battle

Goodbye, Old Friend

There is silence in Old Hall, except for the sombre sound of the Professor’s sword clattering morosely as it falls to the flagstoned floor.

“Oh… Oh my…” mutters Junior Bursar, his face awash with pallid horror. “I mean, I didn’t quite mean to… oh goodness…”

For a second, I am bewildered and frozen, unable to breathe or move, my heart unable to beat at all. In a moment I am detached from myself, floating listlessly to the roof, buoyed by a dreadful sense of nausea and looking down on an ugly scene that unfolds in crippling slow-motion.

All at once, the present comes bursting back in a vast, crashing wave of consciousness; the taste of metal in my mouth and the deafening rush of blood through my ears as a great thundering in my breast brings me very much back to reality. A sound of whimpering comes to my ears from a source unknown. It takes yet another second to realise that it is coming from me.

“Professor!” I cry, running to where he lies prone on the floor. I fling myself upon him, holding back my frightened sobs but unable to prevent a determined tear from finding its way onto my cheek.

“Dadblameit! I’m vexed, you know!”

“Professor! Are you okay?”

“I really am very sorry…” Junior Bursar is shuffling contritely nearby.

Professor Duke sits up abruptly, flinging me to one side as he does so. His face is a vision of pure rage and his eyes burst with fury and the colours of a thousand stars. He fixes Junior Bursar with the coldest, darkest stare I believe I have ever witnessed. And that is saying something. If looks could kill, this would be nuclear war.

“LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!” the Professor roars, holding aloft an object that appears to have once been his top hat.

“My dear fellow, I really am…”

“MY HAT!!! IT’S…NO MORE! Well, it’s here, it’s just a shadow of it’s FORMER GLORY!”

Giving the Professor a quick once-over, it seems that the white suit remains immaculate and there is not a scrub nor a bump anywhere about his person. The only casualty appears to be his beloved topper. Whilst this is something quite clearly approaching a tragedy, I am certainly surprised by the almost harrowed remorse being displayed by Junior Bursar.

“Professor Duke – boundless apologies – it might be one thing to kill a man, but the desecration of his headgear is quite unforgivable. Might I..?” Junior Bursar reaches out to the mangled millinery but his hand is slapped smartly away.

“Don’t touch me!” the Professor snaps. “ I don’t want to end up like my hat, heathen! You have done quite enough damage already. Look at it! I have had this hat since I was a baby…”

“I didn’t mean it. I was aiming for your head.”

The Professor’s response is barely intelligible and probably would not be repeatable even if it was. Snarling and rabid, he launches himself at Junior Bursar, grappling at his throat and sending them both tumbling across the flagstones in a bundle of mortal combat.

For cripe’s sake. Here they go again. 

“Ho ho, what’s this? A fight! Bravo!”

I turn to see The Dean swaggering through the doors, followed by a peaky-looking, but nevertheless upright, Head Porter. I get to my feet and join them, the three of us watching the ensuing battle with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“Is this about the Holy Grail?” asks Head Porter, scratching his head.

“No, this is about the Professor’s hat,” I reply. “Junior Bursar has destroyed it with a pole-axe, look.” I offer up the tattered remains as evidence. There is a collective sharp intake of breath and anguished expressions.

“Rum business, that” says The Dean, shaking his head. “No wonder the old chap is so angry. Go on, Dukey – give it some welly!”

“He really doesn’t need any encouragement, Sir” I reply. This is true. In fact, Professor Duke is getting worryingly close to causing the old fellow some serious damage. “You know, I think we should probably stop him.”

The Dean lets out an irritated sigh and looks generally disappointed.

“Well, I suppose you’re right, Deputy Head Porter” he huffs. “There is rather a lot of blood getting about the place. It’s a bugger to get out, you know, Head Of Housekeeping will be furious.”

The Dean and I tackle the Professor, who by this stage is a veritable pummeling machine. We grab an arm each and, with quite some difficulty, haul him away from a dazed and bloodied Junior Bursar who himself is dragged to his feet by Head Porter. Still growling and spitting, Professor Duke puts me in mind of Terry when I pull him off his latest kill. This is probably why I begin to absent-mindedly stoke his hair and offer soothing utterances. Surprisingly, this seems to work.

“Now see here, Junior Bursar,” says The Dean, approaching him slowly with the beadiest of looks in his eye. “I like a good rumpus as much as the next man. But you have completely savaged this man’s hat! That, old boy, is not only uncalled for but also ungentlemanly. Hardly befitting behaviour of a member of Old College.”

“Hmmm” is all Junior Bursar can offer in reply.

“Now, in order for the honour of Old College to be upheld, I see no option other than for you to take leave of this place immediately and at once resume your retirement in Tuscany. You can take your Grail with you and no more shall be said about that or the matter of the hat, agreed?”

“But.. the Grail..?” Head Porter whispers but is cut short by The Dean.

“He won that fair and square many a moon ago, it is not ours to take. Now,” The Dean turns back to Junior Bursar. “What say you, Fellow?”

“It would appear that it is the only recourse for all honours to remain intact,” Junior Bursar agrees, reluctantly. He says no more, but nods stiffly at each of us before turning away and placing his cuff carefully under his bleeding nose before walking away with slow, painful steps.

“Do you think he will keep his word?” Head Porter asks, once he has gone.

“Oh, I should think so,” replies The Dean, nodding vigorously. “He might be a murdering, Grail-stealing sociopath but he is a man of his word, without doubt.”

“My poor, dadblame hat,” the Professor mumbles, glumly turning the battered remnants over and over in his hands.

A thought strikes me.

“Do you know, I think I have an idea,” I say, tucking my arm in his and giving it a squeeze. “Come with me.”

***

Dusk has thrown her velvety shawl across the evening and the warm night air is sweet with the smell of night flowers as we stand at the edge of the excavation site in Apple Tree Court.

“Whatever are we doing here, Deputy Head Porter?” asks The Dean, no doubt keen to return to his whiskey and whatever remains of the wedding buffet.

“I thought that this would be a fitting resting place for the dear departed hat of Professor Duke,” I reply. “Down here lies the most ancient and important parts of Old College. These foundations have definitively sustained the very heart and soul of our esteemed establishment for centuries. I thought that if the hat were to be interred here, a little bit of the Professor would forever be part of it all.”

Professor Duke beams with delight.

“I’m thinking this is rather brilliant, the sudden,” he says. “I think we’re all glad, now, that my hat obviously feels no more pain. You know, I’m thinking it died immediately. Which is the best death to be had for a…warrior hat! Now, the fuzzy little brute will rest in peace—forever.” He gives his favoured headgear a final pat, before casting it gently into the exposed bowels of Old College. “Goodbye, old friend.”

“We can always go hat shopping tomorrow,” I say, soothingly. This does not go down well.

“I’m thinking it’s too soon,” the Professor whispers.

“I say, what’s going on over there?” remarks The Dean, pointing over towards the flowerbeds by the cloister. “That looks like Terry. Is he… digging?”

“He’s probably burying a poo,” I reply, helpfully.

“I bet not,” says the Professor. “ If he is it’s a strange way to go about that. He looks rather excitable about something. I think we should investigate…”

With Professor VJ Duke

Violence Is Golden

The atmosphere in Old Hall is iced with peril and cold, hard steel as neither Professor Duke nor Junior Bursar look set to give way. I half-heartedly brandish my redundant cross-bow in the vague hope that our adversary might flinch at the prospect of two against one. He does not. Bugger.

“Here, you chaps,” I say quickly “I am sure that there is no need for violence. Why are we fighting, anyway?”

“Well, I suppose,” replies the Professor, “Because he’s got a gruesome looking weapon and I’ve got a cool weapon. Battle is bound to be done now.”

am fighting because the very reputation of Old College is at risk of being calumniated!” Junior Bursar squeals. “I cannot allow that to happen.”

I sigh.

“Not that again. Listen. The reputation of Old College would be just fine if it wasn’t for the likes of you resorting to murderous methods every time someone so much as farts incorrectly…”

“There’s actually a right and wrong way to…?” muses Professor Duke. “I had no idea.”

“The current footing can hardly be compared to a fart, Deputy Head Porter,” it is difficult to tell if Junior Bursar is more annoyed at my comment or the fact he has been forced to say ‘fart’. “We are faced with the infiltration of a foreign agent who is unrelenting in his vocation to make fools of us with a fake Grail while all the time plotting to steal the real one away to his confounded motherland. And, yet again, I find you very much in my way. This simply will not do  Deputy Head Porter.”

I had quite forgotten how difficult reasonable conversation can be with Junior Bursar. He is a man who occupies a space somewhere between incongruous and lunacy, particularly where the prominence of College is concerned. At one point I thought I might have grasped the concept of handling Junior Bursar, but it seems I am woefully out of practice.

“Firstly, if you present the real Grail to The Master we will be forced to reveal that we have left The Bursar trapped in the dungeon,” I say, as reasonably as I can. “That won’t look good for us and, even worse, there’s a chance someone might try to release him. Secondly, he hasn’t got the real Grail anyway so I don’t see what the problem is.”

Junior Bursar is irritated, now. He relaxes his grip on the pole-axe in order to wave a bony bunched fist at me.

“And that kind of thinking, Deputy Head Porter, is exactly what keeps you as a College servant whilst the likes of my good self are elevated to the grand heights of academia!”

Ah, yes. The grand heights of thinking like an absolute idiot. But with a great vocabulary. Well, that’s academia for you. 

Taking advantage of the distraction of this brief oration, Professor Duke seizes his chance and strikes towards Junior Bursar, broad sword thrust boldly before him and emitting a terrible cry. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting that. I drop my cross-bow in shock.

Junior Bursar is equally taken aback. The pole-axe briefly quivers in his grip and he stumbles several feet backwards.

“Time for you to shut your mouth at once!” roars the Professor, moving forward for another parry. “Your argument is rather insufficient, just like you. Let us do battle!”

Oh, for goodness sake…

I fear that I have lost the control of negotiations to a surge of testosterone as both Fellows take up arms with quite some enthusiasm. It crosses my mind to intervene, but the abundance of large, sharp pointy things ensure that the thought is quickly dismissed. After all, members of The Fellowship trying to kill each other is something of a tradition around these parts.

Professor Duke is surprisingly nimble with such a large sword and reigns blow after blow on the fearsome pole-axe, pushing ever closer to the soft and stab-able assailant at the other end. The business end of a pole-axe is no friendly thing and I cannot help but be impressed that the Professor barely flinches as it jabs about his head and shoulders.

“It’s like you have a giant toothpick, or something,” he says at the increasingly frustrated Junior Bursar. “I shall…break you!”

The portentous echos of clashing steel and guttural gruntings fill Old Hall and give the impression of a most terrible battle erupting within its walls. Heart in mouth, I can only spectate and speculate at who might have the upper hand. Professor Duke is younger and stronger but the reach of Junior Bursar’s pole-axe gives him quite the advantage. Every lunge of the Professor’s is met with a deadly swish of pointed steel, only to be returned in kind by the resolute broad sword. This really could go either way.

But then…

The malefic sound of metal through air.

Swiftly followed by the sound of metal through something much more solid than air.

A haunting cry, like that of a stricken animal.

My heart stops. Time itself ceases to exist.

The Professor is down.

With Professor VJ Duke

A Reputation That Precedes Us

As the sound of approaching footsteps grows louder I hold my breath, which is a rather unlikely thing to be doing when I might need to be running or fighting at any moment soon. It is a perfectly natural human reaction to such things, but quite a stupid one.

“I bet things are going to get pretty spiced up in here,” whispers Professor Duke. “I’m thinking I should put down my hat so it will be safe.”

“Never mind your blasted hat,” replies The Dean “We need a plan. Whatever it is that comes for us, I say we attack it all at once. I shall go for the head, since I am the tallest.”

“I’ll go for the neck, since it’s a softer target, I’m thinking,” says the Professor. “You can go for the head, if you must. Maybe the arms? They’re more lethal than the head, after all. Deputy Head Porter should concentrate on the knees.”

“Might I propose an initially non-violent approach?” I suggest. “We are British, after all.”

“Well, I’m something of an American, overall,” the Professor retorts. “Violence is a pastime where I come from.”

The Dean looks set to put forward his case for unfettered ferocity but there is no time. Our pursuer is upon as.

The footsteps come to an abrupt halt as their owner seems to be surprised at the sight of the three of us, just as he is rather a surprising sight himself. A shiny white dome of a head is decorated dramatically with a black leather patch that covers his left eye. An angry-looking purple scar snakes from the socket down towards a jaw that looks as if it is fashioned from granite. The right ear is missing. He stands at over six feet tall.

The Curator?

“Hello, there!” I say brightly. I offer a little wave.

“GET HIM!” roars The Dean and at once there is a fearsome rush of air as he and Professor Duke charge headlong towards the Curator. The element of surprise serves them well and our adversary comes crashing to the ground beneath a flurry of top hat and expletives. But the Curator is clearly a man well-versed in the art of war and it is not long before he is thrashing around on the floor, viciously fighting back at his attackers.

As the bellicose threesome tumble amongst the filth of the dungeon floor, I really feel I should be doing more to help. The Professor’s hat rolls off into the discarded moonshine and I quickly scoop it up before it gets too sticky. He will thank me for that later.

“For goodness sake, Deputy Head Porter, DO something!” shouts The Dean, wrestling with an arm the size of a tree trunk and evidently losing.

“Yes, blind him in his eye!” Professor Duke yells, fending off flailing legs and hobnail boots “The thing about being blinded…is you can’t…fight…what you can’t…see.”

Well. I don’t think I have ever blinded a man in my life. And he has only got one eye as it is, so that seems dreadfully unfair. Perhaps a temporary blinding of some sort is in order.

Now, it is well documented that in times of great stress and excitement, the human brain often does not function as well as it should. Which goes some way to explaining why what I do next seems like such a good idea.

With the intention of temporarily blinding the Curator at the very forefront of my mind, I gamely bound over to the seething mass of human flesh locked in mortal combat and place my posterior squarely on the face of our adversary, making sure to completely cover his one good eye. This obviously comes as quite a surprise to the Curator, who lets out a very unusual sound before, to my horror, attempting to bite my behind.

I am able to manoeuver myself so that my cheeks remain unchomped but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a very good idea.

“I just think this is making matters worse, to be honest” I say to my colleagues. “Are you sure a non-violent approach would not be better?”

The Dean, red-faced and panting, turns his face towards the Curator’s (which is partially obscured by my bottom).

“What d’you say old chap, have you had enough? What say we talk this through like men, hmm?”

“I shall agree to whatever terms you suggest, monsieur!” rasps the Curator “But please remove this woman from my head!”

I leap up, pleased that my role in the action is at an end. The three chaps seem to have exhausted themselves with their battling and gingerly clamber to their feet, one by one. Once breath has been caught and balance restored, the questionings can begin. The Curator regards us warily with his one remaining eye and wears an expression of unease.

“Listen, I think we may have all got off on the wrong foot,” I say, attempting diplomacy.

Mon dieu! If you interfere with a man’s wine-making what is it that you expect??”

“That was wine?” mutters The Dean, eyeing the remains of the little stricken brewery.

“What are you doing with wine in a dungeon?” asks the Professor, accompanying his words with his second-best smile. “Too good for prisoners. But, here’s the thing: we didn’t do anything. It was a rat that did it.”

“Do not take me for an imbecile!” spits the Curator “I know that you are here to steal the secrets of the finest wine in France. You English wine-makers cannot compete, you know it!”

“I’ve never made wine once, let alone in a dungeon,” protests Professor Duke. “Promise. Double promise. We are adventurers!”

“And also academics,” The Dean chimes in, wanting to add some gravitas to proceedings no doubt. “From Old College in England. What we seek certainly isn’t wine…”

“Although, if you happen to have a glass to hand I wouldn’t say no,” I say quickly. Well, you never know. And besides, I’m parched.

“Old College? Old College?!” the Curator’s reaction suggests he might have already heard of us. The clenching of his fists and the protruding of his neck veins imply that whatever he has previously heard is not good. “You filthy, English pig-dogs!”

“Actually, I’m something of an American…”

Silence! You take from me the most precious thing that exists and now, all these years later you return! And destroy my wine! I hoped I would never again hear the name of your cursed College as long as I live!”

Someone from Old College has obviously rubbed him up the wrong way sometime in the past. I turn to The Dean.

“Have you been here before?” I ask.

We are certainly missing something, here. What could it be?

 

With Professor VJ Duke