It all happened because the magic lantern’s bulb exploded. Angry at the darkening screen, the father ordered his disappointed children to bed. There would be no pictures from the slide projector tonight.
Next day, he walked from his panelled office several blocks to a less prosperous part of town. There he mounted the bare stairs to enter a shop marked ‘Thomas Wills & Sons, Lantern and Cine Equipment’. A man in a brown dust-coat appeared from behind the shelves: “Can I help you, Sir?”
The businessman rhymed off the make and model of his magic lantern.
“Of course, Sir, I won’t be a moment”, said the shopkeeper as bobbed once more behind cardboard boxes.
Shortly, he reappeared bearing two corrugated paper packets.
“Now would it be the standard bulb or the deluxe model?” The customer thought he should purchase the more expensive lamp.
“That will be ten shillings and six pence, please.” The trader wrote out a paper receipt to complete the transaction.
That night, once more the wood and brass lantern sat on its table and the slides assembled for viewing. However, to the father’s annoyance and his children’s delight, the projector didn’t show them. Instead, it persisted in showing moving images. At first, it showed journeys across the continents before plunging into the ocean and whizzing into outer space. The screen then filled with a full-scale orchestra. Next came actors in a Shakespearean play. The lantern culminated its performance with a football match.
‘This would not do, not do at all,’ thought the father. So, having indulged his family long enough, he switched the contraption off and removed the bulb.
Next day, he returns to Thomas Wills or his son and made plain his dissatisfaction to the salesman.
“Oh, I’m very sorry, Sir – most of our customers enjoy seeing the world with the deluxe bulb. I’ll exchange it immediately”
Handing over the standard lamp, the shopkeeper remarked “I am told that, one day, people will see a man walking on the moon with magic lanterns”
The businessman scuttled for the stair forgetting both his change and dignity. Since he was convinced that the man staring after him was mad – quite mad – quite, quite mad.
The woman sat on the deck chair looking out to sea imagining a far-off ship going to the tropics. There it would find the warmth she had never experienced. She enjoyed a good life in a material sense at least. In personal relationships, she had been less fortunate. And so, she could buy a gift for anyone but had no one to give it.
A child ran across the beach carrying an inflatable ball. Something attracted the youngster to the woman. So, she threw the ball towards her. Affronted by the girl’s forwardness, she was tempted to retreat into her book with a glower. Instead, the woman sent the ball through the air and into grateful hands. For a minute, they amused each other as they played out a game. Then the girl gave a shy smile and ran off to somewhere unknown.
Brightened, the woman looked around and saw couples, families, and groups enjoying shared companionship. She should have felt excluded but somehow, she had reconnected with the human race. That was enough.
The ship upon a grey ocean sailed on into the sunshine.
“I am a blue balloon,
I am a blue balloon, not a red balloon,
I am a blue balloon living in a world
Of red balloons.”
Perhaps because it was a blue balloon, it was let go. Even the wind was not keen to take it. The balloon bounced along the ground before a gust lifted it grudgingly into the air. It soared higher, hungry for freedom. It was away from that mean town with its traffic aggressive in push through narrowness.
The balloon gained height and passed over a park with souls below escaping the shove of their existence. But only the geese looked up and envied its ease of flight.
A motorway, a castle and a patchwork of fields followed as the balloon picked up speed on a freshening breeze. Village, farm, and hill passed by in the crystal light of that crisp day. No one looked up at the growing balloon skipping high above.
Before long, the coast appeared with the blue of the sea flecked with boats braving the tides and waves. Then, just as the balloon knocked on the door of the stratosphere, bloated with expanding gas, it burst asunder. It gave its blueness back to sky leaving the world to the held-fast red.
Together the surveyed Hardwick’s glassy lake. Reflected in it, was their constellation far up in the starry sky. They had seen it often and as a couple, they would gaze at it again. For they together had weathered their own storms and days of darkness. And so, as one, they were forever bound.
But it was time to move on. Their young had grown, found wing and fled. The year too showed signs of turning and the earth tilting. At dawn, they made ready to leave for a warmer season elsewhere.
Out, out into the waters, they swam. Soundlessly, they wished each other well. They pushed through the leaden water, gained speed until they were free in the air. Flapping their long wings, the Hardwick pair stretched their necks towards the rising sun.
A bystander watched with breath held tight, thinking only of the elegance of paired swans in flight.