When Maljie finally returned to Port Naain after her sojourn in Uttermost Partann, she pondered her ballooning experiences. As a form of travel she was quite taken by it and felt that if she could introduce other people to it, they too would enjoy it. But how? Also she had learned very early on in her aeronautical career that balloons are not easily steered.
This mattered because she had come up with a plan which she felt would both make money and provide an invaluable service. She would provide balloon transport from the west of Port Naain to the east. So she would pick up her passengers near the Nightbell Battery and drop them off in the eastern most reaches of Dilbrook. Her passengers could gasp in wonder at the city laid out below them, marvel at its grandeur and drink stimulating infusions before alighting and getting the tramway back.
Given the prevailing wind she felt that she could approximately guarantee her route perhaps three occasions out of five, but this wasn’t good enough. After all she could be carrying the cream of Port Naain society and didn’t want to strand them in the depths of Partann due to adverse wind conditions. Not unless the remuneration offered was high enough.
So it was obvious that she would have to find a method of steering and eventually she came up with the obvious. Rather than just let the wind blow her, she would have something tow her. The more she thought about it, the more she decided this was the obvious route for her to take.
The evident first step was to try a test flight. For this she needed both a balloon and a co-pilot. The balloon was comparatively simple. It is one of those problems easily solved by the application of money. A co-pilot was more difficult to find, as living aeronauts are difficult to find. So Maljie did the easy thing and conscripted her younger sister Margarita.
Eventually the balloon, covered in tarpaulins, was loaded into a donkey cart and hauled to Nightbell Point. The problem of inflating it by filling it with hot air was comparatively easily solved, at least when compared with the problem of getting the co-pilot to go aboard the somewhat uncertain craft. It may well be that drink had to be taken at this point. Certainly some of the decisions taken are more easily understood if one assumes the consumption of wine, in not inconsiderable quantities.
Still it wasn’t until they were about to release the guy ropes that Maljie realised that in all the preparations they hadn’t brought anything to tow the balloon. Her initial thought had been to hire one of the great draft Brontotheres. Failing that a team of draught horrocks would doubtless serve, or a matched pair of heavy horses. Ever willing to improvise, Maljie fitted the tow rope to the donkey and was about to throw out the sandbags when Margarita asked, not unreasonably, whether the donkey knew the way?
This stopped Maljie in her tracks, because obviously if the donkey was doing the towing, the donkey had to know the intended route. With the sandbags safely stowed, Maljie and Margarita got out of the basket and contemplated the donkey. The donkey appeared to contemplate them back.
Maljie commented that the donkey didn’t appear to be the brightest equid she had ever come across. Margarita merely replied that the donkey wasn’t the one who was flying across the city in a balloon. Finally it was agreed, Margarita would accompany the donkey on the ground whilst Maljie flew the balloon.
To be honest, for the first hundred yards or so the plan worked really well. Then whether Maljie threw out one bag of sand too many, or the wind got up, but things started to get more exciting that Maljie had hoped. Part of the problem was perhaps the celebratory Rehoboam of white wine she drank to celebrate their success. To be fair she didn’t drink it all, she tied a loop round it and sent it down the tow line for her sister to finish off. Of course this lessened the weight of the basket. Not a lot but perhaps enough to make things slightly unstable.
Also there is the problem that, should you drink a lot of liquid, you will eventually want to get rid of a lot of liquid. Now through an oversight, the basket dangling below the balloon was not fitted with a commode. Whilst Maljie obviously had adequate privacy, she didn’t want to inadvertently cast the equivalent of an extra half bag of sand overboard. It was with grim determination and crossed legs that Maljie faced the crossing of the city.
On the ground, Margarita had discovered that if she leaned on the donkey, so that her weight was added to the weight of the donkey, they could keep the balloon under control. But as they climbed up the hill leading to the nicer houses of the Merchant’s quarter, the wind got up and several times the basket lifted both Margarita and donkey off the ground. Finally an errant gust proved too much and the donkey went one way and Margarita went the other. The balloon sailed on with the donkey dangling below it.
Now the donkey was secure in its harness and entirely cognisant of the situation. Maljie on the other hand never thought to look back. It wasn’t until the balloon jerked to a halt that she realised they had a problem. At that point she looked down to discover that the donkey and rope were trapped around a chimney stack. As far as Maljie was concerned, there was only one thing to be done. She fastened a safety line to her belt and climbed down the tow rope to the donkey. On assessing the situation she unfastened the harness to release the donkey. This allowed it to slide down the roof into the valley between the two roof ridges. It stood there, glowering at her.
Whatever Maljie had intended to do next I’m not sure, but without the donkey’s weight, the balloon jerked upwards, taking Maljie with it. Eventually she managed to scramble up the ropes and get back into the basket and finally came down east of Dilbrook. Margarita had collected another donkey cart and together they loaded the balloon and went back home. It had been a hard day, a long night, and they both needed their sleep.
It was later that day, after a much delayed breakfast, that they pondered the problem of the donkey. One issue was that they weren’t sure exactly where they had left it. They felt, not unreasonably, that you cannot go knocking on the doors of complete strangers asking, “Excuse me but have we left a donkey on your roof.”
Now whilst it’s not something I’ve ever had to do, I confess that I rather agree with them. Those who check and discover you haven’t regard you as some sort of idiot, whilst those who check and discover you have are liable to ask you to move it. There’s also the problem that you might discover that the donkey you’re being asked to move isn’t your donkey! Even in Port Naain it’s unlikely that two donkeys get abandoned on the rooftops on the same evening, but stranger things have happened. So eventually they decided to try to retrace their path and see what cropped up.
Meanwhile, that morning, an upstairs maid awoke in her attic bedroom after a disturbed night’s sleep and wondered what the noise was outside. Her window looked out into the roof valley and when she threw open the curtains she found herself face to face with a donkey who was gazing hopefully at her. A sensible, country girl, she poured a jug of cold water into a clean chamber pot, opened the window and gave the donkey something to drink. Then she went downstairs to inform the housekeeper.
This worthy was not entirely convinced until she had seen the donkey with her own eyes. Swayed by the presence of the donkey she informed the butler of the situation. He too felt the need to witness the scene with his own eyes. Finally he went, with the housekeeper as a character witness, to inform the lady of the house and her husband as they sat at breakfast.
The gentleman folded his morning copy of the Port Naain Intelligencer neatly by his plate and observed that he wasn’t sure what the city was coming to. His lady wife commented, “Apparently Madame Gilan was kept away by seagulls on her roof.”
At this point the gentleman turned to the butler and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to know whether there are multiple donkeys and are they making a noise?”
Magisterially the butler replied, “I believe there is only one and it seems to be comparatively quiet.”
“Jolly good. See to it will you please.” With that he went to work and his lady wife retired to the morning room.”
The butler and housekeeper planned their campaign like the professionals they were. They hastily acquired a quantity of old sail canvas and laid it down along the route from the maid’s room to the back door. Then armed with a halter the maid wiggled her way out of her window and haltered the donkey and led it back to the window. There they were presented with what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. It was obviously possible to get a slim young woman through the window, but frankly, however you presented the donkey, it wouldn’t fit. A builder was summoned.
It was as the Butler and the Builder conferred on the doorstep that Maljie and Margarita chanced to pass. On hearing a donkey mentioned, Maljie joined in the conversation and discovered the problem. On the spot she offered to lift the donkey off the roof using the balloon, subject to somebody paying for the hire of a Brontothere to tow and anchor the balloon.
Fortunately the builder had just presented his quote for widening the window. The butler was beginning to feel that unfair advantage was being taken of him. So when Maljie merely wanted to hire a brontothere the butler commented that it was in budget.
Hence some hours later Maljie was once more on the roof. Assisted by the maid, who had by this time become quite fond of the donkey, she fastened the harness to it. Then once back in the balloon she threw out more sand and the balloon slowly but inelegantly lifted the donkey off the roof.
All in all it worked out for the best. A large crowd watched the rescue of the donkey. People were genuinely impressed by the control Maljie had over the balloon. Indeed even the brontothere was considered to be charming, at least by those who were not expected to clear up after it. Hence when Maljie started advertising trips by balloon, there was a more enthusiastic reception for her scheme than might have been expected.
On the understanding that you might wish to learn more about Port Naain, might I take this opportunity to recommend
As a reviewer commented, “Port Naain Stories are fast becoming one of my favourite ‘Go To’ reads. They contain Loveable (and the Not So Loveable) Characters, set in a Historical Fiction world, with Intrigue and Humour to make a blend that is interesting and easy to read.
However, don’t be fooled, these stories are not simple; they are well crafted.
I look forward to more of the same from this author.”