The Christmas break is notably shorter for College servants than it is for students and The Fellowship. This is to be expected, of course, but I still feel a little hard done by nonetheless as I waddle into the Porters’ Lodge from the cold January air. I say waddle, as it is simply the only way to describe my recently acquired gait, following the fairly indulgent festivities of my family Yule time celebrations. My beautifully tailored trousers pinch reproachfully at my bloated, pallid flesh in such a way that I begin to wonder just who these trousers where originally tailored for. Me, obviously, but a pre-festive me who had not yet succumbed to the complacent attitude towards alcohol and pabulum that is so common during the twelfth month.
My eating prowess is well documented, but I am usually fairly sensible about what I eat, if not how much. But even my metabolism, so efficient as to verge on the psychotic, has been no match for the rich and delicious festive fare produced in abundance by my overly generous friends and family (brilliant cooks, one and all). I rather feel the free-flowing availability of my Grandfather’s wine collection has contributed significantly to the bloating. We are a family of modest means, but my Grandfather’s long-standing passion and appreciation of a good, rich red has produced a collection even Old College would have to begrudgingly admire.
Regardless, the New Year is a time for resolutions and I resolve, here and now, to eat and drink less. Or, at the very least, better.
I give it a week.
College remains almost deserted as the students are still enjoying their break. I dare say some of The Fellows may venture in occasionally here and there to work or take advantage of the peace and quiet of the Senior Combination Room. I don’t expect to see many of them, though, as the kitchens are closed for another week. I would be unusual to find a Fellow too far from readily available refreshments.
The Lodge feels chilly. My newly acquired fat reserves do little to protect me. There is, however, something to warm the bones of a still hung-over, festively plump Deputy Head Porter. The Porter on duty with me today is, perhaps, my very favourite. Middle-aged, robust, and reassuringly northern; he reminds me of Father Christmas, had he enjoyed an extensive military career. He is not overly jolly, but is courteous and hard working and has helped me out on more occasions than I care to mention.
“Good morning, ma’am!” comes Porter’s greeting. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Porter” I reply. “Did you have a good one?”
“Thank you, ma’am, I did. You?”
“A little too good, I think” is my rueful reply. “Is Head Porter in?”
“Haven’t seen him, ma’am.” I nod in acknowledgment and make my to my desk and switch on my computer There are probably aren’t any emails requiring my attention, but I feel obliged to check any way.
I admit to being more pleased than I should be at the news that Head Porter isn’t around. After an initially warm welcome, his attitude towards me has been decidedly cooler in recent weeks. Quite why this is so, I cannot be sure. He hasn’t actually said anything, not verbally. But his eyes… there is a darkness there. Something I can’t quite read. No matter. I have other things on my mind. For example, The Master’s comments in The Crypt. About… something… in the ground beneath the Porters’ Lodge.
“Hey, Porter” I call across The Lodge.
“You wanting a cup of tea, ma’am?” This stings a little. Surely I requisition the attention of Porters for more varied reasons than the acquisition of cups of tea? Maybe, maybe not.
“No, Porter… well, actually, yes please, if you’re putting the kettle on” I rarely refuse a cup of tea. “But I was going to ask you about The Lodge.”
“What about it?”
“Do you know anything about it being rebuilt?
“Rebuilt?” Porter looks like he is thinking, very hard. “When was that, ma’am?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Must have been decades ago, it was when The Master was an undergraduate.”
“Can’t say I know anything about it.” There is more thinking going on. “I tell you who might, though. Professor K. He might have been knocking around then. Why are you so interested, anyway?”
“Sudden interest in…er… architecture, Porter” it’s the best I can manage. “It’s part of my New Year’s resolution to better myself” I smile. Porter seems convinced. Or at least uninterested enough to move on to tea-making.
Professor K, ah yes. I have only met him a couple of times. He is ancient, even by Old College standards. A tiny, wrinkled little bag of bones and genius with, perhaps, the naughtiest twinkly eyes I have ever seen. And I have seen some very naughty eyes, let me assure you. He does not pass through The Lodge very much; I imagine he does not pass anywhere very much any more. I like him. I like his naughty eyes.
“You could try the Senior Combination Room, ma’am” Porter returns with a proper mug of steaming, dark tea, just the way I like it.
“Senior Combination Room. Professor K rarely ventures outside of College these days. No family, you see. He might be up there, or he’ll be in his rooms.”
“Oh, it’s not urgent, really…” I begin, framing my words in such a way that what they actually say is ‘it isn’t urgent, but I’m quite keen to get on with it anyway’. Porter allows himself to be taken in and smiles indulgently.
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll keep an eye on The Lodge.”
I am a little nervous about returning to the Senior Combination Room, I must say. A part of College I avoid at the best of times, the slightly spooky incident on Christmas Eve has done nothing to endear the place to me further. I try to walk in confidently and look like I have some kind of purpose. The Senior Combination Room is almost unbearably warm, and the fire is roaring away merrily. I recognise Gustav Holst’s Planet Suite playing on the record deck, I’m pretty sure it is Mars. Today, the room does not feel deserted and, indeed, it is not. The very real and very much alive Professor K is encumbered in one of the huge battered armchairs by the fire. A skeletal finger on his left hand is vaguely keeping time to the music and his thin, drawn lips are softly humming. I don’t think they are humming Holst, but that is hardly my business.
I do not wish to startle the old chap, so glide as elegantly into view as I can manage, in over-tight trousers.
“Good morning, Sir” I offer, politely. Those naughty, twinkly eyes take a moment to focus and still a moment more to recognise me.
“Ah! Deputy Head Porter! Good morning, dear girl. Did you have a splendid Christmas?”
“Yes thank you, Sir, lovely. Yourself?”
“It was… quiet, thank you, Deputy Head Porter” There is the very suggestion of sadness in his voice, but it doesn’t make its way to those twinkly eyes.
“I wondered, Sir… do you have a moment? I have something I wish to ask you about, if it is not an imposition.”
“I cannot see that it would be, my dear girl, why don’t you come and sit with me here by the fire?” Professor K gestures delicately, invitingly to the chair next to his. This is quite an honour of no small consequence, to be invited to sit with a Fellow.
I make myself as comfortable as I dare and return Professor K’s thin lipped, yet still cheeky, grin with a slightly more conservative smile of my own. I don’t want to give the old chap any ideas. Or a heart attack.
“Sir, I wanted to ask you about when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt,” I begin cautiously. I suspect that there may be any number of delicate issues, here.
“What a thing to want to ask about!” Professor K seems surprised, but not offended, as yet. “What has piqued your interest, dear girl?”
“I happened to be talking to The Master recently. Actually, we were talking about the possibility of Old College being haunted…”
“Oh! You were? I expect he told you a tale or two?” Interesting. The Master was fairly clear that there were no tales to tell. Perhaps I should delve a little deeper…
“Well, he was a little… vague about the ghost situation,” I reply, tactfully. “I did sort of wonder, though, what with the place being so very old and the occasional passing of Fellows in College and suchlike…”
“Yes, quite a few of the old boys and girls have breathed their last here, certainly. One or two of the youngsters, too, as I recall…” Professor K trails off and it appears he has meandered into uncomfortable territory, as he quickly brings me back to my original question. “But what of The Porters’ Lodge? You had a question?”
“Yes, Sir.” I feel a need to proceed delicately. “The Master mentioned, when The Lodge was rebuilt that there may have been something… wrong with the… foundations…or something…in the…ground?”
Professor K is now ill at ease. The naughty twinkle has slipped; a steely wall in its place. And something else. Is it… fear?
“Tell me, dear girl, do you believe in ghosts?” Professor K is leaning close to me now and it is hard to tell if it is indeed fear, or malevolence in his eyes. Whatever it is, I am not afraid. If anything, I am more curious than ever.
“I’m not sure that I do, Sir. I prefer to concern myself with things of a more solid nature” Although Christmas Eve in this very room gave me reason to reconsider… “The Master tells me ghosts, if such a thing exist, tend usually to follow a traumatic death. He said there had been no such deaths…”
“Old College has ghosts, Deputy Head Porter,” Professor K’s reply is matter-of-fact, not superstitious. “Maybe not the kind you think. Maybe some of those, too. The thing with ghosts, I find, is that it doesn’t matter if you believe in them or not, they go about their business all the same.”
I really don’t know how to respond. Professor K holds my gaze for a few moments longer before turning back to his fire and his music. The conversation is evidently over. I ease myself gently out of the chair and leave the room swiftly, feeling like I have been chided in some way.
My intelligence gathering skills are obviously getting a little rusty as I have come away from this with more questions than answers. Very academic, that. But not terribly useful to me. Without doubt, something or other has gone on within these walls – gone on? Still going on? And I would be bloody interested to know exactly what.