The rest of the day passes without incident, and my mind is consumed with the task before me this evening. The day’s duties done, I take a few moments to rearrange myself into something approaching fairly presentable. The male-orientated facilities in the Porters’ Lodge offer scant opportunity for preening, but I barricade myself in the rest room and make the effort, all the same.
The face looking back at me in the mirror is one I barely recognise. The cynicism induced by my previous existence has left my eyes. It hasn’t left my heart, but it is significantly reduced to the point that it doesn’t show.
I am wearing make-up – at work! Since my first day I have worn make-up. Not much, just smoothing out a few edges here and outlining a few others there. I’m at an age where I need a little bit of help to look fabulous. And help is at hand.
From the hatbox I gleefully lift The Bowler. I place it on my head with practiced aplomb. There! That’s all the help I need. I look fabulous. I am fabulous.
Head Porter calls out to me from within the Lodge, evidently we are cutting it a bit fine.
We hurry towards The Gathering Room, near The Chapel. The new Fellows to be inducted will wait here for the arrival of The Master, who will lead them from The Gathering Room to The Chapel via Apple Tree Court. The many candles in the room throw a warming glow through the windows and the heavy oak door gives way to a welcoming heat. The room is all oak beams and wood panelling, with a glowing and regal fireplace at one end. An enormous wooden table in the centre dominates it. Oil paintings of previous, long dead Masters line the walls. They appear a little disapproving at my presence. I suppose they will get used to me.
Satisfied that The Gathering Room is ready to receive its eminent guests, we head towards The Chapel.
“Our part in the ceremony is simple,” explains Head Porter. “We set up The Chapel accordingly, then we wait by the doors. When the Tower Clock strikes seven, The Master will lead the new Fellows across the courtyard. As they enter, we must open the curtains in The Chapel to allow them in to the sacred area. We then close the curtains behind them and lock The Chapel doors. Then, we crouch down and peek under the curtains.”
“Why do we peek under the curtains?” I ask. It’s a reasonable a question.
“It’s tradition,” Head Porter replies, testily. I am clearly an idiot. “We have to kneel down and make sure we do not cast a shadow under the curtains. If The Master sees our shadows, he will know we are watching.”
“Won’t he know that anyway?” I am confused. “I mean, if it’s part of the tradition, surely he’s got a bit of an idea that we might be trying to peek under the curtains.”
“That is hardly the point,” Head Porter retorts, sharply. “Besides, we need to know when the ceremony has ended so we can open the curtains again and unlock The Chapel doors to allow The Fellowship to make their way to The Feast.”
“Can’t we just listen in?” I feel I am beginning to dig a hole, here. “Isn’t it obvious when the ceremony has ended?”
Head Porter barely changes his expression, but I sense that he is exercising every ounce of patience in his being.
“The service is conducted in Latin,” he explains wearily. “We won’t know it’s over until we see The Fellows’ feet moving towards us.”
Right. College servants throughout the ages would probably not have had much of an education in the way of Latin. Actually, I studied Latin at school (it’s a long story) but I wasn’t brilliant at it, so I let the moment pass and proceed with setting up The Chapel.
It would be a travesty and a dishonour to Old College to reveal the setting up of the sacred area and the ceremony itself (what little I saw). All I will say is that the clock strikes seven and the curtains are opened, as they have been by Porters for hundreds of years previously. When the curtains are closed behind The Fellows, I take my place on the stone floor, my knee nestling in the concave masonry worn down by centuries of knees before me. As it happens, this performance is unnecessary as the ceremony ends with a Latin phrase that should be easily recognisable to anyone in my Latin class at school.
I rise to my feet a few seconds before Head Porter (who was clearly not in my Latin class at school) and reach for the elaborate and weighty curtains. Head Porter unlocks The Chapel doors and we stand like sentries as the newly-inducted Fellows make their way to their feast.
As we make our way back to the Porters’ Lodge, I can’t help thinking to myself; I didn’t really do anything at all. But, the few actions I did perform were of such vital importance to this place that they have been repeated exactly for centuries. I’m a strong believer in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra but this is something else. Then again, I think of all the ways I could be earning a living and I think to myself – it sure could be a hell of a lot worse.