Back in the Porters’ Lodge, Head Porter appears somewhat unsettled. He is fussing around the front desk and shuffling piles of envelopes from one place to another. Distractedly mumbling to himself, there is clearly something up.
“Cup of tea, Head Porter?” I offer.
“Oh, hallo, there!” he replies, almost a little jumpy. “Yes, tea would be nice. Where have you been, by the way?”
“Just having a little chat with The Dean” I answer, then remember The Dean’s unlikely excuse for my previous absence “About the new paintings for his rooms, you know.”
Head Porter wrinkles his face the tiniest amount and looks at me carefully.
“What is it with these new paintings?” he asks. “I hadn’t realised you were such an authority on the matter, Deputy Head Porter.”
“I’m not, really. The Dean just thinks I… have a good eye, apparently.”
Head Porter shrugs and seems reasonably happy with this, for the time being.
“Right, well, fair enough, I suppose” he says. “I think I’ll have an extra sugar in my tea today, Deputy Head Porter, if you’re making a brew.”
“No problem, Head Porter. Are you quite alright? You look a bit pale.”
Head Porter looks furtively around the Lodge. Satisfied that we are alone, he leans in towards me and adopts a conspiratorial tone.
“There’s a key missing” he whispers, his voice slightly distorted by a barely perceptible tremble. “What key?” I ask.
“The key to the back gate of The Master’s garden,” Head Porter is almost squeaking now.
“I didn’t realise there was a back gate to The Master’s garden,” I say, puzzled. I thought I had finally got a handle on the esoteric art of key management.
“It’s in the far wall, backing onto The River” Head Porter replies. “It hasn’t been used in years, of course, as essentially it doesn’t lead anywhere”
“Bit of an odd place to have a gate, then, isn’t it?”
“I think years ago The Masters could moor a punt there or something. It was an inconspicuous way of getting on and off The River I suppose. Besides, just because it’s an odd place to have a gate doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be one there.”
“Well, that makes sense” I reply “By Old College’s standards, anyway. So, I take it the key wasn’t signed out by anyone, then?”
“There’s no record of it” he says “So goodness only knows how long it’s been gone. I only noticed it by chance this morning whilst I was looking for something else.”
“Who on Earth would want the key to a gate that leads nowhere?” I ask myself aloud.
“That’s what worries me” Head Porter mumbles darkly.
A thought strikes me. Head Porter is rather unduly upset about such an inconsequential key. A gate that goes nowhere, locked or unlocked, is no security threat to College. What’s the big panic? So I ask him.
“Surely this isn’t something to be too concerned about, Head Porter” I point out. “Let’s just get the lock changed. I’ll get on to Head Of Maintenance…”
“No! No… don’t do that,” exclaims Head Porter, grabbing my arm firmly. I can feel the shaking of his hands through his grip. He notices my alarm and gently releases me, patting me amiably on the arm as he does so. “Haha –no, don’t bother Head Of Maintenance with this. Why, I’ll never live it down if he finds out I’ve lost a key! You know what he’s like, the bugger.”
I laugh along with Head Porter’s uneasy chuckle, which does a poor job of concealing the startling panic in his eyes.
“Yes, he is a bugger, isn’t he?” I play along. “But seriously, Head Porter, why are you so upset about this key?”
A strange coldness falls upon him and Head Porter looks for a moment as if he would tell me the truth. But he doesn’t. He tells me this instead –
“I just hate losing keys, Deputy Head Porter” Head Porter’s voice is dry and cracked. “Being a keeper of the keys, it’s very embarrassing when one goes missing.”
I nod my head to express my understanding and decide to let this one go, for now. No point in upsetting the chap further.
“Well, there’s no need to be embarrassed,” I reassure him as best I can “No one need find out about this. Let’s keep it between us”
“Now, to be on the safe side I’ll go and take a look at this gate. See if anyone’s tried tampering with it.”
“Thank you, Deputy Head Porter” Head Porter says. I smile and turn to go but he again takes me by the arm, gently this time. “And… just be careful, won’t you?”
When he speaks next his voice is urgent, but not threatening, although desperate to convey a message that it not expressed in his words.
“Whatever it is The Dean is getting you mixed up in… just be careful. Sometimes that man just doesn’t have a clue what he is doing.”
These words bounce like echoes around my racing mind as I stroll across The Bridge and towards the gardens of The Master’s Lodge. No time to worry about it now. I am far too interested in discovering this intriguing gateway to nowhere.