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.