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An Unexpected Party
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
An Unexpected Party

The elderly gentleman in the worn tweed jacket jerked upright as he woke, with a start, from his doze in the warm corner.

Wha? - where? Dear me, did I doze off?...

He frowned as he slowly surfaced, blinking, trying to work out how long he might have been asleep.

"Where am I, and what is the time?" he said aloud to the ceiling. The yellowing plaster overhead, gently toasted by decades of woodsmoke and tobacco, was comforting and familiar; and a steady tick, tock drew his eyes around to the great round wood-framed clock which informed him that it was just after half past eleven in the morning. Shifting a little on the well-stuffed green leather bench, taking in the dark panelling and the faded hunting prints on the walls, he felt his momentary confusion ebb away.

You're in the front snug of the Bird and Baby, you fool. Just for confirmation, he twisted around until through the thick, uneven glass of the window he could glimpse the pub sign where it hung outside above the door, with its giant, golden Eagle bearing in its talons a child-sized burden. You just dozed off over your pint. But then... "Jack? Warnie?"

No, no, that wasn't right, memory nudged at him. Jack was gone, years ago... How long? Why was it he could never quite keep dates straight these days? He shook his head, mildly exasperated at the depredations of age. Ah well, it seems I am on my own. At least no-one has pinched my pint. He took a long gulp at the glowing golden-brown bitter in his glass - they still keep decent beer in here, at any rate - and glanced about him. The pub was quiet; looking through the doorway across into the main bar he could just glimpse a group of lads at one table, the one closest to him sporting a rather splendid green waistcoat; four curly heads leaning close together as though sharing a joke. At the far end of the bar, a huddled, grey-bearded figure in some sort of long coat was deep in an intense discussion with a pair of unseen companions on his far side.

There was only one other drinker in the snug; one of those motor-biker fellows, the Professor supposed, noticing the long leather-clad legs and worn boots stretching out from beneath the far table. Needs a shave. He was pleasantly surprised to see the shaggy-haired biker take a long-stemmed pipe from a pocket and begin filling it with care. Didn't think anyone younger than I smoked proper pipe-weed any more. He nodded to the taciturn figure, and was rewarded with the smallest inclination of the head and - was that a slight twinkle in the hooded eyes?

He turned to gaze out of the window again; out on to Saint Giles where people hurried past, umbrellas and hoods up against the dreary Oxford drizzle. Never knew such a place as this for damp. It gets in your bones. The ivy spreading across the dull brown stone of St John's opposite was a leafless tangle of dead stems, and the branches of the plane trees stood stark against the grey sky. Winter, then. Students tearing up and down on bikes, in striped scarves and the now-ubiquitous denim jeans, shoppers loaded down with bags. There seemed to be a fearful lot of motor-cars parked up and down the street, sleek modern-looking monsters; surely there aren't usually that many of the blasted things? Ridiculous. Belching out fumes worse than any dragon's. Minds of metal and wheels. He suppressed a sigh, watching cars and bicycles and pedestrians rushing up and down. Everyone is in more and more of a hurry. Does anyone even have time for stories any more? For the great tales and the old songs? No, you old fool, all the lays and the legends you loved are gone, and none remain who remember them. Who now cares for high and stirring tales of heroes, and great deeds of Elves and Dwarves and Men?

A burst of laughter, and a snort as though it had been hastily suppressed, brought his wandering thoughts back to the Bird and Baby with a start. There had been something about that laugh! Something so - so merry... He craned his neck and shifted forward a little on his leather-covered bench to see into the main bar. As the little group of four at their table came into better view, he was suddenly struck by how small they seemed, their eager hands barely able to circle their pint glasses. Something about those short, stocky figures seemed terribly familiar... and then one of the four, slapping his chuckling sidekick on the back, began to clamber down from the tall barstool on which he was sitting at the table, an empty pint mug carefully clutched in each hand, and in spite of himself the Professor gasped aloud.

Bare feet. Great, bare, hairy... Hobbit feet!

Before he could get more than half out of his seat, however, there was a moment of chilly draught, swinging the door of the snug wide, as the outside door of the pub was thrown wide open. A deep, grumbling voice like the far rumbles of thunder in the mountains suddenly came into hearing, answered by another as light and laughing as a stream tumbling down from the hills. For a moment the low yellow light of the lamps glinted on a smooth fall of hair and gleamed on metal. His heart leapt. No - surely? It can't be!

He became suddenly acutely aware of being watched, and dragged his attention back into the snug. A pair of very keen grey eyes were turned on him from the shadows of the corner where the pipe-smoker observed from beneath his shaggy black locks. A long, steady draw on the pipe, and then - one, two, no, three smoke-rings, dancing one through another on their way to the ceiling...

He looked again, scarcely able to credit his eyes. When he tried to speak, he croaked, and had to cough and clear his throat.

"Aragorn?..."

One dark brow quirked, and the corner of the sensitive mouth curled upwards in pleasure.

"Mae govannen, Professor."

"But - well, I am blessed! In the name of all that's wonderful - Aragorn, my dear, dear fellow! But I do not understand - how? The pub - the landlord - "

"Oh, you mustn't worry about the landlord, Professor!" Red waistcoat fought blue to get through the doorway, buttons nearly bursting in the effort to be first, as Pippin and Merry came tumbling into the snug. "He doesn't notice a thing, and won't mind a bit - I think Gandalf has had a word with him - "

"Gandalf?" The Professor's astonishment could surely grow no greater.

"Indeed, sir! I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!" For a moment the doorway was entirely blocked, as the great grey figure of the wizard loomed to fill it; then as Merry and Pippin scrambled out from under his feet he drew up a stool and took his seat beside the Professor, eyes twinkling from under enormous bushy brows, and took out his own pipe. "You did not think I would miss your party, for your eleventy-first birthday?"

"Eleventy-first? Eleventy-one? Good heavens; good gracious me..."

"Eleventy-one, indeed, Professor, and my heartiest congratulations!" Gandalf's companion at the bar had followed him in, grey curls bobbing merrily, golden buttons glinting on his beautifully embroidered silk waistcoat. "Eleventy-one, and yet your shadow never dims!"

They were all crowding into the snug, now, which surely could never have seen such an extraordinary collection of characters; Gandalf blowing smoke-rings on one side of the Professor, Bilbo on his other side, Merry and Pippin tussling over possession of the spot next to Bilbo. Boromir leaned against the doorframe, seemingly a little uncertain about joining the group, until Aragorn pulled him into a great bearhug and made room for him at his table. Frodo had quietly moved up another stool, drawing a reticent Sam along to sit beside him, and sat sipping a pint, dark eyes dancing with entertainment. Leaving his gleaming axe carefully stowed in the corner behind the door and his green hood hanging on the coat-stand, Gimli stumped in to stand beside the fire, and swept the Professor a bow so low that his elaborately braided beard swept the ground. "At your service and your family's, Professor. I am honoured beyond measure to have the opportunity to greet you upon this auspicious day."

"The.. the honour is mine, Gimli son of Glóin," the Professor murmured, still somewhat dazed.

"Though why I had to bring that great overgrown sapling with me - " rumbled Gimli, indicating the slender figure of Legolas, gracefully ducking his silken head to pass beneath the lintel.

"So that all the Fellowship might be here to greet the Professor, you ungrateful son of the mountains," the Elf retorted with a grin. "Professor, a star shines upon the hour of our meeting." He coughed delicately. "Even if she must shine through the fog brought down by all these smokers of infernal weed!"

"Come now, Legolas, you cannot refuse the Professor a pipe on his eleventy-first birthday!" Bilbo protested. "Not when we have filled one with best Longbottom Leaf especially for him!" He held out a beautifully carved pipe, chased with gleaming silver around the top of the bowl; the Professor lit it almost reverently and puffed appreciatively.

"Longbottom Leaf, indeed! How extraordinary... " Am I dreaming? he wondered. Or hallucinating? and discovered that he really did not care.

Most agreeably the day wore away with tale-telling and reminiscence. As lunchtime came around Merry and Pippin took themselves off for a word with the barman, who appeared shortly afterwards bearing plates laden with bread, cheeses, salads and a whole variety of chutneys and pickles. His face wore a faintly glazed expression, as though he was not quite taking in all he saw. The Company fell to with a will, though none as willingly as the hobbits, who approved heartily and loudly.

"Not quite as good as Mrs. Maggot's pickles, perhaps," Merry allowed cheerily, "but then what pickle ever was?"

The Professor eagerly questioned Aragorn on the finer details of Gondor's doings after the War; Gimli launched into an account of the colonisation of the Glittering Caves, punctuated by comments from Legolas. Much prompted by Frodo, Sam attempted to describe Valinor to Merry and Pippin, but soon ground to a halt, ending wistfully with:

"I always thought Caras Galadhon - you remember, Master Merry, the great hill in Lothlórien - was more Elvish and more like being inside a song than anything I'd ever known. But Valinor, now - well, that's being inside the Great Music itself, somehow, greater than all the great stories, and there aren't words in any mortal tongue to describe it, and that's a fact."

All the great stories. A faraway look came over the Professor's features. The Two Trees, and the Silmarils; Beren One-Hand and Lúthien Tinuviel; the War of the Ring. I wrote them down, I told them, as faithfully as I could. Yet who now remembers them?

"Oh, but they do remember, Professor!" He had not realised he had spoken aloud until Frodo broke in. "All the stories you told for them; of Valinor and Middle-earth, from before the First Age all the way to the Third, and Uncle Bilbo's adventures, and the Fellowship -"

"Well, you and Bilbo between you wrote that last one, my dear Frodo," the Professor pointed out gently. "All I did was to transcribe it, and full of errors too I daresay - to say nothing of all the "corrections" introduced by those fools of publishers and proofreaders down the years! Elfish indeed!" He snorted into his beer.

"But it is true, Professor," Aragorn added. "That is what we came to tell you when we so rudely disturbed your sleep; your works are not forgotten. You told all our stories, and for that we are forever in your debt; and the words you wrote are still inspiring millions, though in a world changed beyond recognition since our Age."

"Even if some of their inspirations are somewhat...odd," murmured Frodo, glancing sidelong at Aragorn and at Legolas, who looked daggers at him as only an Elf can. Gimli's great broad shoulders began to shake silently. The Professor decided this was not a line to pursue.

"The great stories do not end, my friend," said Gandalf gently. "Our part in them may be done, yet the tale goes on; and thanks to you our tales will be told and re-told so long as the world lasts."

The Professor nodded slowly. Contentment washed over him in a warm wave, and he suddenly felt very tired. Around him the Company talked on softly. Only when his chin had finally fallen on to his chest, and they were certain that he was once more deeply asleep, did they get up from their stools, collect hoods and cloaks and weapons, and slip quietly out of the warm, well-lit inn and back into the darkness.

~~~

Author's Notes:

The "Bird and Baby": the Eagle and Child pub, on St Giles in Oxford, England. One of Tolkien's favoured drinking haunts in younger days.

"Jack and Warnie": C.S. Lewis, writer and Oxford academic, and his brother Major Warren Lewis, both members of the informal "Inklings" writing club which frequently met and drank at the Eagle and Child. C.S. Lewis died in Oxford in 1963 and Warren Lewis in 1973.

Written as a 111th birthday tribute to Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892-1973.


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