It was a balloon. A bright pink balloon bobbing through the trees, occasionally ducking under branches then rising again.
Judy was taking her usual post-work stroll through the local woods. It helped free her mind from the day’s problems. She was a newly qualified solicitor in a small-town practice. Late home, she hadn’t time to change out of her office suit other than pull on her wellingtons. A cool breeze blew under her coat and around her knees. The clocks would spring forward soon. Smatterings of green flecked the trees, ready to burst out and surprise. Perhaps, she thought, it was not such a good idea to come out so late. Dusk was falling, filling in the last remnants of light between black branches, like ink soaking into blotting paper.
Judy peered. Yes, it was a balloon. Its vivid pinkness reduced the wood to an umber backdrop. She watched the balloon floating closer and as she concentrated a tree stepped out in front of her. Judy shrieked.
‘I’m sorry – did I scare you?’ The balloon’s owner appeared before her. Tall and broad shouldered and with dark brown hair. He wore black trousers and a dark greasy wax jacket. No wonder she hadn’t seen him.
Judy flushed and felt foolish, even though she was not the one clutching a pink balloon on a string. Her heart was racing from the scare but she managed to keep her voice even. ‘No,’ she lied, ‘I was a little surprised that’s all.’ Judy nodded at the man and went to walk by him, aware he was watching her.
He shifted towards her, blocking her way along the path. ‘Ah… I haven’t seen you here before.’
Judy had to stop to avoid walking into him but did not reply. She was unsure of the stranger. His clothes were muddy all down his left side as if he had been lying down in dirt. Had he been sleeping rough? She was conscious of the darkening woods and being alone with him. Then she noticed his shirt collar, clean against the collar of his grimy jacket. There was a scent in the air, not the expected smell of damp earth but something fresh and light. She realised it was his aftershave. Judy glanced at his face and looked away, but not before she had noticed his blue eyes. How had she not registered them earlier? Again, she moved to pass by him.
This time he stepped aside, ‘I’m… Alan. Here, you can take it.’ He held out the balloon to her.
‘What? I don’t want it.’ Judy was confused and feeling foolish again. Was he laughing at her?
‘Ah, why not?’ Alan asked, his arm remained outstretched to her with the pink balloon above his head, swaying in the breeze.
Despite herself Judy responded, ‘What would I do with a balloon?’
‘Float away over the treetops.’ He smiled at her, his blue eyes creasing at the corners. Judy’s stomach fluttered. ‘Ah, imagine,’ he continued, ‘Drifting over the fields with the sun on your back and the whole world below disappearing – just like your troubles.’
‘What troubles?’ Judy demanded and realised that now she was engaged in conversation with him.
‘Ah, I don’t know.’ He shrugged his broad shoulders which made him look like a schoolboy being questioned by his headmaster. ‘Doesn’t everyone have troubles?’
The blue eyes smiled at Judy and she
smiled back. ‘Yes, I suppose everyone does, at some time, but you can’t always run away from them.’
‘Run?’ Alan’s eyes widened, ‘Ah, why you’d be flying away!’
Judy wanted to keep this silly conversation going. She wanted to stay in this moment. She was no longer defensive or concerned by the dark wood, simply aware of blue eyes and a pink balloon. ‘But I would have to return to the world sometime, and my troubles would still be waiting.’
Alan’s voice softened and his gaze dropped, ‘Ah… but so would I.’ There was silence between them before Alan broke it, ‘Perhaps we could share them, you know, troubles halved and all that.’
Twenty years and three children later Judy and Alan are still sharing.
That first evening, as they walked home together through the wood, Judy finally asked him, ‘What are you doing with a balloon?’
‘Ah,’ said Alan, ‘I found it blowing along in a ditch and pulled it out so no little creature could get caught by it.’
‘Ah,’ she whispered, ‘But one did.’