Month: August 2015

Goodbye, Old Friend

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…”

With Professor VJ Duke

Violence Is Golden

The atmosphere in Old Hall is iced with peril and cold, hard steel as neither Professor Duke nor Junior Bursar look set to give way. I half-heartedly brandish my redundant cross-bow in the vague hope that our adversary might flinch at the prospect of two against one. He does not. Bugger.

“Here, you chaps,” I say quickly “I am sure that there is no need for violence. Why are we fighting, anyway?”

“Well, I suppose,” replies the Professor, “Because he’s got a gruesome looking weapon and I’ve got a cool weapon. Battle is bound to be done now.”

am fighting because the very reputation of Old College is at risk of being calumniated!” Junior Bursar squeals. “I cannot allow that to happen.”

I sigh.

“Not that again. Listen. The reputation of Old College would be just fine if it wasn’t for the likes of you resorting to murderous methods every time someone so much as farts incorrectly…”

“There’s actually a right and wrong way to…?” muses Professor Duke. “I had no idea.”

“The current footing can hardly be compared to a fart, Deputy Head Porter,” it is difficult to tell if Junior Bursar is more annoyed at my comment or the fact he has been forced to say ‘fart’. “We are faced with the infiltration of a foreign agent who is unrelenting in his vocation to make fools of us with a fake Grail while all the time plotting to steal the real one away to his confounded motherland. And, yet again, I find you very much in my way. This simply will not do  Deputy Head Porter.”

I had quite forgotten how difficult reasonable conversation can be with Junior Bursar. He is a man who occupies a space somewhere between incongruous and lunacy, particularly where the prominence of College is concerned. At one point I thought I might have grasped the concept of handling Junior Bursar, but it seems I am woefully out of practice.

“Firstly, if you present the real Grail to The Master we will be forced to reveal that we have left The Bursar trapped in the dungeon,” I say, as reasonably as I can. “That won’t look good for us and, even worse, there’s a chance someone might try to release him. Secondly, he hasn’t got the real Grail anyway so I don’t see what the problem is.”

Junior Bursar is irritated, now. He relaxes his grip on the pole-axe in order to wave a bony bunched fist at me.

“And that kind of thinking, Deputy Head Porter, is exactly what keeps you as a College servant whilst the likes of my good self are elevated to the grand heights of academia!”

Ah, yes. The grand heights of thinking like an absolute idiot. But with a great vocabulary. Well, that’s academia for you. 

Taking advantage of the distraction of this brief oration, Professor Duke seizes his chance and strikes towards Junior Bursar, broad sword thrust boldly before him and emitting a terrible cry. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting that. I drop my cross-bow in shock.

Junior Bursar is equally taken aback. The pole-axe briefly quivers in his grip and he stumbles several feet backwards.

“Time for you to shut your mouth at once!” roars the Professor, moving forward for another parry. “Your argument is rather insufficient, just like you. Let us do battle!”

Oh, for goodness sake…

I fear that I have lost the control of negotiations to a surge of testosterone as both Fellows take up arms with quite some enthusiasm. It crosses my mind to intervene, but the abundance of large, sharp pointy things ensure that the thought is quickly dismissed. After all, members of The Fellowship trying to kill each other is something of a tradition around these parts.

Professor Duke is surprisingly nimble with such a large sword and reigns blow after blow on the fearsome pole-axe, pushing ever closer to the soft and stab-able assailant at the other end. The business end of a pole-axe is no friendly thing and I cannot help but be impressed that the Professor barely flinches as it jabs about his head and shoulders.

“It’s like you have a giant toothpick, or something,” he says at the increasingly frustrated Junior Bursar. “I shall…break you!”

The portentous echos of clashing steel and guttural gruntings fill Old Hall and give the impression of a most terrible battle erupting within its walls. Heart in mouth, I can only spectate and speculate at who might have the upper hand. Professor Duke is younger and stronger but the reach of Junior Bursar’s pole-axe gives him quite the advantage. Every lunge of the Professor’s is met with a deadly swish of pointed steel, only to be returned in kind by the resolute broad sword. This really could go either way.

But then…

The malefic sound of metal through air.

Swiftly followed by the sound of metal through something much more solid than air.

A haunting cry, like that of a stricken animal.

My heart stops. Time itself ceases to exist.

The Professor is down.

With Professor VJ Duke

The Chase Is On

Before I can vocalise the stream of four-letter words that are forming with some vigor in my head, Professor Duke is already heading for the door with alarming alacrity. The Dean looks fit to burst with rage and confusion.

“Get after him!” he bellows, quite unnecessarily.

I join the Professor in sprinting down the staircase and out into Apple Tree Court below, a large portion of which is currently a perilous-looking excavation site. Junior Bursar is surprisingly sprightly for a man of such advanced years and is already within reach of the far cloister.

“Stop!” cries the Professor. “Stop in the name of…the Professor!”

Junior Bursar throws us a vicious glare from over his shoulder and redoubles his efforts. We make after him, giving the gaping archaeological crevasse a wide berth. I glimpse, briefly, a clutch of vaguely attentive wedding guests perusing the hole with some interest. They glance briefly in our direction, but the pursuit does not seem to hold much interest to them. They must be police officers. They see this sort of thing all the time.

As Junior Bursar continues onwards, ever snatching a peek at our progress, a moment of delightful serendipity comes to pass. Emerging nonchalantly from the flowerbeds, paws caked in mud from some kind of digging, is a familiar back and white figure. Terry takes one look upon the unfolding scene and immediately deploys the classic feline attribute of being in the exact same spot as human feet are planning to be. The result of which is to send Junior Bursar toppling into the flowerbeds, with quite some grace, it has to be said.

“Oh goody goody!” whoops the Professor, heading towards the scene at a great rate of knots, legs pumping wildly and top hat bobbing up and down with fearsome ferocity.

I follow behind, my stomach protesting at such activity whilst attempting to digest an ill-advised selection of food and drink. I have often lamented the frightful regularity of meals being interrupted by College business, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and only now do I see the expedient nature of such a thing. Giving chase on a full stomach is a miserable experience, indeed.

Junior Bursar has sprung to his feet and, like a hunted animal, has resumed his flight. Terry gives his departure a cursory glance before turning his attentions to the serious business of tail and paw grooming. He pays us no heed as the Professor and I sprint past, diving into the cloister after our quarry.

“He’s heading into Old Hall!” I gasp, pointing towards the lithe figure vanishing into one of the grander parts of Old College.

“And so are we, I say!” the Professor replies, strangely chirpy.

The magnificent, towering wooden doors of Old Hall are slightly ajar and we soundlessly slip inside like ninjas, keen to maintain the element of surprise. There is a reticent hush about the Hall, a suspiciously reticent hush. Stopping for a moment to catch our breath, we cast our eyes around. I have spoken before of the great beauty of this place; the grand medieval fireplace is rather redoubtable when unlit, like an ominous portal to goodness knows where. Oil paintings of academics long since passed gaze down somewhat reproachfully upon us, retaining the pomposity they no doubt so treasured in life.

At the far end, bathed in the light of the late evening sun seeping through the stained glass windows, stand three suits of armour; the eternal sentries to the memory of the past. Their metallic limbs gleam as splendidly as the day they were forged and I must say that I do not envy the poor soul who has the job of keeping them that way.

“You know,” whispers Professor Duke, eyeing the armour. “If this were a film, the villain would be hiding in one of those over there. I might hide in one, too, the sudden.”

“This isn’t a film,” I reply “This is far more unlikely than that.”

“Let’s take a look, anyway, please.”

We tip-toe over to the far end, furtively looking about as we go. The silence is somewhat unnerving. In fact, this isn’t quite what you would call ‘silence’ – that is just an absence of sound – this is something else entirely. I can hear my own heartbeat in my ears but at least it goes some way to blocking out the worrying noises coming from my stomach. We approach the suits of armour with care, studying them closely for any signs of life. Nothing seems amiss.

“It’s a bit of a shame, really,” I say. “I would have thought that would have been right up Junior Bursar’s street, hiding in a suit of armour.”

“These fine fellows can still be of service to us,” the Professor replies, with that worrying look of determined mischief in his eyes. Oh, dear. What is he up to? “Here, he won’t be needing this…” the Professor gently releases a broad sword from the iron glove of the nearest hollow warrior.

“Is that even a real sword?” I ask. Professor Duke handles it thoughtfully for a moment before thrusting it towards my rear area, poking me rather abruptly in the bum.

“Ouch!” It is a real sword. “Why ever did you do that?!”

“It looked quite fleshy, I didn’t think it would hurt too much. But I am sorry.” Nonetheless, the Professor seems delighted that his weapon is effective. “You should get one, too—but no poking.”

Actually, that is not a bad idea. Junior Bursar may give the appearance of a feeble geriatric, but he has dispatched with an impressive number of souls, by all accounts. I look to the next suit of armour and relieve it of a crossbow. Nice!

But then I spot it.

The final suit of armour is bereft of weaponry. Its empty glove hangs redundant by its side.

Behind us, a voice…

“Well, well well! I wondered when you might be joining me. Let us keep this brief, shall we?” Junior Bursar wields his pole-axe with frightening dexterity. I don’t think that this is the first time he has handled one of these.

“We better not get blood on my suit, or I’ll gouge your eyes out once I cut your head off!” the Professor growls, readying his stance and brandishing his sword with equal aptitude.

I look down forlornly at my crossbow. I have never used a crossbow before, which is just as well because it doesn’t have a bolt in it anyway.

Well – it wouldn’t be a proper wedding without a fight, would it?

With Professor VJ Duke