The real Head Porter was nothing like our Old College hero…
This post contains references to some uncomfortable subjects such as rape, incest and paedophilia. Nothing is discussed in any detail, but not everyone wants to read about that stuff and I didn’t want to spring it on you. Also there is some swearing from me, just because I feel like it.
This is an absolute bastard of a chapter. For a start, it’s nearly 70 pages long, which might as well be in dog years with Joyce’s style. It is set in the bar of Here Comes Everybody’s pub. The ever-present 12 customers (who are also the jury, if you remember) provide us with one narrative, whilst two other stories are broadcast over a radio and a television, interspersed with a horse racing programme.
The story on the radio is about a Norwegian Captain who has a lobster claw and most likely represents HCE. There are random nautical adventures where people get drunk a lot, someone digs up a corpse, people get shot – that sort of thing. At some point, one of the sailors steals the Captain’s ‘whale fur‘ trousers, but he falls into the sea, taking the trousers with him. Now lacking some trousers, the Captain asks the ship’s husband where he can get a suit made, upon which the ship’s husband introduces him to a tailor.
The tailor has a daughter who is a proper little strumpet and is no doubt supposed to be ALP. She marries the Captain, then promptly bans him from sailing around the world and forces him to become a pub landlord. At this point, The Captain becomes HCE and starts drinking heavily. Then, someone steals his trousers from the outhouse (There seems to be an inordinate amount of trouser-theft going on here). Meanwhile, back on the ship the sailors have decided that HCE / The Captain is a rum sort of chap and decide to break into his pub. There is a confrontation where the sailors mock our hapless hero, steal a ham and go off in search of prostitutes. One of them eats a fox and dies.
There is then a weather forecast which is interrupted by Kate Strong (Tip!) who enters the bar and starts berating the customers. She then informs HCE that he is wanted by ALP upstairs and off he goes.
The story on the television is about a Russian General, who is known to be a great and powerful man but seems in danger of being brought low by either a lesser man or possibly a child. I think he might be being pursued by the Duke of Wellington, but I’m not completely sure. The Duke of Wellington is definitely involved somehow, though. And also a letter – ‘Leave the letter that never begins to go find the letter that ever comes to end, written in smoke and blurred by mist and signed of solitude, sealed at night.’ I imagine this relates to ALP’s much-discussed missive from previously.
Now things get quite confusing, so please bear with me. HCE’s daughter Isa pipes up and rambles on about men and romance before introducing two radio broadcasters, Taff and Butt (who must be Shaun and Shem). Taff and Butt give warning of a storm, before morphing into Bett and Tipp, who are presenting a programme on horse racing. Slippery Sam is present but morally absent. Taff and Butt return, becoming one person who then shoots the Russian General. Bastarding bastard thing! This hurt my head a lot.
We then return to the patrons in the bar. They are discussing HCE’s crime in the park and they believe that Shem wrote about his father’s crimes in order to discredit him. Whether they mean ALP’s letter or another great literary work is unclear. HCE returns from upstairs and his customers turn against him. Faced with the vitriol of his former friends, he then confesses to a liking for young girls and particularly his own daughter. He tries to justify the rape in the park by saying that the young girl enjoyed it and that he had no choice but to commit the act as his wife was refusing him his conjugal rights. He says he was drunk at the time and suggests to the patrons that they would have done the same thing in his position.
Unsurprisingly, a pub brawl ensues and the customers assure HCE that they will all testify against him in court. They also express their intentions to go to the newspapers and bring him down, replacing him with his sons. HCE proceeds to get very drunk on all kinds of drinks and either considers suicide or fears being hanged. He then turns into King Roderick O’Conor, the last king of Ireland (apparently waterproof) and passes out.
Well, this is the best I can do with this chapter. It’s an absolute bugger of a thing. And annoyingly it is fairly important, as we finally find out about what happened in the park and also a bit about how HCE and ALP met. The two stories on the radio intertwine with the events in the bar to finally bring the story to something of a turning point. The trouser thefts are a conundrum. Unusually when Joyce repeats a theme it is because it’s important, but no matter how hard I think on it, I can’t see the significance of trouser thefts. Maybe it represents HCE’s loss of dignity and public standing.
Finnegans Wake is rumoured to have the longest palindrome in literature, which thus far I can neither confirm nor deny. However, it does have the world’s worst knock-knock joke:
‘Knock knock. War’s where! Which war? The Twwinns. Knock knock. Woos without! Without what? An apple. Knock knock.’
‘…each spitfire spurtle had some trick of her trade, a tease for Ned, nook’s nestle for Fred and a peep at me mow for Peter Pol.’
A commentary on the local prostitutes.
‘…(pierce me, hunky, I’m full of meunders!)…’
Not sure when one would use this phrase, but it sounds quite good.
‘And then. Be old. The next thing is. We are once amore as babes awondering in a wold made fresh where with the hen in the storyaboot we start from scratch.’
The circle of life and… Biddy!
A cool, hard surface presses against my cheek. There is a breeze. It feels like flying.
Somewhere far away, the rusted wheel that is my mind is beginning to turn once again. Fighting through an incessant cycle of blackness and white noise, I struggle towards consciousness.
As I haul myself from delirium and crawl gingerly along the shoreline of reality, I am beginning to feel nostalgic for the blackness and white noise. They, at least, were devoid of physical awareness. I now find myself especially aware of a hideously painful throbbing from the back of my head. I blink. Oh, how it hurts to blink. I seem to be slumped against a wall. This is no good. I need to move.
My arms feel like they have been replaced by sandbags as I grope around, trying to find a way of pulling myself up. Forcing my eyes to open results in the rapid liberation of my stomach contents, which hurtle downwards some hundred feet before colliding spectacularly with the courtyard below. The main component of this fluid offering being red wine, the scene below looks rather grim indeed. Bugger. I am at the edge of the Flag Tower.
Surprisingly, this little episode has perked me up somewhat. But as I place my weight on my hands and attempt to push myself up and away from the wall, I am shoved firmly back to the edge and I find myself admiring the courtyard once again. Listen. I think someone is trying to push you off the Flag Tower. You might want to do something about that.
I push again, harder this time, kicking out with what little energy I have in my legs. I wish I still had my shoes on. You can do a lot of damage with a pair of heels. Elbows flailing, I scramble to my feet, managing to glance a feeble blow across my attacker’s cheek as I do so. It affords me the time and space I need to pull myself together and adopt a defensive stance.
With the Old College standard fluttering high above our heads against a twinkling night sky, my assailant and I stand and face each other. The distant throbbing of the Ska band mingles with the familiar sounds of The City when it stays up late. But I am barely aware of any of it.
“You were actually going to throw me off the Flag Tower, were you, Sir?”
“It would be a drunken accident. The misadventures of an inebriated young woman.”
“Oh, really? And what about the great thwack to the back of my head? They will know it is an earlier injury.”
“No one will question the coroner’s report, Deputy Head Porter. No one ever does.”
A silence settles between us as we stand face to face in the starlight. I must say I am rather impressed. Who would have believed that Junior Bursar would be capable of carrying me all the way up here?
“Deputy Head Porter I must tell you that I simply cannot be delayed here much longer. There is a plane flying to Tuscany tonight and I very much intend to be on it. Do you see?”
“What, do you expect me to throw myself off the Flag Tower?!”
Junior Bursar takes a few steps towards me and my whole aching body clenches as I stare into him, trying to see what is behind his eyes.
“You are proving a remarkably difficult person to kill, Deputy Head Porter” he says. There is a sigh, which although weary is brief. “And I am so glad that that is so.”
Something passes between us that I cannot explain.
“I don’t see why that should be,” I reply. “You bloody well killed Professor K, didn’t you? Do you really think I’m just going to put that to one side?”
“I didn’t kill Professor K” says Junior Bursar, his words like lead. “You did.”
The words sting me in a way no physical wound ever could. That saying about sticks and stones is misleading. Junior Bursar continues.
“You believed you were showing him a kindness by taking your own breakfast to him when he came out of hospital. Thought it would build up his strength, no doubt. Of course, it was prepared as such so as to have the absolute opposite effect. But then, it wasn’t meant for him. Was it?”
“You mean you’ve tried to poison me as well?!” I realise that arguing with a Fellow is deemed to be bad form but I’m feeling rather justified.
“If it is any consolation, Deputy Head Porter, Professor K was completely against the idea. He had become somewhat fond of you, it seems. But you were getting to be awfully knowledgeable about things you shouldn’t be and the Professor and I had an agreement, you see.”
Junior Bursar visibly slumps into something approaching resignation. In light of the fact that he has been keenly trying to murder me for several months, I see this as no reason to let down my guard. I say nothing, but strain my ears in eagerness to listen to him.
“For so many years The Vicious Circle went about its brutal way of protecting the reputation of Old College. Somehow thinking that hiding bodies under more bodies would preserve silence. And silence, indeed, was what they achieved – but preserve our reputation? Just because a bad thing is not known does it make it any the less wrong?”
“You intended to put a stop to The Circle?”
“Yes. We were adamant. Professor K and I shared a devotion to our beautiful institution and wanted her to be at peace. Using the dear Professor’s extensive chemical expertise we intended to gently remove the remaining members and then quietly disappear to our twilight years.”
“But why all the cryptic clues, then?” I ask, baffled. “Why did he want me to find out?”
Junior Bursar shakes his head first towards his feet and then up to the sky. He appears to bathe in the moonlight for a moment to compose himself.
“He could be sentimental fool, at times” Junior Bursar mutters. “He could never forget the peasants beneath The Porters’ Lodge. He believed they deserved to be recognised, to be respected. They are, after all, the very thing that Old College is built on. Placed there by the Order of the Lesser Dragon, no less.” Which is why Old College is so named. In honour of the ancient order of founders. “He had some notion that you would see to it, some way or other. He could never forgive himself for not having the courage to do so himself. He thought that maybe you would be braver.”
“Maybe the guilt of his actions was sitting heavily with him?” I suggest.
“Well, maybe. I suppose that now we will never know.”
“What about Senior Bursar?”
“He was to be our final duty,” Junior Bursar explains. “With him gone, no further members of The Vicious Circle remain. We intended to poison him, of course, but with Professor K no long in situ as our resident chemist, I had to be rather more resourceful. It is well within my experience to tamper with a kettle and a plug. And the keys used by the Maintenance department are so simple to come by.”
“And you locked us in a burning room as well. Fantastic.”
“Such an easy undertaking, really.” Junior Bursar continues, whisftfully. “I typed the note requesting the replacement kettle myself. It was not difficult to keep up with events from then on. When the new kettle arrived the following morning, I merely had to wait until he made his first cup of coffee. I sent you that email shortly afterwards. While I was there, I placed a copy of the note from a memory stick into his documents folder. And there we have a simple accident with faulty electrics. No one need look any further than that.”
“You can hardly believe that you can get away with this.”
“Of course that is what I believe, Deputy Head Porter. I know it to be true. No one will listen to you. The influence of Old College reaches deep into the very machinations of The City itself. The law is the law outside of our walls only. Do what you will, but do you not understand that ultimately Old College has been freed from the trappings of its bloodthirsty past? Professor K has not died in vain. The Vicious Circle has fallen.”
Putting it like that, Junior Bursar almost seems to present a reasonable argument. But then, I have suffered a rather severe blow to the head.
“As I said, I have a plane to catch, Deputy Head Porter. You, on the other hand, have a nasty cranial injury. If I were you I would have someone attend to it. You must consider drinking less in the future.”
Junior Bursar turns to go but I put out my hand to him.
“Hang on, there are questions…”
“They shall have to remain unanswered, for now” and he turns towards the staircase, nimbly darting across the tower and down into the spiralling darkness below.
I make after him, but pain and exhaustion drag at my heels. Descending the stone tower steps is nauseating beyond belief and I have to stop and sit down after three or four. I rest my head for a moment against the cool walls and allow the soothing fug of oblivion to envelop me for a short while.
I have no idea how long I am there before being shaken awake by a visibly panicked Head Porter. The Dean is with him, peering over his shoulder in the gloom.
“Oh my God!” squeals Head Porter “Are you alright? What happened?!”
“Where is he?” I splutter “Where is Junior Bursar?”
“Half way to the airport by now, I fancy” replies The Dean “What has happened to your head? You look dreadful.”
I reassure The Dean and Head Porter that I am not so bad, but agree to be seen by Nurse. In a midway state between what is real and what is not, I allow myself to be gently guided to the Medical Centre, where we await the arrival of Nurse. I try to impart the revelations from atop the Flag Tower but I am hushed into quiet by The Dean.
It will be several days before the three of us are able to confer on the events of Junior Bursar’s retirement party, by which time the man himself is far beyond our reach. The Dean delights in enlightening me about how he reached the inevitable conclusion and how he and Head Porter mounted an eleventh-hour rescue mission to come to my aid. Apparently, it was the splatter of vomit in the courtyard that led them to the Flag Tower. It is a story I will share with you I am sure, but all in good time.
All things considered, I am in need of some time and space away from Old College and the suffocating atmosphere it currently holds for me. Head Porter has told me I can take as much time as I need, so long as I promise to come back. Not for the first time, I entertain the notion of never setting foot inside the blasted place again. But I have tried that before. Somehow, something always calls me back.
My place in the unspoken history of Old College is forever assured. My part in its future is uncertain.
Questions do not remain unanswered forever.