It is Christmas Eve at Old College. I am alone in the Porters’ Lodge, College is closing down for a few days over the festive period and all that remains is to lock down the place. I cannot complete the lock down until after one o’clock, which is when the Library closes. I cannot fathom why the Library has to be open until one, there is almost no one left in College at all. The students have long since departed to their families for Christmas and the last of the Fellowship left this morning. There were a couple of the chaps from Maintenance in earlier today, but right now I am the only soul in the whole of Old College. Apart from, quite possibly, the Master’s Cat, who I am sure will not be going out of his way to visit the Library.
I have several tasks and errands to run to while away the few remaining hours of my shift. They mainly involve checking and locking many of the doors and gates, but I also have several hand-written notes of instruction from some of the Fellowship. Dr G, for example, wants me to move his car for him. Dr J has asked for his wine delivery to be taken to his rooms, ready for his return in the New Year. The Dean wants some files moving from his rooms to the Tutorial Office. It’s almost like they’ve given me errands for the sake of it.
It turns out that my demanding Fellows have actually done me a favour. I haven’t visited many of the Fellowship’s rooms before and it is fascinating to see their little dens of academia. The rooms all have familiar heavy, dark wood furniture – enormous desks with angled lamps as their centrepieces. The curtains are heavy with garish embroidery. All the rooms also have bookcases, like huge wooden monoliths, dominating walls from floor to ceiling. Books bulge and tumble along the shelves, jostling for position with their neighbours. They seem almost animated. I must confess to lingering longer than I need to, just to take in the characters of the rooms. In the still and silent College I can almost hear the echoes of its illustrious past. The whole building feels almost alive. I wonder idly if, when things have been around for such a long time, they acquire some sort of vitality of their own. Maybe it rubs off over the centuries or something.
The Dean’s request proves to be the most problematic. His rooms are a chaotic black hole of papers, files, books, notes and letters. Finding the required files takes me nearly an hour. He does have a couple a lovely leather sofas, which I discover during my epic search.
I run my various errands and enjoy the beautiful artwork in Dr C’s rooms, gaze in awe at Dr F’s book collection and am open mouthed when I discover Junior Bursar’s rooms are even worse than The Dean’s. Senior Tutor’s rooms are, by stark contrast, spectacularly well ordered and neat. His furniture is far more simple and serviceable than the heavy, overly ornate collections favoured by the other Fellows. It seems Old College has not dampened the tendencies of his organised nature.
I take my time locking up the fabulous and beautiful halls and rooms of Old College. I linger in the oak panelled splendour of The Gathering Room and move slowly and deliberately through The Old Library, which is, I think, my favourite part of Old College. The organ loft is the ideal vantage point to view the Chapel in all its glory. I sit there for a while, feeling quite small and insignificant among the sombre magnificence.
I decide to check that the Senior Combination Room is all in order. The Senior Combination Room is the place to which The Fellowship retreat from time to time (some are more regular visitors than others, it has to be said) to relax and… do whatever it is Fellows do when they are not eating or causing me problems. Like a rather elaborate snug.
The Senior Combination Room is located very close to the Dining Hall. This, I feel, is due less to luck than some very careful planning. I don’t come in here much. For a reason I cannot quite put my finger on, I feel happier to give this room a wide berth. The last time I was in here, I was ensuring the safe delivery of Dr F’s Private Eye magazine. Somehow, it seems like a long time ago. Then, I notice something a little strange. Well, very strange. The fire is still lit. I cannot imagine why this is. I make my way towards the yawning great stone fireplace, which is being huddled by several worn and elderly leather chairs. I stop. One of the chairs appears to be occupied.
“Ahem!” A theatrical cough: the universal sign of politely saying ‘I’m here!’
The figure shifts a little in the chair, the aged leather creaking and complaining at the movement. There then follows another sound, which I suppose could be blamed on the chair but I suspect it is emanating from the occupant.
When a voice finally comes from the chair, it is as creaky and complaining as the chair itself.
“Who is it that disturbs my sleep?”
“Sir, it is Deputy Head Porter. I am sorry to disturb you…”
“Is it time for lunch?”
“No, Sir, the kitchens are closed. I am shutting down Old College for Christmas…”
“No lunch! I say…” the rest of the sentence is lost in something between a mumble and a gurgle. It is a little troubling that I have a snoozing Fellow who doesn’t seem to know what day it is before me, but then again it wouldn’t be for the first time. As I am trying to formulate a suitably emphatic argument for him vacating the Senior Combination Room, I am distracted by a pile of magazines seemingly flying across the room behind me. I spin round, more perturbed than anything. Ah. One of the windows is still open. It must have been the breeze.
I skip over and shut the window, a little annoyed. I return to the fireplace to deal with my dozing Fellow. And here’s the thing. He isn’t there. The chair is completely empty, save for a rather threadbare cushion and some toffee wrappers. And here’s the other thing. The fire isn’t lit. It doesn’t look as if it has been lit for a day or so. Not a smoulder, not an ember. I swear I can detect the faintest whiff of woody smoke in the air. An icy chill slowly drip-drips its way along my spine and I shudder involuntarily. Was that… I mean, it couldn’t have been. There are no ghosts in Old College, The Master had said. I stop.
Think. I recall my conversation with The Master in The Crypt, not so very long ago. Dr D? Had he come back for Christmas Eve? It sounds a little daft even as I say it to myself. But then… but then, it is time to lock The Library.
Unlike The Old Library, which is more akin to an ancient book shrine of some description, The Library is probably about as slick as you can get using a 500 year old building. It covers four floors, with the rather smug sounding Law Library at the top. It gives me the impression that it looks down on the rest of The Library.
The locking up passes without incident. My work is complete. As I make my way through the cloisters and courtyards towards the Porters’ Lodge I feel almost a little sad to be leaving. I pause to enjoy the beauty of The Master’s Lodge and reflect upon my place in the grand scheme of things. Just a simple caretaker of this fascinating seat of learning, one of many others, our simple tasks echoing back through time almost unchanged. Even The Fellowship, aged as they are, are positively embryonic compared to Old College itself. If Old College had eyes, their presence in its company would have passed in the blink of one. Even the most eminent and long-serving members had barely ever stopped long enough for a cup of tea from Old College’s point of view. No matter what minor trifles occur within its walls, Old College will always be Old College. Stoic, unchanging, it’s got staying power. All the pomp and circumstance is just a bit of a smoke screen to cover up the fact that the world around it has changed and it doesn’t want to. And no one can make it.
It is Christmas Eve and I am all alone in Old College. If there were any poetic justice in the world, flakes of snow would start to fall and a distant choir would start to sing. Needless to say, neither of these two things occur, but I still leave Old College feeling very festive and eager to recount the marvels of the day to those waiting for me.