Up Up and Away
Yesterday was my husband’s birthday.
During one of my regular 2am trawls through an American bereavement site, and dismissing other ideas such as getting plastered on champagne, listening to James Taylor, crying my eyes out over photos or just staying in bed with The Hound and watching endless re-runs of Two and a Half Men, I decided how I wanted to mark the event: a helium balloon released on Hampstead Heath in North London.
I mentioned my plan to my friend Hat, a fellow recent inhabitant of Planet Grief. Hat thought it such a good idea, she decided to do the same for her husband’s birthday which fell a few days before JS’s, and in a touching gesture, bought a second balloon for JS.
Being somewhat remote from a Clinton Card shop and gas canister, Hat procured her balloons in advance, in hindsight a tactical error. By the time she took them up the Welsh hillside for the big launch, they had deflated and defiantly refused to take off, cue sobby trek back down the hill clutching a couple of wilting airbags. Life is hard enough without your balloons deflating.
Being based in Central London rather than rural Wales, I was able to get my balloons (£2.50 each from Chapel Market in Islington) on the day: a burgundy heart for JS and a pale pink star for Hat’s husband. The cheery lady on the stall put them in a big plastic bag, I took them home, wrote a message on a tag for each, and in the late afternoon sunshine, took balloon bag, messages, scissors, camera and The Hound to the Heath for the grand send off.
As I walked along, the balloons were bobbing up and down in the bag, threatening to escape like a buxom woman’s boobs in a too tight bra. As The Hound and a German pointer stopped for a mutual bum sniffing session, its owner said: “Balloons! How lovely! Are you having a party?” I’m still prone to terrible bouts of verbal Death Diarrhoea, ie telling complete strangers what has happened, even if they have just asked me the time at the bus stop, so I told this man in great detail why I was letting off the balloons, and then seeing his shocked face, wished I hadn’t. I need some sort of Imodium for the brain-mouth connection.
By the time we get to the venue for the big send-up, it’s windy. I wrestle the balloons out of the bag, stand on the ribbons, and the shiny things go mental, weaving in and out of each other like some crazy Ecstasy-fuelled Maypole dance.
I still have to get the tags on the balloons, which because of the constant ducking and diving proves impossible, so I implement Plan B: shortening the ribbons by kneeling on them whilst I try to attach the messages of love and hope. The Hound then decides this is a game and launches himself at the balloons, jumping on them and barking. Laughing, I push him away, which just increases his excitement and turns him from dachshund to demented collie as he tries to ‘round up’ the balloons and kill them. If there is anything worse than a deflated balloon, it’s a punctured one, so I go back to Plan A: standing on the ribbons, and, whilst being constantly head-butted by a couple of foil shapes, watched by the Heath Police who have parked up behind me and accompanied by the sound of frenzied barking, manage to tie the messages on, but give up trying to separate the balloons whose pink and white ribbons are now bound tightly together.
Then I get my scissors, cut the strings, say what I want to say and watch as the balloons soar gently up into the blue cloud-dotted sky. There is a brief panic when a small plane seems to cross their path – not unexpected as there are more planes in the London sky than sparrows – and I have a flash of terror at the thought of my balloon being sucked into a jet engine, the plane plummeting over London and my being responsible for hundreds of new inhabitants of Planet Grief – but then the balloons continue their gentle flight, at first familiar and recognisable, then just dots, and then – nothing.
As I search the sky with teary eyes, I think to myself: I know they’re out there. Only moments ago I was holding them. I could feel their form and energy. I could see them and they were bright and shiny and fun. Even when I let them go, for a while I could watch them. But now, however hard I look, however carefully I scan every inch of the skyline, I can’t see them. They may have gone from my sight and my touch; they may soon be punctured and in a change of shape end up hanging in a tree or be swept up and binned, but I know that in some form, they’re still out there.
And I’m not just talking about balloons.
But you knew that, didn’t you?