I am loitering in the College kitchens and the atmosphere is something rather akin to Hell. Smoke, fire and steam choke the air which is already thick with heat, grease and the colourful exclamations of the Catering staff. The May Ball is reaching its final stages of preparations and some most disturbing news has reached my ears. Because of the demanding schedule that comes with producing first rate food for the Ball-goers this evening, the Catering Department will not be supplying the usual sumptuous spread at lunchtime. This, of course, is of great concern to my stomach and I so I thought I had better get to the kitchens to see if I am able to beg any scraps that might be going spare.
Chef has grudgingly agreed to box up a selection of ‘seconds’ from the Ball menu; a rather ragtag collection of odds and sods and unidentifiable items that are far from presentable. I am having a rummage through my edible treasure trove while Chef is hunting down some of the floppy cheese of which I am so fond. There are definitely some vol-au-vents lurking in there, the pastry casings collapsed and deflated so that their strangely hued contents are leaking onto the other food. I am sure I can smell tuna but I am not sure which bit it is meant to be.
Before too long, a beleaguered-looking Chef returns with a generous armful of my beloved cheese and what looks like a batch of bread rolls, too. His face is hot and red and contrasts beautifully with his immaculate whites. I am about to comment on this observation but quickly change my mind when I realise how bad tempered he appears to be.
“This should do you and the Porters for today,” Chef says, unceremoniously dumping the cheese and rolls into my already burgeoning box. “You could probably get the lads from the hog roast to plate you up some grub if you lot get hungry later on.” What does he mean – ‘this will do you AND the Porters’? I thought this was just for me. I really am not comfortable with sharing food.
“Thanks, Chef, I’m sure this will do nicely” I reply.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but if there’s nothing else can you bugger off out of my kitchen please? I’m very busy!”
I take the hint and leave Chef and his team to their labours. Back at The Lodge I hover near to my locker, unable to decide whether or not to stash my hard-won (well, not really hard-won) rations or to share them with the Porters. Perhaps I’ll just see if I can fit them in here…
“What are you up to, Deputy Head Porter?” with my locker door half open I am caught red handed by Head Porter.
“This is my lunch” I reply. “I’m just putting it in my locker.”
“Don’t put it in there, put it in the fridge!” Head Porter says “It’ll get all warm and sweaty. The locker room smells bad enough as it is, without your lunch adding to it.” I sigh. My plan is undoubtedly foiled. Once the Porters spot this in the fridge, undefended and alone, my little box will be raped and pillaged like a town beset with Vikings. It just seems so unfair.
My ill-gotten gains now languishing and vulnerable in The Lodge fridge, Head Porter has other matters for me to attend to. Apparently, a small number of unscrupulous students attempt to gain unauthorised access to the Ball each year. They hide in their rooms until the party is in full swing, then sneak down and join the revelry unnoticed and without a ticket. My mission (should I choose to accept it) is to check every single student room and remove anyone who doesn’t have a ticket. It seems they will have to find alternative accommodation for the evening. This seems very unfair to me, these rooms are their homes after all! But I suppose we simply cannot have gatecrashers at the May Ball. I am sure that would be unseemly. Personally, I feel that the best bits of any party are the gatecrashers. But anyway.
The ‘student sweep’ of Old College is a truly epic and often hilarious task. I find cunning and ingenious students hiding in wardrobes, under beds and even in a cleaning cupboard. The whole experience feels like being in a rather large-scale farce, where secret lovers and inappropriate guests are badly hidden in almost every scene. I was particularly amused by the jovial, ‘Aw, shucks you found me’ reactions of my little masters of stealth when I did find them. There was no attempt at pretence or explanation, just a good humoured acceptance that their devious plot had failed. How very sporting.
Before I know it, dusk is creeping across the pink-blushed sky and the Old College May Ball is only minutes from commencing. The whole place has been spectacularly transformed into a glittering, twinkling wonderland and I can feel my heart beating a little faster as I survey the impressive scene. The fairground waits in anticipation, its gaudy lights and music hoping to tempt the pleasure seekers. The courtyards all have chandeliers tethered in mid-air, throwing crystal reflected light onto what now appears to be a rich and magical mix of regalia and fantasy. If an elven princess had a twenty-first birthday party, this is what it would look like.
Head Porter motions for me to join him by the main door of The Porters’ Lodge. Peering through the window I can see a glamorous and excitable bustling line of sequin swathed and bejewelled masked guests, eagerly waiting to start the Ball. Head Porter checks his watch.
“It’s time,” he says. “Are you ready?”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be!” I reply.
I really hope I am ready for this…