Month: March 2014

Junior Bursar’s Announcement

Head Porter and I arrive at the front desk of The Porters’ Lodge to be greeted by a smiling Junior Bursar. This does not bode well, I fear. A grumpy or enraged Junior Bursar is more along the usual line of things. A smiling Junior Bursar is something of which to be cautious. But he does seem to be genuinely delighted about something and so my interest is piqued.

“Good day, Sir” Head Porter greets him, he himself clearly unnerved by Junior Bursar’s unfamiliar demeanour. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“Good to see you Head Porter! Thank you for coming so quickly,” replies Junior Bursar. Head Porter slings me the briefest of looks, a wryly-raised eyebrow taking the place of a thousand words.

“Not at all, Sir!” Head Porter returns Junior Bursar’s amiable grin. Amiable grins do not suit Head Porter at all, but it’s good to see him make the effort. “Is there something we can do for you?”

“All I require from you and your men… ahem. Your people, Head Porter, is a keen pair of ears and an understanding disposition. Do you see?”

“Yes, Sir,” Head Porter replies carefully. “Porter! Come over here, will you, and… listen keenly.”

Porter, who has been ear-wigging the conversation anyway, scoots over to join us and makes a valiant effort to appear to be both keen and understanding. I myself strike the keenest pose I can muster. Which is pretty keen, I can tell you.

“Now then, Porters,” begins Junior Bursar, grandly. “I have an important announcement to make. The Fellowship have just received the same announcement and, although understandably distressed, have taken the news quite magnanimously. I don’t expect College servants to be made of quite such stern stuff, but I do hope you will do your best.” He pauses, for what he probably thinks is effect, but rather makes him appear to have forgotten what he was saying. I look to Head Porter. He is as perplexed as I am. Junior Bursar continues

“The time has come, Porters, for me to pass on the torch of Junior Bursary. The time for me to look back on a life of labours and service to Old College and a time for me to look towards the twilight of my years…”

“Labours and service?!” Porter rasps to me under his breath, incredulous “The man has barely done a stroke his whole life!” I struggle to restrain a small giggle.

“Ssshh!” Head Porter scolds. Junior Bursar is not put off his stride; I feel he may have been rehearsing this speech for some time.

“After so many years at Old College, the time has come for me to take leave of this place and enjoy the autumn of my existence in the embrace of my long adored mistress and muse…”

Three sets of eyebrows, mine included, hit the roof

“I refer, of course, to my beloved Tuscany, where to I shall be retiring at the end of the academic year!”

Well. As speeches go, it certainly had its moments. Head Porter looks to be stiff with shock, I don’t think his brain has got past the bit about the embrace of a mistress. Porter appears fairly dispassionate, whilst Junior Bursar basks in the after glow of his performance, like a Shakespearian actor awaiting the applause of his audience. I feel I had better say something.

“That is marvelous news, Sir!” I say enthusiastically. Junior Bursar looks slightly crest fallen at this response. “I mean – not that you will be leaving us, rather that you have such a lovely, er, mistress to, um, retire to. What I mean is, we are very happy for you”

“But… but very sad for the College, of course,” Head Porter comes to my rescue “How will we manage without you?”

“Well, quite, Head Porter!” says Junior Bursar, far happier with Head Porter’s response. “But I am sure Senior Bursar will do an admirable job of keeping Old College on its toes following my departure.”

“They won’t be… replacing, you Sir?” asks Head Porter.

“I shouldn’t expect so,” is Junior Bursar’s reply. “I think you will find me quite irreplaceable” another smile. “If you must know, The Master has decided to keep an open mind about finding a new Junior Bursar. He seems to think Senior Bursar will be quite able to maintain the status quo on his own. We shall soon see about that, I suppose.”

There is a brief, bitter silence in The Lodge as these last words settle into the background.

“Well! Thank you for coming to tell us your news, Sir” Head Porter seems keen to usher Junior Bursar on his way (I imagine before he comes up with some errand or task for one of us) “We will take a moment to let this… startling news sink in.”

“Yes, you do that, Head Porter” Junior Bursar allows himself to be guided towards the door by Head Porter “I expect to see you at my leaving party?” Head Porter, I can see, is quite taken aback by this. An invite to Junior Bursar’s leaving do? This is quite something for a humble College servant. “I shall be needing someone to keep an eye on the coats and what not and I believe you are just the man for the job!”

I see Head Porter do a grand job of keeping his annoyance in check as he agrees, through gritted teeth, to act as cloakroom assistant.

When Junior Bursar is safely out of the way, I say to Head Porter

“I must say, I wasn’t expecting that!”

Head Porter shakes his head.

“I think you’d better put the kettle on again, Deputy Head Porter”.

Tea & Sympathy

I’m not sure how much of the Old Boy’s ‘revelations’ I actually believe, to be honest. It does all sound a little… well, preposterous, really. Dammit, I wish Professor K was still around so I could ask him. Then again, getting an unequivocal answer from Professor K was like prising a Fellow away from his dinner; nigh on impossible.

It was somewhat comforting to know that the Old Boy had a similarly tempestuous relationship with Head Porter. It’s not just me. I feel a little pang of sympathy for my superior, actually. He is not a bad chap, all told, and if there is any truth in what the Old Boy said he must be quite anxious at being party to such sensitive information. Although, my jury is still out on the plausibility of that particular scenario.

I am making my way across The Bridge, enjoying the sharp spring air and admiring the reflected twinkles of a late morning sun on the waters below, when I catch sight of Head Porter lingering further along the riverbank. He cuts a slightly sad figure amongst the cheery daffodils, waving their little yellow heads in the breeze. I wonder what he is up to.

Head Porter seems completely oblivious to my presence as I approach, his mind quite clearly elsewhere.

“Hello, Head Porter” my voice seems to bring him abruptly from his reverie.

“Oh! Hello, Deputy Head Porter,” his voice is generously furnished with its usual brusque tone but his attention is somewhat wandering.

“Are you alright?” I ask “You seem a little… odd.”

Head Porter regards me strangely, as if he is seeing me for the first time and I am not quite what he expected.

“Head Porter?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine” he replies, a little more like his usual self. “I’m just a bit… tired. I haven’t been sleeping well. I seem to be having some very odd dreams lately.” Something on your mind, Head Porter?

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I offer, sympathetically. “How about a nice cup of tea? That usually brings me round.” Head Porter appears to give this an inordinate amount of consideration.

“Do you know, I think that sounds like a good idea, Deputy Head Porter,” he replies, brightening a little. “You put the kettle on and I’ll fetch the biscuits. Alright?”

“Right!”

Well, this is a turn up for the books, I think to myself as I accompany Head Porter back to The Porters’ Lodge. Biscuits! Biscuits have not been mentioned for quite some time. Not since the unfortunate episode of Senior Bursar’s biscuits, certainly. And the less said about that the better.

In the little kitchenette at the rear of The Lodge, I happily clatter about with mugs and teaspoons (if there is a more delightful sound than the preparation of tea, I have yet to hear it) while Head Porter retrieves the biscuit tin from its high shelf with the utmost deliberation and ceremony. I do feel like the preparation and arrangement of tea things is a little ceremonial. When I visited China some years ago, I was delighted and intrigued by the tea ceremonies and felt very at home with a culture as enthusiastic about tea as I am.

Tea – English tea certainly – is often depicted as a delicate and dainty refreshment to be sipped elegantly from hand painted china cups which repose regally upon gilt edged china saucers. This is all very well, but I like my tea thick and dark and plentiful and as such china simply will not do. A sturdy mug is my preferred vessel of imbibition, which is just as well as The Porters’ Lodge does not have much in the way of fine china.

Head Porter and I sit on stools, squashed together whilst leaning on the small counter. He generously nudges the biscuit tin in my direction.

“Go on” he says “I know you like the chocolate ones.” I beam broadly and take a hearty handful of chocolate biscuits from the tin. This isn’t as greedy as it sounds, as my hands are very small.

I am considering asking Head Porter about what the Old Boy said. If it is indeed true, Head Porter must be very weighed down and anxious by it. As well, he may know something of what Professor K had been hinting at. And he looks so troubled today, maybe he has something he wants to get off his chest? My mind made up, I decide to ask him.

Our eyes meet and I open my mouth to say the carefully planned words I have just this minute thought of. But then –

“’Scuse me, Head Porter, ma’am!” It is Porter, in something of a fluster. His fat red cheeks (closely followed by the rest of him) appear round the door of the kitchenette.

“What’s the matter, Porter?” I ask.

“Come through to the front quickly. Junior Bursar has an announcement.”

Both Head Porter and I sigh in unison. We unhappily abandon our tea and biscuits and follow Porter through to the front, with some trepidation.

Gossip, Rumours & Myths

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?”

“Oh, yes.”

“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.