Matters That Must Be Attended To Immediately

Cat Fight

Time was when many of the parties I attended featured a bout of fisticuffs of some description. People may say that this is a sign of a mis-spent youth; I beg to differ. Partying and fighting is a very apt way to spend one’s youth, as such things are most calumnious when carried into proper adulthood.  One needs to get that sort of thing out of the way early on. However, something tells me an imminent return to such times is upon us.

Professor Duke opens the door to reveal the mystery person who has been taking liberties with his doorbell. It is none other than The Master’s Wife, who at least seems to be entering into the spirit of things; she is wearing a costume. I say ‘wearing’ – this is a generous term for the adornment of three sheer scarves draped artfully across her body and the type of shoes my mother warned me about. Whatever she has come as is clearly a character that is very short on clothing.

“Good evening, daaarrrrlings!”

“Bloody hell,” Organ Scholar gasps. “Who invited her? And what… what is she… I mean… is that a costume?”

“Avert your eyes, Organ Scholar,” I reply, taking a large mouthful of unusual beverage. “This is no sight for a young gentleman.”

“Oh, just you, dadblameit,” sighs the Professor. “I thought it might’ve been a ghoul or something rather terrifyingly interesting. The Professor would tell you to come in, but you weren’t invited, see. And you aren’t really wearing anything of note, double-see.”

“But the dear Head Porter is here, isn’t that right?” She replies, her perfect frozen features managing a hint of a smirk. “And I cannot believe he would want to be at such an event unaccompanied by a lady.”

“Well maybe he’s got…a lady!” Professor Duke flaps his habit viciously in an attempt to scare her off. “But here’s the thing, I don’t think you’re a lady. Ladies don’t wear nothing, they wear something. Plus, we’re stock filled with ladies. Too many ladies. Ladies coming out of the rat holes—as they say.”

“Oh, but surely, my dear sweet Professor, this eclectic ensemble proves that I am very much all woman…”

She leans in close to him, her breath on his neck as the Professor very nearly cartwheels backwards in an attempt to avoid her advances. It’s no good. She is determined to come in.

Across the room, Head Porter’s face has adopted a similar shade to that of his milkman costume. His conversational companions have not yet noted the new arrival and he appears to be plotting an escape route. But she has him in her sights. And it seems that there can be no escape from The Master’s Wife.

She stalks across the room towards where Head Porter cowers like a hunted animal, flanked by Headmistress and The Dean. How she can even walk in those shoes is something of a mystery but that is the least of my worries as I place my drink on the sideboard and hurry after her. I motion to the Professor to join me, which he does, albeit reluctantly.

To my great surprise, Head Mistress doesn’t bat an eyelid at the half-naked harridan but instead scrutinises the Professor and I with great interest. A flicker of recognition creeps with a smile across her face.

“Now, aren’t you two the waiters from the French restaurant?” She asks, with a wink.

“We could be, I’m not sure, though,” replies the Professor. “This Professor usually gets mistaken for lots of people, just because. Plus, I hear being a Professor, and a Deputy Head Porter, pays way better than waiting tables, don’t you know.”

Headmistress throws back her head and releases a laugh so filthy you could grow cress in it. She is an intelligent woman and I rather wondered if she had clocked our ruse when she saw us on the River. The game, as they say, seems to be very much up.

“Oh, I think it is dreadfully sweet of you,” she says. “Looking out for your friend like that. But I assure you, Head Porter needs no protecting from me. My intentions are mostly honourable.”

“Actually,” I say “It was more of case of protecting you from…”

“This chitter-chatter is boring me dreadfully,” The Master’s Wife snaps suddenly. “And men dressed as nuns are frightfully offensive to me…”

“Hey!” I am most put out by this remark. But she is in no mood to discuss the matter and, ignoring me, turns to Headmistress.

“I thank you for keeping my Head Porter warm for me but surely you can see that he now has no further need of your company.”

Headmistress narrows her eyes and shoots The Master’s Wife quite the most fearsome and diabolical look I have ever witnessed. Which is quite something when you consider how well I know The Dean. And speak of the devil, he joins the fray with aplomb.

“Madame, The Master’s Wife you may very well be but I can tell you we don’t like this sort of thing at our parties,” The Dean declares. “Do you not think it most unseemly to continue with this carry-on?”

Now, ignoring me is one thing. People do it all the time. But ignoring The Dean can only ever end badly. The Master’s Wife remains engaged only with Headmistress.

“I shall ask you again to step aside, lady, if that is what you are.”

“I think not,” retorts Headmistress, chin jutting defiantly. “Who even are you? Ridiculous creature.”

The Master’s Wife does not take too kindly to this rebuff and shrieks, launching her fuchsia talons towards the truculent face of Headmistress. The whole thing happens in such a flash that I have barely time to move but Headmistress is quicker. Deftly catching the arm of her assailant, she twists the wrist backwards with her left hand whilst maintaining momentum with her right, which lands as a furiously balled fist right onto the dainty nose of The Master’s Wife.

The room fills with horrified gasps as an explosion of crimson erupts in spectacular fashion, great thick globules finding their way to the floor.

“My rug is now suitably ruined, the sudden,” mutters the Professor, sadly. “I knew I should’ve tackled her the moment she pushed past me. Maybe I would’ve broken one of her bones. Cool.”

“Now, now ladies,” splutters The Dean, evidently taken aback by this sudden and unexpected violence. “Let’s not make a scene.”

“Quite right,” replies Headmistress. “I say we take this outside. Right now.”

Penelope’s Favour

The story so far… Head Porter is embarking on a continually disastrous mission to find true love. Meanwhile, The Dean is receiving hate mail from an unknown and barely literate source. More importantly, the Old College Choir is in disarray having been commandeered by the ridiculously untalented Master’s Wife, but Deputy Head Porter and Professor VJ Duke have devised a plan to engage the services of an ex-choir member. Organ Scholar has managed to convince the delightful Penelope to assist, but first she wants a favour…

 

Favours for students invariably make me uneasy. They are rarely reasonable and often involve a larger degree of compromise than is strictly fair. However, if we want to save the reputation of the Choir I don’t see that we have much choice.

“It’s only a small favour,” says Organ Scholar, somewhat unconvincingly. “All it will take is a quiet word with The Dean.”

“Words with The Dean are neither small, nor quiet” I reply, folding my arms. “What sort of words did Penelope have in mind?”

“When Hershel graduated in the Spring, The Dean banned him from ever returning to Old College. He has been away travelling since then but now wants to return to resume his relationship with Penelope. She would really love it if he could come and visit her at College.”

A weary-sounding sigh escapes my lips and I feel a twinge of despair. Hershel was a brilliant but problematic student during his time at Old College and was a regular at receiving the hairdryer treatment from The Dean. A combination of elaborate pranks and relentlessly obstinate behaviour made him very unpopular amongst the senior Fellowship and I had one or two run-ins with him myself. I am in no mood to bargain for his reprieve, particularly given the disposition of The Dean just lately.

Professor Duke seems to read my frame of mind directly.

“Oh, what a horrid thing,” he says. “The Dean usually never changes his mind, but she wants a favor. What a predicament. A favor is like a cherry sucker, not…this! But, if we can arrange it all, she’ll help us?”

Organ Scholar nods emphatically.

“Oh, absolutely, aye. I think, deep down, she wants to help the Choir.”

“I only believe that for a minute. After all, she’s not doing it for free.” The Professor pauses for a moment and I can almost hear the whirring of cogs beneath his top hat. “Now here’s a sudden thought: I’d say that Hershel’s presence could be of great benefit to our cause. Wouldn’t you say so, Deputy Head Porter?”

I have to think about this for a moment. The presence of Hershel is indicative of many things but benefits are few and far between, from my experience.

“I would be interested to hear the reasons behind your thinking, Professor.”

“Yes, well, I’d tell them to you, but I can’t right now,” he replies. “This professor happens to have a lecture I must run to. Now, while I’m gone, please keep Head Porter from the dating scene. It’s not fair to the ladies.”

Touching the brim of his hat and smiling benignly, the Professor takes his leave of us and bounds off towards the lecture theatre. Organ Scholar watches him go.

“What does he actually lecture about?” he asks.

“Do you know, I’m really not sure” I reply, truthfully. “But he certainly knows a lot about things I’ve never even heard of.”

“So, what should I do now?”

“Go and tell Penelope that we agree to her request – but I need good notice of Hershel’s arrival, okay? Bring her up to speed on the Choir Competition – I take it she is familiar with the piece?”

“Of course, it’s Tavener’s ‘Hymn To The Mother Of God’!” He says this as if it is a ditty I should be humming all the time. I take his word for it.

“Good,” I say, nodding. “I suppose the next thing is to see if she can get a half decent tune out of the tone-deaf buggers. Rather her than me. Anyway. I’m off to see The Dean.”

“Oh, do you think you can talk him round about Hershel?” Organ Scholar’s eyes widen in surprise.

“I’m not banking on it,” I reply, glumly. “But there might be another way.”

All Good Things

Stood at the edge of the dance floor, where now only the hardcore of dervishes persist in an increasingly erratic display of alcohol fuelled carousal, I await with interest the pearls of wisdom Professor Duke seems intent on sharing with me. Despite his previous urgency at garnering my attention, he appears to have drifted into abstraction; perhaps forming his thoughts into something approaching clarity.

Many of the wedding guests have since beaten a wobbly path to their beds, leaving a cluster of die-hard detectives and several battle-hardened relatives gamely sustaining the dying embers of the party to the bitter end. They are making an admirable attempt to remain a raucous troupe, but there is the sense that they too will soon succumb to the need of slumber. The Professor turns towards me and looks me in the eye.

“So, here it is, and I shall tell most of it, Deputy Head Porter. Junior Bursar is quite insane. Mad, in fact. Madder in the head than anyone’s been before.” Well, this is an astute observation but hardly a revelation. “We might as well add The Curator to the list. I think he’s mad, too. How horrid, but true.”

“Yes indeed,” I reply, nodding. “Certainly they are both on the far side of reasonable. I am beginning to think it might be me. I just seem to attract these types.”

The Professor chuckles and shakes his head vigorously.

“Nah, I bet not!” he says, amused. “But…you might have a point there. Oh well. Anyways and a few: Both those fellows were guardians of the Grail. It was a great passion for both of them, I think. And the Antique Shop owner – he has dedicated his life to the search for it and he is quite unstable, you must admit. He’s mad, and that’s all there is for it.”

“Do you think that the Grail has driven them mad?”

“I actually do, can you believe. The Grail, or the love of the Grail, either or.” The Professor thinks to himself for a moment. “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness. There. I think that explains it. Now you probably think I’m mad.”

I look over to our weary-looking hosts, the newly wedded Mr and Mrs Porter, sway languidly together in a dance that plays to a tune no one else can hear; sweet nothings whispered between them, dreams and promises flourishing from their freshly seeded vows.

“”And what about them?” I ask, smiling and nodding over. “Do you suppose that they are mad, then?”

“Oh, without question!” the Professor replies, adamant. “But you know? Madness is no bad thing, I am thinking, if you can go willingly into it of your own choosing. It is only when it is thrust upon you that it becomes a vexation. Love – well – that is an elective madness.”

I have surely had too much to drink. The Professor is making perfect sense. 

“Take Head Porter, for instance,” he continues, pointing to where our friend is in the dying throes of seduction. “He looks quite excited and ready to jump headlong into enamoured insanity if you ask me.”

“Poor chap. He never has much luck with the ladies.”

“He should get a bit madder, then try his luck, I say!”

“Talking of mad people,” I say, something suddenly coming to mind. “We should check on The Dean. I want to know what he has done with the Grail.”

We find The Dean in his rooms, large whiskey in hand and a self-satisfied smirk upon his face. He seems quite pleased to see us.

“Aha! I wondered if I might see you chaps! Cheers!” he raises his glass by way of a greeting. “Head Porter not with you?”

“He is making a last ditch attempt and seducing one of the bride’s friends,” I reply.

“Really? Which one?”

“Anyone, I think.”

“Hmm! Good tactic, I say. Drink?” The Dean does not wait for a reply but instead begins filling the Arsenal mug (which, for some unknown reason has become my drinking vessel) with his finest Scotch.

“I say…you wouldn’t have any more cherry brandy, would you?” asks the Professor, eyeing the decanter with some suspicion.

“No, not at all,” The Dean replies. “But you can have some of this and just pretend.”

“Rats and a heifer. It will do.”

Once we are all furnished with unnecessarily expensive whiskey, I decide that I must ask the thing that I am sure we are all most desperate to know.

“Sir, where did you hide it?”

“Hmm?” The Dean gives an Oscar-winning performance of perplexity. “You mean the Grail?” As if I could mean anything else. “Ahh. Well. I have deployed the usage of such sly chicanery you wouldn’t believe. I have hidden it where no one would think to look.”

“Good for you,” says Professor Duke, wincing as he sips tentatively at his whiskey. “I always hide my important stuff where everyone looks first, dadblameit. Now, where did you hide it?”

“In plain sight, of course!” The Dean replies, with a flourish. “It is right in front of your eyes and neither of you spotted it at all. You may now bask in awe at my genius.”

Seeing an excellent excuse to rid himself of the unwanted beverage, the Professor places his glass on the coffee table and begins to search around. I am quite happy with my offering, as it happens, but feel I must join in the hunt. It does not last as long as I was expecting, but then we do know what we are looking for.

“Aha! I found it!” the Professor grins and points to the Grail, nestling comfortably on The Dean’s writing desk among the usual conglomerate of articles that for some unknown reason are essential for his everyday life. “And…I see you’ve filled it with paperclips.”

“Well, it might as well make itself useful whilst it’s here,” says The Dean, dismissively.

Well, quite. Although it seems at first to be a somewhat humble engagement for a thing of such undoubted legend, the more I think on it the more I feel that a quiet and unassuming existence – quietly going about its business without the need for pomp and circumstance – is rather more apt than one might imagine.

As I let the burning amber liquid slide down my throat and fuzzy my head, I idly ponder the venture now behind us and think to myself that we might now declare ourselves knights, having followed with such fortitude in the footsteps of the Templar. The acquisition of the Holy Grail may sound like quite the prize, but that is a simple treasure hunt compared to the forbearance of friendship that seems to me to be the real reward. This calls for a dramatic gesture, of sorts.

I clap my hands together to gain the attention of my esteemed companions.

“Gentlemen!” I begin quite grandly and fear that I won’t be able to keep it up. “Gentlemen. We have solved puzzles, cracked codes, got into fights and travelled all the way to France. The upshot of which is that we have discovered the Holy Grail!”

“But it was Junior Bursar that actually discovered the Grail,” points out Professor Duke.

“Well.. yes… but we had the right idea and we got it off him in the end.”

“Wasn’t that the dadblamed Terry?”

This grand speech isn’t going dreadfully well. It sounded absolutely brilliant in my head, as well. Pah!

“Look, the point is,” I continue, determined not to be put off. “We clearly have something quite remarkable to celebrate. I think we should all have a bit of a dance.”

The Dean and the Professor look doubtful, but I put on my very best pleading face and they are powerless to resist. The Dean breaks first.

“Very well, Deputy Head Porter,” he huffs, turning to his ancient record player with the wobbly needle. “But you know I only have one record.”

“I only dance to certain things, it’s said,” says Professor Duke. “What have you?”

“It’s the theme tune to Minder.”

“I might romp to that!”

As The Dean fiddles with the elderly device and the Professor takes my hand in anticipation of our victory rollick, I cannot help but think that there couldn’t be anything else quite so perfect for this exact moment in time; the perfect end to the perfect quest.

You know what they say about all good things, don’t you?

In memory of George Cole

With Professor VJ Duke