In a fetid communal stairwell of anonymous council flats, I find myself wearing the other hat. The air is laced with urine and recent violence and my chest heavy as up, up, up I go. On the third floor there is a door ajar; it wasn’t the reason we came here but it is the reason we are here now.
Harper is at my back and I have never felt so safe. You could feel safe anywhere if you knew Harper had your back. The open door seems an inevitable destination and through it we go, announcing our presence in the familiar way.
The flat is pitifully bare. Dust and filth fight for purchase on the meagre possessions. Yet the place is oppressively full with a rancid stench that is worse than that of death. It is the smell of the very worst of life. And then all at once they are there – the room is full of them from floor to ceiling. There is something of life within them as they seem to squirm and writhe where they sit. The feculent haze reaches oily fingers down my throat, all the way to my stomach…
I wake with a start and find myself sliding gracelessly from Head Porter’s chair and face first onto the floor. A snooze in Head Porter’s office seemed like the most sensible course of action following the drama of the Choir Competition. No doubt he wouldn’t have been over the moon to find me here, but at least I could immediately interrogate him about his tete a tete with The Master.
“Ma’am! Are you, um, busy?”
I look up to see Porter standing over me, showing not a great deal of concern, I must say.
“Oh no! What time is it?”
“It’s half past six, ma’am,” Porter taps his watch.
“The Choir Competition!” I splutter. “Who won the Choir Competition?”
Porter narrows his eyes a little, as if I might be unbalanced.
“The whole thing had to be abandoned, ma’am. There was an outbreak of mass hysteria and The Great Chapel had to be evacuated before things turned nasty. Well, nastier, at any rate.”
“Oh my.” I put a hand to my head to steady myself. “Well, Hawkins College didn’t beat us, at least. Honour is satisfied!”
“Aye, well,” Porter sucks on his teeth like a mechanic sizing up a job. “That’s what happens when you get so many University-types together in one place. Look, there’s someone for you at the front desk, are you going to see them or what?”
“Oh!” I scramble to my feet and dust off my knees. “Who is it?”
Following Porter through to the front desk, I see the mischievous face of Headmistress smiling back at me. I try to shake off the fug of sleep and also the unnerving thought that Head Porter isn’t back yet. On closer inspection, Headmistress’ smile is not quite the beaming expression of joy it first seems. Her eyes search mine but what for, I couldn’t tell you. She clears her throat.
“Is he here?”
Something tells me that these are the very last three words I would want to hear.
“No…” I say slowly, hoping the right words will come. “But I’ve been asleep. Professor Duke and I left him with The Master, we were just leaving the Choir Competition…”
“Oh yes, the Competition, how did it go?”
Porter makes to speak but I wave him into silence with a casual flap of my hand.
“Our chaps did very nicely, actually. And we didn’t get beaten by Hawkins College, so all in all a success.” I take a breath. “You haven’t heard from Head Porter, then?”
“No and we were supposed to be going out tonight,” Headmistress sounds more concerned than annoyed. “It’s not like him not to text, at least.” Some terrible thought seems to come upon her. “That dreadful Master’s Wife wasn’t there, was she?”
She must really like him.
I carefully explain the events of the Choir Competition, such as they are. I try to downplay our part in the academic anarchy as much as possible but it is very hard to find a positive spin. It is fortunate that Headmistress is an extremely broadminded creature and is anyway more concerned about the proximity of The Master’s Wife to Head Porter.
It is a beautiful thing to witness, two people falling in love. Like a garden in springtime, becoming slowly more wondrous with every passing day. And no one deserves it more than my friend Head Porter. Last year it was Porter who found eternal happiness with the delightful Detective Sergeant Kirby, this year could see another wedding, perhaps. Next year..? Head Porter is a different man to the cold, dead-eyed pompous menace I first encountered. I can only think that unlikely adventuring does him the world of good.
Just as well, really.
A terrible crack of wood on wood rips throughout the Lodge as the front door is thrown violently against its frame, The Dean and Professor Duke thundering through. I nearly jump clean out of my skin, but at least I am properly awake now. The Dean is looking particularly grim, even for him, while the Professor isn’t even wearing his hat.
“Aha and a few! Headmistress, it’s many lucks you are here,” says the Professor, the joviality in his voice wavering only slightly. “You wouldn’t happen to have Mr. Head Porter about you, would you?”
“You haven’t seen him either?”
Professor Duke ignores my question and turns to The Dean.
“Our worst fears are, the sudden, realised.”
“Bugger it!” yells The Dean, stamping a foot. Beginning to pace, he addresses me. “You know that devious little oik I employed to investigate those sinister letters I received?”
I glance at the Professor who nods reassuringly. It appears that The Dean is still unaware that his private investigator is, in fact, his arch nemesis Hershel. Even more damningly, it was Hershel who sent the letters in the first place, of course.
“I do, Sir.”
“Well, welly, he’s turned up something… well… fascinating,” splutters the Professor. “Now, now, Mr Dean, maybe this is something we can have more delicate speaks about?”
“Now listen!” bellows The Dean, somehow managing to stamp both feet at the same time. “All of you, quiet. Deputy Head Porter. There is something you should know about the Music Professor…”
‘Redemption Road’ Fuller&Bear
In loving memory of Graham Fuller : Writer, Musician, Teacher