Month: April 2014

The Vicious Circle

Sitting in the back of taxi on the way home from Head Porter’s house, my head is reeling. Reeling and thumping from an early onset hangover. What Head Porter told me is simply so unbelievable that it must be true. And Professor K was making perfect sense all along, I was just too ignorant to realise.

So, if I have this right in my head (which after all the wine and sherry is a grand achievement) The Vicious Circle is not only a sequence of events that stretch back to the very foundation of Old College, but also simultaneously are a forever-shifting group of people from the elite of The Fellowship.

The tucked-away book in the Old Library held the first clue, had I been bright enough to spot it. The sacrificial peasants buried ceremonially in the foundations of Old College were indeed the bones dug up when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt. This much Professor K had all but confirmed to me. What I didn’t realise, however, was that two of the bodies cast into the ground were members of The Order Of The Lesser Dragon, the ancient secret society that founded Old College.

Legend has it that these two unfortunates thought that the arcane method of burying peasants under buildings for good luck was a bit beneath The Order Of The Lesser Dragon, what with them being such highly educated men. Their stance was that it wasn’t very lucky at all, especially for the peasants. Their insubordination cost them their lives and it seems to be a pattern that has repeated itself in the years since.

Historically, it seems, The Fellowship have not been averse to dispatching with those among their number who do not tow the party line. This practice became remarkably more popular following the discovery of the bones beneath The Lodge. Head Porter says there may even have been a couple of students who came to an untimely end when they questioned the sudden deaths of their beloved tutors.

Following that little episode of slaughter, there began what became known as The Vicious Circle. Whoever questioned or attempted to investigate the unexplained deaths met with the same fate; a knee-jerk panicked reaction from The Fellowship, a group of academics so powerful they simply believed that the normal laws and morals of society don’t apply to them. The more deaths that occurred, the more questions were asked. And so more deaths occurred. And so on. A Vicious Circle, if ever there was one.

But that isn’t even the worst bit. Not by a long shot.

One Too Many

“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…”

Drinking Is Thinking

It is nearly nine o’clock in The Albatross and Head Porter and I are just about to have one drink too many. What started out as an informal chat about work has delightfully mutated in something approximating a Fairly Good Night.

From what little I know of Head Porter, he doesn’t strike me as a man much given to drinking. Or going out. Or existing much at all, outside of Old College. I thought, at first, that I was in for a bit of a tedious night as my unlikely companion seemed so uncomfortable and out of place. And, although relations between us have become somewhat warmer recently, we are hardly the best of friends.

Now, though, as he leans on the bar like a seasoned patron, giving me a Fonz-esque thumbs up, I almost want to give the man a kiss. Another glass of wine and I probably will. Oh dear…

Head Porter wobbles jauntily back to our tables, merrily sloshing our drinks (wine for me, a pint of something murky-looking for him) as he does so. He sits down heavily in the chair opposite mine and grins inanely, eyes shining with equal measure of joy and ale.

“What are you looking like that for?” I ask, taking a slurp of wine.

“I’m just… having a wonderful time!” replies Head Porter. Ah. He is a ‘happy drunk’. Excellent. “It’s not often I get to go out with friends. We are friends, aren’t we, Deputy Head Porter?”

Tricky one, this. But let’s just go with it.

“Certainly we are,” I reply carefully.

“It’s just… oh, you know…” and Head Porter sighs a sigh that sounds like it has been waiting to be sighed for years. “I know I’m not the easiest person to get along with…” and here comes the ‘reflective drunk’… “I’m not that much fun, or the most intelligent person, or the best looking chap in the world…”

Head Porter stares forlornly into his pint for a moment.

“Yes?” I try to chivvy him along a bit. He looks at me, confused.

“Yes… I’m not the greatest… hang on, where am I going with this again?”

“We were going to have a chat about work, I thought” I say, hoping that a change of subject will avert an awkward conversation. Head Porter brightens considerably.

“I must say, I’m really going to miss Junior Bursar, aren’t you?” he slurs. “I mean, I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but… but… better the devil you know, eh?”

“Yes, I shall miss him” I reply “But the old chap deserves to put his feet up after all these years, I suppose. But it makes me wonder what The Fellowship are going to do, what with him retiring and Senior Bursar dead. We will be Bursar-less!”

This last remark appears to have been the most amusing thing Head Porter has ever heard, as great bursts of cackling laughter burst forth from his reddened face. I watch, amused, as Head Porter tries to bring himself under control and resume our conversation. Eyes watering from his effusion, he finally manages it.

“I heard they are going to replace them with just one Bursar. A sort of… super Bursar!” Head Porter is lost again in a fit of mirth. This is getting a little tiresome now.

“Where did you hear that?” I ask.

“I heard Senior Tutor talking to Dr M about it. They are going to hold the interviews during the Summer Vac.”

“What? When none of The Fellowship will be around? How does that work?” This seems worryingly similar to the method by which I was employed.

“Well, they’ll have to hang around, won’t they” Head Porter takes another sip of ale “They have to have a new Bursar before the start of the next academic year.”

“Talking of Bursars” I begin, hoping to guide the conversation towards something useful “What do you make of Senior’s Bursar’s unlikely demise?”

This seems to sober Head Porter somewhat, or at least draw his scattered focus a little. The alcohol may have reddened his cheeks, but I can see the colour draining beneath the artificial flush.

“It’s like someone is tying up loose ends,” he utters unsteadily. “What with Professor K, but then, with him gone…” Head Porter trails off. I decide to take a chance.

“I know about what happened fifty years ago” I state. The air between us becomes like a sheet of ice for a moment. Then,

“How..?”

“Probably best I don’t answer that.”

“Yes. Quite.”

Head Porter takes this tense pause as an opportunity to get some more ale inside him. It is probably a good idea. I follow suit with my wine and consider getting another. I think I shall be needing it…