Plenty of hot air as Vinny pushes the boat out for Valentine’s trip to remember
Instead of the usual Valentine’s reliables Vinny had another idea
As the flat lands of Meath passed below like a patchwork quilt, Vinny Fitzpatrick could make out the silvery trail of the river Boyne as it glistened in the morning sun.
He was reminded of snail slime, which was unfair as the broad-banked Boyne was one of Ireland’s mightiest waterways. It’s just he had never seen it from a height of a thousand feet, nor at such an ungodly hour either.
But the terms and conditions for the Valentine’s Special on the Up, Up And Away hot air balloon website had been specific: the first flight of the year was leaving Kilmessan at 9am sharp on Sunday morning.
It had cost Vinny an arm and half a leg for the privilege of securing two places on the one-hour trip but it had been worth it, for the simple reason that Angie was worth it.
Vinny knew he didn’t always express his undying love to his wife in the way other fellahs did.
Rolling home after hours with a spare single of curried chips and onion rings didn’t qualify as a romantic act in Angie’s guidebook. Nor did a quiet Saturday night in watching Match of the Day , munching cheese puffs.
When it came to the four special occasions of the calendar – Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, Angie’s birthday and their wedding anniversary – Vinny did well to remember to scribble his signature on a measly card. But this year was different. This year he was organised and he was pushing the boat out, or rather the hot air balloon up.
The Up, Up And Away folk had advertised a one-hour special Valentine’s excursion over the Royal County from Kilmessan to Townley Hall, just outside Drogheda, from where a bus would ferry the passengers back.
For €250 per couple, the package included champagne and canapés, to be served over the site of the Battle of the Boyne. The flight was weather dependent but he needn’t have worried as Sunday dawned crisp, with clear skies.
After parking in the Station House Hotel, Kilmessan, the passengers made a short walk to a field close by where their chariot was already inflated.
The bright green canopy with a golden wicker basket attached were too close to the Meath county colours for Vinny’s taste but he kept his objections to himself as the pilot made his introductions.
Captain Farrell Halton was in his 40s, a tall dark-haired chap, of robust build, square jaw and seductive blue-eyed twinkle.
“Handsome devil, isn’t he?” whispered Angie, giving her husband a playful nudge in the ribs.
Captain Halton clapped his hands together and then opened the half-door into the gondola. “All aboard the Skylark , twice around the lighthouse and back in time for tea,” he grinned.
There were safety belts inside, for those of nervous disposition, and Vinny instantly tethered himself to one. “Just in case I get the urge to throw myself off,” he said, only half in jest for he was feeling jumpy.
He’d read somewhere that the first human flight, and the first aircraft related disaster were to do with the history of ballooning, and he wondered if perhaps he should have opted for the flowers and chocolates for Angie instead.
A few minutes later, Captain Halton released a rush of propane into the emerald envelope overhead and the balloon began to climb skywards.
Just as Vinny was getting his bearings, and beginning to breathe a little easier, he was conscious of Captain Halton’s presence alongside.
“The gas burner heats the air and we rise, because that’s what hot air does. It’s very simple, really.”
Vinny felt Captain Halton was far too full of hot air and wished he’d return to the controls, but he continued fawning over Angie, who was fluttering her big brown eyes back at him – Angie had always been a sucker for a guy in uniform, even Dublin Bus standard issue.
Eventually, Captain Halton moved aft, to work his unctuous ways on unsuspecting others. It allowed Vinny and Angie to take in the sights below as they cruised serenely on the tail of a gentler westerly.
As they crossed the N2 just below Slane, Vinny spied a dirty grey cloud to the north. He thought little of it until the champagne corks were popped over Knowth, by which time the cloud was taking up far more of the skyline than he liked.
As Captain Halton was warbling about being “suspended under a twilight canopy”, Vinny felt the balloon shake. So did everyone else.
Suddenly Halton’s happy half-hour was over. “What the blazes?” he said aloud. “The forecast was for clear skies. Where did that bugger appear from?”
Vinny jabbed a fat finger towards Dundalk. “From up there,” he pointed. “While you were busy smooching and serenading, that growler had us in his line of fire. What do we do now?” he barked.
Farrell Halton flinched. “We’ve too much hot air to descend just yet. We may have to ride out the storm.’
What happened next was grim. Within moments, the balloon was entangled in a fierce squall. The wicker basket was pummelled wildly and visibility fell. The pellets of rain turned to shrapnel-like hail and some passengers began screaming as they came under fire.
For what seemed like an age, but was probably no more than 10 minutes, the balloon was buffeted about in the tempest. Gradually, the pitching eased and the skies began to lighten.
Vinny was the first to unclip his safety belt, and pull himself to his feet. He peered through the wispy clouds and looked down. There was nothing but the bright blue briny below and he reckoned the next port of call was the Isle of Man.
“Hey Captain Birdseye, ” he called over to Farrell Halton. “I reckon you’ll be doing well to get us home in time for tea, after all.”
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