If you had asked me, before tonight, what my preconception of a masked ball would be I would have said something along the lines of the following – an opulent formal event where soigne ladies and gentlemen attired in their very best bib and tucker enjoy a sophisticated evening of sumptuous victuals and beverages, accompanied by suitably respectable entertainment. Well, what I would probably have said was ‘a posh dinner and dance’ but one must always make an effort with the written word.
The Old College May Ball has completely blown my preconceptions out of the water. Although the expected opulence and grandeur of the guests and the event is very much in evidence, the overall is setting is more like an upmarket festival. Everywhere there are bands, DJs and musicians offering every conceivable form of audio delicacy. For those of a more visual persuasion, circus performers gallivant throughout the grounds, performing great feats of contortion and breathing fire for the amusement of the masked revellers. There is even a smattering of well-known faces from the screen and stage, plying their trades to the great delight of an enraptured audience. If the Royal Family did Glastonbury, this is what it would look like.
The food and drink is free flowing, the evidence of which can be seen in the erratic balletic movements passed off as dancing by only the very drunk. I check my watch. The night is still young and I fear some of our celebrants may have peaked too early. The May Ball continues until dawn with a Survivors Breakfast served at six, some of the guests will be in a sorry state by then. An idle thought of how many pools of vomit will be produced throughout the evening makes me shudder. I am grateful that Head Of Housekeeping as deployed a team of her Bedders to handle such eventualities. Thank goodness for the Bedders. Apart from the Porter on duty, they are the only people I can recognise this evening. I have lost count of the amount of people who have greeted me but because of their finery and masked faces I haven’t got a clue who any of them are. Except for The Dean, of course. He is unmistakable in any guise.
I have to keep checking my mobile as the noise is such that I cannot hear a thing. The fact that I am ‘patrolling’ the area by the main stage probably isn’t helping. Let me reassure you that it was pure serendipity that my raised concerns for the security of the area happened to coincide with one of my favourite bands taking to the stage. Actually, there is a valid reason for me keeping an eye on this area. The main stage is by the river and Head Porter told me that people try to gatecrash the Ball by sneaking along in punts and scrambling up the river bank. Quite a noble endeavour, I feel.
My phone is telling me that I have three missed calls from Head Porter. Pah. I shall have to find a quieter spot to call him back. I duck into one of the nearby staircases where the sounds of merriment are mercifully muted by the ancient walls of Old College. Head Porter answers my call on the second ring.
“Where are you, Deputy Head Porter?” he asks.
“I’m in N staircase,” I reply. “What’s up?”
“There’s a fire alarm playing up in the boiler room basement. Porter has been down a couple of times already but I need him up here manning The Lodge. We should go and have a look at it.”
“Alright, I’ll meet you there.”
I must say I haven’t heard any alarms going off but then over this racket I am not in the least bit surprised. There is a fire panel in The Lodge which lights up and squeals annoyingly, it must have alerted Porter. The boiler room is situated in a basement at the rear of the College, far from the May Ball. It is quite strange to leave the glittering Wonderland party and return to the mundane drabness of the boiler room.
My boots send clattering echoes along the stairwell as I descend into the bowels of Old College. As I approach the door to the boiler room I see Head Porter already waiting for me. He shakes his head in mock despair and unlocks the door.
“What a night to have a dodgy fire alarm,” he says, opening the door and standing aside to let me enter “Tonight of all nights!”
“At least you can’t hear them over the noise of the Ball” I point out.
“There is that, I suppose. Come on, let’s have a look then.”
Apparently, Porter had thought that the detector head was malfunctioning internally, as he could find no obvious reason for the alarm to keep reactivating. Head Porter locates the detector and starts searching around for some step ladders so he can have a poke around. I check the rest of the room for anything that might be interfering with the alarm. They are notoriously sensitive and changes in temperature or even stray dust clouds can set them off.
The boiler room is probably fascinating, if you are so inclined, but I find it a little unnerving. The great behemoths of ageing metal and piping that dwell in this industrial lair are distinctively off-putting with their strange smells and random gurglings. The over-sized dials and levers create the effect of being in a steam punk graphic novel. Which is quite exciting, in its own way.
Suddenly, I hear a loud thud.
“Head Porter?” I run round to where I left him fiddling with the detector head. “Are you okay?”
Head Porter seems fine. He is just descending the step ladders.
“I’m fine, I can’t find anything wrong with this thing. What was that bang?”
“I thought it was you” I reply. Head Porter looks momentarily distracted. He sniffs the air.
“Can you smell that?” he asks. It smells like burning.
“Oh gosh, there must be a fire down here after all!” I exclaim. A few wisps of oily black smoke appear in the air to confirm my suspicions.
“Bugger, this is a dreadful place for a fire” says Head Porter. “Quick, call the fire brigade. I’ll ring The Lodge.”
I try my phone but there is no connection this deep underground, not even for an emergency call.
“I haven’t got any service!” I call out to Head Porter.
“Me either. Come on, I’ll get the fire extinguisher you can go up top and make the call.”
We both hurry back to the door. Two small details make my heart leap into my mouth. The first being that the fire extinguisher is not in its cradle by the door. The second thing is slightly worse. The door appears to have been shut and locked behind us. Head Porter rattles the handle ineffectually.
“That must’ve been the bang we heard” he mutters “I’ll unlock it.”
By now, the oily wisps of smoke are becoming more akin to billows. The air is becoming scorched and acrid and I can feel myself start to panic, just a little bit.
“Come on, old chap get the door open” I try to hide the shaking in my voice.
“It’s no good,” Head Porter replies, his eyes wild with horror. “Someone has left the keys in the other side of the door. I can’t unlock it.”
The realisation that I am locked in a burning room with no way of summoning help takes several seconds to sink in. When it does, I feel a terror unlike any I have ever known grip my very being like a rusty steel animal trap. The sheer fear literally takes my breath away. But then that could be the smoke and fumes.
Fear and terror are no good. What I need are for my survival instincts to kick in. What I need is to get us out.