Bridges have been surrounded by a sort of garden-variety of symbolism and mystique for hundreds of years. Whether they be harbouring trolls or stretching across troubled waters, bridges have become something of interest in folklore and literature. The Bridge of Old College is almost as famous as the College itself. It has a dubious provenance, which is regularly exploited by unscrupulous tour guides keen to impress visitors who don’t know any better. The waters below don’t look particularly troubled, to my mind. Casually irritated, maybe. Possibly even irksome. But not troubled.
I would say I was irksome, actually. Stood on the Bridge with The Bursar, I shall no doubt be forced to make polite conversation, something I might rather quite enjoy at times. But it is cold and I am busy. Nevertheless, I indulge The Bursar with my second-best smile and offer my hand.
“You are our beloved Deputy Head Porter,” this is a statement and one delivered so icily that it cuts through even the cold December wind. But it is accompanied by something resembling a smile and a brief but sincere handshake. Beloved. A description usually reserved for gravestones.
“I am,” I reply (although I did consider an outright denial) “You are our new Bursar. Welcome to Old College.”
“I am welcome. The Master has gone to great lengths to demonstrate this.”
There is an accent underlying his speech that I cannot quite place. In fact, it might be two accents; as if he had lived somewhere long enough for the local lingo to sully his mother tongue.
“Well… that is good to know” I say, trying to keep my tone light. “And… it’s nice to have a Bursar about the place again, knowing that the, er, finances are well taken care of.”
“It is strange, is it not, Deputy Head Porter that The Master thought it correct to replace my two eminent predecessor’s with just one man?”
“Do you not think it an interest? What would you say, Deputy Head Porter? Is it possible that I alone am equal to those who came before me?”
Well, this wasn’t quite the discussion I was expecting. Not to worry. Soldier on.
“As you say, Sir – both eminent gentleman” I reply diplomatically.
“Ha! They were nothing but fools. Did you not outsmart them both?”
“Err…” This is rather uncomfortable.
“But you had some help. Your great friend, Professor K. You must not feel so bad about him. You cannot blame yourself, Deputy Head Porter.”
If I wasn’t blaming myself before this meeting, the thought is passing through my mind now. There is something about the way he speaks that makes me feel frankly dreadful. That voice. It draws out something awful inside.
“I won’t be losing any sleep over it” I snap back, returning his coldness. Although I am not sure I convince myself.
“Sleep is very important” says The Bursar “For the brain.”
My face devoid of expression, I watch The Bursar carefully as his one exposed beady eye seems to do the same to me. I reason that my best course of action here is to say and do nothing. Hopefully he will eventually get bored and wander off. Unfortunately for me, The Bursar appears to have a high tolerance for boredom.
Now embroiled in this ridiculous staring competition, I am beginning to lose the feeling in my fingers and toes. There is absolutely no way that I am backing down to The Bursar but I can’t stand here on The Bridge looking steely all afternoon. Apart from anything, a particular internal organ of mine is full of tea and beginning to protest the fact.
“Deputy Head Porter! What are you doing?” a familiar booming voice shakes the cloisters behind me and The Bursar too, who is visibly perturbed by this sudden interruption. More importantly, our deadlock as been broken and his gaze is now concentrated somewhere beyond the back of my head. I do not need to turn round to know that The Dean is approaching. “I am speaking to you, you know!”
In the time it takes for me to turn my head, The Bursar swiftly takes his leave and is off towards Old Court almost as if he is on wheels. I cannot say that I am sorry to see him go. What an unusual fellow, even by Old College standards.
“Sorry, Sir. I was just talking to The Bursar.”
“Well now you are talking to me. I can’t seem to find Head Porter, do you know where he is?”
“I don’t, actually” I reply “He was due in at twelve. Mind you, I’ve been rushed off my feet with one thing and another…”
“Yes, yes, yes no doubt. There’s nothing like a couple of corpses to increase the workload, what? But needs must, Deputy Head Porter.”
“Right, Sir. But… needs must what?”
“I don’t know!” exclaims The Dean, exasperated. “I don’t know what they must. It’s just an expression. So you don’t know where he is then?”
“Well. There’s something you should know.”
“Something about one of our tragic young Romeos. Come to my rooms.”