Since I was very small, I have found myself hauled before authority figures with alarming regularity. It would not surprise me if there is a plaque bearing my name on the chair outside my old Headmistress’ office, such was the frequency of my occupying that particular piece of furniture. In the years following, admonishment and discipline would be metered out variously by managers, Sergeants and Inspectors and even our own dear Head Porter on one memorable occasion. I have been told-off in such a plethora of practices, with such reoccurring regularity, that I rather have the whole experience down to a fine art.
Standing in The Master’s drawing-room is somewhat more foreboding than previous experiences, it must be said. Accompanied by an irritatingly-delighted Bursar, I am feeling rather less than welcome in the candle-lit room, heavy with solemn opulence and an over-bearing fug of academia. The Master himself is yet to make an appearance and I suspect that this is a device of psychological warfare; the waiting period designed to fritter my nerves and unsteady my resolve.
The Bursar looks to be on the verge of wanting to converse but I frustrate his endeavours by avoiding eye contact completely. I pass the time by examining a stray thread on my shirt cuff and reminding myself that the last time I was in The Master’s Lodge was for Junior Bursar’s retirement party. That was quite an evening. The Master will have to go some way to top that.
A muffled clanking sounds from somewhere behind one of the elaborate wooden bookcases on the wall behind The Master’s writing desk. I glance over to The Bursar who is visibly unsettled by this; his features twisted in confusion, his already pallid complexion turned almost grey. I remain unfussed. I know exactly what that sound is.
Seconds later, one of the panels in the bookcase swings stiffly towards us The Master emerges from one of a myriad of secret passages connecting The Lodge with the rest of College. I throw a smug little look in the direction of The Bursar. He is evidently not quite as well-informed as he supposes.
Although now aged and diminished, The Master still wields an astonishing presence and his face wears the shadow of his youthful allure with resolute conviction. Immaculately dressed in a blue suit and delicate cravat, The Master is not only one of the country’s most eminent academics but also a Lord of the Realm and noted aristocrat. In ordinary circumstances we might struggle to find common ground. He makes himself comfortable behind his desk. I am offered no such similar luxury.
The Master casts a doubtful eye over my good self before turning his attention to The Bursar.
“You are perfectly sure that you have the right culprit, Bursar?”
“Quite so, Sir” replies The Bursar, his voice dripping with sincerity. “All the evidence points to her.”
“Evidence?” I ask, but am hushed by The Master’s raised hand. The Bursar continues.
“I assure you, My Lord, that once you hear what I have to say… you will agree that there can be no other logical conclusion.”
“Hang on a minute, what am I actually being accused of?” I ask, getting a little annoyed now.
“Why, bringing the great name of Old College into disrepute!” roars The Bursar. The Master seems as put out by this outburst as I am and fires a glance of molten steel at his subordinate. He allows the resonance of The Bursar’s words to subside before speaking.
“The reputation of our beloved establishment is being called into question, Deputy Head Porter. We have become the subject of idle chatter and debate. And it rather does seem that some very… unsavoury incidents have occurred since you joined us…”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The knocking is so forceful that daylight can be seen between the door and its frame. There is only one person with a knock that distinctive. As The Master stands to protest, a fourth BANG! liberates the latch and The Dean bursts into the drawing room. He is not alone.
What is it with Old College and bursting through doors? Must every entrance be quite so theatrical?
“Unsavoury incidents have been occurring for very much longer than THAT, I can tell you!” The Dean strikes a heroic pose, chin tilted defiantly. Next to him, dressed in a white suit—always a white suit—a top hat and holding a cane of magnitude is… It cannot be!
“What is the meaning of this unforgivably rude intrusion?!” barks The Bursar. “And who is this… gentleman?”
“My man,” the fellow in the white suit says, “I am none other than Professor VJ Duke. Adventurer, ex-gardener, and worm hunter.”
“And a jolly good friend of mine!” The Dean adds. “We are here to defend Deputy Head Porter and quash these scurrilous accusations against her.”
“Deputy Head Porter has involved herself in things that should have been none of her concern,” The Master’s voice has an underlying darkness that is as mesmerising as it is chilling. “The actions of one uppity College servant have resulted in much embarrassment in certain circles. Important circles. And still the atrocities continue!”
“Hold on for a few!” The Professor springs forward to join the battle. “I can assure you (with most assuredness) that Deputy Head Porter has only ever acted in the best interests of the college, dadblameit! And secondly, we can prove that the three young people have nothing to do with the previous…unpleasantness, dadblameit!”
“That’s right!” says The Dean, really getting a feel for the dramatic, now. “Last year’s… events… were centred around The Fellowship and the dastardly political undertones of The Vicious Circle…”
“They tried to kill me three times!” I point out, reasonably.
“…The Vicious Circle – a clandestine committee who had been plying their murderous trade for more than half a century!” The Dean finishes with a flourish. The Master looks towards The Bursar, whose suggestion that I was one of them now seems rather less likely.
“And plus and plus, Deputy Head Porter has already put in lots and lots of work to get to the bottom of what happened at the bottom of the garden,” says Professor Duke. “In truth, this is true: she would have probably solved it already if you weren’t keeping her in a room and shouting at her! She should get a medal of honour—no! Something better, I say!”
An eerie calm falls across the room. The Master’s gaze has fallen upon The Bursar and the look he gives him suggests that this was not quite what he was expecting to hear. The Bursar has obviously been telling tales. But why? The Bursar covers his rage with perfectly executed haughtiness.
“Deputy Head Porter is a very busy lady, one way or another, all for the benefit of Old College,” The Dean has masterfully gained control of the room. “I would respectfully request, My Lord, that Deputy Head Porter be free to continue her good work.”
The Master seems concerned only with The Bursar and silently waves us away. Not wishing to outstay our welcome, we leave the man to his fate and retreat to the courtyard.
“Well, what a wonder” exclaims The Professor.
“An more unlikely event than even we are used to,” agrees The Dean.
“Definitely keep an eye on that bursar chap,” says Professor Duke. “He seems to have it in for you, Deputy Head Porter. And, plus, he’s rather vexing. And scary.”
“Yes, that is odd” I reply. “I wonder why that can be? I barely know the chap.”
“Well, the reasons behind that will have to wait” says The Dean. “This is the other piece of exciting news I had to tell you! Our good friend Professor Duke has come to visit! I did want it to be a surprise.”
The Professor smiles a smile of The Professor.
“It certainly was surprising,” I nod. “But what a way to be surprised! It is super to see you, Professor. How long are you here for?”
“I must needs be at Warwick Castle tomorrow some time. But for tonight—we can drink cherry green tea and tell some exciting stories!”
“And I have opened that bottle of Japanese whiskey…” muses The Dean.
This could be an exceptionally long night, I suspect.
Although I am expected in The Lodge early tomorrow, I feel I should at least stay for awhile and make tea for The Professor. Anything less would be rude. A small celebratory whiskey wouldn’t hurt, either.
Many thanks to the shockingly brilliant Professor VJ Duke, without whom none of this would have been possible. It is a wonder that he can find the time to rescue me, what with all the happenings he has to deal with…