On the short journey to our esteemed neighbours at Hawkins College, I decide to tackle Head Porter about his mystery woman, once and for all. He has not been forthcoming with details about the rather public row he had with her in the street the other day and this has annoyed me. Setting aside for one moment the inference that it is none of my business, I feel it is my duty as a dedicated Deputy to get to the bottom of it nonetheless.
“So this lady, then,” I begin, casually “Who is she?”
Head Porter sighs, but he knows he is not going to avoid the question any longer.
“She is someone I have known for a very long time,” he replies.
“An ex-lover then? Come on, I only want to help.”
Head Porter looks as if he might answer, but his eye is caught by a bowler-hatted gentleman who is watching us with some interest.
“There he is,” Head Porter almost spits the words out. “Hawkins Head Porter. He must be expecting us.”
Hawkins College is our nearest neighbour and there has been a long standing friendly rivalry between the Colleges for centuries. Although it pains me to say so, Hawkins is, on the face of it, a far more impressive-looking College. Founded in the early 1400s as a sister to Eton, it took a string of King Henrys until the 1500s to finally complete the building. The Chapel is world famous and is widely regarded as one of the very best examples of late English Gothic architecture. (I should like to take a moment to boast about my heritage as a direct descendant of the architect and grand master mason responsible for this epic construction, something I discovered shortly before my appointment at Old College.)
The towering spires and magnificent buttresses punctuate The City skyline and almost make our College seem a little tatty and understated. Hawkins is a College of supreme wealth and recent details of its wine expenditure has been the subject of much tittle-tattle in the local press.
Hawkins Head Porter is waiting for us by the main gates, obviously uneasy about letting us cross the threshold. It could be that he is being deliberately difficult, as is his way, although Porters are notoriously territorial and much happier when College boundaries are clearly defined. He is an ex-military man, with a perfect stance and an immaculate little moustache. His boots are so highly polished that you can see infinity in them and the way they reflect the early afternoon sun is positively blinding. I can feel the tension radiating from Head Porter.
“I wondered when you two might show up,” Hawkins Head Porter’s greeting is as friendly as can be expected. “I expect you’ve come to apologise about the incident on the river this morning?”
I lightly touch Head Porter’s elbow as a silent reminder to remain calm. It is not that effective.
“What on earth have we got to apologise for?” Head Porter responds, his voice an octave higher with indignation. His counterpart is clearly delighted that his deliberate attempt to enrage has gone down so well. He expresses this delight by way of gleeful chuckling, which Head Porter finds even more irritating.
“Stop winding him up,” I say politely but firmly to Hawkins Head Porter. “You should both behave a little more like gentlemen.”
“He wouldn’t know a gentleman if one jumped up and bit him on the bum!” he says, jabbing a finger at Head Porter.
“Gentlemen do not bite people on the bum!” Head Porter retorts, which is a fair enough point, to be honest.
“Listen!” I am losing patience a little, now. “We all know that students get up to all sorts and sometimes things go a little too far. All we’re asking is that you keep an eye out for any trouble makers and keep a lid on them and we’ll do the same with our lot. It’s Exam Term and there’s enough to worry about without our young charges getting into some ridiculous turf war over punts.”
“Turf war? On a river?” says Hawkins Head Porter sarcastically “I really didn’t think it would be possible for you to be as stupid as you look but you’ve gone and proved me wrong, Deputy Head Porter!”
As much as I feel like punching him in the face, I resist the urge for violence and smile benignly at Hawkins Head Porter. My own Head Porter feels somewhat differently, however, and launches himself at his counterpart, pinning him against the ornate iron gates. My complete surprise at his actions (and the fact it happens so quickly) prevents me from intervening until it is too late. Head Porter has his palms squarely on the shoulders of the equally surprised Hawkins Head Porter, preventing him from moving anywhere, whilst he expresses his displeasure with language that would make a sailor blush.
Coming to my senses, I pull Head Porter away and put a safe distance between him and the enemy at the gates.
“Come back here!” Hawkins Head Porter is shouting as I lead a reluctant Head Porter back down the street “Let’s settle this like men!”
“Don’t say a word to him!” I hiss. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“You’re completely out of control! The Master will hear of this!” our friend from Hawkins College continues to bawl as we hurry away with as much dignity as we can muster.
“Goodness, man, I didn’t know you had it in you!” I exclaim to Head Porter.
“Well, that man irritates me no end,” he replies. “He always has.”
“I shall make a note not to irritate you in future.”
“Yes. Let this be a lesson to you.”
We both spontaneously erupt with laughter right here in the middle of the street, much to the bemusement of passers-by.
“What if he goes to The Master?” asks Head Porter.
“Don’t worry,” I reply “We’ll tell The Master that he started it.”
“Now then, Head Porter, about this girlfriend of yours…”
The mood changes swiftly at these words and I am aware of a chill in the air between us. Head Porter turns to me, a darkness falling across his face.
“She is not my girlfriend, Deputy Head Porter. If you must know, she is my daughter.”