The Red Balloon

Fiction
Elisse Sophie Ahmet


Photo Credit: Lydia Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The young toddler loosely strapped into the navy blue pushchair was a pale boy of two. His fine mop of straight, sunshine blond hair was cut into a bowl shape that skimmed the long lashes of his almond-shaped eyes, which were flecked with shards of green. When he let go of the red balloon tied to the yellow stick that he was, until moments ago, still holding, those almond eyes widened to the size of large, unshelled walnuts. He began to wail.

“Oh no,” Eve said.

She moved around in front of the boy and crouched down to his level. The wind pushed her hair across her face and a few strands found their way into her mouth. She spat them back out again.

“Mummy doesn’t like it when Emil cries his big, ploppy tears.”

For once, Emil had slept through the night. Even more surprising, he was in a good mood. Pushing the pushchair to the Broadway Centre took about thirty-five minutes, and was mostly uphill. Now she was returning, pushchair laden with bulging shopping bags, Eve was sweating. Emil chomped through his floppy salty chips noisily. At least she didn’t have to think about the cat anymore. She was secretly glad when it ran away.

Her son’s face was a puce ball of furrows and folds and not for the first time did Eve wish she could hit him. She stood and assessed her surroundings. The golden M logo on the curved red plastic was still visible as the balloon bounced down the embankment of the dual carriageway. She looked from one side of the bridge to the other. Vehicles shot past and the structure wobbled slightly as they whipped underneath, vibrating through her legs. That was the reason they had come this way; Emil liked to wave to the lorry drivers, and Eve did anything that would stop Emil crying for a God-Forsaken-Second.

The balloon was slowly making its way towards the bottom of the bank until a gust of wind blew it directly in the path of a blue car. The driver was startled and honked their horn loudly. Eve’s heart paused. Emil tugged at her floral skirt and screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Okay darling don’t cry, please don’t cry.”

He pointed over and over again at the direction the balloon had taken. It had been free with the purchase of the meal he had smeared into his hair. A remnant of ketchup smudged across his right cheek near his ear. In his left hand, he clutched the toy unearthed from the cardboard box.

“Shush now sweetheart, we’ll go back soon and get you another one.”

A lorry pressed down on its horn. Eve jolted up in time to see the balloon dance furiously into the air and back onto the embankment. It jumped about on its stick a few inches as Emil wriggled out of his pushchair. He poked his arms through the bridge’s cold, grey railings. Eve snatched him towards her chest.

“What have I told you about getting out of that chair?”

His scream pierced her. He flapped his hands in her face and managed to scratch her eye as he squirmed to be let free. She dropped him with a thud and his arm hit the pushchair, which began to roll backwards down from the middle of the curved bridge. Eve swore.

When Emil was placed in her arms for the first time, he wriggled uncomfortably until Adem took him away. After that, Eve fell into a fitful sleep. When she woke sometime later, a matronly Black nurse handed over a plate of buttered toast and tea. She salivated remembering ripping up chunks of the warm, scratchy bread with her teeth.

Tyres skidded. The balloon was in the road again. It bobbed about and rested on the railing nearest to them. Eve scuttled over to the pushchair, which had rolled back to the entrance of the bridge and fallen over with the weight of the shopping.

“Stay there,” she turned and warned Emil. He froze on the spot.

Eve felt her chest; her nipples still cried milky tears when he mewled. Emil loved breastfeeding so much that she’d allowed him to carry on way longer than anyone recommended. She put a stop to it only when one of the other mothers made a dirty joke as she dropped Lina off at nursery. That morning, her daughter had gone in again without a fuss. Eve was starting to suspect Lina preferred to be there than at home.

Eve picked the pushchair up and scrambled to retrieve the melon that had rolled from her shopping bags, as well as the Kinder Egg she had bought for her daughter.

“Emil, look,” she called out. Emil was still frozen in his place. “Mummy has a surprise for you.” She rattled the Kinder Egg. As Emil approached, a loud sound shocked him into jerking his head towards the railings again. He could see the balloon in the road. He pointed and repeated his desire to have it back.

What was everyone at LINPAC doing while her son screamed and screamed at her? Friday afternoon; they were probably half cut from the small plastic cups of bagged white wine Joyce distributed. Working through a haze of alcohol until 5:30pm rolled around and they all left en masse for the George Arms.

Emil toddled towards Eve as she rebalanced all the bags on the pushchair. Behind her was a quiet street with a row of houses shielded by the tall trees. The embankment absorbed much of the sound and fumes from the violence of the road below. Before he reached her, Emil found the gap between the street and the bridge’s entrance and began to crawl through it to get onto the embankment. Eve immediately abandoned the pushchair, dropped the bags, and ran to where he was so fast she tripped on her foot. Her face smashed into the ground.

“Emil!” she screamed through the blood dripping from her mouth.

A third of her tooth was on the ground and another part of it was embedded in her bottom lip. She untangled her limbs and pushed through the small opening Emil had crawled through. Sliding on autumn’s orange and red leaves, grabbing handfuls of grainy dirt and broken beer bottles, she tugged at the back of the boy’s shirt, pulling him backwards with a severe jolt. He screamed.

She clutched Emil so tightly he squawked from the pain of it. Blood from her lip dropped onto his light blue coat. He managed still to blubber and sob about the balloon.

“For Chris’sake,” she hissed. “Will you stop crying if I go get it?”

Emil nodded through his tears.

“Then you have to wait here. Do. Not. Move. I mean it, young man. Stay here. Understood?”

He nodded again.

Eve backed down the embankment keeping her eyes fixed on Emil. He had stopped crying but kept his bottom lip upturned ready to begin again at any moment.

Eve’s foot slipped and she fell forward. She slid on her front further down the muddy hill. Something thorny embedded itself into her leg through her floral skirt and her lip throbbed with heat. She was nearly at the bottom. Emil looked on, sucking his thumb and rubbing his ear, which he did whenever he was sleepy. He was due a nap when they got back, Eve remembered now. She could hear him humming a tune from one of his cartoons. Pingu? Her foot reached the road. No, Thomas the Tank Engine.

Any moment now she expected to hear a crash. She couldn’t be sure if the cars were honking at her—the woman scrambling down the embankment—or the balloon, which belligerently moved across their eyelines without popping.

“Stay there. Do not move, Emil. I mean it,” she warned again from the bottom of the embankment. Her voice was carried away by the cars and lorries as they shot past. She turned away from him to see where the balloon was: the middle of the asphalt.

She climbed over the grey guard rail and the wind slapped her hard in the face. A purple sports car raced past, fluttering her skirt in its direction. She looked down the looming stretch of road. In the distance she could make out the hotel where she and Adem had their wedding reception. On the other side of the road, a field full of teenage boys from the school it was attached to. They were playing football, or hockey—she couldn’t quite see. Another car came over the edge of her line of vision. It was there and then it was gone in a matter of seconds. The balloon danced closer to her and she looked from it to where she stood, calculating how many steps it was. Maybe seven, eight? She could make it across the road and back if she bolted when it was clear. Eve turned back to check that Emil was still where she had left him. He was. The pushchair too, was where she had left it. If she was quick, they could get back in time for Emil to watch Thomas the Tank Engine before his nap. Ringo was always her favourite. She knew there were people who said that for attention, to be different, but she really meant it. His voice was so soothing. She often drifted off as Emil babbled along to his narration.

The sky had clouded over. A droplet of rain kissed her cheek. She had to be quick, Emil would catch a cold if she wasn’t careful. Lina needed picking up soon. The washing wouldn’t do itself.

She turned to wave at her son. And then she stepped out into the road.

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Elisse Sophia Ahmet is a 32-year-old freelance creative copywriter of British and Turkish Cypriot heritage. Born and bred in London, she is interested in women’s stories, particularly feminine performance, identity, and motherhood. Her work has been published by Litro, Between the Lines, and Lucent Dreaming. She has a master’s with distinction in creative writing from Royal Holloway and is working on her first novel, The Other Side of the Island, an intergenerational drama spanning seven decades in the lives of three British Turkish Cypriot women—a grandmother, mother and daughter. Set against London’s racial, cultural and historical tapestry, it interrogates the connection between motherhood and mental illness, identity, and the legacies of trauma born from displacement. Email: elisseahmet[at]gmail.com

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