Month: November 2014

The Importance Of Sausages

The transition from Autumn to Winter has been cruelly rapid, so much as to say it has been practically non-existent. I was in short sleeves at Halloween; this morning I can barely feel my feet. My habit of leaving them dangling free of the duvet while I sleep should be reserved for the clement seasons. Regardless of the conditions outside, they always find their way free of the snuggling comfort of the bed.

And at once I can very much indeed feel my feet – far more than I would like. Another good reason for breaking this nocturnal habit is the recent addition to my little household: a new kitten. The little needles of claw that emerge from his tiny paws belie his outward fluffiness. Unchecked hands and feet quickly become pin cushions and my previous reluctance to waken evaporates faster than my breath on this chill morning.

He is a great motivator, I’ll give him that.

His name is Terry.

Once out of bed, the inclination to get to work becomes very strong. The Porters’ Lodge is warm. There is an endless supply of tea. The sausage sandwiches will be waiting. Chef’s celebrated sausage sandwiches have lured me into Old College on many a frosty morning, let me tell you. As I critically adjust my bowler hat in the mirror, I wonder idly if there will be any leftovers from last night. The feast that inevitably follows the Induction Of The Fellowship is an invariably lavish affair and, despite the well-documented gluttony of The Fellowship, there are sometimes a few delicious morsels cast aside from High Table.

The huge iron gates of Old College glitter strikingly in the early morning light, a layer of frost giving them a smattering of magic. Passing through, the warm glow from within the Porters’ Lodge spills invitingly across the courtyard but it cannot tempt me from first finding some breakfast. The Dining Room will not yet be open, but Head Of Catering will be lingering some place and he will ensure the provision of the much-anticipated sausage sandwiches.

Head Of Catering is a surprisingly jolly chap for a man who is responsible for the near-constant feeding of the fussy and demanding members of College, even at this time of the morning. I find him in his office, drinking from a large mug coffee that smells positively industrial. I rarely find common ground with aficionados of coffee, being a lady of the Assam persuasion, but Head Of Catering has become something of a fellow conspirator when it comes to the illicit acquisition of victuals. That is to say, I am very greedy and he doesn’t seem to mind.

“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter!” he says, raising his mug in greeting. “Chef has just started on the sausages. He’s running a bit behind today.”

“Oh really?” I reply, trying to hide my consternation “Why’s that?”

“The Bursar put in an early breakfast order. To be delivered to his rooms, would you believe. He certainly hasn’t wasted any time in getting his feet under the table.”

“He certainly hasn’t. What did he order?”

“Eggs Benedict,” Head Of Catering replies, putting on what he probably believes is a fancy accent. “Have you met him, at all?”

“We saw him briefly for The Induction Of The Fellowship last night, but that’s it so far.”

“Hmmm” Head Of Catering briefly turns his attention to his coffee. “Odd sort of chap. He barely ate anything at the feast. And he left before the port and cheese.”

“What?!” I am genuinely staggered. I have heard of Fellows skipping starters, but never leaving before the port and cheese. “He can’t be a proper academic. That’s not the appetite of an academic.”

Head Of Catering simply shrugs.

“Maybe he just isn’t into his food.”

“Not into his food?!” I splutter. “What the bloody hell is he expecting to do around here all day if it isn’t eating?”

“I hear that he is quite keen on educating people,” replies Head Of Catering.

“Now there’s a first.”

“I know. He is certainly not your regular Fellow, that’s for sure. Did you see his shoes? Probably Italian, I reckon.”

“Head Porter was quite taken with the shoes, certainly” I say. “Fascinating hair, too”

“Hmmm” Head Of Catering self-consciously raises a hand to his own thinning locks as he considers this. “Maybe that’s Italian too.”

I take a moment to consider this, but my mind is elsewhere. Surely those sausages must be ready by now. I must find a way to politely excuse myself in order that I may continue my pursuit of breakfast. I would use the time-honoured technique of looking meaningfully at my watch, but I don’t have one. Maybe I should just forgo politeness altogether for the sake of my stomach. There is a knock at the door.

“Come in!” Head Of Catering calls out, jovially. The door is flung open. “Ah! Porter. Good to see you, old bean. What can I do for you?”

“Morning, chap” he replies, barely looking at Head Of Catering. He turns to me, agitated,  moustache twitching slightly. Never a good sign. Whatever this is, it had better not get in the way of my breakfast. “I thought I might find you here, ma’am. There’s something you should take a look at, if you wouldn’t mind.”

I don’t know what is more disappointing. The fact that something might keep me from my sausages or the notion that I am to be so easily and predictably located.

“Can it wait until after I’ve had my breakfast, Porter?” I reply, with as much authority as I can muster. Which, admittedly, isn’t much. “It is the most important meal of the day, you know.”

“I’m not sure that it can, ma’am.”

“Oh. A matter of life and death, is it?”

“Not quite, ma’am” Porter shuffles uncomfortably and thrusts his hands in his pockets. “Just the one of them two things, ma’am.”



Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes

Two young lovers scurry, hand in hand, through the moonlit gardens of Old College. In their breathless enthusiasm they trip and stumble as they cannot bear to tear their eyes from each other, oblivious to where their feet may fall. Fingers entwined, their passions lead them to a place of fragrant seclusion, a hidden spot where their desires might be realised in mortal flesh and sweat. The remnants of a fire warms the ground as they tumble, lips as one, to the soft and yielding earth…

Head Porter and I strain to hear the monotone ramblings of The Master, speaking in Latin, behind the great curtains of the Chapel. Our knees are resting in the well-worn grooves of stone, where so many Porters have knelt before us, trying our best to listen in. This is, once again, the now-familiar ceremony of The Induction Of The Fellowship.

The act of crouching and attempting to listen in (whilst peeping under the curtains) is a largely pointless part of the ceremony, as it is conducted entirely in Latin. The tradition arose, centuries before, as a way of Porters knowing when the ceremony had reached its conclusion by observing the feet of departing Fellows heading back towards the door. The idea being that the curtains can be dramatically thrown open at the moment of egress. Porters through the ages have not been known for their proficiency in Latin and nor, really, am I. But even my schoolgirl smatterings were able to identify ‘exeunt omnes’ , much to the annoyance of Head Porter at last year’s event.

Yet despite my ability to ascertain when the ceremony has ended, and the cold chill rapidly stiffening our bones, kneel we shall on the worn stone floor. It’s tradition, you see.

And this is the thing about Old College that is infuriating and comforting in equal measure. Nothing ever changes. Not really. Academic years come and go, much the same as they have for five hundred years (give or take a few decades here and there), an ever turning cycle rolling through the years like a wheel of steel, crushing all in its path.

The people change, of course. Students come and go annually; Fellows less so. In more extreme cases, people have changed from being very much alive people to somewhat more dead people. Often not through their own choosing. But Old College doesn’t much notice people. The lifespan of an academic is infinitesimal to a creature as ancient and stoic as Old College. People don’t really matter. Only the College.

That said, the arrival of The Bursar has caused some excitement amongst staff and Fellowship alike. Little has been discovered about him but we know that he is an old friend of The Master. Also, he wears very shiny, pointy shoes. We can see them from our vantage point.

“Do you suppose they are Italian?” Whispers Head Porter, referring to the unusual shoes. I return his gaze and shrug. I suppose they could be. “What do you make of him, Deputy Head Porter? He seems like a rum sort of chap to me.”

Our entire experience of The Bursar thus far amounts to little more than a brief sideways glance as he passed us at the doors to the Chapel. But it seems Head Porter has already taken a bit of a dislike to him, so I humour his hastily drawn conclusions.

“Yes” I reply, flatly. “He has shifty eyes, I reckon.” Head Porter looks at me, perplexed.

“The eyes? Really? Can’t say I noticed them. No, it was that haircut, did you see it? Most unusual.”

Head Porter is right, here. Although clearly a man of advancing years, he has a sweep of jet black hair that is severely shorn at the back of his head yet across his forehead and left side of his angular jaw, it juts like a raven’s wing.

“It is a strange sort of a haircut, I’ll give you that” I reply.

“We shall have to keep our eye on him, Deputy Head Porter, you mark my words.”

“Words duly marked, Head Porter” I sigh and readjust my position on the unforgiving floor. “The Dean says he has been shoe-horned in by The Master, one way or another.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that The Dean didn’t take up the Master’s position at Wastell College?” asks Head Porter. “I wonder why he didn’t”.

I know damn well why he didn’t. But that isn’t something I can discuss with Head Porter whilst crouching on the stone floor of the Chapel.

“I suppose it’s because he’s The Dean,” I reply. “If he took that job he wouldn’t be The Dean anymore. Anyway. He doesn’t seem to keen on The Bursar, either.”

“He can’t be any worse than the last one.”

“I quite liked Junior Bursar,” I reply, a little more loudly than I intended. “Until the murdering part, I thought he was quite good.”

“It’s the murdering part I struggle with,” says Head Porter, thoughtfully. “And the attempted murdering. Of us, mainly.”

“Well,” I say “No one’s perfect, are they. Anyway, he is safely hidden away in Tuscany now.”

“We can but hope, Deputy Head Porter”.

Our hushed chattering has caused me to miss my cue and the feet of The Fellowship are hurriedly making their way towards us. With some understated colourful language, we leap to our feet and grandly pull back the Chapel curtains to allow The Fellowship to pass through. Following directly behind The Master is The Bursar, closely followed by The Dean.

Head Porter and I touch the brims of our bowlers respectfully as they pass, ignored by all except The Dean who gives the briefest of conspiratorial winks, before returning a critical gaze to the back of The Bursar’s head.

It is indeed a very odd haircut.