Authors: Tom Banks
A voice spoke from the little mesh on the front of the contraption.
âThis is Big Dipper, come in? Big Dipper to anyone out there, come in?'
âHow can we come in? We are in!' said Rasmussen sharply.
âShh!' said Stanley. âShe can't hear you. Who's Big Dipper anyway? Silly name.'
âWhy Big Dipper?' said a girl's voice from the speaker. âSilly name.'
âThere's a boy and a girl,' said Rasmussen. âShe sounds very cross.'
âBig Dipper!' said the boy on the Examinator. âBecause we're big and we dip under the water! We can't very well go around saying “Grand Sumbaroon”, can we? What would Captain Zebediah say?'
Stanley and Rasmussen's jaws hit the floor. Literally, as they both fell over with the shock.
âWho cares what he says?' said the Examinator girl. âI'm even beginning to think he might not be quite the hero he pretends to be â¦'
âShhh!' said the boy. âThat's mutiny! Anyway, there's no-one out there to hear us. Probably for the best, as we won't be able to get much reception once we're swimming up the Great Brown Greasy Rococo River anyway. This is Big Dipper, signing out. 10-40 big buddy.'
âWhat does “10-40 big buddy” mean? Is it code?' said the girl.
âNo,' said the boy. âIt's the time. Nearly elevenses. Let's go â¦'
And the Examinator crackled again, and went silent. Stanley ran to it, and began to fiddle with knobs and twiddle buttons, while Rasmussen hopped from leg to leg behind him, singing the âwe just found out where the Sumbaroon is' song she had written for just this moment.
âNobody there!' said Stanley after a few frantic moments.
âWe've got to tell the Captain!' they shouted together. And stopping only to grab a biscuit, as they'd been reminded it was practically elevenses, they went to do just that.
Cloudier was back in the crow's nest. With the Galloon hanging stationary in the sky like a bad mood, her cosy little weather balloon would not stay aloft for long without using up a lot of fuel, so she had decamped up here again to do her lookout duty. Clamdigger, who normally occupied the little wooden basket on the mainmast, was busy organising the towing party. With the Galloon completely becalmed, and not much to look out for, she had time for her favourite pastimes â reading, and feeling sorry for herself.
She only had her notebook up here, not the little personal library she carried with her in the weather balloon, and while coming through the storms had been pretty terrifying, it had kept her busy. She had tried writing poetry, as was her passion. That had not turned out as she'd hoped. Having noticed a certain unintended
developing in her work, she had made a pledge not to write about anything that could be thought of as being to do with boys. One boy in particular. And so she had tried to write a poem about the sunset.
Like a great clam, in its stripy-jumpered shell,
The sun sets below the sea's swell.
Nothing in my world seems bigger.
The day will dig it out, like a claâ
At this point she had slammed the book closed, and begun scribbling on the cover. Now the only thing to keep her occupied was the rattling and juddering that told her someone big was climbing up the mainmast towards her.
Ooo! Someone was coming. She dropped her book and leaned over to look through the lubber's hole.
, she thought,
could have sworn I heard someone.
âCloudier Peele, as I Iive and breathe!' said a booming voice behind her. She nearly leapt out of her skin, and spun round to see the Captain clambering over the outside rail of the crow's nest.
âLooking down the lubber's hole for me! Ha! You won't find me using that. It's for landspeople and cowards! I come round the outside or not at all.'
He landed squarely on the boards of the crow's nest with a thump. Cloudier was pleased to see that, despite his gloom since losing the Sumbaroon, he had a glint in his eye. He always did when he was out and about on his beloved Galloon.
âOh,' she said, âI come through the hole, I'm afraid.'
âAnd so you should. Load of showy nonsense, this “round the outside” stuff. Could get meself killed, and then where would we be?'
Cloudier didn't know what to say.
âWell, you'd be here, clearly. But you'd no doubt be a bit miffed with having to deal with it, and I â¦ would â¦ be dead,' said the Captain.
âWhat a lot of piffle,' he continued. âSorry, Miss Peele, I've been locked inside my own head for a day or so, sometimes it's hard to come out. How's things up here? Spotted anything?'
âNo, Captain. Just the sea. Smooth as glass all around. There's a cloud over there, but it's not done much. No sign of your â¦ of the Sumbaroon, I'm afraid.'
âI'm afraid too â that's why I had to get out for a wander. But of course it's hard to see far from here. The weather balloon gives a better view. Or we could go up to the top, of course.'
Cloudier thought for a moment. She pictured the Galloon in her mind, and where they were, near the top of the mainmast, with the vast bulk of the mainb'loon hanging over their heads.
âTo the top? Are we not at the top?'
âWha? Bless my clichÃ©d barnacles, no, we are not at the top. Have you not wondered where that goes? You young people â too much respect for your elders, not nearly enough poking around in corners, asking awkward questions and so on.'
As he spoke, the Captain put his hands to the great mizzenmast, which was made of twelve stout trees lashed in a bundle. Cloudier noticed for the first time that hammered into the mast were iron pegs, like footholds. She looked up, and saw that âwhere that goes' referred to the point where the mast actually entered the mainb'loon itself. The Captain was climbing now, and as so often before, Cloudier wasn't sure if he expected her to follow or not.
âI thought it just kind of stopped!' she said.
âThought? What's the point in thinking when you could be looking? Come on. You've spent enough time in the crow's nest â let's show you the eagle's lair.'
Cloudier, astonished that there was yet more of the Galloon to see, began to climb after the Captain in a determined manner.
After they'd climbed up a few more feet, the Captain stopped, just below where the mast entered the balloon. He began pulling at the edge of the balloon where it met the mast. Eventually he yanked it over his head like he was getting into a sleeping bag the wrong way round. Then he heaved himself up another step or two, and was gone. The edge of the balloon, with some kind of rubber seal round it, snapped back against the mast, and before long looked exactly as it had done before.
Cloudier stared, and was soon aware that something more was required. So she pulled up the hem of her black dress, which she had taken care to make a good six inches too long so that it got wet and muddy as it dragged along the ground, thereby proving that she didn't care about it. She flung it over one arm, and feeling like Rambleschnitzel the fairytale goblin, who lived in a spinning wheel and wove her magical hair into golden hay because she couldn't remember her name (or something), she began to climb.
If he can just go in there, I can too â¦
she thought to herself, but knew full well that where the Galloon was concerned, there were many things that the Captain could do that others would struggle with. This was not a comforting thing to be thinking as she put a hand to the warm red canvas of the mainb'loon, and pulled at the seam where it met the mast. A gust of warm air, like the breath of a friendly rubber cow, hit her on the face. She climbed on, and managed to pull the canvas over her head as he had done. She looked up and saw his boots still climbing the mast.
âWell done, Cloudier!' he called. âNow you're on the inside!'
Cloudier looked around her, and gasped. She was, of course, inside the main balloon. Once her eyes had adjusted, she was surprised by how much light there was. Everything was suffused with the red colour of the canvas, but she could see a long way. The space was truly vast â a cathedral of canvas. It was warm â she could see, far away across the curve of the lower edge of the balloon â the great hole where it was attached to one of the funnels that she was used to walking round on the deck of the Galloon. This was the hot air funnel that brought heat up directly from the great boiler below, to heat the air that gave the Galloon its lift. Another funnel on deck was not attached to the balloon, and brought smoke out from the furnace that made the heat. More than the warmth and size, though, she was astounded to see that there were things in here. As she climbed, a small flock of birds flitted past her, squeaking. There was a criss-cross of struts inside the balloon, keeping the tension, so that the space felt almost like an organic thing. Cloudier had the sense that she was inside some gigantic lung, or a dusky forest. Some of the struts had things hanging from them, like strands of hair, or vines. Still climbing, Cloudier craned her neck round to see all around, and swore for a second that she saw something trot past below, like a deer glimpsed through trees at dusk.
âImpressive, in't she?' called the Captain over his shoulder.
âAmazing!' called Cloudier.
âThat's not the half of it, you know!' he said.
âYep â watch this. And, for your mother's sake as well as yours, I should point out that what I am about to do will look for a moment as if I am going to die. Rest assured that I am not. Your mother has a tendency to tell me off when I do things that might give you the heebie-jeebies.'
âSorry about her,' said Cloudier, and managed to flick her fringe across her eyes moodily, even while marvelling at the joy of being alive.
âNot at all. Your mother is â¦ or rather would be, if â¦ that is to say,' said the Captain. âOh, squidink and boondocks, never mind that. Watch this.'
And the Captain fell off the mast. He just stopped holding on, and fell backwards. He passed Cloudier, and spun lazily over as he dropped towards the âfloor' of the balloon.
Cloudier knew better than to call out or scream. She turned herself round as best she could to see where he landed. She thought maybe he would bounce back up past her, as if he were on a trampoline, but he didn't. He hit the canvas, quite a long way out from the mast, and his feet seemed to stick. The canvas stretched and rebounded like the trampoline she had envisaged, but the Captain's feet stayed attached to it. Once it had settled, he lifted a foot and Cloudier heard a tearing sound. Then he began to walk away from her, repeating the noise with every step. The balloon, was, despite its size, a kind of fat sausage shape, which meant that to walk where the Captain was walking should have been like walking up a hill. He should have got only so far, then slipped down to the bottom again, like a towel in a tumble dryer. But he didn't. Cloudier could hear him whooping. He picked up speed.
âDo it, Cloudier! Fall off the mast!' came the Captain's enormous voice, dulled by the vast space.
âOkay!' said Cloudier, who knew better than to question the Captain where this kind of thing was concerned.
She stood up on the little metal rung, and fell backwards as she had seen him do. She flipped over in the air â something here inside the balloon seemed to make it easier to do such things â and landed on her boots. The canvas beneath her bowed outwards, and she laughed at what that must have looked like from the outside. Then she began to walk as he had done. Something about the canvas made her feet stick just enough to stop her from slipping, but not enough to make it hard to walk. She looked ahead, across the inner surface of the balloon, to where the Captain was now just a small figure disappearing into the network of struts. Another shape, a four-legged flitting shadow, ran past between Cloudier and the Captain, and disappeared behind some trailing vines.