Before I jump out of a plane this weekend for the first (and hopefully only) time, I thought I’d do some research on those who had preceded me. This is what I found. While the invention of the frameless parachute is (almost) unanimously attributed to Andre-Jacques Garnerin, few knew how it really happened. Until now…
Andre, who had been chewing with his mouth open on a croissant, suddenly realised the conversation was still going on.
“Hrrmphfgght?” he spluttered.
“My wife was just saying, Monsieur Garnerin,” harrumphed an indignant Lacoste, “that the English have taken prisons to a whole new level, sending all of their nimble-fingered poverty-stricken to an island on the other side of the world.”
The elderly couple laughed derisively, and Garnerin was suddenly filled with an urge to kill them both. A holiday to the other side of the world would be nice – but this wasn’t England, this was FRANCE – where stealing a baguette was likely to end in you getting your head cut off in front of thousands of people and then kicked through the streets by children before being discarded and left to be consumed by ravenous pigeons and the homeless. How embarrassing. You’d never live it down.
“If only we could find somewhere to send our own poor people… I mean… criminals. Don’t you agree, Mr Garnerin?” asked Madame Lacoste. She raised her right eyebrow so high it climbed over her scalp, down her back and was never seen again.
Andre nodded slightly, not really hearing the question, and the Lacostes burst into a peal of collective laughter that nearly sent him flying off his chair. While such a tumble would normally result in a bruised elbow or a bump on the head, sitting here around the table in a hot-air balloon 30,000 feet above the streets of Paris, the consequences could be far more unpleasant. Furthermore health insurance wouldn’t be conceived for some decades.
Aerial dining had become all the rage among the self-righteous Parisian bourgeoisie in the last few years.
At any given time you could look up to the sky and see ten or fifteen balloons bound tightly together, tethered to the ground by the leftover ropes from the halcyon days of public hangings. They were filled with French aristocracy, their children and pets (this current balloon was also occupied by the Lacostes three schnauzers and the family gazelle, Rodrigo), all enjoying the finer things in life with views that some would say money couldn’t buy – although obviously it could, because the only poor people up here were the servants. They were forced to delicately walk the tightropes between each basket at the behest of their masters, risking their lives to top up champagne glasses for a measly paycheque should they survive. Such displays of affluence were perfect for stoking the ire of the Lacostes equally-wealthy contemporaries, despite the fact that from the ground below they were completely unable to see them.
Garnerin would have paused to wonder how it had all come to this if he didn’t know perfectly well. Being a professional ballooner had suddenly become a profitable occupation in the regret-laden post-revolution air, where the rich had decided to counter the passionate objections of the working class by proverbially (and sometimes literally) rubbing their noses in their earnings.
He was conflicted. While he had previously been one of the working class, forced like so many others to sleep in a potato sack and eat his grandparents, the latest balloon craze had helped him build an empire virtually overnight. Now he could afford to eat someone else’s grandparents.
Andre thought back to the days before his success. He had been one of those dishevelled, outraged protestors, with an unkempt mange, taking to the streets, signing petitions, drinking too much wine and smelling like the rotten onions (traditions that are still continued today).
He had a vague memory of a bespectacled member of high society walking past him as he lay in the street after one particularly alcoholic protest telling him to “get a job,” while twirling a magnificent moustache. What sound advice it had been in hindsight. ‘If only all the poor could be gifted such wisdom’ he thought to himself.
Not only had he been swept up in the revolution, he had suffered for the cause, spending time in prison, being tortured regularly by the appalling, off-key singing of his cell-mates. It would have been an entirely unpleasant experience but the semi-frequent sodomy. He even got to be a ‘top’ every other week.
The Lacostes hadn’t bothered to realise that Andre’s description of a Hungarian prison was based on personal experience, and furthermore that it wasn’t an approval. It was probably the top hat and monocle he was wearing that made it difficult for them to picture him in such a situation. He made a mental note to bring the potato sack next time as he picked up another croissant and spread it with the caviar and Arctic Penguin pate that was so popular among the upper classes – much to the chagrin of the attendants down at the Paris Zoo.
The Lacostes suddenly pointed behind Andre and he noticed that he and his guests were being approached by another balloon. He pulled out his telescope and noticed his wife Jeanne, arm in arm with two men.
While Mrs Garnerin had a reputation for promiscuity that had managed to circumnavigate the globe as quickly as she could fly a balloon to various destinations and have sex with people, the look in her eyes told Andre that these men were the police, and the jig was up.
What both the Lacostes and Madam Garnerin’s bevy of lovers were completely unaware of was that Mrs Garnerin was actually a man – and not just any man, he-she was Maximillien Robespierre.
While the majority of French people believe that Robespierre was executed by guillotine three years before, that wasn’t entirely true. His post-revolution megalomania had led to the employment of multiple body doubles, and being in an era where affluent men wore ridiculous amounts of makeup and long before the development of the photographic camera, the not-so-subtle differences between the man himself and his doppelgangers were remarkably easy to get away with. Yet despite escaping death in Paris he still wound up in prison – he met Garnerin in their Budapest confines after being arrested for punching a young Beethoven in the face during an opium-induced brawl at a Schnitzelhaus, and the two fast became friends and lovers.
Upon their release and subsequent return to Paris, and with Robespierre fearful that he could be caught, the makeup went back on, a corset was purchased, and thus began the charade that fooled the nation, the authorities, and Robespierre’s extensive list of amis avec des advantages ‘friends with benefits’ – even when Andre referred to his wife as ‘Maxi’, despite the pair having selected the name Jeanne back in prison.
Now, thousands of feet in the air with no possible means of escape, Andre was lost. As the police explained to the Lacostes exactly what was happening, he looked at his man-wife in her billowing gown and had a brilliant idea.
After swiftly punching Madame Lacoste in the mouth (for sport as much as anything), Garnerin whipped the large cloth from the table, cut the rope that kept the balloon connected to the ground with a cheese knife, and promptly launched himself over the side. He proceeded to spin wildly on his descent but landed relatively unharmed except for vomiting up the penguin he had previously eaten.
“Jump my dear, I shall catch you,” he yelled up at Robespierre from 1,000 metres below. She hadn’t heard him but she jumped anyway. Her dress immediately puffed out and she also coasted to the ground, with much more grace than her husband had. He caught her, and they proceeded to make love there and then in front of a growing crowd of curious onlookers.
By halfway through, Robespierre’s make-up had been completely rubbed off against the cobbled street and people started to recognise him, but it was such a heartwarming moment of cross-dressing man-love that all was forgiven, and Robespierre was permitted, by government decree, to live out his life as a woman until his untimely death from a collapsed anus many months later.
Mr Lacoste, meanwhile, having read somewhere that the gazelle possessed aerodynamic qualities, jumped on Rodrigo’s back and forced the animal over the side. Unfortunately he was mistaken, and the pair were impaled on the Eifel Tower after it was constructed 90 years later, as an eternal symbol of the French spirit.
His wife and the police officers continued their ascent into the heavens, and now reside on the moon. That they didn’t appear in the background of any of the 1969 NASA photos is proof that the entire moon landing was fake.