Our balloon floated above the river with the gentle assurance of a yawning hippo. Even the cables which bound our basket to the yearning red hulk of the balloon seemed relaxed in the teatime heat. The sun cast a four o’clock shadow on the world, it being four o’clock.
The meadows on either side of the river were as unsure as the rest of us exactly which year—or era—they were inhabiting, so they’d settled for a pastoral English sunniness which never goes out of fashion outside of an ice age. Glimpses could be glimpsed of hunched backs moving among the waving grasses; peasants, presumably. Or water buffalo.
Above this pleasant landscape, the three of us drifted nowherewards through the firmament like the stars of Orion’s belt, if the stars of Orion’s belt were in a hot-air balloon. One of us was in a corner of the basket, hunched over a book. The second, myself, was adjusting some ropes for the look of the thing, and half-listening to the third. The third was holding forth garrulously on the merits of the rum baba.
Benjamin Disraeli, for it was he, was approaching a crescendo in his soliloquy. The application or otherwise of clotted cream was the issue, and it was causing him great agitation. The ropes which I had been fiddling with broke free of my incompetent sheepshank as Benjamin stamped around the basket. The great man staggered violently without interrupting himself for a moment, and very nearly lurched over the side of the basket.
Oh dear, thought I. He needs to calm down. A change of topic is in order.
“So, Benjo,” I said, thinking on the fly. “What are your plans for this year?”
“Hm! Eh? What’s that?” responded Benjamin. “I was saying that the viscosity of the cream has to match the—oh, you made a pertinent remark? Hmph. I thought you were just doing sycophantic murmurs.”
“To truly speak, one must listen—with one’s mouth,” offered the third of our party (previously named as the first, but numerals are fickle), my manservant Sir Launcelot the Brave. He was quite delighted at being offered a rare day off from making Benjamin flaky pastry morsels out of Cadbury Flakes and pastry, but less so at being forced to spend it in the insufferably waggish company of Benjamin and myself. As a result, he was slumped in the corner of the basket reading a paperback book of cod-Eastern cod-philosophy (entitled Finding Cod), and was remaining stubbornly silent except to emit an occasional zen-lite aphorism. Benjamin and myself ignored him completely.
“This year!” I repeated, “what do you have planned?”
“Why, my excellent fellow, the year is already afoot!” cried Disraeli. “This is a question for New Year’s Eve, to slide in between singing Auld Lang Syne and drinking brandy butter!”
I withheld my judgement on this eccentric description of Hogmanay, and pressed the issue. “Well, yes, but there hasn’t been the chance to talk about it before now! Between spending New Year on the Gold Coast—“
“—which you never invited me to—“
“—which I never invited you to, and drawing charcoal doodles for my bedroom wall, and being involved in a lunking great natural disaster, I’ve been a little on the busy side. And of course you’ve been spending your every free hour attempting to woo that Marie Curie chick—“ here Benjamin blushed impishly “—which means that the conversation just never quite occurred. And so I propose we make good on the error now. What are your hopes for Two-thousand ‘leven?”
“Ah, hopes!” exclaimed Benjamin, finally entering into the spirit of the thing. “Truly, mine hopes are so great as to nigh-on burst the breast of man! For one thing, I am going to improve my nasal hygiene. For another, I plan to reunite Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for a second moon landing under the title Moon 2: Son of the Rock Sample. In addition, I am going to adopt a poorly-trained hippopotamus, dress him in evening wear, and introduce him to polite society as my long-lost son Alfred, just to see who’s brave enough to object. And then I want to declare war on Italy.”
As soon as the words “nasal hygiene” drifted into the conversation I’d rather stopped paying attention, so this last item caught me by surprise. I stumbled against the ropes. “Declare war on Italy? My dear old goat, what for?”
“Tiramisu,” replied Benjamin Disraeli. Ah. I nodded my understanding, and for a few minutes all was contented silence, broken only by Sir Launcelot’s snuffly laughter on turning to a chapter named What If Cod Was One Of Us?
We drifted over a brightly-painted wooden bridge festooned with gnomes.
“And yourself, Ward-Seller-me-chap?” asked Benjamin when it had become quite clear that no further debate of small cakey delights was in the offing. “What do you hope for in this fine year of Elizabeth’s reign?”
I smiled beatifically. “I’m glad you asked…
“You see, I’ve been thinking a little about this, between the lines and below the skies. And I’ve been forced to conclude that it’s a little bit of a funny topic. Every year since 2006, I reckon, has been an expansion in my life. Bigger in scope than the one before, building on everything that has accumulated before it.
“And, heavens!, how 2010 fitted this trend. Jamaica! Australia! Working in journalism! Finally getting off my stagnant buttocks and penning a novel! It’s been an expansion like no other! Which leaves 2011 in a bit of a sticky spot. How, given that it is a year which will revolve around the mid-July hub of a return to where I was before, is it expected to keep the train rolling? The simple answer is, I just don’t think it will.
“This, Benjamin, is going to be a different sort of year…”
(“The orchid blooms like a smile on fecund lips,” offered Launcelot for no particular reason.)
“…Do you see what I’m saying? It’s going to be a year, as far as I can tell, of…consolidation. A mighty drawing-together of this too, too solid flesh for a big push in years to come. A year of forcing the openings which I have created to open wider. To write more, and write better. To edit and sweat and painfully improve my novel, and to start at least one more. To wring everything, everything I can from this incredible year in the Antipodes, and return home in one piece. And to slip back into Edinburgh and make sure I haven’t lost anything there. To re-meet friends, remake acquaintances, and relearn the cobbles underfoot. To take these three years of literature essays, and use that experience to bolster my final-year dissertation.
“It’s going to be a year, I think—and I could be wrong, oh, how I could be wrong—where seeds are not planted, nor yet fruit harvested, but instead the trees are tended, and guided into shapes—hopefully the right shapes, but shapes for certain—which will help to craft what they become.
“As far as I can see—and everything I can see is in the monochrome of maybe—this’ll be a year in which, for the most part, I know what I’m going to do. I just don’t know quite how I’m going to do it…or what kind of me will be doing the doing.”
I paused, rhetoric exhausted. Benjamin looked at me with a heavy gaze. He thumbed tobacco idly into a long-stemmed pipe, but you could tell he was thinking hard. His brows cast dark clouds across the sunsets in his eyes as he cogitated.
Finally, his silence consummated, he raised his pipe in an emphatic gesture, and opened his mouth. I leaned forward eagerly, half-embarrassed at my eloquence, nervous for his approval.
“If you keep on calling me Benjo,” he said flatly, “I’m never letting you come to my whist drives again.”
A red balloon floated meanwhile into a year begun.