An African Adventure: Ballunatics - Part Three

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This is the first time that the Knolly Estate has allowed the great man's memoirs to be published. What follows is the twelfth chapter of 'The African Adventure'.

Ballunatics - Part Three

Here we were, bound for the ground, and he wanted me to be his secretary.

I quickly weighed up the alternatives. I could stand around feeling useless and then we would hit the deck and die - or I could take a letter and then we would hit the deck and die. I took out my notepad and jotted as Bertie spoke.

'Dear Mr Thingy,

I hope that you are enjoying good health and that your business is prospering.

I would like to inform you of a major flaw in the 1893 model of your Thingy 2 hot-air balloon burner. It would appear that a mis-alignment of the fosket wheel impinges on the lateral movement of the braided dunston tap, causing irregular flow of fuel to the main cusping nozzle. This could lead to situations in which the burner delivers insufficient or no heated air, causing effective deflation of the balloon and which will ultimately effect a rather firm encounter with the ground.'

'My colleague (Mr Knolly) and I find ourselves in this very situation and OH MY GOD I HAVE JUST REALISED THE GRAVITY OF THE SITUATION.'

I realised that I should not have written down that last phrase. Bertie was no longer dictating a memorandum. He was no longer in denial.

'It's no good, Knolly!' said Bertie rather glumly.

We stared at each other, fearing the very worst. It was looking very much like this would be our last jape and scrape together and it was looking very much like it was going to end with us both being woven into the African landscape in a bloody manner.

As our descent gathered pace, I began to involuntarily recall with great clarity episodes and incidents from my life. Dear Aunt Lettice, good old Uncle Charlie, growing up at Hoot Hall, meeting Bertie at Addlie and Stanner, the pirate hunt on the Norfolk Broads, the inspection of the fleet at Portsmouth Harbour, tracking down the legendary whistling donkey of Ibiza and the magical mystery tour of the Isle of Wight.

I swear to this day that I re-lived all of these and more in an instant. There it all was, flashing before my eyes; Bertie later told me that the only thing that flashed before his eyes at this juncture was a startled vulture.

We meekly peered over the side of the basket. The soldiers were trying to get the horses and their equipment out of the way of the deflating, descending juggernaut. The commotion seemed to spark an idea in Bertie.

'No. I won't have it!' he said in a calm, firm voice. 'Not like this. Knolly... hand me my rifle.'

Ah! I could see what he was up to. A shot for me and a shot for him and it would be all over in an instant. No point in delaying the inevitable. He didn't have to explain any further. I nodded as I handed him the fearsome weapon.

'Farewell Bertie, old chum.'

'Farewell my arse!' he said as he took a huge swing with the rifle and gave the burner thingy a fearsome thump with the butt. I wondered briefly whether this procedure was in the manufacturer's manual, but I though it best not to ask at this point.

Two things happened. One good, the other not so good.

The good thing was that there an almighty WHOOSH which clearly meant that the thingy had leapt into action and was firing on all cylinders. The thump had clearly re-aligned the fosket wheel, thus allowing clear lateral movement of the braided dunston tap, so the cusping nozzle got all the fuel it needed. We were up, up and away again.

The not so good thing that happened was that - accompanying the almighty WHOOSH - there came an almighty BANG as the rifle went off. Bertie had clean forgot that there was one up the spout 'just in case'. Fortunately, the shot missed us both. Unfortunately, it took away almost the entire floor of the basket, leaving a gaping circular yaw that, it has to be said, provided a fine view of the ground directly below us.

I was standing on just a tiny fragment of wickerwork and my grip on the side of the basket was tighter than ever. As I hung on for dear life, I looked past my feet and through our open-plan basket at the busy soldiers below. They had stopped their evacuation when they heard the burner fire up and had all started to cheer and wave and clap but then every man-jack scarpered for cover when it appeared that two crazed Englishmen were taking pot shots at them in a moment of extreme stress. But the good news was that we were not getting any closer to them; that piece of radical engineering had worked.

I looked round at Bertie. He was perched nonchalantly on the side of the basket, making fine adjustments to the thingy and pulling gently here and there at the control ropes.

'Aha! There she goes! Think I've got the hang of this mularkey now. You all right there, Knolly?'

What remained of the wicker basket creaked and groaned as it swayed gently in the breeze and took the strain of the once-more properly inflated balloon.

'Here we go! Brace yourself... '

I braced myself. One last big burn from the thingy saw us touch the ground with all the force of two goose feathers being hit together. A perfect landing.

The soldiers all rushed to secure the balloon whilst trying to round up their horses (who had understandably become a little upset at the preceding events).

We were safe. Well, as safe as you can be in this part of Africa. After the high drama and emotion in the air, and amidst the commotion on the ground, Bertie was understandably intense, his furrowed brow a dead giveaway.

'Bertie. Are you all right?'

'Yes... yes... Although... there's just one thing that's bothering me.'

'What is it?'

'I could really do with a dump.'

After the high drama and emotion in the air, amidst the commotion on the ground and the image that Bertie's statement had conjured in my mind, I did the only thing that I could do. I fainted.


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