I am happily sipping tea in The Porters’ Lodge when I hear a commotion at the front desk. Mug in hand, I go to investigate and find Receptionist frantically tiding her work area and emitting four letter words, not quite under her breath.
“What’s up?” I ask, a little concerned. Receptionist is the epitome of cool, calm efficiency and I wonder what has caused her to panic so.
“Junior Bursar has just been on the phone, he is on his way down to the Lodge,” Receptionist replies, her cheeks flushed beneath her pale face powder. “He does not sound happy.”
I roll my eyes and huff. Junior Bursar rarely sounds happy, but I have learned that he is rather prone to dramatics. I am faintly amused and interested to know what minor catastrophe he has in store for me today. I tuck my mug of tea into one of The Fellows’ pigeonholes behind me as Junior Bursar throws open the door of the Lodge, almost liberating it from its hinges in the process.
He has that look on his face. The look of barely-concealed glee of one who takes great pleasure in departing bad news. The mask of concern he wears does a poor job of hiding the macabre smile playing across his lips. I have seen this look before, generally just before he allocates to me a task he deems too testing for me.
“Good afternoon, Junior Bursar,” I greet him with a bright smile. This seems to unnerve him a little. “I do hope you are well,”
“Yes, yes, indeed, Deputy Head Porter” comes the irritated reply. “Listen, there is a matter you must attend to immediately.”
Ah, yes, I thought as much. A matter I must attend to immediately. Why are there never matters that must be attended to by the end of the day? Or by a week next Tuesday? I am becoming a specialist in Matters That Must Be Attended To Immediately. I wonder if Old College offers a PhD course? Hmmm.
“Deputy Head Porter, you’re not paying attention!” Junior Bursar must have noticed my eyes glaze over.
“Sorry, Sir, I…”
“Well! I expect you to listen when I’m… I say, what’s that in The Dean’s pigeonhole?”
I realise, with mild horror, that it is my mug of tea.
“It’s a mug of tea, Sir,” I reply, having a lack of anything more substantial to say.
“Well! If The Dean can have his tea delivered by the Porters I expect to be offered the same privilege,”
“…Certainly Sir, it’s a new procedure we are testing, just to see if it takes off, you know, I thought The Fellowship might like to have their beverages delivered along with their post.” It is a weak explanation, I know, but Junior Bursar seems to be considering it.
“Hmm! Yes, I suppose… what about biscuits? Would the Porters bring biscuits, too? Because I don’t want crumbs all over my post. I suggest a secondary device for transporting the biscuits.”
“Duly noted, Sir,” I reply, as solemnly as I can. I see an opportunity, albeit a tiny one, to avoid the rest of my conversation with Junior Bursar. “Well, I suppose I should be getting this tea to The Dean…”
“Deputy Head Porter, have you forgotten that I have an urgent matter for you?” Junior Bursar sounds furious, but I am guessing mainly at himself for becoming sidetracked by tea-envy. “There has been a crime, well! A series of crimes, really, committed in College these last couple of weeks. The crimes are of a fairly serious nature and Dr F is incandescent with rage!”
Ha! ‘Incandescent with rage’! I’ve only ever seen that phrase written down, I didn’t think people actually said it. Anyway.
“What’s happened?” I ask, getting a little worried now.
“Every week, Dr F has his copy of Private Eye magazine delivered to the Senior Combination Room for his perusal. Today is the third consecutive week that Private Eye has not reached the Senior Combination Room. Clearly, it is being stolen and the miscreant responsible must be exposed and removed from Old College at once.”
A thought occurs to me.
“Have you spoken to The Fellowship, Sir? Perhaps someone has been borrowing it…”
“Don’t be so foolish, Deputy Head Porter,” comes Junior Bursar’s agitated reply “The Fellowship don’t borrow each others’ newspapers. It is being stolen, I tell you, and I want you to find out who is responsible. I want a preliminary report by the end of the day.”
When Junior Bursar has stamped his way out of The Lodge, I retrieve my mug of tea from The Dean’s pigeonhole and turn to Receptionist, who is looking at me sympathetically.
“What do you think?” I ask her “Do you think someone is really stealing Dr F’s copy of Private Eye?”
Receptionist shrugs. “It doesn’t seem likely,” she replies. “The Fellowship would know it belonged to Dr F, the only other people with access to the Senior Combination Room are the Porters and the Bedders.”
“I can’t see any of our chaps being avid readers of Private Eye,” I conclude, somewhat cynically, I feel.
“I can’t see any of the Porters being avid readers, full stop” Receptionist confirms my conclusion.
“Hmm, and the Bedders even less so,” I agree.
“It must be going somewhere,” says Receptionist, little cogs in her immaculately coiffured head evidently turning. I take a long sip of tea.
“Maybe it’s not making it as far as the Senior Combination Room,” I muse “Perhaps it is going astray somewhere on the way.”
“Well, you’ll have to come up with something to put in your report to Junior Bursar”
I think a little on the conundrum, until my desk phone interrupts me.
“Deputy Head Porter? It’s The Dean here”
“Good afternoon, Sir, I hope you are well,” my enquiry is uninspired and insincere, my mind on weightier matters.
“Very well, thank you. Junior Bursar tells me you have made me a cup of tea? Bring it up, will you, I’m parched.”
I close my eyes. I sigh.
“Yes, Sir. Right away Sir…”