Old College is bustling and alive with anticipation. Tonight, The Great Feast is to be held and we all have our instructions. Many of tonight’s guests are esteemed and generous benefactors of College and an awful lot of them are decorated and titled to within an inch of their lives. They must be treated as if they are Gods. In fact, the Gods themselves would be jealous of the veneration and obeisance awaiting our guests.
As I go about my business around College, I can almost taste the decadence in the air. The resonance of bygone life is unusually strong today. This is obviously a propitious event and Old College knows it. The ebullience is tangible, the very walls exude the aura of a child at Christmas. Old College must have seen thousands of feasts – I have seen quite a few in my short time as Deputy Head Porter. But this is obviously a really special one. I try to adopt a pious and respectful temperament fitting for the occasion, but it is a constant struggle to maintain. I rather fear I am giving the impression of being bi-polar.
I pop my head round the huge wooden doors of Old Hall. The place is teeming with immaculately presented Catering staff who are artfully dressing the room for The Great Feast. They are setting the tables with the very best china, exquisite crystal and silver cutlery so delicate it appears to have been born from angels’ hair and babies’ breath. Each place setting has five wine glasses. Five! I feel a sharp pang of jealousy. This looks brilliant. This is why parents want their kids to do well at school. They get to go to the best parties. I am mightily impressed, and I decided to go and tell Head Of Catering so. I haven’t really spoken to him recently and I feel the need to show my appreciation.
I reason that the obvious place to find Head Of Catering on a day like today, would be the kitchens. As I push back the cumbersome metal doors to the kitchens, a world of chaos, four-letter words and exquisite aromas pushes and shoves it’s way into view. If Dante had seen the kitchens of Old College at this very moment, he would have known ten circles of Hell. Possibly eleven.
The heat and noise overwhelm me. The aggression and passion coursing through the kitchens like white water rapids is ferocious in its desire for perfection. The atmosphere is vaguely threatening. I make my way through the steam and expletives in search of Head Of Catering. On every side, the blades of a variety of knives flash and glint in the glare of artificial lighting. Smoke and flame punctuate the scene, accompanied by the roars, hisses and crackles that assault the ears like some kind of audio vandalism.
My ears are drawn to the booming, terrifying voice of Chef in full flow; his combination of encouragement and threat perfectly balanced, like a delicate jus. I make my way through the steam and hostility to Chef in as dignified a manner as is possible. As his considerably dominating countenance comes into view, I proffer a friendly wave. He doesn’t look especially pleased to see me. Oh well. This is not an unfamiliar reaction to my presence. Hide behind the uniform, just like I know how to. Big smile.
“Good afternoon, Chef!” More a statement than a greeting, I feel. “Everything is looking wonderful! How are you?”
“How the BLOODY HELL do you think I am?! Get OUT of my BLOODY kitchen before I …” The rest of Chef’s rhetoric is unrepeatable, but I am left in no uncertain terms that I should find somewhere else to be, very quickly.
“Before I go, just one more thing,” I venture, Columbo-style. “Where is Head Of Catering?”
“Preparing The Dining Hall! OBVIOUSLY!” With that, I am completely disregarded and Chef continues where he left off, as if I had never existed. The Dining Hall? Fine. I’ll go there.
The Dining Hall is an oasis of calm in comparison to the rest of College. The tables are already set out in an even more tremendous style than Old Hall. The only audible sound is the gentle tinkling of glass and silver as I spy Head Of Catering fussing over tiny details. I weave between the tables towards him. On hearing my approach, he raises his head and smiles.
“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter” he greets me warmly. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing at all, I just had to pop by and say how marvellous Old Hall is looking… what’s all this in here? I thought The Great Feast was being held over there.” Head Of Catering laughs.
“Yes, part of it is,” he chuckles “I take it you haven’t been given the full run down on The Great Feast?” I shake my head, interest piqued. “Well, it all kicks off with a drinks reception in Old Kitchens. Of course, most of the senior Fellows have pre-drinks reception drinks receptions in their rooms, so the drinks reception itself is usually quite a rowdy affair. They are fairly merry by this point.”
Pre-drinks reception drinks receptions?!
Head Of Catering continues, “Then everyone goes to Old Hall for the first three courses. They then ‘promenade’ to The Dining Hall for a further three courses, before making a final ‘promenade’ to The Gathering Room for the port and cheese course. They usually call it a night at about half past two.”
“Bloody hell!” I reply. I try to think of something more intelligent to say, but am stunned into stupidity. So I just say “Bloody hell!” again.
“I don’t know how some of the old boys manage it, to be honest. I can’t believe we haven’t had any deaths, actually.” Head Of Catering looks thoughtful for a moment. “We’ve had a few heart attacks, over the years. They all survived. Didn’t make it to the port and cheese, though.”
“That is a shame,” I reply. I would be very disappointed to miss out on the port and cheese. “It’s a bit of an elaborate affair, isn’t it? Even by Old College’s standards, it seems a bit excessive. And what’s the idea behind wandering around College between courses? That must be rubbish if it’s raining.” Head Of Catering shakes his head and smiles.
“It’s how it’s always been done! Oh, it’s all good fun, you’ll see. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have quite a bit to be getting on with!”
“Yes, of course. Good luck!” I reply. “Let me know if there’s anything the Porters can do to help.”
“Oh, you chaps will have your hands full enough once they all start arriving,” says Head Of Catering, ominously. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Alone in The Dining Hall, I gaze around me in wonder at the sheer opulence and decadence of it all. Amazing. And in the middle of a recession, too. I check the time on the wall clock and decide to head back to The Porters’ Lodge. It can’t be long until our guests start arriving, what will all the pre-drinking they have to fit in before the actual feasting. I imagine they must be a very hungry, thirsty bunch. I simply cannot wait to meet them.