As I enter the chapel, a squat, jovial-looking elderly gentleman with an immaculate moustache reaches out and grabs my arm. A little surprised, I turn to face him.
“Excuse me,” he says politely “But are you Deputy Head Porter from Old College?”
“I am,” I reply.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am the old deputy head porter!” It’s the Old Boy! I suppose it is completely reasonable that he is here, he must have known Professor K for many years.
“It’s great to meet you!” I exclaim “I’ve heard so much about you!” the Old Boy lets out a deep, throaty laugh that echoes rather embarrassingly around the old gothic building.
“When we’ve said our goodbyes to the Professor you must fill me in on all the College gossip!” the Old Boy says excitedly. “I really miss hearing about what all the students and Fellows are up to.”
I agree to a quick cup of tea and a slice of cake (it was the promise of cake that eventually convinced me) after the service for a chat. I’m sure Head Porter won’t mind if I’m gone a tiny bit longer than expected. Probably.
There is a respectable turn out for Professor K’s farewell; mainly academics and Old College alumni, from what I can gather. The service itself is a little dry, I feel, but respects are paid in a beautiful manner nonetheless. As we all shuffle out onto the vibrant City streets, the Old Boy catches my eye and gives a little wave to indicate for me to follow him.
As it happens, the Old Boy is taking me to one of The City’s oldest and most famous teashops – The Tin Teapot. It is a wonderful, higgledy-piggledy little place with low ceilings and oak beams. It has been wonderfully maintained over the centuries, although some of the old City stalwarts will happily tell you that it was looking a bit tatty about twenty years ago. And, of course, it is nowhere near as good as it used to be when they were young.
We order a pot of tea and a couple of huge Danish pastries. I take an enthusiastic bite into the flaky loveliness, which I instantly regret, as the flaky loveliness is soon getting all over my coat and trousers. I brush myself down, but only really succeed in getting myself rather sticky. The Old Boy is patiently waiting for me to complete this miniature pantomime while he sips at his tea.
“Sorry,” I offer. “I always get food down me. My mother says it’s because I eat too quickly.”
“You like your food, do you?”
“You must be enjoying all the food at Old College, then”
“Yes, it’s fantastic!”
“What about everything else at Old College? Are you enjoying that?” This seems like a bit of a loaded question from the Old Boy.
“Ye-es, I think so, it all seems to be going quite well,” I reply carefully. Old Boy leans in and lowers his voice.
“What about Head Porter?” he almost whispers “How are you getting along with him?”
It seems my predecessor really is keen on a bit of gossip. I had better tread carefully, here.
“Fine, I think. He seems… okay.” Old Boy gives me a ‘knowing’ look and a thoughtful nod.
“You don’t have to be politically correct with me, mate” he says, obviously attempting to open up a channel of communication. “I worked with him for bloody years. I know what he can be like.”
I let out a little relieved sigh. Well, at least it’s not just me. I weaken a little. It would be nice to be able to talk about the less attractive elements of my job. Those elements being, in essence, Head Porter.
“Well – he can be a bit difficult to get on with, sometimes” I say. “I never really know quite what he expects from me. Or what he’s thinking. If he’s thinking anything at all. Do you know what I mean?”
“Oh, I know exactly what you mean,” Old Boy is nodding vigorously in agreement now. “He likes to play his cards very close to his chest, that one.”
“He’s hardly ever around, either” I continue, emboldened by tea and pastry. “Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing and he’s never there to point me in the right direction. The Porters have been pretty good, actually. But then you’ll get some incident, or bizarre request, or whatever, and Head Porter’s nowhere to be seen!”
“Yep, he was just the same when I was in your position. Left all the grafting to me, then moaned about me doing it wrong.”
“How does he get away with it?” I ask. “I mean, with The Fellowship? Surely they notice these things.”
“Ah, well, yes – The Fellowship do notice a lot of things,” Old Boy’s tone is once again lowered. The walls of The Tin Teapot must have ears, I reckon. “A lot more than you might give them credit for. They might seem a bit preoccupied at times, and definitely a bit eccentric, but they ain’t stupid.”
“Well, obviously they’re not stupid,” I agree “They’re some of the finest minds in the country. So why do they put up with that sort of behaviour from their Head Porter? I mean, Old College is one of the most famous Colleges in the world! And they’ve got him as a front man? I just don’t get it.”
“Would you like to know why?” Old Boy is clearly enjoying himself. I can’t work out if it is because he has found a kindred spirit after all these years – a fellow ‘victim’ of Head Porter; or if he is simply enjoying the old-woman-over-the-garden-gate nature of our conversation. Whatever. Of course I want to know why.
“Go on, then” I coax “Tell me why.”
Old Boy rearranges himself in his chair and pours himself a top up of tea. Clearly this is going to be so good he needs to prepare himself.
“Firstly, they haven’t got a clue what goes on in The Lodge. And neither does anyone else, really. Head Porter likes to keep everyone in the dark about what he actually does, day to day. Information is power, you see. As it happens, Head Porter came to be in possession of some very… private… information, relating to the College.” Old Boy pauses. I am sure this is for dramatic effect. To be fair, I am intrigued. “Let’s just say, he knows where the bodies are buried. So to speak.” A-Ha!
“Bodies?” I think I know where this is going. “Is this about when they dug up The Porters’ Lodge?” Old Boys eyes widen in what looks very much like disbelief.
“Oh? So you know about that as well, do you?” As well?!
“As well as what?” I ask
“Didn’t take you long to find out all the dirt, did it?”
“Look, all I know is that when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt, there was some kerfuffle, then two Fellows died suspiciously quickly afterwards. That’s all I know.”
“Well, knowing that alone is dangerous enough.”
I am losing my patience a little bit. Why can’t anyone just come out straight with what they are trying to say? I had put it down to being a bit of an academic thing, but even the Old Boy’s at it now.
“Just. Tell me. What’s going on. Please” I feel my request is firm, but polite.
“Let’s just say…” the Old Boy begins. Here we go again “Let’s just say that people who have had that particular piece of information in the past have come to a bit of a sticky end.”
“Right, well, shall I tell you what this sounds like to me?” I am resorting to throwing wild conspiracy theories at him and see what comes out. “This sounds like Old College somehow bumped off those two Fellows years ago to keep them quiet. From what you’re saying, other people may have found out about this somewhere along the line. Are you suggesting they got bumped off too?”
Old Boy makes a deliberately poor attempt at looking nonchalant which can only lead me to believe that this is exactly what he is suggesting. I know I keep saying that I have learned not to be surprised by anything about Old College these days, but this does seem a little excessive. Let’s go along with it for now.
“So what has this got to do with Head Porter?”
“He’s a sneaky one, Head Porter,” replies Old Boy, slowly. “Always watching, listening to things he shouldn’t be. Know what I mean?”
“Well, he’s not dead, is he?” I point out. “In fact, he has the cushiest number around! Comes and goes as he pleases, gets away with all kinds of things…” O-oh. Right. That’s why. “Why don’t they just kill him, then? If it was me, I’d have just bumped him off like the others.”
“They need him to run The Lodge!” Old Boy obviously feels we are straying somewhat from the original point he was making. “Look, what I’m saying to you is – the information that you have could be dangerous. Don’t let on to anyone that you know about it, alright? I kept it quiet, I can tell you that.”
“I see your point.” And indeed I do. Probably best if I keep this to myself. I notice the time. “This has been great but I really should be getting back to the Lodge,”
“Yes, you don’t want to be giving Head Porter an excuse to have a moan.”
“Well, quite.” I stand up and offer my hand to Old Boy, who clasps it warmly in his own large, shovel-like hands. “Thank you, and all the best!”
Walking back to Old College, my mind is racing. Of course, I’m not sure how much of what Old Boy said is true and how much is a result of College gossip, rumour and myth. It seems a little unlikely, even by Old College standards. But it does have echoes of what Professor K had been trying to tell me before he died. Before he died… peacefully in his sleep. Hmmm. Perhaps Professor K knew more than was good for him.