Balloon


Short Fiction by Efrat Danon

 

I go in and take him. The nursery teacher shoves him gently from behind. I tell the story I’ve rehearsed; she seems to find it plausible.

‘Give your hand to the lady,’ she says. Her hair is thin and I can see her scalp. It’s pink and a bit inflamed. ‘Good boy,’ she says and hands me his backpack. It has a picture of that cartoon pig.

We walk fast. I don’t look back. I don’t check if the teacher is standing there looking at us. Any minute, I think, any minute now there’ll be a hand on my shoulder. I’m waiting for the weight of it.

His hand is small and a bit cold. ‘You’re OK,’ I say, without looking at him. Don’t be afraid, I want to say.

A bus comes and we get on it and stand by the back door. There are eyes everywhere. It’s hot; my shirt sticks to my back. We go through narrow backstreets and then emerge into a wide avenue. We are near tall buildings with small windows. Thousands of windows, like small square insects buzzing in my face. When the bus stops near the canal, we get off.

The streets are busy with people – they fill every corner, every piece of road and pavement. I buy cigarettes for me and a bucket full of chocolate for him: mini-sized versions of Mars, Kit Kat and Oreo. We don’t go over the bridge – we go down near the water and sit under the bridge, where no one can see us from the street above. We sit on gravel and dirt, among empty plastic bottles and cigarettes butts. The edges of the stone bridge are green and black, and water laps at it. The streets above us are noisy – full of tourists and loud music. But they are far away; we are hidden here.

I light a cigarette and open the bucket for him. ‘Take one,’ I say.

‘Mummy doesn’t let me.’ He looks at me with big eyes. He doesn’t ask who I am – doesn’t doubt his safety.

‘Mummy isn’t here,’ I say and take one mini Mars bar and unwrap it for him.

He takes it and eats it. Of course he eats it, it’s chocolate. He finishes it and takes another one and another one.

Now that I have him, I don’t know what I’ll do with him. I think maybe I could take him back; maybe it’s still possible to change my mind. How much time has passed? First it was night and I was standing in front of their window. They had put up new curtains, purple ones. The window was open and the curtains were fluttering in the wind. I stood there and waited. I thought I could see Daniel through the window, but there was no movement, just an empty square of light. Then a woman with dogs walked by; she stopped and looked at me.

‘Who are you looking for?’ she asked.

‘No one,’ I said. Her dogs were circling me, sniffing my shoes. She didn’t go away – she squinted.

‘Is there a law against standing?’ I asked.

‘No, but you’ve been standing here for a long time, staring at their window.’ She pointed to the building with a long-painted fingernail. It’s my window, I wanted to shout in her ugly face. Then it was too bright and hot, and I was standing in the street opposite the nursery. My upper lip was sweaty and there were round wet circles under my armpits. I saw her bring the child in; it was her day to do it. Daniel does it on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he works from home. She was wearing her black leggings and white trainers and a loose sweater: a new one I’d never seen before. She went in and out and, before I could breathe, she was gone. Then I waited; I don’t know how long. I heard the kids shouting behind the nursery fence.

‘I want water,’ the boy says.

‘I don’t have water.’

‘Buy some.’

I take a deep breath and look at him. He is odd looking. He has her eyes, but not her long eyelashes or the puffed lips. His ears are too big for his face, and his skin is pale and a bit yellow. He likes birds. I follow him and Daniel on their outings to the park. Whole afternoons they spend there. The boy knows the Latin names of trees. He likes to dig his fingers into dark holes in their trunks. Or to dig worms out of muddy patches. His fingernails are always long and dirty.

‘Buy some,’ he says again, quietly, testing his power over me and digging his dirty fingernails into the chocolate. ‘Daddy says I need to drink all the time, especially when it’s hot.’

‘Daniel isn’t your daddy.’ I light another cigarette. He is quiet while examining me, trying to figure out what I just said.

‘Daniel isn’t your dad,’ I say again. ‘Your dad lives in America. He and your mum are divorced, and he doesn’t visit you; he hasn’t seen you since you were a baby. Daniel is just a friend of your mum’s.’ There’s an echo – my words come back to us from the bare concrete walls. He looks at me the way kids sometimes stare, and plays absent-mindedly with the handle of the chocolate bucket. It makes a hollow sound.

‘In order for him to be your dad, you need to share DNA, which you don’t, so…’ I look away. His shoes are small. His face is so open. My chest feels soft and watery. I stand up and start pacing. ‘Take another chocolate,’ I tell him.

‘I don’t want to.’

I come closer to the waterside. ‘Take another chocolate and I’ll buy you water.’ I hear him unwrapping more chocolate behind my back. A narrowboat sails by. On the opposite bank, people are sitting in a café, drinking and laughing. Suddenly, I’m sure I see them: Daniel and her, sitting there, oblivious. I have the boy, I want to tell them; I want to shout and wave my hands and jump up and down. I have the boy – now there’s a piece missing in your puzzle.

 

I ring the door a few times before Mum hears us; she’s hoovering in the living room.

‘Where were you?’ she says without turning off the hoover, shouting over the noise. ‘I was calling you.’ She had been – I didn’t pick up.

‘Who’s that?’ she asks, looking at the boy.

‘It’s nothing; I’m babysitting.’

‘What? You didn’t come home last night.’

I take the boy by the arm and we go to the kitchen. I pour him a cup of water. She comes after us. ‘Where were you? I was worried.’

I fake a laugh. ‘Mum, I’m forty-two – I think I can do whatever I want.’ Who am I performing for? The child?

‘Where were you? Up all night, God knows where.’

The boy takes the water and drinks it all in one go.

‘More,’ he says.

‘You need to say please.’

‘Please.’

I fill his cup. Mum sits down at the table with a silent sigh. I sit opposite her and light a cigarette. The windows are closed; she never opens them. She says she doesn’t want the heat to come in. We are all shining with sweat.

‘Is this a new job?’

‘What?’

‘This babysitting thing?’

‘No, it’s just for friends.’

‘Who?’

‘You don’t know them.’ I try not to get angry. She gestures to me to give her my cigarette and holds it with her yellow fingers, dragging on it deeply. Sometimes she leaves the filter all wet and I taste bitter saliva on my lips.

‘How long are you going to keep on doing this, Yana?’

‘I’m just babysitting for the afternoon.’ I pretend I don’t understand what she’s asking.

‘I’m not talking about this.’ She looks at the boy. ‘I’m talking about you not sleeping, not eating, strolling at night, doing I don’t know what.’ Her creased skin is like crêpe paper, her eyes tired. ‘You need to start sleeping – you need structure in your days.’

My days are like heavy rocks I can’t lift. The hours stretch with no break, no release.

‘More,’ the boy says.

‘You’re not getting anything if you don’t say please,’ I tell him, without turning around to him.

‘Please.’

I stand up and pour him another cup, watching him as he gulps it.

‘Maybe he’s hungry.’

‘He’s not hungry, he just ate a bucket of chocolate.’

‘Chocolate is not food, Yana. You want some chicken?’ she asks him, raising her voice as if the child is deaf. The boy just stares at her.

‘He doesn’t look healthy,’ she whispers.

He looks healthy to me. His cheeks look kissed and his head looks stroked. I hate the look of entitlement in his eyes.

Mum takes the chicken out and starts slicing it on a small plate. ‘Sit down,’ she tells him, but the boy doesn’t move.

‘When are you taking him back?’

‘What?’

‘When do you need to take him back, or is your friend coming here to get him?’

‘What? I don’t know.’

‘What do you mean you don’t know?’

‘I mean I don’t know.’

She cuts some tomatoes and puts everything on the table, with a plate for me too.

‘I don’t want any.’

‘You look like a Muselmann, Yana, you need to eat.’

The boy takes the chicken in his hand and starts eating, hesitantly at first, but then with big bites.

‘I told you he was hungry.’

She brings him a napkin. She folds it into a triangle and places it under the untouched fork.

‘Take some, Yana, it’s good.’

He licks his fingers. I feel her eyes on me.

‘Where were you all night?’

I walked and I walked and I walked until I couldn’t feel my legs. I can’t sleep; my eyes are constantly open even when they’re shut.

‘What are you doing, ah? You need to get past this whole Daniel thing – it’s been months now, Yana.’

I swallow hard.

‘I know it’s not easy, but you need to let go – he’s moved on, he’s having a baby – you should move on too, it’s been long enough.’ She’s angry but she tries to sound compassionate. She spits when she talks; she lifts her arms and moves them around; she hits her fist into her palm.

‘We need to go,’ I say to the boy, but I don’t move.

‘You need to go back to work – your sister said she might be able to arrange something – she knows someone in publishing.’

‘Come,’ I say and extinguish my cigarette. I stand up and take the ashtray, emptying it in the bin.

‘Meet with them – what do you have to lose?’

‘We’re going,’ I tell him, but the boy is eating. He’s busy with the tomatoes.

‘We’re going, now,’ I say, and come closer to him but don’t touch him.

‘Let him eat.’

‘We need to go.’

‘Wait, I want to give you something,’ Mum says and leaves the kitchen. It’s money. She keeps it in a pair of 100-denier stockings in her bedroom closet. Every few days she gives me some; she shoves it into my hand without looking at me.

I pace back and forth in the small kitchen. The boy is still eating the tomatoes: eating them with his hands, juice trickling down his arms and elbows. The collar of his shirt is wet. I guess they don’t tell him not to eat with his hands; I guess she doesn’t. I guess it goes well with the incense and the yoga mattresses and the Buddha statues. For a minute, I see Daniel trapped in his new life, in its banality and pretentiousness and deception. I see him bored to death by her ordinariness, the easiness by which she adopts every passing trend without thought. All the things he despises. I see it but then I remember: ‘Yana,’ he told me, when I begged for a reason, when I begged for him to tell me why he was leaving me, ‘living with you is like living with an assassin – everything you have you use as a weapon.’

‘Yana,’ Mum calls from the hall, and then comes in, ‘Daniel is on the line for you.’ Did the phone ring? I didn’t hear it ring. For a moment we stare at each other. She is holding the phone pressed to her chest to muffle our voices. ‘He says it’s urgent.’

I can’t speak. Her face is hard to read. There’s a sort of excitement in her eyes, although she never liked Daniel, never truly approved of him. She always felt he was condescending towards her, and she was right. But Daniel is condescending to almost everyone, except her, of course. Joy is her name. What kind of a stupid name is that? I gesture a no with my head and take the phone from her. I hang up before the boy lifts his eyes from the plate. In one motion, I take him from the chair into my arms, my body surprised by his weight. Before we get to the door, the phone starts ringing again.

‘I was never here,’ I tell Mum.

‘What?’ she yells after me.

 

I’m running. I don’t know where to. The streets are heavy with heat; the buildings exhale warm air. I feel his warm, wheezing breath on my neck. I run fast but move slowly as if in water. The air in my lungs is moving too quickly. My phone vibrates in my back pocket. Yana, I hear his voice in my head, his deep whispering voice that is forever in my head. Yana, where are you taking the child?

I stop and put the boy down. His smell is on me, his sweat. ‘You’re ok, don’t worry,’ I tell him, panting.

‘I want to go home,’ he says, but doesn’t look at me. He’s scared, I realise.

‘Later,’ I say but I have no plan, no place that I can take him. I don’t have enough money to get really far.

The phone beeps; there is a message waiting.

I don’t know where we are. Further down the road there is a small shopping centre. We go in. Everything is white and bright; light falls from the glass ceiling above. There is the sound of waves, of water, of the sea. We go down the escalators and arrive at a square with a water fountain in the middle. The water goes up and then down, and dances to Bach’s Musette. We stand and watch; the air is cooler here.

People are sitting around, outside cafés and restaurants. They drink iced coffee. I hear their ice cubes shaking in high glasses. The air is sterile. I sit on the edge of the fountain and the water tickles my neck. The boy comes closer and puts his hand in the water. Lamps in the fountain colour the water blue, green and red. Two little kids, a boy and a girl, come closer. They look at the boy and put their hands in the water too. I light a cigarette and close my eyes; the brightness is blinding.

‘Excuse me.’

I lift my head. She’s young, probably not more than twenty-five, dressed in the uniform of one of the cafés and holding an empty tray. Her name tag reads: Maria.

‘You can’t smoke in here.’

I nod but take another drag. The three children have stopped playing and are now staring at me.

‘Please, Madame, could you extinguish the cigarette? I can take it, if you want.’ She has kind eyes and a heavy accent. Is it Italian? It might be Romanian. She’s very small, tiny actually – she could fit in my pocket.

‘Give it to me, I’ll take it away.’

She has a small black bow tie around her neck. A little penguin. My throat burns and there is a sour taste in my mouth.

‘Why?’ I say.

‘Sorry?’ she says and looks at the kids, smiling at them and waving to them as if she’s standing far away.

‘Why do I need to extinguish it?’

‘It bothers the other parents,’ she says and averts her eyes from mine.

‘Really? How do you know?’

‘Sorry?’

‘How. Do. You. Know?’

‘Madame, please, it is against the law – there are children here also.’

I feel the phone vibrating. I take another drag and throw the cigarette into the fountain. Maria wants to say something but doesn’t. She goes back to the waiters’ station and whispers something to another penguin. They both look at me. Some of the parents, mostly mothers, look at me too. The cigarette floats towards the centre of the fountain. I put my hand in the water and spray some on my neck and face.

‘Kids, come here,’ their mother calls them. They don’t move. My phone vibrates again.

She comes closer, a hint of panic in her voice. ‘Come on, we’re going.’

‘You need to go,’ I tell them. I take the phone out of my pocket. It’s Daniel. His name is on my screen. I take the boy’s arm and we leave. We run up the escalators. I have two messages on my voicemail; I don’t listen to them.

‘I want to go home,’ the boy says. His voice is shaking, on the verge of crying. Your home used to be mine, I want to tell him. The room you sleep in used to be our storage room, where we put things we no longer needed. We dreamed of one day making it into a room for a little child. I used to go in and just stand there; it was quiet and full of possibilities.

He pulls his nose. Near the entrance a woman stands holding a huge bouquet of balloons in different shapes and colours.

‘Do you want one?’ I ask. Why am I stopping? The boy is too slow. He puts a finger in his mouth and looks up at the balloons. He brings one shoulder to his cheek.

‘You need to decide,’ I say, ‘right now.’

The woman gives a nervous laugh. I notice his cartoon pig and point at it, and he nods, unable to resist. I pay and ignore the vibrations in my back pocket. They don’t stop; they won’t stop now.

 

Another bus. We sit this time, the balloon touching the ceiling. The boy holds it, but without enthusiasm or thrill. He looks even paler than usual.

‘Your phone’s ringing,’ the woman opposite me says.

I nod.

‘Your phone,’ she says with urgency, as if ignoring a ringing phone is an unimaginable possibility.

I take it out of my pocket. My mum. She leaves a message. I have fifteen unanswered calls from Daniel and about six from my mum. She calls again while I hold the phone. The woman looks up.

‘Is it from the bank?’ she says and chuckles. Her heavy breasts shake under her shirt. It’s amazing how people can laugh at their own jokes.

‘Worse,’ I say, with a serious face. ‘My mum.’

She laughs loudly and throws her head back, her double chin dancing with her.

‘What have you done? I’ve spoken with Daniel,’ my mum writes in a message. I don’t read the rest of it. I put the phone back in my pocket.

‘Do you like Peppa?’ the woman asks the boy. He lifts his eyes wearily to the balloon and nods.

‘All the kids like her, don’t they?’ she says. ‘My two daughters loved her so much, everything was Peppa at some point – the bed sheets, the clothes, the books, everything. And such a stupid show,’ she whispers and laughs again, ‘right?’

‘I don’t feel good,’ the boy says and puts a hand on his stomach.

‘Poor thing, it’s the heat,’ the woman says. Another woman, an older one, eavesdrops and two teenage girls stare at us, smiling occasionally at the boy. It’s the balloon, I realise – it attracts attention.

‘There’s a virus going around, my granddaughter has it,’ the older woman suggests. Everybody nods.

‘How old are you?’ the older woman asks him. What is it with children and their age? Why is it so important to know? The child looks out the window and locks his jaws, his eyes half-closed.

‘He’s five and his name is Tommy,’ I say. He just celebrated his birthday. I saw the pictures on Facebook: the balloons, the cake, the smiling faces. Joy’s healthy, round belly.

‘Lovely age.’

The bus doesn’t move; we’re stuck in traffic. My legs start jumping. It’s the same at night, when I can’t sleep – my legs won’t stay still, won’t allow me to rest.

‘What’s going on?’ I ask.

‘They’re working down the road; it’s been like this for weeks.’

I stretch myself and look out of the window. The car line is so long I can’t see the end of it. I take the boy’s hand and go to the door. The windows are closed; there’s no air.

‘Could you please open the door,’ I call to the driver, trying to catch a look at him through the mirror. I can feel the eyes of everyone on me, especially those of the two women at the back.

‘Open the door,’ I call out, louder. My voice is foreign, hoarse, deranged. The eyes of the people around go from me to the child, and back again. ‘Hey, I know you can hear me – open the fucking door, I want to get out.’

The balloon touches the ceiling and shakes a bit, making a whooshing sound.

‘He has to wait for a stop,’ a short bald man tells me. He smiles. I don’t know if his smile is kind or if it’s mocking. Tears sting my eyes. For a moment I can’t see anything.

‘We’re right there,’ he says.

The door opens and we spill out. I feel the hot air on my face. People on the bus are looking at us from the bus windows. The streets look familiar. We cross the road and I realise we’re back near the canal. There are people and dancers and noise and music, and smoke from meat stalls. A crowd is standing in a circle, with its back to us, watching something. We come closer and see a man swallowing burning swords. The crowd is clapping and the sword is going straight into the man’s throat and all the way down. Another acrobat drinks oil and blows on a torch, and the torch lights up with a big flame. The acrobats around him jump and make a human pyramid, and at the top of the pyramid is a woman wearing a white leotard with orange flames. They are lifting her in the air, all the male acrobats, throwing her as if she’s a pizza dough.

The smoke is thick and smelly. The boy says something, but I can’t hear him.

‘What?’ I say and bend my head towards him.

‘She’s burning,’ he says and points to the leotard woman. His eyes are red and stained with dark circles.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

We go over the bridge this time, into the river of people. There’s no turning back now. We move slowly. The balloon hovers above us. Yana, Daniel says, it’s over now, bring the boy back. But I can still feel the boy’s hand in mine, warm and clammy. I have him. Joy, I have your little boy. You’ll never find him.

Then the boy stops. He hunches over, his arms around his belly.

‘What’s wrong?’ I say. ‘We can’t stop here.’

People are stuck behind us. The bridge is narrow, the river of people runs only in one direction. The boy groans, then starts vomiting. He grabs my leg and lets go of the balloon. I look up. The balloon wavers at first, then floats forward instead of up, as if it’s looking for someone in the crowd. I know I need to look down at the boy – I need to take care, to take action – but the balloon keeps floating forward and backward, and someone, a man with a little girl on his shoulders, tries to catch its string. He almost manages to grip it and I feel my heart stopping, but the balloon drifts on. It’s only when the boy starts crying loudly that it finally takes off into the sky, pushing its way into the blue – determined and strong – and a moment later it’s just a dot, a distant red dot that will soon disappear.


Efrat Danon has been writing in English and Hebrew. In Hebrew, she has published three collections of short stories and has won the President Award for Debut Work in Israel in 2005. She lives in London and currently working on a collection of short stories in English.