Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Frodo came to an abrupt halt at the closed door to the Gamgee’s smial.  Closed?  On a hot summer’s day?  He knocked timidly, wondering if something could be amiss, and was somewhat relieved when he heard Bell’s cheery, “Come in, whoever ye be.”  On opening the door however he took an involuntary step back, hit by a wave of warm, damp air, redolent with yeast.

“Come in, Young Master and shut the door if ye please.  I’m sorry I couldn’t come to the door but I’m all over flour.”  Bell waved her plump arms at him with a broad smile.  She was indeed, all over flour.  In fact it seemed to Frodo that everything was all over flour.

Silky white powder coated the large kitchen table and dusted the floor about and on Bell’s feet, turning her foothair grey.  Broad splashes of it adorned her apron and arms and she even had a dab on the end of her nose.  When Frodo breathed in he noticed that it hung in the air, making his nose itch and catching in his throat. 

His awe must have registered on his face for Mistress Gamgee chuckled.  “Now ye know why Mister Bilbo don’t bake bread in the summer.  I’ve nearly got yer order done.  Just a couple of loaves finishin’ in the oven.”

“Thank you, Mistress Gamgee.”  Frodo dabbed at his upper lip surreptitiously, trying to wipe away the perspiration that had suddenly sprung out there and holding his arms a little away from his body.  It didn’t help.  He could feel damp patches developing under his armpits already.  He could see that Bell herself was not immune to the temperature, her bodice completely soaked beneath its covering apron and tendrils of hair plastered to her brow.

Bell obviously noticed his small action and took pity on him.  “Ye can come back a bit later if ye want.  ‘Tis not a day to be sittin’ in a hot kitchen.  Them loaves will be another quarter hour or so.”

Frodo considered the golden sun streaming through the room’s round windows.  He had been sitting in the garden, reading, when Bilbo had sent him off to the Gamgee’s for their bread.  As he suspected his uncle knew he would, Frodo had jumped at the chance to visit the family.  Bag End was his home now and felt it.  And Bilbo was dear.  But the bustling Gamgee smial reminded him of Brandy Hall and Bell, herself, of his own Mama so he never turned down a chance to call.

His gaze returned to the table where, on a collection of mismatched wire trays, assorted breads steamed gently through their golden tops.  Frodo swallowed a mouthful of saliva and dragged his eyes away from the display.

“I can wait.  I was reading and by the time I’ve gone to my book and settled back into the story it will be time to come back anyway.”

Bell followed his gaze and swallowed a smile as she hoisted a lump of sticky dough out of the large stoneware basin and thumped it down on a circle of flour on the table, sending up a cloud of dust that made Frodo pinch his nose to stop a sneeze.

“Ye’d best sit down, then.  But if ye want to keep that fancy weskit clean ye’d best sit at yonder end.”  She motioned to the end farthest from her immediate work area and, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, far away from the cooling bread.

Frodo complied, pushing his shirtsleeves up a little further as he climbed over the bench and settled down.  The sight and smell of all that fresh bread was a torture to his tweenage stomach and he hoped Bell could not hear it rumbling from way over there.  From the twinkle in her green eyes however, he suspected she could.

For a few minutes there was silence in the room, apart from the slide of the dough as Bell kneaded and turned it about on her table.  With each pull and knuckled tuck Frodo could feel the table shake beneath his elbows and he placed his chin in his hands, mesmerised by the soothing rhythm of it. 

When the dough was no longer sticky but round and elastic, a smooth ball, Bell gathered it up in both hands and dropped it into another basin.  Then she snagged a muslin cloth from a waiting pile and covered it, before setting it aside to rise.  When she returned she had another bowl with her and paused to sprinkle a generous layer of floor before upturning the basin and dumping the huge lump of dough out onto the table.

Another dusting of flour on top and she began her kneading again, completely absorbed in her work and pausing only to sprinkle a little more flour.  Pull, tuck and turn, pull, tuck and turn, pull, tuck and turn.

Frodo settled deeper into his elbows, smiling gently.  He and Bell had settled into an easy relationship that didn’t demand that she entertain the young master of the hill.  And Frodo had made himself a welcome addition to her motherly circle. 

Bell dropped the dough back into its bowl and glanced up once more, as though suddenly remembering that she had a guest.  “I’m sorry ‘tis so warm in here.  But a stray drought can kill the yeast and flatten the bread.”  She called out to the darkened entrance to the rest of the smial.  “Daisy.”

From somewhere in the depths of the hill Frodo noticed for the first time the muffled sounds of flapping and suspected that the eldest Gamgee lass was making beds.  The sounds continued and Frodo held his breath.  Daisy would not be pleased at any interruption, particularly from her mother.  Interruptions from mother usually meant another task in the offing.  But Bell was mistress here.

“Daisy Gamgee.  I know ye can hear me . . . Daisy!”

Frodo shrank at her last call; glad that the only person he had ever heard Bell use that sharp tone with was Daisy.

Daisy appeared, her hair mussed and hands planted defiantly on hips.  “I’ve not finished the beds yet, Ma,” she got in quickly, before she took in Frodo’s presence with a flick of her eyes, and the tween found he didn’t like the sudden gleam there.

“Them beds should have been long done, girl.  But ye can finish them in a bit.  We’ve company.  Go fetch a cup of cold water from the crock in the pantry.”

Daisy sniffed and made to flounce her skirts but a warning glare from her mother stopped the action mid flick and it turned into a smoothing motion.  She grabbed up one of the second best cups from the top shelf of the dresser and headed off through an arched door.  Frodo swallowed, and this time it had nothing to do with the smell of cooling bread.  Daisy had a way of getting her own back and the younger lad sat up straight, bracing himself.

Daisy sashayed back into the kitchen, the dewed cup of her mother’s china held firmly in both hands.  She approached the table opposite Frodo with a small but wicked smile on her face and leaned forward to place the cup before him.  Frodo’s cornflower eyes widened.

It was high summer and the Gamgees had not been expecting company.  With the warm work of making the beds, Daisy had loosened the lacings on her bodice and Frodo suspected her visit to the pantry had “accidentally” loosened them further.

Bell’s table was wide, had to be so to accommodate such a large brood, and it necessitated Daisy bending very low as she leaned across it, cup in one outstretched hand and eyes locked on Frodo’s face.   Frodo would have returned the gaze but he found his eyes locked somewhere totally different as he found himself on the receiving end of his first good look down a lasses’ bodice.  He could feel a blush creeping up his neck and shifted uncomfortably upon the bench.  Daisy remained still, confident in her command over him until . . .

“Daisy Gamgee!  Get ye outside and feed them pigs!”  Bell’s voice was not loud but the warning note in it was very clear.

Daisy startled upright but soon regained her composure.  “But Mam!  I ain’t finished the beds yet.  Why am I always the one that ends up swillin’ the pigs?” Daisy whined.  “Why don’t Sam do it?  He’s youngest.”

Bell grabbed up her ball of dough and thumped it down into the waiting basin, taking up a long and sharp knife to slice off a smaller lump.  To Frodo’s eyes she seemed to do so with unnecessary gusto.  “Aye.  ‘Tis not a nice job, is it?”

Frodo took a hurried swig of the cold water, sighing in relief as he felt the liquid slide down his body and settle in his stomach, from where it sent out cooling tendrils to other parts.

“’Tis an easy enough job and gives a body time to consider other things.  So happen while yer doin’ it ye’ll have time to think on the proper manners for a young lass before a lad and in particular, a gentlehobbit.”  She glanced up from kneading the smaller ball of dough.  “And ye could fasten that bodice up while yer about it.  The pigs’l not be impressed.”

To her credit, Daisy did blush as she grabbed up the slop bucket and stomped from the smial, even taking care to close the door quietly behind her.

Bell gusted out a puff of air as her eldest daughter left and Frodo concentrated hard on the cold water . . . concentrated very firmly on “cold”.  Thus it was that he did not notice anything else for some time until a small plate was slid before him, on which sat a breakfast roll, opened and steaming, with a large dollop of butter melting slowly into it.

He looked up into Bell’s knowing eyes and she smiled.  “Food.  ‘Tis a wondrous thing for taking the mind off other things.”  And with those gentle words she turned back to her kneading.

 




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