The light is just beginning to fade as Head Porter and I make our way through Old College to meet Junior Bursar for the guided tour. Several of the Porters have commented that I should be really looking forward to this, as Junior Bursar is very knowledgeable about the College. I have learned that he was a scholar at the College as a young man and went on to be a research Fellow before becoming a fully-fledged member of The Fellowship decades ago. He has been Junior Bursar for 34 years and must surely be approaching retirement. However, retirement does not seem to be a word in the College’s rather elaborate vocabulary, as the many Neolithic-like Fellows shuffling about the place are testament to. There are some younger Fellows, too, conducting research, gradually knowing more and more about less and less. I wonder to myself what effect spending his entire life at Old College has had on Junior Bursar. The other Porters seem to fear him; he has a reputation of being exceptionally particular about how things are done. I certainly get the impression that he can be demanding, but no more so than other people I have worked under in the past. As I muse on this, a specific Sergeant comes to my mind and I smile sadly at the life I have left behind.
Junior Bursar is waiting for us by the library, checking his watch with some agitation. Evidently we are late, but mercifully so is everyone else who has been invited to attend. Junior Bursar shakes our hands and smiles benignly. “We haven’t yet been properly introduced,” he says and proceeds to ask about my background and makes small talk that isn’t too excruciating. When I have to confess to having virtually no knowledge or experience of College life, he is kind enough to explain some of the nuances peculiar to the strange new world I am inhabiting. He finishes by saying “The Bursars take care of all the money. Senior Bursar collects the money and I spend the money”. “I think you have the better end of the deal, there, Sir,” I reply.
We are joined by the rest of our small party. There is the French Lectrice, a beautiful and willowy French woman of indeterminable age. She seems friendly, but only in the way that people of higher social standing are gracious to their inferiors. Another woman (it seems female academics are far more acceptable than female Porters) with large eyebrows and long brown hair that falls below her waist, is introduced as a Maths Fellow. With her is her husband, a tall, gangly man with equally long hair and an ill-filling suit. Neither of them look at either me or Head Porter. Finally, there is Professor F, his purpose at the College is not elaborated upon. He is younger than a lot of the Fellows, with a rounded face topped by tight curly brown hair. He acknowledges us, but is distant.
The tour begins in Old Court and Junior Bursar talks about how the College was built, the types of bricks used and things of that nature. He points out patterns in the brickwork that were designed by the Master Mason and which are virtually invisible until they are pointed out. Then, they leap from the walls with geometric wonder and I can’t help but be impressed.
We continue around the College, Junior Bursar talking constantly as we go. I am enjoying the tour immensely and am fascinated to learn of secret codes written into the cloister ceilings and even more delighted as we are all instructed on how to decipher them. Throughout the College are secret messages and esoteric writings in everything from stained glass windows to fireplaces, if only you know where to look. The very walls exude mystery and hidden knowledge, each brick placed with exacting deliberation. Spending a lifetime within these walls must do questionable things to your mental state.
Our little group is whisked through the Old Dining Hall (used for very special occasions), the old kitchens, various studies and reading rooms, each more elaborate than the last. The old library is my particular favourite, situated as it is at the top of one of the towers, locked away behind endless doors and iron gates. When we get there I can see why. There are shelves packed with books dating from the 15th century, including a beautifully illustrated edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Junior Bursar pauses momentarily in his narrative to search the ancient shelves for a particular tome. He heaves a massive, leather bound book from the shelves and humps it unceremoniously onto a table. “This is an 18th century medical book,” he explains, carefully turning the pages. “The illustrations are printed on the pages with large plates, so all the drawings here had to be first etched in relief. The workmanship is outstanding.” And indeed it is. Junior Bursar continues, “It was customary at the time for the diagrams to become more gory as the book progresses. Here, you can see how the body is stripped away of its skin and outer workings with each turn of the page.” I do see. The diagrams are stunningly intricate. Junior Bursar turns to me “Do you have much of a stomach for gore, Deputy Head Porter? How far should I continue?” I smile politely. “Let’s turn directly to the last page,” I reply. Junior Bursar’s eyes light up and he finds the final diagram. Disappointingly, it is merely a human skull in cross section and not particularly gory at all. The book is replaced onto the shelf and the tour continues.
I learn that a complex web of secret passages weave their way throughout the College and gasp in amazement to walk through them all, up and down little stone staircases, in and out of doors hidden in wood panelling. There are secret spy holes where Masters long dead would covertly observe The Fellowship in the Combination Room, in the dining hall and in the studies. From every wall hang huge oil paintings of eminent figures from the College’s amazing history, staring down, insisting I appreciate the gravity of my surroundings. And appreciate I do, in spades.
As the tour comes to an end in The Master’s Lodge, the Fellows prepare to join The Master for a no doubt elaborate evening meal. Head Porter and I are dismissed politely but firmly.
As we make our way back to the altogether more humble surroundings of the Porters’ Lodge, Head Porter is clearly delighted. “There were passages and doors there even I haven’t seen before,” he relishes. “I wonder if we shall ever see them again,” I wonder “I suppose not.” Head Porter stops and looks me directly in the eye. “Don’t be so sure,” he says, his eyes shining. “We hold the keys to every one of those doors. Head Porters can go where they please”.