There are six of us. We all sit at the table listening enthusiastically to Giles who is standing at the front delivering the mandatory health and safety spiel. Now, there is a man that has seen and done it all before, an experienced pilot and a safe pair of hands (at least I hope he is!)
His charisma lights the room and his wayward beard and rugged features add to his ardent adventurer look. Coffee and biscuits have been provided. I politely decline as I am trying to control the nausea that kicked in as soon as I arrived. Giles asks us to fill in name badges as an icebreaker and with my hands shaking and the sweat collecting vehemently on my brow, I stick mine upside down.
Everyone laughs of course.
I remind myself that I'm supposed to be enjoying the day; after all it is my birthday treat from Linda. I'll never forget that look of anticipation on her face as she passed me that envelope nor the sinking feeling in my stomach that followed as I took the ticket out and read the words "Up, Up and Away". But how was she to know I was absolutely terrified of heights? And, more to the point, why hadn't I confessed it to her there and then? There would have been a way out with an immediate confession, surely. I suppose it's not very manly is it, to say that you are scared? Linda was my new start, I didn't want to jeopardise that.
The last desperate hope of escape is cruelly taken away from me with Giles's lecture at the front. Apparently there is a strict weight ratio required in order for the basket to fly safely. Had anyone not turned up or if anyone decided to pull out at the eleventh hour it would mean that the flight would have to be cancelled. I know, deep down, that I couldn't ruin anyone's day like that. And not for the first time in my life find, because of my good nature, my fate has been sealed.
I think this height phobia started with the nightmares I used to have when I was a child. It was always high bridges over water. Sometimes I would be walking over a swaying rope bridge, high above a ravine, connecting two sides of crumbling cliffs. When I was halfway across, I could see the cliffs decaying into powder and the hooks gently slipping out of the rock. On other occasions I would be sitting in the back seat of a car in the middle of lanes and lanes of traffic crossing a suspension bridge.
Cracks would suddenly appear in the road (that only I could see) and all the cars travelling in front would slide into the gaps and disappear into the freezing water below. All the children in the back seats of the other cars used to wave to me and smile as they went. Interestingly, I never seemed to die or escape, I just used to wake up before the plunge, sweating and with my heart pounding.
I didn't have a nightmare last night but I simply put that down to not actually having any sleep at all. I just lay there, with Linda next to me in full slumber, looking up at the ceiling. I felt like a condemned prisoner must feel, awaiting execution at dawn. I kept looking at the alarm clock watching the minutes tum over with a sickening rhythm and inevitability. When the dawn chorus of birds started at first light I knew the game was up. I crept downstairs and filled the kettle.
I look around the table at my fellow adventurers. Opposite me are James and Annabelle. It is obvious they are a couple by the way they are looking into each others' eyes and finishing off each others' sentences. I wonder if our experience is going to be filmed today and if they have been drafted in specially. They would be the perfect couple for it with their "Hollywood" smiles. Next to them sits Mrs Austin (Giles has been forced to fill in her name badge for her after a lot of confusion with her Christian name). She seems to be dressed for the bus stop with her blue plastic mackintosh. She doesn't seem to be paying any attention to Giles but just staring out of the window for a view of the castle grounds. I wonder if she has mistakenly turned up at the wrong event, a victim of her failing mind. When will she realise that this isn't a knitting session or a game of cards down at the age concern centre? I wonder if, when we are five thousand feet up, she will ask for a slice of angel cake. I'm not normally this rude or judgemental about people; I'll put it down to the nerves.
There are two slightly worrying men sitting on my side of the table. Tony looks like he's a reject for the SAS, dressed as if he is going into battle, with camouflage style trousers and a utility belt. It is anyone's guess what it contains. Nigel is middleaged, dressed in clothes ten years out of fashion and giving off the charisma of a stamp collector or someone that has worked in stationery all of his life. He has tried to make conversation with me but I have not fully engaged. I am worried that I might be sick if I talk too much about anything to anyone. I am just not in the conversation zone. I wonder what these people think about me. I bet they all know don't they? They can see it in my eyes, the anxiety, the panic. What a loser, that's what they're all thinking.
Linda came along at just the time I was giving up hope. It was five years since my wife had left. It had taken me a while to adjust; microwave dinners and pornography increased, DIY and socialising decreased. For the next two to three years after that I had resigned myself to living on my own and had actually started to enjoy it; work filling the extra hours of freedom. I had thrown myself into my work, adding and subtracting larger and larger numbers for more and more prestigious clients until I was on the verge of partnership. It was then I realised that I didn't want it, I wasn't a risk taker, never had been and putting my house on the line was not for me. The option of partnership came and went and I realised what was missing in my life, a soul mate; a faithful soul mate.
The trouble was where do middle aged people go to find this "soul mate"? I was too old for the cattle markets of nightclubs and bars. I was too introverted for speed dating or singles' nights. The introductions from friends and colleagues turned out to be most unsuitable so I had turned to the internet and dating agencies. That would be the answer I thought; some had even promised a guaranteed six introductions in the first six weeks (that was easy for an accountant — one introduction per week). Where was the risk? It would just be like-minded people all in the same boat. But I had started to give up on this as well, based on the results of the first couple of dates, when along came Linda. She wasn't exactly a stunner but physical attractiveness wasn't important to me (I certainly wouldn't want to be judged on that score). But for someone that was approaching her fortieth birthday she had looked after herself well. She had one of those nurturing and maternal faces like she was equipped to empathise and comfort anyone that she came into contact with. Her soft, flawless skin made her look five years younger than she actually was. She lived in London and for our first meeting we went out to dinner, an Italian just off Covent Garden. For the second meeting I travelled to London again and this time we went to a more expensive restaurant (as if the investment of a good meal was less of a risk on a second date) and then onto a show. And that was the night my life had changed again. I had kissed her as we said goodbye on the platform of the Tottenham Court Road tube station.
My wife had stayed in the marital home and had quickly shipped in my replacement. I still don't know a lot about him, some sort of lawyer who is into rugby. She hated rugby when we were together, she said she didn't understand any of the rules so therefore it was impossible to watch, apparently not so impossible now! I had to settle for something smaller with the equity share of the divorce. I actually had to go round to my old house a couple of times after we separated. I hated, having to ring my own doorbell and stand there waiting for someone to answer. And it seemed that every time I went round she would answer the door in a black slinky dressing gown (of the type she never wore in fifteen years of marriage), even in the middle of the day. Her finger and toe nails were always painted (again something that she hadn't felt important in our time together).He would be at the top the stairs, fourteen stone and six feet of toned sportsman shouting enthusiastic salutations with a mocking edge.
Despite my increasingly anxious state, as we leave the briefing room and walk into the castle grounds, I can't help but register the beauty of my surroundings, the perfectly preserved stone walls and the dawn light reflected gently off the water. Several sets of swans are swimming gracefully to the people on the side of the lake hoping for some early moming titbits. I see a collection of Land Rovers set up in the field opposite together with the baskets and bumers and what seem like acres of fabric rustling in the breeze. I walk slowly towards the gallows.
My mind tums to my imminent death. How many people have died in these fields before me? Their individual demises come to me as vivid as a battle thirsty film, someone shot in the chest with an arrow, another getting as far as the portcullis but then having boiling oil poured on his back, screaming in agony before someone finishes him off with a sword. And then there is the unfortunate one, the guard inside the castle crushed to death by a catapulted beast. That's no way to go, what an embarrassment! But, having said that, will I be the first to die on these grounds, falling from a giant wicker basket?
We all stand around the basket, which at the moment is on its side, watching Giles confidently and slightly arrogantly fill the balloon. He fires the bumers, heating the air inside, which within a few minutes will have forced the basket upright. This is the moment we say our goodbyes. I hug Linda tight, too tight maybe and let go.
'Good Luck, Mr. Biggles. ' She says, pinching my cheek with maternal affection. In doing so she has knocked my glasses to one side and I have to straighten them.
'Luck, why would I need luck?' I ask, with the fragile mask of bravery slipping ever so slightly.
'You're not nervous are you, a big brave boy like you?'
'Me, nervous? You're joking. I've been looking forward to this for ages.' The confident delivery of the parting line is perfect; I even blow her a kiss. It's a shame I stumble over a discarded rope on my way back to my fellow travellers. I recover quickly and decide not to look back.
She is going to follow in her car, sticking to me like glue, there is no escape. How ludicrous my situation is; a man who fears heights, soon to be standing in a wicker basket five thousand feet in the air, driven only by the winds and a large blow torch. Oh yes, and being followed by his girlfriend in a pink beetle.
With everyone else in the basket and bracing themselves, Mrs Austin still has the look of someone that is expecting a taxi back from the supermarket rather than someone just about to be delivered to the gods. Just before lift-off, this is the time that everybody puts their faith in Giles. It might just be my heightened state of anxiety, but I take it as a bad omen that as we begin to take off, Giles's jacket, which he had placed on the side of the basket whilst completing last minute preparations, gently slides off and falls on to the ground. I look at Linda standing in the door of her pink beetle and wave. I manage a smile although my legs feel like they will collapse beneath me.
One more deafening roar of the burner and the ground falls away. I try to reason with myself that this will be the worst part, the climb to the heavens. I am conscious that I'm grinding my teeth so hard that I must being doing some sort of damage to my jaw. My mouth has never been so dry.
In the middle of the panic and the disorientation I think back to an English lesson at school when my class had been given a poem to study about a sky diver taking his first jump. One of the lines had contained the words, "I was alive" at the point that the diver had jumped out of the aeroplane. The class was asked what was happening at the time of this thought. Some had answered that his parachute had opened and so the diver knew he was going to survive and some had said that he saw the beauty of the Earth beneath and it was the first time he had reallyfelt alive. Both answers were correct apparently. At the time I thought it ridiculous; that it simply wasn't possible to have two correct answers to the same question but now with my heart beating like a drum and the earth falling away I feel there are a thousand different answers to every question asked; numbers and balance have gone. I close my eyes and try to control my breathing.
Giles has reached a height he is happy with; a height at which the winds will take his human cargo in the right direction. He relaxes and looks over the side and despite the number of times he has seen the view he still looks impressed. Mrs Austin looks confused. I have done well to hide my absolute panic; the only visible sign of my trepidation is my white knuckles attached to the side of the basket. The trauma of the lift is over and I can feel my heart has notched down a level.
Inch by inch I move my head over the side. I see the patchwork green and brown quilt, the broccoli trees, a world that from ground level is dominated with people rushing around in a self-satisfied hurry is replaced, at this height, with calm and beauty. The serenity is reflected back at me and it makes me relaxed not just about the heights thing but about everything. The silence is broken by the roar of the burner and we rise again. I take another look, this time more confidently. I still feel light-headed, slightly nauseous but it is nothing like I thought it would be. The worry has left me; it is like I have taken off a heavy coat that has been weighing me down for a very long time, ever since Linda gave me the envelope in fact. The air smells so pure up here, every inward breath clears my mind. I can see bridges and rivers and a pink car, I can see a pink car.
After a while Giles shows off by taking the balloon lower to the ground as close to the trees as he dares. In the fields we can see a hunt taking place with horses and figures dressed in black clothes and black hats. Ahead of them are the hounds presumably chasing a pretend but legal fox.
Another roar of the burner and we climb again. The pink beetle becomes a speck and the trees blend in with the patchwork fields. It is a chance for people to take photographs and chat with each other. Nigel approaches me and I now feel calm enough to talk but I take out my camera and make myself look busy instead. It is not just the nerves I'm just a naturally unsociable person.
'I didn't think I was going to make it this morning.' He says. You're not the only one I think to myself.
'Oh really why is that?' I look at the images on the back of the camera and pretend to delete the ones I'm not happy with.
'The traffic was appalling. Road works again, cones everywhere.' My god I think. Here he is five thousand feet up in the air with inspirational views all around and he is talking about traffic. I shuffle closer to the edge and pretend to take a tricky shot.
Perhaps it is time to ask Linda to move in with me but I don't want to rush things. She must be semi-serious about me I suppose to buy me such a present. If she had doubts surely she would just buy me some aftershave or a nice pen set. No I'm definitely in the serious category. It will be time for those three little words soon.
And after the burners are fired and we rise again I think about the dynamics of saying those words. I try and remember who said it first in all the other relationships I have had. I bet it was me that said it first and it put me in a weak position from the outset. When someone says something as significant as that, you hope that it is mirrored. But then it almost has to be mirrored even it is meant or not. Perhaps it may be a little early still.
Everyone seems to be enjoying the flight now. We have just passed over a motorway and watched the cars chasing each other, moving like a disjointed snake through the countryside. Minutes fly by, I have never enjoyed silence so much. Time moves quickly as we continue to gaze out at the countryside and take pictures and point at everything we see. My mind completely shuts off from all worries. I even think about when I will fly again.
There is a loud crash echoing around the basket. I look round and to my horror I see Giles on the floor. Is this part of the act I think to myself? Is he going to athletically flip back up and say it was all a joke? Just his style. No-one knows what to do and everyone just stares at him lying there.
'He went down like a sack of potatoes.' Says Nigel.
'We're all fucked, do you know that?' Tony despite looking like he is geared up for a crisis is rapidly falling apart.
It is James that naturally wants to take responsibility in the absence of a pilot, heading towards the burner, but he soon realises he doesn't have the first clue what to do. He just stands there with a puzzled look on his face. I am the first to spot the white cliffs and the sea appearing on the horizon. We all know that we have to bring the balloon down on one of the patchwork fields before we reach that point. I suppose the obvious thing is not to fire the burner again.
'Just avoid the power lines, that's the most important thing.' We all stare at Mrs. Austin. It is the first thing we can remember the old girl saying. She has suddenly come to life. She is standing at the edge of the basket, shielding her eyes from the sun with her right hand and watching the fields ahead.
'Have you done this sort of thing before then?' Asks Nigel. I detected some sarcasm in his voice.
'Oh not me dear, no my husband. He used to take me up all the time when he was alive. Always land with the wind, that's what he used to say. '
'It's all right he's not dead.' Announces Nigel, feeling Giles's pulse.
'What's wrong with him then?' Asks Tony. I kneel down beside him.
'He's diabetic, look at the necklace; it says it on the necklace. ' I think back to his jacket falling off the edge of the basket at the beginning of the flight. I bet he kept something in there for emergencies. 'Has anyone got any sugar?' This is my moment to help. Giles has done the same as me, not admitted his weakness out of pride.
'I've got a mars bar. ' Says Tony, opening one of the pouches on his utility belt.
I kneel down and try to rouse Giles. I keep saying his name and gently slap his cheek. Eventually Giles opens his eyes and I force the chocolate piece by piece into his mouth. It won't be long before the sugar reaches his bloodstream.
I look over the side. We are coming into land too fast, the ground is coming up to meet us.
'Over there, shout towards those people. ' Mrs Austin points towards some farm workers in the field below us. 'Throw the ropes over the side, they can help pull us down. ' Without hesitation we throw the ropes over the side and shout to the workers. We might be a loose collection of inadequate explorers but for now we are working as a team.
We are still coming in too fast. I watch the workers on the ground sprint towards the basket. I can see the terror in their eyes now. I prepare myself for the worst. I grip on the side of the basket and watch Mrs Austin shuffle over to the bumer.
She reaches up and pulls a cord (I found out afterwards that this has released a parachute at the top which slows our progress). I close my eyes and pray.
The balloon has finally come to rest in a field recently sprayed with manure. I know it's manure by the sickly smell that penetrates my nostrils. The farm workers struggle up from the floor. From my sideways field of vision I see the pink beetle pull up and Linda run towards me. I try to free my hand to wave but can only manage a movement of three of my fingers. I feel lucky that I am able to do that.
I lie there and watch her walking towards me. For the first time I notice how attractive she really is. Why hadn't I seen that in her before? In the small distance between the car and the basket she has accidently knocked into two people in her excitement to get to me. She is a clumsy creature but I love her for it.
Linda and I stand in the middle of the field drinking champagne laughing at each other. Giles is sitting by the basket with Mrs. Austin's mackintosh wrapped around him. He watches the ground crew folding up the balloon. Someone offers him a glass of champagne but he waves them away and rubs his eyes. I just look up at the sun and watch the round shapes move with the invisible wind.