Month: January 2014

A Friend Of The Dean

There is a crisp chill in the air as I make my way, at some considerable speed it must be said, to The Dean’s rooms. I have been summoned. I am silently racking my brains for some recollection of a minor misdemeanor or faux pas I may have committed recently, to warrant being called at such haste to the formidable man’s rooms.  I cannot think of one, but that does not necessarily mean that I haven’t done something of an unsatisfactory nature.

I hurry up the staircase towards the surprisingly small and unassuming wooden door with a carefully painted sign bearing the legend: ‘The Dean’. In my rush I almost trip over a Bedder, who is diligently scrubbing a skirting board. She gives me a ferocious look as I mumble an apology and continue my ascent up the rickety staircase.

I reach The Dean’s door somewhat flustered. I am probably about to be shouted at for no discernable reason and I have just about given a Bedder a bit of a kicking. This is not an auspicious start to my day. I take a deep breath and bravely knock on The Dean’s door.

“Who is it? What do you want?” comes the booming reply from behind the door.

“It’s me, Sir. Deputy Head Porter,” I reply, wincing. “You asked me to come and see you right away?”

A pause.

“Oh! Yes! Of course…” There is some commotion, then The Dean throws open his door and beams at me magnificently whilst striking a gallant pose in today’s mis-matched outfit of a pink jumper, purple trousers and a yellow shirt. “Do come on in, Deputy Head Porter!” He is almost being charming. This is even more disconcerting. Why on earth is The Dean being nice to me?  Well, I had better go in.

I follow The Dean into his rooms, which are in their usual repose of being grandly chaotic. Huge books are scattered across every surface; some open, some propping up other books, some being used as coasters. His desk looks like a small war is being fought on it.

I do like his fish tank. It should be a little corner of calm in this otherwise anomalous environment, but quite frankly even the fish look rather annoyed.

“Thank you for coming so quickly, Deputy Head Porter, I appreciate your time is precious.”

Thank you?! I think to myself. My time is precious?! He’s being far too nice. He wants something.

“It is my pleasure, Sir. What can I do for you on this fine day?”

“Well now you mention it, there is one little thing.” The Dean licks his lips, which makes me think he is nervous. The Dean is never nervous. “You see, I have a very eminent guest arriving from America and it’s all rather short notice I’m afraid. But he is incredibly important and will need rooms here for a few days, I hoped you would be able to arrange something suitable for such a respected gentleman?”

Oh, this isn’t too bad. I’m sure I can sort something out with Head Of Housekeeping.

“I’m sure that will be fine, Sir. When is your friend arriving?”

“Ah, well. He has just telephoned me from the train station so I would say in about half an hour.” Half an hour?!

“Sir, that is rather short notice…”

“I know, I know. Truth be told I thought he was coming on Wednesday but it appears I was wrong,” I half expect The Dean to implode at the point of admitting he was wrong. “I know this is an unusually unreasonable request, Deputy Head Porter, but it is essential it is carried out. And I would like you to greet him personally, make him welcome, you know.”

I sigh. I don’t really have much choice, do I? I wonder who this friend is and quite why he is so important.

“Very well, Sir,” I say as confidently as I can. “May I ask, who is the guest?”

“Oh, he is a very well respected man. We met at a conference in Dubai some years ago and have conversed in academic internet forums ever since. He is on his way to conduct business in London next week, but thought he would visit Old College beforehand. You will recognise him by his immaculate dress sense and his top hat. He is Professor VJ Duke.”

“I look forward to meeting him, Sir. Now – I really should be getting on with the arrangements Sir. If you would excuse me?”

“Of course, Deputy Head Porter.” The Dean seems relieved and delighted “I do thank you for this rather last minute request.”

The moment The Dean’s door closes behind me, I break into a panic and run as fast as I can to see Head Of Housekeeping. She will not be best impressed, I am sure. Having to find a suitable room and prepare it at such short notice is bound to be an unwelcome request. Indeed, she laughs in my face when I explain the circumstances, but takes pity on me and promises to arrange something as urgently as possible. I take a few moments to hurriedly straighten myself up and try to look appealing to our expected guest.

I do not have to wait long. I see the hat bobbing down the street towards The Porters’ Lodge, resting elegantly upon the head of a striking looking gentleman, beautifully attired and carrying an enormous suitcase with such ease I almost think that it must be completely empty. I straighten my tie and put on my very best smile. As he walks through the door, I move to greet Professor VJ Duke.

“Good morning, Sir!” I announce, brightly. “You must be Professor VJ Duke. Welcome to Old College.”

The Professor returns my smile with his own mega watt grin, characterised by a shiny set of perfect American teeth.

“Happy, happy morning!” His voice is wonderfully clear and deep and his eyes even more so. “I am P.VJ, it’s a trip to meet you. I mean that in a good way, I hope you understand.”

We shake hands and I reach out to take his bag. Porters would not usually carry the bags of guests, even important ones, (Porters are the keepers of keys, not the carriers of bags) but he is a friend of The Dean so I feel I should. The Professor looks uneasy for a second, but allows me to take his bag. To my surprise, it is incredibly heavy. He walked along the street, brandishing it as if it were paper and I can barely lift the thing. I drag it a few inches towards the desk, a token gesture, and assure him that a Porter will bring it to his room in due course.

“Would it be alright to show me to my rooms directly?” asks The Professor. “I have been traveling for quite some time and could benefit from some rest before I meet up with The Dean. This professor is a bit baggy about the eyes.”

I pause. I smile. I do not even know what room is to be allocated to Professor VJ Duke and I am certain it won’t be ready.

“Yes… Sir,” I reply slowly, trying to give my mind time to think of something. “If you would like to follow me?” I surreptitiously instruct the Porter on duty to notify me the second the Professor’s room becomes available, before leading my guest out of The Lodge.

I have no idea where I am going to take him, but Old College has any number of interesting diversions with which I hope to distract Professor VJ Duke. As we approach the bridge, I cannot resist any longer.

“May I say, I do like your hat, Sir,” I say as politely as possible. My love of wearing a bowler is well documented, but I must make it clear also that I simply adore a gentleman in a fine hat.

“Many thanks, Deputy Head Porter!” Professor VJ Duke replies. “The Professor is fond of your hat as well. Do you like wearing a hat?”

“I do, Sir. The bowler is my favourite, but I should love to be able to carry off a top hat, like yours. I fear that I am not tall enough, though.”

“Height doesn’t matter!” the Professor says. “A top hat actually adds to one’s stature, you know. You should get one. But one thing about top hats…if you wear one, you may be in danger of becoming professorish. Of course, you’d need the white suit, too.”

“I cannot help but agree with you, Sir!” I exclaim. What a fascinating chap this friend of The Dean’s is. I walk as slowly as I can, partly because I have no ultimate destination in mind and partly because I want to talk further with the Professor. “I must say, you seem to be a very interesting gentleman, Sir. Won’t you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Well, this Professor is highly secretive about matters like that. You see, there are some dastardly fellows who would give their left thumbs to catch up with me. It’s all very hush-hush—and quite dadblame dangerous.”

“Well!” is all that I can think to say. I can see why The Dean likes Professor VJ Duke so much, but I cannot for the life of me fathom out what the Professor would see in The Dean. Maybe it is his celebrated whiskey collection? As I am pondering this, I feel a faint rumble in my pocket. It is my College phone. I excuse myself briefly while I take the call. It is the call I have been waiting for.

Professor VJ Duke’s room is ready and it is one of the finer rooms in Old Court. I turn to the Professor and apologise;

“I am sorry, Sir, with all our chattering and wandering, I quite forgot that I was supposed to be taking you to your rooms.”

“You know, it totally skipped my mind as well,” says the Professor. But I am sure he is only being polite.

“I will take you there at once.”

Old Court is a beautiful part of College and I am grateful to Head Of Housekeeping for ensuring her team did such a wonderful job in the presentation of the Professor’s room. There are even fresh flowers in a little vase by the bed. I recognise them as having come from by the riverbank. I do hope Head Gardener doesn’t see them, he is very particular about his flowers being picked.

“What a stellar room!” says the Professor. “I shall be very comfortable here, I’m sure…”

But then we both stop in our tracks. I am horrified to see, there, nestled amongst the pillows, my arch nemesis – The Master’s Cat! The malevolence in his spiteful green eyes is evident. He has done this on purpose. He mews and hisses at us as he squirms and wriggles on the bed, marking his territory.

“Oh no… I am sorry, Sir,” I apologise again to the Professor. “This is The Master’s Cat, he is a damned nuisance. I can’t imagine how he got in here… I shall get rid of him.”

Nervously, I approach the demon Cat as he watches me intently from his cosy vantage point. As I drawer nearer to the bed, he flattens his ears against his head and bares his pointy white teeth, hissing like a furry snake. I see him extending and retracting his impressive claws, in readiness to tear me to ribbons, no doubt.

“Umm…” I try to think of something to say to the blasted creature, but I am quite unnerved by his vicious stare. Professor VJ Duke is watching me with some amusement, I notice. He has the look in his eyes of a man with a plan.

“Deputy Head Porter, you should leave this to me!” The Professor removes his hat and places it carefully on the dresser. He adjusts his jacket and brushes me gently aside as he approaches the beast, quite unafraid. To my amazement, The Master’s Cat remains silent; the malevolence has drained from his now watery eyes and I would say the creature was afraid.

Professor VJ Duke leans down towards The Master’s Cat and places his lips close to the feline’s ears. I do not hear what he says, his voice is far too soft and I suspect he is speaking in a language I wouldn’t understand anyway. Whatever he says, though, has the desired effect. The Master’s Cat squeals in terror and streaks like hairy lightening off the bed, out of the door and out into the College beyond. Professor VJ Duke turns and smiles broadly to me.

“Sir! How did you..?”

“Simple! When you know how.”

I return the Professor’s smile and stand for a few moments in awe and, I admit, a little smitten.

“I learned the trick in Dubai. Now, Deputy Head Porter, you must excuse me while I get some rest before I pay my dear friend The Dean a visit.”

“Oh! Quite. Yes, Sir,” I really did forget myself for a moment there. “I hope you enjoy your stay…and I do hope our paths cross again.”

“Absolutely! The Professor would be quite disappointed if he didn’t get to see you again.” Professor VJ Duke smiles, and gives me a friendly wink. “Have a stellar, stellar—and professorish—day.”

 

A huge thank you and big hugs to Professor VJD for his part in this post. I hope you will visit me again sometime, Professor 😉

To learn more about the fabulous Professor VJ Duke please click here

What The Professor Said

With the plans for the slightly controversial new training scheme for the Porters well under way, I am finding myself at a bit of a loose end. I say ‘slightly controversial’ as the Porters are not happy at all about becoming ‘security professionals’. I suppose I can sympathise somewhat. These chaps came to Old College to see out the last of their working days (ideally by doing as little as possible), not to embark on new ventures. Particularly not new ventures that involve restraining techniques and conflict resolution. Even so, I am a little disappointed at their lack of a sense of adventure.

As happens often when I haven’t much to occupy me in The Lodge, I am patrolling the grounds of Old College. I say patrolling; that is a generous term for the superfluous ambling that has led me to the perimeters of the gardens and not much further. I feel a little guilty about using my time so gratuitously, but not much. It is nice to have time to have a think.

My mind is turning over the words of Professor K. Although it felt like he was talking in riddles, I feel certain he gave me all the information I need to pursue my interest in whatever mysteries Old College has to offer. I suspect they will not be half as interesting as I imagine, but it is certainly a pleasant distraction. Having assembled in my head all the information gathered so far, I have reasonable grounds to suspect that the following is true:

Something was discovered in the ground when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt some fifty years ago.

It was something bad; no one wants to talk about it.

Whatever is was, it is still having repercussions of some description all these years later.

The Master lied about ‘ghosts’ in College. What else could he be lying about?

What’s Head Porter’s problem?

That’s a point, Head Porter was been notably conspicuous by his absence recently. I rarely see him these days. This is not a bad thing, from my point of view; I am far happier left to my own devices. But I thought The Fellowship might have said something about it, particularly one of The Bursars. Is it normally acceptable for the Head Porter to be practically invisible? Maybe so, Old College has certainly done much to challenge my views of ‘normal’.

A thought strikes me. Professor K had made a pointed comment about reading – and the importance of a thirst for knowledge. Of course! There must be reams and reams of written history about Old College, it stands to reason. If I want to know more about the history of the place perhaps all I need to do is look further than the end of my own nose.

I mentally kick myself for not coming to this conclusion before. I am surrounded by learning and study and didn’t for one minute think that it might apply to me. Idiot. Self-recrimination out of the way, I believe that the best place to start would be The Old Library. I do not carry these keys as a matter of course, unwieldy as they are, so a quick detour to The Porters’ Lodge is required. Whilst I’m there, I make a cup of tea to accompany me in The Old Library. From what I gather from the students, studying is thirsty work.

As I have mentioned before, The Old Library is probably my favourite part of College. Despite my lack of formal education, I do like books. I am also very fond of old things, so this tucked away little dusty oasis of papery antiquity is just perfect. As I make my way carefully up the wrought iron spiral staircase, I am not exactly sure what I expect to find, or even what I should be looking for. If nothing else, it will be a nice way to while away an hour or so.

The lock requires a certain amount of jiggling and persuasion to convince it to release, but once I have wrestled the ornate and cumbersome door open, the wonderful smell of wood, paper and leather greets me like an old friend. The floor is warped and uneven and I am grateful that this job requires me to wear sensible shoes. I wonder where to start looking; this is not a library that is intended for everyday use and therefore does not seem to have a clearly defined index or labelling system. I’ll just have a little wander round and see what I can find.

Ah! There is the stunningly illustrated manuscript of Paradise Lost. It is in a glass case, so I can’t really read it, but just to be able to look at it feels like quite an event in itself. I have, of course, read Paradise Lost, but I’m guessing the copies we had at school were a lot newer than this one.

With all of these strange goings on recently, I idly wonder if The Old Library has any ghosts lingering? This is in the oldest part of College, after all. I am rather morbidly considering how many people might have died in this room over the centuries. It is quite surprising how recent events have changed the way I am thinking about Old College. This fascination with people dying all over the place is probably quite unhealthy.

I am quite enjoying my own little private tour, but haven’t found anything very useful. I decide to take a seat at the back by the medical books and, at the very least, enjoy my tea. I remember from Junior Bursar’s Guided Tour several months ago that the medical books are quite interesting, so I heave a random one out from its resting place on the shelf and pop it on the reading table to peruse while I finish my tea.

As I shuffle my chair closer to the table, my foot makes contact with something very solid. I shuffle back quickly and see to my dismay that my highly polished practical shoe is scuffed. Bugger. I hope whatever I kicked has come off better than my shoe.

I bend down to see a fairly large wooden chest, tucked under the table and right up against the wall. The aged oak panels suggest it is pretty old and the lack of ornament or decoration give the impression that this is designed to be serviceable rather than aesthetic. Well, the obvious thing that springs to mind is – what’s in it? There are metal handles on either end and I give the one nearest to me a tug. The chest doesn’t move an inch, it is very heavy. I shift myself into a squatting position and wrap both hands around the handle. Using all the strength in my arms and legs I manage to move it by maybe three inches. The build up of filth and the contrasting conditions on the floor around the chest indicate it hasn’t been moved for a very long time.

The benefit of being small is that I can wriggle into tiny places. Under the desk I go and decide to see if I can open the chest from where it sits. To my immense surprise, there is no lock or fastening of any description; just a flip top lid. It opens easily, although the underside of the table prevents me from opening it very far. Squinting through the gap I can see there are a lot of very old-looking books stacked neatly in the chest. This looks interesting.

I scoot out from under the table and drag it out of the way of the chest. With the lid fully open, I can see an impressive-looking collection of very, very old books. Well, I might as well have a peek.

I carefully lift the first book that comes to hand out of the chest and rearrange the table so I can read in comfort. As I delicately open the cover and slowly turn the pages, I wonder if I should be wearing gloves of some kind. I don’t have any gloves with me, so it’s a bit of a pointless thought. The book appears to be the records and accounts of an enigmatic-sounding organisation called The Order Of The Lesser Dragon.

To be honest, I am struggling to understand a lot of what is written here as it is in what I can only assume is old English (or, ‘Ye Olde English, to give it its improper name). From what I can gather, The Order Of The Lesser Dragon was a wealthy gentleman’s society, in a similar vein to the Masons. They seemed to have had a lot of meetings and spent quite a bit of money on wine and cheese. The names of the past members appear to be listed periodically throughout the book, alongside the roles they played within the organisation.

This is all very interesting but I do wonder what this book is doing in The Old Library. Did The Lesser Dragons have something to do with Old College? Ah… here we go. There’s a whole bit here about them setting up an academic institution… it’s really difficult to understand most of it… but I recognise the names of ‘Apple Tree Court’ and ‘Old Court’. That’s a bit odd. If it’s a brand new building, why name it Old Court? This is obviously the record of an embryonic plan for Old College! There must be some explanation here about the naming of it, but it really is very hard to comprehend. There are lists and records of the artisans and craftsmen and their costs and materials. Some of the labourers appear to have been paid in mead! Fantastic!  And what’s this? A long list of names… some of them seem very unlikely… There’s one chap here called Faldo! Who were these people?

Oh. I am able to decrypt this rather unhappy excerpt relating to the list of names. They were peasants, ‘sacrificed’ using some kind of ancient protection rites and cast into the foundations of Old College. This is unpleasant and a little unexpected. Mind you, now I think about it, I do recall something of this nature from my history lessons many years ago. For some reason I thought it was just bridges; I remember learning that people were buried in the foundations of bridges in the belief that it would stop them falling down. It must have been same principle used here. I do quite like that these Lesser Dragon chaps had the decency to at least make a list of the unfortunate sacrifice-ees and credit them in this weighty tome. That seems more than fair, in the given circumstances.

I expect the peasants are still there! Tucked up for all time beneath the ancient walls; eternal watchmen for Old College.

Oh. My. God.

Well. I think I may have solved the ‘mystery’ of what was discovered under The Porters’ Lodge, half a century ago. It must have been a fairly grisly unearthing, a whole pile of human bones. And a real pain in the backside, too, as I am sure there are all sorts of rules and regulations concerning the discoveries of human remains. I wonder what they did with them? I will have to find time to have another chat with Professor K. But not now, I think to myself sensibly. I’ve already spent far too much time away from The Lodge.

I replace the books and make sure I leave The Old Library as I found it. As I hurry back to The Porters’ Lodge I hope I haven’t missed too much.  I will have to take this up with Professor K as soon as I get a minute. He was right, though. A thirst for knowledge certainly is a wonderful thing.

Back To Reality

I am sitting in a classroom in an ugly purpose-built facility, about a mile from Old College. There are eight strangers in the room with me, all looking as apprehensive as I feel. We are here to train as bouncers. Once I have completed the course, I will report back to Junior Bursar about its suitability for the Porters.

I must say, it feels very strange to have escaped the cosseted confines of Old College and to be operating, once again, in the real world. The eight other people in the room appear to come from all walks of life. What has brought them here to join the world of ‘professional security’ is not clear. It will be interesting finding out, I am sure.

We are all casting furtive glances around the room, trying to weigh each other up and look for potential allies and foes. Before anyone is brave enough to break the uneasy silence, the door opens and in walks our trainer. He is a short, stocky man in his early sixties. His bare forearms are adorned in faded tattoos, some of which I recognise as being from the military. His white hair is cropped close to his head and crowns a face that has clearly seen it all.

“Good morning, guys,” he says in a thick Scottish accent. “My name is John and for the next few days I will be training you to become licensed security professionals!” John goes on to introduce himself and gives a brief history of his military and, latterly, his security career. Both are impressive and, although he comes across as a very gruff, blunt man, John seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable person to listen to for the next few days.

We then indulge in the training course tradition of going round the room, introducing ourselves and revealing an ‘interesting fact’. I have always found this a particularly humourless task and I can rarely think of anything interesting to say about myself. That is not to say that I don’t have interesting points, just that I don’t generally like to share them with rooms of strangers. But I digress.

This onerous task at least reveals to me the identity of my new chums. We have Paul, an Irish gentleman who is soon to retire from his job as a prison officer and is hoping to do some casual bouncering in his twilight years. There is Pavel, who worked as an inspector in the Bulgarian police force before moving his family to the UK. He is tall and broad and looks a little like David Beckham. I also notice that his trousers are a little too short for him and he is wearing socks so white I have to shield my eyes. Jamie and Simon are two young barmen who have been sent here by their employer. There is a man in his fifties called Steve, and an African man I can barely understand called Samuel. James is an intense and serious-looking young man who for some reason appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lastly, there is Tim. Tim seems to me to be the most unlikely security professional I could possibly imagine. He has greasy, dyed black hair, a straggly ginger beard and would weigh barely seven stone soaking wet. He looks uncomfortable and says he is here because his girlfriend wanted him to get a proper job.

And so our little band of trainee bouncers is formed. John rouses and cajoles us along and we are soon noisily and enthusiastically engaging as a group. Well, some of us are. Some of us are sitting sulkily and pretending to make notes. Mainly Tim and Samuel. Samuel can be partly excused, as English is obviously not his strong point. Tim regards the class with barely-concealed suspicion and distaste.  Or perhaps it is just the thought of getting a ‘proper job’ that he finds distasteful.

We soon discover that John can be easily side-tracked by getting him to regale us with stories from his military days. With gentle coaxing, we can illicit all sorts of gory details and tales of derring-do, which he relays with relish. There is a deliciously schoolboy-like atmosphere as we do our best to distract from our lessons as often, and as for as long, as possible.

Eventually, we reach the point of the inevitable role-playing scenarios. Samuel is given the role of unconscious male, who is to be discovered by Pavel during his tour of duty. Samuel performs his role with great aplomb and lies prone on the floor, every inch the unconscious vagrant. Pavel enters the scene. On seeing Samuel, he strides over and you can see his mind assessing the threat to the security of his imaginary workplace. Pavel then leans down and grabs Samuel by his lapels and starts to drag him towards the classroom door. This is a surprising tactic and no one is more surprised than Samuel who looks around in confusion and mild terror.

“No, no Pavel,” cries John, jumping up from his seat. “Use your communication skills like we talked about, remember? Try it again.”

Pavel unceremoniously drops Samuel back to the floor and restarts his scenario. Samuel keeps one eye open as he awaits the return of Pavel. The scene replays in exactly the same way, but as he is man-handling Samuel, Pavel announces in heavily-accented but perfect English “My name is Pavel. I am the security guard for this place. And now you must leave!”

As Pavel is trying to force Samuel out of the classroom, John intervenes as kindly as he can.

“Pavel, what were we saying about communicating with our customers? About showing empathy? Do you remember what we said about empathy?” John asks desperately. Pavel nods his head.

“Yes,” he replies “It is when you wear the shoes of the customer, yes?”

In my periphery vision I can see Paul desperately trying to suppress laughter. Jamie and Simon don’t bother to suppress it and are giving Pavel a warm round of applause for his performance. Samuel is looking deeply uncomfortable and appears relieved when John announces that it is lunchtime.

The following days pass pleasantly enough and all the talk of patrol plans, reasonable force and ‘high risk situations’ find me on much more familiar ground than the seemingly random and esoteric ways of Old College. Being back in the real world, back within my comfort zone – I can’t deny that it feels good. I am reminded that I am not a heathen idiot who has no idea what she is doing. I have skills and knowledge that are relevant and respected. That said, the real world does not provide you with hot meals on a regular basis and certainly doesn’t offer the surreal entertainment provided by College life.

I make my way back to Old College to find out what I have missed while I have been away. To be honest, I am toying with the idea of giving this ‘security professional’ lark a go. But when I see the iconic and ancient gates looming before me, I realise that there is little chance I will go down that road. The promise of hot meals on a regular basis is too strong to resist. Cursing the weak resolve of my stomach, I return to the Porters’ Lodge and hope that at least some of Old College has missed me. Just a little bit.

But, alas, they appear not to have missed me very much at all. The only remarks passed are that the supplies of tea are notably less-depleted than usual and the kitchens have more leftovers from lunch. It is nice to know my presence makes an impact, no matter how small.