Month: February 2014

Contemplation

Following the hairdryer treatment by Head Porter, I sit sadly nursing a large glass of red – ridiculously over-dressed and looking quite out of place in this dark and scruffy public house. The whole place appears to be in urgent need of repair and restoration; indeed, parts of the building look like they are about to collapse at any minute. However, I get the impression that it has been this way for quite some time and if it was going to fall down, it probably would have done so by now. The upholstery is faded and thread bare; most of the chairs, tables and other associated furniture seem to be held together by will power alone. Quite how strong the will power of a table is, I have no idea. I try to avoid resting too much of my weight on mine, just to be on the safe side.

My few fellow patrons seem in better spirits than my good self. There is a wiry, elderly gentleman sitting precariously on a rickety-looking stool at the bar. He has skin the same colour and texture of an old boot, an old boot that has had a particularly hard life, at that. He is wearing a vest top and shorts that leave little to the imagination. To complete the look, he has opted for a sock and slipper combination for his foot attire. The old man chatters happily to himself, seemingly without a care in the world. He catches the attention of the shaven headed, purple-bearded bar tender who dutifully furnishes him with further refreshments. What am I doing here?  I think to myself.

The first glass of red does nothing to ease my wounded pride and feelings, so I order another. I do not expect the continued imbibitions to resolve my current situation, I just hope they can take the edge off a little. I smile wryly to myself and wonder what The Committee For The Prevention Of Drunken Behaviour would say if they could see me now. I allow myself to wallow a little, and let the feelings of loneliness and rejection swim self indulgently round and round my head. But I’ve worked so hard! Put in so many hours! Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I might as well go and eat worms…

I quickly realise that feeling sorry for myself is going to get me nowhere. And something just doesn’t feel quite right, somehow. I turn Head Porter’s words over and over in my head and the more I think about them, the more petty they seem. As I contemplate the scenario further, I feel my hurt and heartbreak subside to make way for what can only be described as gumption. Ah ha! It isn’t drinking that’s going to help me here, it’s thinking! I should have challenged Head Porter far more robustly. I should have made a point of detailing my successes and achievements. Why didn’t I do that? I think it was the shock of it all, probably. Still. I expected better of myself.

Just then, the door to the pub opens, letting in a shaft of light from the streets beyond and what passes for fresh air in the City. I am surprised to see the portly, amiable figure of one of my Porters ambling through it. He looks flushed and sweaty, his ample frame obviously protesting at the recent demands made of it. He looks around and spots me. Porter bundles over to my table and unceremoniously pulls up a chair.

“Here you are!” he says cheerfully. “I’ve already tried The Albatross and The Shipman, I’m knackered. I’ll have a pint.”

“Err, right” I reply, getting up to head to the bar. “A pint? Fine.”

The barman is friendly but it is apparent he is now a little suspicious of having two overly-dressed patrons now occupying his establishment. Our crested jackets and College ties identify us as servants to the academic world, obviously we are not his usual type of customer.

Porter drinks a third of his pint instantly and wipes froth from his mouth before offering me a sympathetic smile.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, as politely as I can.

“What am I doing here? What are you doing here?!” comes his reply. My mouth opens, but no sensible words come out, so I close it again, giving the impression of an ineffectual fish of some description. “I heard about what happened with Head Porter, I guessed you would be wanting a drink. See, I was right!”

“Good news travels fast, obviously” I retort, a little more bitterly than I intended.

“Oh, you know what it’s like, these things get out.”

“How?!”

“Head Porter tells Receptionist just about everything. Apparently, he said you were crap and you told him to stick his job.”

I let out an involuntary laugh.

“Well, that’s a bit more dramatic than what actually happened. And I haven’t actually resigned, or anything, but there was – shall we say – a full and frank exchange of opinions.”

Porter nods knowingly and flicks some imaginary specks of dust from his sleeve.

“Look, you don’t want to pay too much attention to what Head Porter says,” Porter tells me. “And it’s not true that nobody likes you. I like you. Most of the lads think you are doing a pretty good job. It’s not you they have a problem with. It’s how you got the job.”

“What?” I am genuinely surprised. “I filled in the application form, had an interview… pretty standard stuff, I think,”

Porter shakes his head.

“No, no. Not about that. You see, the previous Deputy Head Porter did not get on with Head Porter at all. He was an experienced Porter and had worked his whole life in College so he knew how things ticked. The Old Boy retired just before you joined us.”

“So why wasn’t he Head Porter then?” I ask “If he was so experienced, how come he was just the Deputy?”

“Well, that’s the strange thing. We’re not really sure why the Old Boy didn’t get the job. Our current brave and fearless leader was promoted from the ranks.”

“Right, fine. So why didn’t they just do the same when my predecessor retired? Why bring in someone like me, with no College experience, when there is a selection of perfectly able Porters who could do the job far better than I could?”

“No one wanted the job.”

I am intrigued, now.

“Why not?”

“No one wanted to work with him.”

“Head Porter?”

“Yep. Well, you’ve seen what he can be like. You don’t know the half of it, the things that went on before you came. Even if one of us had applied, we would never have been given the job. He wanted someone from the outside, who wasn’t aware of the history of The Lodge. Someone he could manipulate and who would do as they were told.”

“He picked the wrong person, then” I reply. “That’s not me at all. Anyway, how could The Bursars allow this to happen? Didn’t they want someone from a College background?”

“Well, that’s just the point!” Porter exclaims “He held the interviews for your job during the summer shut down period, when The Bursars, The Dean and The Master were all off on holiday! Who interviewed you for the job?”

I cast my mind back. Yeah, that makes sense. I started in late September so my interview must have been in early August to allow me to give a month’s notice from my previous job… it must have been in the two week August shut down…

“I was interviewed by Head Porter and the lady from HR,”

Porter slaps the table jubilantly, making me jump.

“Aha! Exactly. You wouldn’t know this, but for a role as senior as Deputy Head Porter, there should be at least one member of The Fellowship present at the interview – definitely one of The Bursars and probably someone else as well, most likely The Dean. We all think Head Porter timed the interviews deliberately so that he alone would be able to choose his Deputy. There were some really strong candidates, as well. He let us look through the application forms. I have to say, we were all shocked when we found out he had employed you. We all told him you were too young. And, obviously, you didn’t know anything about College life. When we knew you had got the job, it confirmed our suspicions that he had fixed it. The first day you walked in, no offence, all slim and pretty and looking like you do, it just seemed obvious he thought he was going to push you around and try to – you know…”

I feel utterly deflated. Up until this moment, I thought I had got the job on merit. I had slaved over my application form and put everything into my interview. I was so proud to have been successful, thinking I had overcome years of prejudice and tradition with my abilities and tenacity, to have stood out from the crowd and been deemed most worthy of this coveted position, above all other applicants. Now, it seems, I got the job because Head Porter thought I was easy. I need another drink.

“Another one?” I ask Porter, gesturing to his empty glass. He must sense my consternation as he reaches for my hand as I get up to go to the bar.

“You have to understand, we didn’t know you then. I’m not saying you can’t do the job, because you can. You’ve really been a breath of fresh air in that Lodge. And you’re right – he did pick the wrong person. He can’t push you around and he knows it. That’s what today was all about.”

I smile gratefully at Porter. After all, he didn’t have to come and find me and tell me all this. It was a kind thing to do. And, he said I was pretty! A small thing, perhaps, but I am easily pleased.

“I’ll get you a pint,” I say to Porter. “And I’m having another, too, because if that was supposed to make me feel any better, you failed miserably!”

“I haven’t finished, yet!” Porter replies, giving me what I assume is a ‘knowing look’.

…To be continued…

 

The Serial Killers Club

The Serial Killers Club is a bit of an unusual name for a social circle within the Police, I’ll grant you. But all the same, I was part of this club during my time in uniform and I am reliably informed that it is still going strong.

We never actually killed anyone, of course. It was, at best, an intellectual review and appreciation of heinous crimes of past, present and future, from fiction, real life and our own surprisingly graphic imaginations. At worst it was a bitter and twisted debate of what ingenious and increasingly dramatic ways we would dispatch with those unfortunates who had crossed our paths that particular day.

Now, don’t look so shocked. You know as well as I do that there are times when each and every one of us thinks (however fleetingly) how much they would really like to do away with an annoying colleague, customer or casual acquaintance. We just took it to a whole new creative level. Honestly, the variety and ingenuity of some of our convoluted plots were so complex and bizarre that they would baffle the likes of even Poirot, Sherlock and Colombo. Even if all three of them were working together. And we gave them clues. My good friend Wonderland (as she was so known) was particularly adept and inventive at this peculiar pastime. I was more concerned about how to get away with the crime, whilst she was mainly focused on the execution. So to speak.

Anyway, these past discussions have proved to be very fertile feeding ground for my own dastardly plots. Literary plots, of course. So inspiring have I found these macabre memories that I am even considering shoe-horning one into this blog, somehow. I think it may be the excessive exposure to Agatha Christie recently but I feel I’m rather in the mood for a who-dunnit.

The Hair Dryer Treatment

I take Professor K his epic breakfast first thing this morning, as planned. It is a bit of a feat, I feel, to transport the towering pile of expertly grilled (not fried – I specifically requested it not to be fried. I have the Professor’s health to consider) mountain of meaty delights from the kitchens to his rooms.

When I arrive, Professor K already has half The Fellowship visiting him and showing varying degrees of concern. I am delighted to see that he looks much, much better than yesterday so I deliver his breakfast and make a hasty exit.

I keep in mind his puzzling comments from the day before, but it could have been his semi-conscious state causing him to ramble. That said, there is definitely something rather suspicious about the Fellows from fifty years ago dying before they could report the unsavoury activities of their colleagues to the police. What could be done about it now, after all this time, I really have no idea. But it would be nice to find out a little more, if I can.

By mid-morning I am happily conducting one of my many daily patrols of Old College. Once such an alien experience, the old place is now feeling familiar and almost homely to me. If I close my eyes, I can identify my location and find my way just by the feel of the ancient ground beneath my feet. Apart from being one of the most beautiful and inspiring places I have ever had the fortune to be caretaker of, my patrols almost always result in the general feeling that everything is well and as it should be. I stop and speak to all manner of staff and students, making small talk with everyone from Bedders and Gardeners to Doctors and Professors. I feel I am now just coming to terms with my new life as Deputy Head Porter in the strange and Wonderland-like world of Old College. I can now understand why Junior Bursar has spent his entire adult life here. I feel a spell has been cast and I have succumbed to it. Quite when this happened, I cannot say. All I know is that somewhere along the line I became part of Old College.

I can hardly believe that my six-month probationary period is mere weeks away from completion. The initial struggle to prove my worth as a woman in a traditionally male role seems a lifetime away. I feel quietly proud of being the first female to wear College Deputy Head Porter colours in over six hundred years. The contrast to my previous life could not be starker. Although everyday a small part of me mourns everything I left behind, I believe this is simply because my new life has felt so unreal to me. And maybe because I felt that I didn’t deserve it. But now, I feel part of the rich and vibrant tapestry that echoes through every wall and cloister, across every perfect lawn and every immaculate flowerbed. I am still an outsider, but I am wiping my feet on the way in.

I check my watch; it is almost time for my review meeting with Head Porter. I have never been a religious person, but as I find myself in Apple Tree Court I decide to visit The Chapel before making my way to The Armingford Room for my meeting. By no means is The Chapel the grandest of The City University’s Chapels. Our proud neighbour, Hawkins College, has probably the most awe-inspiring Chapel in all the land. However, I will happily settle for the comparatively modest yet beautifully crafted Chapel of Old College for my moment of reverie and reflection.

The Chapel is empty, yet still feels as though it bustles with the activity of hundreds of years of worshippers, mourners, brides and grooms, choirs and good old-fashioned fire and brimstone. While the spirituality of the place completely eludes me, the basic humanity and everyday need for higher understanding does not. Although I have never really understood organised religion (seemingly the cause of almost every significant conflict throughout history. That and oil), I do understand the human attribute of needing to find reasons and answers outside of our own egos. There is not one of us that, at some crucial point in our lives, has not cast out eyes to the sky and asked “Why?’ or “How?” or “When?” Whether or not we know to whom we are talking does not matter. We still ask.

I have only a few minutes to drink in the heady, pious atmosphere, but it is enough. Sometimes we need to feel small and insignificant to appreciate the bigger picture. The smell of elderly wood and fresh candle wax is just what I need to clear my head and center my thoughts. I make my way to The Armingford Room.

Head Porter is already waiting for me. He rises from his seat as I enter the wood panelled room. He indicates a plush wooden dining chair set by a coffee table, opposite his own identical seat. As previously mentioned, I haven’t seen much of Head Porter in recent weeks due to us now apparently working opposite shifts. I am not really sure when my training ended (or, for that matter, when it began,) but at some point along the way he deemed it appropriate for me to work independently. It would have been nice to have been notified of this arrangement, but you can’t have everything. I greet him cheerily and take my seat. I am not prepared for what is to come.

Head Porter takes a deep breath. And goes straight for the jugular.

“I have to let you know, Deputy Head Porter, that I have received several complaints about you. There are several things I have to bring to your attention.”

This throws me completely off kilter. I come from a world where complaints and mistakes are brought to attention immediately. Where has this come from? Head Porter continues…

“Several weeks ago, a student came to The Lodge to collect a package. You enquired if she knew what the package might be and when she said she was expecting some new shoes, you squealed and jumped up and down. You then skipped to the postal room and skipped back, before asking to see the shoes. This is unprofessional.”

Involuntarily, I make a derisorily annoyed facial expression and regard him as if I have an idiot before me. This is a reflex reaction but, all the same, not a wise move. I compose myself within seconds.

“Simply an example of tactical communication; engaging with the student at her own level,” I reply, trying to keep the annoyance from showing. Head Porter looks at me blankly. This is not an acceptable response.

“There are several other instances of your unprofessional behaviour that have been brought to my attention,” he continues. He lists them. Endlessly. Asking advice from Head Of Catering; laughing loudly at the front desk; wearing my hair down on TWO occasions, jumping up and down, being noisy, being too enthusiastic in my job… the ‘charge sheet’ went on and on. Head Porter concludes…

“Not to put too fine a point on it, the Porters don’t like you and The Fellowship don’t think much of you either. You need to make some drastic changes if you hope to get through your probationary period.”

Inside, I am torn apart. This feels like a personal attack, not constructive criticism of my professional ability. Devastatingly, all of Head Porter’s remarks about my behaviour are all aspects of my personality that I will find very difficult to change. I will always share in the delight of a new pair of shoes. When I laugh, I laugh with my heart and soul. Whatever I do, I do enthusiastically. (I am bloody noisy, I’ll give him that). I struggle to contemplate why events from months ago are being used as a stick to beat me with. I struggle with the notion that absolutely no one likes me. Only the other day, The Dean asked my opinion on his new trousers. Then, I say the stupidest thing I could possibly say…

“Is this because I ate Senior Bursar’s biscuits?”

Head Porter looks at me with the coldest, darkest look I have seen in a long time. I have looked into the eyes of persons of all descriptions. But never have I felt the aggression and coldness I feel when I return the gaze of Head Porter. For a second or three I feel my world crumble and my heart break in a way that it has never been broken before. But then my senses regroup and I feel my back against the wall, but most of all I feel outrage. I have achieved much since coming to Old College. Every task I have taken on with relish and glee. Every obstacle placed in my path I have demolished with aplomb and finesse. Backed into a corner, I am dangerous. Especially, I am a danger to myself.

“These things you say to me,” I say slowly and carefully “Are all things about myself that are part of my personality. Have you considered that maybe I am not the right person for the position of Deputy Head Porter?”

Head Porter seems taken aback. He shuffles his paperwork ineffectually.

“I just think there are a few changes…”

“These things are who I am,” I reply with a composure that I impress myself with. “I am not prepared to suppress who I am. If the Porters don’t like it, and The Fellowship don’t like it, well” deep breath “Well then maybe you need to find a new Deputy Head Porter.”

The bombshell has been dropped. I cast my gaze through Head Porter. He looks as shaken as I feel, but, despite the catastrophic collapse I feel within me, I know my countenance is displaying the perfect mask of outraged indignation. I have travelled too far along my own path to take this kind of nonsense.

“I don’t think you should make any hasty decisions,” Head Porter is on a completely different tact now.

“It is not my decision to make, “ I answer back with the petulance I learned as a teenager. “The decision is yours. If I am not what College wants, I will go. Let us not waste any more of either of ours’ time.”

I stand up to leave. Head Porter holds up a barely-noticeably shaking hand.

“Just… promise me one thing,” he pleads. I barely nod my head. “Please… just speak to me before you speak to anyone else. I would hate to come in and find your keys and a note on the desk.”

I shrug nonchalantly, before turning on my heels and striding out of the room as fast as my shaking legs can carry me.

They carry me beyond the walls of Old College and into the City streets. For all I care they can carry me to the moon. My legs and I don’t quite make it to the moon, but we do make it to a quiet back street drinking establishment with a questionable reputation. And, for all I care, we can stay there.