It never ceases to amaze me how life places me in such unlikely scenarios. As we speak, I am pretending to be a heavily intoxicated eighteen year old student who has arrived at Hawkins College for her first year studying – what was it? Art history, I think. An easy one, anyway. As a Deputy Head Porter now firmly in her mid-thirties, dressed in a skimpy air hostess outfit, this is something of a challenge.
My comrade in this unlikely operation is The Dean of College, a man I have not been having an affair with for some time, masquerading as Zorro. To be fair, I should not be so surprised. My existence since joining Old College has been surreal, to say the least. This is just one other thing, in a whole great list of things, that I thought would never happen. And the fate of the Lord Layton portrait is at stake, so I focus my attentions on the matter in hand.
“Bugger!” says The Dean.
“What is it?” I ask, my head lolling towards the floor in the style of one who is helplessly drunk.
“Some students are coming our way. They might try to engage with us. Pretend to be sick to put them off.”
I sigh. This is not the glamorous life I envisioned as an under cover agent for Old College. As The Dean guides me towards a handy flowerbed, I heave and retch in a manner I hope will be off-putting. This performance continues until The Dean indicates that the coast is clear. I begin to rise from my unladylike position but as I do, my head is shoved unceremoniously back towards the flora and fauna.
“The Night Porter is coming!” The Dean hisses “He has our chap with him. Try and actually vomit, if you can.”
As I try, unsuccessfully, to meet The Dean’s demands, The Hawkins College Night Porter addresses us.
“Oi!” he shouts across the courtyard, in a manner for which I would chide my Porters. “Is that you, Hastings?”
“Er… Yes!” replies The Dean.
“Well, you’d better not be here by the time I get back or you’ll be up before The Dean, d’you here?”
Once he and our brilliantly disguised Porter have disappeared into the cloister, The Dean pulls me upright and suggests we make our way to the Porters’ Lodge with haste. I totter unsteadily across the uneven flagstones.
“Look, Deputy Head Porter, you don’t have to pretend to be drunk now. Let’s just get these bloody keys!”
“I’m not, Sir!” I protest to The Dean. “It’s these shoes! I can’t walk in them.”
“Take them off, then.”
I cannot believe I didn’t think of that sooner. What’s more, I can’t believe The Dean thought of it before I did. In my bare feet, I am able to keep pace with my surprisingly nimble comrade and we are soon within sight of the enemy headquarters. The Hawkins College Porters’ Lodge.
Thinking back, I can’t say that I have ever actually been inside the Hawkins Porters’ Lodge. This might prove somewhat of a drawback when it comes to locating the master keys, but from what I have seen, Porters’ Lodges tend to follow quite a familiar pattern.
As we approach the door, I feel my heart start to beat just that little faster and I am aware of a fine layer of perspiration beginning to form across my back. The late night air seems to nip at my skin as I suddenly feel very aware of myself and my surrounding environment. Hawkins College is a far grander structure than Old College, certainly. Illuminated by the scant moonlight, the towering stone walls look like they might be carved from ivory, reaching up the skies before bursting with intricately decorative masonry and soaring spires.
No wonder their Head Porter is so bloody smug. The air within these walls is thick with centuries of superiority and privilege. Even breathing it in makes me feel somewhat unworthy. But perhaps it is like tobacco, that when first inhaled is repugnant but with some careful practice can become full of illicit pleasure. And addictive.
All University Colleges are not alike. They all have their own quirks and, for want of a better word, personalities. But somehow they all find a way to keep so many of the brightest and best from ever straying too far from their walls. They are like little eccentric black holes, where people of certain persuasions find themselves unable and unwilling to escape. An uncomfortable thought.
Anyway. However amazing Hawkins College might be, I console myself with the fact that Wastell College is even better. Whilst Hawkins College might be the King Arthur of The University, Wastell College must certainly be the Sir Lancelot. And we all know what he got up to behind the King’s back. I am not sure what that makes Old College. Probably Merlin.
“Come on!” The Dean hisses at me. “I have other things to do this evening, you know.” Really? The Dean’s personal life must be more eventful than I first thought.
We breach the final line of defences, which amounts to nothing more exciting than an unlocked door, and enter the Porters’ Lodge. It is smaller than our own beloved Lodge, which is unexpected. Also, I note with feeling of immense self-satisfaction, it is not as well-ordered. This Head Porter needs to pull his socks up.
I deftly hop over the front counter and start searching the endless rows of keys for the master set.
“Hurry up, Deputy Head Porter!” The Dean says in what I am sure he thinks is an encouraging manner.
“You might give me a hand, Sir” I reply. The Dean spits out a thousand ‘bugger’s as he hauls himself over the front counter to join me in the frantic search. At this point, I realise that The Dean probably has absolutely no idea what he is looking for, but I appreciate the enthusiasm regardless. Before too long, I seem to be getting somewhere.
“This looks like a master set, Sir” I say, hauling a hefty bunch of keys from their hook.
“Brilliant!” He exclaims. “Let’s push on, then!”
The Dean and I wheel round to see the door to the Porters’ Lodge resolutely shut and a bowler hatted figure standing before us.
Hawkins College Head Porter.