Heading back to Old College, I am as happy as a bee. The sun is shining, Professor Duke is whistling a merry tune by my side and the prospect of adventure is beckoning us with a coy wink. A warm breeze tugging gently at my bowler sets a somewhat playful tone and it is only with the greatest of self-restraint that I am not skipping along the cobbled streets.
Although sunlight falls like shards of gold throughout the courtyards, Old College does not share the afternoon’s sunny disposition. Exams are looming large on the academic calendar and a miasma of anxious tension pervades the ancient stone walls and the sun-dappled cloisters. College rivalry is at its very peak at this time, the fight for academic superiority never more fiercely fought. To make matters worse, the boat races are but weeks away and the river is cluttered with noisy youths furiously practicing their strokes and threatening all sorts to their rivals. Often quite early in the morning.
Professor Duke and I return to the Porters’ Lodge to be met with an all-together different type of tension. Picking our way through a babbling crowd of students, we see a pink-cheeked Head Porter theatrically checking his watch. His wiry hair has unfurled itself and become stuck to his dampened forehead, a sure sign that he has had quite a day of it, by all accounts. I sense some stern words coming my way.
“Now, hold on a few and for a minute, Mr Head Porter, and give me a listen,” The Professor gamely approaches with a smile so amiable you would invite it to tea. “I know I have kept your Deputy away longer than I should have. Please accept my apologies. But I can assure you that she has been working very hard, all for the good of the College.”
Faced with the slightly vicious charm of the newest member of The Fellowship and coming to the conclusion that, actually, that did sound rather like an apology in a roundabout way, Head Porter relents.
“Well, I suppose it might be seen as College business,” says Head Porter, suppressing a little smile. “So then, what did you get him?”
“Hmm?” I reply.
“The Master – what did you get him?”
Oh, bugger! Yes. The Master’s gift.
“Ah. We haven’t quite got it yet,” I say.
Head Porter does not looked particularly amused.
“But we’re going to get it, and very shortly too,” The Professor jumps in. “In fact, we were just on our way to get it as of now!”
“Listen,” says Head Porter “I really can’t spare Deputy Head Porter for another minute. It’s been like Piccadilly Circus in here today and she still has her duties from this morning to attend to. I am sure, Professor, that you can manage the collection of a small gift by yourself.”
“But… but… but actually no! – I need the little scamp to help me with it” replies the Professor with alarming alacrity.
“Is it heavy?”
“It’s the… Holy Grail!” I whisper with as much gusto as I can manage. Surely Head Porter will deem the quest for the Holy Grail more pressing than checking keys? Then again…
“The… what?” Head Porter is rendered almost speechless. It is nice to know that I can still surprise the old chap, even after everything. “The Holy Grail? Really? Oh, no no no no no. I’m not having this. I just knew this was going to happen.”
I exchange a puzzled glance with Professor Duke and shrug, willing Head Porter to explain. With a drawn out sigh and solemn shaking of the head, he looks me straight in the eye and continues.
“Just when things were ticking along splendidly, nice and quiet – no dead bodies, no mysterious happenings… not a sign of ancient shadowy organisations! Along comes your top-hatted friend and all of a sudden you’re off searching for the Holy Grail. Unbelievable.”
“Who’s off searching for the Holy Grail?”
Before I can even begin to defend myself, a familiar vociferous roar fills the Lodge, followed closely by The Dean, strutting along with a serious looking tome tucked under his arm.
“Aha! VJ! There you are!” he exclaims. “I’ve been looking for you. I have got you this book, here. I thought you might like to read it, because I wrote it.”
“Now that sounds awesome!!” replies Professor Duke. “What’s it about?”
“Well, I can’t remember now, it was a long time ago,” replies The Dean. “You have a read of it and let me know, there’s a good chap. Now then! What’s all this about the Holy Grail?”
A brief, yet spirited, account of our dealings at Templar Antiquities leaves Head Porter once more shaking his head in despair, but The Dean appears to be delighted. His dark eyes shine intently beneath bushy brows and he slaps his thigh with great enthusiasm.
“Well, this is simply marvellous!” he exclaims. “You know, I was only this morning thinking that we could do with a corpse or something to liven the place up. I was of a mind to kidnap one of the gardeners myself, so this is rather good timing.”
“The best of it is,” begins the Professor, getting quite excited now “That the Grail is here somewhere in Old College grounds! We can be done and dusted in time for tea, I’ll bet you. What fun this will be and not at all vexing.”
“Hmm! Quite!” The Dean scratches his chin thoughtfully. “Now then… ‘the Grail sleeps beneath the dragon, watched over by minds of fire.’ Rather makes me think that it would be underground somewhere, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Sir” I agree. “And the minds of fire could very well relate to the academics, The Fellowship.”
“Pah!” exclaims The Dean. “Minds of fire are all very well but in the belly is where you really need it. With a bellyful of fire a chap is unstoppable!”
“But The Fellowship are about all over the place,” says Professor Duke “Where would they watch over anything?”
“I think it refers to the very top end of the academic hierarchy,” I reply. “The Masters of College. And there is somewhere quite specific where all Masters of College find themselves eventually. Beneath Old College.”
From the corner of my eye, I can see Head Porter place his head in his hands, his hopes of a quiet life crumbling before him.
“The Crypt!” The Dean roars. “Of course! I bloody well knew it, you know. Right, then! Everyone to The Crypt at once!”