Month: November 2013

The Night Watch

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.

Private Eye (Part Three) – Case Closed!

It is early Tuesday morning and I am waiting by the window of the Porters’ Lodge. It is still dark and there is a frost. The ground twinkles coldly, a mirror of the star studded sky above. The City’s early morning populous are going about their business, while the commuter classes are still sleeping. I see people shuffling along, coats buttoned up against the cold, heading to who knows where. Some look like labourers, burly chaps in multiple layers topped off with high viz jackets of all kinds. Others have the appearance of late night revellers doing the Walk Of Shame, their flimsy outfits ineffective and ridiculous at this sober hour. One figure catches my eye. The many layers of mismatched clothing make it impossible to tell if their wearer is male or female. A well-worn and filthy woolly hat completes the cocoon effect. The figure walks slowly and without purpose, illuminated briefly by the streetlights as it passes beneath, like some sort of wretched performer on an unforgiving stage. I wonder where he or she might be going. I suspect he or she wonders the same thing.

Approaching the imposing iron gates of Old College is the man I have been waiting for, the newsagent. He has in his arms The Fellowship’s newspapers, including, I hope, Dr F’s copy of Private Eye. I exit the Lodge and meet him at the gates, taking his burden from him. I make a cursory check of the bundle. Sure enough, there it is, nestled between The Independent and The Financial Times.

Back in The Lodge, I flick back to the magazine that has caused so much uproar in Old College recently and stare at it sternly, as if to admonish it for the part it has played in recent events. Don’t you dare go missing today, I think to myself. I realise that trying to send my thoughts telepathically to an inanimate object is fairly pointless, but it is early and I haven’t had enough tea yet. I take my trusty pen from my jacket pocket, and carefully write two words on the top right hand corner of the front page.

I transport the papers myself to the Senior Combination Room, placing them carefully on the table. Another, last, final check. Yes, Private Eye is now safely delivered. The Senior Combination Room is eerily quiet, its usual occupants still tucked up in their beds. The well-worn, but still sumptuous, leather chairs are scattered haphazardly about the place, standing forlornly in the same places their incumbents left them last night. The Bedder obviously hasn’t been in yet. No matter. I return to The Lodge, and wait for my plan to take effect.

Several hours later and I haven’t heard any rumblings from The Fellowship. This is a very good sign. Just to be sure, I ask Receptionist to call Dr F and see if he is in receipt of his weekly publication. Praise the Lord, he is. Marvellous. All that remains, is for the culprit to reveal himself.

I have to wait several days for my cunning plot to reach fruition. I am on the phone when Dr J bounces into The Porters’ Lodge, his scarf and jacket fluttering wildly. The much-vaunted lycra cycling suit is happily omitted from today’s outfit. He waits patiently by my desk for me to finish my conversation.

“Good afternoon, Dr J, I hope you are well.”

“Yes, thank you, all good here,” he replies cheerfully, one hand absent-mindedly twisting locks of his curly brown hair. “I wondered if you could do me a favour?”

“Of course, what is it?” I ask, hoping that I already know the answer.

“Could you arrange for another copy of Private Eye to be delivered along with the papers? The one I’ve been reading apparently belongs to Dr F, so I thought I’d better make arrangements for one for myself. Can you do that?”

The smile that breaks across my face must have been a little confusing and unnerving for Dr J, who looks at me strangely as I reply, with the utmost enthusiasm,

“Certainly, Sir. That will be no problem at all. I will see to it right away!”

I relay the tale to Receptionist over a cup of tea later that afternoon.

“So, all you did was write Dr F’s name on the top of the magazine?” Receptionist asks.

“Yes! Can you believe it? Bloody Fellowship, all they had to do was ask around and it would have resolved weeks ago. Why won’t they ever do anything for themselves?”

Receptionist laughs and shakes her head.

“You still have an awful lot to learn about life in College!” she exclaims, the disbelief in her voice plainly evident.

Clearly, I do. But I’m starting to get the gist of it, just about.

Private Eye (Part Two) – To Catch A Thief

I must say, The Dean was very appreciative of having a cup of tea delivered to his rooms. It was a bit tepid by the time I had carted it across the river and up two flights of stairs and, on reflection, he thought it would have just been easier for him to make it himself in his rooms but – he seemed quite pleased nonetheless. My hastily-invented, and then abandoned, tea delivery service idea was deemed charming but impractical. Thank God. I have no idea how I would have explained to Head Porter that our staff are now tea maids for The Fellowship.

More frustratingly, I had wasted valuable time that I should have been spending investigating the mysterious disappearance of Dr F’s copy of Private Eye. I make the obvious enquiries with the newsagent who supplies Old College, I speak to the humourless but surprisingly helpful Head Of Housekeeping. Abrasive at the best of times, Head Of Housekeeping is not amused at the finger of blame being pointed at her staff, but once I explain that, actually, the finger of blame is merely being waved in their general direction, she relents a little. She will look into it, but is of the same opinion of myself and Receptionist. It seems a little unlikely. (By the way, I am not sure why we are all making the same sweeping judgements on the average readership of Private Eye, for all I know housekeeping staff absolutely love it).

I speak to the Porters responsible for delivering the papers these last few weeks. All confirm that Dr F’s reading material was safely deposited in the Senior Combination Room on each occasion. I have no reason to disbelieve them.

The pink-tinged fingers of dusk are creeping across the sky and I am painfully aware that Junior Bursar will be requiring a report any minute now. I stare at my keyboard and huff and puff a little, enough to attract the attention of Receptionist.

“Did you find out anything about our mystery thief?” she asks.

“Not much,” I reply “Nothing we didn’t know already. The magazine is definitely being delivered to College from the newsagent. The Porters delivering the newspapers are all adamant that it was there and that they put it on the reading table in the Senior Combination Room. Head Of Housekeeping is looking into things but their rota means that the Bedder has already cleaned the room before the papers are delivered. That would mean a Bedder going back especially to steal that publication, which seems a little strange. Particularly as the Bedder responsible for that floor is Eastern European and has limited English.”

“I don’t think it’s the Porters,” says Receptionist. “I have known most of them for over fifteen years. I know they’re not always the most reliable of people, but they are certainly not thieves.”

“I don’t think it’s the Porters, either,” I reply. “But clearly someone is taking the bloody thing.”

“Junior Bursar is going to want something a little more elaborate than that,” Receptionist sniffs.

“Yes, don’t worry, he’ll get his report. I have a feeling I’m making this more difficult for myself than is necessary. There could be a simple explanation I have over-looked.”

“Oh? What’s that, then?” I don’t reply to Receptionist, but start tapping feverishly away at my keyboard. Within five minutes, Junior Bursar has his report and I have a plan. I feel more optimistic about the matter entirely. The thing with having a plan is, it doesn’t have to be a particularly good plan, it just has to be a plan. It is far better than having no plan at all, and my plan has been so sketchily outlined to Junior Bursar that it is very open to interpretation. But it looks like I know what I’m doing and actually, like all the best plans, it is simplicity itself.