Month: December 2014

Keeping Up Appearances

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” – Abraham Lincoln

 

Involuntarily, my fingertips grip the arms of Head Porter’s chair just that little bit more tightly. The Bursar is smiling through the veil of his unnaturally jet hair and his every gesture exudes affable indifference. Not his eyes, though. Especially not the one partly hidden by his sweeping fringe. They exude something else entirely, although what it is I couldn’t say. Thin lips creep back across a row of gleaming white teeth as the smile is expanded.

“Ah! Good evening, Deputy Head Porter,” he says. “How nice to see you again. I was hoping to catch a word with your superior.”

“He is… unavailable,” I reply, remembering to keep in mind that this gentleman is ultimately responsible for overseeing the Porters’ Lodge.

“What a shame. When might he become available, do you think?”

“I imagine not until tomorrow morning, Sir. Is there anything I can help with?”

“Perhaps you can” and The Bursar takes the seat usually occupied by my good self, on the opposite side of Head Porter’s desk. I shuffle myself into a more attentive poise and adopt my famed ‘helpful’ expression. “The thing is, Deputy Head Porter, I am feeling a little perturbed by the plethora of corpses that seem to find their way onto College grounds.” You and me both, old chap.

“It is a damned inconvenience, Sir” I say, meaning every word. The Bursar stares as politely as it is possible to do so; I can feel his eyes searching mine for something lurking behind my words. He will find very little, I am sure.

“You know, Deputy Head Porter, I do you the disservice of relating an untruth.”

“How so, Sir?”

“I am not at all perturbed by corpses. Corpses do not perturb me in the slightest. But The Master – now, he is less than enamoured…” which is a bit rich for a man who solves sudoku puzzles in crypts “…It looks so bad for the College, don’t you know. College reputation is such a fragile thing, as is any reputation, wouldn’t you say?”

“I cannot help but agree, Sir.” I am not so sure that I do agree, however. In my experience, reputations are rather hard to shift.

“There is some concern that perhaps the old ways might have found new hands to work them, Deputy Head Porter?”

Silence like ice falls across the room. I wrestle the chill in my spine into submission and focus the cold in my bones into searing points behind my eyes. I have a terrible inkling as to what he might be referring. The very thing we spent the last academic year battling (and defeating, I might add) has returned to the forefront of College consciousness. But that is impossible. The Vicious Circle are now all dead. Except for one…

“None remain” I answer, simply.

“Are you quite sure about that, Deputy Head Porter?” The Bursar leans closer, almost threatening, cajoling. I have had quite enough of this.

“Now listen here,” I start “I had all this with Professor K. I would rather you chaps from The Fellowship just said what you mean and I can guarantee you that you will receive some straight-talking in return.”

The Bursar drifts back into his seat, yet retains a certain degree of malice.

“The dear Professor K. Yes. You were quite the great chums, were you not?” He does not wait for me to answer. “You must miss him dreadfully. He was an active member of… the Circle, was he not? Which is why he had to die, as I understand it. The rules of that strange organisation seem fairly clear. Those who expose The Circle have no need for pension plans, it seems. Which is one less thing to worry about. No matter. It is no bad thing as that organisation is a great threat to the academic reputation of Old College. The Master is quite clear that any stragglers of The Vicious Circle are to be dealt with quite absolutely.”

“And, indeed, they were, Sir” I reply. “None remain.”

“And yet you are here, quite unscathed, despite keeping close quarters with Professor K?”

Hardly unscathed. I narrowly escaped being burned alive, poisoned and being thrown off the flag tower. But I can see what he is getting at. The Circle was supposedly vanquished and yet here are two more fresh cadavers in College grounds. But this must be something else entirely, mustn’t it? It must be, I know that. The Bursar seems to think differently.

“Your predecessor tried, and failed, to kill me on no fewer than three separate occasions,” I say through clenched teeth. “He went to great lengths to provide an inventive selection of accidental deaths for me. And yet, as you say, here I am. How can I be one of The Circle? I have outlasted them all.”

“The Master is most definite on this matter,” says The Bursar, darkly. “The reputation of College must be maintained. If these latest deaths are not as they seem, there will certainly be a most finite resolution for whosoever is responsible.”

The Bursar sweeps to his feet and out of Head Porter’s office in one fluid and dreadful movement, the door closing firmly behind him. I let out a sigh of frustration. Not only has yet another impossible Fellow been appointed by Old College, this one seems to think I am somehow involved in cheerfully indiscriminate murder. I shake my head. This job doesn’t get any easier, certainly.

I need a drink. Time to make my way to The Albatross to meet with Head Porter.

Missing

Being in Head Porter’s office when Head Porter isn’t there always feels like a kind of trespass. I mean, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be in here – I have a key after all – but the absence of Head Porter makes me feel like an illicit interloper. It is one of the few places in College where it is possible to gain a little privacy and quiet, which is exactly what I require right now. Well, there is the boiler room at the bottom of ‘A’ Staircase but there arn’t any biscuits down there.

I make myself comfortable in the large chair behind Head Porter’s desk, the familiar creak of the leather making me feel a little more welcome. His bowler hat hangs jauntily from the coat rack in the corner and his rulers and pens are lined up neatly by his writing pad, like little soldiers awaiting inspection. For someone with such a chaotic mind, his personal artifacts are remarkably well-ordered.

It is such a rarity for Head Porter not to make it into work that I am beginning to worry that something awful has happened. I pick up the receiver of his desk phone and carefully dial his number. He answers before the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Head Porter? It’s me. You wanted me to call?”

“Right! Yes, thanks, Deputy Head Porter. Sorry I haven’t been in today. Have I missed much?”

“Porter found two dead bodies down the far end of the gardens,” I reply airily. “The Dean has been irritating the Chief Inspector. Same old, same old, really.” Head Porter laughs. I remain silent.

“Oh, you’re not joking, are you?!” he says, not sounding half as panicked as one might expect. “Who are the bodies? Anyone we know?”

“One of them is ours, the other one we don’t know. It’s all in hand, I’ll fill you in on the details later. Anyway, what’s up with you?”

There is a brief silence, in which I imagine Head Porter is arranging words in his head. His voice, when it does come, is a little shaky.

“It’s my daughter,” he starts, uneasily “She’s gone missing“. In my mind some rather unkind thoughts begin to surface. Thoughts like – Excellent! and That’s the perfect state of affairs for that blasted girl. But, as I say, they are unkind thoughts and Head Porter is clearly distressed.

It would be a great disservice to my friend to express anything other than a shared concern for his hideous offspring, so that is just what I do. He has been tentatively rebuilding a relationship with her for many months now, although he hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with proceedings. She originally turned up wanting money from him but I did feel that, over the spring and into summer, a more genuine bond was developing. It seems that the fiscal motivation was not completely abandoned, however, and Head Porter has recently handed over a substantial sum for a deposit on a house. And now she has disappeared completely.

“She said she was intending to buy a place nearby, so we could be close to each other,” Head Porter continues “I even went with her to view the property – a super little place down Marigold Crescent – I was going to sell my own house so I could give her the money!” This at least explains his urgent financial difficulties earlier this year. “It didn’t come to that, of course, but now she’s gone, Deputy Head Porter!”

I take a deep breath and consider how best to proceed. Head Porter is a good man at heart and, although he has not always been quite so considerate of others, he really does not deserve this upset. I was suspicious from the start of this little escapade and the girl did nothing to endear herself to me since the moment Porter and I witnessed her screaming at her father in the street. Her demands for financial support began quite early on, accompanied by rueful recriminations about his absence from her childhood. Growing up without a parent can be profoundly affecting; I know this to be certainly true as I myself never knew my father. But revenge and retaliation for such things are simply cruel and undignified. Particularly when, in such circumstances, right and wrong are rarely black and white.

Suspecting that the little cow-bag has simply got the cash to which she feels entitled and then done a runner, I advise Head Porter to meet me in The Eagle later on to discuss the matter. The Eagle has been the backdrop for many an excellent idea and moment of inspirational genius so I see no reason why a return trip will not be beneficial. Even if it doesn’t quite solve all our problems, we can at least forget what they were in the first place.

Replacing the receiver, I am mentally preparing myself for an awkward evening of emotional out-pouring. This is something I rarely handle well and generally try to avoid. Particularly when work colleagues are involved. Head Porter under the influence of alcohol always brings surprising and unexpected results and I only hope I have sufficient energy to endure. It has been a long day already.

I slump in the elderly leather chair and swing my legs thoughtfully as I think about making my way to Senior Tutor’s rooms to ask him about the dear departed Maurinio. A shadow, or something, lingering by the door catches my attention. Turning my head sharply I am rather surprised to see that I have company. Company that, evidently, moves silently.

It is The Bursar.

 

Snow Globe

 

Hershel’s usually confident demeanour is showing signs of instability. The sinews of his neck are twitching slightly and there is a noticeable shake to his hands, although he attempts to hide this by toying with the snow globe. With one last nervous glance towards the door of the Junior Combination Room, he moves closer to share his thoughts.

“Look, I didn’t know the chap well, alright? He wasn’t exactly part of my crowd. But I do know he’s had a bit of a falling out with his parents. Penelope’s friend Deborah knew him from the chess club and he confided in her.”

“Was it to do with his… lifestyle choices?” I ask, diplomatically.

“What? Because he was gay?” Hershel laughs joylessly and shakes his head. “No, there was no problem there. No. But they weren’t happy with his choice of boyfriend. Ryan, I believe. They didn’t like him.”

“Why? What was wrong with Ryan?” I ask him. Hershel flicks his fringe from his eyes.

“I don’t know, I know little about the fellow” he replies. “I don’t know if Deborah ever met him or not, I suspect Penelope might have more of an idea. It’s just a shock, you know. Knowing that they… died…”

“I know, it’s a dreadful sort of thing” I say, seeing him struggle to find the words. “Now don’t upset yourself. I’m just trying to find out what happened. Was he very upset by the falling out, d’you think?”

“Upset enough to kill himself, you mean?” Hershel’s eyes are wide and pleading; it is clear that this possibility has been raised in College gossip.

“Let’s not get over excited,” I reply, sensibly. “I am open to all eventualities at this stage. A bit of background information might be useful, the police are unlikely to divulge anything interesting.”

“How long are they going to be here? They’re making me nervous, if I’m honest.”

“Now, why doesn’t that surprise me” I say, teasing. “I’m not sure. They’ll leave a scene guard in place for as long as they have to. Keep out of their way and I’m sure you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

Hershel looks like he is about to respond with some ripping repartee, but is halted by a sudden burst of the theme tune from Minder. My phone is ringing. It is Porter.

It is a brief conversation; the background noise of the Lodge and his gruff tones indicating that Porter is rather busy. Head Porter has made contact. He wants me to give him a ring. I decide it best to return to the Lodge and make the call from there. In my experience it is far better to be seated when dealing with an errant Head Porter.

Before I go, a final thought pops into my head.

“Hershel, do you know if Maurinio had any interest in the occult, at all?”

“The occult?” Hershel creases his brow and cocks his head very slightly, as if he cannot hear me correctly. “I don’t imagine so. I don’t know. That’s an odd thing to ask, Deputy Head Porter.”

“Forget it,” I say. “But if you hear anything else you’ll be sure to let me know, won’t you?” This is an instruction disguised as a question.

“Would you like me to ask Penelope? She might…”

“Don’t make a fuss, I don’t need the whole College getting involved. But I will definitely catch up with her soon.”

“Understood.”

I leave Hershel pondering the problem of gift wrapping a snow globe while I head back out into the cold and towards the Porters’ Lodge.

As I try to second guess what Head Porter is up to, a small stroke of genius sparkles at the very front of my mind.

Hershel should put the snow globe in a little box. Much easier to wrap.