The Balloonist

The Goodyear Blimp – close, but no cigar

By Phil Hall


On the 22nd of April 1992. There were 10 petrol-gas explosions in northern Guadalajara, killing at least 242 people, injuring up to 600 and destroying 8 kilometres of city streets making 15,000 people homeless. But the southern-central part of the city, where the branch of the institute was located, was unaffected.

The CEO of the Institute at its headquarters in Mexico City had an MBA from a Texas University and that made me nervous.

‘Guadalajara is a mess. We need you to fix it.’

‘I’m not qualified.’

‘Are you refusing?’

‘Of course not. By the way, what happened to the previous director?’

‘She resigned’ he said, ‘in the end.’

+

Around the Minerva fountain there are wide boulevards with big flat roofed houses on either side. They are lined with sour orange trees. The Institute was situated in a long avenue set back from the road. The Union Jack flew from one of its flag poles and the Mexican flag from the other. The building was from the 50s, curvaceous, white faced. A flight of steps lead up to its clean glass doors.

The young Mexican administrator, the protégé of the former director, found it hard to look at me. Tight lipped, he said:

‘I’ll be here for a few days, then they’ll send a replacement from Mexico City. This will be your desk.’

‘I’d prefer to move it downstairs. 

‘Suit yourself.’ he said, and left.

I looked through the filing cabinet. Among the other documents, were old cuttings from 40 years before: the people of Guadalajara, Tapatios of the old families, famous for their reserve and snobbishness, warmly welcomed the first British director. He had become a local public figure and raised half the money for the construction of the Institute’s building from donations. In the pictures he looked like Terry Thomas. He wore a dark suit and a pencil moustache. Like the characters Terry Thomas played, the first director had been a notorious masher.

My new office downstairs overlooked the foyer. I could see what was going on.

A thin man with rough dark brown skin often came in to chat with the staff at midday. One morning he walked into my office without knocking. Clearly he had also been a friend of the previous director, a woman. He said:

‘If there were one thing you could change about this place what would it be?’

‘II wish it were located on a busier road.’ I answered.

‘Alright’ He walked out again. 

+

The following morning cars blocked the whole road. I had to park three blocks away.

He walked into my office again, this time with a little strut: ‘I rerouted the traffic for you. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

Outside people honked their car horns.

He had temporarily closed down one of the city’s main arteries and rerouted most of the traffic through my street – Tomas V. Gomez

Raul was a fixer. This was his proof.

+

A soft-faced man dressed in white with a white beard and the bulk of Orson Wells sat in the foyer pretending to read the newspaper. He was waiting for me to say hello.

When I did. He introduced himself:

‘My mother is French and my father English. My father owned a textile factory in the north of England When he died I inherited it. I didn’t much care for it. I kept it going out of a vague sense of family responsibility. But the workers were always striking and frankly, they were quite rude to me. “To hell with them” I thought, and I closed the factory. I invested half my money in the City and the other half I spent on buying a chateau in the Loire Valley. I decided to organize champagne ballooning holidays for American tourists. I flew the balloons. I would take them up and then open bottles of champagne which we drank while watching the French countryside roll by. It was wonderful. Sadly, my wife and I divorced and I decided to make a clean break, so I came to Mexico where I started a restaurant serving French and English food: Churchill’s.

‘Did you ever go there?’

‘No.’

‘That’s a shame. Well, I had to close it. People here seem to prefer their own food.

 ‘Do you like Cuitlacoche?’ I asked him. Thinking of the grey black fungus. When you heat it it turns into a black slick which people combine with melted Oaxaca cheese and herbs in a taco.

‘Oh, yes. It’s wonderful!’ He said. ‘As good as truffles. I used to go into the kitchen to cook it as a mid-morning snack.’

He paused and looked at me for a moment, just like a poker player about to play a hand.

 ‘After I my restaurant closed, I did have another project that would have made money.

 ‘What was it?’

His project was to build and run an airship service. He told me that it would take a million dollars to make his airship. The fabric was Tedlar and it was very strong. Helium was expensive; less gas would escape. The airship would be based in Acapulco and travel up and down the coast giving joy rides to tourists. He would charge big companies to advertise on the sides of the airship and would make a profit of a million dollars a year, breaking even in one year. Everything was ready to go.

‘Actually, I’ve even got an airship pilot’s license.’

He was making a pitch. I didn’t think I could help him. Obviously he was a chancer. He was some kind of conman. But I loved the idea of balloon travel. I should have ignored him, but then I remembered Raul the fixer, another chancer, and remembered his road closure. What if I brought them both together. Perhaps Raul could make it work. After all, he had closed down one of Guadalajara’s main roads just to make a point.

+

Raul asked the balloonist: ‘If I find you a backer, what will you give me?’

‘2%.’ 

‘OK’ said Raul, ‘I’ll get to work.’

A tall, elegant, man in a suit walked into the building a week later.

‘I hear you have a business proposal,’ he said. ‘Raul told me. Why don’t we meet on Sunday at my flat? You can tell me about it.’

Raul told me about him later on: ‘He is a wealthy property magnate recovering from a heart attack. See what you can do.’

At the weekend I visited the property magnate. The elevator in the block of flats needed a special code. The door opened out onto the top flat which overlooked landscaped gardens and 4 tennis courts.

‘I love tennis.’ He said.

We talked about tennis.

Then he poured me tea and offered me a biscuit.

‘What do you think of the biscuit?’ he asked.

I bit into it; thin and sweet, it cracked in my mouth and I munched it as he watched.

 ‘It’s from my factory.’ He said eagerly. What’s your opinion?’

‘It’s quite nice.‘

There was a pause. He looked disappointed.

‘Do you want to hear about this project?’

He stopped smiling, looked at me and said: ‘Go ahead.’

And then after a while: ‘No. That doesn’t sound like something I can do. Thanks anyway’

I finished my tea and left.

+

‘The next potential investor was the head of the Grupo Alpha. He owned a big rubber factory.

The balloonist was there to explain his project:

 ‘I could easily make that in my factory! The businessman from Grupo Alpha said. ‘It’s a good idea. Let me see what I can do.’

The balloonist and the investor shook hands and left together.

Raul looked at me, smiling:

‘We’ll have a ballooning company, my friend. One of us will fly in the balloon and the other will look up from the ground and we’ll toast each other with champagne.

+

Raul came into my office five days later:

‘The head of the Grupo Alpha is going to New York to buy a Goodyear Blimp. He says it will be cheaper to buy it than make it himself.’

Have you heard from the balloonist?

‘That’s just it, I haven’t.’

‘I’m sure he’ll get in touch.’

Raul frowned ‘Allow me to tell you something about myself. In the 1980s there was a lot of corruption in the states. Some of the governors and their officials were behaving badly. Party headquarters set up a group of 400 federal agents to monitor their actions and keep them in line. I am one of them. A few years ago I was in Nayarit where I found out that the governor was allowing large Japanese trawlers to come close to the coast and fish out Mexican waters. I put a stop to this. But the governor guessed it was me and sent people to kill me. I escaped, but they did manage to shoot me in the leg. Look.’ He rolled up the trouser leg and showed me the bullet wound.

‘I see.’

‘If this man is thinking about cutting me out of the deal he had better be careful. And if you have anything to do with his behaviour you had better watch out.’

I called and the balloonist came.

‘Look, I strongly advise you to contact Raul.’

The balloonist waved his hands, sneering.

‘In any deal like this there are always parasites. Hangers on. He’ll get nothing from me.

Weeks went by. But there was nothing in the papers so I forgot about the Balloonist and got on with things.

+

Raul came into my office a bout a month later: ‘The blimp deal has fallen through.’

‘Goodyear was never going to sell, they just wanted to know who this man was who wanted one of their blimps. They had a meeting, listened to him and the next day they tripled the price to three million.

‘They were toying with him.’

‘And have you heard from the balloonist.’

‘It’s just as well for him that the deal wasn’t successful.’ said Raul.’

+

A few months later the balloonist invited me to his house. It was set on a hill. A dry wind blew through the pines.

‘Why exactly did you leave France?’ I asked.

‘‘It was a family situation. I thought it better to leave. He looked pained.

‘Did you sell the chateau before you came? You could have financed your project with the money from the sale.’

There was a mix up, about that. Technically, the chateau was in my wife’s name.

His much younger Mexican girlfriend came down the little path from the house and served us both thick creamy lemon syllabubs without a smile.



Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.



Categories: Short story

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