We all have phobias – clowns, spiders, even balloons – but sometimes there are some we don’t even know are there…
There must be hundreds, an entire rainbow of them, all tethered to the ceiling by a huge net.
Chrissie hadn’t expected that when she wandered into Bianca’s lounge. Her terror worked outward from her rampaging heart right down into her fingertips and into her toes.
Her feet felt glued to the carpet. Her gaze refused to leave the ceiling even when Bianca came scuttling up with a stranger in tow.
“Chrissie, this is Michael, my new neighbour. Michael, this is Chrissie, my best friend.”
Suddenly a man’s hand buried hers in an old-fashioned shake.
“Nice to meet you,” said a deep voice.
Chrissie blinked. Two children flashed by.
She could hear screaming from the back garden. A warm summer’s day had turned up on time for Bianca’s daughter’s birthday party. Michael’s free hand pressed over hers… surely he didn’t think he was the cause of her internal earthquake!
No, she wanted to choke as she stared at the ceiling.
Hundreds of balloons… I’m phobic. Unbelievable, isn’t it, the things people are afraid of? Oh please, stop looking at me like that, whoever you are.
Michael released her trembling fingers at last.
“Do you go to many kids’ parties?”
Chrissie’s eyes shot back to the ceiling. Bianca didn’t know about her fear; she very rarely confessed to it.
Had all those balloons come along with the bouncy castle/kids’ entertainer combo? Were they all going to be popped later?
Move, she told her frozen feet.
“I just… need to…”
Run! She hurtled towards the open patio doors, colliding with two five-year-olds charging back in.
“Sorry Will, sorry Sara. Sorry… Sorry…” I have to get out of here.
“The problem with irrational fear is it’s irrational,” she muttered as she wandered across the lawn. “Balloons don’t bite. All they can do is go… Bang!”
She wondered where six and seven year old Toby and Hanna had charged off to. They were both as fearless as mountain goats. They’d inherited that from their rock-climbing father, who, as it was the weekend, would be halfway up a rock face by now.
Chrissie wiped sweat from her brow.
It was him. Mr Wrong-end-of-the-stick. I most definitely was not quaking with desire.
“Oh hello… Michael.”
“I thought you might be thirsty.” He handed over a plastic tumbler. “Have a drop of the hard stuff.”
At least he had a sense of humour.
“Orange cordial. Thanks.” She heaved in a few deep breaths then took a sip.
“Michael’s divorced. He’s very shy,” Bianca had said about her new neighbour. “He’s the gentle, polite type. I’ve never heard a cross word come out of his mouth when his kids visit – and they’re as ear-splitting as yours, Chrissie.”
Chrissie glanced through the patio doors. She could just see the bulge of all those balloons waiting on the ceiling.
“Bianca says you’ve been friends since school,” Michael said.
“Sorry? Oh, yes, that’s right.”
She studied him. He was tall, blue-eyed, with a closely trimmed ghost of a beard that made him look raffish. She was staring.
“We had classes together. PE… she was one hell of a runner.”
“A runner… Bianca?”
“Oh yes, she ran like a whippet.”
She was babbling ever so slightly. What if the kids’ entertainer made balloon animals? Maybe she ought to leave and come back later – her usual tactic.
“I run. Well, I jog,” he said. He looked the type. Not an ounce of fat. “Do you?”
“Me? No. Well, not unless you count running after the kids.”
He was staring now. She lofted her hand to and fro. Look, a wedding ring. A big fat wedding ring.
Was he the type who saw one of those as a challenge?
“Do you go out much?” he asked, his brows creeping together like two amorous caterpillars.
“These days? No.” This was definitely edging towards dangerous territory. “My husband takes me out, obviously. My adorable husband… Dan.”
He might well jog but it took him a long time to catch up. His brows shot apart.
“Oh. I thought… Oh.” He took a backwards step.
“You thought I was unattached?”
Chrissie’s laughter quickly fell away. He lacks self-confidence, Bianca had told her. That and a bit of dress sense. He’s the baggy shorts and sandals with socks sort of man. Still, that’s nothing too terrible, is it?
Chrissie had visions of him gathering up all his courage before he dare seek out the woman who’d apparently shaken like a leaf when he’d taken her hand.
“I was just… being friendly,” he said.
“I’m phobic,” she blurted, suddenly overwhelmed by the hurt in his eyes. “Balloons scare me, you see… I hyperventilate, shake…”
“Oh,” he said again. “It wasn’t…”
You? No. Sorry.
“The poor man’s been on his own for years.” Bianca’s voice had sounded so wistful when she’d said it. “I think his divorce was the brutal kind. I think he lost himself somewhere in the middle of all the wrangling and the bitterness. You can lose your way, can’t you? You can lose all sense of who you are.”
Yes, yes, I suppose you can, Chrissie thought now. She considered Bianca’s own recent, painful divorce. What you really needed during and after one of those was a loyal friend.
“You seem really nice.” She threw that thought out there for Michael to… well, stare at in a dazed sort of way. Then she frowned, jogging to catch up with herself – and with Bianca.
“Oh, I see where this is going now.”
“You do?” he answered.
“Bianca says how nice you are all the time. She says you’re lovely.” It felt a tad awkward then, as if he was a prize dog at Crufts they’d been allocating points to for weeks.
“Bianca really said that?”
Chrissie nodded. Oh yes, the trouble with an irrational fear is that it’s irrational. When the terrified meet the terrified, things are bound to go awry. It seemed Bianca and Michael had been tangling themselves up like the strings of two aimless balloons.
“You’re phobic too.” Chrissie smiled. “Let me guess. Dry mouth, the shakes, you feel a little sick, your heart’s pounding. You know it’s absurd but there’s nothing you can do about it.
“I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Nobody’s going to die yet still off you trot out of danger.” She lowered her voice. “When did you last ask a woman out on a date?”
His eyes widened. Maybe only his mother was ever that forthright with him, or maybe it was the closeness of all those balloons making her so blunt.
Still, it was a little hypercritical of her, accusing him of refusing to overcome his fears when she hadn’t tried very hard to conquer hers.
“Could you do me a favour, Michael? Could you go inside and find a deflated balloon for me?”
A flat balloon lay in Chrissie’s palm ten minutes later, looking tiny and pathetic. They’d moved into the shade of an apple tree at the lawn’s end, close to the bouncy castle where both sets of their children had ended up.
“Ask me out,” Chrissie told Michael. “For practice purposes only, obviously.”
He laughed. If a cup of cocoa could laugh, it’d chuckle just the way he did.
“This is silly.”
“No, this is desensitisation. Go ahead. My husband’s in Wales clinging to the side of a mountain, he won’t mind.”
“OK… Chrissie, would you like to come out for a drink some time?” He took the balloon from her hand. “Your turn. I could blow it up just a bit,” he said. “So it looks more like a balloon.”
Chrissie clutched her somersaulting stomach.
“You’re one of very few people I’ve told this to. I was six when it all started. For the first time ever I’d been allowed to stay up for a New Year’s party. Balloons fell from the ceiling at midnight.
“I was in the middle of the dance floor and everybody started jumping on them and popping them. I screamed the place down. I’ve been phobic ever since. It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“Is it? Six months after my wife left I asked a girl at work for a date,” he said. “She said, no. I’ve never asked again.”
“You can’t do that to yourself. Love’s all about chemistry. You both have to feel it, but it’s not your fault if she didn’t.”
Bianca interrupted from the patio doors. “You two all right down there?”
Chrissie waved back to Bianca. “We’re just great, thanks,” she yelled.
Michael watched Bianca turn away.
“I panic even thinking about asking someone out now,” he said. “I can already hear them saying no.”
“Panic’s a terrible thing.” Chrissie straightened her spine. “Go on then, blow my balloon up. I’ll stand here with my hands over my ears.”
He started laughing again. So did she. It was the snowball-down-a-mountain kind of laughter. On and on it rolled, slowly gathering pace until suddenly they sounded like the two biggest kids at the party.
Bianca reappeared later, much later, after Chrissie and Michael had worked their way through two glasses of cordial and a pile of sandwiches.
“What are you two up to?” Bianca frowned at the half-inflated balloon Michael held and the pin Chrissie aimed.
“Let’s just pretend it’s another party game,” Chrissie said.
Michael’s eyes strayed to Bianca.
“OK, I’m in. You pop your balloon and I’ll ask. Straight out, no hesitation.”
“You two are very weird, you know that?” Bianca dodged back as Chrissie screwed up her eyes and poked blindly at the balloon. She expected it to go Bang! Only the silly thing made a half-hearted wet flopping noise instead.
“Oh. That wasn’t what I was expecting.” She laughed and nodded at Michael. “OK, your turn. Good luck.”
His blue eyes locked onto Bianca then skittered away. His smile when it appeared was tremulous.
“Chrissie, would you like to come for a drink?”
“Bianca,” Chrissie corrected. “You mean Bianca.”
“No. No, I don’t…”
Why was Bianca grinning and winking at him like that? Why was she flapping her hands in encouragement?
Michael heaved in a chest full of air. “Chrissie, Bianca told me you always fake Dan still being around so nobody will ask you out.”
Chrissie gawped at Bianca. “You told him that?”
“Well, answer the poor man,” Bianca said coolly. “You’ve been with him all afternoon, so you might as well call this your first date.”
Chrissie’s mouth felt bone-dry, she had the shakes, she felt a little sick, her heart lurched into a thunderous gallop.
All right, perhaps when Michael had taken her hand, her reaction hadn’t been all the fault of the balloons. She’d confessed one of her most irrational fears to him, too – and when she’d done that with her now absent husband he’d almost laughed himself into a coma.
“She’d love to,” Bianca said. “Just tell me when you need a baby-sitter, both of you.” Off she flounced with a smug grin.
“We should continue with your therapy,” Michael said, his face dour and mock-serious.
“Actually, you’ve been therapeutic already,” Chrissie said.
Everybody’s afraid of something, she thought, balloons, spiders… brand new relationships. “Come on then, cure me.”
Michael’s smile was warm and confident now.
“Oh, I will,” he said without a trace of doubt or fear as, behind them, the released party balloons began to pop like a hundred champagne corks.