A Hair’s Breadth From The Holy Grail

I am in something of a state of shock. I quickly drain the glass I have in my hand. The complimentary champagne has long since extentuated and I am now on to an undisclosed fizzy thing with an acidic after-taste. One glass is not enough; nowhere near enough, in fact. I deftly snatch an identical glass from the unwitting hand of Professor Duke and down that too. Luckily, my gaze is steadier than my legs as I face Junior Bursar, vainly searching for a flicker of humanity in eyes like frosted glass. I never could get the measure of that man.

“Ho ho, is this some kind of drinking competition?” The Dean saunters over, a tumbler of whiskey sloshing merrily in his hand.  He notices our new companion. “Oh, it’s you, is it? I can’t say it is a pleasure. However, I wouldn’t try out-drinking our Deputy Head Porter if I were you, chap. She has quite the reputation.”

“Would you like me to get it out?” asks Junior Bursar, completely ignoring The Dean.

“Why at once, if you don’t mind!” cries the Professor, just as my mouth is forming ‘no’. “I want to see the Holy Grail at once—and quicker than quick.”

“No, no!” I intervene. “Don’t get it out here, where everyone can see.”

“But…but…I so want to see it…” the Professor says.

“Who’s getting what out?” a staggering Head Porter slurs, evidently the worse for wear. “Now, this sounds like my kind of party!”

I look over to the gaggle of ladies Head Porter has just left behind to join us. They are whispering and looking across, giggling behind their hands. The last thing we need is them coming over to make friends.

“We need to do this somewhere very much more private,” I say, voice hushed.

“Wahay!” Head Porter cries, not yet having grasped the gravity of the situation. The Dean grabs him and stops him toppling over. He finishes his drink and motions towards the door.

“My rooms. Now.”

The Dean strides deliberately about his rooms, like a whiskey-drinking beast patrolling his territory. He never once takes his eyes from Junior Bursar, who continues to display a countenance of doddery amiability. Quite why he maintains the visage of an eccentric old man when we all know him to be a murderer of the utmost malevolence is quite beyond me. Head Porter is rapidly feeling the effects of his excesses by way of an early onset hangover and is quietly dying on The Dean’s red leather settee. The occasional soft moan reassures us of his continued presence in this world.  Professor Duke has taken up station by the door, though whether he intends on keeping people out or in is something only he could know.

“Why have you come back?” The Dean’s question is perfectly straightforward but posed in such a way that almost any answer would be the incorrect one. It’s the lawyer in him, you see. Junior Bursar returns the thinnest of smiles.

“A matter of honour, my learned friend.”

“Pah!” I snort, involuntarily. “Don’t talk to me about honour. You tried to kill me twice, you bugger.”

“Three times, in fact, Deputy Head Porter.” Damn! I always forget about the poisoned breakfast. “But that is best left in the past. What concerns me now is very much in the present. It seems my replacement is keen to grab false glory and claim my own great achievement as his own.”

“So it was you who stole the Grail from Chinon all those years ago?” asks The Dean.

“Yes. Who else could it be?” Junior Bursar allows himself a little chuckle. “No one else would have the wits to solve the fiendish enigmas that led to its place of concealment!”

The Professor clears his throat.

“Oh, we did just that, don’t you know!”  he replies, sounding more irritated than smug. “Deputy Head Porter solved the riddle in the Crypt without thinking about it. In fact, I didn’t find any fiendish enigmas, though I looked hard.”

“Well, well well,” Junior Bursar tuts, shaking his head. “You know, I always knew there was more to you than met the eye, Deputy Head Porter. But I digress. I must speak with this cad of a Bursar at once. Quite apart from the fact he is spuriously claiming to have found the Holy Grail, he has dug up Apple Tree Court for no good reason! Have you any idea how many years that turf has lain there undisturbed? I imagine that Head Gardener is incandescent.”

“Oh, he is quite furious” replies The Dean, neatly avoiding the obvious difficulties with this conversation.

“He was always such a fastidious fellow, Head Gardener…” Junior Bursar seems lost to nostalgia for a moment. “But we digress. Tell me now – where is the blasted Bursar! I insist on seeing him directly. I have many a thing I wish to impart to him. Quite forcefully, I might add.”

The Professor and I exchange worried glances. We do not especially favour sharing the details of our colleague’s fate with someone as duplicitous as Junior Bursar. We need not worry. The Dean is taking this very much in his stride.

“Not so fast, my bean-counting friend.” The Dean stands square on to Junior Bursar and launches at him his rarely used, extra special Dean Face. Usually reserved for times of mortal danger, (or, to be fair, when he has run out of whiskey) this is a look so unnerving that even I have to look away for a moment. Whilst Junior Bursar is the master of understated malice and unspecified threat, The Dean does overt belligerence quite unlike anyone else.

“How do we even know that you really do have the Grail, hmm? You expect us to believe you, just like that? I say present the thing to us immediately. Junior Bursar – get it out, now!”

With Professor VJ Duke


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