The carriages of the venerable guests of The Great Feast are already arriving, conveying, no doubt, those fortunate enough to be attending a pre-drinks reception drinks reception. It’s a little bit like a Hollywood red carpet event, but in place of the glitz and glamour is understated elegance and old school resplendence. Instead of stars of the stage and screen there are Lords and Ladies, doctors and professors and all kinds of collegiate aficionados. It quickly becomes evident that the Rolls Royces and Bentleys are struggling to squeeze into the distinctly average sized parking spaces of Old College. The gleaming, stately vehicles are a mixture of stunning classics and brand new, top of the range leviathans. All chauffeur driven, of course. I take pity on the chauffeurs and invite them for tea and biscuits in The Porters’ Lodge. A few take me up on my offer, but most look down their perfectly-chiselled noses at me. Even the chauffeurs are of better breeding than College Porters, it seems. Then again, I am not entirely surprised at this. These chaps, in their impeccable suits and peaked Parker-esque caps, look like pedigrees. The Porters and I are mongrels, at best.
As I am contemplating putting the kettle on, a gentleman who looks like a 1950’s catalogue model wearing a chauffeur’s uniform strides into The Lodge with the arrogance and allure of a Siamese cat. He casts his gaze distastefully around the assembled staff – that is, myself and the duty Porter, who is halfway through eating an elderly meat pie.
“Good evening,” I venture, as superciliously as I dare “Can I help you?” The Chauffeur sniffs at me and narrows his eyes, as if I am the most unpleasant article he has come across recently. I probably am.
“Lord and Lady B-K have arrived. I believe you have instructions to escort them directly to Senior Bursar’s rooms.” This is a statement of fact, not a question, or a polite request. The Porter wipes his greasy paws on his trousers before removing rather a lot of short crust pastry from his mouth with the sleeve of his already heavily soiled jacket.
“Oh aye, Senior Bursar rang down about that earlier,” he says “’Ere, give us a tick and I’ll show you up…”
“It’s fine!” I interrupt quickly, jumping to my feet “I will show them to Senior Bursar’s rooms. You – you finish your pie, or whatever it is,”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, Deputy Head Porter, if you’re sure you don’t mind…” The Porter swivels his eyes between The Chauffeur and his half-eaten supper. He is obviously slightly torn between his duty and his pie, but only slightly. The draw of the pie is far stronger.
“Not at all, it will be my pleasure. Please, take me to Lord and Lady B-K.”
The Porter gives me a grateful look and waves me off as I scurry after The Chauffeur as he stalks across the car park towards the awaiting Rolls Royce. Well, that’s kept The Porter happy, I muse to myself. How to make friends and influence Porters; never separate them from their pies.
Standing by the Roller (with the 80’s style doors that open backwards) are, evidently, Lord and Lady B-K. To describe Lord B-K as rotund would be generous. Corpulent, would be getting closer to the actuality of this gentleman’s stature; exorbitant would be better still. But, I am generous by nature, so ‘rotund’ it is. Like a beautifully attired little planet, I half expect nearby shrubbery to yield to his gravitational pull at any minute. His beady eyes stare at me beneath monstrous eyebrows that give the impression of two white woolly caterpillars engaged in a fight to the death. His countenance is that of abject fury, but when he greets me, he is full of blustery charm.
“Ah-ha!” he exclaims, loudly “A girl Porter, what? Marvellous idea! Old College will get up to anything these days!”
“Good evening, your Lordship. I am the Deputy Head Porter. Welcome to The Great Feast.”
“Deputy Head Porter?!” Lord B-K explodes into obstreperous laughter “Bloody good show! The old boys knew what they were doing when they employed you, what?” he gives me a conspirative wink. “Something pretty to watch skipping through the cloisters, no doubt? Ah-ha! I like their thinking!”
I console myself by thinking, there’s a compliment in there somewhere. Lord B-K gestures grandly to the willowy and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age loitering, slightly embarrassed, behind him.
“This is my wife!” as if he has revealed some hitherto unknown and shocking information. “We are pleased to meet you, Deputy Head Porter. Now, where can a man get a good stiff drink?”
“I will take you directly to Senior Bursar’s rooms,” I reply. I cast a glance at The Chauffeur, who looks at me with disdain. I throw him a derogatory air-kiss to annoy him, which it clearly does.
Lord B-K strides purposefully towards the bridge, enthusiastically regaling me with tales of his commute from London and enunciating beautifully as he does so. I struggle to keep up, and notice with dismay that Lady B-K is trailing several feet behind us, the combination of ancient uneven flagstones and expensive vertiginous heels conspiring to hinder her progress. She gathers the folds of her swirling silk gown in her delicate, bejewelled hands and totters along as best she can. I am caught between the two of them, trying to keep pace with the eager Lord, both in stride and conversation, and with the Lady; trying to politely hurry her along to rejoin her husband. As I stoop to gather the flowing material of her gown as we ascend the bridge, I feel I must make some effort to converse with her.
“What a beautiful dress!” I remark. Always a safe bet when engaging a Lady, I feel.
“Oh, do you think so? Thank you so much!” she seems genuinely delighted at the compliment. “One never knows what to wear this time of year, the weather is so unpredictable.” Ah, the weather. The comfortable main stay of polite conversation.
Once across the bridge, we enter the building that is home to Senior Bursar’s rooms. Rather annoyingly, they are situated on the top floor and there is nothing for it but to climb the enormous wooden staircase. Lord B-K bounds ever upwards, with a grace and vigour that belies his robust physique. Lady B-K is displaying that familiar look upon her face, one that transcends all forms of race, class and birthright. It is the look of she who regrets the choice of ostentatious shoes; the shoes that, when admired in the mirror lengthen the leg and create an elegant poise, but when have been walked in for more than a dozen steps cause discomfort beyond measure. I feel her pain, as every woman has, as I observe her painful, ungainly gait as she hauls herself up step after agonising step. I hear the unspoken cursing of the footwear and silently urge her onwards. It will be worth it. They are, after all, fabulous shoes. She will be just fine after a few drinks, I’m sure.
Half way up the staircase, the sounds of a most uproarious and decadent party reach my ears. I am very experienced in all aspects of partying. Whether as a guest, a hostess or the one kicking in the door and closing it down, I have attended, in one way or another, pretty much every kind of party you can imagine. Even some kinds you can’t imagine. The sounds invading my peace at this moment tell me that if I were a guest at this particular soiree, it would be time to consider getting a taxi. If I were the hostess, it would be time to consider calling the police. If I were the police, it would be time to call for back up, roll up my sleeves and give everyone a bloody good kicking. And this is the pre-drinks reception drinks reception. I admit, I am a little jealous.
Lord B-K makes it to the top of the stairs before me, and long before his staggering wife. The door to Senior Bursar’s rooms is open, but he waits for me to knock. I very much doubt a knock on the door could be heard above the racket going on within, but I knock anyway. No point in standing on ceremony. It never stood on me. Without waiting for a reply, Lord B-K bundles in, loudly demanding a drink. A drunken ‘Hurrah!’ is heralded from somewhere inside and he is lost forever to this posh version of the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lady B-K smiles apologetically at me, and totters unsteadily after him.
I shake my head forlornly and make my way back to The Porters’ Lodge. There are endless more guests to greet and escort about Old College, I am sure. Part of me is comforted to know that class and social standing do not necessarily guarantee moderation and morality. When it really comes down to it, excess and depravity is in the person, not the breeding. No matter the education, or lack of it, the demon drink levels us all. By the time the starters are served, I doubt most of this lot will be able to spell their own names.