@handmademarket,an iconic Canberra attraction, requested a story featuring three other iconic Canberra items:
The Skywhale Balloon+the Weather+Parliament House
‘Call me Ishmael,’ Isobel giggled, as she walked away from Rachel.
The two friends had been browsing the Handmade Markets for an hour. Well, Rachel had been browsing. Isobel had been glued to her phone most of the time.
‘We’re not going through this again, are we!’ Rachel exclaimed. ‘Our last trip to Canberra was ruined by your obsession.’
Isobel suddenly stopped.
‘Hey, look at this,’ she said, picking up a small necklace in front of her. Rachel loved this market, and tried to visit Canberra at least four times a year to see it. This trip was meant to be about the two friends catching up and reminiscing about the old times living together, and exploring the market. However, ever since Isobel had seen that tweet, she had been distracted. While Rachel had been slowly exploring each amazing new piece of handcrafted treasure, Isobel had been absent-mindedly walking down the centre of the many aisles, only glancing at the stalls to her left and right while watching twitter on her phone. Rachel was shocked that she could ignore so many wonderful things.
The markets were held in a huge room within the National Convention Centre, as well as spilling out into the foyer and surrounding areas. Rachel had spent entire days examining the thousands of lovingly-crafted creations. But Isobel was on track to walk the entire market in minutes, without actually looking at a thing.
‘At last, you’re paying attention to what’s in front of you,’ Rachel exclaimed. But then she looked down to see the necklace Isobel had picked up, and her heart sank.
It was a silver chain, but Isobel’s fingers were currently caressing the small whale pendant hanging from its end.
‘Oh, c’mon!’ Rachel exclaimed.
‘I’m kidding,’ she said, putting the necklace down and smiling at the bemused seller behind the table.
‘I make them myself,’ she offered looking first at Isobel and then at Rachel.
‘Sorry,’ Rachel replied. ‘It’s just my friend has an obsession with whales. Well, one in particular.’
The seller nodded and smile. She was tall, with blonde hair, and Rachel estimated her to be in her mid-forties. Despite the coolish Autumn weather, she was wearing a floral summer’s dress. Obviously a local, Rachel concluded.
Rachel wrinkled up her nose.
‘Not exactly. We’re here for this market. Isobel here just discovered on Twitter that the Balloon Spectacular is on, and now she can think of nothing else.’
‘You heard she probably won’t fly?’ Jane offered softly.
Isobel’s face sank as she stared at Jane.
‘Why ever not?’ she asked, an accusatory tone in her voice, as though Jane was personally responsible for the cancelation of the flight.
‘The weather. They’re forecasting high winds and rain. They’ll have plenty of the balloons tethered for viewing near Parliament House, but I’m not sure if they’ll tether her. She’s a tough one to tether. Got a spirit of her own. Many have got hurt trying to tame her.’
‘If not in the Parliamentary Zone, where would I see her?’ Isobel asked. ‘We looked everywhere for her last time, but I still haven’t seen her up close.’
‘Sometimes she appears unexpectedly around town. You could keep an eye on Twitter.’
‘Well, she’s certainly captured Isobel’s heart,’ Rachel interjected, putting her arm around her dejected friend and leading her away from the stall. ‘Thanks, we might pop back later and buy one,’ she concluded, pointing to one of the necklaces.
‘Let’s look around here for a little while more, and then we can start looking for her?’ Isobel asked, looking at her friend imploringly. Isobel was a few inches shorter than Rachel, and was staring up at her with her deep blue eyes.
‘Those puppy-dog eyes may work on the blokes, but they have no effect on me,’ Rachel said. ‘Anyway, are you forgetting that we both got the bus here? This time round we were going to stay in the city and walk everywhere? We can’t chase the balloon down by running all over Canberra.’
They had only walked a few paces away when they heard a deep voice boom behind them.
‘Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!’
Rachel turned to see a tall man, with jet black hair, balancing on crutches. It was James, Isobel’s brother. He shared her eyes, and in his case, they had always had an impact on Rachel.
‘James! I thought we were meeting up tonight,’ Isobel exclaimed, throwing her arms around her brother. Rachel hung back, and smiled shyly at James. She tended to always react this way when she first saw him, although they had known each other for years.
For his part, James appeared never to suffer from lack of confidence. After embracing Isobel, he turned to Rachel and flung his arms around her before pecking her on the cheek. Rachel hugged back, and tried not to go red in the face. The hug was made slightly awkward by James having to hobble over to her and negotiate his arms around his crutches.
‘Yep, but I thought I’d surprise you here and we’d grab a coffee. I have to try and work out how to get my car home too. I’m not sure I can drive with my ankle like this.’
He pointed down to his ankle, which was encased within a ‘moonboot’.
‘What happened to you?’ Rachel asked, trying to keep her voice as normal as usual.
‘Twisted out in Civic last night.’
‘On the dance floor?’ Isobel asked cheekily. ‘I’ve warned you about your dancing.’
‘No sis, not on the dance floor. And before you ask, I wasn’t drunk either. I was the DD, hence the car.’
Isobel looked at him sceptically, but James continued.
‘It was pretty innocuous, but I twisted it walking back to the car park at the end of the night. Someone nudged me and pointed up in the sky. Reckon they saw a whale in the sky! I looked up to check and didn’t see the kerb in front of me.’
Rachel rolled her eyes at Isobel, who suddenly seemed very excited.
‘Did you see it?’
‘What?’ James replied confused.
‘Nup, didn’t see a thing. But I hurt my ankle. I had to get a cab home, and it was worse this morning. I hobbled down to the doc and he recommended the moonboot and said no driving for twenty-four hours. So, I got the bus back here hoping I’d surprise you both.’
‘Anyway, that’s enough about my adventures. I haven’t seen you guys in months. Let’s grab a coffee and we’ll catch up.’
They walked to some tables outside and ordered coffee from a nearby van. James kept Isobel distracted for a while, but Rachel noticed she did check her phone from time to time while they waited for the coffees. They sat down at a white plastic table in the Convention Centre courtyard.
‘So, how is life in Sydney Isobel?’ James asked, sipping his long black.
Isobel had regained some of her composure, but still couldn’t quite meet James’ eyes for long.
‘It’s great, work is a bit full on, but I’m ok.’
‘And Mum tells me you’re still loving Albury sis?’ he asked, trying to meet his sister’s eyes, which at that moment had turned down to look at her phone.
She looked up, slightly startled.
‘Yep, it’s good.’
James sighed and rolled his eyes at Rachel.
‘Sooo, remind me, how did you guys meet again?’
Isobel smiled, and put down her phone.
‘You know full well.’
‘Yeah, but I love the story.’
‘We stayed in the same dorm room years back at the YHA in O’Connor. We had just both arrived in Canberra and were looking for a place to stay before uni started. And the rest is history…’ Isobel said, smiling at Rachel.
‘Except, as I recall, you were initially freaked out by my tatts.’ Rachel said, pointing to the two small roses on the inside of her ankles.
‘I wasn’t “freaked out”,’ Isobel replied. ‘I was intrigued; but not as intrigued as you were about Queanbeyan in those days. You were determined we should move into a flat there.’
‘Yeah, that’s right. You called me Queanbeyan for the first week because you said I was obsessed by the place.’
‘We ended up getting a spot in student dorms on campus,’ Isobel concluded. ‘And how are you going James? What are we going to do about your ankle.’
James screwed up his face.
‘I dunno. I was wondering if you guys could give me a lift home? You could take the car around if you wanted to do some sight-seeing, and bring it back when you’re done.’
Isobel’s face lit up.
‘What an excellent idea, thank you James!’
‘You guys have set this up!’ Rachel exclaimed.
‘What do you mean?’ James asked confused.
‘Oh yeah, right Rachel, I twisted my brother’s ankle last night so I could take his car today. I could have just asked him.’
Rachel looked at Isobel suspiciously.
‘Where were you at 1am last night. Weren’t in Civic by any chance searching for flying whales.’
The three friends giggled.
‘She may not fly Isobel,’ Rachel suggested at last.
‘And then again, she may,’ Isobel replied.
Rachel decided to try a different tact.
‘You love that car, don’t you James. What is it again?
‘Datsun 180B. Lovingly restored to beyond even her former glory. And yeah, I do love it, but I’ll be grateful if you can get it home for me. I trust you to take her out for a sail after that.’
Rachel shook her head, and realised she was defeated.
‘Alright, can we look around the markets for 30 minutes more, and then go on this whale expedition?’
‘Yay!’ Isobel said, clapping her hands together.
‘What whale expedition?’ James asked, confused.
Isobel helped James to stand up.
‘I would be delighted to tell you all about it oh brother.’
Forty-five minutes, and three hand-made purchases later, James propped himself up against his front door and wished the girls good luck on their adventure.
‘Take care of the car, and have fun.’
Despite herself, Rachel found Isobel’s smile infectious and she shared her sense of excitement as they returned to the car.
‘And remember,’ James called after them. ‘The passenger is responsible for looking at twitter. I don’t want any tweeting and driving!’
Rachel held phone to him him as she climbed into the passenger seat and both girls nodded.
What followed was one of the strangest days of their lives. They drove around Canberra and surrounds, based on tweets from fellow whale watchers, who reportedly had seen her flying over head.
Their first stop was the Parliamentary Zone, at the grass in front of Old Parliament House. Despite having lived in Canberra for much of their early twenties, the girls were still impressed by the imposing structure of the new Parliament House further up the hill. As they exited the car, Isobel pulled something unexpected from her bag.
‘What’s that?’ Rachel asked, peering to have a look.
‘Just a new camera.’
‘Is it still in the box?’ Rachel asked. She could see the letters SONY and NEX written on the cardboard box in Isobel’s hand, but the rest of the details were obscured.
‘Maybe.’ Rachel replied sheeplishly.
‘Did you buy a new camera only to take photos of that balloon?’ Rachel asked.
Still fumbling with the box, Isobel slowly nodded.
‘I wanted the first pictures I took with it to be her. It’s an extra special camera. Specially designed just for this sort of stuff. It’s supposed to be great at capturing moving objects.’
The two friends found many beautiful balloons tethered around the Parliamentary Zone, and spent a happy thirty minutes exploring the food, drink, live music and other entertainment on offer. At least Rachel did. Isobel becoming increasingly frustrated.
‘She’s not here, what does Twitter say?’ she asked, pulling Rachel away from a turtle-shaped balloon she was admiring.
Rachel sighed and checked her phone.
‘Someone reckons they saw it in Jerrabomberra, near Queanbeyan.’
‘Great let’s go.’
The Jerrabomberra lead turned out to be a dead one. They found a balloon overhead, but it was in the shape of Darth Vadar. Isobel really liked it, and took a few pictures on her phone, but again a dejected Isobel pulled her away.
A guy called Samuel had tweeted in the meantime that he thought he’d seen her in Kambah. They direct messaged the guy, who replied he couldn’t be sure, because while staring up in the sky he had become blinded by the sun and had tripped over. The subsequent pain and shock from his arm, which he later found was broken, distracted him from checking again.
Sure enough, when they go to Kambah, the whale was nowhere to be seen.
Isobel was getting increasingly frustrated.
‘Where is she!’ She yelled in the middle of Kambah Oval No. 2, staring up in the sky.
The oval was not particularly well protected, and a sharp wind was blowing into the girl’s faces. The mid-afternoon sun was doing little to keep the girls warm.
‘Probably safely tucked up in a pub somewhere, like we should be!’ Isobel shouted back.
Isobel ignored her and stared at her phone, a smile flashing across her face.
‘Civic!’ she yelled.
But Civic, and Belconnen after it, were also dead ends. The girls continued to stumble across different balloons also out for the Balloon Spectacular.
‘Why are they out, if she isn’t!’ Isobel demanded, pointing to a lion-shaped hot air balloon.
Rachel quite loved it, but didn’t think now was the time to mention it.
‘C’mon,’ Rachel said, putting her arm around Isobel. I’ll buy you a coffee at Starbucks.’
‘There isn’t one here any more, remember!’
‘Even better, I’ll buy you some real coffee. Londsdale Street?’
After sitting quietly and sipping lattes, the girls checked their watches and realised it was after four o’clock. The hashtag on twitter had gone dead.
‘I think we’ll have to call it a day,’ Rachel said softly, putting down her cup.
Isobel nodded glumly.
‘What a wasted day. Sorry Issie.’
‘That’s ok, maybe we’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘Let’s do something for you before the day is over. What about a paddle on Lake Burley Griffin? You love that!’
Rachel considered this.
‘It will be pretty cold on the lake.’
‘Yeah, but I’ll buy you a cocktail to warm you up afterwards at North bar.’
‘Can James come?’ Rachel asked, a twinkle in her eye.
‘Sure, if he can walk. But go gentle with him, he’s a bit broken,’ Isobel replied, giggling.
The girls made it to the Paddle Boat hire just in time.
‘Have her back by five-thirty, ok?’ the salesman asked.
‘The girls, already shivering just standing on the deck nodded.
‘I think we might be back before then,’ Isobel replied.
They paddled into the water, giggling as they fought for control. The boat swayed from side to side for a time as they both tried to gain control. Suddenly Isobel realised she had full control, and as a result, they were veering dramatically left towards Commonwealth Avenue Bridge.
‘Rachel, c’mon, given up already.’
Rachel was staring up at the sky.
‘I don’t believe it,’ she whispered.
Isobel followed the direction of her eyes and looked up.
Rachel appeared to be staring at the flag atop Parliament House.
As she squinted to look at the flag, the grey clouds parted and the sun began shining through, slightly blinding Isobel for a moment. But then the sun and flag became obscured by a large shape. At first it was hard to make out, partly because of the distance, but also because Isobel’s sun-drenched eyes needed time to adjust.
At last she realised what she was looking at.
‘Holy shit, it’s her.’
Both girls sat there for a moment staring. But in her excitement, Rachel didn’t realise she was still frantically paddling the boat, veering the girls left. She quickly tried to correct the boat as she realised she was taking them away from the Balloon, but in her haste she began to rock the boat.
‘Isobel, what are you doing!’ Rachel called.
But it was too late. Isobel found herself falling towards the lake, and then all too quickly, the icy water was all around.
‘Shit,’ she squealed as she struggled to swim, her clothes becoming heavy from the water. ‘It’s freezing in here.’
Awkwardly, Rachel leant over and helped her back on board.
Isobel was soaking wet and already shivering badly.
‘Jeez, we’re going to have to get you back to shore! You’re soaked through!’
Isobel wrapped her arms around her knees, and tried to control the shivering as much as she could.
‘Not yet, let me enjoy her a bit longer.’
Rachel realised Isobel was again staring up at the sky.
‘You’re going to catch pneumonia!’ Rachel said.
‘I don’t care,’ Rachel replied. ‘I can die happy now. I’ve seen her.’
‘Please don’t.’ Rachel replied. ‘I don’t think I could paddle back by myself.’
Skywhale photo courtesy of my friend, and Skywhale enthusiast, Matt Schmidt.