Lunch is an intentionally solitary affair for me today, as I need to clear my head a little and focus on what is important. What is important right now is food. I haven’t been eating as well as I should since the onset of polite slaughter at Old College and I feel that now is the time to redress the balance. An under-nourished mind is good to neither man nor beast. Or, I suspect, Deputy Head Porters.
I ensconce myself strategically at one of the middle tables, a chair or so away from two larger groups of chattering students. Tucked away here, there is little chance I will be joined by sociable colleagues due to the proximity of excitable youths.
Concentrating my attentions until the clattering racket of the chattering Dinning Hall fades to a distant tinkle, I pause for a moment to enjoy the sight and smell of the full plate before me. What awaits to be devoured is merely a lasagne, like any other. But the Catering staff are generous chaps and I have an impressive portion of a perfectly balanced pasta and sauce tower to enjoy. The crispy layer of bronzed cheese on top crowns it beautifully.
I am a little ashamed to tell you that I have accompanied my lasagne with a healthy-sized stack of chips, as well as an actually healthy pile of gently steamed broccoli. The broccoli can be a bit of a gamble; on some occasions it is practically raw and on others it is reduced to a pallid green mush. Today, though, it looks just right.
Finally, with my senses of sight and smell sated, it is time to indulge the greatest of the five – taste! Taking the knife and fork in my hands as if they were ceremonial weapons of some description, I begin my attack on my lunch with gusto.
Barely three forkfuls in and I am more than a little surprised to be interrupted by a sheepish Head Porter. I hadn’t expected to see him so soon after his public altercation with the mystery lady. He never usually comes to lunch when he is in a huff. I can only assume he has either cheered up or become very hungry.
“I didn’t expect to see you at lunch, Head Porter” I say, all wide-eyed innocence.
“Why ever not?” he asks, putting down a plate similar to mine but without any greenery. I am alarmed at how crass lasagne and chips appears without the accompaniment of some civilising broccoli.
“You seemed a bit… grumpy before. You never come to lunch when you’re grumpy.”
“A man can be grumpy and hungry, can’t he?” Head Porter replies curtly.
“Certainly,” I agree “In fact, I’d say it is almost impossible not to be grumpy when hungry.”
Head Porter quickly glances around and lowers his voice.
“Are you going to tell me what you and The Dean are up to?” It is a matter of fact request.
“Are you going to tell me about your visitor?” I counter.
“That… isn’t important right now,” Head Porter falters. “But I’m fairly sure that whatever you’ve got yourself involved in is important. Am I right?”
It is rare that anything succeeds in causing me to stop eating, but Head Porter manages it well enough with his direct tone and a well-judged stare. I gently place down my cutlery and finish off my mouthful. If the Old Boy was right, Head Porter has a bit of an inside track on the more sinister side of Old College anyway. The trick will be to find out what he knows first, before I tell him anything. But I really do not relish having this particular conversation right here in the Dining Hall. These wood panelled walls may very well have ears.
“Listen, it’s complicated,” I explain. “I can’t really think about it while I’m trying to eat my lunch”
“You mean you can’t eat and think?” Head Porter is unimpressed. A much-used phrase from my younger days springs to mind,
“Eating’s cheating,” I say “Drinking’s thinking. Why don’t we go for a large one after work and have a chat then?”
Head Porter looks taken aback at this suggestion. I am a little startled myself – I never really ever pictured myself inviting Head Porter out for a drink. But it’s done now.
“Alright then, Deputy Head Porter” he replies, sounding like he quite likes the idea. “It’s a date!”
The horror of these last three words seep slowly into my head and nearly put me off my lunch entirely. Still, it seems to have cheered Head Porter up no end so I let it pass for now and console myself with thoughts of what to have for pudding.