Month: June 2014

The Best Laid Plans

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.

I reply

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?”

I sigh.

“Yep, it seems to be. Somehow. Nothing to do with me.”

“It’s just, The Dean was very certain about the terrorists.”

I laugh.

“Tea?”

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.

 

Degree Day

After some considerable and epic undertaking (the likes of which had previously only been seen in the works of Homer), I was finally able to track down the suave yet elusive Head Of Maintenance. Not that he was able to enlighten me further in my quest to identify the owner of the set of keys that almost sealed the fate of Head Porter and myself. It seems that the Maintenance staff have a rather cavalier attitude to the keeping of keys, with the swapping and borrowing of each other’s bunches being commonplace. It seems that no one even realised a set was missing. Naturally, Head Of Maintenance received a stern and solemn ticking-off, delivered with the kind of ferociousness you have come to expect from this Deputy Head Porter.

On today of all days, I do not trouble Head Porter with the disappointing news that we are no nearer to identifying our assailant. Moreover, I particularly do not wish to disturb him with the shocking revelation that his precious keys are not, in the Maintenance department at least, afforded the reverence and respect that he believes they deserve. Head Porter seems to have enough on his plate already.

And so Degree Day is finally upon us!

A time of great pride for tutors and students alike, this is the day when Old College finally reminds the world what it is really here for – academic excellence. It is all too easy to be distracted by the archaic and seemingly redundant ceremonials and practices, the enduring and intoxicating reverence of the past and the ornate pomposity (not to mention the odd corpse). I stand guilty as anyone of missing the point entirely. What Old College does (and has done for over five hundred years) in a spectacular fashion, is educating and inspiring the finest young minds on the planet. Whether this is in spite of the aforementioned or because of it – well.

That really is none of my business.

Head Porter is in his element. The Porters’ Lodge is a gleeful hubbub of proud families and relieved students, resplendent in their Sunday best and gowns, respectively. Smiling to myself, I watch the scene with interest. I note that Head Porter holds a certain charm for the families, the mothers especially. To them, he has played a vital part in the success of their talented offspring. The Porters are often the first port of call for a student in need of something. Anything. Such is the Porters’ reputation for unerring wisdom and practicality that they have been called upon to deal with anything from a broken tap to a broken heart; to discuss everything from the rugby to the meaning of life.

It is a little bit like watching a famous celebrity (shall we say, Sean Bean?) being mobbed by a small group of very polite fans. Although red-cheeked and giggling, they are on their best behavior for the man who runs the mighty Porters’ Lodge. The Porters’ Lodge – which has saved the lives, reputations and future prospects of students and Fellows alike for centuries. And, of course, he is loving every minute. If he was as personable to the Porters as he is to middle-aged ladies, we would be an unstoppable force. Still, he is getting better at that sort of thing.

I watch our soon-to-be graduates in their mortarboards and gowns, uneasy yet full of pride. You can see in their faces how the celebratory nature of the day is tainted with the realisation that it is now all over. Some may come back, of course, to pursue further studies. But many will be thrust into the sobering confines of reality, somewhere that is a very different place to Old College. Then again, they will have the piece of paper from Old College that will, hopefully, act as a golden ticket to an expectant world. And that, when it comes down to it, is what today is all about. Going to collect your piece of paper.

But this being Old College, there is far more to it than that. Apart from anything, it is a bloody excellent excuse for a good, old fashioned academic knees-up. There will be food and, by God, will there be wine. Collecting the bits of paper is something resembling a Royal outing in itself. The Master and Head Porter will lead a procession of Fellows and students through The City to Swallow House, a respectably-sized building just beyond Hawkins College. A building seemingly used to hand out bits of paper, Head Porter did not elaborate further. The winding mass of students and Fellows, all in formal academic dress, must be quite a sight to behold. Not that I will get to see much of it, as I am informed that I am to walk at the back of the procession. Apart from being traditional, I am also required to ensure that no-one gets left behind or lost. Or run over. Pah. I’m looking forward to it anyway. Oh, and I’m not allowed to wave at people, either.

I check my watch and it would seem that the hour is almost upon us. I see Head Porter notice the time and take his leave of his audience. He collects his jacket from his office and comes to join me.

“Come on, get your hat on” he says. I dutifully do as I’m told. Head Porter sighs, irritated, and starts tugging at the brim of my bowler and tutting. “It’s got to sit properly!

“You’ve never been this fussy about my hat!” I complain, trying to bat him away.

“Well, you just look scruffy. There!” He makes a final tweak and seems satisfied with the result. “You’ll need to get your jacket on, too. Come on.”

I never wear my jacket. Especially in June. But, if the moment calls for it I shall not be found wanting. On goes the jacket and I follow Head Porter out of The Lodge and on to take our places in the procession.

As Head Porter strides away to the front, I loiter somewhat sheepishly at the back. Some of the families chat with me and even take photographs. I cheer up a little at my moment of minor celebrity. In fact, I so taken with my posing and small talk that I almost miss the procession moving off. I bid farewell to my new associates and march along behind in what I hope is a graceful and dignified manner.

I had my concerns about a large and elaborately costumed procession promenading through The City in the middle of the morning. Clearly, though, the populace of The City is well-versed in this historic event and despite the fact that no roads have actually been closed, no one impedes the well-worn route. There are many spectators, in fact, lining the streets, clapping and waving. The celebration of the academic achievements of these fine young folk reaches far beyond their own family and friends. The City as a whole applauds their efforts, for they know that they are the future.

I am more than a little miffed that I am not permitted to wave. It strikes me as unnatural not to return the wave of a complete stranger. I can smile, though. They can’t stop me doing that. In truth, I can barely stop myself.

When we reach Swallow House and our young heroes-of-the-hour retire inside for the no doubt elaborate ceremony of collecting the reasonably-sized bits of paper, the Fellows gather in a wonderful little side alleyway, aptly-named Scholars’ Lane. Some have got hold of choc ices, the crafty devils. I spot The Dean reclining gracefully against the stone wall.

I subtly manoeuver myself so as to be placed directly next to The Dean, although not leaning against the wall. It is hardly my place to lean against the same wall as The Dean.

“Good show, wouldn’t you say, Deputy Head Porter?”

“Absolutely, Sir” I reply. I reach into my back pocket and retrieve a carefully placed pouch of tobacco.

“Oh, not here, for goodness’ sake” hisses The Dean.

“That Porter over there is having a smoke” I reply reproachfully, indicating a fine-looking gentleman wearing the colours of Wastell College.

“So he is,” says The Dean. “I say, he’s got a top hat on as well! fancy that!”

I admit I am a little jealous. I am immensely fond of my bowler but nothing quite beats a top hat. I had not considered it before but it occurs to me that I might look quite fetching in a topper.

“Well, that’s just showing off” I reply curtly. “What are Wastell trying to do? Trying to start a hat war amongst the Porters?”

“We’ll bloody well beat them at their own game. What beats a top hat?”

I think carefully for a moment. It’s a tough one.

“A crown?” I suggest.

“A crown? Yes, that can be the only thing…” I can see the multitude of cogs turning in The Dean’s mind. “Next term, all our Porters shall wear crowns, d’you hear? I’m not being outdone by bloody Wastell College…”

We are interrupted by shouting from the far end of the alleyway. I recognise Porter making his way towards us at a fair lick, especially for a Porter.

“Is that one of our chaps?” Asks The Dean, squinting at the earnest figure bowling towards us.

“I am afraid it is,” I reply. “And he is running. This cannot be good news…”

Original Pranksters

It seems very strange to be heading into Old College on a day off. Without my College tie and bowler hat, I really do not feel like the Deputy Head Porter at all. It reminds me of non-uniform days at school, which always had a faint air of anarchy about them. It is quite astonishing what an outfit can do for your mindset. If the clothes maketh the man, what does a pair of jeans and a vest top make me? I dread to think.

I decide to make my entrance through Sprockett Gate, as far away from The Porters’ Lodge as I can be. It’s not that I don’t want to see the Porters, rather I feel they would perfer not see me. It might make them a little nervous if I suddenly appear unannounced. Besides, Sprockett Gate is nearer to The Dean’s rooms and the Maintenance department.

The atmosphere in Old College today is palpable; the courtyards and cloisters have a steady stream of excitable Third Years, organising their gowns and mortar boards for the main event of the week, nay, the entire academic year – Degree Day. Head Porter seems to be quite looking forward to this. He is not usually one for the great pomp and ceremony of many College events, but I can tell he is excited about Degree Day. I think that, quite often, the graduating students bring gifts to The Porters’ Lodge – edible gifts, at that. Cakes, biscuits, chocolates… oh, I can only imagine! No wonder Degree Day is so popular. If there’s one thing a Porter likes, it’s a biscuit.

I am disappointed to find The Dean sadly absent from his rooms this afternoon. Maybe he is still chasing his new mortarboard. I decide to try Head Of Maintenance instead, when something catches my eye. I notice a very furtive-looking student poking his head around the door of the Computer Room. He looks a little pale and nervous, a sure sign of being up to no good.

I make my way over, my civilian clothing offering me a degree of camouflage. The young chap doesn’t recognise me until I am right on top of him, by which time it is far too late for him to do anything clever. I have seen this lad before, he is a First Year student studying law, I believe. He is a friend of Hershel and Penelope, who I last saw following their soggy encounter with Hawkins College on The River.

“Hello, Darwin!” I say cheerfully. His little face falls through the floor. “What are you up to, then?”

Darwin quickly looks behind him, his panicky eyes imploring to some unseen companion in the room behind him.

“I’m not up to anything, Deputy Head Porter” he replies in a manner so unconvincing that it implies the exact opposite.

I smile sweetly and gently push back the door behind him. Helpless, he walks backwards clumsily as I advance on the Computer Room. Darwin starts coughing theatrically, as if to warn an accomplice. As it happens, this is a redundant gesture as I am happily striding through the room within seconds.

Ah. I might have known. My old adversary Hershel and his little friend Penelope are furtively switching off the computer monitors.
“Good afternoon, my favourite students!” I announce. I turn to Hershel. As a Second Year, he is older than the other two and I rather feel he leads them astray. “What are we up to on this fine day?” Hershel goes to speak, but I cut him off “And don’t tell me ‘nothing’ because we all know that’s not true.”

There is a little bit of a pause. Not quite a pregnant pause, but definitely a pause that is ‘late’ and is considering weeing on a stick.

“You might as well tell her, Hershel” sighs Penelope. Oh, this ought to be good.Hershel holds my gaze with his own for a few seconds, but evidently either lacks the imagination or the compunction to come up with an excuse. He sighs, then switches on the nearest monitor to us.

“Alright, Deputy Head Porter” he says “You’ve caught us. We’re preparing a prank for the end of term.”

“I thought it was supposed to be graduates that did the end of year pranks?” I ask.

“Yes, but I thought we could play a prank or two and they would get blamed for them” is Hershel’s reply. Actually, that’s quite clever. Rather wish I’d thought of it myself.

“Go on then, what’s the prank?” I say, intrigued. Hershel indicates the monitor he has just switched on.

“Try and use this computer,” he says. I shrug and take hold of the mouse and try to launch the menu. Nothing. I click along all the icons at the bottom of the screen. Still, nothing. The files on the desktop don’t seem to work either.

“You’ve broken the computer,” I remark “Well done you.” This is about as technical as I can get when it comes to IT diagnosis.

“Actually I haven’t,” explains Hershel. “What I did was to take a screenshot of the desktop, then hide all the icons and folders in a separate folder over here. Then, I set the screenshot as the desktop background, so it still looks the same but it’s obviously only, like, a photo of it, do you see?”

Even I sort of understand this. People will be clicking on what they think are real icons, when actually they are all tucked away in this separate folder. Okay, that is actually quite an ingenious prank and it doesn’t cause any harm, really. It will probably waste the time of a fair few students, and then eventually the IT chaps as well, but all in all a rather intelligent practical joke, I feel. And I’m not even really at work today, so probably none of my business anyway.

“Have you done this to all the computers in here?” I ask, looking round at the twenty or so machines in the room. Hershel looks at his feet.

“Yes” he replies, using his best ‘little boy’ voice. I bet that works a treat on his mother.

“It’s pretty clever, actually, Hershel,” I say, to his obvious shock. “And, it’s quite funny too. I mean, obviously, if it gets back to The Dean that you’ve done this, you will be in big trouble. But he won’t hear it from me, alright?”

Hershel and his two companions look relieved and a little surprised.

“Thanks, Deputy Head Porter” says Penelope “We really appreciate it, honestly.” I wave away her platitudes with a flick of my wrist and allow her a little smile.

“I’m not even on duty today and quite frankly I’ve got other things on my mind. But if you lot get caught, I’m denying all knowledge, alright?”

My young charges seem quite happy with this result and I leave them to continue with their endeavours. As student pranks go, it’s a fairly tame one. The vague concern niggling at the back of my mind is that Hershel did mention ‘a prank or two’…

Ah, well. How bad can it really be?
Not too bad, I’m sure. Probably. I hope.

Anyway. I need to track down Head Of Maintenance and find out about these keys…