Sat at my desk in the Porters’ Lodge, my mouth hangs open ridiculously and a terrible churning feeling is manifesting itself in my gut. An unbelievable and unthinkable thing has just happened. I stare accusingly at the telephone in my hand, this being the conduit for the implausible news so recently imparted.
Head Porter has called in sick.
Head Porter has never, ever before called in sick. According to Porter, he has never once been ill in the ten years he has served at Old College. His croaky voice was very convincing and, despite the execution of The Dean’s plan not being until midnight tonight, he fears that he is far too unwell and we will just have to carry on without him.
I smell something suspicious. And this time, it isn’t Porter.
Speaking of which, the very chap is hovering around my desk as I sit gaping like a simpleton at the phone. He seems agitated, which is unusual for him.
“Are you alright there?” I ask.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replies. “Would you like a cup of tea, ma’am?”
“Of course I would, Porter,” I say, sensing something more “But are you going to tell me what it is you want first?”
“Ah. Am I that obvious, ma’am?”
“Just a lucky guess.”
Porter clears his throat.
“I wondered, ma’am, if I might take the afternoon off? There’s something… I had planned for this evening, but what with the other thing happening now, I thought I might rearrange matters.”
“Ordinarily I would say yes,” I reply “But with Head Porter off I’m a little bit stretched.”
“I thought of that ma’am, I’ve asked Night Porter to come in for a few hours. He doesn’t mind.”
I search Porter’s face for further clues as to what he might be up to. He seems surprisingly anxious and the forethought of finding himself cover is rather unusual. This is most out of character.
“Is this anything to do with a woman, Porter?” I ask, eyebrow raised. The wonderful shade of fuchsia that springs to his cheeks tells me all I need to know. “Alright then,” I sigh, but with a smile “But just make sure you are in Mortlock Alley for midnight tonight. We’re already a man down.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am” Porter replies gratefully. “I won’t let you down. Is it alright if I get off now, then?”
“Right after you’ve made me that cup of tea.”
The Chapel bell of Hawkins College rings out across The City night sky. It is a clear night, with just a few straggly clouds scudding across the waxing moon. Midnight in Mortlock Alley and The Dean (looking unexpectedly convincing in his Zorro costume) and I are tentatively peeking at our intended target – the east gate of Hawkins College. Porter’s reconnaissance missions have taught us that this small gate is habitually left unlocked by the Night Porter so he can slip out for a smoke and a cheeky swig from his hip flask.
“Where is that blasted Porter?” huffs The Dean. “He should be here by now.”
“He’ll be here,” I say. “Shame about Head Porter.”
“Yes, funny old business, that” The Dean muses. “If the fellow is genuinely ill then I suppose that is that. But if I find out he is just trying to get out of this essential College activity than I shall be furious, I tell you.”
“You don’t need to tell me, Sir.”
“Well, quite.” The Dean checks his watch and utters what could be a swear word, but sounds made up to me. “Listen, Deputy Head Porter, you don’t suffer fools gladly, do you?”
I think about my reply carefully.
“I suffer them all the time, Sir” I say. “I’m surrounded by the bloody things. Besides. They are my people.”
Ignoring me completely, The Dean continues.
“If you thought there was some mischief abound, in relation to Head Porter, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course Sir” I lie. The Dean does not appear convinced but there is no time to pursue this further as Porter arrives haphazardly around the corner.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Wouldn’t she let you out of the handcuffs?” I say, winking at Porter.
“Never mind that,” says The Dean, oblivious “Let’s get on with this. Now, Deputy Head Porter and I will assume our roles and make our way through the east gate. You, Porter, will make your way to their bloody Porters’ Lodge and distract their night man with your shaggy dog story. Once you have taken him off to search for the imaginary creature, we shall sneak in and take possession of the master keys. Our search of the blasted place will then begin. Understood?”
Porter and I nod in agreement. I mentally prepare myself for the role. Drunken student may not seem like the most difficult persona to master, but as has been proved previously, I am a terrible actress. I perform a few stretches and try to adopt the mindset of an inebriated adolescent.
“What are you doing, Deputy Head Porter?” asks The Dean impatiently.
“I am preparing for my big part,” I explain. “What’s my motivation?”
“Your motivation is that if we fail to achieve our aim you will be in for a severe spanking!” The Deans replies. “Anyway, why are you dressed as an air hostess?”
“It’s my fancy dress costume,” I say, hurt. Please do not ask why I own an air hostess fancy dress costume. You really don’t want to know.
“Oh, bugger it,” he says “Come on!”
I take The Dean’s arm and stagger as convincingly as I can, my hair falling across my face to assist with the overall effect. I took the time to ruffle my hair and smudge my makeup, hoping to further look the part. I have chosen my most vertiginous heels for the evening as they give me a naturally unsteady gait, even without the added assistance of alcohol.
Like two plucky undercover agents of times past, The Dean and I make our way precariously through the east gate, which opens up into a grand courtyard, the likes of which Old College can only dream. Starlight falls across the antediluvian flagstones, which echo in protest as our unfamiliar feet walk across them. It is almost as if the very grounds know that they are being penetrated by their ancient foe.
We are behind enemy lines.