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.
“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.