Nothing of Note

by Primula

50: Gossip's Race

Three days later as the sun began its climb into a somewhat hazy summer sky,  Bilbo and Frodo packed up their two large baskets of food for themselves and to share, gathered up a clean tablecloth and headed for the field below the Hill to join in on the monthly town picnic. 

Bilbo scuffed his feet thorough the last of the dew.  It promised to be a warm day, a bit humid but fair. He figured it wouldn't be uncomfortable if there was enough shade to be had.

"Whoop. You're dragging the tablecloth." said Frodo behind him. He looked down and gathered up the trailing end where it was bumping along behind him over the grass.  Carefully leaping over the small ditch that bordered the field, he tried not to stumble over the berm of dried grasses that yet lay where they had been cut. The goats hadn't had time to eat their way this far down the road yet.

He turned to place a steadying hand on Frodo's arm as the lad struggled up after him, lugging the larger of the baskets. "Looks like we're not the first ones here."

"Still, I don't really see why we needed to be here so early.  Breakfast is barely past."

"All the better. I've arranged for us to have a table set up in a nice shady place, and don't want anyone else to get to it first.  It's going to be a long day, and the early bird gets the worm and all that."

"I can't say I've ever been too interested in worms." Frodo replied. He shifted the weight of the basket to his other arm and then bent to pick up the soiled tablecloth tail that was trailing once again.  "But if you really think this rising with the birds is worth the effort..."

"It is. Just over there. Ah, I see someone's been here before us but not to steal our seats.  Daisy's work, most likely."

Frodo smiled at the wooden picnic table.  It sat, weathered silver in the morning sun right next to the leafy hedge. The later hours would shade it nicely. A bright, clean tablecloth has already been smoothed into place over the top and a vase of Bilbo's own roses, lifting from a froth of primulas and sweetpeas shone from the exact center.  Next to them a small basket overflowed with fruit and vegetables from his own garden. Bilbo dropped his basket down on the bench and sniffed the flowers appreciatively.

"Ahh. Very nice. And it looks like we don't need a tablecloth after all."

"Just as well." said Frodo wryly, setting down his own burden and examining the browned end of the one they had brought with them.  He sat down at the table, leaned on one elbow and looked around the green, his curls glowing chestnut in the morning sun. Bilbo sat and rummaged through the basket to pull out a couple of books and some notepaper he had brought along to pass the time, watching the youth from the corner of his eye.  It was hard to believe he had ever been so young, he thought. Where had the years gone?

Like many of the Shire's larger towns, Hobbiton held an informal picnic for anyone who cared to come at the end of each month, at least during the warmer months; families came from around nearby area mostly, each bringing their own provender and sometimes extra to share if they could. Children ran about shouting with their mouths full of food and their hands covered in grass and dirt and if the weather was favorable they might continue until past their bedtime.

Bilbo only rarely attended the picnics. They had seemed more a social event for those with growing families to him, but this time it looked to be a perfect way to informally introduce much of the town to his young cousin that they had heard so much about but knew very little of.  He knew the gossips would be busy as bees over clover in having him there. But this time it was that very buzz that he hoped to feed and direct a bit, so it was for the good.

For the first hour there were not too many others there, and he and Frodo passed the time in companionable reading and writing.  Other hobbits began to arrive, in pairs, in handfuls or in large family groups and the visiting and small talk of the day began.

Frodo seemed uncomfortable with the socializing at first, aware that he was being put on display. For the most part he stayed near the table where Bilbo sat, sharing the savoury chicken pie, fruit and cakes that they had brought and making small conversation. He and Bilbo were viewed curiously from afar by many that came to settle themselves upon whatever bit of grass seemed the most sweet to them, and not so afar from others who boldly came up to greet them and to surreptiously eye Frodo. Bilbo made no bones about introducing him, being sure they all knew that he was a legitimate relative and well-approved of.  Frodo kept his own thoughts on this affair to himself, responding politely only when necessary.

"Mr. Baggins!" said yet another well-aproned lady, two smudged children clinging to her skirts and a small babe in her arms. "It's such a nice surprise to have you here today. And such a fine day for a picnic, isn't it?"

"Why, yes, Mrs. Hornblower. It is a very fine day. May I introduce my cousin, Frodo Baggins?"

"Oh, most pleased to make your acquaintance. How very nice that you can come spend some time here in Hobbiton. I do trust you are enjoying your stay?"

"Very much, thank you." said Frodo somewhat neutrally. "Pleased to make your acquaintance also."

"And are you staying long?"

Frodo glanced at Bilbo. "At least until the end of this month, ma'am."

"You're staying at Bag End, then?"

"Yes ma'am." Frodo said. How many times had he said that now?

"He 's staying with me," said Bilbo in his firm and friendly manner. "Of course, seeing as Bag End will be his own home someday."  He watched the now expected voiceless flutter at this. "He is a Baggins, after all."

"But of course! How pleasant that must be...." Her further comment was drowned out as the babe in her arms suddenly awoke and began to squall. "I'm sorry. If you'll excuse me..."

They watched her move on, towing the smaller ones in her wake. Frodo looked at Bilbo.

"They're all asking the same thing, just in different ways." he said a touch wearily.

"Yes. It's as I expected. That's why we're here. I am sorry that it can't be a more enjoyable time for you. Of course, you don't have to sit here with me the whole time you know.  I expect they might ask the same of me even if you were simply somewhere hereabout. You ought to walk around."

Frodo looked out, around the green. "What about the Sackville-Bagginses?"

"I haven't seen them yet, but I would be most surprised if they don't show up now that we're here. Even if they weren't planning on it, they'll be along once word reaches them. Now, go on. Stretch your legs a bit while you can. We've still several gossipers to go."

"You don't encourage me with that news. But all right...just a bit..." He gave Bilbo a half-smile and wandered along the hedge.

And so it continued. The late morning was already drawing on into an early warm afternoon before the Sackville-Bagginses arrived. They came onto the green very pointedly as far away from Bilbo's table as they could get and still be in the soft part of the close-mown grass. Seeing as this placed them on the eastern side, their late arrival and choice of seat meant there would be no shade for them at all.  Bilbo's carefully chosen spot afforded more and more shade as the afternoon heat came on, and he wondered how long it would be before their pride would melt in the heat enough to seek out the shade on "his" side. 

Frodo had wandered somewhat aimlessly for a time then drifted back to their table to read a little and answer more repetitious questions as they were asked of him.  The two of them were enjoying a break in the flow of questioning when the SB's settled in.  Bilbo chewed on slices of apple and sharp cheese, watching as the various known gossips casually flitted across the green, bobbing from family to family like bees gathering nectar, all with the goal of reaching Lobelia. 

He nudged Frodo. "Watch this, Frodo-lad. You see that lady over there, with the striped green apron? She's one of the mainstay gossips I mentioned to you. And that one over there in the brown also.  That's Opal Grubb, Lobelia's neighbor. A third one is way over there, with the orange-and-rust. See? Yes, that one. Now watch them. Lobelia is over to that side, and they all want to talk to her. But they don't want to be too forward about it, so they can't just run an honest footrace. Watch now, see how they work their way along? Bet you that last berry tart that the one in brown gets there first."

Frodo considered them, but seemed too weary to be able to enjoy the jest. "I suppose. Are they also wanting to talk to Lobelia about me?"

Bilbo looked at him sharply. "Probably. You and me both. What else? We can't stop their tongues. But you needn't be fretting, and you can't give out on me yet. Buck up, now; we've still much of the day left."  He reached over and tipped up the lad's chin until he met his eyes.  "When all is said and done, it's character and reputation that will win out. The whole town knows Lobelia is sour. And if you can stick it out just a little longer, your own character will outshine her sourness. They just need time. Let your worries go. It isn't worth it."  He lowered his hand and gave him a small, encouraging smile.

Frodo took a breath and slowly let it out. "I'm sorry, Bilbo. You're doing your part, and I'll try to do mine." He managed a slight smile back. "You were saying about the gossips?"

Bilbo relaxed. "That's more like it. Now, watch carefully, for a berry tart hangs in the balance and I'm likely to get it if you aren't sharp!  Look, the brown one is getting ahead. See? I thought she would."

Frodo considered them for a moment. "The orange one is having trouble getting away from her children, I think." he said.

"Yes, she needs to take a lesson from the green one and just dump them on their da."

"How can you do that, Bilbo?"

"Do what? Dump children on their da?"

Frodo smiled. "No. How can you just...not let it matter to you that they're all talking about you that way?"

Bilbo finished his apple slices thoughtfully. "I'll have to think on that." He crunched the apple and reached for the rest of the cheese slices.

"I remember that I used to care about what they said. I used to care quite a lot, but that was before my Adventure." He quirked an eye at his cousin. "Perhaps by the time I had seen so many other things in this wide world, their small opinions just didn't seem so big anymore. They change all the time anyway."

The lad still looked a bit too concerned, and Bilbo searched for the words to convey his conviction, to erase that shadow in his eyes.  "It's like a sport to them, telling tales about others.  You and I just happen to be some of the characters in their tales right now. They're just telling stories, and we are in them.  It will change to someone else after a while and you know what? The Shire and Hobbiton and even Bag End will still be exactly the same as it was before they ever started talking. They're just... noise, a wind going past. Mayflies. Cut-flowers. It really doesn't matter. The only time someone's opinion about you should matter is when it comes from someone who really knows you, really, truly does. Someone you can trust to tell you the truth. All the others shouldn't bear any more weight than a butterfly's wing, and should bother you just as much."

Frodo silently met his eyes, then looked out over the sunlit green again, but his shoulders had relaxed. Bilbo followed his gaze. Lobelia sat, small in the distance, with her yellow skirts puffed out around her and looking for all the world like a butter pat melting in the sun. Her umbrella popped up as a sun parasol. "The queen bee. The worker-bees will reach her soon enough."

Frodo had to smile again at that. "They're still working at it. Though I think your brown one is falling behind. The green one will get there first."

Bilbo was glad he was willing. It wasn't always easy to make light of something. Sometimes it could be much harder than being serious. "Perhaps she will. Is it a bet then?"

"Perhaps." Frodo smile lingered a moment. "I'll try to do as you said, to not let it bother me. I'm just not used to being the subject of tales, I guess. At least not from hobbits I hardly even know."

"Your skin will thicken in time. After a while you'll wonder that you ever let them trouble you."

"I hope so."

"Aha - there goes the orange one." Bilbo pointed. "She's trying to make up for lost time. See? She's pretending she needs to borrow something at the other side or some such... see how she's going along with a purpose, but not quite towards Lobelia?  Good strategy. I don't think it'll quite be enough though. The others will still be closer."

Frodo joined in the game. "I say the green one will be there first."

"I still say the brown."

"Green is nodding her head, moving away from that group...."

"Where? Ah, yes, I see."

"Go on, Green, you can do it. Two more families.... "

"Go, Brown...good lass, yes, pass that one by with a simple smile and wave, keep on... No, no, don't let that one stop you with her jams..."

"Come on, Green. Come on. You don't really need to say more than 'Good afternoon' do you? What are you talking about? Move on!"

"No, no more jams, Brown. Keep your eye on the goal. Yes, look at Lobelia. Good, good... make your exit..."

"Green, why are you still standing there? Lobelia is so close and you only need to get past this last family! Uh oh, watch out, here comes Orange."

Bilbo thumped the table. "Brown, Orange is coming up from behind! Don't let her trump you. Go on, now. Go on - yes! Nod, smile, say goodbye. Good job. Now amble, amble. Amble faster."

"Green, don't you see her? Yes, there she is. Orange is right there. Move! Good, good. Walk faster, can't you?"

"Quick, someone intercept Orange, anyone! Yes, oh good. Well done, child. Good intercept. Hold her skirts tighter." Bilbo grinned. "I think I'm going to have that tart."

"Not yet you aren't... Go, Green... No, no, don't look at Brown. Look at Lobelia.  Yes, pretend you don't see Brown there...."

"Brown, don't stop! No, that tipped basket can just stay tipped. To Lobelia, quick!"

Both Bilbo and Frodo were now about halfway up from their seats. There was only about three yards left and both of their chosen gossips were on a slow collision course of sorts.

"Green!" said Frodo.

"Brown!" said Bilbo

"Agh!" they both said together as Green and Brown met and began exchanging pleasantries with each other, mere yards from Lobelia while the Orange one swept past them to victory, a medium-sized child still towed along in her skirts.

Frodo and Bilbo looked at one another. They looked at the honey-crusted berry tart.

Bilbo picked up a knife. "Split it?"

Frodo grinned, took the knife from him and carefully cut the tart in two. He licked berry syrup from his fingers. "That was fun."

"Much better than agonizing over it." agreed Bilbo, picking up the half he perceived to be ever-so-slightly larger.  "A little honey does wonders to remove the sting."