Things are ticking along nicely in The Porters’ Lodge. The very first signs of Spring are emerging around the grounds and it is indeed a sight to behold. The delicate, drooping little heads of armies of snowdrops are peeking out from the ground in great, haphazard smatterings all along the riverbanks and around the courtyards. Things that have seemed grey and dead for an eternity are sprouting fledgling flecks of green from the ends of their brittle extremities. Today, a watery-yellow sun casts tentative shafts of warmth from an ice-blue sky. The air is crisp and bright and it feels as though the world has, finally, shifted its great cluncking seasonal gears and is edging itself slowly into the early stages of Spring.
I am trotting happily alongside Head Porter through the cloisters, on our way for a meeting in The Gathering Room. As I try to keep pace with his long, brisk stride, I try to remember what meeting this is that I am attending. It is obviously a fairly important one, as both Senior Bursar and Junior Bursar will be there. As will Head Of Housekeeping and Head Of Catering, each with their respective Deputies.
Inside The Gathering Room, the fire is lit and the great wooden table set out with tea, coffee and biscuits of all descriptions. Housekeeping and Catering have already arrived and are helping themselves to refreshments. I take a seat next to Head Porter at the far end of the table, opposite Deputy Head Of Housekeeping. Unlike her stern and uncompromising superior, she is a warm and humorous Spanish woman with beautiful Latin features and a colourful dress sense. She smiles at me across the table and gives a little wave before leaning across to speak.
“Quick!” she says “Get the biscuits down this end before the Bursars arrive!” I catch the attention of Head Of Catering and indicate furiously at the tray of biscuits in front of him. Head Of Catering dutifully slides the tray to me and I place it between Deputy Head Of Housekeeping and myself. Her big brown eyes shine with delight as she starts rummaging through our hoard. The biscuits are all individually wrapped in their own packaging, so this is not as unhygienic as it sounds.
All the biscuits look fabulous and any one of them would have beautifully complimented the steaming cup of tea I have helped myself to. But I know that one will never be enough. And I really want those four big chocolate ones. I’m going to have those four big chocolate ones. I deftly swipe my prey from the tray to my lap with a sleight of hand that would make a magician weep. I reason that the best way for my consumption of four large chocolate biscuits to remain undetected, is to eat the evidence as swiftly as possible. This I manage with ease, and, I feel, a certain grace. I fold the wrappers neatly by my notebook and usher the crumbs into a neat pile in their center. The perfect crime.
The heavy wooden door bursts open and the tall, sturdy frame of Senior Bursar strides into the room with a gravitas most mortals can only dream of. He is a vision in expensive, bright tweed and his booming, cut glass accent greets the room magnificently.
“Good morning all!” Senior Bursar says, taking his seat at the head of the table.
Behind him comes Junior Bursar. Shorter of stature and slighter of build, he still somehow manages to exude the menace of a man twice Senior Bursar’s size. Junior Bursar says nothing and takes a seat to the left of his colleague.
Senior Bursar is pouring himself a generous cup of coffee and looking around the table for some unknown object.
“I say,” says Senior Bursar “Where are the blasted biscuits?”
All eyes search the table and eventually come to rest at the tray laying, notably depleted, between myself and Deputy Head Of Housekeeping. Without saying a word, Junior Bursar thrusts his hand out in my direction and fixes me with a gaze that could melt steel. Clumsily, I reach across as far as I can and apologetically nudge the tray of biscuits towards him.
Once in possession of the tray, Senior Bursar still seems unsatisfied as he examines the contents.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” he exclaims “I specifically asked for the chocolate ones, where are they? They’re my favourite. Head Of Catering, what’s going on here? I remember making this request distinctly.”
Head Of Catering shoots an accusatory glance in my direction but, mercifully, does not give me away.
“I apologise unreservedly, Sir, there must have been some dreadful mistake…”
“There aren’t any of the cherry ones, either!” Junior Bursar joins the fray with aplomb. I look across to see him fishing out unsuitable biscuits and tossing them out of the tray. From the look of distaste on his face, you would think he was sifting through some unpleasant waste product. Well, it wasn’t me that ate the cherry ones I think sullenly to myself. I meet the gaze of Deputy Head Of Housekeeping across the table. Oh dear. So that’s what happened to the cherry ones.
I realise, with mounting fear, that the four wrappers and chocolate crumbs are sitting directly next to me. I am vaguely aware of Head Of Catering receiving a stern chastising from the Bursars, then the meeting beginning. I make a mental note to thank him sincerely for not exposing my biscuit theft. When the meeting ends, he comes up to me and offers me his coffee cup.
“Here, put the wrappers in here, I’ll get rid of them” he whispers. I give him a grateful look and thank him as I crumple my shameful wrappers into the cup. At the very moment I do this, Head Of Catering seems to lose his grip on the handle and I force the cup from his hand sending crumbs, wrappers and cold coffee tumbling all over the beautiful and elderly rug beneath us.
The entire room turns to look at us and I make embarrassed apologies and try to salvage some of the mess from the rug. Head Of Housekeeping pushes me to one side.
“Leave it! I will have one of team attend to it,” she says brusquely.
Head Porter is looking at me like I have just eaten his children.
“Come on” he says, darkly. “We’re going back to The Lodge”.
Something tells me I have not heard the end of this.