In the very last carriage, there were just about enough bottoms to match the number of seats. After rattling its way toward the Welsh border for an hour, the train suddenly screeched to a halt. A disembodied, rather bored voice advised that the police were chasing someone on the tracks, and the train driver was not permitted to move until given the all clear. It was not, apparently, the Great Western Railway’s fault.
A mother was trying to calm twin babies who were crying in stereo. She was making the kind of mother noises that rhyme with “goo” and aim to soothe, but the desperation in her tone only added fuel to their fury.
A young man with bleached pale skin, a five o’clock shadow, fine features, sky blue eyes and full pouty lips began to blow up a balloon he’d withdrawn from his suit jacket pocket.
He fashioned it with swift twists of the wrists. It became a blue bird, and he floated it over the heads of the crying babies two seats down. He nodded at the balloon as it dipped and dived over the infants, making them laugh.
‘How did he do that?’ asked the woman who had been knitting a long, cabled scarf in the seat behind the babies.
A boy in a too-small jumper that rode up his chest, almost empire line, called out, ‘I’d like one please.’
The pasty-faced man inflated another balloon that became a cockatoo and sent it to the boy.
‘Well,’ Click. ‘I,’ Clack. ‘Never,’ said the knitting woman.
‘What else can you make?’ asked a red-faced man in front of the knitting woman, and soon three more birds were floating above the seats. They began to fly in formation, a white dove in the lead. As the young man continued to inflate more balloons, the passengers cheered and made ooh and ahh noises. The men exchanged theories about how he did it. The knitting woman asked if he was from the circus.
A large, brooding man sat in the last seat in the carriage. He was the only person fortunate enough to have an empty seat next to him, largely because of the ferocious look he put on his face if anyone made to sit next to him. He watched the birds and called out:
For some reason, the balloons annoyed him. He lifted his meaty arm to push them away when the flock came near him.
‘Keep those bloody things to yourself,’ he cried out.
This caused the flock to swoop at him. Jumper Boy laughed.
Beefy Man snatched at the balloon birds, but they dodged him, artfully.
‘I’m not taking this shit,’ he said.
He stood up and stepped to the carriage door to leave, but the door was locked shut. After a minute, he felt silly trying to open it and sat down again.
‘Keep those bloody things away from me,’ he said.
Several people booed Beefy Man in response.
The balloon man was now creating floating flowers for a delighted crowd: bluebells and tulips, daffodils and roses. Everyone except the Beefy Man cheered and cheered.
A daisy floated near Beefy Man’s head and he reached up and snatched it. He tried to burst it with his nails but it wouldn’t succumb. Angry, he opened his mouth wide. His teeth looked like a broken grey jetty. He bit into the green stalk and the balloon went bang.
The daisy balloon screamed as the air slowly left it, its leaves waving like panicked hands.
The people in the carriage called out in alarm and disgust. Jumper Boy cried out, ‘You killed it.’
The pale balloon man crooked his finger and the wounded, deflating daisy floated back to him and when it was small and limp enough, tucked itself inside his jacket. The screaming reduced to a whimper, and then to silence.
The balloon man looked at the Beefy Man for a moment, his head cocked to one side. Then he started to blow a new balloon. He blew and blew. It grew larger and larger.
‘It’s a gorilla,’ cried Jumper Boy.
The balloon gorilla grew into a huge head, shoulders and arms. Soon it was four feet tall and four feet wide. The gorilla left the balloon man and floated above the passengers. It filled the space above their heads as it passed. Most people gave it a friendly tap as it passed. It continued on its way until it was above Beefy Man.
‘Get that thing away from me,’ said Beefy Man, ‘or I’ll burst this one too.’
The gorilla pushed its way into the space between Beefy Man and the seat in front of him. The huge balloon arms reached around the man’s head and slowly engulfed him.
‘The gorilla is giving him a hug,’ cried a little girl with a grubby frock and pigtails held up by two plastic ladybirds.
Beefy Man made a muffled kind of groan, and then he was very quiet.
Jumper Boy watched the balloon man through the space between the seats. First, he moved so he could see just one side of the balloon man’s face. They he turned his head to he could see just the other side.
The two halves don’t match, he thought. He’s made up of two pieces. But which piece wears a suit, and which piece makes magic?
The balloon man caught him staring through the space between the seats and winked and nodded.
Finally, the train moved, and everyone cheered. As they pulled into the station everyone heard a large click as the carriage doors opened.
They all filed out, talking and laughing and taking with them the balloon man’s creations.
Only Beefy Man remained in his seat, wrapped in the arms of the gorilla that continued to stare into his sightless eyes.
Words by Denise Picton