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In a hole, in a highly desirable and sought-after portion of the ground (the hole two doors along went for three hundred thou last month, near enough, although admittedly it was double-fronted and had a newly turfed roof) lived a soddit, the hero of our story. His name was Bingo “Sac” Grabbings. Not a name he chose for himself, of course, but one decided on by his mother. Easy for her to say, of course; she didn’t have to live with it all through school and adult life. Parents, eh?
Where was I? Oh, yes.
In a hole, then, lived Bingo. It was a fair-to-middling soddit hole, with a circular blue-painted door, fine blue tiles in the bathroom with a cheesy blue mould growing on them, blue beetles, silverfish, silvery worms, all manner of moistness and a kitchen area from which it was next to impossible to clear out cooking smells. Nevertheless in soddit terms it was a reasonably desirable residence. Bingo’s aunt, the severe Vita “Sac” Vile-Vest, had designs upon this very sod-hole, although Bingo was in no mood to give way to pressure from that branch of the family. He was a soddit of forty, which in soddit years was next to nothing, a mere bagatelle, less than a bagatelle in fact; well, technically about four fifths of a bagatelle, but still young, that’s my point.
Soddits are a race of little people who live in the earth, which is where their name comes from (you’ll learn a lot about names and where they come from if you pay attention as you read, believe me). Scholars and philologists have established the derivation of the name, evidenced by an ancient rhyme:
Cleave the sod with your trusty spade
Dig out a house that’s quite like a grave
And should your neighbour not return your wave
Cleave the sod with your trusty spade
Now it is an interesting thing that soddits don’t tend to call themselves “soddits,” for reasons I’ll come to in a minute. But “soddit” is the generally accepted term. Once upon a time a traveller from the country of the bigger people roamed far and wide through the country of the littler folk, through the County of the Hunchkins, Shrimpville, Littleputia, the Land of the Lepercorns, Jockeyton, and into Hobbld-Ahoy!, the home town of Bingo, the hero of our tale. On his return to the human town of Brie this big ’un traveller found his way to a tavern, and sat meditating on his adventures, and his fellow big ’uns gathered around him curious as to what he had seen. “What did you discover?” they pressed him. “Who did you encounter?” “I met a—” he started to reply, and drew a great shuddering sigh into his body, before concluding in a lowered tone, “soddit,” and reaching for his tankard of ale. The name of the particular soddit he encountered has not been recorded, but it was clearly a meeting that had a profound impact upon the big man, for he stayed inside the Dragon-Queen Inn at Brie for two days and two nights drinking all the time and speaking to nobody, and soon afterwards left the area never to return.
Soddits build the accommodation portion of their houses under the ground, and they build their coal-cellars, wine rooms and sometimes large rooms with ping-pong tables in them above the ground. They insist that this is the most logical manner of arranging living space, and indeed Hobbld-Ahoy! planning regulations have made any other form of domestic building illegal, although this does tend to result in living quarters prone to damp, to worms, to mould, to associated asthma and bronchitis for the inhabitants, whilst coal, wine and ping-pong bats are the most burgled items in this burglary-prone town. But a tradition, after all, is a tradition.
Soddits, as I say, don’t call themselves soddits. In their own tongue, which is queer and old and full of syntactical-grammatical inconsistencies, they call themselves hobblds. Now, there’s a reason why they refer to themselves in this manner, and not by the name of soddit like everybody else in the world, and the reason is found in their feet. Shocking feet, they have. Just shocking. Whatever the reason—and soddits down the ages have blamed the gods, or an ancient wizard’s curse, or inadequate orthopaedic practice, or congenital disease, or a dozen other factors—whatever the reason, soddits are almost all of them afflicted with appalling arthritis of the feet. Their feet are swollen and gnarled, many three or four times their normal size, with toes like coconuts and ankles like condoms stuffed with pebbles. This arthritis is extremely painful, and is indeed no laughing matter, although queerly it is a condition that does not spread to any other part of their body. But it gives their feet a strangely deadened, different colour from the rest of their bodies. Moreover, it makes it impossible for the adult soddit to wear shoes, for the pressure of leather against the inflated flesh of the feet is too, too ghastly. This means that the diminutive folk walk only with difficulty and excessive slowness; and accordingly adult soddits spend much of their time searching for the cushion of perfect softness, making little grunts as they collapse into their sofas and using their hands physically to lift their feet on to their footstools.
And now you know everything that you need to know about soddits, or hobblds, excepting only one or two minor details, such as the fact that they are food-loving and drink-loving and enjoy conviviality. And that they like to wear waistcoats and corduroy. Oh, yes, and that they smoke pipeweed a great deal and that accordingly they die younger than they otherwise would of cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat as well as of heart disease. What else? That they are conservative, rural, bourgeois, middle class. That they speak with a slight Birmingham accent, oddly. And, also, that despite their manifest disadvantages—their diminutive stature, their crippled elephantiasitic feet, their small-mindedness, their disinclination to listen to strangers or change old ways, their addiction to tobacco and alcohol, their stagnant class-ridden “respectability”—despite all this, they have developed the most modern semi-industrial culture in the whole world, with water-mills, steam-foundries, comfortable housing, pipes, pop-guns, spectacles, velvet clothes, charming little flintstone churches, books and fireworks, whilst the rest of Upper Middle Earth is languishing in the dark ages of swords, horses, and burying their dead under enormous mounds of earth. Funny that. But, you see, the ways of the world are strange and sometimes inexplicable.
Bingo was sitting on his most comfortable sofa one morning, with his poor swollen arthritic feet resting on a green velvet cushion on the footstool in front of him. He was staring at the knuckled toe joints of these feet, the place where the individual toes meet the body of the foot, and these joints were staring back at him, like ten radishes. He was feeling the full weight of the misery of existence, poor old Bingo.
There was a series of bangs on the door, loud and startling, the sort of noise that might be made by a naughty soddit child stuffing a firecracker in the keyhole, lighting it, running away, hearing the disappointingly soggy pop, coming back vexed and kicking the door off its hinges with his as-yet unspoiled, bovver-booted feet. Young people today, eh? What can you do? Tch.
Bingo sighed. “Go away,” he called. After a pause he added, “Go away.”
The banging continued on the front door.
There was nothing for it. Bingo got slowly to his feet, and made his way to the door, flinching with each step and uttering all his usual expressions of pain, including “ah!,” “ouch” and, half under his breath, “ow-ow-ow.”
Bingo did not like having a round front door. Who would? Geometry dictates that such a door be held in place by only one hinge, and that this hinge cannot be placed in the most effective load-bearing position, so that the doorway is draughty and the door unwieldy to open, and able easily to be kicked completely in by any soddit still young enough to be wearing boots. But tradition is tradition is tradition, and this was a tradition which Hobbled-Ahoy! planning regulators enforced with particular zeal. Bingo pulled open his door.
Outside, standing in the sunshine, was a wizard. Bingo had never seen a wizard before, but the “W” on the front of his poncho could only mean he was one of that magic brotherhood. Either that, or he was a Munchkin of unusually developed stature and had put his poncho on upside down.
The knocking noise was continuing, louder than before.
Bingo looked up at the wizard.
“Yes, well,” said the wizard in a booming voice. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Sorry?” Bingo repeated, uncomprehending. He looked at his still-knocking door.
“The knocking spell I put on your door. It’s a common enough wizardly spell, you know,” he bellowed, as if talking into a gale. “I’m too fragile at my time of life to go banging at doors. Banging at doors! I’m too old and fragile for that. So I’ve put the knocking spell on, do you see?”
Bingo looked at the door. “Can you turn it off, please?”
The wizard seemed not to hear. “Thank you!” he said, in his stentorian voice. “But, really, you’re too kind. It’s a small spell, but potent. Potent!”
“How long does it last?”
“Yes, yes,” boomed the wizard indulgently. “But can I turn it off? That’s the question. And the answer? The answer is ‘can I buggery.’ Hard to do, do you see? Easy to turn it on, that spell, but fiercely difficult to turn it off.”
“How long does the spell last?” said Bingo, leaving a space between each word and moving his facial muscles in a more marked manner as he spoke.
“Grabbings?” shrieked the wizard, his shaggy eye-brows rising and his eyes staring intensely. “Grabbings?” He stepped forward, filling the doorway, bent down and stepped into the hallway of Grab End.
Bingo spun around as the huge figure of the wizard, bent nearly double, moved rapidly along the hall and into the main sitting room, shouting Bingo’s surname at the top of his voice. All the while the front door carried on making its deafening racket, like a heavy item of wooden furniture clattering down an endless flight of stairs. Bingo stumbled after the wizard, calling out “hey!” and “ow-my-feet!,” and came through to the sitting room to find the old wizard parked there in Bingo’s own sofa (which though large for a soddit was chair-sized for the man), beaming toothlessly at him. “So you are Grabbings, are you?” he shouted.
“Yes, yes I am,” replied Bingo. “But, look, I’m sorry but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you—I’m sorry—to leave. You can’t come in. You can’t sit there.”
“It said ‘Grabbings’ over the door, you see,” said the wizard.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said Bingo, in a louder voice.
“Grabbings,” said the wizard, putting his finger to his cheek to mime contemplation. “A burglar’s name, is that?”
“I’m a gentlehobbld of independent means,” said Bingo, wincing as a sudden pain arrowed up his leg from his left foot, “and I’m asking you to go, now.”
“I thought so,” said the wizard, smiling knowingly. “I thought so.”
“Leave! Please!” screeched Bingo.
“Too kind,” said the wizard, taking off his hat and placing it on his lap. “Two sugars, for me. My name is Gandef and I am a wizard, yes indeed. The famous Gandef. Don’t be scared. I promise,” he said, chuckling to himself, “I do—I promise—although I am a wizard, I promise not to turn you,” he went on, his chuckling bubbling up until his shoulders and his whole head were shaking with the hilarity of what he was saying, “not to turn you into a toad—arch-CHHTTGH QOOF-QOOF-QOOF,” he added, coughing so abruptly, so prodigiously and body-spasmingly that it looked, for a moment, as if he were going to shake himself out of his seat and on to the floor. “AWARGH—SCHW-SCHWO’AH KOH-KOH,” he coughed. “K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH.”
Bingo, alarmed, sat down in the second-best chair.
“K’OAH, K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH,” the wizard continued.
“Are you all—” Bingo started to say.
“K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH K’OAH,” the wizard concluded, and let his head flop backwards. His colour had drained away, and little dregs of spittle were visible on the grey of his beard just below his mouth. “Blimey,” he said in a strangulated voice. “Oh dear, oh dear.” His right hand fumbled in the pocket of his gown and brought out a pipe, his left hand brought out a wallet of pokeweed, and with trembling fingers he filled the bowl. “I’ll be better in a moment,” he croaked, muttering a small spell to bring a yellow flame from his right thumbnail so that he could light the pipe. For long minutes the wizard simply sucked noisily at the stem of his pipe, making orgasmic little moans between breaths, and swiftly filling Bingo’s front room with a smoke so acrid and dark it made the little soddit’s eyes smart. “Oh that’s better,” Gandef murmured, sucking in another lungful of heated tobacco particles and air, “so much better.”
“Are you all right?” Bingo asked, a little nervously.
“Eh?” Gandef shouted. “What? You’ll have to speak up. My hearing’s not what it used to be.”
Away in the hall, behind him, Bingo could hear the door still knocking away to itself. “I—” he started to say, but realised that he didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
“Oh, once upon a time,” said Gandef, “my hearing was better than an eagle, and my eyesight better than a—well, a goodly eyed animal. I don’t know. Something with a very good and acute sense of sight. An eagle. Yes. But age takes its toll, you know.” The wizard hawked, and so enormous a noise of wrenching phlegm emanated from his chest that Bingo shrank back. “I tried a most potent Noise Amplification Spell once upon a time,” Gandef was saying, his voice meditative, though still loud. “Marvellous spell. I could hear the birds speaking to one another in trees over the horizon, I could hear the rustlings as the clouds rubbed against one another in the sky. I could hear the sound a rainbow makes as it arches its back over the world. Then a dog barked behind me and I burst my left eardrum. Won’t try that again in a hurry. I actually wet myself—imagine it! A wizard! Wetting himself in terror! Wouldn’t do for that piece of news to get around, the forces of evil and all that, important to keep up appearances of, you know, magic and potency. I’m not actually a man, you see—I’m a sort of angel.” He chuckled to himself. “Covers a multitude of sins, that. Sharp’s the word!”
“I don’t quite follow,” said Bingo.
“They’ll be here in a moment, Our Friends from the Dwarf. From, uh, the dwarfland. They’re the salt of the earth. Which is to say, they’ve dug up and sold the salt of the earth. And also that they’ve ploughed salt into the earth of people they didn’t like. But we’ll stay on their good side. Oh yes. We’ll draw up a contract, I’ll get the map out, and we can head off tomorrow. Be on our way.” He cleared his throat, or to put it more precisely, he moved half a stone of snot from one internal location to another, and then drew a deep breath through his pipe.
“Come again?” said Bingo.
But Gandef had fallen asleep, his head lolling, his still lit pipe rolling from his fingers and tipping smouldering tobacco over the matting that served for a carpet in Bingo’s soddit hole.
The first four dwarfs arrived half an hour later, hammering on the door so violently that it jolted off its latch and collapsed inwards. “My door!” squealed Bingo, scurrying as fast as his deformed feet could take him out into the hallway.
“Apologies,” said the first dwarf, treading on the wreck of the door as he stepped inside. “We were knocking for a while, look you, but seeing how the door was knocking anyway by itself I don’t think we were being heard. I got a mate who does doors.”
“Does doors lovely,” said the second dwarf.
“Oh, he’ll do you a lovely door,” said the first dwarf, with a flush of agreement. “Lovely big hefty door. Soon as he pops along, he’ll quote you, lovely boy, la, bach.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding,” Bingo gabbled at them. “I’m sorry that you’ve been inconvenienced, but you’ve got the wrong hole. Nobody here called Grabbings. No wizard, there’s no wizard here. You’ll have to go away.”
From behind him, in the sitting room, came a series of axe-like chopping noises such as can only be produced by a man who has scoured the walls of his lungs red and smooth over many years of dedicated smoke inhalation.
“That’s the boyo,” said the first dwarf, stepping past Bingo. “Failin,” he said. “I’m a dwarf, la, boy, see, yow, bach, dew,” he added. “This is my cousin Qwalin.” The second dwarf bowed. “And behind him are Sili and Frili, also cousins, see?”
“I haven’t the victuals—” Bingo began, in desperation. But the four dwarfs were already in the sitting room, singing tunelessly but loudly, one of them bouncing lustily on the wizard’s chest to wake the fellow up. Bingo turned about, cursed the gnawing pain in his left toes, and turned again as four more dwarves stepped boldly into his house.
“Mori,” said the first dwarf, who was holding a clipboard. He was a strong-nosed dwarf in green, with a waterfall of beard and eyebrows thick as caterpillars. Or as actual pillars. “Allow me to introduce my cousins, Tori, Orni and On. Oh my,” he added, stepping towards Bingo. “Haven’t you the smoothest of chins!”
The four dwarfs kicked their beards out from under their feet and clustered around Bingo, treading on his toes as they did so. “Oo,” they said, running callused fingers over his chin. “Oo.”
“Get off,” Bingo said, flapping his hands before his face like little wings.
“You’ll have to excuse us, see,” said Mori, leaning his clipboard against the wall and taking off his dwarf hat. “It’s a rare sight for us, a bare chin—a sight of rare beauty. Wouldn’t I love a bare chin!”
“Wouldn’t I!” said Orni.
“You’ll say, shave,” said Mori, clapping Bingo in a manly clasp, his arm around the back, his powerful hand crushing Bingo’s shoulder. “You will, you’ll tell me, shave.”
“I won’t,” said Bingo.
“Can’t,” said Mori, as if in correction. “Psoriasis. Terrible. Allergy to bauxite. Couldn’t shave if my life depended on it. Stuck with this ap-surd hippy beard. I hate it.”
“We all hate it,” said Orni. “All hate our beards.”
“All of us in the same boat. Smells, la,” said Mori confidentially. “Food gets stuck in it. I found a chicken bone in mine yesterday. Anyway, anyhow, anyhew.” He released Bingo. “Is the King boy here yet?”
“King boy?” said Bingo.
“Thorri, our King, heavens bless him. No? There you go. I can hear merry being made, though, look you, begorrah, la, bach, boyo, see, dew, bach, look you, so we’ll go on through.”
Bingo stumbled to the larder, and brought out a selection of the food he possessed. The dwarfs devoured it all in quarter of an hour. In dismay he tried telling the group that he had no more, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer, explored his hobbld hole thoroughly and completely ransacked it. They rolled out his one and only barrel of Soddit ale, and tapped and drank it. They sang all the while, whilst Gandef sat in the corner tapping his foot not in time to the music and smoking. They sang:
When you walk with a dwarf keep your head down low
So as not to draw attention to his height,
For a dwarf’s hold on his temper is only so-so
And a dwarf has no fear of a fight.
Walk on, walk on, crouching all the time
Though your hips are racked with pain—
Walk on, walk on, with a bend in your spine
Or you’ll ne-ver walk again,
You’ll NE-ver walk again.
After which they sang, or rather they howled:
AND! WE! WERE! SI-I-INGING!
SONGS AND ARIAS—
DWARFS IN THE LARDER—
OH ME, OH MY.
After which they insisted that Bingo join in with the quaffing, despite his protestations that he was normally a very moderate drinker. They drank toasts to his smooth chin, and his smooth upper lip, and they sang more songs: raucous songs, caucus songs, ribald songs, dribbled songs, hymns, whims, theramins, chim-chim-cherees, songs that were hard, songs by bards, songs that left you scarred (emotionally speaking), drinking anthems, looting anthems, puking anthems, footy anthems, beauty-pageant anthems, and “Bess You Is My Woman Now.” They sang a-capella, a-patella and any umber-ella-any-umber-ella. At some point in the proceedings the remaining dwarfs came in, Ston, Pilfur, Gofur, and Wombl; and finally there entered a diminutive little creature, small even for a dwarf and barely an inch taller than Bingo, who introduced himself as “Thorri, King you know,” but who seemed to be accorded remarkably little respect from the other dwarfs. But by this stage Bingo was well drunk, tanked-up, reeling and rocking, and soon enough he was falling over and getting up with a silly expression on his face. He was as unsteady on his feet as a newborn colt that had been force fed half a bottle of whisky. Then Gandef began singing a song, and got halfway through the first stanza before he started coughing with shocking vehemence, making a series of noises like a roof-load of snow collapsing twenty feet to the ground. Forty-five seconds of this and the wizard was too weak to stand, and collapsed back on to the sofa gasping and fumbling with his tobacco pouch.
“My new friends,” said Bingo, with tears in his eye and alcohol compounds in his bloodstream. “My new friends! How sweet it is to have friends—to make new friends!”
“Strictly a business arrangement, Mr Grabbings,” said Mori. “We have a quest to undertake, and we need your help, that’s all.”
“You need my help!” repeated Bingo joyously, his cheeks wet. “My friends!”
“Yes, yes,” said Mori, pushing the over-affectionate soddit away. “Let’s not lose proportion, look you, bach, la. There’s a dragon, see, and he’s got, eh, well shall we say… treasure. Let’s call it treasure.”
“Gold?” asked Bingo, his eyes circular.
“What’s that?” said Qwalin, “Yeah—yeah, that’s it. Gold. That’s a good one.”
“Gold,” said Mori, looking significantly at his fellow dwarfs. “All right? We all clear? Mr Grabbings here is to help us nick us some gold. Yes, that’s it, we’re on our way to steal the dragon’s gold. See?”
The dwarfs made various noises of dawning comprehension.
“So,” said Mori, turning to Bingo, “we figured—and this is only a rough plan, see—that we’d go over there and distract the dragon boyo with some close-harmony baritone singing whilst you steal the, eh, gold, you being a thieving little tinker, or so we’ve been led to believe—no offence.”
Bingo’s heart was flush with new comradeship and love. He sobbed like a child, trying to hug Mori and unburden his heart, to say how he’d always felt, somehow, distanced from the other soddits, as if there was something that held him back from them, and held them back from him—it wasn’t easy to say what exactly, but on occasion he’d stand at his door with a glass of dry hobbld martini in his hand and watch the evening traffic making its way up Hobbld-Ahoy! high-street and over the bridge into the thickening gloom and feel, somehow, a great emptiness inside himself, a sense of purposelessness of it all—the way the narrow respectability of his world felt sometimes like a suffocating velvet cloak—and all along the thing he’d been missing was right here, this sense of purpose, belonging to this band of brothers, united in a common aim. Sadly the ale, which provoked this chain of thought in Bingo’s mind, also prevented the articulate expression of it, and the best he could manage was a “such-a-lovely-buncho-blokes-lovely-feller-love-you” and a further series of throaty syllables like the noise a dog makes just before it throws up.
“Now,” Mori continued in a louder voice, backing against the wall, “are you OK with our plan, boyo, look you? Remember, the only problem to this quest thing is that the—eh—the treasure is in the possession of a dragon. Right?”
“Dragons!” said Bingo. “They don’t frighten me. Insectivores, aren’t they?”
“No,” said Mori. “I wouldn’t describe them as insectivores.”
“Well,” said Bingo, waving his hand dismissively and wobbling on his feet. “Does it matter?” He’d long since reached the level of alcoholic uncoordination where it becomes difficult to place the right thumb upon the end of the left little finger, and indeed had gone somewhat beyond it, to the state where it is difficult to get one’s upper and lower lips to connect.
“Smug the Dragon,” said Gandef, erupting apparently from sleep. “A fearsome, terrible sight, he is, the mighty wyrm in his desolation.”
“Terrible, terrible,” said the dwarfs in unison.
The ale swirled in Bingo’s heart. “I’m not afeared!” he squealed, trying to clamber on the table.
“Smug the Dragon!” Gandef bellowed, rather carried away with himself. “Terrible Smug! Marvellous great dragon! Bah!” He coughed once, twice, and then thrummed a long, enduring note on the taut surface of the mass of phlegm held in his chest.
The dwarfs brought out their own pipes, and soon the smoke was so thick in Bingo’s sod hole that you couldn’t see the smokers for the smoke. Moreover, the smoke that came out of the dwarfish pipes had a strange savour to it, a slightly herbal, fruity, pleasant, drowsy, hey-man edge to it, a whiff of “Rings, eh? They’re, like, all hard round the outside and all, like, nothing at all in the middle, isn’t that weird? The way they can be both really really hard on the edge and really soft in the middle, d’you ever think of that?” and a slight odour of “Hey I’m really really hungry, you got any, like, scones or something?” The excitement and passion drained out of Bingo wholly, and he lay on the floor with his feet in the grate, humming along as the dwarfs sang another song.
Smug the Magic Dragon
Are we afraid of he?
In his Magic Dragon-grotto-place,
We’ll travel over earth,
And we travel over sea,
To beard that dragon in his den, look you now
Oh yes we will, I tell you now,
You better believe we’ll do it
We will, oh yes we will, oh
Yes we will, we’re going to it,
I’m telling you we will
It’s practically good as done,
We’re going that way right now,
That dragon’s, well, let’s just say, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.
Gandef was shouting something at this point and had to be calmed. Then, under the illusion that he was whispering discreetly into Mori’s ear, he boomed, “I was thinking, why don’t we tell the young soddit that we’re off after some gold? Eh? Wouldn’t that be sly?” Mori’s voice, much lower, came murmuring indistinctly through the fug. “You see,” Gandef bellowed, louder still, “if the soddit thinks we’re after some gold then he won’t ask after the real reason for our quest—do you see?” Again, Mori’s voice, now more urgent but still indistinct, muttered in the dark. Bingo, from where he was lying, could just about see the pyramidical shape of the wizard’s hat, and the hunched silhouette of Mori trying to communicate with the old man. “I can’t hear you if you mutter like that,” bellowed Gandef petulantly. “All I’m saying is that this would be a good cover story as far as the soddit is concerned. That way we don’t have to tell him what we’re really going for yrkh, yrkh, mmbbmmmdd.”
It seemed to Bingo’s eyes, in the smoke-obscured candlelight, as if Gandef’s hat had been dragged sharply down to cover his whole face. But the young soddit’s eyelids were slipping down in irresistible sleep, and he couldn’t focus any more.
Bingo was woken by the smell of Gandef’s pipe, the smoke of which caused a stinging sensation in the mucus membranes of his sinus and gave him a mixed impression of singed hair, burning bark and smoking rubber. The young soddit, coughing, pulled himself into a sitting position to find Gandef reclining lazily on the sofa.
“Good morning, young master Grabbings,” the wizard said genially, and sucked at the stem of his pipe so hard that his eyeballs shrank back in his skull.
“What time is it?” Bingo squeaked. But as he asked the question his eye lighted on the half-hunter squatting on the mantelpiece. The hour lacked some minutes of nine. He rubbed his eyes, and some minutes came into more precise focus as fifty minutes. “Ten past eight?” he gasped. “Ten past eight in the morning?” (Soddits, as I’m sure you know, like to sleep until noon—a habit so entrenched in their culture that the idea of a clockface having the dual function of “a.m.” and “p.m.” is for most of them only a notional and theoretical hypothesis.)
Gandef nodded intelligently. “Bright and early,” he said. “Ah! The first pipe of the day. The first is always the sweetest.” He took another drag.
“Dwarfs!” said Bingo, getting unsteadily to his feet. “Drink! Potweed! Hallucinations!” His head felt like it had been turned inside out, had tent pegs hammered into it, and then folded back in on itself again.
“Yes, yes,” said Gandef indulgently. “It is late, I know. But Thorri didn’t have it in his heart to wake you. You looked so peaceful. But you’d better get a move on. Did you read the letter?”
“Good. I’m glad that at least you read the letter.”
Bingo found the letter after a ten-minute search through the desolation and chaos that had once been his front room. Written upon the finest dwarfish parchment, a form of scraped and treated stone, it read as follows:
On the offchance that you have forgotten our arrangement, we beg to remind you that should you fail to present yourself at the Putting Dragon Inn at Byjingo by nine a.m. we would be obliged to consider you an enemy of all dwarfkind and would thereafter hunt you down and slay you like the vermin you are. At nine sharp, mind for we depart on our great quest eastward to confront the evil and condescending dragon Smug in his lair.
Thorri (King) and Company.
P.S. Mori begs to remind you that the purpose of our quest is gold, honestly, gold, lots of gold, and nothing else, certainly not anything non-gold.
“Hunt me down and slay me like the vermin I am?” said Bingo, a catch in his voice.
“Lovely illumination on the ‘H’ don’t you think?” said Gandef, looking over the soddit’s shoulder. “That’s a little rugby ball flying through the top portion, and Barijon standing to the left of it. A great dwarfish hero, he.”
“Will they really kill me if I don’t turn up?”
“Oh no, of course not,” said Gandef, shaking his head forcefully and chuckling a little. “No, no, nothing like that. On the other hand,” he added, tamping some more tobacco into his pipe bowl, “they certainly will kill you if you don’t turn up. It’s a sort of dwarfish tradition, you see. Punctuality. That,” he added, mysteriously, “and sheep.”
In a blind panic Bingo fled from his front room, stepping over the wreckage of his still-knocking door, and scurried along the main street of Hobbld-Ahoy! as fast as his sore feet would permit in the general direction of Byjingo. He arrived at the Putting Dragon Inn with one minute to spare, panting and clutching at his agonised feet. The dwarfs were waiting for him, standing underneath the painted inn sign (which represented a trouser-clad dragon attempting to hole a tricky twenty-foot putt whilst a salamander stood in the back-ground).
“Just in time, lad, la, boyo,” said Mori, as the Byjingo town clock chimed the hour, or rather thudded once, which is what it did every hour of the day, ever since a bored soddit youth had stolen the bell to wear as a hat. And with that the dwarfs shouldered their packs and started away on their great quest, Bingo limping complainingly along behind them.
They stopped in Cremone to buy a beast of burden, a pack-animal called Bony—which name was (the salesman, “Honest Anthony,” insisted) a wittily ironic reference to his fat girth and good health, “like calling a really large feller called John Little John, you see,” he said. Neither Bingo nor the dwarfs saw, but didn’t want to reveal their ignorance. None of them had much experience with ponies, and believed the salesman’s explanation that the protruding rib-like spars running round this creature’s torso were a form of protection against predation, somewhat after the manner of an armadillo. “Ain’t Mother Nature a wonderful thing?” he added, as he pocketed their money.
Having loaded their supplies on to this one sorrowful beast the party made its way east, through gently rolling hills, gently downing downs, gently platting plateaus (platting in the sense that river, road and crops appeared to weave and unweave, drawing together and pulling apart as they crossed the land). By noon on the third day they had entered the Tiger Woods, where dangerous wild animals lurked in every sand trap, and where the potato game was originally invented. After many adventures, which I don’t have time to go into, they got out the other side of this dangerous and exclusive place. They travelled over the river Tim’s, named for one of the most famous legendary heroes of the Little Counties (Tim the Tiny, River-Namer), and into Ply Wood. Here the going got slower. Bingo had to sit down every thirty or forty yards to rest his feet, and the dwarfs became crotchety with the delay. Pilfur and Gofur finally picked him up between them and carried him, but he complained at the bumpiness of the ride and they dropped him.
By sunset of the following day the party had reached the Wood of Wooden Trees, and all were exhausted. The dwarfs had taken it in turns to carry the soddit, and had reached the end of their tether. In fact, they had tied a second tether to this end, and had reached the end of that too, which gives some indication of just how far they had gone. Really quite far, tether-wise, as I’m sure you will agree. Sadly their packhorse, Bony the tiny Pony, the only pony for sale in all of Cremone (sold them by phoney Tony the only pony-owner in Cremone) had fallen into the River Flem and drowned, carrying away nearly all their supplies. They were left only with a cauldron (that Tori was wearing as a helmet).
Dark fell as they made camp. It was a fell dark. Everybody in the company was hungry.
“You,” said Mori, prodding Bingo with the blunt end of his axe pole. “Go and find us something to eat.”
“You’re joking?” asked Bingo, rubbing a dock leaf on the soles of his aching feet. “That’s, you know, exactly like a joke, right?”
“There’s firelight through the wooden trees,” said Gofur, pointing at a glowing splodge of orange light in the distance. “Go and see who it is, and pinch some of their food, grabber, that’s what you’re here for, look you, a, yes, oo, bach, la, very.”
The other dwarfs made various noises of agreement. Amongst these noises were grunts, growls, two “I agrees,” one “yes, off you go boyo,” one “I should say so” and one “Mavis!,” but this last was from a dwarf already asleep and was probably unrelated to the matter in hand.
Bingo was too tired to argue the case. He crept, biting his lower lip to stifle his grunts of pain, through the wooden trees of the wood of trees, moving always towards the gleam of the firelight. Soon, with a minimum of snapping twig sounds, rustlings, hootings of disturbed ground-nesting birds, sotto voce “ouches” and “ows” and the like, he got to the edge of a small clearing, and had a clear view of who was warming themselves by the fire within it.
Trollps! Four, great, whopping, stony trollps. Enough to give even the bravest soddit the collywobbles. They were sitting in a circle, roasting three dogs over the open fire. “Ah,” said the nearest of them, licking his lips with his massive, stony tongue, “roast mutt again.”
“Yer likes yer roast mutt, don’t you Burt?” said a second trollp.
“That I do, Gerd,” agreed Burt, pulling one of the carcasses from the fire, dripping and sizzling on a stick, and taking a great squelching bite from its flank.
Trollps, as you know, are fearsome creatures. It is now many years since they left their traditional subpontoon habitat, and their traditional diet of goats, to roam far and wide in search of a fuller sense of self-expression and some quick cash. They are of course gigantic in stature, five foot eleven is not uncommon and some are as tall as six foot one and a half, and their proportions are similarly huge, bellies like boulders, arms like the roots of great oak trees, a head that looks from a distance as if it’s wearing a steel helmet until you get closer and realise that that’s just the shape of the head. Trollps, being creatures of nature, grow a straggly moss on their chests, arms and legs; they grow a stubble of little thorns from their chins, but the tops of their heads are smooth as water-polished stone. Their eyes are red as garnets, and their brows are beetling—not in the sense of having independent legs and a tendency to scurry away, but rather in the sense of jutting or overhanging in a threatening manner.
These four hefty trollps had come down from the mountains hoping for some business from the northwestern cart salesman and middle-farm-management population. They were dressed in the traditional costume of their race: lacy underwear, garter belts, stockings (made of the same wire mesh used by some to construct fences), little fluttery red silk skirts which tended to ride suggestively upwards in the slightest breeze—and which, if the breeze were anything more than slight, tended to become cummerbunds—and a saucy little French Trollection low-halter button-up top, also in red. Burt had personalised his outfit with a natty little silk-ribbon neck bow, very continental, and Bill—the tallest of the four—wore flats rather than the brick-heeled Ralph Lauren trolletto shoes of the others. Gerd wore elbow-length gloves that had been a bridal white once upon a time, although they had now gone a rather muddy pink colour in the wash on account of being put in the laundry with man-blood still on them one too many times. Old Gil, the fourth member of the group, was the master make-upper of the four. His slab-like lips were carefully outlined in fifteen pounds of lipstick, very fetching. His tiny glowing eyes were surrounded by four thick, tangled rows of eyelashes, giving him the appearance of having large and grotesquely overfed Venus fly traps fitted to the front of his face. Which, indeed, may have been how he achieved the effect.
Bingo had not enjoyed a hot meal since the day before, and his mouth started watering at the smell of the roasting dog. He peered from behind a tree trunk, and slipped soundlessly to another tree trunk to get a better view, pressing himself close against this for cover and taking another cautious look. Sadly for him this last tree trunk was not a tree trunk at all, but Gerd’s leg. He was suspended in midair, squealing and kicking his legs, before he knew what was happening.
“Hey! Crikey, blimey, love a duck and apples’n’-pears,” said Gerd, displaying his catch to the rest of them. “Look what I’ve found!” He pronounced this last word “fanned,” but Bingo assumed that he meant “discovered by chance,” “obtained” rather than “cooled by agitating the air with a fan.”
The trollps clustered round, and gave a few exploratory pokes of Bingo in the ribs with their massive fingers.
“A snack!” said Gil. “Bags he’s mine!”
“There’s bare enough in ’im for a mouf-ful,” said Bill.
“Lumme, cor, ’Ackney and Bermondsey,” said Gerd, “a mouf-ful is all I want.”
“But ooze?” challenged Burt. “Ooze to get the mouf-ful?”
“I caught ’im,” said Gerd.
“I bags’d him fust,” said Gil.
“I say we draws lots,” said Bill.
“Lots of wot?” said Burt.
“Are there any more of you mouf-fuls round about?” asked Gil, bringing his great stone face close up to Bingo’s. The stench of Amour de Troll washed up the soddit’s nose.
“No!” Bingo squeaked.
“Gah,” said Bill, grimacing. “Bound to be,” said Gil, nodding.
With nary another word Bill, Gil and Burt lumbered off into the woods. Bingo, gasping, dangling in midair, consoled himself by thinking that the three trollps were making such a loud noise that the dwarfs would surely be warned of their approach. Then he thought that the dwarfs were fierce and hardy warriors and would quickly defeat the trollps, and his captors would soon be nothing but rubble. Sadly, he was wrong in both these thoughts. No more than ten minutes later the three trollps returned, each with a brace of dwarfs. All the members of Thorri’s band had been tied with their own beards, a humiliating circumstance that did not so much add insult to injury as multiply insult plus injury by shame to the power of agony. When they were all deposited, like giant hairy pupae, in a pile by the fire Bingo was trussed with an old trollp garter belt, and placed on top of the heap.
“That’s more like it,” said Gil, sitting down on the broad boulder he’d been using as a stool and rubbing his great stony hands together at the fire, sending stone chips skittering into the air. “That’s a feast, that is.”
“Dwarfs,” said Burt, smacking his lips, or to be more precise, clacking them together. “Tasty! Pukka!”
“I got nettles in my garter,” complained Bill, fumbling under his fine silks. “Bloody forest.”
“Hark at ’er,” said Gerd. He affected an effeminate voice, or as close to one as his enormous stone vocal cords permitted him, to add: “Got ne’els in my gar’er.”
Then he sniggered, a sound like a row of gravestones falling over domino fashion. “Ponce,” he concluded.
“Nance,” snapped Bill.
“Dunce,” said Gerd.
“Berk,” said Bill.
“Jerk,” said Gerd.
“Merck,” said Bill.
“Oi!” said Burt. “Cut it out.” Actually he said “Cu ih ah,” but the other two trollps understood what he meant well enough. They glowered at one another. Bill smoothed out the creases of his red silk skirt against his enormous thighs. Gerd looked haughtily away into the forest.
“All we got to do now,” said Old Gil, “is work out the best way to cook ’em.”
“The best fing with dwarfs,” said Bill, “is to soffen ’em up, with a meat tenderiser, or a shovel maybe, and then chop ’em up.”
“Nah, nah, nah!” said Burt with scorn in his voice. “You dahn’t cut dwarfs, you rip ’em. And then you put ’em in a pot wiv onions, peppers, dozen cloves o’ garlic, some cardamom, green chillies not red ones, and a lemon. Forty-five minutes, take the pot off the ’eat, then add the basil, bay leaf, touch of mint, frow in four dozen carrots, put them on the ’eat again, only don’t scorch ’em, two hours, layer over with cream and brandy, Demerara, stir some more, ’nother lemon, fish out their ’ats and boots (keeping ’em for stock) and serve the whole fing up with six hunnert-weight of spuds. Cushtie, that. Lovely. Pukka.”
“Or we could just sit on ’em,” said Bill.
“All right,” said Burt.
The trollps regarded the pile. “Tell you what, Gerd,” said Bill. “You sit on ’em.”
“Me?” said Gerd, outraged. “Why me?”
“You got the biggest bum.”
“Bugger off have I!” said Gerd, standing up in his fury. “Gil’s is twice my size.”
“Yer lie!” roared Old Gil, standing up also.
“Remember that leather skirt you bought in that Dongor boo-teak?” taunted Gerd. “Oh we laughed at that, all right. Made your bum look like two cows fighting in a leather tent, that did.”
“Laugh at me behind my back!” Gil yelled, and put his fist into Gerd’s face. The ground shook with the terrible force of the blow, but Gerd did not so much as flinch, nor did his expression change. He pushed out with his right arm, aiming a devastating hook and catching Gil, smack in his face. The blow made a noise like a thunderclap. Cups containing water that happened to be standing on the ground nearby jiggled little bullseye patterns of ripples in their surfaces. But Gil didn’t flinch either. The huge trollp made no sound. To be honest with you, there’s little point in trollps fighting, since it’s almost impossible for them to injure one another and they don’t really feel pain. But they sometimes go through the motions, just for the form of it. After a few more punches on either side Gerd and Gil sat down.
“Please kind sirs,” squealed Bingo, who had been summoning his courage and trying to think of what to say. “Don’t eat us! We’ll give you gold!”
“Gold,” mused Burt. “I ate some of that once. A corn factor in Bardbury gave me a gold bracelet, had it engraved ’n all—‘to my darlin’ in memory of the happiest weekend of my life, your snugly-puggly J. Harrow Whettlestone Jr, Corn Factor and Mercer, Seasonal Rates.’ ” Burt sniffed as if moved by the memory. “I ate it, o’ course, but it did somefink shocking down below… you know what I mean.”
The other three trollps grumbled their agreement.
“It ain’t specially digestible,” said Bill. “Gold.”
“Wait a minute,” said Gil. “Corn factor in Bardbury? You got a arrangement wiv a corn factor in Bardbury? What we doing skulking in these woods if you got a comfy berf in Bardbury?”
“Well,” said Burt shiftily. “Trufe is, he’s a special little feller of mine.”
“Share and share alike,” insisted Gil.
“And I would,” said Burt. “Only I et him last spring. He used to take me on special trips, it was lovely, the best hostels, fine clothes, as much dog as I could eat, but then one morning I woke up and looked at him and thought, ‘You’re a pretty tasty gent,’ so I et him, and there it was.”
“Enough natter,” said Bill. “I’m going to squash me a dwarf. Better do somefing or we’ll be ere all night.”
He stood up and picked a wriggling dwarf from the pile. But whilst he was up, Gerd pulled another dwarf from the bottom of the pile, and quickly slipped it on to Bill’s boulder. As the unwitting trollp sat down there was a sound of revolting flatulent squelchiness. He looked startled, and his three friends began their rolling, ponderous, stony laughs. “Oho,” said Bill, with a stern face. “Oh that’s very funny, that is,” he said sarcastically. “Oh, I’ll split me sides laughing at that.”
“Should have seen your face, Bill,” said Burt.
“ ’Ere,” said Bill. “You ’av this one.” He tossed his dwarf to Gil, and got gingerly to his feet trying to unstick the object that was now adhering limply to his hindquarters. Meanwhile, the three other trollps took their own dwarfs, placed them carefully on whichever slab or boulder they were sitting on, and sat back down. The whoopee-cushion noises sounded wetly round the ring. For several minutes there were no further sounds in the clearing save the gnash and gulp of four trollps eating.
Things were looking grim for the company.
“This one,” said Gil shortly, “tastes a bit of chicking.”
“Everyfing tastes of chicking to me,” said Bill. “ ’Cept gold,” he added.
“Are you supposed to take the shell off of ’em before you eat ’em?” asked Burt, picking a mangled chunk of chain mail out of his great teeth with a fingernail like a paving slab.
“You smell,” came a rather quavery but fairly deep voice, the sort of voice an adolescent boy might inadvertently employ when he is on the cusp of slipping into manhood. “You smell and, ah, nobody likes you.”
“Oo said that?” snapped Gerd.
“It was Bill,” said the quavery voice.
“No it wasn’t,” said Bill.
“It came from over there,” said Gill, standing up and pointing towards the trees.
“No it didn’t,” said the quavery voice. “It was Bill. He said you all smell really unpleasantly and, uh, that you, oh I don’t know, that you’re a disgrace to the name of trollp.”
“Oo is that?” said Gerd.
The voice cleared its throat in a moist fashion, and seemed to slip down a semitone: “Don’t you speak to me like that, young Bill, you’re the one who’s a disgrace. I happen to know that the other two agree with me when I say that you’ve let down the honour of trollps everywhere.” There was a momentary pause. “That was Gerd.”
Gerd was standing. “I don’t sound anyfink like that,” he declared, reasonably enough.
“No, no,” said the voice, “that was definitely Gerd. I’d say that he’s trying to pick a fight. Are you going to stand for that, Bill? Are you aHurgh Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh!” The voice was suddenly coughing so hard it was making the leaves nearby shudder. “Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh!” it said.
Gil reached into the trees with his enormous hand, and brought out a wriggling figure dressed in a grey poncho and sporting a conical hat.
“Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh! Hurgh!” said the figure.
“A wizard!” said Gerd. “Now don’t that just cap everyfink?”
“I’ve never et a wizard before,” said Bill with glee in his voice.
“He’s a bit scrawny, like,” said Gil, examining him. “But ’e’ll do.”
“Hurgh!” said the figure, the coughing subsiding. “Hurgh!”
“Gandef!” squealed Bingo. “Save us.”
Gandef, suspended in midair by the stone grip of a trollp’s fist around his neck, managed to twist his head enough to look down upon Bingo. The look on his strained face seemed to say, What do you think I’m trying to do, you twit? It seemed to add, And now look at the situation I’m in. What are we going to do now? It’s all very well for you, but I’m a man of advanced years, I can hardly tackle four fully grown adult trollps by myself, bearing in mind my chronic lumbar pain and everything, not that I’m one to complain, I’m only saying. A twist of a wizardly eyebrow seemed to ask, Can’t you reach one of the dwarf’s swords, cut your bonds, free the rest of Thorri’s company, dig a large pit, lure the trollps into it and quickly cover it with several hundred tons of earth? As the despair on Bingo’s face implied a negative answer, the look concluded, You’re a waste of space, useless, the lot of you.
All in all, it was an exceptionally eloquent look.
“Now,” Gandef rasped, addressing the trollps. “Gentlemen. I advise you not to be hasty. I should warn you that I’m a wizard.”
“So?” said Old Gil.
“Well, I could be trouble for you. In fact,” he wheezed, trying to loosen Gil’s fingers with both his hands, and kicking his legs pitifully, “in fact—isn’t that the first ray of sunshine, dawn creeping up on you unawares, ha-ha?”
Excerpted from The Soddit by A.R.R.R. Roberts Copyright © 2012 by A.R.R.R. Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Swapping names like 'Bilbo Baggins' for 'Bingo 'Sac' Grabbings', you'd expect A.R.R.R. Roberts' 'The Soddit' to be an enjoyable romp and an entertaining parody of Tolkien's classic novel. Instead, the author settles for mediocrity and offers the reader very little in the way of humour. Saying this though, 'The Soddit' wasn't a terrible read, but it was a disappointing one. Loan it from your local library instead.
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