I’m going to tell you a story. About a boy. About a girl. About an old man. About a baby. About me. About you. This isn’t going to be a story about coincidences and chance meetings. This isn’t going to be a story about fate. Or first meets. Or friendships that are meant to be. This is a story about not meeting people. It’s a story about people who never set eyes on each other. It’s a story that explains that you don’t need to meet people to change people. You don’t need to know people to impact people. This is a story about a world full of billions of people.
There is a saying that states if a butterfly flutters its wings on one side of the world, it will eventually cause a gale on the other side. There most definitely is not a saying that states if one person takes one step in the right direction on one side of the world, it will cause a stampede of others on the opposite side. There should be. There isn’t. But that does not in the slightest mean that that isn’t true.
Truth is a little bit like gravity. Before Sir Isaac Newton proclaimed gravity to exist, people did not float away into space. Gravity has always been a constant force, thousands of years before people even considered it worth a thought. The truth will always consistently be the truth, even before it is labeled as such.
You don’t have to admit that something is true in order for it to be so. It just has to be.
Being. That’s the word I’m looking for. This is a story about being. It’s a story about people and lives and existing and breathing, and – in the most glorious and indescribable sense of the word – it’s about being. It’s about knowing that we all make a difference to someone else’s life just by waking up.
This is a story that’s only purpose is to remind you that just by being you have made someone’s day.
You’ve certainly made mine.
And I hope – I know – that someone else will make yours. Go out and find your red balloon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; none of this will make sense. In order for this story to be read, there must be a beginning. There must be an introduction, and some form of background information. I like to think of this story as somewhat formless, but even the most random of tales have the slightest of structures.
This story is structured around children. It begins with them and ends with them. This isn’t yet the time to tell you why it ends with them, but I’m sure we’ll get there eventually. There is, however, pure and simple logic to why this story begins with them. Because it’s children who are going to change the world. Pure and simple. We start with children because this is a story about change, and nothing so embodies that as easily as the careless, flippant mind of a young child.
But, I mustn’t keep talking, I am so sorry. Let us begin.
How It Begins
There’s a funeral going on at the local crematorium. A man who was once a father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, coworker, employer, enemy, and son is now nothing more than a handful of ashes in a plain, little urn.
And then the undertaker drops the urn, and the father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, coworker, employer, enemy, and son is nothing more than a small, black smear, waiting to be swept away by some industrial broom.
The undertaker stares in shock at what he has done. His face is pale already, and begins to look quite blue, as he wishes with all his heart that he could hide in an incinerator. However inappropriate and unsympathetic such a wish could be.
The family members are silent with horror, even more so when the mourners of another family open the front door, and a gust of air blows the particles of what was once a man swirling into the air. A draft catches most of them, and they are blown in a wild whirlwind of excitement into the endless, endless blue of a nothing sky. The family members are silent all except a boy who can’t stop laughing.
He laughs and he laughs, and he laughs even harder because he knows the second he stops laughing he’ll start to cry, and boys of eleven don’t cry. Not even when their grandfather has just flown into the wind as nothing but a handful of black dust. The boy’s mother hushes him, and the boy laughs harder. His father tries shaking him, but the boy’s shoulders are already trembling too much to make a difference. He gets strange looks, but the boy doesn’t care, because he’s never ever going to see his grandfather again, and he can’t stop laughing.
Someone deduces that the boy is in hysterics, and sends someone else off to find a paper bag for the boy to breathe into. It’s probably someone of relevance to the boy, but not to anyone else, so I shall not bore you with details. There’s a café down the street where you can buy sandwiches that are charmingly wrapped in brown paper bags and tied up with string. The paper bags are the perfect size and shape for someone who is currently feeling a little hysterical.
Unfortunately, the funeral before the father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, coworker, employer, enemy, and son’s was a long one, and afterwards, all the guests marched down to the charming little café for charming little sandwiches.
Grief makes people hungry. And hungry people use up perfectly shaped brown paper bags.
The café owner is politely apologetic, whilst remaining professionally detached. It’s unfortunate being situated so close beside a crematorium. One is forced to grow a thicker skin against tears. There are too many grieving people who think they deserve a free sandwich on account of their past relative or friend.
What they forget to consider is that once people have died, they become notoriously bad at paying their way. The café owner has not forgotten this. And as of such, he has become impervious to weeping widows and sobbing sons.
It isn’t until he is told that the paper bag is for a boy who won’t stop laughing, does the café owner become interested. This is real. When someone laughs at a funeral, it’s not because they want a free sandwich that’s for certain.
So quickly, quickly, the café owner walks into the backroom and searches high and low for any brown paper bag that may have escaped his notice. After what feels to the collector of the bag to be a lifetime, the café owner returns, not with a paper bag, but with a fairly ancient, yellow balloon.
Given that she is fairly crushed for a time, and not at all in the mood to be picky, the someone doesn’t complain about what she is offered. She reaches out and takes the shriveled, yellow balloon. And then she pays 50p for it, because it’s a tough life owning a café nearby a crematorium, and the café owner has grown a thick skin.
Once the collector of the balloon has returned to the crematorium, the father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, coworker, employer, enemy, and son has been smoothly swept away. The remaining pile of ashes has been stored in a much grander and more ornate urn. About half of them are still caught in the breeze, swirling and whirling away to who knows where. (A very small scraping of the ashes adhered themselves to the unfortunate young urn-dropper’s shoe, who ended up quitting the undertaking business, and going on a tour of Europe to find himself. He didn’t find himself, but neither did he find the final scraping of the father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, coworker, employer, enemy, and son, either, so in some way, you could say he took the deceased man on an adventure, so not everything he did was bad.)
Despite the fact that the boy’s grandfather has been tidily swept away, the boy is still laughing. He hasn’t stopped, and is showing no signs of it either. He is handed the balloon to help him breathe in and out slowly. The boy doesn’t use the balloon as such. He blows, and he blows, and he blows, until the balloon is as big as it can get. That isn’t really what the balloon is supposed to be used for, but the boy has stopped laughing, and that is all everyone else really cares about.
The boy gets his father to tie the balloon, and looks at it contemplatively. It feels slightly brittle and delicate in his hands, but is so light that it is almost possible to believe it isn’t there. The boy thinks a little bit about the half of his grandfather that blew to the wind, and steps to the back of the room to where there is a piece of paper and a pen.
Now this is the difficult bit. The boy doesn’t like writing that much, especially when he isn’t being forced to by school. But he has quite loved his grandfather, and therefore, feels willing to make the sacrifice.
On the note he writes:
I miss u.
Please don’t miss me 2 much.
I hope u have a nice time when u get there.
A bit of him wants to write “Love, Jack,” but he doesn’t in case one of his friends happens to see the note, and he knows he will never live that down. Also, he thinks, as he looks down at his note, he isn’t quite sure where there is, nor if his grandfather could know. Perhaps, he shrugs, this is one of the wonders of the universe, and neither the balloon nor his grandfather will know where there is until one or both of them have arrived.
With that final thought, the boy sticks his note to the balloon with a bit of gum, walks to the door, steps outside, reaches up, and launches his balloon into the wind.
Unfortunately, because the balloon is full of carbon dioxide, and not helium, it sinks gracefully to the boy’s feet, before being blown in a bounce down the road. After a couple of seconds, the boy chases after it, running as fast as he can, until the balloon is back in his hands. Then, he returns to the crematorium, and as he steps inside, for some reason – let’s call it deterioration – the balloon bursts with an incredible bang, and all the boy has left to hold is a note, a piece of gum, and an ancient scrap of yellow rubber.
That is when the boy starts to cry. Because this is when he realises that there truly is nothing about which to laugh anymore. No one else can understand why he is so upset, because all he will say is that his balloon has burst and it won’t fly, and he doesn’t know where there is. Eventually, the boy’s father marches away to his car, drives to the shop, and buys a proper, red balloon, filled up with helium, that bounces cheerfully along on its string until it is safely in the boy’s hand.
No one can understand why the first thing the boy does is pull the balloon down, stick a piece of paper to it, and let go to watch the big, red balloon float away. But finally, the boy stops laughing and crying, and everyone can grieve in their own time and peace.
They leave the crematorium, and troop down to the little café, where, conveniently, the café owner has discovered an unopened box full of perfectly shaped paper bags. He is having a lovely day. Two full groups of mourners in one morning is not something at which to turn up one’s nose.
Meanwhile, a girl of about five or six is walking with her mother through the slightly poorer part of town. Her mother is trying desperately hard to stare straight ahead, and not make any eye contact with the homeless people curled up in front of shops, or in little crevices to keep warm. The little girl has no such qualms, and waves readily and easily to see who will wave back. I regret to inform you that unfortunately, not many do. But still the girl waves because she likes the few who wave back, and she rather feels that they make the waving worth it.
The little girl is sucking on a grape-flavoured lollipop that her mother had bought her in the shop. She doesn’t often get lollipops, and she tries to make this one last as long as possible, because she knows, with the infinite wisdom of a young child, how to make the most of a rare occurrence.
There is one homeless man, by whom they pass, who particularly catches the little girl’s eye. He is old, very, very old, and sits hunched, as though the doorframe he hides beneath is pressing on his shoulders. His eyes meet the girl’s and she feels a bit surprised, because they are eyes like no others she has seen before. The whites of them are red and bloodshot, and the irises a strange, sluggish brown. They are sad eyes, deep-set in thin, bony cheeks. They are not attractive eyes in any way, shape, or form, but the little girl likes them because they don’t look like they are lying to her.
It is amazing if you think about it, how perceptive little children can be of a person’s eyes.
The little girl’s mother stops to look at something in a shop window, and the girl takes her opportunity. She walks over and stands before the homeless man. He stares at her. She stares at him. Carefully, with precision, she removes her lollipop from her mouth and holds it out to the man. He doesn’t take it. Perhaps, the girl thinks, he hasn’t had a lollipop in so long that he’s forgotten what it is. She reaches down and places it on the ground before him, blissfully unaware of all the dirt and bacteria into which it has now come into contact. The man doesn’t reach out and pick it up. The little girl is about to explain to him the mechanics of a lollipop, but her mother comes over, takes her firmly by the hand, and pulls her away before she has a chance.
The homeless man is left, staring at the lollipop before him. He doesn’t make a move to pick it up. It’s a little bit because the lollipop was in someone else’s mouth and then rolled in the dirt, but mostly it’s because it looks like grape. The homeless man can’t stand grape lollipops.
Eventually a pigeon flies down to inspect the lollipop. It perches on the stick, and pecks the sweet questioningly a few times. It coos at it, flaps its wings, and then flies away again.
Understandable, the man thinks, maybe pigeons don’t like grape lollipops either.
Some part of him wonders whether he should pick up the lollipop. A bigger part of him knows that moving is impossible, and so he doesn’t. He just stares straight forward. And then a pair of shoes catches his eye. Neat, little, pink shoes that belong to a neat, little five or six year old girl.
His gaze travels up and it is the girl from before, the one who gave him the lollipop. In one hand, she holds a piece of string, and at the top of the string, bouncing cheerfully, is a big, red balloon.
“It’s okay,” the little girl says, her face serious. “Not a lot of people like grape anyway.”
Do you remember earlier, when I mentioned how surprisingly perceptive little children can occasionally be?
She holds out the balloon to the old man.
“I found it caught in a bush,” she says. “There was a paper on it, but I couldn’t read it so I tore it off.”
The homeless man reaches out, slowly, carefully. He takes the string of the balloon, and it bounces cheerfully into his doorway.
“There’s a bit of gum stuck to it,” the little girl says. “I don’t think it’s grape.” And then she walks away.
The homeless man sits for a minute, not quite sure what to do. He can’t buy food with a balloon. He can’t eat the balloon. The balloon is, in fact, totally useless. But he feels quite happy nonetheless, tugs on the string to make the balloon do a dance, and smiles to himself.
I would love to tell you that the old man went about the rest of his life, smiling and laughing, with that same balloon and the memory of a little girl, but that wouldn’t be realistic. As I told you earlier, this isn’t a story about happy meetings. It’s a story about life, and perception, and just us.
About half an hour later, a woman walks down the same street. She’s crying, the large, intrusive tears, that never seem to stop. She’s just seen a film at the cinema, and the ending was not at all what she was expecting. Not what she was wanting, either.
The woman is old-ish. Not as old as the homeless man, but certainly not as young as the little girl. She’s quite nicely in-between the two ages, and very comfortable there. She has a lovely, versatile face, which can be quite pretty when she wants it to be, but at the moment is not. At the moment, her face is red and puffy, and her eyes won’t stop streaming.
It was a very unsatisfying film.
The homeless man sees her cry. He watches her walk slowly down the path. He can’t really see her face, but in his mind he decides that she is old and that is that. Her husband must have died. Or her cat, you can never tell with women like her. He watches her square her shoulders and lift her face, and decides it isn’t her husband. It has to be a cat. No one could look bravely forward like that for more than a pet.
It is unsure as to why the homeless man decides that someone must have died for the woman to be so sad. Perhaps it is because he has not seen a sad film – or any sort of film – in years, and it has not occurred to him that that could be the reason. Perhaps it is because he has seen so much death that that has become the only reason for grief he can think of. Perhaps it is because life has become so important to him, so important that he stores it deep within himself like a secret, and his fear causes him to see death everywhere else.
The reason, however, is irrelevant. What matters is what the man does next.
He calls out to the woman. Three times, in fact, as she does not believe he is calling to her, and tries very hard to ignore him. Eventually, she cannot ignore him any longer, and, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, look vaguely in his direction.
“I haven’t any change,” she says. “Sorry.” She isn’t sorry. She hasn’t even looked at his face.
The old man perseveres. He holds out the balloon. “Don’t cry,” he says.
It is only then that the woman actually looks at him. Properly. She takes in his sad and dirty eyes, his dirty clothes, dirty cheeks. She looks up to admire the big, red balloon he is trying to hand her. Then she looks down and sees that he hasn’t got any legs.
As the old man asked her to, the woman stops crying. Although she isn’t young, she hasn’t seen someone without either of his legs before. She forgets to be discreet, and stares openly.
The man feels awkward. Embarrassed. He shuffles his coat around a bit.
“Sorry,” the woman says. She isn’t sorry. As with many people, this woman is stuck with the mentality that people without homes or limbs aren’t as easy to offend as those with.
The homeless man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t like this woman, with her swollen eyes, and pretentious air. He almost doesn’t forgive her.
But she takes the balloon. That’s the difference.
She walks over to him, understanding that he can’t bring the balloon to her on account of his lack of legs, and takes the balloon.
These two people will never be friends. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact, they don’t like each other at all. But the old man gives the woman a balloon, and the woman takes a balloon from an old man without a home. And that makes everything all the more forgivable.
At the same time, a small dog has just slipped its lead and is making a bid for freedom. It’s a little dog, hardly more than a puppy, and is fully relishing its new lease on life. It feels free, limitless, and ready to go wherever it so wishes.
The dog races through the streets, as fast as its little legs will take it, weaving through shoppers and jumping over curbs. Faster and faster and faster it runs, picking up speed, and barking at the top of its voice. There is a woman who takes a step back. The dog doesn’t have time to weave effectively, and knocks into the woman’s legs. She gives a cry, and waves her arms in an attempt to keep her balance. The dog shakes its head briefly, and then continues on its way.
Both the old man and the woman look in dismay, as the big, red balloon floats off into the distance.
“Sorry,” the woman says. And this time she is quite sorry. She liked the balloon. She liked how cheerfully it bounced.
The old man smiles a little bit. “It looks like a cherry lollipop,” he says. “I like cherry lollipops.”
The woman goes into a shop and buys the homeless man a cherry lollipop. She also buys him a blanket and a hat. The homeless man doesn’t want the hat, which doesn’t suit his face shape, but he does want the blanket, and he is delighted with the lollipop. He closes his eyes when he puts it in his mouth, and relishes the synthetic fruitiness of the flavour.
“I have to go now,” the woman says.
“I’m sorry your cat died,” the old man tells her, without opening his eyes.
The woman looks confused. “I don’t have a cat.”
The homeless man gives her a pitying look. “Well, not now, obviously.”
Shaking her head, the woman walks on her way. He was clearly mad. She looks at the hat in her hands, and wonders whether or not she should return it. Then a sharp and cool breeze races through the air, and slices into her ears. The woman puts the hat on, looks at her reflection, admires how the hat suits her face shape, and goes on with her day.
The balloon, several, several feet up in the air is feeling quite pleased with itself. Over the course of fewer than twenty-four hours, it has been, in effect, a letter, a condolence, an offered handkerchief, and a cherry lollipop. Oh, and a balloon. Not bad for a day’s work.
Then, a sharp and cool breeze races through the air, blowing the balloon onto a tangle of barbed wire.
A balloon that was once a letter, a condolence, an offered handkerchief, and a cherry lollipop is now nothing more than a breath of helium in an endless, stretching sky.
But, I suppose, that’s the risk one has to take with being.