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!”