There is silence in Old Hall, except for the sombre sound of the Professor’s sword clattering morosely as it falls to the flagstoned floor.
“Oh… Oh my…” mutters Junior Bursar, his face awash with pallid horror. “I mean, I didn’t quite mean to… oh goodness…”
For a second, I am bewildered and frozen, unable to breathe or move, my heart unable to beat at all. In a moment I am detached from myself, floating listlessly to the roof, buoyed by a dreadful sense of nausea and looking down on an ugly scene that unfolds in crippling slow-motion.
All at once, the present comes bursting back in a vast, crashing wave of consciousness; the taste of metal in my mouth and the deafening rush of blood through my ears as a great thundering in my breast brings me very much back to reality. A sound of whimpering comes to my ears from a source unknown. It takes yet another second to realise that it is coming from me.
“Professor!” I cry, running to where he lies prone on the floor. I fling myself upon him, holding back my frightened sobs but unable to prevent a determined tear from finding its way onto my cheek.
“Dadblameit! I’m vexed, you know!”
“Professor! Are you okay?”
“I really am very sorry…” Junior Bursar is shuffling contritely nearby.
Professor Duke sits up abruptly, flinging me to one side as he does so. His face is a vision of pure rage and his eyes burst with fury and the colours of a thousand stars. He fixes Junior Bursar with the coldest, darkest stare I believe I have ever witnessed. And that is saying something. If looks could kill, this would be nuclear war.
“LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!” the Professor roars, holding aloft an object that appears to have once been his top hat.
“My dear fellow, I really am…”
“MY HAT!!! IT’S…NO MORE! Well, it’s here, it’s just a shadow of it’s FORMER GLORY!”
Giving the Professor a quick once-over, it seems that the white suit remains immaculate and there is not a scrub nor a bump anywhere about his person. The only casualty appears to be his beloved topper. Whilst this is something quite clearly approaching a tragedy, I am certainly surprised by the almost harrowed remorse being displayed by Junior Bursar.
“Professor Duke – boundless apologies – it might be one thing to kill a man, but the desecration of his headgear is quite unforgivable. Might I..?” Junior Bursar reaches out to the mangled millinery but his hand is slapped smartly away.
“Don’t touch me!” the Professor snaps. “ I don’t want to end up like my hat, heathen! You have done quite enough damage already. Look at it! I have had this hat since I was a baby…”
“I didn’t mean it. I was aiming for your head.”
The Professor’s response is barely intelligible and probably would not be repeatable even if it was. Snarling and rabid, he launches himself at Junior Bursar, grappling at his throat and sending them both tumbling across the flagstones in a bundle of mortal combat.
For cripe’s sake. Here they go again.
“Ho ho, what’s this? A fight! Bravo!”
I turn to see The Dean swaggering through the doors, followed by a peaky-looking, but nevertheless upright, Head Porter. I get to my feet and join them, the three of us watching the ensuing battle with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“Is this about the Holy Grail?” asks Head Porter, scratching his head.
“No, this is about the Professor’s hat,” I reply. “Junior Bursar has destroyed it with a pole-axe, look.” I offer up the tattered remains as evidence. There is a collective sharp intake of breath and anguished expressions.
“Rum business, that” says The Dean, shaking his head. “No wonder the old chap is so angry. Go on, Dukey – give it some welly!”
“He really doesn’t need any encouragement, Sir” I reply. This is true. In fact, Professor Duke is getting worryingly close to causing the old fellow some serious damage. “You know, I think we should probably stop him.”
The Dean lets out an irritated sigh and looks generally disappointed.
“Well, I suppose you’re right, Deputy Head Porter” he huffs. “There is rather a lot of blood getting about the place. It’s a bugger to get out, you know, Head Of Housekeeping will be furious.”
The Dean and I tackle the Professor, who by this stage is a veritable pummeling machine. We grab an arm each and, with quite some difficulty, haul him away from a dazed and bloodied Junior Bursar who himself is dragged to his feet by Head Porter. Still growling and spitting, Professor Duke puts me in mind of Terry when I pull him off his latest kill. This is probably why I begin to absent-mindedly stoke his hair and offer soothing utterances. Surprisingly, this seems to work.
“Now see here, Junior Bursar,” says The Dean, approaching him slowly with the beadiest of looks in his eye. “I like a good rumpus as much as the next man. But you have completely savaged this man’s hat! That, old boy, is not only uncalled for but also ungentlemanly. Hardly befitting behaviour of a member of Old College.”
“Hmmm” is all Junior Bursar can offer in reply.
“Now, in order for the honour of Old College to be upheld, I see no option other than for you to take leave of this place immediately and at once resume your retirement in Tuscany. You can take your Grail with you and no more shall be said about that or the matter of the hat, agreed?”
“But.. the Grail..?” Head Porter whispers but is cut short by The Dean.
“He won that fair and square many a moon ago, it is not ours to take. Now,” The Dean turns back to Junior Bursar. “What say you, Fellow?”
“It would appear that it is the only recourse for all honours to remain intact,” Junior Bursar agrees, reluctantly. He says no more, but nods stiffly at each of us before turning away and placing his cuff carefully under his bleeding nose before walking away with slow, painful steps.
“Do you think he will keep his word?” Head Porter asks, once he has gone.
“Oh, I should think so,” replies The Dean, nodding vigorously. “He might be a murdering, Grail-stealing sociopath but he is a man of his word, without doubt.”
“My poor, dadblame hat,” the Professor mumbles, glumly turning the battered remnants over and over in his hands.
A thought strikes me.
“Do you know, I think I have an idea,” I say, tucking my arm in his and giving it a squeeze. “Come with me.”
Dusk has thrown her velvety shawl across the evening and the warm night air is sweet with the smell of night flowers as we stand at the edge of the excavation site in Apple Tree Court.
“Whatever are we doing here, Deputy Head Porter?” asks The Dean, no doubt keen to return to his whiskey and whatever remains of the wedding buffet.
“I thought that this would be a fitting resting place for the dear departed hat of Professor Duke,” I reply. “Down here lies the most ancient and important parts of Old College. These foundations have definitively sustained the very heart and soul of our esteemed establishment for centuries. I thought that if the hat were to be interred here, a little bit of the Professor would forever be part of it all.”
Professor Duke beams with delight.
“I’m thinking this is rather brilliant, the sudden,” he says. “I think we’re all glad, now, that my hat obviously feels no more pain. You know, I’m thinking it died immediately. Which is the best death to be had for a…warrior hat! Now, the fuzzy little brute will rest in peace—forever.” He gives his favoured headgear a final pat, before casting it gently into the exposed bowels of Old College. “Goodbye, old friend.”
“We can always go hat shopping tomorrow,” I say, soothingly. This does not go down well.
“I’m thinking it’s too soon,” the Professor whispers.
“I say, what’s going on over there?” remarks The Dean, pointing over towards the flowerbeds by the cloister. “That looks like Terry. Is he… digging?”
“He’s probably burying a poo,” I reply, helpfully.
“I bet not,” says the Professor. “ If he is it’s a strange way to go about that. He looks rather excitable about something. I think we should investigate…”