Junior Bursar’s announcement came as something as a surprise to me. It never occurred to me that anyone actually retired at Old College; I always just assumed that the only way Fellows ever left was in a box. Head Porter hasn’t said much but I can tell he is a little fuddled about the matter. He certainly wasn’t expecting this. Of course, once Fellows reach a certain age (or a certain state of mental confusion) their College duties diminish or cease altogether. But they certainly don’t go away, they remain seemingly sempiternal within Old College until they are called to the great lecture theater (or, more likely, Dining Hall) in the sky. Like Dr D and Professor K. In Dr D’s case, even death itself wasn’t enough to shift him from his seat by the fire. I am sure Junior Bursar must have his reasons and he is dreadfully fond of Tuscany, after all.
Tea and biscuits with Head Porter have been lovely but by the end of my shift I feel that a more substantial form of refreshment is required. Late afternoon gives way to evening with quiet dignity as I leave Old College and The City streets are more beautiful than ever, bathed in the amber warmth of the setting sun. This part of The City is dominated by imposing architecture, some of which is over eight hundred years old. Fabulously modern buildings intermingle with the ancient not so very far from here, but these streets belong to bygone ages. It is a pleasant route to an even more pleasing destination.
The Albatross boasts of being the oldest public house in The City and I am sure that this is probably the case. This claim has also made it one of the most famous and so is often filled with tourists, as well as the more sociable locals. The prices are a little higher than other nearby pubs but I am prepared to splash out a little extra for the anonymity of drinking in a busy establishment. It is far easier to be alone in a crowd of strangers than to find solitude in a sparsely occupied bar. This I know from experience.
As it happens, there are not only strangers in The Albatross this evening. Cheerfully ordering a large Scotch at the bar is Head Gardener. The pub is filling up quickly so I hurry to his side in the hope of jumping the queue. I am happy enough to share a drink with this most friendly chap.
“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter!” Head Gardener greats me amiably. “Drink?” Aha! My plan has worked. I request a glass of Bordeaux, large of course. I cannot be sure if the news of Junior Bursar’s retirement has yet reached the Gardeners, so I decide to avoid the subject for now. We take a table in the pub courtyard and each roll a cigarette. The evening is a little chilly to be sitting outside but if we wish to indulge in our filthy habit, we have no choice.
I lean back in my chair as I savour my first exhalation of tobacco and notice something strange.
“Hey, look up there,” I say pointing upwards. “Someone’s left a window open up there. That room is going to be freezing!”
Head Gardener follows my gaze and laughs.
“That window is always left open,” he replies. “It has to be!”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Why does it have to be left open?”
“Oh, don’t you know?” he says with some surprise. “It’s so the ghost can get out.” I laugh at this.
“I can’t believe you don’t know,” Head Gardener sips his whiskey and re-lights his roll up. “This pub has been owned by Caelestis College for, oooh, centuries now. Back in the old days, probably about three hundred years ago, the College wasn’t the best of landlords. That window up there was hanging off its hinges and the landlady of the pub at the time was concerned, what with that being her little boy’s bedroom. Rather than properly fix it, the College send round a chap with a ladder to nail the window shut. Well, that was all well and good and at least the little lad couldn’t accidentally fall out the window. But then there was a terrible fire in the pub, destroyed most of it, it did. The poor little boy was trapped in his room and the fire was too fierce to try and get up the stairs to rescue him. They put a ladder up to his window but they couldn’t budge it, on account of it being nailed shut. The lad died in that fire and all they could do was listen to his screams as he burned.”
“That’s horrible!” I squeal.
“Yes, it is” Head Gardener finishes his roll up and starts to construct another. “Since then, the window to that room has always been left open. So that the little one isn’t trapped. If the window has ever been shut, they say it opens itself again. Or, there is such a dreadful presence felt in the whole building it is unbearable. The presence leaves as soon as the window is opened.”
“Really?” I ask, sceptical “People really believe that?”
Head Gardener shrugs.
“I dunno,” he says “But the window is always open, whatever the weather, whatever the hour of day. That much I can tell you.”
I take a large mouthful of the (very good) Bordeaux and eye the window suspiciously. If true, this is indeed a very sad story. And for three hundred years The Albatross has ensured he would never be trapped again. Sadder still, the little boy evidently still has not escaped that room. I hope that one day he does.