The Boat House is a quaint, if rather run-down, establishment situated away from Old College, along by the River. A whitewashed 1920s building with a peaked roof and decidedly unsafe-looking balcony overlooking the water, I have often thought it strange that the Boat House does not receive the same level of meticulous care as the rest of College. It might be something to do with the Boat Master, a somewhat terrifying chap with wild hair and eyes even wilder than that. Legend has it that he coxed* for The Other Place in his dim, distant youth but it is hard to imagine it now. He is like a fat little bear; a bear with a very sore head, at that.
The Boat Master is passionate about his boats and his rowers but inexplicably hostile about just about everything else. He doesn’t seem to be around when I enter the ramshackle ground floor, which is randomly scattered with boats in various states of repair. Tools and oddments litter the ground and I feel that this is a place that does not want too many visitors. I have a quick look about the place but there is no sign of either the Boat Master or Professor Duke.
An echo is my only reply, accompanied by the ominous sounds of boisterous waters beyond. Then, another sound catches my ear.
What is that?
Something guttural and vicious-sounding is coming from a large steel tool cabinet on the far wall. A prickling at the back of my neck announces the onset of some ancient survival instinct and all my smallest hairs stand on end. A surge of adrenalin brings with it a sheen of sweat across my back and my ears fill with the sounds of my own heartbeat and breath.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t sound very happy.
With the greatest of caution, I take slow and silent footsteps towards the cabinet. The metallic taste of blood hits the roof of my mouth as the sounds become more urgent and yet even more horrid. My foot brushes against a heavy, blunt instrument. Without moving my gaze from the cabinet, I bend down and let my fingertips fumble amongst the filth of the floor until they find it.
A monkey wrench. Excellent.
Feeling considerably bolder for being armed, I gather some determination and stride towards the cabinet.
“Get in here, I say!”
The door flies open and I, dumbstruck and paralysed by surprise, am powerless to defy the thing that drags me inside with the minimum of care and consideration. The door slams behind me and I am face to face with my grinning captor.
“Professor! Why are you in a tool cupboard?”
“Well…well…just because! See, it’s part of a great plan to stay hidden and secret.”
“So what were the scary noises all about?”
“Just for kicks, giggles, and snorts, now quiet a bit,” Professor Duke raises a hand to silence me. I duly oblige. “The noises were also to get your attention.” He looks me up and down, skeptically. “I say…you should’ve come disguised. Incognito, see.”
I have left the bowler and College tie in the Lodge but I admit that I do still look rather like a Porter.
“This is as incognito as I can manage at such short notice.”
The Professor himself has gone to slightly more effort, although he does seem to be wearing the waiter outfit from the other week. I don’t suppose his wardrobe is especially extensive, and it is at least less striking that his usual white suit.
“I say, then, it’s rather just right,” he says, nodding. “Now, here’s the thing: Head Porter and the lady will be arriving sooner than a snail in a race. When they jump in their punt, we’ll jump in ours, and follow—quite secretively, mind you. If something goes wrong for Head Porter, we jump in, save the day, and sink the opposing punt. Maybe.”
“Head Porter was quite adamant that he didn’t want us putting our oar in…” I take a moment to chuckle at my own unintentional pun. “He won’t be happy if he thinks we are spying on him.”
“Dadblameit a few times, he won’t know!” the Professor replies. “And it’s not spying too, too much. I mean, we don’t have black hoods or anything. You need those thingies to be a spy, see.”
He has a good point, but there is no time to consider it further as two sets of footsteps alert us the the arrival of others. A jittery clack clack of a sensible heel tells me that at least one of them is a woman. The steady, heavy thwumph of the other suggests a man. But in my experience it is usually prudent to never assume anything about such things.
A naughty-sounding chortle rings throughout the room, bouncing off the sparse expanse of the walls with glee.
“…And then, of course, I was still left with the eel to contend with – but that’s a whole other story!”
That, without doubt, is the voice of Head Porter in full flow. It must be the Headmistress who is with him. It seems we shall be spending a nice afternoon on the river. Well, nicer than spending it in a tool cupboard, anyway.
*A cox is the person who sits on the rear of a rowing boat in races and guides and instructs the rest of the team. Due to the nature of their role, they are usually lithe and diminutive creatures who will not add too much extra weight to the boat. To learn more about the dark art of coxing, click here