What, for her 77th birthday, do you give a woman who has everything? I do not mean that my mother is rich or lives in luxury, but that though we, her six children, have all our lives been the recipients of birthday gifts lovingly chosen by her – she never fails to think of something useful or touching – it has never been easy to think, when her own birthday comes around, of what you can give someone who has all the possessions she wants.
She and my father live in a house they love in the Catalan Pyrenees. They are comfortably off. My mother is only fitfully interested in clothes, does not wear hats and has never carried a handbag. She loves books, but her taste is particular, and though last year I knew that Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, The Unequalled Self, would be a successful present, no book came obviously to mind this year.
My brother Mark had brought her a beautiful blue dress (which did delight her), John and Roger were away, and Deborah, Belinda and I racked our brains. Chocolate? She can never have enough, but a 77th birthday calls for something more memorable. She likes the idea of perfume but, as with another favourite, big fluffy towels, she already has enough. And apart from skin creams, she has never been much into cosmetics.
‘Would Terry like ballooning?’ her son-in-law Manel had asked me a month or so before her birthday. We were in a balloon at the time – or rather in a basket suspended underneath one. It had been my secretary Eileen’s long-held ambition to go ballooning, so Manel and Deborah had arranged it for us, at a town called Olot, inland from the Costa Brava. It was shortly after dawn (balloonists rise early, while the morning air is still). I looked down at the hills moving gently beneath and asked myself how my mother would like the idea.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘She’d be terrified.’ We glanced at each other. ‘We might have to blindfold her and lift her in. She hates heights. She says she feels a horrible urge to jump.’
‘But she couldn’t. She couldn’t get out of the basket.’
‘True.’ We exchanged another glance. ‘So ballooning it is, then. She’d love it once we were up. She’d love it even more when it was over. We could have a triumphant birthday meal.’
Manel and Deborah made the arrangements. We kept it a secret, of course. We told Mum there was to be a birthday surprise for which the whole family must gather at Debs’s and Manel’s house on their farm outside Manll’u at 7 a.m. My mother was only slightly surprised at the hour, as she herself is never in bed after dawn. ‘We are getting our revenge on you,’ Belinda explained, ‘for waking us up hours too early, all our lives.’
And so it happened that, on Monday, 25 August, unconscionably early on a lovely, clear, sunny, still Catalan morning, Belinda and her daughter Cristina, my friend Julian and I made our way by car towards Manll’u. My parents were driving there separately from their house. We assumed that my father, Leslie, who is 80, would not wish to balloon, though we resolved to ask him just in case. We decided against blindfolding Terry.
‘But what if she refuses to get into the basket?’ Julian asked Belinda. My sister and I answered simultaneously, ‘She won’t. She won’t want to disappoint us.’
Everyone was there when Mum and Dad arrived. The balloon was also there, laid out deflated across Manel’s field, its blue and yellow panels dazzlingly bright in the sunrise. It said OSONA GLOBUS in huge letters on the side. It looked awfully big. Mum stepped from the car, her face frozen in a ‘just-what-I-always-wanted’ expression.
‘Did you guess from the early start?’ we asked. ‘I thought you might be going to give me a dog,’ she replied, as though a dog presentation would have had to start early. My father, meanwhile, was off across the field as fast as his stick could take him, inspecting the basket, the burners and the strings. A retired engineer, he was fascinated. ‘It’s a good idea to do new things when you’re old,’ he announced. We realised that not only did he want to come, but also that he assumed he would.
I can tell (you could not) when my mother is afraid, but in her terror she remained practical. ‘You must tell me a few minutes before we get in and go up,’ she said, ‘so I can pop to the loo.’ By now our Catalan balloon-skipper had trained a big fan into the balloon’s mouth, half-inflating the canopy. Our balloon was a billowing yellow-and-blue sausage on its side in the field. The big wicker basket was on its side, too.
‘Off soon,’ we said to Mum, now back from the loo. ‘Manel’s bringing a stepladder so that you can climb over the sides of the basket.’
‘Oh, I thought we had to lie in the basket on its side and wait for the balloon to jerk us upright when it goes up,’ said my mother, relieved. If we had told her that she had to hang from the balloon’s strings, I think she would have agreed nervously to give it a go. We climbed in. With our skipper, there were nine of us in the basket. There was a great roar as the burners shot their flames into the multicoloured marquee above us. Mum flinched. The wicker creaked.
And up we went. Straight up. Surprisingly fast. Shrinking beneath us were Debs’s house, Manel’s cows, his parents’ house, and his own mother, Isabel, waving from the road. I cannot say why, but in the silence and seeming stillness of a balloon ascent you feel a stronger sense of departure than with any other transport I know, almost as though you are leaving this world. Everything familiar dwindles beneath into a sort of map. We saw the manager’s house at the cable factory in Manll’u where we once lived, until Dad’s heart attack 22 years ago; we saw the town square, and Anglo-Catal