On a bright and shiney spring day such as today, there is surely no finer place to be than The Master’s garden. I consider my great fortune at having a job which allows me unprecedented access to places of such unusual great beauty. And consider also, if you will, the very nature of the task that brings me to this charming spot – the enquiry of a long forgotten gate that doesn’t go anywhere! The key to which someone, for reasons best known to themselves, has seen fit to remove secretly from the Porters’ Lodge. I shake my head and indulge myself in a little chuckle. It certainly is a funny old world, within the walls of Old College. So funny, in fact, that it is almost enough to make a girl forget about the dead Fellows scattered carelessly about the place. Almost.
I am no horticulturalist, and so cannot properly identify the cheerful specimins currently occupying the beds and pots in The Master’s garden. But let me tell you, there are some fabulous blooms on display. A few early bees are fastidiously busying themselves about a bush adorned with blueish purple trumpet-like flowers, while a flush of yellow tumbles from a solid-looking urn, the rounded heads putting me in mind of bulging fried eggs. My colleague and sometime drinking partner, Head Gardener, really has done himself proud.
But I am not here to admire the view, I have business to attend to. I walk along the back wall of the garden and at first I am stumped. There is no sign of a gate, nor sign of a sensible place where one might be. Parts of the elderly wall are covered in a thick ivy, which appears to be the only thing holding it up in some palces. Maybe the gate hides beneath the greenery? I roll up my sleeves and tentatively rustle around a little. Unconvinced that this is the best way forward, I am considering another course of action when I am abruptly disturbed.
“Goodness me! I think you could be bothering that wall, you know.”
Leaping figuratively out my skin and actually about a foot in the air, my shock and surprise turn to delight when I see the familiar figure standing behind me. The top hat worn at a jaunty angle atop a face full of genius and mischief, a dramatic pose struck and all wrapped up in a suit so sharp you could cut cheese with it – it can only be one man.
“Professor VJ Duke!” I exclaim with glee. “What on Earth are you doing here?”
“I’m just strolling about, you know. I do that from time to time. What are you up to?” replies the Professor, stepping forward to examine the wall with me.
“Oh, I’m looking for a gate” I answer. “There’s an old gate somewhere along this wall.”
“I really don’t think I should believe that.” Professor VJ Duke seems to think this is funny. “Where do you suppose the gate would lead?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It can’t lead anywhere, except straight into the water. It’s some old access point from The River or something. It’s an Old College thing.”
“Well, the professor shall help. Perhaps there’ll be a treasure behind the gate” and with the dexterity and elegrance of a magician, the Professor flicks up his sleeves and gamely rustles around beneath the ivy.
“Anyway, Professor,” I continue. “What are you really doing here? I can’t believe you’re just strolling about so far from home.”
“Well, the last time Mr. Dean—I mean, The Dean—and I spoke he said something about a mystery going on here. And this professor was passing through, so I thought I should help a bit. Who knows? There could be some fighting.” Professor Duke begins to sing and hum, hum and sing “Living Inside Myself” by Gino Vannelli happily as he tears away at the greenery, theatrically tossing it aside and, occasionally, over the wall entirely.
“Good noodles and a sweet-sauce! Here’s your gate, for sure, Deputy Head Porter!”and he presents it with a florish. It is still mostly hidden, but he has uncovered enough for me to see that it is, undeniably, a gate.
“Thanks Professor, well done” I say. But this isn’t really that helpful. Whoever took the key to the gate either hasn’t tried to use it yet or couldn’t find the gate. No one has been near this for decades.
“Well welly! Let’s see what lays behind it. Perhaps a dragon—or treasure!” Professor VJ Duke says with some excitement.
“I haven’t got the key, it’s gone missing” I reply glumly. “Anyway, it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Rats and a Heifer. Well, it’s just as well. I’m not in the Battle Mood, and one must be to go through there, I’m sure,” the Professor says ruefully. “Well, how about we go and see The Dean?”
As I lead the Professor across the courtyards to The Dean’s staircase, he chats happily to me about his many adventures and travels. Although I have been unable to quite put my finger on what this Professor’s area of speciality might be, he certainly has an interesting and varied time of it, with his ‘research’.
On returning to The Dean’s rooms, I find him in a much happier composure than when I left him. The whiskey bottle is nowhere to be seen and the beginnings of disorder are creeping back in from the edges of the room. It is strange how he tidies when he is unsettled. But anyway. The Dean looks up with some surprise to see me accompanying Professor Duke. A broad grin breaks across his face and he gets up to shake his friend warmly by the hand.
“P. VJ!” he exclaims “So good of you to come at such short notice! It is marvellous to see you, dear boy”
“Greetings, and so many of them, we better not begin saying them! Great to see you. I can’t stay too long, but I’ll give you any help I can. Professorish help, that is.”
“Right!” The Dean rubs his hands together. “Deputy Head Porter, I’ve given P. VJ here the run down on our situation here in College. I can tell you, I’ve been doing a bit of digging and there have been a fair few instances over the years of Fellows expiring in the same manner as our dear Professor K – peacefully in their sleep. No suspicious circumstances attributed to any of them – even the younger Fellows. Paperwork all completed by College doctors then the chaps are popped in the hole as quick as you like.”
“Aha! Fellows popped off and then all the details popped in the hole. No time for investigations, I suppose? Or for the authorities to look into the matter?” Professor Duke says, stroking his chin.
“Colleges ARE the authorities in this town,” The Dean replies grimly. “They are more powerful than you’ll ever know.”
“But Senior Bursar didn’t go very peacefully,” I point out “Any mention of untimely accidents or things of that nature?”
“That’s a good point,” says The Dean “And no – nothing like Senior Bursar’s demise.”
“Senior Bursar’s death seems a bit risky to me,”the Professor muses “It’s a bit of a noisy, messy death—bummer of a death—compared to Professor K’s. Especially if you consider that ‘peacefully in their sleep’ seems to be the fashionable way to do away with people around here. Something’s up”.
“Then there’s the thing about Senior Bursar having his kettle replaced just days before he was electroctued,” I say “And now the missing key. A key that is of absolutely no use to anyone.”
“Keys, kettle and Professor K – do you suppose there’s a clue in there?” suggests The Dean, more joking that not I’m sure.
“I think there could be. But…K – it’s the chemical symbol for potassium?” Professor Duke is thinking fast. “Potassium cyanide – a poison! Professor K was a chemist, was he not?”
“That’s right!” The Dean cries excitedly.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I interject, feeling the need to reign this in before everyone gets too excited. “I think the ‘K’ thing might just be a coincidence. Let’s focus on the kettle and the key.”
“You say the key is of no use to anyone?” asks the Professor.
“That’s right,” I reply. “You saw the gate in the garden wall.”
“But what if the uselessness of the key is exactly what makes it so useful!”
“What do you mean, Professor?” I ask.
“Prehaps that key is used so little, no one would notice if it went missing. Not for a while, anyway. But maybe there is a key that is very useful and is used often. And if it went missing, that would be discovered almost immediately. Maybe the useless key is sitting in the place of a useful key – hiding its absence by taking its place.”
There is a brief silence while we consider this.
“That’s a bloody good point” says The Dean, impressed. “But what key?”
Professor VJ Duke begins to fidgit uncomfortably and checks his watch, irritated.
“My dears, I am already unforgiveably late for my engagement” he says “I have to take my leave right away. The key, here, is the missing key. Find out which key is really missing. And the kettle – why would someone want to use a kettle as an instrument of death when poison has worked so well in the past? I hope I have been of some help. But I am a dull sort of fellow”
“P. VJ, you have been a hero, as ever” The Dean gushes as he shakes his friend’s hand once again. “Deputy Head Porter will see you out.”
I take Professor VJ Duke to Sprockett Gate rather than arouse Head Porter’s attention by taking him through the Porters’ Lodge. As I hold open the huge and heavy wooden doors for him to take his leave, the Professor gives me a smile as big as the moon.
“It’s been great to see you, Professor” I say, then a little sadly “It’s a shame you can’t stay longer.”
“Oh dear! It is a pity, but I’ll come back! Promise”he replies, his eyes twinkling “Besides, I’m sure you and The Dean will have this nonsense all figured out in no time, even without my help. You’re a very smart lady.”
“Oh, it’s not just that…I…” But I can’t think how to suitably end the sentance. “Travel safely, won’t you Professor” is the best I can manage.
Professor VJ Duke tips his hat to me and smiles again as he strides merrily and hastily out into The City streets. I have a feeling I shall see him again. I only hope that time is not too far away.
We are delighted to welcome Professor VJ Duke from The Punchy Lands back to Old College for this episode! I am a huge fan of the Professor’s work, check it out here