As the daylight withdraws its gentle amber fingers from the Porters’ Lodge and retreats towards a velvety evening sky, Porter and I are quietly comparing the prices of candles, of all things. Old College uses a lot of candles and periodically we are tasked with conducting fact-finding missions to explore this unique market. It makes no difference, of course; Old College has been buying its candles from the same family-owned supplier for over one hundred and seventy five years. They are unlikely to allow a silly thing like thrift get in the way of tradition.
I used to shake my head in disbelief at such a pointless endeavour but I am now so accustomed to College life that it actually seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to me now. We pay little attention to the actual details. Porter is in an unusually talkative humour this evening and is merrily advocating the joys of married life, evidently still feeling the after-glow of his recent nuptials to Detective Sergeant Kirby.
“She might not be too handy with an iron, ma’am, but the lass can change a plug quicker than I can scoff a pie,” Porter says, proudly.
“Well, that is certainly a thing,” I reply.
Porter ruffles his moustache and looks as if he is about to impart further delights of wedded bliss when a raucous clamour emits from the Lodge bathroom out the back.
“Dadblameit, Head Porter!” The voice is unmistakably that of Professor Duke. “Push them the other way, I say! Otherwise you’ll look like an angry owl.”
“I’ve told you already, Sir – they just won’t go over the other way!”
Porter and I exchange worried glances.
“How long have they been in there, now, ma’am?”
“Nearly an hour.” I reply, although the elderly wall clock tells me it might be slightly longer than that.
“What is it they are doing, exactly?” Porter sounds rather concerned, now.
I know very well what they are doing and from the sounds of things, it is not going especially well.
“Head Porter has a date tonight,” I reply. “The Professor is helping him get spruced up. The agonised wailing suggests to me that they are still struggling with the eyebrows.”
Porter grunts and nods with some sympathy.
“Aye, those things get a mind of their own once a chap gets past forty. Absolute buggers.”
As someone who barely has any eyebrows to speak of, I can only imagine the horror. The Dean has wasted no time in arranging a meeting between Head Porter and The Headmistress and tonight they will be dining together at Pantalon de Fantaisie, a chic French restaurant in the really nice part of town. Wary of a repeat of the notorious spaghetti hurling incident of his previous date, The Dean has arranged for Professor Duke and I to pose as waiters for the evening, so that we might be on hand to offer subtle prompts and head off any potential disasters.
In my Porter’s attire I already somewhat resemble waiting staff so my cunning disguise needs only for me to remove my College tie. The Professor will have to abandon his white suit and top hat for the evening, something which has caused much grumbling from his quarter.
When the gentlemen finally emerge from the bathroom, Porter and I cannot help but raise an eyebrow. Actually, I have to raise both eyebrows as I am unable to control them independently, no matter how hard I try. Head Porter is resplendent in a neatly pressed red shirt, the top two buttons left rakishly unfastened. His bottom half is wrapped just slightly too tightly in a pair of brand new black jeans – so new, in fact, that he still has the label poking out of the back. I give it a swift tug and tut at the Professor.
“You’re supposed to be helping him get ready!”
“The stuff below the waist scares me too much to have looks,” retorts Professor Duke. “Also, the sudden, I’ll have nothing to do with the eyebrows. Not the best lion tamer could tame them.”
“So, basically, you helped him iron a shirt.”
For his part, Professor Duke is quite transformed from his usual dapper self. With his top hat removed and clothed similarly to myself in a white shirt and black waistcoat, he looks something of a rogue.
“That…and I messed with the hair briefly,” the Professor sounds almost a little hurt. I glance up to see that Head Porter’s hair looks absolutely no different. In some ways, it looks slightly worse. “Listen, looks is one thing, but I’ve been helping in the more important ways.”
“Oh yes, indeed!” says Head Porter, brightly. “The Professor has given me some brilliant advice. And taught me some great phrases, too. You know – for wooing the ladies.”
Once again I attempt to raise one quizzical eyebrow but they both shoot to the top of my forehead. I look hard at the Professor, who simply grins and winks. I absolutely dread to think…
“Let us run, run,” he says, clapping his hands. “We should hurry along to the restaurant. Time is getting away with us.”
“How about we just take a minute to practice a few of my lines?” Head Porter says, shifting uncomfortably in his new jeans. “I just want to run through it all one more time…”
“Well here could be the perfect opportunity,” says Porter, wantonly flaunting his one eyebrow gymnastics. “Here comes the perfect target now.”
We turn our attentions to the door to the Lodge to see someone whose eyebrows were no doubt crafted by angels and stitched with baby’s breath to a remarkably smooth forehead.
The Master’s Wife.