For Professor VJD – Never be afraid to play in the dark…
I pull into my parking space at Old College, the parking area unusually deserted. This is due to the fact that it is nearly ten o’clock at night. I am starting my first night shift. The ancient behemoth of brick that is Old College looms darkly over the city, light spewing like fire from its many windows. Shadows fall at unnatural angles, distorting the familiar into unnerving things that seem to leap and dance in my peripheral vision. The Porters’ Lodge looks almost sinister as it lurks menacingly at the mouth of Old College. The late evening air is chilled and sharp but mercifully still and dry. I make my way to the door of The Lodge and the warmth within.
The Late Porter looks pleased to see me. I imagine he is rather looking forward to discharging the responsibilities of the College to my good self and getting home to a nice warm house. Maybe some cheese on toast, perhaps a stiff drink. He looks like a man who enjoys a stiff drink.
There is nothing noteworthy to report from the day, there is a small dinner in Old Dining Room this evening and the heating in Dr R’s room has broken. It is shaping up to be a quiet night as I wave off my colleague.
The first few hours fly by as students come in to borrow keys, ask ridiculous questions and post letters. Some Fellows come and go in much the same vein, albeit less politely. Around two-ish, one of my preferred Fellows comes into The Lodge. Dr J is a few decades younger than most of The Fellowship and hasn’t yet succumbed to the cosseted and entitled mindset that comes from years of being cocooned in College life. He has been out in town and evidently feels like a chat before retiring to his rooms.
We talk jovially about all aspects of College life. He seems interested to know what a new-comer makes of it all. We discuss the mealtimes at length. I am stunned to learn that Dr J is tired of attending banquets. I listen wide-eyed as he bemoans the fact that banquets happen so frequently that he can barely muster the enthusiasm to pick up his knife and fork. I offer to attend in his place. I would certainly tackle banquets with gusto and delight. We laugh at the very idea. College servants would never be tolerated at High Table.
“Have you seen all the secret nooks and crannies yet?” Dr J asks, lowering his voice and leaning conspiratively over the desk. I tell him that I have. “What did you make of the crypt?” he enquires.
“What crypt?” I reply, my interest piqued.
“There’s a secret crypt underneath the Library,” Dr J informs me. “Well, it’s not all that secret, The Porters and most of The Fellowship know about it. The students don’t, of course, they would be trying to break in to it all the time.”
“Where in the Library? How on earth do you access it?” I know the Library well, I can’t imagine where a crypt would be hidden.
“There is a trapdoor hidden under the carpet, near the Neo-Classical section. The key for the lock is on the Library bunch. You should have a look when you lock the Library up later.”
Hmmmm. This sounds intriguing. I will give this some thought.
“What time do you finish?” asks Dr J.
“I’m off at eight thirty tomorrow morning.”
“Marvellous! I’ll pop in and see you before I go cycling. I shall be wearing lycra!” This last statement makes me wince; it is doubtful that the podgy physique of Dr J will lend itself well to lycra. It is certainly a mental image that will keep me awake all night.
Old College is a completely different place after the moon comes up. I thought the old place would be spooky and macabre, like a haunted house. Instead, it feels more like I’ve stepped through the back of a wardrobe into a Nania-esque dreamscape. The cloisters are moonlit paths to places unknown; the courtyards are stunningly draped in starlight and all around my footsteps echo cheerfully on the stone floors. My night time patrols are verging on the magical, the illusion only occasionally dispelled by the raucous banter of students returning to their lodgings.
In the dead of night, The Master’s Lodge dominates the north wing of Old College. Many of the lights and candles are still alight and throw a warm glow through the stained glass windows. The affect is akin to a midnight rainbow, scattering coloured shafts towards the ground below.
The hours tick by and I lock up The Chapel, the bar and the gym. The last to be locked up is The Library, beneath which is concealed, supposedly, The Crypt. Perhaps I shouldn’t venture down there without speaking to Head Porter first. There is probably a good reason why he hasn’t mentioned it to me before. Maybe it is dangerous or structurally unstable in some way. Then again, it couldn’t hurt just to have a look for the trapdoor. Maybe see if I can work out which key opens it. I could just, maybe, open the trapdoor and shine my torch down there, see if there is anything down there. Yeah, it seems almost rude not to. Just a really quick, tiny peek. Just for a minute.
The bunch of keys for The Library is populated by keys of all sizes and origins. It clangs and clatters ominously at my side as I make my way to the door. The Library is in the oldest part of The College, but has had some form of modernisation over the years in order to provide a world-class studying environment. The stone walls and oak beams have been lovingly maintained over the centuries and it is set over an incredible four floors. The books on the shelves are far more serviceable than the relics in Old Library, but impressive nonetheless. There is an entire room dedicated to dictionaries and thesauruses. No student of Old College has any excuse for anything less than perfect spelling and grammar.
I check each room on every floor and evict three bleary-eyed young academics, each diligently studying for their PhDs. I inwardly applaud their work ethic as I usher them out into the cold courtyards and they go their separate ways. I can’t help but admire these young people, barely out of childhood, working so hard to make a better future for themselves. Maybe better futures for the world. There is no telling what some of these young, brilliant minds will become. Certainly not chefs, I think to myself as I bring to mind the daily activations of fire alarms from fledgling attempts at making toast. The other day, one chap even managed to burn eggs. Eggs! How on earth do you burn an egg?
I lock myself in The Library and set about looking for the Neo-Classical section. I must confess to not really knowing what ‘Neo-Classical’ is. Maybe sexed-up Homer, or Tacitus with swear words. I’m half expecting to find works by Julius Caesar translated into rap.
As I am searching The Library, the duty mobile phone in my pocket emits a poor impersonation of an old fashioned telephone. I answer it.
“Hello? Is that Old College?” an urgent voice in clipped English twitters into my ear.
“Yes, this is Old College” I reply.
“Ah! Good. Hello, this is Hawkins College here, good evening”
“Good evening Hawkins College, what can I do for you?”
“We have just turned out a rowdy group from our Junior Combination Room, they’re heading your way. I heard one of them say he was a student of yours. I watched them go down Princes Lane, I think they are heading towards Sprockett Gate.”
“Thank you Hawkins College, I will attend to it immediately.”
I end the call and slip the phone back into my pocket. I will have to resume my search for the Neo-Classical section later. Sprockett Gate is at the rear of Old College, the furthest entrance from the Porters’ Lodge. The most logical entrance for a ‘rowdy group’ hoping to avoid detection from the Porters. I am sure they would appreciate a warm welcome from my good self on this chilly evening.