There is an altogether different air about Head Porter this evening. A more focused and determined nature seems to have replaced the far away look and preoccupied manner. As I watch him ordering drinks at what has now become our local, The Albatross, I wonder if it is this business with the Lord Layton that has grasped his attention.
Head Porter returns to our cramped little table by the window with a warm pint and a glass of orange juice. We are the very pinnacle of sophistication. Taking a sip of fruity goodness, I wonder how I am going to approach the subject of his daughter. In the time it takes to sip and ponder, Head Porter has already launched into his chosen subject.
“How did your night go with The Dean?” He asks. I put down my glass. What to say?
“Alright. I think” I reply. “I don’t remember much of it. I told him about the Lord Layton, I’m afraid.”
“Oh. How did he take it?”
“Brilliantly” I say “He’s over the moon. Can’t wait to start investigating.”
I see Head Porter turn this over in his head for a moment. It seems that he thinks this is reasonable enough. “I think I told him something else as well. Something I shouldn’t have.”
“What did you tell him?” Head Porter asks anxiously.
“I have no idea. I can hardly remember a thing. He just said ‘Your secret is safe with me’ and he winked.”
“The Dean winked?!”
“He did. Now The Dean knows something about me that even I don’t know. There was another thing he was trying to tell me but then he said it didn’t matter.”
“Did he mention any more about these new Bursars that are supposed to be snooping round? I haven’t spotted one yet.”
“He may have done,” I sigh and shake my head “But I just cannot recall. Anyway, how did your evening go?”
Head Porter shifts in his seat and rubs his left temple for a second. He takes a generous mouthful of the cloudy brown liquid before him and looks me directly in the eye.
“D’you know, Deputy Head Porter, it wasn’t too bad at all” he says. “I had liver and onions, I haven’t seen them on a menu for years.” I search his face for any flicker of an undercurrent. There is certainly something amiss here.
“Okay” I say, slowly. “And what about your daughter?”
“She had the steak” he replies quickly. “Medium rare. With a peppercorn sauce.”
“You didn’t bring me here to talk about your dinner,” I say, putting down my glass. “Do you want to tell me about your daughter?”
Head Porter emits a sigh that sounds like it has been waiting to escape forever. It is as if he is about to unburden himself of a weight that he has been carrying for too long.
“Do you ever feel like you’ve wasted too much of your life, Deputy Head Porter?”
“I feel like that after every key audit” I reply.
“I was married once, you know. Obviously, it didn’t work out. It might be difficult for you to understand, but I never seemed to be able to admit when I was in the wrong. In my mind, it was always down to somebody else, always because of circumstances or reasons outside of my control. I found it very hard to accept that I could ever be at fault.”
“I am not having too much difficulty grasping that concept, Head Porter. I work with you, remember?” But Head Porter ignores this and continues.
“When my wife left me, probably about thirty years ago now, the first I knew there was any problem at all was when I got home one evening to a note on the kitchen table.” Head Porter breaks only to take a further comforting mouthful of ale. “She took absolutely everything that wasn’t nailed down, cleared out the joint account, took the lot. My daughter too, obviously. I never even saw it coming.”
“That is pretty rough,” I say kindly. “Any idea why she did it?”
“Perhaps I wasn’t always the easiest person to share a life with. I don’t think I was ready to share my life and I certainly wasn’t interested in her life. I suppose I just didn’t care enough.”
“Oh, I care now, alright. I care now, now I’m old and alone and fearful for the future. But it’s too late, isn’t it? She told me, you can’t just start caring when it suits you. You can’t just walk back into a life that you created but took no responsibility for – just because you feel that you want to. And she’s right, isn’t she? But it looks like I have finally got an opportunity to make it up to her.”
I listen with interest and some concern as Head Porter explains in detail as to what this ‘opportunity’ might be. It is clear that he has long been harbouring heart-felt regret about his perceived failings in his family life and no doubt this goes some way to explaining his often contrary manner. It would appear that his daughter has made quite sure that he feels a certain amount of guilt about some very specific things. Those things being predominantly finance-related.
She has certainly done a number on him. Head Porter is now labouring under the apprehension that he can make recompense for the last thirty years by handing over sizeable sums of cash. Sizeable sums of cash he just doesn’t have, it would seem. As delighted as I am for Head Porter to be embarking on a relationship with his long-lost daughter, something is bothering me considerably. I gently try to suggest that money can never make up for love and he should maybe consider exploring other areas of their relationship, but I am met with a degree of hostility. I clearly just ‘do not understand’.
Head Porter finishes his pint frostily and bids me good evening, cutting our conversation down in its prime. I haven’t just touched a nerve, I seem to have found the most sensitive one going and jumped up and down on it repeatedly. My own nerves are hardly at the peak of physical perfection following my all-nighter with The Dean.
I decide to write today off as a bit of a bad job all round and take myself home for a well-deserved early night. Tomorrow is another day.
PorterGirl the book!