The Holy Grail Of Tea Time

Some witty rogue once remarked that there are only two people you should ever lie to – your girlfriend and the Police. While this particular citation might rouse admiring chortles at the bar, I am not convinced of the wisdom of it myself. I have, in my time, been both a girlfriend and the Police and I didn’t appreciate being lied to in either capacity. I cannot help thinking that on this occasion The Dean could be making a mistake.

But it would appear that there are weightier matters at hand. While my bowler-hatted colleagues are tracking down the Bursar candidates, I am entrusted with the crucial commission of furnishing The Dean’s rooms with a fine selection of single malts. Considering current events, this may seem like a rather inconsequential trifle. But then, things at Old College are rarely as they seem.

Happily, there is a man who can assist me in my alcohol-affiliated affairs. A man who can offer far more than a friendly ear, Head Of Catering has been reliably attending to my victual and beverage needs since the day I first set foot amongst the dreaming spires. I find him in his office, drinking a small coffee and eating a large biscuit. There is just the smallest of furrows on his brow, which suggests that today is going rather well.

“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter!” He says, evidently jolly. “Would you like a coffee? I’ve got a pile of samples here from a new supplier. They’re quite good.”

“I’ll have a tea, if it’s all the same to you” I reply. “I wouldn’t mind one of those biscuits, though.”

Head Of Catering chuckles and reaches across his desk to offer me a box of assorted biscuits as big as my head. I consider my options carefully. The chocolate ones are an obvious draw but the honey and almond offerings also hold a certain appeal. Head Of Catering waits patiently as I cast my eye further, rejecting the raisin option (they seem a little too healthy, somehow) and lingering on the cherry ones. Then, like a shining beacon of deliverance in a dark and lonely box of biscuits, I spy what is surely the Holy Grail of tea accompaniment. A chocolate AND cherry biscuit! Offering up a small but earnest prayer of thanks to the Gods of sweet nibbles, I make my selection.

“Of course, you know that these aren’t biscuits, Deputy Head Porter,” says Head Of Catering. “They’re cookies. Still quite biscuit-y, but much bigger. I thought you might like them.”

I assure him that I am very approving. Sitting down with my tea and cookie, Head Of Catering is keen to share with me the recent success of the Unlikely Law Association conference. It seems that having pigeons defecate all over their belongings did nothing to dampen their spirits and the feedback on their time at Old College has been most favourable. Housekeeping and Catering were particularly singled out for high praise and this has made my chum very happy indeed.

Conversation turns to The Dean and his lack of whiskey. The consummate professional, Head Of Catering immediately assures me that a beverage befitting of The Dean will be delivered to his rooms with haste. We ruminate on the fact that he only ever has one glass. Is it because no one ever wants to drink with him or because he never wants to drink with anyone else? It is a puzzle. Head Porter also pops up in our discussion and it seems that Head Of Catering has some concerns about the wellbeing of my brave and fearless leader. I gloss over the details, but clearly other people are starting to notice the effects of his family problems.

Before my friend can press me for further facets, we are joined in his office by a very smiley Head Of Maintenance. I imagine that word of the huge cookies and luxury coffee has got out, a supposition that turns out to be correct. As Head Of Catering prepares a caffeine-laden refreshment for our companion, I decide this is an excellent moment to enquire about the painting and decorating team.

“Oh, they’re good chaps, Deputy Head Porter, no doubt about that,” says Head Of Maintenance with confidence. “I have been using the same blokes for years. They do a fine job and are honest as the day is long. Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason,” I reply. “They haven’t been moving any of the artwork around by any chance?”

“Not that I know of,” Head Of Maintenance pauses for a moment’s reflection. “But be assured that if they did, they would take the utmost care. They’re very particular, you know. It’s almost an insult to call them painters and decorators, really. They are craftsmen of their trade. They take a real pride in their work.”

“Well that’s good to know.”

“Actually, I’ve just come over from the Lodge,” continues Head Of Maintenance. “Porter has got his knickers in a twist over something or other.”

“That’s not unusual” I say “I don’t suppose you know what?”

“Apparently, he had been talking to one of the candidates for the Bursar position. I don’t think he liked the look of him.”

I finish the last of my tea and cram the remainder of the cookie into my mouth. My God, that is one excellent cookie. I make a mental note to take whatever steps necessary to secure a regular supply of those.

But anyway.

A potential Bursar has surfaced. This is, without doubt, a matter that must be attended to immediately.

The Best Laid Plans

Porter reaches us, sweaty and breathless. There is little point asking if he is alright; he clearly isn’t. Porters are not designed to travel at anything more sprightly than a leisurely preamble. That is not to say that they don’t, on occasion. Especially if last orders have just been called.

“What is it?” I ask.

“You’re not going to believe this, Ma’am,” he wheezes. “But there are these little exploding things in the Dining Hall. Head Of Catering is going mental.”

Exploding things are never good news, even if they are little.

“Do you mean bombs?!” The Dean says, actually sounding quite excited at the prospect. Porter looks at him sideways.

“No, Sir, not bombs. Look, Ma’am, you’d better come and have a look.” Porter gestures for me to join him. The Dean holds up his hand.

“If there are exploding things, I should be there,” he declares.

“It’s Degree Day and you’re The Dean of College. You need to stay here,” I tell him gently. “Besides, someone needs to let Head Porter know what’s happening. Tell him I’ll see him back at The Lodge.”

“But I don’t even understand what is happening!”

But Porter and I are already heading back to Old College at an impressive pace. Porter seems to have got his second wind.

Arriving back at The Porters’ Lodge, the general atmosphere is far more sedate than when I left. Even the presence of Head Of Housekeeping does not seem to be causing too much of a stir. She has a clipboard and pen and is looking devastatingly efficient. Her brow is furrowed, but I sense she is positively thriving on the fumes of catastrophe.

“Ah, Deputy Head Porter!” She greets me with a chilling cheerfulness. “Now, don’t you worry. My team have got everything under control. I have even had a pot of tea and plate of biscuits sent along to Head Of Catering, poor chap. He was beside himself. But the Catering staff are doing sterling work re-laying the tables and helping the Bedders fetch and carry fresh tablecloths and the like. I really have got everything covered.”

“But what has actually happened?” I ask, silently relieved that Head Of Catering seems to have averted any major disaster.

“Well, if you ask me, it has all the gubbins of a student prank, I reckon.”

Head Of Housekeeping explains to me that the ceremonial salt shakers have been tampered with. They have been loaded with ingredients designed to erupt when the vessel is shaken. One of the Gardeners thinks it is lemon juice and baking soda, separated by a scrap of tissue paper. This was once common practice amongst his school friends, apparently. A jolly jape which culminates in the top of the salt shaker flying off with a satisfying pop! Followed by the immediate arrival of a slithering, bubbling salty mess all over yourself and your lovely food. But it seems something went awry with this particular execution of this old schoolboy favourite. Best guess is that the tissue paper was not substantial enough and the divided elements rushed eagerly towards each other, like lovers in a cornfield.

A familiar beep beep resonates from my pocket. It’s a text from Head Porter


I reply



I return my phone to my pocket.

“They’re on they’re way back. How close are you to being ready?”

Head Of Housekeeping assures me that the Bedders will have everything ship shape in the nick of time. However, she hurriedly returns to the Dining Hall, so her confidence is ambiguous. I decide to pay Head Of Catering a visit, see if there is anything I can do. The thought that he has a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits in his office did not occur to me at all.

Head Of Catering appears stressed, but focused, as he is feverishly making notes at his desk. I notice crumbs on his tie and as mild panic builds in my stomach, I scan the area desperately looking for the biscuits. Oh no! He’s eaten most of them already.

“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter” he barely lifts his head. “And before you start, I know you’re only here because I’ve got biscuits.”

Curses! My scheme has been foiled.

“I was hoping to be of some help, Head Of Catering” I reply, sounding as hurt as I can.

“I don’t see how. Coming here and eating my biscuits isn’t going to help anybody.” Head Of Catering finally looks up from his scribblings and gives me a broad grin. “Look, I just need to delay the thing by twenty minutes or so and we’ll be fine. I’ve been racking my brains, but the best solution I can come up with is to do what my wife does when she burns the first course at our dinner parties.”

“And what would that be?” This is going to be fascinating.

“She puts some crisps and nuts out and gives everyone another drink.” I am not sure quite how to react. Then again, they do say that the simplest ideas are the best. But on Degree Day? Head Of Catering leans forward, as if to impart some earth-shattering thing. “Actually, we’ve got some really nice crisps. Not so much in the nut department, but Chef has some frozen canapes that might go down quite well. We’ll keep them out on the lawns with the champagne and nibbles until we’re ready for them.”

“My friend, you are a genius” I reply. Well, it’s obvious that I’m not going to get a biscuit so I take to my feet. “I shall leave you to bask in the glory of your own brilliance.”

“Thank you, Deputy Head Porter, I shall do exactly that.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen young Hershel around today, have you?” I ask as I turn to leave. Head Of Catering shrugs. He has had other things on his mind. “Okay. Have a nice afternoon.”

I am making my way towards the rooms of a certain student acquaintance of mine, when I see a a stiffly jovial Head Porter walking comically slowly alongside The Master, who is not doing a marvelous job of disguising his irritation. They have just entered Old Court and are making their way towards me, albeit incredibly slowly. It is rather reminiscent of being in a zombie film. Not that I’ve ever been in a zombie film, you understand.

Painfully aware that I should be at the very back of the procession, I tuck myself inconspicuously in a recess in the cloister. As the column approaches, I can hear Head Porter attempting to distract The Master with his own special brand of small talk. In all fairness, The Master does look very much distracted. They pass by, followed by The Fellows and then the students and I fall in a few steps behind the last, straggling graduates. I see them on to the lawns, where our proud degree-holders are reunited with their even prouder families, and The Fellowship are reunited with liquid refreshment. A resounding success for The Porters’ Lodge, anything from here on in is Catering’s problem.

Head Porter has obviously been nervously awaiting my return to The Lodge. I can see him pacing his office before I even reach the door. I step in and his eyes are immediately searching my face for something, anything…

“Well? Is everything alright?”

I sigh.

“Yep, it seems to be. Somehow. Nothing to do with me.”

“It’s just, The Dean was very certain about the terrorists.”

I laugh.


With a hot cup of strong tea, the world can look like an entirely different place. Now, sat in Head Porter’s office, it seems like a brilliant place to be. Strange, perhaps, but one way or another the day as been an undeniable success. The failure of the prank was in fact what saved the day. I barely dare imagine the commotion if it had actually worked. I suppose it is not essential that The Dean hear about this little event, but I am not about to make that opinion widely known. Someone needs to sweat over this for awhile yet. I never did get a biscuit, though.

“How did you find your first Degree Day, then?” asks Head Porter, sipping his tea. “Was it what you expected?”

“Well…” I take a few moments over my reply. “I can’t say it was quite what I expected. To be honest, it was probably a fair bit more straightforward. I mean, despite everything, all we had to do was walk up and down a street, really.”

“Not bad for a day’s work, eh?”

Head Porter and I toast our small contribution to a magnificent day. I feel I should take the opportunity to congratulate myself while I can. Next week is the highly-anticipated  celebration of Junior Bursar’s lifelong contribution to Old College. I suspect it may not be such a straightforward affair.