Porter reaches us, sweaty and breathless. There is little point asking if he is alright; he clearly isn’t. Porters are not designed to travel at anything more sprightly than a leisurely preamble. That is not to say that they don’t, on occasion. Especially if last orders have just been called.
“What is it?” I ask.
“You’re not going to believe this, Ma’am,” he wheezes. “But there are these little exploding things in the Dining Hall. Head Of Catering is going mental.”
Exploding things are never good news, even if they are little.
“Do you mean bombs?!” The Dean says, actually sounding quite excited at the prospect. Porter looks at him sideways.
“No, Sir, not bombs. Look, Ma’am, you’d better come and have a look.” Porter gestures for me to join him. The Dean holds up his hand.
“If there are exploding things, I should be there,” he declares.
“It’s Degree Day and you’re The Dean of College. You need to stay here,” I tell him gently. “Besides, someone needs to let Head Porter know what’s happening. Tell him I’ll see him back at The Lodge.”
“But I don’t even understand what is happening!”
But Porter and I are already heading back to Old College at an impressive pace. Porter seems to have got his second wind.
Arriving back at The Porters’ Lodge, the general atmosphere is far more sedate than when I left. Even the presence of Head Of Housekeeping does not seem to be causing too much of a stir. She has a clipboard and pen and is looking devastatingly efficient. Her brow is furrowed, but I sense she is positively thriving on the fumes of catastrophe.
“Ah, Deputy Head Porter!” She greets me with a chilling cheerfulness. “Now, don’t you worry. My team have got everything under control. I have even had a pot of tea and plate of biscuits sent along to Head Of Catering, poor chap. He was beside himself. But the Catering staff are doing sterling work re-laying the tables and helping the Bedders fetch and carry fresh tablecloths and the like. I really have got everything covered.”
“But what has actually happened?” I ask, silently relieved that Head Of Catering seems to have averted any major disaster.
“Well, if you ask me, it has all the gubbins of a student prank, I reckon.”
Head Of Housekeeping explains to me that the ceremonial salt shakers have been tampered with. They have been loaded with ingredients designed to erupt when the vessel is shaken. One of the Gardeners thinks it is lemon juice and baking soda, separated by a scrap of tissue paper. This was once common practice amongst his school friends, apparently. A jolly jape which culminates in the top of the salt shaker flying off with a satisfying pop! Followed by the immediate arrival of a slithering, bubbling salty mess all over yourself and your lovely food. But it seems something went awry with this particular execution of this old schoolboy favourite. Best guess is that the tissue paper was not substantial enough and the divided elements rushed eagerly towards each other, like lovers in a cornfield.
A familiar beep beep resonates from my pocket. It’s a text from Head Porter
DEAN SAYS COLLEGE UNDER ATTACK FROM TERRORISTS. EXPLAIN.
PRANK GONE WRONG. NO STRESS. CAN YOU DELAY THE RETURN PROMENADE?
JUST ABOUT TO LEAVE. BUGGER. WILL WALK SLOWLY.
I return my phone to my pocket.
“They’re on they’re way back. How close are you to being ready?”
Head Of Housekeeping assures me that the Bedders will have everything ship shape in the nick of time. However, she hurriedly returns to the Dining Hall, so her confidence is ambiguous. I decide to pay Head Of Catering a visit, see if there is anything I can do. The thought that he has a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits in his office did not occur to me at all.
Head Of Catering appears stressed, but focused, as he is feverishly making notes at his desk. I notice crumbs on his tie and as mild panic builds in my stomach, I scan the area desperately looking for the biscuits. Oh no! He’s eaten most of them already.
“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter” he barely lifts his head. “And before you start, I know you’re only here because I’ve got biscuits.”
Curses! My scheme has been foiled.
“I was hoping to be of some help, Head Of Catering” I reply, sounding as hurt as I can.
“I don’t see how. Coming here and eating my biscuits isn’t going to help anybody.” Head Of Catering finally looks up from his scribblings and gives me a broad grin. “Look, I just need to delay the thing by twenty minutes or so and we’ll be fine. I’ve been racking my brains, but the best solution I can come up with is to do what my wife does when she burns the first course at our dinner parties.”
“And what would that be?” This is going to be fascinating.
“She puts some crisps and nuts out and gives everyone another drink.” I am not sure quite how to react. Then again, they do say that the simplest ideas are the best. But on Degree Day? Head Of Catering leans forward, as if to impart some earth-shattering thing. “Actually, we’ve got some really nice crisps. Not so much in the nut department, but Chef has some frozen canapes that might go down quite well. We’ll keep them out on the lawns with the champagne and nibbles until we’re ready for them.”
“My friend, you are a genius” I reply. Well, it’s obvious that I’m not going to get a biscuit so I take to my feet. “I shall leave you to bask in the glory of your own brilliance.”
“Thank you, Deputy Head Porter, I shall do exactly that.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen young Hershel around today, have you?” I ask as I turn to leave. Head Of Catering shrugs. He has had other things on his mind. “Okay. Have a nice afternoon.”
I am making my way towards the rooms of a certain student acquaintance of mine, when I see a a stiffly jovial Head Porter walking comically slowly alongside The Master, who is not doing a marvelous job of disguising his irritation. They have just entered Old Court and are making their way towards me, albeit incredibly slowly. It is rather reminiscent of being in a zombie film. Not that I’ve ever been in a zombie film, you understand.
Painfully aware that I should be at the very back of the procession, I tuck myself inconspicuously in a recess in the cloister. As the column approaches, I can hear Head Porter attempting to distract The Master with his own special brand of small talk. In all fairness, The Master does look very much distracted. They pass by, followed by The Fellows and then the students and I fall in a few steps behind the last, straggling graduates. I see them on to the lawns, where our proud degree-holders are reunited with their even prouder families, and The Fellowship are reunited with liquid refreshment. A resounding success for The Porters’ Lodge, anything from here on in is Catering’s problem.
Head Porter has obviously been nervously awaiting my return to The Lodge. I can see him pacing his office before I even reach the door. I step in and his eyes are immediately searching my face for something, anything…
“Well? Is everything alright?”
“Yep, it seems to be. Somehow. Nothing to do with me.”
“It’s just, The Dean was very certain about the terrorists.”
With a hot cup of strong tea, the world can look like an entirely different place. Now, sat in Head Porter’s office, it seems like a brilliant place to be. Strange, perhaps, but one way or another the day as been an undeniable success. The failure of the prank was in fact what saved the day. I barely dare imagine the commotion if it had actually worked. I suppose it is not essential that The Dean hear about this little event, but I am not about to make that opinion widely known. Someone needs to sweat over this for awhile yet. I never did get a biscuit, though.
“How did you find your first Degree Day, then?” asks Head Porter, sipping his tea. “Was it what you expected?”
“Well…” I take a few moments over my reply. “I can’t say it was quite what I expected. To be honest, it was probably a fair bit more straightforward. I mean, despite everything, all we had to do was walk up and down a street, really.”
“Not bad for a day’s work, eh?”
Head Porter and I toast our small contribution to a magnificent day. I feel I should take the opportunity to congratulate myself while I can. Next week is the highly-anticipated celebration of Junior Bursar’s lifelong contribution to Old College. I suspect it may not be such a straightforward affair.