We do not have to wait too long before Head Porter and Headmistress are soon having a shove up the River, their young chauffeur chattering enthusiastic nonsense as they pull away from the Boat House. The Professor and I emerge from the tool cupboard and head out to find a punt of our own.
“We must make many sure to get the the quickest and fastest punt ever,” the Professor says, casting a critical eye over the fleet before us. “It must be a punt worthy of two warriors.”
I do admire his meticulous nature and have not the heart to tell him that one punt is pretty much as good as another. Nonetheless, he seems to find one that suits his exacting requirements and hops in nimbly, seating himself right in the middle of the punt.
“The sudden, this is perfect!” he enthuses. “Come come, Deputy Head Porter, let’s hit the seven seas, yo!”
“I’ll be doing the actual punting, then?”
“Oh. You know, yes, because I didn’t even know what a punt was last year at this time.”
I turn to the pole rack and select a likely looking instrument. Traditionally, punt poles are made from spruce and are about 16 feet long, making them somewhat unwieldy to the uninitiated. There are more modern aluminium poles available and although they are lighter and easier to manage, they don’t carry the necessary weight to really get a good turn of speed.
I heave one of the narrower poles from its holding and use it to help me balance as I take my place at the platform of the rear of the punt. There are those that might choose to punt from the head of the boat, but in The City we consider pushing the boat through the water much more dignified than dragging it.
Punting is something of an art form and as with all true arts, the experienced practitioners make it look deceptively easy. For every punter you see gliding elegantly through the water, rhythmically feeding the pole through their hands, in and out of the water, you will see a dozen hapless souls floating aimlessly, poles floundering or – at worst – poles finding their way to a watery grave, leaving their owners stranded. Whatever you do, never, ever let go of the pole. I have spent many a happy afternoon in the Porters’ Lodge, watching the calamities on the river and drinking tea. A great cheer goes up whenever anyone falls in, which is most heartening to hear.
Thankfully, I am blessed with some proficiency in this field and we are soon scudding through the water with some elegance. The bright afternoon sunshine causes me to squint a little, although it offers no warmth at all. My physical endeavours prevent me from feeling a chill but I wonder how the Headmistress is faring. No doubt Head Porter will be on hand to offer some warmth and more besides.
Before long, we see them up ahead, the punt chauffeur still rattling off made-up facts, ten to the dozen. Head Porter and Headmistress seem oblivious, giggling too loudly, their hands idly brushing against each other accidentally-on-purpose. It is quite the heartening scene, the backdrop to the River dressing it perfectly.
“Aha! I see them!” exclaims the Professor. “Anddddd…by the look of things, it’s going smoothly smooth.”
“It does appear to be,” I reply. “Maybe we should just leave them to it after all.”
“Nah! What sort of spies would we make then? Let’s get closer. I must needs hear what he’s saying…”
I sigh. Resistance is futile where Professor Duke is concerned, so against my better judgement I redouble my efforts on the pole to bring us in a little nearer. Without our usual College attire we shall not be quite so recognisable and the happy couple seem so enraptured that I feel brave enough to pull alongside.
“Oh, Head Porter – tell me another one!” Headmistress sniggers.
Head Porter is in his element.
“Alright then, how’s this:
There was a young man from Newcastle,
Who could wrap himself up like a parcel,
In that position
He did a rendition
Of God Save The Queen through his…”
“Hey, hey, and a few!” the Professor cries, just in the nick of time.
“Oh look!” Headmistress exclaims, pointing at the Professor and me. “Look, it’s the waiters from the other evening. Hello there!”
She starts waving enthusiastically and the Professor returns her greeting. Head Porter is looking at me like I have just eaten his first born.
“What are you two doing here?” he growls, glowering beneath a set of furious-looking eyebrows.
“We are…we are working off dinner by rowing a boat, of course!” replies the Professor, somewhat ingeniously, I feel.
Head Porter looks unimpressed.
“Well – that’s quite… weird, frankly,” he says. “This is a private conversation, if you don’t mind. Excuse me, punter!”
The young man chauffeuring nods to Head Porter before giving us a look that could melt steel. He clearly thinks we are some sort of depraved voyeurs or something. Taking a firm grip on his pole, his lithe limbs quicken their pace and the punt is soon gliding off, leaving a trail of froth-tipped water in its wake.
“This is war!” huffs the Professor. “That was so rude. We must chase them.”
Before I can make further comment, something on the bank side catches my eye.
“Hey, look,” I say, squinting at two figures standing by the riverbank, seemingly engaged in animated debate. “Isn’t that The Dean over there?”
“Oh boy, it is. Forget the war. Let’s go see what he’s about.”