I am becoming heartily sick of making my way to the bottom of the gardens. The bottom of any self-respecting English garden should be host to fairies and wild flowers, or at the very least a compost heap. The bottom of Old College’s gardens present me only with dead things and, now, unsettling noises. Or so Hershel would have me believe, at any rate. I have abandoned my responsibilities with regards to The Great Feast in order that I might investigate his spurious claims.
Whatever is down there has obviously shaken the poor chap. I can hear his chattering teeth fighting against themselves to be still, but I fear it is a loosing battle.
“What exactly is it that you thought you saw?” I ask the dear boy, hoping that conversation will lighten the mood a little.
“There were two of them… really odd looking people, you know? Ever so strange.”
“Hershel, it is the night of The Great Feast,” I reply, wearily. “There are literally dozens of really odd-looking people knocking around.”
“But there was this sound… these noises… almost other-worldly!”
“Wind, I shouldn’t wonder,” I reply. “All that champagne makes them gassy.”
But my bravado is short-lived. As we leave behind the gravel paths and immaculately clipped boarders and lawns of the gardens, emerging into wilder places, there is indeed the most curious – and unsettling – sound coming from beyond. Almost animalistic in its tone and somewhere between a howl and a screech, it is hardly surprising that Hershel was alarmed. I, too, feel an initial jolt of panic as the retched chorus hits my ears. But then realisation seeps through and with a heavy heart I remember where I have heard this sound all too many times before.
I see two figures, huddled together for comfort and warmth, standing forlornly at the spot where Maurinio and Ryan were found. The awful wailing is the sound of abject grief escaping the hollow husk of a parent mourning their child. There is little more harrowing, nor utterly futile.
Hershel’s insistence that the strangers were odd-looking is not entirely unjustified; their clothing is many layered and of every pattern and colour you could imagine. The shorter of the two is wearing an over-sized felt hat which has a tatty feather protruding proudly at an unusual angle. The taller one, I suppose the father, has a long plait of hair snaking down his back. He is soothing his partner with gentle whispers.
We are barely a few feet away and they have not noticed us so I invoke the universal signal of politely making your presence known – a brief, but noticeably forced, clearing of the throat. The man looks quickly over his shoulder towards me.
“Good evening,” I say, hurriedly thinking what might be a good thing to say next.
“Sorry! Sorry… I know we shouldn’t be here…” says the man.
“It’s okay,” I reply. “Um. I am the Deputy Head Porter and, you know, I sort of need to keep an eye on any strangers on College grounds so…”
“Of course, of course. We mean no harm, I promise” he offers me a grubby hand “I am Ryan’s father. We’re his parents, see. We just wanted to see where…”
“Please. You don’t need to explain.”
I do my very best to be reassuring whilst wondering quite what I should do about our unexpected guests. I do not wish to intrude upon their grief but equally I don’t think it right that they are left to wander blindly around the College. Under ordinary circumstances I would not hesitate to accompany them, but there is The Great Feast and several dozen dignitaries wandering blind-drunk around the College so I rather have my hands full. But I needn’t worry. Hershel steps into the breach like a champion.
“Please, allow me to act as your host,” he says, kindly. “My girlfriend was close to Ryan’s partner. She is missing him dreadfully. Anything I can do to help would be a pleasure.”
I feel a tear or two prickle the back of my eyeballs as Hershel’s offer is accepted and I should say that I am quite impressed with his chivalry. He is becoming quite the young gentleman, certainly. As he prepares to escort our visitors to happier places, I grab his arm and direct an urgent whisper to his ear.
“You still haven’t told me what you were doing here in the first place.”
“Yes! No! Listen, there is a good reason for that,” Hershel’s eyes light up. “But now is not the time. I’ll tell you later!”
I direct them away from the route to be taken by The Great Feast during their promenade and return to my own post of loitering along the river. Before long, I am joined by an excitable Head Porter, trotting across the grass (travesty! Only The Fellowship should walk on the grass) meaningfully waving his mobile phone. It is going to be one of those nights, evidently.
“Look at this! Look at this!” he cries out, finger jabbing at the illuminated screen. He appears to be showing me a social media account.
“What am I looking at?”
“She’s un-friended me! Some time this afternoon, she un-friended me!”
“Who? Who?” I don’t know what’s more alarming; the prospect of being un-friended or the idea of Head Porter being on Facebook.
“My daughter, of course! Do keep up, Deputy Head Porter.”
“You never told me you were on Facebook,” I huff. “You haven’t sent me a friend request, I notice.”
“Well. I don’t think I want you knowing absolutely everything I get up to,” he replies with a wry smile. Oh, give me strength. “Listen, you see what this means, don’t you?”
I am really rather cross that I don’t. But then, I am a little under the weather at the moment so I can be excused this intellectual oversight.
“It means she’s alive!” Head Porter squeals. “She’s alive. Trying to hide from me, but very much alive, I’d say. Well! She can hide but I know we can find her.”
He has a good point. There are, of course, other explanations but it is so good to see him smiling after so much anxiousness that I don’t feel it my place to be anything other than wildly enthusiastic. And, you never know – this could be a good thing.
More worrying is what Head Porter posts on social media that he doesn’t want me to see. The very thought will haunt me for some time yet, unfortunately.