Gathered in The Dean’s rooms, all eyes are fixed on the unassuming object placed with great care on the walnut coffee table. All eyes, that is, except for those of Head Porter – which are shut tight and watering slightly from the burden of inebriation. The ambiance is a strange, heady mixture of a thousand years of mystery charged with euphoric disbelief; the air tastes of electrified absinthe.
I tear my gaze momentarily from the quietly compelling item before us and glance across at Junior Bursar. He sits with a smile of smug satisfaction displayed broadly across his face, openly gloating over his newly revealed status as bearer of the Holy Grail.
Well, who can blame him? For centuries the Grail has been ardently hunted by all and sundry, the apparent impossibility of the task pushing it ever further into the realm of myth. And yet here it is. Although it seems almost more unreal before me now than when it was the stuff of legend. It exerts a magnetic vitality that draws us close; wordlessly it has gathered us to it in humbled awe. Professor Duke tentatively extends an exploratory finger.
“Don’t touch it!” Junior Bursar snaps.
“But why not?!” asks the Professor. “You’ve touched it, I warrant. I’m curious to see if it’s hot or cold or both or neither. I want to know what it feels like.”
“It’s the Holy Grail, not a cashmere jumper,” huffs Junior Bursar. “Besides, I do not wish for you to get your sticky fingerprints all over it. I shall be presenting it to The Master very shortly.”
The Professor looks reproachfully at his hands and wipes them vigorously on the hem of his jacket, scowling. “Not that sticky…”
“You will not be presenting this to anyone, much less The Master!” says The Dean, wagging a finger.
“I assure you that I will! Why, I cannot allow this so-called Bursar to come swanning in, taking the credit for ruining a perfectly good lawn in the pursuit of false idols.”
“Actually, The Bursar won’t be swanning anywhere anytime soon,” I say, feeling strangely satisfied about the fact. “We left him locked in the dungeons of the Chateau de Chinon. The Curator said that he would leave him there until he had forgotten about him.”
Junior Bursar’s eyes twinkle with malicious glee. This is very much up his street.
“I say, Deputy Head Porter,” he chuckles. “I am rather impressed, you know. I should recruit you to The Vicious Circle.“
“Let’s not speak of such things any longer,” the Professor says, darkly. “We have enough dadblamery at Old College, don’t you know.”
Junior Bursar snorts.
“Says you, who are merrily dispatching Bursars left, right and centre.”
“It was just the one Bursar,” the Professor replies, sniffily. “But I could be quite tempted to dispatch with more, don’t you know.”
“Enough of this!” thunders The Dean, waving an arm furiously. “There’s a wedding in full swing just over there and the buffet is still out. I don’t need to be wasting time with this nonsense. Junior Bursar, you are an utter bugger and always have been. I say that you will return to Tuscany and continue with your retirement this instant.”
Junior Bursar draws himself up to his full height, which admittedly isn’t especially impressive. However, his stone-cold visage and general aura of menace gives him a level of gravitas beyond that which might be expected. Besides, I know exactly what he is capable of.
The Dean is squaring up for another verbal assault on his former colleague when Head Porter makes a belated and, it must be said, rather unpleasant, contribution to proceedings. A muffled gurgle draws our attention sharply to his nesting place on The Dean’s settee. This is followed a sort of wet, rattling sound from the back of his throat and immediately Head Porter is awake and wide-eyed. A heaving of his shoulders and swelling of his cheeks seems to confirm the worst.
“For God’s sake, man – not on the settee!” The Dean looks aghast at the potentially unappetising scenario erupting before him. “Deputy Head Porter! Open a window!”
As instructed, I rush to the nearest window and fling it open. Professor Duke gamely leaps across to assist a struggling Head Porter – quite clearly on the brink of gastric explosion – which is very brave for a man wearing a white suit, I think. The Professor manages to dangle Head Porter’s top half quite expertly through the window, just as a substance that was not so long ago a wedding buffet escapes violently into the warm evening air. Said substance dutifully obeys Newton and finds itself artfully decorating the courtyard below, like something of a ventral Jackson Pollock.
“Goodness me,” the Professor says, slapping Head Porter’s back. “Hope you’re better now. Ghastly business, this. Hope you’re spicy again.”
Head Porter replies with a weak nod and soft moaning noises.
“I hope he didn’t get any on the window sill,” mumbles The Dean.
A small, tiny panic suddenly crawls up my spine and nips at the back of my brain.
I spin round, wildly looking about the room. Just as I thought.
The door ajar and the coffee table noticeably emptier than before, Junior Bursar has gone.