If Head Porter doesn’t scare you, nothing will…
Halloween at Old College…
A rain-sodden wind threatens to tear the bowler from my head as I make my way by torchlight across Apple Tree Court. Although the hour is not so late, an overcast and dreary afternoon has hastened the evening darkness. I am delighted to be accompanied by the eminent anthropologist Dr Silas McGee, who will be staying with us whilst he has appointments to attend to in The City.
An alumnus of Old College, Dr McGee is a pleasingly unconventional-looking gentleman with greying curly hair and thick-rimmed square spectacles. He appears to be of a delicate constitution, although is very jolly. He is carrying with him a well-used yet sturdy flight case, which I am led to believe contains artifacts of interest from his recent travels.
We take refuge from the dank autumn evening in J staircase and the floors creak ominously as I lead Dr McGee to one of the finer guest rooms that will serve as his lodgings for the next few weeks. Shaking the rain from his greatcoat, the Doctor walks before me and looks around the rooms approvingly.
“I hope everything is to your liking, Sir” I say with a polite smile. “I will have some tea sent up presently.”
“This is wonderful, thank you, Deputy Head Porter” he replies. “But I always travel with my own tea set, so perhaps you could send along a little milk – and maybe some lemon – if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all, Sir” I assure him, watching as he delicately unpacks the tea set in question. You can tell a lot about a man by his tea set. Dr McGee’s tea set is very much English vintage in style, made from fine bone china and with beautifully painted hunting scenes on each piece. The gilt edges are somewhat chipped and battered, a sure sign that he has taken his tea in many an adventurous circumstance.
Just as he is carefully laying out the saucers on the table, there is a flash of movement – wooly and grey with flickers of amber piercing the gloom. We both jump back, startled, and Dr McGee moans softly as the table jolts, causing the tea-things to clatter and tinkle fearfully. I watch in horror as the dainty milk jug totters dangerously close to the edge.
I catch the milk jug just in time and look round to see what has caused the disturbance. I am met with the disdainful gaze of the Master’s Cat, who has taken up residence amongst the tea set. A huge and fearsome beast, he is known to be more demanding and unpleasant than even members of The Fellowship.
“How did you get in here?” I tut, making ineffectual shooing gestures. I certainly shall not be attempting to pick him up. I have learned to keep proximity with the animal to a minimum. Dr McGee seems quite delighted with his presence, which is just as well, seeing as the vicious bugger is showing no signs of moving. Suddenly, something takes his interest as his eyes narrow and an un-Godly hiss emits from his jaws.
Following his gaze, I see that the source of his consternation is a shabby-looking doll which has been lifted out of one of Dr McGee’s cases. The doll looks innocuous enough, but it is clearly upsetting the Master’s Cat, his hackles rigid and his whiskers bristling with menace. I can hear the unsheathing of claws, scratching lightly at the lacquered wood. Oblivious to this feline display of discontent, Dr McGee proffers to me the doll, inviting me to take it.
“What do you make of this little lady?” he asks. I take the doll in my hands and turn it over a few times to give the impression that I know how to handle such things. It is a wooden doll, roughly carved and dressed in the clothing of a Victorian child. The jolly bonnet is somewhat discoloured and only a few wispy strands of woollen hair remain, peeking out. The painted red mouth has worn away to little more than a cruel-looking dash of vermillion.
“She hasn’t got any eyes,” I observe. “They must have fallen off. Where does she come from?”
“Her history is a little patchy,” replies Dr McGee. “Some say she is French and was brought over to England on a merchant ship. But my initial research suggests she is British. She lived in the dining hall of a girls’ school for many, many years. It seems that they removed the eyes deliberately. She had the most troubling stare, I am told.”
“Oh” is all I can think to reply. I place the doll on the table next to the tea-pot, causing the Master’s Cat to spring to his paws and leave the room in a great hissing blur of claw and fur. Dr McGee is busy arranging text books and stacks of handwritten notes on the writing desk by the window, so I straighten the tea-things and, with the cuff of my jacket, brush some errant cat hairs onto the rug. Reassuring the Doctor that I will return shortly with milk and lemon, I collect my hat and torch and brace myself for the brief but blustery walk back to the Porters’ Lodge.
Head Porter is especially excited about our new guest. He has, apparently, made notable appearances on several documentaries and Head Porter is something of a fan of Dr McGee’s. He hovers at my elbow as I hunt for lemon juice in the Lodge kitchen. It is quite obvious that he would like an introduction and I am more than happy to facilitate that. But it is such fun to watch him simper that I allow the charade to continue for longer than seems decent. Sufficiently amused, I finally invite Head Porter to join me. He even offers to carry the tray.
The return journey to Apple Tree Court is as cheerless as before, and I think at first that it has got colder. But it isn’t the temperature that has dropped; it’s the atmosphere. The chill is not in the air but down my spine, something I choose to explain by way of the rain trickling down the back of my neck. Head Porter’s incessant chattering is a strange accompaniment to the blustery lament of the wind wrestling its way through the cloisters, but it is a welcome one.
As we climb the stairs of J staircase, we notice the warm glow of low-wattage light spilling out into the landing above. And silence. A grim kind of silence. The door to Dr McGee’s rooms is wide open. Head Porter calls out to him, but there is no reply. We make our way towards the doorway.
With Head Porter close at my back, I pause briefly in the threshold. The table is set for tea and the reading lamp on the desk is illuminating a chaotic scene of books and writings strewn across the desk. Pages have been torn and rumpled; some tossed aside, others crudely shredded. Perhaps the result of some particularly frustrating research. The rest of the room looks untouched. I place the tray on the table by the tea things.
“D’you think he’s popped out?” asks Head Porter, looking aimlessly around the room.
“Popped out where?”
A thoughtful silence fills the room as we give this some consideration. In my moment of contemplation I become aware of a sound. Familiar but out-of-place, it takes me a second or two to recognise it. A dripping tap. Head Porter seems to have heard it too.
“I’ll turn it off,” I say and head towards the bathroom door. It sticks a little and it takes a firm shove to open. Once inside, I wish I had kept it shut.
Too shocked to cry out, I fight for breath as vomit and terror claw their way up my throat. To take in the spectacle all at once is impossible for my brain and at first I can only comprehend elements of the scene. And the initial impression I get is of blood. An awful lot of blood.
The mirror and windows are smashed – evidently with some vigor – but they are not the cause of injury. Dr McGee’s glasses lay crushed, as if ground into the tiles by stamping feet.
Feet. Dr McGee’s are barely inches from my own. Unable to stop myself, I find myself staring into the hideously distorted face of someone who was writhing in agony until their very last breath. Gripped with the nausea of the overpowering smell of blood, my soul runs cold as I look into his eyes. Or rather, his eye sockets. Gaping holes of gore framed by tattered flesh, torn with some kind of terrible desperation.
I feel the movement of air directly behind me and I shudder involuntarily.
I spin round and, in my terror, imagine all kinds of sights to await me. Nothing. I look down to the floor. It’s Head Porter and he appears to have fainted.
Now faced with the prospect of two bodies to contend with, I reason that there is not much I can do to improve the immediate future of Dr McGee so I turn my attentions to Head Porter. He is soon roused back to consciousness, whether he wants it or not.
Closing the door to the bathroom, I help Head Porter into a chair. Several exclamations pass between us, although they are un-repeatable in polite company. I share with him my observation that Dr McGee’s eyeballs are not only removed, but also appear to be missing. From the look of his blood-soaked hands I would wager that he removed them himself. With some morbid enthusiasm, at that. But if he removed them, who took them?
I turn my attentions quickly to the only other disturbed scene in the rooms; the writing desk. The subject of this oddly violent research seems to be a wooden doll. Dr McGee’s wooden doll, no less and she evidently has an interesting back story. Of indistinct origin, the doll has been at the scenes of numerous macabre incidents stretching back for many, many years. The incidents being the unusual suicides of her owners. The story goes that if you stared into the eyes of the doll, she would show you the very depths of your own personal Hell; such disturbing and graphic images of your own self that the only escape from the horror was death itself. It seems a little dramatic to my mind, but it does rather explain why someone removed her eyes.
Removed her eyes. Like Dr McGee’s eyes were removed.
I turn to the table where I had left the doll, reclining by the teapot. The doll is gone.
Head Porter begins to panic. I can’t say I blame him.
“Lock the door!” squeals Head Porter. I rush to meet his request. “Hang on!” he squeals again. “It might still be in here, unlock the door again.” I do as I am instructed, then take a firm grip of my torch.
“I think maybe it wanted some new eyes,” I say, my voice a barely crackling whisper.
“Where the bloody hell is it?!” Head Porter says, looking wildly around the room.
“God. I don’t know. But if we see it, don’t look into its eyes. Or, rather, Dr McGee’s eyes.”
Head Porter is struck with a sudden episode of enlightenment. He has seen this in a film, he tells me, we have to find a reflective surface so it looks at its own reflection.
“That sounds more like the story of Medusa,” I reason “And besides, the mirror and glass is all smashed.”
“We just need something with a shiny surface.”
“My boot has a shiny surface and it will be getting a bloody good look at that, I can tell you.”
There is a shuffling, scraping sound coming from the other end of the room. As one, Head Porter and I turn towards the writing desk and let our eyes follow the noises to the space beneath it. Scrabbling at the polished wooden floor boards is a small figure, dressed in the clothing of a Victorian child.
“It’s there!” states Head Porter, unnecessarily.
The bloody doll is the only thing I can focus on. The thing is struggling to get a purchase as it tries to move towards us, but is managing to click-clack its way across the floor on all fours with some pace. When it reaches the more tactile surface of the rug, it stands up. As it lifts its head, the tattered bonnet now decorated with fluid that should, by rights, be inside Dr McGee, we see something else that also belongs to him. The doll is wearing his eyes, although not very well as they are far too big for the little wooden head and are weighing it down somewhat.
“Don’t look at it!”
“I’m going to stamp on it!” I shout back to Head Porter. Turning my face to one side, I move forward, wildly stamping my right foot like a demented pony of some sort.
“To the left a bit… a bit more…” Head Porter’s instructions do little more than throw me into a panic as I flail around the floor with reckless abandon. Once or twice I feel sharp little fingers making grabs at my ankle and I kick out with futility, unable to make contact with my sinister assailant.
There is a noise, something between a scream and a growl, coming from the doorway. A furious bundle of claw and fur storms into the room, hissing and spitting, heading directly for the doll. I jump back and grab hold of Head Porter as we witness the Master’s Cat pounce upon his prey with unprecedented precision. Gripping the horrible head between his jaws, he shakes the doll a few times before smashing it into the floor experimentally. The Master’s cat pauses just long enough to throw us a glance of pure contempt, then makes off with his prize out into the night.
It is several minutes before either of us can speak.
“Do you know, I almost feel sorry for the doll” I say, finally.
“I need a cup of tea,” says Head Porter, to no one in particular.
“Bugger that,” I reply. “I know where The Dean hides his whiskey. Come on.”
I certainly need a whiskey after all that!