The face staring back at me in the bathroom mirror is non too shabby, if I do say so myself. It has taken a fair bit of effort and determination to achieve that effect, but even so. I’m still not so sure about the hair. Should I try the parting on the other side? Hmm. Looks a little odd. Brush it back. Pah. I look like a heavily made-up lion.
Although still rather hesitant about my hair, the time for deliberation is over as I hear the beep beep! of Head Porter’s elderly yet immaculate Ford Scorpio in my driveway. He has kindly offered to give me a lift, I suppose so that we might finalise our battle plans for tonight in a more discrete setting.
“Are you sure you won’t be cold in that?” says Head Porter as I swing open the passenger door. I look down at my red halter neck dress and shrug. I’m not taking a coat. Not tonight.
“I think I’ll be alright” I reply, climbing into my seat.
“Bloody hell, look at those shoes! How are you ever going to walk in them?!”
“Who d’you think you are, my father?” I snap back sarcastically, instantly regretting my turn of phrase. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean… it was a stupid thing to say.”
Head Porter just rolls his eyes at me and smiles. I may have touched a nerve, though. The journey to Old College is certainly a quiet one.
By the time we arrive, Head Porter has abandoned his quiet contemplation and is regaling me with tales of caution and ever so slightly patronising advice. I rather think he is a little jealous. We are quite early, as Head Porter needs to be in position before the arrival of first guests. I loiter with him in the cloakroom for a while, putting in place the final elements of our ‘checking in’ arrangement and idly wondering who will be the last Fellow standing at the end of the night. My money is on Chaplain, but there is no time to ponder it further. It is time to join the party.
As I enter The Wide Gallery, a relieved sigh finds its way out of my lungs. This looks fantastic. In the muted glow of candlelight the adorned Wide Gallery is somewhat striking. It is almost reminiscent of some Arthurian drama, where knights and princes would bound through the doors at any moment. However, the chirpy, up beat rhythm from the Ska band at the far end of the room distracts slightly from that general theme.
I helpfully relieve a server of one of the numerous glasses of champagne he is carrying and look around for someone serving canapés. Head Of Catering promised there would be those little tiny toad-in-the-holes that you can eat in one bite. I am going to need one or two of those.
This is just incredible. I have always had envious intentions regarding the feasts and dinners and drinks receptions. I feel that I was born to attend feasts. Alas, it was not to be, but now – look at me now! Here I am at Junior Bursar’s retirement party. I really hope he likes his party.
Soon after beginning my quest for tiny toad-in-the-hole, I come across The Dean. At first, I think he is distracted but then I notice he is intently watching the band. I see his foot tap once or twice.
“Good evening, Sir!” I raise my voice to catch his attention. “Enjoying the party?”
“Rather good, isn’t it?” He replies. “But listen – I’ve been thinking about something.”
Always excited to hear about what The Dean has been thinking about, I allow myself to be shuffled several feet away from our nearest fellow guests. He seems a good deal pleased with himself. In hushed tones, he shares with me his insights regarding our situation as he perceives it. He is convinced that those responsible for the deaths of Senior Bursar and Professor K will be in The Master’s Lodge this evening. With every Fellow and senior member of College in attendance, it stands to reason that The Vicious Circle must be among them. But who?
“Can you two not keep your hands off of each other for a single moment?!” Startled by the sudden and, until just now, silent arrival of Junior Bursar we spring apart quite involuntarily. “For goodness sake. If you must continue with your salacious activities, please at least refrain from indulging at my party. Thank you.”
“Are you… having a nice time?” I venture politely.
“I am, actually” he replies, much to my relief. “Although I am not entirely taken with those miniature sausages in batter contraptions. I’m really enjoying the band, they more than make up for it.”
Before I can say any more, Junior Bursar waves me along with him towards the direction of the nearest glass of wine. I manage to catch The Dean’s eye as I am led away. He is evidently furious. I am forced to look away when a large glass of Chateauneuf du Pape is thrust into my hand by a smiling Junior Bursar.
“Well, this isn’t too bad at all, is it Deputy Head Porter?” His tone is conversational. A rarely-used tone, in the case of Junior Bursar. “You have done a good job. Not just for tonight, either. So I want you to enjoy my party to the fullest capacity. You will not be expected in The Lodge tomorrow. Think of it as a token of thanks from me personally.”
We chink glasses and drink deeply of the thick, smooth wine, which tastes all the sweeter for having those unexpected words swimming in my ears. A ‘thank you’ from Junior Bursar. Now I really have seen it all. He leaves me fighting to keep a soppy grin from my face and heads towards a gathering of Fellows who have collected several feet behind me. It must be time to check on Head Porter. I head towards the hallway.
Our check-in passes without incident, as do those that follow. Unfortunately, although the check-ins have been a resounding success, the bits in-between have been less so. Inspired by Junior Bursar’s encouragement to let my hair down and emboldened by a general feeling of pride, I have made every effort to really get into the spirit of things. The spirits are a recent diversion, though. It’s been wine up until then. Far too much of it and scant amount of canapés to compensate. There were not nearly enough canapés and not even any crisps at all. I mean, who has a party without crisps, right? Anyway… anyway.
The realisation that I am barely a few sips away from being a complete catastrophe nags unpleasantly, somewhere in the soup that was once my brain. I very, very carefully place my glass on the table, after only three attempts.
Motor functions still operating to some degree. What can rescue me from my stupidly self-inflected malaise? There is only one thing. The saviour of alcohol induced idiocy since mankind first laid eyes on a pig. A bacon sandwich. Now. Think. Where would I find a bacon sandwich. In a room… a room with other food in it. A food room. A kitchen! The Lodge kitchen isn’t even that far. It’s just down there and along a bit.
What had I been saying earlier, about feeling so proud? And we all know what comes after pride. I stagger with as much dignity as I can muster to the kitchens, in the far reaches of The Lodge. The change of air has sharpened my senses a little, but only sufficiently enough to tell me that I am in no condition to cook. There is a good chance there might be some sort of leftovers nestling in the fridge so I continue on my way, stopping only to remove my shoes.
When I reach the kitchens, killer heels tucked clumsily under my arm, I am surprised to find the place in darkness. Catering must have gone home. My unfamiliarity with this room leaves me fumbling blindly for the light switch before realising why it is in darkness. Cold and spotless, the kitchens evidently have not been used tonight. Tonight’s delights must have been brought over from the main Kitchens.
Still squinting from the sudden brightness, I gently sway towards the fridge, vainly hoping that something delicious is just sat there waiting for me. Heaving open what feels like the heaviest door in the world, I am bathed in the happy glow of the fridge light as its treasures are revealed. This is a fine hoard of booty indeed and I think I know how pirates feel.
But then, what I feel next is something else entirely.
From somewhere near the base of my skull a heavy, immobolising thud explodes, vibrating right through to the tip of my nose. There is barely time to register the howling ache to the back of my head before I don’t feel anything at all.
And then, just…