I come in the next morning to a very sombre Porters’ Lodge. Head Porter is already at the front desk with a mug of steaming hot tea and a lugubrious expression. I bid him good morning and he solemnly offers me the tea.
“I have some bad news, Deputy Head Porter” he says “You’d better sit down.” I obediently take a seat behind the front desk and try my best to maintain a blank expression.
“What is it, Head Porter?” I ask innocently.
“It’s Senior Bursar. I’m afraid… he’s dead.” Head Porter takes a couple of deep breaths and composes himself. “A terrible accident involving a kettle. Dreadful business. The Dean found him.”
“Oh dear, that is dreadful” I am giving the performance of my life. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday sometime, whilst you were out looking at paintings for The Dean’s office,” Head Porter replies. Looking at paintings?! Couldn’t The Dean come up with anything better than that?! “We don’t know the full details yet, of course, but it appears he received an electric shock from the kettle in his rooms whilst making a hot drink. Very, very sad.”
“Yes, very sad.” I take a sip of tea and adopt a suitably mournful countenance. “In fact, you might say it’s shocking, Head Porter.” Head Porter eyes me with a look like granite.
“If that is a joke, Deputy Head Porter, it is in remarkably poor taste.”
“No no, not a joke” I explain quickly “A bad choice of words, I admit. Certainly surprising, though.”
“Surprising the bugger was making his own drink!” Porter joins us unexpectedly from the rear of The Lodge.
“Porter! That is uncalled for!” Head Porter chastises him sternly. Porter mumbles something incomprehensible and busies himself by sorting through the key cabinets. “Honestly, a man is dead. That calls for some decorum, surely?”
“It surely does, Head Porter” I agree.
“The Master has requested that the flag be flown at half mast, which is only right. Will you do the honours, Deputy Head Porter?” I rise to my feet.
“It would be my pleasure, Head Porter” I reply. “I’ll go now.”
Today, the journey through the elegant courtyards does not fill me with the sense of awe and admiration it usually inspires. Rather, it gives the feel of ever increasing panic and dread snapping at my heels and clawing at my ankles, trying to bring me to the ground with every step. This ancient and mystical place that once aroused delight and wonder now exudes an air of jeopardy and betrayal. Although recent events have been unpleasant to say the least, I must confess to feeling a little excitement in the pit of my stomach. The cabalistic nature of Old College appears to be revealing itself with fervent urgency.
As I near the Flag Tower, I see Head Of Housekeeping coming towards me. She appears rushed and harassed, as ever, but stops to speak to me.
“Morning, Deputy Head Porter” she says in her usual brisk manner “Terrible news about Senior Bursar, isn’t it?”
“I know, it’s awful” I reply “I’m just on my way to raise the flag at half mast.”
“That is very fitting, yes” Head Of Housekeeping appears troubled and is fussing with the keys in her hand. She is quiet for a moment, then continues “I must say I can’t help feeling dreadful about the whole thing.”
“I don’t see that there is anything you could have done about it,” I say, surprised.
“I suppose not,” she says “But obviously that kettle was supplied by the Housekeeping Department and I suppose it must have been faulty to have given him a shock like that.”
“But all the appliances are rigorously checked by Maintenance, surely?” I ask.
“Of course they are!” Head Of Housekeeping shakes her head sadly. “The awful thing is, that kettle was brand new, only replaced his old one a couple of days ago.”
“What was wrong with the old one?” I enquire, suddenly feeling the beginnings of suspicion scratching at the back of my mind.
“I’m not sure, I assume it was just broken,” replies Head Of Housekeeping. “I received a note asking for a new one. I didn’t really think twice about it – if Senior Bursar wants a new kettle, Senior Bursar gets a new kettle. It’s as simple as that.”
“Who sent you the note? If you don’t mind me asking”
“I don’t know, it was just left on my desk”
“Did you recognise the handwriting?”
“It was a print out. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Oh – don’t mind me,” I reply, attempting to lighten my tone “Asking questions is just a habit I picked up from my previous incarnation, you know. And, you know, it’s such a waste of paper to print emails, don’t you think?”
“It wasn’t a printed email, just a little note” Head Of Housekeeping says stiffly. I’m picking up the sensation that she feels she is being questioned.
“That’s just so typically old fashioned, isn’t it?” I try to laugh it off “Delivering notes indeed! Well – I had better get that flag up, you know.”
“Yes, don’t let me keep you. I am incredibly busy myself.” Head Of Housekeeping bustles off in the opposite direction and I watch as she disappears into a cloister.
I brace myself to ascend the Flag Tower (my dislike of heights is well documented) and distract the thoughts of plunging to my death with those of Professor K and now Senior Bursar. I really think I should find a moment to speak with The Dean.