The Man Who Was Forced To Fly Solo
The future draws, forks out, fades, the past recedes,
under my feet a path grows concrete, complete
for me to tread on, see where it leads.
The present closes, a gate opens, made of black iron.
I pass through, to read a sign.
Zoological Gardens, it says, City of Liverpool.
Slowly, soundlessly, I step towards a man,
sat on a bench. He wears a bowler hat, moustache,
reads a newspaper, dated August, 1861.
I do not know what happened then,
I only know that time has gone.
Now, before me, an aviary gleams,
bold and complex, like a structure in dreams.
Further on, a hippopotamus enclosure widens.
So I pass through a zoo.
Somehow I know I am not here
to see the elephants, giraffes,
camels, parrots or baboons,
but to join the crowds on the central lawn,
to watch the start of a race, about to take place,
not one on the ground, but across the sky,
the partakers being the pilots of two air balloons.
Each man and woman I hazily pass by,
finely dressed, for an outing, wears a hat of some kind.
They seem aware of eachother, but not of me.
I do not mind, makes me feel curiously free.
I come to a halt, close to the anchored baskets
of the two air balloons,
watch them slowly lift from grassy ground,
gracefully to clouds, without sound,
heading east, Rainhill way, I hear someone say. One is called the Queen,
after Victoria, securely sat on Britain’s throne,
piloted by Henry Youens, assisted by George Luff,
and the other, Mars, piloted by Terence Jollife,
forced to fly solo, alone,
without the aid of his assistant, Ian Coxwell,
who still suffered pains in his neck, back,
shoulder and elbow after crashing
while ballooning in France.
Mars Terence Jollife called his air balloon
to mark that men would one day get up there,
among the stars.
“This is the first step,” he often told his fellow flyers.
The crowd is hushed. I continue to look up.
Only clouds shift by. Time ticks on.
Everyone wonders where the air balloons have gone.
Suddenly, the Queen lands on the finish site.
The news causes the crowd to clap.
Here and there, some cheer.
Smiles pass from face to face,
for Henry Youens and George Luff have won the race.
Long later, the sun sinks,
like a dark cherry, about to burst, while unseen by watching eyes,
Terence Joliffe, fiddles around with ropes and wheels,
inside the basket of Mars, above the clouds,
continues to rise and rise,
fears he will perish in the cold void of space,
until, at last, he manages to manoeuvre his fall,
till he sees, far below, the lit gas lamps of Manchester,
glowing in the dark, like a scattering of pomegranate seeds
on folds of black cloth.
To his relief, he gains control enough to guide
his air balloon down, to land like a leaf
with a bump in a meadow near the village of Ashley.
In the dark of night, some men come with lamps
to help him rope down, deflate and pack his air balloon.
Stubbornly, alone, he walked country lanes two miles
to a railway station, to catch a train back to Liverpool.
One look at his pale, fallen face
told those he met what it meant to him that he had lost the race.
I blink, empty as the rough field I tread on.
The crowds and the air balloons gone.