Balloon Gods, by Robert Keal
"Very simplistic, don't you think?"
I want to shout, "It's like rai-ain!" But I know you won't get the joke.
Looking at their knotted noses; their fat, shiny cartoon sausage ears, my smile inflates.
The warmth of their whimsy radiates through me.
It reminds me of the space heater I had when I was twelve. When my parents couldn't afford to get the boiler serviced.
I haven't thought about that for years.
Nothing in the catalogue says these are therapy dogs!
Remember the lava lamp Mum knocked over before bed one evening? How its lapis liquid fell like a waterfall beneath the carpet, causing a power cut.
How Dad went mental.
Back further still, to the deepest shark-infested waters of your monthly National Geographic. To holidays in France, where you could actually see the sky.
Time travelling in a police box, half-behind the sofa. Shopping centre slush puppies; your tongue afterwards.
The bedroom walls your grandad painted, insisting you needed "a boy's colour."
Or maybe the sweet shops you saw in movies, a candyfloss dream too sick for reality.
Bubblegum you couldn't make pop!
That time Dad took you to the funfair and he entered a contest where he ate 13 jam doughnuts without licking his lips and won.
The prize? A free doughnut.
Plus, the Type 2 diabetes, although replacing his usual 40 a-day with as many party rings probably didn't help.
Neon signs welcoming you and other "likeminded" souls down rabbit holes that echoed the pleasure-squeals of animals and queens too violent for fairytales.
The first doll you ever mothered.
What about the Vitamin C tablets Mum made you swallow every day, Before & After school?
Dad's childhood bedroom that, according to him, made hangovers 100x worse.
Also, his go-to properties on the Monopoly board.
Cheese puffs you were meant to save for lunchtime but almost always ended up eating during break.
Your phlegm whenever the house got mould.
You taking a bite out of a satsuma with the skin on, in public; people laughed, but nobody ever taught you how to peel.
From various Christmas tins, the strawberry chocolate wrappers.
The cores of your premature scabs; their quick-rising centres.
Her favourite dress and cardigan combo, which you loved too much.
Fearful dawns and relieved sunsets.
Your grandmother's engagement ring, which you gave freely but couldn't bring yourself to claim back.
The gunfire you're glad kept Grandad awake at night.
Watching sunlight on the grass despite an urgent walk-of-shame piss.
Exercise books, specifically Year 4 and GCSE English.
Ancient Egypt: its sand, its gods. Most of all Anubis, a candle holder of whom Mum bought you because you thought it was an action figure.
The two good Mummy movies, skipping past the bit where someone has their eyes and tongue ripped out.
Even now, you won't make that mistake again.
"Phil?" You tug my sleeve.
"I said they're simplistic, right? Basic, even. I mean, what does anybody really get out of them?"
I stare upward, conscious I'm not grinning anymore. Each totem peers ahead, eyeless yet somehow all-seeing.
"Probably someone's idea of a joke," I suggest.
Robert Keal lives in Solihull, UK, just outside Birmingham, where he works as a copywriter. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications over the past several years. He loves walking the tightrope between strangeness and reality.
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