My young charges suitably subdued and ensconced in the safety of our student’s rooms for the evening, I make my way back across the moonlit courtyards towards The Library. I am determined to find the entrance to the crypt mentioned by Dr J, but strangely not mentioned by Head Porter or anyone else. As my footsteps become increasingly more urgent, I haven’t yet decided whether I will actually enter the crypt or not. It’s not that I am scared, no, I am a practically-thinking person and not especially given to superstition or matters of an ethereal nature. And my experience of dead bodies is fairly extensive thanks to my previous employment, so it’s not that. I cannot quite put my finger on just what is causing my hesitation. Nonetheless, I am curious to at least find the trapdoor and see if I can work out which key opens it. Mind you, we all know what they say about curiosity, do we not?
As I reach the imposing wooden door of The Library, I find myself musing on that last thought. Curiosity… it killed the cat. What cat? Why a cat? Were any dogs ever seriously injured by curiosity? Could curiosity maim a fish? This train of thought strikes me as rather odd and I put it down to the very late hour and sleep deprivation.
I grapple with the ancient and heavy bunch of keys for The Library. The familiar smell and sound of old metal seems even more pronounced in the chill, dark air. The physical weight of the keys is somewhat muted by the intangible gravitas possessed by certain instruments, that only age and experience can acquire. With some effort, I turn the key in the lock and let myself into The Library.
I would love to say that The Library at night is a mystical, haunting place – but it really isn’t. It is much the same as it is in the daytime, just darker. It does feel a little unusual without its studious inhabitants, sprawling books and paper and laptops all over the place, but the books seem to have a presence all of their own which somehow makes the place seem occupied. I set about finding the Neo-Classical section. Obviously, it must be on the ground floor. Although, I am learning not to be surprised by anything at Old College, so a trap door to a crypt on any one of the four floors would not be so far from the realms of possibility.
It does not take me too long to discover the Neo-Classical section, tucked away in an alcove at the rear of The Library. A cursory glance at the books suggests to me that Neo-Classical is a type of architecture. Some sculpture, too. You learn something new every day. Dr J said the trapdoor was under the carpet. I get down on my hands and knees and tentatively feel around the edges of the worn floor-covering for any inconsistencies. It doesn’t take me long to find a loose corner at the base of one of the bookshelves. I give it a bit of a tug. There is some give there, but it doesn’t feel like it will come away all that easily.
Bugger it. In for a penny, in for a pound.
A short, sharp tug produces a louder-than-expected tearing sound and the corner of the carpet comes away unhappily from the floor. I stop. All of a sudden, this doesn’t seem like such a good idea. I am on my hands and knees in the middle of the night, tearing up a carpet in one of the oldest libraries in the City. This is more like vandalism than exploration. For a moment, I consider running along to the Maintenance sheds to find some super glue to repair the damage I have caused. That thought actually comforts me, and I decide to tear up the rest anyway, I can always repair it later on.
The carpet makes a protesting screech as I liberate it from the floor. But it is worth it. There, laid in to the cold stone floor is a wooden trapdoor. My intake of breath would be audible, if there were anyone there to hear it. There it is! It doesn’t look as old as I thought it might. It must have been replaced at some point in the relatively recent past. The lock looks fairly new, as well. I reason that the trapdoor would have to be well maintained for safety reasons, what with it being in such a regularly used location, so I shouldn’t be quite so surprised. This makes finding the right key a straightforward task – it is the most modern-looking key on the bunch. The key is in the lock before I have even thought about it. It turns easily and I am able to lift the trapdoor with unexpected ease. All the films you see about people heaving open ancient secret doors in a cloud of dust accompanied by dramatic creaking and groaning sounds have somewhat let me down.
The open trapdoor reveals some rickety wooden steps leading down into the gloom. These steps do look incredibly old and have not received the same attention as the door that conceals them. The air coming up through the hole is warm and dank and has a smell I cannot quite describe – somewhere between musty and acidic. I shine my torch down and see that there are about eight steps leading down to a stone floor. Well, I’m here now; I can’t very well not go down there. I move into a sitting position and test the strength of the steps with my feet. I am not totally confident that they will take my weight, but I am only small so it will probably be alright.
With the greatest of caution, I make my way down the steps. My torch offers me tantalising snapshots of the room below; stone walls, old broken furniture, huge tarnished candlesticks bereft of wick and wax. It feels more like a cellar than a crypt. I reach the bottom of the stairs and swing my torch around expectantly. I am in a narrow-ish room scattered with odds and ends that the College clearly has no further use for but didn’t want to throw away. I can see why. Although no longer useful, the artefacts are still beautiful. Something catches my eye. Somewhere ahead of me I think I can see a flicker of light. The gloom prevents me from being able to ascertain the proximity, but it is there, right in front of me.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. An ancient and survivalist instinct surfaces at the base of my skull. It is an instinct I have finely tuned over the years, but its basis is ingrained into creatures of all types since the dawn of evolution. It is the instinct that you are not alone. I stand so still my heart almost stops beating. I strain my ears to the very limit of their ability. There is something. The faintest, softest, almost scratching sound. It is irregular, not consistent. All my other senses immediately leap into action and I am suddenly very aware of the thick, unpleasant smell and taste in the undisturbed air; the menacing shadows that are now bearing down upon me; the feel of the oppressive dampness cloying my skin.
The effects of adrenalin on the human body in a stressful situation are well documented and have been drilled in to me through training and experience. I recognise and over-ride the fight or flight instinct and wrestle back some logical thought processes. There can be very little in Old College that could do me any real harm, especially as I am in possession of a heavy, blunt object in the shape of my torch. Anything that is not susceptible to the considerably convincing aspects of a Mag-Light is probably not worth being too frightened of, on the grounds that it doesn’t exist. Come on, then. Let’s go and check it out.