding Ben for frightening his stock, he climbed into the basket too.
Then Mum arrived, walking past Felicitation as if she hadn’t even seen her, and climbed in too – and then Grandma appeared.
‘Look who’s coming!’ everybody shrieked as a stout figure in dungarees came across the meadow leaning on her stick.
‘She’s bringing Biggy,’ Morris said.
Biggy had once been Grandma’s lamb, but was now her giant pet sheep - two summers’ old and never to become mutton whilst Grandma lived.
‘And Lacy,’ Phibby said.
Lacy was Grandma’s cat.
At the sight of Grandma, Ben leapt out of the basket. He bowed as if she was his most honoured guest. The two stood facing each other, and Grandma might have been a girl again. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes were bright and, when she spoke, there was a catch in her voice.
‘All my life,’ she said, ‘ever since I was a child, I’ve been waiting for sky gypsies. I’ve watched the sky for them. I’ve believed in them. I’ve hoped for them - and now here you are.’
Ben laughed, and his eyes met Grandma’s as if they shared a secret. Grandma curtseyed as if she knew he was a king. Normally she’d never let anybody give her a hand, but she allowed Ben to lift her into the basket without a word of complaint. Then he lifted in Lacy and Biggy too. He was glad, he said, that the memory of his people still lived on.
Felicitation closed her eyes. She could feel the sun move across the sky and hear teacups tinkling and Ben telling stories in an unending stream. He told of foreign shores, castles in the clouds, skies parting into cloth-of-blue to let him through with his balloon. His voice was like a lullaby, rocking Felicitation off to sleep. And the meadow was like a cradle, rocking her as well.
Felicitation could hear birdsong and the faintest rustling of trees. Slowly it dawned on her, though, that the sounds rose up to greet her. They were no longer overhead. How could this be? Felicitation opened her eyes. Ben was standing next to her, much to her surprise. He pulled a chord and a flame shot up above her head, roaring like a lion in a cage. She looked up, and the flame disappeared into the great mouth of the balloon. No longer was it lying on the ground, but looming over her instead. And no longer was her family across the meadow. They were all around her in the basket. And no longer was she in the meadow.
She was in the air.
Felicitation rubbed her eyes. She clutched the side of the basket and looked down, and there was Highholly Hill. She’d always thought it covered half the world, but suddenly it looked so small. Beyond it were bigger hills, and bigger forests than the wild wood, and valleys she’d never seen before, and rivers and roads leading to places she’d never even known existed.
Felicitation watched them snaking their way to the bow-shape of the horizon, where everything merged into a blue mist. ‘So, this is what the world is like outside of Middle-Earth,’ she heard Ory say. And Phibby, Mick and Berry nudged each other and pointed things out. And, ‘Wow, look at this… Wow, look at that…’ Maggie said. And Grandma’s eyes were full and round, like lakes of light. And Will said nothing. He gripped the basket, his knuckles white. And Felicitation gripped it too, brother and sister, side by side.
It was Grandpa who brought things back to earth. Cany old Rufus Gaskeline, hands folded over his chest, collies circling round him, hat pushed back on his head.
‘Well, well, well,’ he said. ‘What have we here? I knew that summat strange was going on, but I wasn’t expecting this. Not you, Ben. Not you.’
Ben. The flight was killed with that one word. The basket was on the ground as if it had never flown, its silver cloth crumpled in a heap. Felicitation found herself across the meadow again, either as if thrown there by the force of their landing, or as if she’d never flown in the first place, or seen the earth’s curve.
‘You lot - out of that basket,’ Grandpa said.
‘But…’ everyone began to grumble.
‘No buts,’ Grandpa said. ‘There’s work to be done, especially after a week of rain. And by that ‘work’ I'm talking about all of us. Even you, Ben, if you like. You could help, but I dunna think you will. It’s not your style is it, work?’
No one moved, least of all Ben, who stared at Grandpa with stranger’s eyes. ‘I don’t know who you think I am,’ he said, ‘but you and I have never met.’
Grandpa spluttered over that. ‘Everybody out,’ he said.
When Grandpa spoke, people jumped. That’s the sort of man he was. Maggie was the first over the side of the basket, closely followed by Ory and Morris. Then Phibby followed, and a sheepish-looking Uncle Os and an even more sheepish Berry and Mick who headed straight off on their quad bikes.
Then Felicitation’s mum slipped away, along with a crowd of cowboys, outlaws, witches, elves and fairy folk. She tried to make Will come with her, but he refused.
‘William!’ said Grandpa, fixing him with grave eyes.
Will didn’t move. Across the meadow, Felicitation held her breath. Again she knew what was coming next.
‘I want to come with you,’ Will said, turning his back on Grandpa and facing Ben. ‘I want you to teach me how to be a sky gypsy. I’m not leaving. I want to go with you.’
Now it was Ben’s turn to look grave. That wasn’t possible, he said. Will said please. Ben said no. Grandpa shook the basket. He was getting really cross. Ben said no again. Will said PLEEEASE. Ben said I’m sorry, but the damage had been done.
For the longest moment, Will stared at Ben. Then he leapt out of the basket and tore across the meadow shouting, ‘Tatty old balloon man. I was only joking. Why would I want to be like you?’
Now only Grandma was left, standing between Grandpa and Ben, looking both ways. For a moment no one spoke, then Grandma kissed Ben softly on the cheek and said she knew he was a sky gypsy, whatever Grandpa said. Then she climbed out of the basket, thwacking Grandpa with her stick when he tried to help, and set off across the meadow leaving Biggy and Lacy behind. She didn’t look back for them, or call their names. And, as she strode through the long grass, she didn’t look at Grandpa or anybody else.
Grandpa started going on about not having seen Ben in years, and always wondering what had happened to him. There had been the time, he said, when Ben had come up the drive riding bareback on a pig. And then there had been that other time when he’d tied on paper wings and jumped out of a tree thinking he could fly. Ben always had been crazy, Grandpa said. And now here he was, being crazy again.
But nobody heard him. Not even Ben. The meadow was empty. When Grandpa looked around, he was talking to himself.
The balloon was high now, far away now, a pale moon in a pale sky. Felicitation returned to the meadow after everyone had gone, and stared at the spot where it had been. Like lightning it had struck, and it would never come back. That’s the way it was with sky gypsies. She understood that. And she understood she’d never fly again - not the way that she’d just done. But she’d seen the wideness of the world, and its smallness too. And the smaller it got, the more there was to find. Ben had said that, so she knew it must be true.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS STORY, LOOK OUT FOR 'MIDNIGHT BLUE', the book which grew out of it. It's a different sort of story, with a different sort of magic, but the hill's the same, some of the children aren't that different and the voice of the author is definitely the same! Scroll down and click the 'MIDNIGHT BLUE' icon to find out more...