The tinsel clad angels sing, open mouths black holes on a blazing lit stage. The families cluster outside the supermarket, watching, huddled together for warmth. Smaller children pet the donkey, their faces wide in surprise at the rank smell of real fur and the scratch and itch of the straw bales.
We’re moved from our usual spot, usurped by a man selling rude pink hot dogs and frying cheap burgers. The fat hangs on the winter air. We’re standing on cardboard and newspaper to insulate our feet. Adults queue for mulled wine, hoping for alcoholic reprieve from the volunteers who rattle buckets and fumble with books of raffle tickets.
“You selling or collecting?” A man eyes the confectionary packs in the cardboard box on our table.
“Collecting,” we say. “For people in food poverty.” He shrugs, unimpressed and wanders away. I add brown tape to the collection box, healing the split in its side.
The supermarket staff hand out blue helium balloons, branded with white and silver bold type. Older children grab and run squealing into the icy car park, weaving through shoppers wrestling their metal trolleys.
“Let it go, let it go...”
The singer wails, inciting the children who dare each other to release their balloons.
“Let one go” sniggers my daughter, blowing a raspberry.
She disturbs my concentration. I search the darkening sky, but I’ve lost sight of the balloon. I’m testing my eyesight. Without my glasses, I can’t see the balloons at all, and if I stare too hard, the floaters in my eyes disrupt my vision. But if I lock on one while it’s low and colourful, I can trace it for a while, rising over the rooftops, its string dangling, flying high on the wind current over the chimneys until it becomes a blot, a shrinking dot, then disappears.
My daughter asks if the balloons will reach outer space.
“Will they burst or deflate?”
“Helium versus atmospheric pressure—you should know from your science lessons.”
“Mu-um,” she groans, then asks, “How high is the highest that someone has jumped?”
“Google the world record,” I say.
“I know. It’s the men on the moon, leaping in their spacesuits.” She imitates a moon walk, sliding in her snow boots.
I think of the umbilical cords, tethering astronauts, stretching taut when they bound over pitted craters, illuminated against the star-pierced black beyond. I suggest the highest jump might depend on the length of the cord, but she’s dismissive.
“If you don’t mind dying, she says, you could jump high beyond gravity, you could just keep rising until….”
“But there’s nowhere without gravity,” I say. “And until what?”
“Just until,” she says, losing interest.
I cup my mulled wine to warm my hands. I sip a little and grimace at the foul taste. ‘If you don’t mind dying’, I think, shrugging into my coat. No one my age would say such a thing. I mind. I mind, it might happen, before she has a daughter, flying helium balloons—if they’re still allowed then. I mind, knowing I won’t be able to see the grandchild, who won’t fly the banned balloon of indistinguishable colour.
“Let’s jump, to keep warm. I’m so cold. My feet are frozen. I can’t feel my toes.”
“I’m not cold, and you’re embarrassing,” she says, but laughing, she hops once on each foot.
The supermarket manager takes the microphone.
“Here is the moment we’ve all been waiting for!” he shouts at us. He counts backwards from ten. Beckoned, we all join in.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three...,” the shouting amplifies, and at ‘one’, we clap our gloved hands, cheer, and whistle as the tree sparks alight, a helium balloon is caught in its crowning star, twenty feet high in the air.