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.