It is still dark as I make my way towards the huge iron gates of Old College for my very first day as the new Deputy Head Porter. For the first time in what seems like forever, I am not wearing body armour or itchy trousers to go to work. The only reminders of my former career in the Fuzz are my trusty maglight and a very nice pen my former colleagues gave me as a leaving present, the latter of which is sitting in my jacket pocket. I can feel it there, like a tiny security blanket, close to my heart, its very presence giving the impression that my old team are only a radio transmission away. But they are not. There is no back up. I am all alone in a whole new world and I have no idea what I am doing. I’ve never even been to college, let alone one of the finest universities in the world. I left school at 16 and worked various jobs, then spent most of the last 7 years being abused and threatened by drunks and drug addicts on a council estate 60 miles away. But now I am the Deputy Head Porter of Old College, an institution steeped in traditions of learning and academia. I probably won’t need back up. But I wish to God it was there anyway.
I open the door to the Porters’ Lodge, and am struck by the intricate and organised arrangement of pigeonholes, ledgers, notices and stationary. It feels faintly reassuring, a bit like going into a school stationary cupboard. The air is slightly musty, I suppose from the array of paper and wood, and there is a vague sense of promptness about it. I think I like it. The Head Porter spots me and strides over in his funny stripy trousers and his college tie fastened beautifully around his neck. He is friendly and welcoming. There are other Porters milling about, eyeing me suspiciously. I swear I hear one of them whisper – “…But it’s a woman”. I put it to the back of my mind and get on with the awkward business of introductions, forced smiles and the empty pleasantries that come with being the New One.
The first thing that hits me is that everyone in the Lodge has been here FOREVER. The only other woman in the Lodge, The Receptionist, tells me she has been there 25 years. To begin with, the first 5 or 6 years, the Fellows didn’t speak to her at all. Women in college were tolerated, it seems only because of relatively recent rules and regulations on Diversity. Since the college was founded in 15th century, there has never been a female Deputy Head or Head Porter. I haven’t even had lunch yet but I was already informed that my new staff did not want a female boss. Perversely, I find this quite invigorating. I am certainly not going to be put off by some grumpy old buggers and am no stranger to a bit of controversy. Time to put the cat amongst the pigeonholes!
The day continues, I meet so many people, I have no idea who they are. Invariably, they are professors or doctors and they have been at Old College FOREVER. The first words that tumble forth from all of them are acknowledgements of my womanhood. To be fair, some of them seem very positive about it. The other female staff members I meet seem amazed and delighted. I make some clumsy comments about ‘girl power’ at the College – these are regarded with nervous suspicion. Bugger them. I’ve faced up to far more intimidating people and situations than some elderly intellectuals and I’ve been in more scrapes than they’ve had hot dinners, this is not going to worry me one bit.
I have NOT been in more scrapes than they have had hot dinners – it seems all these people DO is have hot dinners! Lunchtime is a triumph. My meals are included as part of my job, and I get twice as long for lunch as the Porters. Ha. The dining hall is magnificent, all wood panelling and oil paintings the size of the flat screen TVs you see in the homes of people on benefits. The food is varied, plentiful and of very good quality. Most importantly it’s free. I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the stomach of a concrete elephant and decide to make a point that even if I am not a male Deputy Head Porter, I can certainly eat like one. I look over to the High Table, where the Fellowship are guzzling away noisily. They are certainly a robust bunch, their fat ruddy faces devouring plates of food the likes of which I only usually see on Christmas Day. This is only lunch, goodness knows what they get through at their formal dinners of an evening. Their complexions suggest to me a love of port and wine and I start to feel that maybe I could fit in here after all!
I am introduced to the College chaplain, who is also the College vet. He is a vast and jolly man whose clothes can barely contain his immense bulk. On a couple of occasions I am concerned that he is going to explode completely as he coughs and splutters his way through our brief conversation. Just as I am about to admire the man’s work ethic of working two jobs, I am informed that pets at the College are banned, save for the Master’s cat who is in excellent health. I am unable to comprehend a need for a College vet, but that really isn’t any of my business.
Lunch over with, Head Porter takes me to the College tailor to have me measured for my ‘uniform’. The tailor is much as I had imagined (in so much as that I hadn’t even thought about tailors until I was informed I was being taken to see one). A small, wiry man with little beady eyes and round rimmed spectacles. He has the smallest hands I have ever seen on a man, I suppose that helps with the stitching and such like. Head Porter introduces me and explains I need a suit made. Tailor fumbles a bit, then quietly but firmly says that he does not make clothes for women. He begrudgingly agrees to supply my bowler hat and silk (silk!) ties. Could she have a cravat? No, they don’t make cravats. What size hat is she? (I’m standing, like, right here…) She must be measured for a hat. I am a size 54, I announce proudly – I know what bloody size bowler I am, I’ve worn one every day since I was 25. The tape measure is thrust around my forehead by Tailor’s tiny little cold hands like he is trying to garrotte a small animal. He either chose not to hear me or outright didn’t believe that I knew my own hat size. It is confirmed. I am a 54. They don’t make bowlers that small, it will have to be specially ordered from Christies. This will be expensive and time consuming. I am grateful to Head Porter for bluntly placing the order and looking at Tailor in the same manner an experienced copper looks at a petulant offender who is thinking about not moving along quietly. Feels a bit like I’ve got back up.
Back at the Lodge, I find a tailor online who will make me the required suit in charcoal grey and will do the necessary embroidery. It will take a week. Head Porter seems a little taken aback at my ability to find clothes for myself but I don’t know why he should be so surprised. As a woman, shopping for clothes should be a finely honed skill, surely? Anyway, I’ve made it through my first day. The first day of the rest of my life? Maybe just the first day of a very short career that floundered because I couldn’t grow a penis. Time will tell.