The real Head Porter was nothing like our Old College hero…
I was very honoured to be the first guest on my chum Dan Alatorre‘s new show, Writer Rants, to talk about PorterGirl books First Lady Of The Keys and The Vanishing Lord. Here are some edited highlights; whilst almost two hours of Daniel talking about how great I am might be good for my ego, no one really wants to listen to that. But what you might want to listen to, however, are insights into how I built up the Old College world and developed the characters, the truth about what really happened at Cambridge University and how I fell in love at first sight at the Royal Opera House…
It has always irked Head Porter that I am a naturally noisy beast, seemingly unable to exist without an accompanying cacophony of clatters and banging and vocals at decibels that offend the more delicately inclined. This has been the case since I was very tiny, a fact my poor mother will attest to even today.
However, my racketiness pales in comparison to that of the Professor’s, who somehow manages to sound like a raging mob, all of his own volition. This is a trait I find most admirable. Quite how the echos of his footsteps achieve the impression of a herd of hippos is, indeed, a wonder. I find myself stamping along to this chorus as we venture further into the Templar cave.
As the path steepens, I find my footing a little less sure than it could be and am soon trailing behind Professor Duke, who is chattering away to no one in particular and is unencumbered by the unusual terrain. He must have a four-wheel-drive setting, or something.
“Come along now, DHP!” he calls back to me “You have to keep up! We’re nearly there, you know, you know.”
My rubber soles skidding on the loosened gravel, I follow as best I can into the main chamber of the cave.
The cave is not large, probably about seventeen feet in diameter and around ten feet high. It is shaped like a beehive, with a small aperture at the top. All around the curved surrounds are extensive and remarkable wall carvings. My eyes adjusting to the gloom, it takes sometime before I can make sense of what is before me.
The carvings seem to depict scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, but also what might be an image of St George, wielding his sword at a serpent or dragon. Elsewhere, I can identify the figure of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, with the child Christ on his shoulders and staff in his hand. There are carvings beyond number that I couldn’t begin to fathom.
“This is incredible,” I whisper to the Professor, raised voices seemingly improper down here.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen anything quite like it!” he replies. “I bet the Knights Templar made these carvings, wouldn’t you say?”
Before I can reply, a shift in the air turns our attentions the cave entrance.
“Some say that it is so, others deny it” a strange voice that seems dipped in familiarity trickles through the gloom. “But when all is said and done, the truth is what it is and cannot be silenced.”
Stepping into the cavern, we immediately recognise the portentous form of the Antique Shop Owner from The City. He doesn’t seem surprised to see us in the slightest.
“My friends, my friends – we meet again!” he approaches us jovially, with arms outstretched as if to embrace us. The Professor steps smartly backwards several steps and I fend off the affectionate greeting with a firm but friendly wave of my hand. “Tell me now – was I right? Was the Grail ensconced within the bowels of your esteemed establishment?”
“I think it was…” says Professor Duke.
“But now it’s not.”
“Oh! Bugger.” the Shop Owner is crest-fallen.
“But your theory was, at least, correct,” I say in an attempt to comfort the poor chap (rather cruel of the Professor to get his hopes up like that, wouldn’t you say?) “Sadly, though, it seems that the safety of the Grail was threatened and it had to be moved. The records we found suggest it had been brought here. There are markings here that are similar to those we found in the Crypt, certainly.”
“Brought here, you say?” the Shop Owner is stroking his chin, thoughtfully. “And the markings! Well, that can only mean one thing.”
“Surely not just the one thing,” says the Professor. “We don’t want to over-look anything, you know. If you do that sort of thing, you can miss stuff.”
“This cave holds all kinds of secrets about the Templar,” the Shop Owner continues. “See here, this figure is King David…” he points out a jaunty-looking chap, just below St Christopher and his accompanying saints. “This exact depiction of him also appears atop an illuminated manuscript of Psalm 69 which now resides in Wastell College. The Wastells were a prominent Templar family, even though they were of French origin. We know that they were once here, as here they leave their markings…” again, he indicates carvings quite similar to those we saw in the Crypt. “These markings are found in only one other location. It must have been the Wastells, leaving a breadcrumb trail of the progress of the Grail!”
“I suppose it goes without saying that the Grail isn’t here, then?” I huff, disappointed but not entirely surprised. “This does rather bugger up our plans of finding a gift for The Master, you know.”
“Dadblameit!” tutts the Professor. “I say, I don’t suppose you still have those earrings available for sale, would you?”
The Shop Owner is momentarily thrown off kilter.
“What? Oh. Er… no, no I don’t.”
“Double dadblameit! Well, that decides it, then.”
“Decides what, Professor?” I ask, almost wishing I hadn’t.
“We have no option but to follow the trail. I simply cannot turn up empty-handed to my own feast. We must find the Grail! Or, I’ll look like a noogin.”
“But the feast is tonight!” I exclaim. “There is no way we can find the Grail by then.”
“Aha, but wait a few here,” replies the Professor. “The Master’s gift shall be this – I shall spearhead a research mission to locate and retrieve the Holy Grail, all in the name of the glory of Old College! Now, that is a gift and a half, I should say. I mean, I’d be proud to receive it myself.”
Put like that, it does sound rather impressive. Quite how happy The Master will be about his newest Fellow immediately jumping ship to go Grail questing is difficult to say. But then, Professor Duke has an unnerving ability to talk anyone around to his way of thinking and a style that presents even the most mundane things as exciting epics. He could pull this off, I have no doubt.
“We should hurry back to Old College, dear girl,” the Professor continues. “I must needs prepare my great revelation speech and also unpack my best hat.”
“Hang on,” I say. “We don’t know where the trail leads yet.” I turn back to the Shop Owner. “Please, tell us what you have in mind my fine fellow.”
“These markings are found in one other place,” he continues. “The Chateaux de Chinon in the Loire Valley in France. Many of the Templar were held in the dungeons there before they were executed. It is in those sunken strongholds that the etchings can be found.”
It is resolved there and then that I shall travel with Professor Duke to the Chateaux in order to storm the dungeons. The logistics of this plan are a little unclear at present, but what we lack in arrangements we more than make up for in enthusiasm. But time is running short. We must return to Old College to prepare for the Professor’s inauguration feast later this evening.
As we are leaving the cave, a hitherto unnoticed carved scene catches my eye. Three figures; a man, woman and child all holding hands. Innocuous as it looks, my interest in piqued.
“What’s this?” I asked the Shop Owner, pointing to the happy scene.
“Ah, well” he replies, a glint in his eye. “That is what they call the Holy Family. The man and the woman are Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”
“Dadblamery…” the Professor mutters.
“And the child?”
His response is nothing more than a smile.
The cave is a real place and further pictures and information can be found here