What with all the recent dramas and seemingly endless stream of corpses, it is easy to forget that what I am actually supposed to be doing is running the Porters’ Lodge. Fancying myself as a modern-day Hercule Poirot has taken up rather more time than I expected and several of my Deputy Head Porter tasks have been sadly neglected. Head Porter is not best pleased and I am stuck on key audit duty as a kind of penance.
I am not feeling so very well today, it must be said. I think I am coming down with something. I have an earache and my throat is scratchy. It hurt to eat my breakfast sandwich this morning and this is making me more than a little glum. On top of this, Old College is working itself into a great fit of pique over tonight’s illustrious event – The Great Feast.
Last year, I witnessed this decadent occasion with wide-eyed naivety and open-mouthed awe. The sheer opulence of the thing was staggering. Taking place over three separate locations within College, the tradition of promenading between courses struck me as mildly ridiculous. The wisdom of traipsing around College will an ever-increasing bellyful of food and wine is questionable at best and has the feel of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party about it. The passage of time has taught me that the Mad Hatter has absolutely nothing on The Fellowship of Old College and his tea parties appear positively mundane when compared to the surreal sumptuousness of The Great Feast.
College life is smattered with feasts and dinners for every and any occasion but all pale in comparison to tonight’s extravaganza. Everything about The Great Feast is epic – the menu, the guest list and particularly the drinking. The second course alone is laid with five different types of wine glass. There is an entire course devoted to port. The champagne on ice for the drinks reception must have rendered the entire region as dry as a bone but even that is not the beginning of it. The thing that really raised my eyebrow was the pre-drinks reception drinks receptions. Senior Bursar was a particularly enthusiastic advocate of these and his intimate gathering last year put most student parties to shame.
Needless to say, The Great Feast is a wine-sodden affair which attracts only the very finest class of inebriates from all over the land. On an evening that would make The Committee For The Prevention Of Drunken Behaviour weep, I have been given the inglorious task of making sure the buggers don’t fall into the river. In the grand scheme of things, I feel I have got off fairly lightly; even if it will necessitate my standing around in the cold all evening. Pah.
The repetitive mundanity of auditing keys passes the afternoon quite nicely, in actual fact. Before I know it, dusk is upon us and The Dean stops by the Lodge to bid me a good evening. He seems rather keen to retire for the evening.
“Are you not going to The Great Feast?” I ask. The Dean huffs a bit.
“No I am not, Deputy Head Porter!” he replies. “You know I don’t relish all that pomp and nonsense. If I sit down to a meal I don’t expect to be getting up again half an hour later to go marching to my next course. Plays havoc with the digestive juices is what it does. Madness.”
“What is the idea behind that?” I ponder. “Having each course in a different room. What is the purpose of the promenading?” The Dean shakes his head.
“I don’t think anyone knows,” he says. “I know I certainly don’t. And if I don’t know something, it isn’t worth knowing I tell you that much. Enjoy the evening, Deputy Head Porter. You never know, there might be some left-overs for you. Good night.”
Left-overs. Chance would be a fine thing. I’ll be lucky to get anywhere near the kitchens tonight.
I cast an eye upwards towards the Lodge clock on the far wall and realise I have about forty minutes before our esteemed guests will start arriving. I decide to nip over to the kitchens on the off-chance I can smuggle a plate of something to sustain me throughout the evening. I use the short walk to prepare for the deafening crucible that is Chef’s stomping ground at full throttle. The heat and noise can be quite overwhelming and I hope to be in and out like a fiddler’s elbow.
Despite spring being still a few weeks away, there is the definite taste of a change of season in the air. There is a softness to the brisk onset of dusk that you just don’t see in the depths of winter. As I am marveling at the wonders of Mother Nature, a blurred figure scoots along the very edge of my periphery vision. Although there is nothing to suggest anything untoward, some niggling instinct from the base of my skull implores me to investigate further. Cursing my own nosiness, I swiftly change direction and trot towards Apple Tree Court.
Rounding the corner at a fair speed, I almost collide with my quarry – a very shaken-looking Hershel. We both cry out in astonishment and take a moment to recover from the shock.
“Hershel! What ever are you up to?” I ask, a little cross. The ashen-faced student does not reply but looks at me with watery eyes. “What’s the matter? Hershel?”
Hershel takes a breath and gulps two or three times, his Adam’s apple bobbing erratically up and down this throat.
“I was at the bottom of the gardens,” he says “You know, where they found Maurinio and Ryan?”
“What were you doing there?”
“Oh… well… but it doesn’t matter. There were two people down there… rather odd-looking types. I saw them as I approached but they didn’t see me. They were making… noises”
“Noises? What noises?”
“It was like…” Hershel screws up his face, disturbed by the recollection. He trails off and shakes his head.
“Come on,” I say, reassuringly. “We’ll go and have a look.”