ceremony

Stealing Thunder

Standing in the Wide Gallery of The Master’s Lodge, a glass of something fizzy in hand, I admit to feeling somewhat mixed emotions. Certainly, the Induction Of The Fellowship ceremony for Professor VJ Duke was a triumph. Surprisingly, it passed without incident, which is something of a marvel with the Professor involved. I had half-expected there to be mischief of sorts, but from what I managed to see from under the curtain, he partook of the solemn ritual with an earnest gravitas perfectly fitting of an Old College Fellow. In his very best top hat, too.

The Dean is jubilant at having his old friend now firmly a part of the academic family and I, of course, am beyond delighted to have such a fine chap as a regular fixture at the very top of the College tree. I cannot be sure quite what is causing my unease. It must be being here – in the Wide Gallery. This was the scene of the previous Bursar’s retirement party and goodness knows that didn’t end well.

Nothing for it but to put my misgivings to the back of my mind and have another drink. Where are those meaty things on sticks I specifically requested? I haven’t seen a single one.

Head Porter has been looking a little uncomfortable all evening, but the inexhaustible supply of fizzy drinks seem to be helping. He does not particularly savour events such as this but the Professor was most insistent that he attend. Besides, it saves him having to cook this evening. He stands with me now, listening to The Dean and Professor Duke bantering loudly, in between great mouthfuls of colourful canapes.

“Do you have your speech ready for the Toasts later, dear chap?” The Dean asks, looking slightly worried that his glass is almost empty.

“I think I absolutely do!” replies the Professor. “I have it, right here.” He reaches into the jacket of his immaculate white suit and pulls out a veritable manuscript of chaotic scribblings that even from here look to be rather scandalous.

“Ho ho, I imagine that will be some rip-roaring entertainment, old bean!” The Dean laughs, playfully jostling the Professor with such enthusiasm that his hat wobbles alarmingly.

“Yes, that’s right” says the Professor, regaining his balance and placing a steadying hand to his hat. “I have been sure to include some of my great adventurous tales and a few ripping lines. I hope they won’t be too spicy for everyone.”

“Oh, I remember when we inducted dear old Doctor T,” The Dean continues. “By the time we got around to the speeches, the best he could muster was a ribald sing-song about a fish monger and his rather accommodating daughter. Went down a treat, I tell you. Rather like the fish monger’s daughter, apparently.”

“Will there be any musical accompaniment to your speech, Professor?” I say quickly, hoping to steer the conversation away from this rather unsavoury-sounding young woman.

“Well, you know, Deputy Head Porter, I have engaged the talents of the young organ scholar to tinkle out a tune or two for later on,” he replies, very pleased with himself. “I thought he could strike up just after I make the announcement about the Grail.”

“Aha! Great plan, Professor!” exclaims The Dean. “I like the theatrics of it all. And you know, I have every intention of joining you in France. I have the very talents that might be useful when one is questing, certainly.”

“Goodly good, I say!” the Professor replies. “I had rather hoped you might join us. I say us, as Deputy Head Porter is obviously coming along too, you know.”

“What?” Head Porter splutters, fizzy drink urgently exiting his nose.

“Bloody good idea!” says The Dean.

“Of course she’s coming,” the Professor continues. “I mean, we need someone to make the tea, don’t we? Plus, she’s more useful than even that.”

“But… but… who is going to help me in the Lodge?” Head Porter sounds quite hurt. I think perhaps he might have fancied a trip to France.

“Oh, pah and nonsense!” The Dean replies. “You’ve got Porter. You can ask one of the night men to pop in or some such thing. She will only be gone for a couple of days, man, do be a chap about it, what?”

Head Porter, emboldened by copious amounts of fizzy drink, looks for a moment as if he might protest. But before he can get his words out, the great stentorian peal of the dinner gong rings throughout the Gallery.

“Excellent!” says the Professor. “It must be time for the feast.”

But as we turn towards the door, we see that it is not one of the waiting staff brandishing the gong’s striker. Standing aloof in the doorway is none other than The Bursar. The Dean utters a collection of words that I have never heard before but am sure must be rather offensive.

“I don’t like the look of this,” mumbles Head Porter.

“Ladies and, indeed, gentlemen,” announces The Bursar, hair hanging rakishly across his face so as to obscure his expression. “The feast is almost upon us. But, before we take our seats in celebration of our newest companion, I should like to offer my own humble tribute to the esteemed Professor VJ Duke.”

The Professor appears incandescent, his top hat quivering with rage. Our host, The Master, steps from the throng of curious Fellows to engage The Bursar.

“This is most unusual, Bursar,” he says. “It would be more proper to hold your testimonial until the Toasts, as is our custom.”

“Master, under ordinary circumstances I would agree,” The Bursar replies, an edge to his voice like molten steel. “But I hope to bring lively discussion to the dining table, a thing so delicious that the food itself may weep with regret.” What sort of a phrase is that, for goodness sake?!

“I say what a bummer you are, the sudden, Mr. Bursar!” cries the Professor. “You’re keeping us from the feast. Or, more correctly, MY feast! Away with him until the Toasts!”

There is a rumbling of support amongst the gathered Fellowship. No academic likes to be kept from their meal and The Bursar should surely know this.

“I have a proposal for Professor Duke,” The Bursar continues, unabashed. “An unequivocal means of assuring his place in the College Chronicles and a manner by which he might prove his intellectual superiority to those lesser persons who mingle uninvited among the academic elite.”

I’m not sure I like where this is going…

“Well, what do you propose, Bursar?” asks The Master, testily.

“A great undertaking!” says The Bursar. “I would ask the Professor to join me in the climax of my research and share the glory of uncovering, finally, the ultimate resting place of… The Holy Grail!”

WHAT?!

 

With Professor VJ Duke

Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes

Two young lovers scurry, hand in hand, through the moonlit gardens of Old College. In their breathless enthusiasm they trip and stumble as they cannot bear to tear their eyes from each other, oblivious to where their feet may fall. Fingers entwined, their passions lead them to a place of fragrant seclusion, a hidden spot where their desires might be realised in mortal flesh and sweat. The remnants of a fire warms the ground as they tumble, lips as one, to the soft and yielding earth…

Head Porter and I strain to hear the monotone ramblings of The Master, speaking in Latin, behind the great curtains of the Chapel. Our knees are resting in the well-worn grooves of stone, where so many Porters have knelt before us, trying our best to listen in. This is, once again, the now-familiar ceremony of The Induction Of The Fellowship.

The act of crouching and attempting to listen in (whilst peeping under the curtains) is a largely pointless part of the ceremony, as it is conducted entirely in Latin. The tradition arose, centuries before, as a way of Porters knowing when the ceremony had reached its conclusion by observing the feet of departing Fellows heading back towards the door. The idea being that the curtains can be dramatically thrown open at the moment of egress. Porters through the ages have not been known for their proficiency in Latin and nor, really, am I. But even my schoolgirl smatterings were able to identify ‘exeunt omnes’ , much to the annoyance of Head Porter at last year’s event.

Yet despite my ability to ascertain when the ceremony has ended, and the cold chill rapidly stiffening our bones, kneel we shall on the worn stone floor. It’s tradition, you see.

And this is the thing about Old College that is infuriating and comforting in equal measure. Nothing ever changes. Not really. Academic years come and go, much the same as they have for five hundred years (give or take a few decades here and there), an ever turning cycle rolling through the years like a wheel of steel, crushing all in its path.

The people change, of course. Students come and go annually; Fellows less so. In more extreme cases, people have changed from being very much alive people to somewhat more dead people. Often not through their own choosing. But Old College doesn’t much notice people. The lifespan of an academic is infinitesimal to a creature as ancient and stoic as Old College. People don’t really matter. Only the College.

That said, the arrival of The Bursar has caused some excitement amongst staff and Fellowship alike. Little has been discovered about him but we know that he is an old friend of The Master. Also, he wears very shiny, pointy shoes. We can see them from our vantage point.

“Do you suppose they are Italian?” Whispers Head Porter, referring to the unusual shoes. I return his gaze and shrug. I suppose they could be. “What do you make of him, Deputy Head Porter? He seems like a rum sort of chap to me.”

Our entire experience of The Bursar thus far amounts to little more than a brief sideways glance as he passed us at the doors to the Chapel. But it seems Head Porter has already taken a bit of a dislike to him, so I humour his hastily drawn conclusions.

“Yes” I reply, flatly. “He has shifty eyes, I reckon.” Head Porter looks at me, perplexed.

“The eyes? Really? Can’t say I noticed them. No, it was that haircut, did you see it? Most unusual.”

Head Porter is right, here. Although clearly a man of advancing years, he has a sweep of jet black hair that is severely shorn at the back of his head yet across his forehead and left side of his angular jaw, it juts like a raven’s wing.

“It is a strange sort of a haircut, I’ll give you that” I reply.

“We shall have to keep our eye on him, Deputy Head Porter, you mark my words.”

“Words duly marked, Head Porter” I sigh and readjust my position on the unforgiving floor. “The Dean says he has been shoe-horned in by The Master, one way or another.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that The Dean didn’t take up the Master’s position at Wastell College?” asks Head Porter. “I wonder why he didn’t”.

I know damn well why he didn’t. But that isn’t something I can discuss with Head Porter whilst crouching on the stone floor of the Chapel.

“I suppose it’s because he’s The Dean,” I reply. “If he took that job he wouldn’t be The Dean anymore. Anyway. He doesn’t seem to keen on The Bursar, either.”

“He can’t be any worse than the last one.”

“I quite liked Junior Bursar,” I reply, a little more loudly than I intended. “Until the murdering part, I thought he was quite good.”

“It’s the murdering part I struggle with,” says Head Porter, thoughtfully. “And the attempted murdering. Of us, mainly.”

“Well,” I say “No one’s perfect, are they. Anyway, he is safely hidden away in Tuscany now.”

“We can but hope, Deputy Head Porter”.

Our hushed chattering has caused me to miss my cue and the feet of The Fellowship are hurriedly making their way towards us. With some understated colourful language, we leap to our feet and grandly pull back the Chapel curtains to allow The Fellowship to pass through. Following directly behind The Master is The Bursar, closely followed by The Dean.

Head Porter and I touch the brims of our bowlers respectfully as they pass, ignored by all except The Dean who gives the briefest of conspiratorial winks, before returning a critical gaze to the back of The Bursar’s head.

It is indeed a very odd haircut.

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

DEAN SAYS COLLEGE UNDER ATTACK FROM TERRORISTS. EXPLAIN.

I reply

PRANK GONE WRONG. NO STRESS. CAN YOU DELAY THE RETURN PROMENADE?

JUST ABOUT TO LEAVE. BUGGER. WILL WALK SLOWLY.

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.

“Tea?”

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.