Today is an important day. Later this evening, there is going to be a special ceremony, which, I am told, is the ‘Induction Of The Fellowship’. This ceremony is performed once, sometimes twice, a year and has been performed since the foundation of Old College hundreds of years ago. Its purpose is to formally induct the new Fellows as members of the College. Apparently, I have a small but vital part to play in this ceremony, but before that I have a much more pressing task to attend to. I have to raise the College flag in honour of the new Fellows.
Part of my illustrious new role is to be conversant with the College Flag Schedule. At this moment in time, I am not conversant with the College Flag Schedule. There are several flags, which the College flies at specific times; today’s flag is simply the College Standard. Head Porter informs me that he will accompany me on my mission, to oversee my work and ensure I raise the flag correctly. This is a relief. I can’t recall ever raising a flag before and on such an important occasion I want to make sure I get it right.
Head Porter and I make our way through the cloisters and across the courtyards, laden down with a bunch of keys so ancient and heavy I feel I am carrying the history of the College in my hands. A stiff breeze tugs at my bowler, threatening to snatch it away at any moment. The hat is not worn in yet, so sits tightly and resolutely upon my head. The brim is unrelenting against my forehead, something for which I am glad under the current circumstances.
As we approach the tower, atop which the flagpole resides, I feel my pulse quicken. I am not amazingly comfortable with heights and the tower seems to increase alarmingly in size as we approach. Head Porter is talking about the significance of the flags while I am gripping the keys with ever increasing dread.
We reach the little wooden door at the foot of the tower and my hands shake a little as I find the correct key and fumble with the lock. The door is old and stiff. The tower is part of the oldest part of the College and, although immaculately maintained, it has a worn and distinctly unsafe air about it. I heave the door open to reveal a darling stone spiral staircase, twisting its way into the darkness above. As I begin my ascent I am surprised by the diminutive nature of the stone steps. My feet are barely bigger than a child’s but I can only fit half a foot on each step. As I tippy-toe up and round, slowly, carefully, I think – the Porters have much bigger feet than me and they are up and down this tower on a regular basis. Don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that you crawled up the tower like a gibbering girl! Get up there like a man, goddammit!
The steps are worn down by centuries of footfall. The stone walls are cold and smooth to the touch. There is a length of elderly rope strung helpfully along the wall which I cling onto for dear life. As I climb the steps, I see a small wooden door set into the wall. It is somehow adorable and foreboding all at once. Painted above the door is the legend ‘Junior Bursar’. I am a little surprised and also impressed that Junior Bursar has an office half way up the flag tower. He is a man of advancing years and I can’t quite imagine him scuttling up and down this staircase. This discovery has thrown a new light on my impression of the man.
We continue up and up, until we reach a solid wooden door at the top. I fumble again with the beautiful but cumbersome keys and my white-knuckled hands find the correct one and unlock the door. I give the door a shove with purpose and determination, which belies the terror I feel at being so high above the ground.
As I step through the doorway and onto the roof, my head spins a little and I have to take a couple of deep breaths to steady myself. It’s bloody high. Head Porter is bustling impatiently behind me and I have no option but to step out onto the roof, no time to show my nervousness. The wind isn’t helping, either. What felt like a stiff breeze on terra firma is a positive hurricane up here. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t really want Head Porter to get the impression that I wish I had dressed in brown trousers this morning, so I chatter away merrily about the wonderful view and comment on the fabulous buttresses of a nearby chapel. I force a grin that is so fixed it looks as though rigor mortis has set in. I feel I must look positively demonic as I follow Head Porter across the lead roof to the huge chest on the far side. It is secured with a padlock so enormous I can barely lift it with one hand. I wrestle it open and fling back the lid to reveal the College flags. Head Porter selects the correct one and we unfurl it on the roof. It seems incredibly large up close; seen from below it flutters elegantly in the softest breeze. Up here, in my hands, it is heavy and coarse and gaudy. My legs are shaking as we tug and shake to flag into its full glory. I listen carefully and do as I am instructed to finally hoist the flag majestically up the pole. My spine feels like jelly, my head is swimming and my arms barely have the strength, but I raise it with aplomb and fasten it securely. The wind takes it instantly and the flag ripples ferociously in the cold morning air.
I take a moment to bravely survey my surroundings. Although my unease with heights is making me feel light headed, there is no denying the awesome and inspiring view of the ancient city that is home to Old College. I have never seen the city from this perspective before and it is unrecognisable. I can pick out many of the landmarks, but they look almost alien and foreign from my vantage point. It is like another world. I shall have to get used to these ‘other worldly’ experiences, they seem to be happening on an increasingly regular basis.
As we head back down the corkscrew staircase, an even more unsettling experience than climbing up it, my mind turns to lunch as a way of settling my sadly churning stomach. Lunch is still a few hours away and I still have to learn more about the impending ceremony this evening. The ceremony will be performed in the Chapel, at ground level, and as far as I am concerned, that is all I need to know right now.