After the excitement of this morning, I am delighted to find myself, once again, in the splendorous Dining Hall of Old College. Over lunch Head Porter is proudly telling our dining companions about the Junior Bursar’s guided tour this evening. Head of Catering is very interested and is asking us to take photos of this and that. I am still trying to take in the magnificence of the Dining Hall and can’t help but cast furtive glances towards the High Table to watch The Fellowship at feeding time. They even have waiters and waitresses attending to them. I suppose it must be quite a feat to get so much food down themselves and many hands make light work. I don’t really blame them, though, the food is rather good. I am idly buttering a freshly baked roll in preparation to stuff it with slices of some very tasty floppy cheese I found on the cheese table, when a horrible though strikes me. What if I end up like them? No, I don’t mean becoming a professor, that is preposterous. But a huge, sweaty, wobbling mess – gorging myself each lunchtime… It could happen. I put the roll and its cheesy content back on my side plate. On second thoughts, there is no point wasting it, it is lovely cheese…
“Head Porter! Come at once!” I look up, bread roll in hand, to see Junior Bursar scuttling towards our table. I find myself hoping that whatever has upset Junior Bursar isn’t going to interfere with my lunch. Junior Bursar gestures for Head Porter to follow him and I obediently jump to my feet and cast a mournful gaze at my uneaten cheese roll before joining them outside the dining room.
“A matter has arisen that you must attend to AT ONCE!” Junior Bursar exclaims. I stand to attention, ready for whatever emergency awaits Head Porter and myself. “The Master’s cat is in danger. He has got himself stuck under a ledge by the edge of the river. Chaplain has been calling him but he won’t move. You have no option but to take a punt and rescue him. The Master is beside himself with worry and wants the cat returned to his Lodge immediately.”
I try to control my face as it battles with itself to display a suitable expression. I can think of no suitable expression, nor anything sensible to say, but am rescued by Head Porter who solemnly declares “Yes Sir, we will attend to it at once”. He turns smartly on his heels and I scuttle after Head Porter towards the Boat House.
“How on earth are we going to transport a cat in a boat along the river?” I ask, feeling instantly stupid. “I mean, they aren’t naturally nautical animals, are they?”
“We need some bait, something to tempt it into the boat,” replies Head Porter sensibly. Clearly, this predicament is not creating the same puzzlement for him as it is for me. Obviously, this is something that happens ALL THE TIME and will probably be something I will have to do on a regular basis. “Go to the kitchens and speak to Chef, see if he has something we can lure the cat with.”
As I explain to Chef my current situation, I try to sound as blasé about it as I can. Yeah, The Master’s cat is stuck by the river, just got to rescue him, you know. Yes, we will be travelling by punt. Chef is very helpful. He furnishes me with an exquisite piece of smoked Scottish salmon, so deeply pink and so finely crumbed that I think there must be a mistake.
“I’m sure a bit of chicken leg or skin would do,” I suggest. Chef just laughs and waves his hand dismissively.
“The very idea!” he says. The Master’s Cat certainly has a refined palette. On the way to the Boat House I am half tempted to eat the salmon myself. After all, I haven’t finished my lunch.
The Boat Master has helpfully launched a punt and has a pole ready for me.
“You do know how to punt, I suppose?” Head Porter asks, left eyebrow defiantly arched. Thank god, I know how to punt. “Good. Take us along the backs and I will look out for the cat.”
It is a bit chilly for punting, really, but at least it isn’t raining and the river is very quiet. Head Porter sits silent and alert, scanning the riverside for the elusive cat. He looks very dignified in his bowler and immaculate suit, his silk College tie fastened in the traditional manner. It nestles beneath a shirt collar so white and so perfectly starched you could cut glass with it. For my part, I am happily standing at the rear of the punt, carefully feeding the pole through my hands, in and out of the water, just as I was taught several summers ago. I was instructed to always punt from the rear of the boat as pushing the punt through the water is so much more dignified than dragging it. I am by no means an expert but am fairly proficient and we are gliding through the water fairly majestically.
Head Porter calls out, pulling me from my reverie rather more abruptly than I would have liked. He has spied the cat hunched beneath some masonry on a ledge, staring malevolently at our punt. The cat is making a guttural, ungodly sound at us, making it clear that, yes, he would like to be rescued, but certainly not by a couple of common oiks like us.
I steer the punt alongside the cat’s perilous perch. I can see immediately that the water level is a little too high for us to reach him easily. Head Porter is almost flat on the bottom of the punt as he reaches his arm out towards the cat, trying to gauge its level of cooperation. Cooperation is not on the mind of The Master’s cat as he flattens his ears to his head and hisses violently. I hand Head Porter the salmon, which he proffers to the cat, making encouraging noises. The cat is not interested in the slightest.
“It’s no use,” sighs Head Porter “We will have to try and take him by force. I can’t quite reach him, you’re smaller, here, come and try and grab him.” Hmm. I don’t like the idea of this at all. I am envisioning being shredded to ribbons, then falling into the river, probably hitting my head on the way in. I carefully place the pole in the punt and get into position. The punt sways and rocks as Head Porter and I rearrange ourselves and I am not confident of finishing the day in dry clothing. Out of the corner of my eye I see people on the opposite bank. Closer inspection reveals Junior Bursar, Chaplain, The Master and Chef cheerfully watching our endeavours. What the bloody hell is Chef doing there? I suppose he doesn’t want to miss the action.
My efforts are as fruitless as Head Porter’s. The blasted animal has no intention of wilfully jumping into our punt and, at this position, we can’t reach him well enough to get a good hold of him. I shake my head in frustration at the cat. He is glowering at us vindictively with his yellow eyes, demanding us to remove him from his dire situation but refusing to help us on any level.
I pick up the pole and punt us over to the opposite bank where our audience is waiting.
“What’s wrong with you, man?!” Junior Bursar snaps angrily at Head Porter. “Just grab the blasted creature!” The Master looks perturbed by this comment, but says nothing.
“The difficulty, Sir,” explains Head Porter “Is that we can’t reach him properly. The water level is too high. If it were lower we could get a proper hold of him.” At this, The Master says something to Junior Bursar that I can’t quite hear from our punt. Junior Bursar nods to him and turns to go, in doing so shouts to us
We wait patiently in the punt. Junior Bursar does not return. Head Porter removes his bowler and rubs his head thoughtfully. I am alarmed to realise that I need to visit the little girls’ room. I hope we won’t be here too long.
After what feels like an age, something strange happens.
“We’re sinking!” I squeal.
“We are not sinking,” Head Porter replies. “The water level is going down. I imagine that the locks have been opened up stream to allow us a better vantage point for reaching the cat.” I am dumbfounded. The water level of the river is actually being amended to afford us a better opportunity to rescue a cat?! It appears that phone calls have been made and The Master must have sufficiently well-connected friends to ask this small favour.
I am grateful that Head Porter asks me to punt and he deals with the cat. With the river suitably lowered, he scoops that cat up without too much difficulty and bundles him under his jacket for the return journey.
Back at the Porter’s Lodge, there is just enough time for a cup of tea before meeting with Junior Bursar for the much-anticipated guided tour of Old College.