There is little greater joy in life than doing something that you shouldn’t really be doing. Like eating chocolate for breakfast or giggling in church. I find myself in such a predicament this very afternoon, much to the annoyance of Head Porter who is already a man down with Porter having taken time off to woo the delightful Detective Sergeant Kirby. But Professor Duke absolutely insisted and as a soon-to-be senior member of The Fellowship, Head Porter could not very well refuse.
So at the very time that I should be checking fire alarm records back at the Lodge, I am enjoying a refreshing lager and lime and steak sandwich with my good friend. You see, Professor Duke was perfectly adamant about finding a suitable gift for The Master, by way of showing his appreciation of his new appointment. The shopping trip was apparently most urgent and needed to commence immediately after breakfast.
None of which quite explains why we are now ensconced at a quiet table in The Albatross, enjoying numerous bar snacks and talking of things completely unconnected with shopping. Well. The walk into The City had given us something of an appetite and besides that, there was much news for us both to catch up on. The Professor, as ever, has endless tales of unlikeliness to divulge and I remain a captive audience. He is also doing a fine job of winkling out all the College gossip and trivialities that I was determined not to bother him with, but I now find myself imparting with great detail nonetheless.
“Now that is some great news about Porter and his lady friend,” chuckles the Professor, brushing an imaginary speck of dust from his top hat, which has been placed with great care on a seat all of its own. “I knew that fellow was a spicy one. Even with that vexing—yet delightful—moustache.”
“He plays it down, but there is a great romance unfolding, you mark my words” I reply. “There was suggestion, at one point, that The Dean might take me for dinner – only so he could tell be about all the times he has been right, you understand.”
“Imagine! Now that is definitely something I could see him doing. And did he take you out?”
“No he didn’t!” I exclaim, with mock outrage. “But one Sunday he did mention that he would have taken me to lunch, if only I had dressed nicely. And brushed my hair.”
The Professor throws back his head and a deep, throaty laugh escapes into the public house. He slaps his thigh with delight and his chair rocks precariously on its back legs.
“I must needs teach him some better manners, I think.” says the Professor, once he has recovered his composure. “Although I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, the rascal. Something tells me that his manners are as they are and there is no changing The Dean.”
“I think you might be right, Professor.”
“But anyway, let’s have speaks about The Master’s gift,” he continues, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “I am thinking of something unusual, probably old, too. Much like him, in fact. The only difference is we don’t want it to be creepy. What do you think?”
I think it is a very good idea, but a mouthful of steak sandwich is proving prohibitive to expressing the fact. As I chew ferociously to clear the way for words, I notice a peculiar expression playing across the Professor’s face. Following his gaze, I see that we are not alone. From nowhere at all, a curious looking gentleman has appeared and seen fit to take his place at our table. I place a protective hand over the remainder of my steak sandwich.
“Well, this is an interest. Good day to you,” the Professor says, an underlying hint of malice barely evident. “Do you need something?”
The gentleman replies with only a smile that reaches from his chin to his hairline. Although he is seated, it is clear that he is a tall chap and well built. A mane of grey hair sweeps down his back, held away from his strangely youthful features by a colourful bandana. All manner of jewellery, the like of which I have never before seen, adorns his hands and neck. His keen eyes dart between the Professor and I. He is very difficult to read, but I don’t feel threatened. If I didn’t know better I would say that he is anxious to share something with us. At length, he speaks.
“Pardon my intrusion,” he begins, in a voice like molten chocolate. “But I couldn’t help but overhear your chatter. You two are from Old College, I take it?”
“Probably and then maybe not. What of it?” the Professor replies, sharply. His hackles are up, I can tell, which cannot be an ideal state of affairs.
“There is a chance that we could be of help to one another,” continues the gentleman. “You are looking for a gift for The Master? I know of a most unique and precious gift that he would be sure to adore. Something that no one else might give to him, of that I am certain.”
“What is it?” I ask. “I mean, we weren’t planning on getting him anything too expensive, you know.”
Our companion looks around furtively. He places a finger to his lips and we fall silent.
“Not here,” he says. “Follow me.”
Our new friend stands and heads slowly for the door, never once glancing back at us, as if our compliance is assured.
“What do you think, Professor?” I ask, my eyes not leaving the departing figure. “In my experience, following strange men out of pubs brings varying results.”
“That’s something you probably know more about than I do,” Professor Duke replies. “But there are two of us and I am feeling particularly vicious, the sudden. I say we go, but keep our wits about us. If he gets out of hand…we knock him silly!”
In one fluid, sweeping motion the Professor deftly scoops up his hat and places it perfectly upon his head as he stands, straightens and rests his hands defiantly on his hips.
It is decided, then. We head out into the street.