Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Frodo called a hello to May Gamgee, who was supervising her young sister, Marigold, as they gathered strawberries from the patch in the garden of Number Three.  From the bright red lips of both girls, the stains down the front of Marigold’s pinafore and the only half-filled basins, Frodo suspected there was very little supervising and a great deal of nibbling going on. 

He hesitated before the door.  A light spring breeze ruffled Frodo’s hair and he turned his head in irritation as a few stray strands of fringe got caught in his eyelashes and whipped across his high cheekbones.  Perhaps it was too long but why couldn’t Bilbo cut it? 

A loud, “Ouch . . . Daisy!” came from beyond the yellow door and Frodo took an involuntary step backwards.  Maybe his hair wasn’t that long after all.  The conversation beyond the door continued at a loud volume and Frodo grimaced.

“Good grief, lass.  Ye’ve taken off half my ear.”

“Serves you right for movin’.  I told you to sit still.”  Came Daisy’s shrill reply, with more than a little sadistic glee.

“Come here and let me look.  Tush lad.  ‘Tis nothin but a clip.  Ye’ll live.  Get on with ye,” Bell’s firm voice encouraged.  “Go help yer Da and young Sam with the taters at Bag End.”

Too late, Frodo turned to leave but there was nowhere to hide and he had no sooner turned on his heel than Halfred threw open the door, pausing to roll up his sleeves.  Turning back, Frodo’s eyes were drawn inexorably to the small drop of blood at the tip of Halfred’s left ear.

“Oh!  Mornin’ young Master Frodo.  I nearly bowled ye over.  I didn’t hear ye knock.”

“Errr. No.  I was just about to, when you came to the door.”

Halfred and Frodo were near enough in height and the Gamgee lad leaned close.  “Don’t let Daisy loose on yer hair.  Ye’ll look like a half-drowned kitten when she’s finished.”  He half turned and shouted over his shoulder, “I’ve seen better jobs done on hedges.” 

Both he and Frodo dodged when a damp towel flew towards them, followed by Bell’s raised voice.  “Halfred . . . ye stop yer teasin’ and Daisy . . . stop throwin’ about my good towels.” 

Obviously used to his younger sister’s antics, Halfred had plucked the wet towel out of the air with ease.  With a conspiratorial wink and a whispered, “Good luck,” he pushed it into Frodo hands and ushered him across the threshold into the steamy warmth of Bells kitchen.  “Yes Ma.  Sorry.  Here’s Master Frodo.”  

Bell beckoned from the other end of the huge scrubbed kitchen table, accepting the towel with a smile.  “Come in Young Master.  Take off yer jacket and have a seat.  I’m just waiting for the next lot of water to boil.  She fanned her red face with her apron and peered through the thick dimness of the small-windowed room. 

“Daisy lass.  Tis worse than wash day in here.  Go open the windows for a while to let some of the steam out afore we all drown.  And hang up this towel while ye’re at it.”

Frodo shrunk aside as Daisy moved to comply behind him, her skirts brushing his calves on the way past.  The room was a little over cluttered with furniture, but not enough to warrant her stepping quite that close.  He removed his jacket and took some time to drape it carefully across the table before perching nervously upon the end of a bench.

“Won’t be long now, Mr Frodo.  Mr Bilbo said yer hair could be cut dry, but we can see better what’s going on if it’s wet.  Daisy, have ye got the clean towels ready and the soft soap?  And for goodness sake, give those scissors a good rinse and wipe.”

Frodo winced as Daisy flounced onto the bench directly opposite him and began to wipe and clean the scissors.  He found his eyes drawn to the small smear of blood on the cloth, evidence of her last victim.  She met his eyes with a suggestive glint and ran the cloth slowly up and down one blade, then the other.  Frodo could feel himself blushing and tried to look anywhere else, without seeming impolite.

“Right now, come and help me fill the basin with hot water, Daisy . . . Daisy?”  Bell’s voice paused and even Frodo cringed at the final, “Daisy Gamgee.  Ye put those scissors down and come here at once.  And when ye’ve helped me with this ye can go and feed the sow.”

“Sow!  The lads always draw lots over that job when it’s hot.  It’s horrible.”  Nevertheless, Daisy helped her mother ladle hot and cold water into a large enamel basin on the table.  Her compliance did not win her a reprieve, however, for Bell handed over the bucket of slops. 

“Off ye go, lass.  And don’t forget yon sow likes a drink too.  As you say, tis a hot day.  Make sure she’s got some water.”  Her words were almost lost in the sound of the back door slamming.  Finally, it was just Frodo and Bell.  Frodo let out a long breath . . . blowing his fringe out of his eyes.

Bell slid the basin across the table.  “That lass will be the death of me,” she muttered as she turned back to the range.

Frodo sincerely hoped Bell was wrong but could well understand the sentiment as he stared at the firelight glinting on the blades of the scissors.  He tore his gaze away, trying not to consider his fate at the hands of Daisy Gamgee.  She had a reputation for a sharp tongue and in Frodo’s opinion putting a set of blades in her hand was asking for trouble.

A warm fire glowed in the kitchen range and a large iron casserole sat towards the back, its lid shuddering gently.  Bell lifted a cloth and moved the dish closer to the cooler edge of the hob, causing the lid to settle.  Still, from it arose the tantalising aroma of stewed rabbit and vegetables.  Doubtless a supper supplied by the nearby woods.

“Come round here, if ye please Master Frodo, and sit on the bench in front of the bowl,” Bell instructed.  “And slip off that fancy weskit.”

Frodo complied, a little warily.  Would he have to take his shirt off?  What would happen if Daisy returned?  He all but jumped when Bell’s work worn fingers began to tuck under the collar of his shirt.  She paused a moment then continued.  “We don’t want to get this wet now, do we?” she soothed.  “I usually make the youngsters take off their shirts but I reckon ye’ve got sense enough to sit still.”

Frodo breathed a small prayer of thanks to whichever of the Valar had the job of protecting young hobbit lads from the unwanted attentions of young hobbit lasses, wielding sharp scissors and sharper tongues.

Bell produced a small but exquisitely carved wooden comb and began to run it gently through Frodo’s dark curls.  He yipped as she found the first knot but once she had his measure Bell managed to untangle the rest relatively painlessly.  Frodo found himself surrendering to the process; the firm pressure of one hand upon his scalp while the other pulled the comb over a small area until a knot was worked out.  And then there were the long strokes as all the tangles were gone, the feeling of the teeth of the comb scraping lightly down his scalp in steady rhythm.  It all became quite soothing.

He blinked when she laid the comb aside, surprised to see how much of his hair was caught in the fine teeth.  Just how much hair did he have?  Perhaps she had already combed most of it away and Daisy would not have to cut any more off.  Bell knew nothing of his thoughts, placing firm hands on his shoulders and pushing down until Frodo’s head hung over the steaming basin.

“Here, lad.”  Frodo looked aside to find Bell offering him a folded facecloth and looked up at her in confusion.  “Hold it over yer eyes.  It’ll stop any stray runs of soap getting in.” 

Only half convinced of the efficacy of this suggestion, Frodo nonetheless held it in place.  Any attempt at keeping soap out of his eyes was better than none and his Aunt Calli had never even offered him the option.  His eyes used to tear for hours after she washed his hair.  Frodo had been washing his own hair ever since he came to Bag End.  He was a tween now, after all.  He removed the cloth and glanced up.  Whatever must Mistress Gamgee think of him?  “I can wash it myself, Mistress Gamgee.”

The cloth was guided back at once and Bell filled an old cracked cup from the basin before leaning over Frodo’s hunched shoulders.  “I’m sure ye can.  But I like washing hair.  Besides, knowing young lads I’ll warrant ye’ll have water all over my floor and yerself by the time ye’ve finished.”  She tweaked his ear playfully and then poured the warm water gently over Frodo’s head.  He was left with no option but to replace the cloth.

Warm.  The water flowed from the back of Frodo’s head and down to his temples, where it ran off back into the basin in little splashing trickles.  Bell’s fingers followed the path of the water across Frodo’s scalp, gently using liquid and hand to smooth the thick dark hair forward.  By the time she had his hair fully wet, Frodo was beginning to relax again, unresisting as her hand guided his head to one side or the other.

Aunt Rosemary had been the last person to wash and cut his hair and Frodo still shuddered at the memory of her rough handling.  He and Bilbo had been visiting Brandy Hall for Harvest Home and his elderly aunt had insisted that Frodo have his hair cut for the event.  Then she had proceeded to half drown and sheer him like some wayward sheep.

The wetting stopped and Frodo flinched as something cold was dabbed upon his head.  Sensing his reaction, Bell paused. 

“Tis alright Master Frodo.  ‘Tis just soap shavings softened in water a while.  ‘Tis easier than using a block of soap, though I confess it’s a bit cold.  It’ll warm when I lather it up.”

Without further ado, Bell’s strong fingers began to swirl in his hair, creating a thick, creamy lather that crackled in Frodo’s ears.  Any tension caused by the chill soap was soon worked away by the firm but gentle touch of Bell’s fingers and Frodo’s body drifted down closer to the bowl as the muscles of his back relaxed. 

Aunt Rosemary’s hands had scrubbed and tugged but this was a slow massage of kindly fingers.  Frodo was glad that his face was hidden and he swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat as he remembered another’s touch.  Aunt Esmeralda loved him, to be sure, but he was one of several youngsters fostered in her care.  She had little time to provide the individual love of a mother.  For a moment a need to be cherished warred with the need to show that he was an adult.  The need for the touch of a mother’s hands won and he was glad of the facecloth covering his watering eyes.

Bell seemed to sense his mood and continued to rub her fingers across his scalp in silence for a few minutes before starting the first rinsing.  “There, now, lad.  That’s the soaping done so ye can let go that cloth if ye like, while I get fresh water.”

Frodo peeled it away, to find his nose scant inches above the cloudy water.  He had not the time to contemplate it, however, as Bell draped a warm towel over his head and slid the basin away.

“Now just ye sit there while I fill this for the last rinse.” 

Frodo felt no inclination to do otherwise.  The room was warm and still damp and the air was a strange mixture of lavender scented soap and rabbit stew.  For a moment he imagined that the feet moving around on the flagstone floor behind him had burnt chestnut hair instead of rich loam brown.  But then the basin, filled with fresh, steaming water, was slid back by Bell’s lined, square hands.  His mother’s hands had been smooth and long fingered.

“Let’s just add a drop of this to cut through the last of that soap.”  A slightly pungent liquid was poured into the water and Frodo sniffed tentatively.  It actually didn’t smell too bad.

“What is it?”

“Tis just cider vinegar.  Soap can be nasty stuff to get out of yer hair.  Ye’d best put that facecloth back.  Don’t want vinegar in yer eyes.”

The air felt cold on Frodo’s scalp as Bell lifted the towel but the chill was soon washed away by the warm water running over it once more.  Frodo surrendered to the sensation of water running through his hair, chased by Bell’s capable fingers.  He could hear the squeak of clean hair as she combed her fingers through; the sound setting his teeth on edge.  Too soon, it seemed to him, the rinsing stopped and his head was draped in a warmed dry towel.  Frodo abandoned his face cloth.

“Up ye come, lad and let’s see how long this tangle really is.”  He lifted his head slowly, watching little motes of light dance before his eyes for a moment as his body adjusted to the change in position.  Once more Bell’s fingers massaged his scalp, this time through the fabric of the towel, and Frodo could not help a pleasurable smile at the relaxing feel of it.  Bilbo loved him dearly; he had no doubt of that.  But only a mother could give this kind of loving touch, and he had missed it for far too many years.

A nagging worry began to make itself felt however, as he considered what Daisy would make of the cutting.  Hers was anything but a mother’s touch.  But there was no sign of Daisy’s return and it was Bell that set the scissors on the table before him.

Bell pushed the basin out of the way and removed the towel.  Then she reached aside for a small glass bottle.  Opening it, she dabbed a little of the contents onto a finger and rubbed the pale glistening drop of liquid into her palms.  Frodo recognised the scent of lavender as Bell began to smooth her palms over his hair.

“This will help ease out the tangles and make it shine. ‘Tis just oil with a touch of lavender to make it smell nicer. Although I don’t think ye need any help with the shine. Ye’ve got a fine head of hair.”  She took up the comb again, having pulled out the fluff of hair from her previous attempt at ordering, and ran it through his now damp locks.  To Frodo’s relief, any tangles were soon dealt with and he could feel the teeth of the fine comb running from crown to nape with no resistance. 

Bell’s deft fingers pushed up the hair at his crown several times until she found the little whorl of growth that marked the natural centre and combed the thick, almost black hair out smoothly from it in all directions.  Then she fished about in her apron pocket and produced two smaller combs, which she set upon the table.  These were not as fine as the one she had used before, obviously carved from animal bone and with some of their teeth missing.

Once more, Frodo responded trustingly to the confident fingers that tilted his head forward, hoping against hope that it would be Bell cutting his hair.  He felt her run the comb across his neck and then blinked in surprise as first one and then the other of the old combs disappeared and he felt them tucked into his hair, holding the upper part out of the way.  He swallowed hard as the feel of a similar touch flashed through his mind.  Frodo tried to place the errant memory. 

Aunt Callendula had always sat a pudding basin on his head and cut around it.  Frodo cringed at the memory and the teasing he used to get from the other lads.  Aunt Rosemary just seemed to take up random chunks of hair and chop them off.  It didn’t look too bad when it had grown out after a couple of weeks but for the first few days it stuck up on end in every direction which, when combined with his large blue eyes, gave him a permanently startled look.  A small tear ran down Frodo’s cheek as the memory finally settled into place.  Mamma’s combs had been delicately carved from dark wood but she had used them in this same way.

Bell pushed his head a little further forward and Frodo felt the blade of the scissors slip along the skin at his neck . . . heard the long quiet crunch . . . and felt the tiny wet feathers of liberated hair settle coldly upon the sensitive flesh of his nape.  Using the corner of a towel, Bell brushed the leavings away, moving to deal similarly with the other half of the layer.  The next layer was sectioned off and Frodo resisted the slight tension as Bell pulled it away from his scalp between her fingers and snipped.  This process was repeated over and over as Bell’s gentle and comfortable fingers worked meticulously up his head, layer by layer.  And all through the process, Frodo’s tears tracked silently down his cheeks.  So long . . . so long since he had been the recipient of such tender attention.

“Well now, that’s the back done,” Bell announced.  “Turn around and stand up to face me now, and I’ll do the sides and front, Frodo, lad.”  Bell had gradually lost all the formality between servant and young master as she worked, so absorbed was she in the task.  Frodo sniffed and tried to wipe his tears away before standing, hoping that Bell would see it as him disposing of a stray hair or two.

Standing, he was almost Bell’s height nowadays, and when he turned he found himself looking into her warm eyes.  Frodo dropped his gaze when he saw concern settle there.  He knew at once that he had not fooled her.  “I’m sorry, Mistress Gamgee.”

“Whatever is the matter, lad.  Did I tug too hard?”

“Oh, no,” Frodo rushed to reassure her.  “I’m being silly, I’m afraid.  It’s just . . . just . . . that you reminded me of . . . Mamma.” 

There was only a moment’s pause before he was enveloped in soft strong arms, his nose buried in the warm linen of Bell’s neckerchief, inhaling the motherly scents of soap and baked bread.  Frodo let out a strangled little sob and leaned instinctively into the embrace, wrapping his arms around her ample waist. 

“And why should ye be sorry for rememberin’ yer Mamma?” Bell murmured as she rocked gently, in the instinctive way of all mothers.  “Ye hold on to them memories, lad.  Treasure them and don’t ever be ashamed when they come up on ye unawares.  Them’s the memories that’ll help ye through the bad times.”

The words poured into Frodo’s mind like fresh spring rain on parched grass.  “I . . . I didn’t want to embarrass you.  I’m supposed to be a grown tween.  Crying is for faunts, or so my Uncle Saradas said.”

Bell pushed him back gently and lifted his chin with a touch of her hand.  “Well now, I don’t hold with young lads crying at every little thing.  And I’m not so grand thinkin’ as yer Uncle Saradas, I reckon.  But the loss of a mother . . . ‘tis not what I’d call a little thing and it don’t do no good to hold all that pain inside.  Ye’ll find many an old gaffer dropping a tear or two, so don’t ye ever be ashamed of cryin’.”  She blotted his face with a corner of her apron.  “And ye won’t never embarrass me.  I’ve raised bairns and seen enough of life to know all about tears.”  Bell smiled softly and Frodo found himself smiling back.  He took a deep breath, feeling as though a tight weskit had suddenly been undone, so that he could inhale the full glory of the air around him.

Bell smoothed down her apron and picked up the scissors once more.  “Now.  Let’s cut the rest of this hair.  Mister Bilbo said he wanted to see them blue eyes of yours again and I can see why.  I’m thinkin’ ye’ll have no problems finding dancin’ partners at Ferdy Brownside’s birthday party next week.”

Frodo blushed and his smile widened into a grin as Bell lifted her combs. 

“When I’ve finished this we’ll have a nice cup of tea and an apple tart, afore my brood start coming back and demanding their supper.”  She lifted the scissors to his brow.  “Close yer eyes so I don’t get any clippings in them.”

Frodo obeyed willingly and felt her begin to section off some hair from the crown as she continued. 

“And mayhap, when ye open them again the world will look a bit better.”

 

 




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