I hold in my hand something quite magnificent, the likes of which would never have come to be my possession outside of Old College. Embossed in gold and black, the elegantly scripted card feels very significant in my hands. It is my very own invitation to Junior Bursar’s retirement party.
It would be fair to say that I had been expecting this particular arrival, but that does nothing to dampen the thrill of spying it on my desk this morning. I have been as happy as a bee since then, but unfortunately I am resigned to keeping my enthusiasm to myself for now.
Head Porter, on the other hand, is reserving none of his feelings – especially those concerning his involvement with the carousing this evening. Junior Bursar has bequeathed him the dubious rank of Cloakroom Attendant and Head Porter will therefore be relegated to below stairs pursuits for the night. I have charitably offered to smuggle him what food and drink I can.
Although confident that there is nothing I have overlooked, my assurance that everything will go according to plan is vague. Despite my best efforts, I am unable to imagine every possible eventuality when it comes to Old College. The whole place seems to be governed by some doddering force of disambiguation. Almost anything could happen. But it will probably be splendid; I have found the perfect band for the occasion and Head Of Housekeeping has generously loaned me a couple of her Bedders to help with decorations. The magician will be arriving at nine thirty and Head Of Catering has been planning the victuals for weeks. As the supposed organiser of this retirement do, I have not really had to exert myself too vigorously in the business of organisation. But if anything at all should go awry, it will be my head on the block.
Head Porter is in his office, morosely filing receipts behind a seemingly deliberate pile of College magazines. As a barricade, it is ineffectual. I shall breach his defences.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Head Porter?” I ask. He huffs a little.
“Are you sure it’s not a bit beneath you, Deputy Head Porter?” There is the very edge of malice in his voice. “Now that you’re hobnobbing with The Fellowship?”
“Now don’t be silly. Come on, I’m going to check on The Wide Gallery, you should join me.”
“I’m busy” Head Porter is clearly not in the mood to be jollied along. I know better than to provoke the beast when he is this ill tempered, so decide to let him wallow in his pit for the time being. I am sure he will perk up later.
I am making my way across Old Court towards The Master’s Lodge when I spot a familiar figure trudging towards me, the weight of several worlds and a moon on his shoulders.
Hershel stops before me and gives me a hurt little look, before returning his gaze to his shoes.
“You told him, didn’t you!” Hershel wails, still inspecting his footwear. What can be so interesting on his toes? A quick glance reveals very little.
“What are you talking about?” I ask him, concerned.
“The Dean! I’ve just had the hairdryer treatment about Degree Day.”
“So it was you and the salt shakers, then?”
Hershel tersely confesses to his passing involvement with the suspected terrorist attack on Old College. It seems news of this has reached the ears of The Dean and now the ears of Hershel are in rather poor shape indeed. But none of that has anything to do with me. I suppose that The Dean has saved me a job, though, as I had intended to have suitably strong words with the young man myself. It would probably be a little unfair to pursue that now, given the circumstances. The Dean’s input is more than adequate.
Having gone some way to reassuring Hershel, I continue on my merry way to The Master’s Lodge. I do enjoying visiting The Lodge. Quite apart from the fact that it is a stunningly preserved historical masterpiece, the very knowledge of the hidden passageways and secret tunnels delights me beyond words. It is not necessary to travel them, only to know that they are winding and hiding all around me gives me a little tingle to the tips of my toes.
The Bedders really have excelled themselves. The somewhat heraldic theme of black and gold is continued throughout The Wide Gallery, with streamers and drapes placed sympathetically around the assorted antiquities. The additional décor has leant something of an air of the theatre to the numerous gold-framed portraits along The Gallery. The oil-painted subjects seem none the more cheerful for it, however.
A small stage area has been created at the far end and on approaching it I suddenly feel a shiver of dread. I really hope I’ve done the right thing about the band. He did say he wanted a lively band. I distinctly remember him saying upbeat, dancing music. Well. It is a little tardy to be worrying about it this late in the day. I have every certainty that Junior Bursar will be delighted with the Ska band I have hired for the evening.
I am congratulating the Bedders on their sterling achievements when Head Porter pops his read around the door. He looks a little more agreeable than he did earlier. I give him a wave and make my way over. He is giving me the little contrite look he reserves for times when he knows he should be penitent. The one where he tilts his head a little to the left and drops his shoulders slightly.
“I’m sorry I was so grumpy earlier,” he says earnestly. “It was being daft. Is there anything you need me to do?”
I give him my second-best smile and shake my head.
“Thank you, but it’s fine. Do you… do you need anything for your – um – area, this evening?”
“You could make sure I get some of the sausage rolls,” suggests Head Porter. “I think that would be very helpful.” I can tell that there is something else behind his words, something he really wants to say but isn’t saying, for some reason. I look him straight in the eye.
“I can get you some sausage rolls, no problem” I reply. Head Porter cracks.
“Look, I’m just a bit worried, you know, so soon after the May Ball?” Head Porter moves closer and drops his voice to a whisper. “I just wish we could have, you know, stuck together tonight.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me I shall be absolutely fine!” I reassure him.
“I was more thinking about my own safety, actually, Deputy Head Porter. I mean, what if the… the people behind all this see me as an easier target? A soft option, maybe? I shall be all alone down there with the coats!”
I am not, under ordinary circumstances, an eye-roller. But on this occasion I feel that no other response will suffice. He was brave enough in the boiler room.
To assuage his fears, we hastily concoct a strategy. At the beginning and end of the party, Head Porter will be perfectly safe as the cloakroom area will be bustling with guests and their unwanted outer clothing. When everyone is safely ensconced in The Wide Gallery, we initiate a needlessly inconvenient ‘checking in’ system of meeting at the hallway staircase every twenty minutes, Head Porter at the foot of the stairs and me at the top from the door to The Gallery. A quick nod will confirm that all is well and we will return to our separate endeavours. If anything happens during the twenty minutes, well, I suppose he will just have to scream or something.
There. We couldn’t be more prepared if we tried.
What could possibly go wrong?