I was horrified recently by the latest children’s book craze, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. This is the most successful crowdfunded publication ever and I would love to know who the big donors were. One mother I know was totally unaware that her daughters were reading about Coy Mathis, and in the case of the suffragettes few parents must be aware of what violent bullies they are encouraging their daughters to admire. What these characters did inspire me to do, though, was to write my own version of a Goodnight Story.
NOT so very long ago, seven people set off in a balloon to follow their dreams. All they had to do was bring their own chair to sit on for the flight; other than that, the balloon owners assured them that as long as they followed the instructions, all would be plain sailing. They all floated along very happily for a time. ‘Ah,’ said Emmeline Pankhurst, stretching out in her upholstered armchair, with velvet cushions and gilt edging, which she had inherited from her great-grandfather. ‘This is so easy, I really can’t see why the owners were so strict about us following the instructions – it’s a bit of a nuisance having to do it their way.’
Stephen Hawking turned to look at her from his wheelchair and said that the balloon was designed to certain scientific principles and working against these might bring them all into danger. ‘Oh,’ sneered Emmeline, ‘You would say that, you’re a man. What do the rest of you think?’
Amelia Earhart said that as long as she could stay in her pilot’s seat, and keep her flying helmet and protective gear on, she was willing to give it a go as trying new things and embracing challenges are always good. Most of the others had no idea what they were talking about, though Rosa Parks looked enviously at Emmeline’s armchair and thought she would definitely understand if only she could have one like that too. Maybe she would get one eventually, if she always agreed with Emmeline; so she did.
Jane Goodall was about to say she agreed with Stephen when she caught sight of the well-used whip Emmeline had smuggled on to the balloon (against the rules); she decided to keep quiet. Emmeline saw that Jane was to be won over and suggested that instead of following the route dictated by the owners, they could fly off course and go over Borneo to look at the orangutans. Jane wobbled, but heart won over head. Emmeline’s triumph was complete; four ayes, one no and two abstentions.
Without further ado, Emmeline instructed Amelia to change course and head for Borneo. Almost at once a gust of wind rocked the balloon; Frida Kahlo didn’t notice it but Mother Teresa clutched at her rosary beads. Jane didn’t like to say she had changed her mind.
By the time it became obvious that something was terribly wrong, there was no going back. Emmeline, Rosa, Amelia and Jane started a heated discussion as to what to do but when Stephen asked if he could give his opinion, they turned on him. ‘It’s all your fault,’ they shouted. ‘That wheelchair of yours is dragging us down.’ Stephen replied that in one respect they were correct as the balloon’s contents were too heavy for the new route; if they wanted to get to Borneo, something – somebody, plus their chair – needed to be discarded.
‘Put it to the vote,’ said Emmeline. ‘Votes solve everything, easily.’ It seemed she was right! In no time at all, the women had voted to ditch Stephen. They had no trouble manoeuvring him overboard. ‘I don’t need to remind you to embrace your suffering,’ whispered Teresa. ‘You have set us all a wonderful example in that.’ And so Stephen embarked on his final experiment wherein he would prove for once and for all what comes after life.
The women sank back into their chairs. If any of them felt it was a little odd without any men on board, they didn’t like to mention it. They consoled themselves with the thought that at least there were plenty of men back home, making sure there would be food, clothes and a warm house ready for them when they landed after the trip.
However, without the ballast of the wheelchair, the balloon seemed rather unbalanced. It rocked from side to side and however much the ladies rearranged their chairs, they just couldn’t get it on an even keel.
‘I am not going to give up!’ screamed Emmeline. ‘Getting rid of one was not enough! Somebody else will have to go.’ She distributed the ballot papers and they all thought for a moment. ‘It’s tricky,’ said Rosa. ‘Maybe, instead of throwing someone out, you and I should try swapping chairs, Emmeline.’
Emmeline hesitated no longer; she put a cross by ‘Rosa’ on her ballot paper and made sure the others could see what she was doing, moving her whip on to her lap as she did so. The others felt relieved that they no longer had to think, and voted for Rosa too. Rosa had an inkling that her skin colour might be irrelevant in this life-or-death situation and was just beginning to wish some of her backers had joined the trip when she found herself over the side.
The balloon continued to rock violently and without a word, Emmeline produced the ballot papers again. They all thought of Rosa’s fateful comment and the vote took place in silence this time. Frida looked around her. She had been a bit slow to realise it, but it suddenly dawned on her that there was nothing remotely beautiful left to paint. At that moment, she lost the will to live and before the votes had been cast, she launched herself over the side. The others let out a collective sigh of relief; this voting business was really more divisive than Emmeline had led them to believe and it was rather nice not to have to commit oneself.
But immediately Jane’s thoughts crowded in one upon the other. If only I had been strong enough in the first place, she thought, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.
Teresa noticed that Jane was looking haggard. ‘It’s for your good,’ she chirruped. ‘Embrace your suffering.’ Jane looked over the edge. It wasn’t Borneo yet, but it was Tanzania. That’s good enough for me, she thought; Borneo is a delusion with this crowd. ‘Please vote for me,’ she said. So they did.
The balloon began to lose height. Emmeline wished she had run out of paper. But it was no good; democracy had finally defeated her. The others advanced on her and her sumptuous chair . . .
Teresa noticed a ship on the horizon and reached for her rosary. Amelia turned to her. ‘Dear Mother,’ she wheedled, ‘you have been such a quiet force for good on the trip so far; but I know how to fly the balloon and you do not. I am young and you are old. Tomorrow belongs to me; I cannot let you steal my future. Embrace your suffering!’ And with that, she tossed Teresa over the edge into the sea, where she was picked up by the ship. Briefly turning west, it steamed past a few pieces of a broken chair with gilt edging and a whip floating on the surface.
Amelia settled back into her pilot’s seat and looked around triumphantly. ‘Now I can go wherever I want and do whatever I want,’ she sang. And promptly flew the balloon into a cliff.
The balloon’s owners never did work out exactly what had gone wrong, but when they discovered the remains of the balloon many miles off course, and had interviewed Mother Teresa in her hospital bed, they realised that their instructions had not been adhered to and that lessons would have to be learned. They would have liked to add a new rule whereby at least one balloon owner accompanied every trip but this seemed to deter the majority of would-be travellers from booking a place. Several owners took early retirement. Several more resigned in frustration at having to try and improve the design of the balloon which had been fine-tuned to perfection over many years of toil and trouble, trial and error by their ancestors. And so the balloon factory closed and all dreamy travel was ended for ever after.