“What do you know?” Head Porter’s voice is barely a whisper and his glassy eyes are panicky beneath the boozy sheen. I carefully place my considerably diminished wine glass on the table.
“Well,” I begin, swallowing hard to try to suppress my own sense of dread “I know that there are some crazy rumours going about the place. As far as actual facts are concerned, I’m not so sure. But I think Professor K was.”
Head Porter nods slowly, his eyes never leaving my face. I can feel him trying to read my expression, but through the fug of ale I would have thought this was nigh on impossible.
“I think we should talk about this somewhere more private,” he suggests “I mean, I only live round the corner, we could..?” Head Porter trails off as if he suddenly becomes nervous at the idea of inviting me to his home. I am not exactly delighted at this prospect myself but I want to get to the bottom of this.
“Sure, good idea” I reply as casually as I can. He seems quite pleased. I finish the last of the wine and get up to leave, indicating to Head Porter to do the same.
We leave The Albatross together, slightly wobblier than when we entered. In Head Porter’s case, significantly wobblier. He staggers a little on the pavement and reaches out his hand to steady himself on my shoulder. I have an excess of experience in dealing with the inebriated, a familiarity which has served me well since coming to Old College. I gently guide his arm around my shoulder in order that I can walk him safely along the street.
Head Porter giggles, mutters and chatters away fairly merrily on our short walk from the beautiful academic centre of The City, on through to the residential area. I think to myself that we must make a peculiar sight, passing by the affluent three story Victorian town houses, elegantly lining the streets and built of pale, narrow bricks. Head Porter’s bowler hat is askew upon his ruffled head and we are taking quite a meandering route along the road. We must look like the worst competitors in the best-dressed three-legged race of all time.
Leaving the Victorian grandeur behind, we arrive at Head Porter’s neighbourhood before too long. The houses here look tired and shabby in places, but it is not an unpleasant area. Head Porter indicates his house, a neat and tidy mid terrace property with a meticulously painted front door. I notice it is almost the exact same shade of the blue that Old College boasts as its standard.
With remarkable dexterity for a man so debilitated by alcohol, Head Porter unlocks the door and invites me inside. The hallway is quite cramped and dimly lit by a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I can see that the carpet is of good quality but old and worn. Ahead I see the staircase and beyond that, what appears to be the kitchen. Head Porter flings open a door to the left and shows me through to what turns out to be the living room.
“Make yourself at home,” he offers genially “Do you fancy another drink? I fancy another drink. I think I’ve got some sherry or something left over from Christmas, wait here while I go and have a look.”
Head Porter bustles off towards the kitchen and I decide to have a look around as politely as possible. His house is modest but beautifully kept. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it is sparse, but if I was hoping to learn more about him from his home I am to be disappointed.
The carpet is the same as that in the hallway. A little path has been worn from the doorway, to the settee and to the televison (the old, bulky kind) while the carpet at the edges of the room remain quite plump and fresh. The settee is an elderly brown leather affair, well used but also well loved. A matching chair sits in the corner of the room, I would guess for use by visitors. It looks barely used and seems a little sad in the corner by itself. Other than a coffee table and a little bookshelf, there is very little else in the room at all.
I hear Head Porter calling out from the kitchen, it seems he has found something or other for us to drink. Just then, I notice a small photograph in an elaborate gold frame on the bookshelf. I move towards it to have a look. It is a picture of a smiling, red-haired little girl of about three years old.
“Here, Deputy Head Porter, I’ve found half a bottle of sweet sherry,” I jump as Head Porter appears unexpectedly behind me. “Do you want a glass?”
“Yes please” I reply and take the glass he is offering me. The sherry is cloyingly sweet and makes me feel a little sick. This is definitely one drink too many, for me. My head swimming a little, I help myself to the corner chair. Head Porter drops unsteadily onto the settee.
“So then,” Head Porter begins. “Professor K told you all about it, did he?”
“Yes” I lie.
“I thought so. I suppose he just couldn’t live with the guilt anymore. Hardly surprising, really. Why do you think he chose to tell you, of all people?”
I take a slow sip of sherry to afford myself some thinking time. Guilt?
“I’m not sure,” I reply “We did seem to hit it off. We were friends, really. Maybe he just trusted me.”
“Perhaps, yes” Head Porter eyes his sherry glass suspiciously. “Does this taste okay to you, Deputy Head Porter? I think it might have gone off.”
“I don’t think sherry goes off, as such” I answer “But it is an odd taste, certainly.”
“Hmmm” Head Porter seems to lose himself in thought for a moment. “Here, aren’t you a bit worried for your own safety, Deputy Head Porter?”
“What do you mean?”
“If anyone knows that Professor K was unburdening himself to you, you could be in for the same treatment.”
“So you’re pretty certain that Professor K was killed, then?” I ask, very aware that I am only vaguely aware of what Head Porter is talking about.
“Well, of course!” declares Head Porter “It’s obvious. He must have been poisoned, of course, like the others. Ironic, really, don’t you think?”
“Ironic, yes” I murmur. But why is it ironic? Because he was a chemist? Is a chemist being poisoned ironic?
“I can understand them bumping him off, poor old Professor K” Head Porter continues without a hint of melancholy “But Senior Bursar I don’t understand at all. He was the last person who would reveal the secret of The Vicious Circle, and yet here he is – dead!” Hang on a minute – what?
“The… Vicious Circle?” I venture.
“It could have been a genuine accident, I suppose…” Head Porter muses, obviously oblivious to my query. “No, no. It can’t be. I know what those lot are like, he must have been killed off too.”
“The Vicious Circle?” I try again.
“Professor K told you about The Vicious Circle, I take it?”
“He didn’t get quite that far before… you know.”
Head Porter sighs, and reluctantly pours himself another sherry. I decline his offer of a top up.
“I suppose I’d better explain…”