In which The Author takes the piss
In a hole in the Shire there lived a Piss-artist.
Now you may not know very much about Piss-artists, but believe me, boys and girls, when I tell you that they play a very important part in this story.
Piss-artists are not as common as they used to be in the Olden Days. For the most part, they are creatures of memory, heard of only in tales from your older relatives and friends. Not that very long ago, however, it was a regular occurrence to come across a Piss-artist when you were walking around on your daily business.
Piss-artists could usually be told from Big Folk by several features. For one thing, most of them did not use the Common Tongue which is spoken by pretty much everyone in the world today. In fact, they relied only on a series of grunts, which were unintelligible to Outsiders but which somehow enabled the Piss-artists to communicate.
A relatively few Piss-artists knew their letters; most were happy to rummage around in the dirt and build stone structures for a pittance of pay. Even so, they considered themselves ‘a cut above’ the Piss-artists who had been to school and learned their numbers and letters.
Furthermore, many Piss-artists liked to drink and smoke. Many strong ales and wines of fine vintages were freely available, and quickly became a part of Piss-artist life. As for ‘weed’: this arrived in the Shire many years ago, and soon became a feature of Piss-artist life. Furthermore, the Piss-artists would smoke not just the pipeweed of the Southfarthing, but any weed they could get hold of.
Over time, weed was supplanted by concoctions devised by the Dark Lords in the Outer Darkness. Some of this was potent enough to drive them into fantasy realms, inhabited by Dragons and Pixies and other folk of the Dark Realms. Consequently, many Piss-artists found their way to subterranean roads, where Demons lurked and only the wisest of the Wise could lead them back to daylight.
It is difficult for anyone now to remember the Olden Days before the Darkness threatened our way of life. Few ancient souls remember the time before the Darkness descended on the Shire.
One such Piss-artist was named Steve. He was one of the less adventurous sorts of Piss-artist, who sat in the taverns, sang and laughed and drank with his friends, and watched the weak souls embark on journeys from which no man could return unscathed.
It was a week before Steve’s forty-ninth birthday – a highly auspicious date for a Piss-Artist. Not only did his birthday fall on a Wednesday, which was traditionally a midweek gathering of Piss-Artists; it was just after two consecutive Friday the Thirteenths! To have one Friday the Thirteenth in a year is considered unlucky (that being the day when Bilbo the Unexpectedly Valiant left Bag End in the company of thirteen Dwarves of Durin’s line); two Friday the Thirteenths is generally reckoned to be an omen of doom unforeseen. (By the way, boys and girls, there were once three Friday the Thirteenths in the same year – but only Steve and his herbalist’s assistant ever referred to them!)
Also, forty-nine is the square of seven; seven days make up a week, and Steve was the most square of all Piss-artists.
You will find this difficult to believe, boys and girls, but there was a time when Shire-folk could venture on a quest for ale at lunchtime on a Friday and not return to their starting point until late on Sunday night. Since then, Darkness has engulfed the land. Now the Piss-Artists can visit every inn and tavern in less than two hours’ walk, and return home with scarce a scratch or tale worth the telling.
(That is, apart from Steve’s friend Billy, who lived a short stagger from the town centre. Having lost his keys one night, Billy’s only way into his Piss-artist hole was through the back lane, a wooded brake of thorns and nettles. When they next met in the Green Elf Tavern, Billy announced, ‘You’ve heard of the Rumble in the Jungle; you’ve heard of the Thriller in Manila; I was the Shambles in the Brambles!’)
On this night in question, a week before his seven-by-seventh birthday, Steve found himself in the Poets Inn, a short walk from the main road home. To his delight, who should be sitting at a table some distance from the door but Geoff!
Geoff – boys and girls, if I told you all the tales there are to be told about Geoff you would be struck dumb with wonder.
Geoff is a lore-master of renown, a man of the Law, a collector of books, manuscripts, maps and bills of theatrical entertainment the like of which have not been seen in the Shire for many years. With his flowing white locks, merry eyebrows and vast knowledge of times past (not to mention a fondness for ales), Geoff is one of the undoubted Wise Folk of the Shire. After a brief conversation in the Shire archives one afternoon, Geoff has appointed Steve as his unofficial apprentice lore-man.
Steve and Geoff’s daughter Anna have been friends for some three decades. In the Hidden Tales of the Shire, wise lore-masters may still find an account entitled The Affair of the Handcuffs, which no decent Piss-artist mentions in polite conversation these days. Even the protagonists maintain a discreet silence on such matters.
Thus it was that, a full seven days before his seven-by-seventh birthday, Steve found himself with a tankard of ale in front of him, wondering why on Middle-earth he’d allowed himself to be tempted by the offer of an unexpected party.