bowler

Degree Day

After some considerable and epic undertaking (the likes of which had previously only been seen in the works of Homer), I was finally able to track down the suave yet elusive Head Of Maintenance. Not that he was able to enlighten me further in my quest to identify the owner of the set of keys that almost sealed the fate of Head Porter and myself. It seems that the Maintenance staff have a rather cavalier attitude to the keeping of keys, with the swapping and borrowing of each other’s bunches being commonplace. It seems that no one even realised a set was missing. Naturally, Head Of Maintenance received a stern and solemn ticking-off, delivered with the kind of ferociousness you have come to expect from this Deputy Head Porter.

On today of all days, I do not trouble Head Porter with the disappointing news that we are no nearer to identifying our assailant. Moreover, I particularly do not wish to disturb him with the shocking revelation that his precious keys are not, in the Maintenance department at least, afforded the reverence and respect that he believes they deserve. Head Porter seems to have enough on his plate already.

And so Degree Day is finally upon us!

A time of great pride for tutors and students alike, this is the day when Old College finally reminds the world what it is really here for – academic excellence. It is all too easy to be distracted by the archaic and seemingly redundant ceremonials and practices, the enduring and intoxicating reverence of the past and the ornate pomposity (not to mention the odd corpse). I stand guilty as anyone of missing the point entirely. What Old College does (and has done for over five hundred years) in a spectacular fashion, is educating and inspiring the finest young minds on the planet. Whether this is in spite of the aforementioned or because of it – well.

That really is none of my business.

Head Porter is in his element. The Porters’ Lodge is a gleeful hubbub of proud families and relieved students, resplendent in their Sunday best and gowns, respectively. Smiling to myself, I watch the scene with interest. I note that Head Porter holds a certain charm for the families, the mothers especially. To them, he has played a vital part in the success of their talented offspring. The Porters are often the first port of call for a student in need of something. Anything. Such is the Porters’ reputation for unerring wisdom and practicality that they have been called upon to deal with anything from a broken tap to a broken heart; to discuss everything from the rugby to the meaning of life.

It is a little bit like watching a famous celebrity (shall we say, Sean Bean?) being mobbed by a small group of very polite fans. Although red-cheeked and giggling, they are on their best behavior for the man who runs the mighty Porters’ Lodge. The Porters’ Lodge – which has saved the lives, reputations and future prospects of students and Fellows alike for centuries. And, of course, he is loving every minute. If he was as personable to the Porters as he is to middle-aged ladies, we would be an unstoppable force. Still, he is getting better at that sort of thing.

I watch our soon-to-be graduates in their mortarboards and gowns, uneasy yet full of pride. You can see in their faces how the celebratory nature of the day is tainted with the realisation that it is now all over. Some may come back, of course, to pursue further studies. But many will be thrust into the sobering confines of reality, somewhere that is a very different place to Old College. Then again, they will have the piece of paper from Old College that will, hopefully, act as a golden ticket to an expectant world. And that, when it comes down to it, is what today is all about. Going to collect your piece of paper.

But this being Old College, there is far more to it than that. Apart from anything, it is a bloody excellent excuse for a good, old fashioned academic knees-up. There will be food and, by God, will there be wine. Collecting the bits of paper is something resembling a Royal outing in itself. The Master and Head Porter will lead a procession of Fellows and students through The City to Swallow House, a respectably-sized building just beyond Hawkins College. A building seemingly used to hand out bits of paper, Head Porter did not elaborate further. The winding mass of students and Fellows, all in formal academic dress, must be quite a sight to behold. Not that I will get to see much of it, as I am informed that I am to walk at the back of the procession. Apart from being traditional, I am also required to ensure that no-one gets left behind or lost. Or run over. Pah. I’m looking forward to it anyway. Oh, and I’m not allowed to wave at people, either.

I check my watch and it would seem that the hour is almost upon us. I see Head Porter notice the time and take his leave of his audience. He collects his jacket from his office and comes to join me.

“Come on, get your hat on” he says. I dutifully do as I’m told. Head Porter sighs, irritated, and starts tugging at the brim of my bowler and tutting. “It’s got to sit properly!

“You’ve never been this fussy about my hat!” I complain, trying to bat him away.

“Well, you just look scruffy. There!” He makes a final tweak and seems satisfied with the result. “You’ll need to get your jacket on, too. Come on.”

I never wear my jacket. Especially in June. But, if the moment calls for it I shall not be found wanting. On goes the jacket and I follow Head Porter out of The Lodge and on to take our places in the procession.

As Head Porter strides away to the front, I loiter somewhat sheepishly at the back. Some of the families chat with me and even take photographs. I cheer up a little at my moment of minor celebrity. In fact, I so taken with my posing and small talk that I almost miss the procession moving off. I bid farewell to my new associates and march along behind in what I hope is a graceful and dignified manner.

I had my concerns about a large and elaborately costumed procession promenading through The City in the middle of the morning. Clearly, though, the populace of The City is well-versed in this historic event and despite the fact that no roads have actually been closed, no one impedes the well-worn route. There are many spectators, in fact, lining the streets, clapping and waving. The celebration of the academic achievements of these fine young folk reaches far beyond their own family and friends. The City as a whole applauds their efforts, for they know that they are the future.

I am more than a little miffed that I am not permitted to wave. It strikes me as unnatural not to return the wave of a complete stranger. I can smile, though. They can’t stop me doing that. In truth, I can barely stop myself.

When we reach Swallow House and our young heroes-of-the-hour retire inside for the no doubt elaborate ceremony of collecting the reasonably-sized bits of paper, the Fellows gather in a wonderful little side alleyway, aptly-named Scholars’ Lane. Some have got hold of choc ices, the crafty devils. I spot The Dean reclining gracefully against the stone wall.

I subtly manoeuver myself so as to be placed directly next to The Dean, although not leaning against the wall. It is hardly my place to lean against the same wall as The Dean.

“Good show, wouldn’t you say, Deputy Head Porter?”

“Absolutely, Sir” I reply. I reach into my back pocket and retrieve a carefully placed pouch of tobacco.

“Oh, not here, for goodness’ sake” hisses The Dean.

“That Porter over there is having a smoke” I reply reproachfully, indicating a fine-looking gentleman wearing the colours of Wastell College.

“So he is,” says The Dean. “I say, he’s got a top hat on as well! fancy that!”

I admit I am a little jealous. I am immensely fond of my bowler but nothing quite beats a top hat. I had not considered it before but it occurs to me that I might look quite fetching in a topper.

“Well, that’s just showing off” I reply curtly. “What are Wastell trying to do? Trying to start a hat war amongst the Porters?”

“We’ll bloody well beat them at their own game. What beats a top hat?”

I think carefully for a moment. It’s a tough one.

“A crown?” I suggest.

“A crown? Yes, that can be the only thing…” I can see the multitude of cogs turning in The Dean’s mind. “Next term, all our Porters shall wear crowns, d’you hear? I’m not being outdone by bloody Wastell College…”

We are interrupted by shouting from the far end of the alleyway. I recognise Porter making his way towards us at a fair lick, especially for a Porter.

“Is that one of our chaps?” Asks The Dean, squinting at the earnest figure bowling towards us.

“I am afraid it is,” I reply. “And he is running. This cannot be good news…”

You Can Keep Your Hat On

There’s another noise. It’s another type of alarm.

And… sprinklers! Oh, the sudden sound of sizzling showers of water makes the world feel like a better place.

Just ahead of me is Head Porter, on his hands and knees making his way back towards me and the door. I crawl towards him, clumsily extending my arm in a rather pathetic gesture of encouragement. Beneath the thickening layer of smoke, our flailing hands meet awkwardly and together we shuffle our way back to the door.

While hardly a comfortable environment, the sudden and very welcome arrival of gushing arcs of water has improved morale, if nothing else. Head Porter and I adopt positions somewhere between a crouch and a huddle and hold hands.

“It’s getting a bit warm in here, Deputy Head Porter” Head Porter points out, once again displaying his talent for spotting the obvious. “Do you think we should take our hats off?”

Had I enough breath in my body to laugh, I would have. A crackly snort comes out instead.

“Oh, come on Head Porter” I reply. “Things aren’t quite that bad.”

“Just out of interest, at what point do things get bad enough to take our hats off?”

“Things can never be bad enough to take your hat off,” I say with some certainty “I’m not taking my hat off. You can bury me in this hat.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

A strange and rapid sensation of heavy shunting comes over me. Bewildered, Head Porter and I topple forward onto the ground. Oh, God, this isn’t how it ends, is it? Am I literally being shoved off the mortal coil?

But it is not death that approaches. It is something somehow far more terrifying. It is The Dean.

“Bloody hell!” he says (well, that’s not actually what he says but I am not prepared to repeat his exact phrasing).

The door bangs against my leg as it is flung back. Instinctively, I scramble towards the opening as The Dean is battered back by an unexpected face full of smoke. Head Porter is right behind me as I crawl into the hallway, just as Head Of Maintenance comes careering around the corner at the far end.

“What happened?” asks The Dean

“Checking fire alarm. Got locked in” I splutter, the sudden influx of cleaner air evidently a shock to my system.

“But.. how…” The Dean is momentarily lost for words. That is even more memorable than being trapped in a burning room.

“The Fire Brigade is on the way,” Head Of Maintenance comes to a breathless stop beside us “What the hell happened?!”

“Someone locked them inside, look” The Dean points towards the set of keys hanging in the lock.

The keys!

“Wait, grab that set of keys!” I croak. Head Of Maintenance hushes me and places my arm around his shoulder.

“Never mind that, we should get you two out of here…”

“I’ll get the keys,” says Head Porter, lurching towards the door. “Bugger, they’re really hot!”

“Come on,” says The Dean “You need to get to see Nurse”

“Whose keys are they, Head Porter?” I ask, ignoring The Dean. Head Porter is fumbling the smouldering keys on his jacket cuff.

“I’m not sure, I’ll have to wait until they’ve cooled down.”

“You two to the medical bay immediately!” The Dean has run out of patience. “Bring the blasted keys with you, if you must.”

The sequence of events that follow are somewhat hazy and something of a blur. But clear in my mind is the one thought that shines like a beacon in my mind.

The keys.

These keys are going to do more than unlock doors.

An Unlikely Coupling

Once at the top of the Flag Tower, it is not quite as unsettling as I imagined it to be. Certainly, the first time I ascended this ancient structure I was absolutely terrified. I have always been far happier with both feet safely on terra firma but my occasional flag-hoisting duties seem to be taming the phobia. The only tricky thing now is to make sure the flag is at exactly half mast. And as today’s flag flies in the honour of such an exacting gentleman as Senior Bursar, this is very important indeed.

 

I wrestle with the ropes a little until I am satisfied that the College standard is perfectly placed. I take a moment to admire my handiwork and also to take in the breath-takingly beautiful cityscape that surrounds me. Although, The City is quite unlike any other city I have ever known (well, maybe one other comes to mind…) in that the truly historic and the sublimely cutting-edge nestle together so comfortably. Well, perhaps not so comfortably; as I look around me I get the distinct impression that some of the older structures of The City are decidedly displeased with their more youthful neighbours. I sometimes feel that Old College feels exactly the same way about me.

 

My mind is just starting to wander in the direction of what might be served for lunch, when I become aware of footsteps coming up the stone spiral staircase of the Flag Tower. I am suddenly a little nervous – I am certainly not expecting company up here. The incidents of recent unpleasantness flash through my mind as I become increasingly aware that the Flag Tower is quite a dangerous place to be.

 

There is really no cause for concern, though, as I am relieved (if a little surprised) to see that it is The Dean who emerges though the little wooden door to the staircase.

“Good morning, Sir!” I greet him cheerfully.

“Deputy Head Porter, good morning” replies The Dean. “How are you today? Not too traumatised by yesterday’s occurrence, I hope?”

“I’m fine, thank you Sir” I answer “Although I am rather suspicious about the whole situation.”

“Indeed! A less cynical man than myself might well be prepared to accept that what happened to Senior Bursar was nothing more than a tragic accident,” The Dean takes a breath “But, as I am sure you know, Deputy Head Porter, I am a very cynical man indeed and also particularly suspicious. Especially in events where dead men appear to be sending emails.”

“Well, quite, Sir”

“Which leads me to believe that someone wanted us to think Senior Bursar was still alive when in fact he was very much dead.”

“Yes, Sir, but who?”

“That is what I intend us to find out, Deputy Head Porter”

“Us, Sir?” I am a little taken aback. I hadn’t expected The Dean to be quite so keen to join forces with me. Of course, he does not yet know the full extent of my suspicions about the death of Professor K.

“Yes, Deputy Head Porter” The Dean continues, really getting a feel for the idea now. “We can be like Holmes and Watson.”

“Which one are you, Sir?” I ask jovially.

“Well, I suppose I should be Holmes,” he replies. Then thinks. Then, “But actually, as I am a Doctor, maybe I should be Doctor Watson…”

“I’ve got the right hat to be Watson,” I point out, indicating my bowler “And I’m not nearly tall enough to be Holmes.”

“Good point”

“Besides, Watson is a proper Doctor…” the look The Dean gives me at these words is priceless. And terrifying. “I mean, a medical Doctor. Not an academic Doctor… I mean… Couldn’t I be Hercule Poirot instead?”

The Dean sighs.

“Bugger it, no. I’ll be Holmes and you be Watson. Alright?”

“Alright Sir” I reply. “Sir?”

“Yes, Deputy Head Porter?”

“Shouldn’t we be getting on with solving the case, then?”

“Oh! Right! Yes. Yes indeed” The Dean is rather wrapped up in the role-playing element of our adventure, I suspect. “And, actually, I think I have found some clues already.”

“Brilliant, Sir” I say “I think I may have picked up one or two things as well.”

“Good. Now follow me to my rooms were we can begin our investigation proper”