Whilst Porter has been dispatched to locate the potentially loose-lipped Bedder, I have the dubious pleasure of visiting Head Of Housekeeping. If there is any gossip around College regarding the Lord Layton, it would have reached her ears early doors.
Head Porter has hastily nailed together a cover story to explain the painting’s absence and it is down to me to make sure that word gets about. The most efficient method by which to achieve this is to employ the considerable skills of the Housekeeping Department, who are akin to the College equivalent of carrier pigeon. Like a tabard-wearing Puck, a Bedder can put gossip around the College in forty minutes or under. Sometimes, it even leaks beyond College walls and seeps into the gossip pools of surrounding Colleges. Inter-College gossip is highly prized indeed amongst the Housekeeping alliance of The University.
The Housekeeping offices are perfectly organised bedlam. Stacked neatly on nearly every surface there are boxes of every conceivable cleaning sundry known to man. Some rather inconceivable ones, too – in one corner are gathered long, pole-like contraptions that appear more at ease with the dark arts of torture as apposed to cleaning. Marching around it all is a mop-wielding army of well-drilled Bedders, who go about their business under the watchful eye of Head Of Housekeeping.
Head Of Housekeeping’s watchful eye is noticeably absent this afternoon, assumedly glaring at something elsewhere. This is a little bit of a relief. Although my dealings with the formidable Head Of Housekeeping have been decent enough, she relishes any opportunity to gloat over the shortcomings of the Porters’ Lodge and you can bet your life that the missing painting is going to be our fault, somehow. The great thing about being Deputy Head Porter is that the buck will forever come to rest one stop along the line from me. If all else fails I can always just blame everything on Head Porter.
Someone who has an uncanny understanding of this mindset is my comrade Deputy Head Of Housekeeping. A firm bond was sealed between us following the unfortunate incident of Senior Bursar’s Biscuits and we have been allies ever since. She gives me a broad smile, her huge brown eyes flashing beneath sweeping, feathery lashes.
“Mi querida!” She greets me, her voice more song than spoken word. “How lovely it is to see you again! Can I fetch for you a drink? Tea?” I shake my head.
“Thanks, but I can’t hang around, sorry.”
“Pero, por supuesto – the missing painting!”
“You’ve heard, then?” I sigh. Although, to be fair, this was not completely unexpected.
“Yes,” she replies, excited now “And everyone is wondering how the great Deputy Head Porter is going to get it back!” Okaaay.
“Well, you can suspend the speculation for now, I’m afraid” I say. “The painting isn’t missing. The Lord Layton is simply away for some emergency restoration work on the area adjacent to his top hat, I believe. Diminishing integrity of the oils” Or whatever. Deputy Head Of Housekeeping looks rather disappointed.
“Oh, and we thought that maybe excitement was afoot. Lastima.”
“Sorry, no, there was a brief panic earlier on but there’s a quite straight forward explanation. Sadly. I mean, it would have been exciting, yes.” I decide to stop talking before I stray into the realms of babbling. I really am not a good liar.
“Oh well, at least the painting, it is safe.”
“That’s right,” I say. “And I have a reputation to maintain so I would appreciate it if people didn’t think I had accidentally lost a painting. You know, if anyone asks. Like The Dean. Or anyone, really. Okay?”
Deputy Head Of Housekeeping looks at me strangely then bursts into peals of laughter. She waves me off, either believing me to be the world’s greatest living comedian or a complete simpleton, it is difficult to tell.
Which ever it is, I’ll take it. Our secret is safe.