Keeping Up Appearances

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” – Abraham Lincoln


Involuntarily, my fingertips grip the arms of Head Porter’s chair just that little bit more tightly. The Bursar is smiling through the veil of his unnaturally jet hair and his every gesture exudes affable indifference. Not his eyes, though. Especially not the one partly hidden by his sweeping fringe. They exude something else entirely, although what it is I couldn’t say. Thin lips creep back across a row of gleaming white teeth as the smile is expanded.

“Ah! Good evening, Deputy Head Porter,” he says. “How nice to see you again. I was hoping to catch a word with your superior.”

“He is… unavailable,” I reply, remembering to keep in mind that this gentleman is ultimately responsible for overseeing the Porters’ Lodge.

“What a shame. When might he become available, do you think?”

“I imagine not until tomorrow morning, Sir. Is there anything I can help with?”

“Perhaps you can” and The Bursar takes the seat usually occupied by my good self, on the opposite side of Head Porter’s desk. I shuffle myself into a more attentive poise and adopt my famed ‘helpful’ expression. “The thing is, Deputy Head Porter, I am feeling a little perturbed by the plethora of corpses that seem to find their way onto College grounds.” You and me both, old chap.

“It is a damned inconvenience, Sir” I say, meaning every word. The Bursar stares as politely as it is possible to do so; I can feel his eyes searching mine for something lurking behind my words. He will find very little, I am sure.

“You know, Deputy Head Porter, I do you the disservice of relating an untruth.”

“How so, Sir?”

“I am not at all perturbed by corpses. Corpses do not perturb me in the slightest. But The Master – now, he is less than enamoured…” which is a bit rich for a man who solves sudoku puzzles in crypts “…It looks so bad for the College, don’t you know. College reputation is such a fragile thing, as is any reputation, wouldn’t you say?”

“I cannot help but agree, Sir.” I am not so sure that I do agree, however. In my experience, reputations are rather hard to shift.

“There is some concern that perhaps the old ways might have found new hands to work them, Deputy Head Porter?”

Silence like ice falls across the room. I wrestle the chill in my spine into submission and focus the cold in my bones into searing points behind my eyes. I have a terrible inkling as to what he might be referring. The very thing we spent the last academic year battling (and defeating, I might add) has returned to the forefront of College consciousness. But that is impossible. The Vicious Circle are now all dead. Except for one…

“None remain” I answer, simply.

“Are you quite sure about that, Deputy Head Porter?” The Bursar leans closer, almost threatening, cajoling. I have had quite enough of this.

“Now listen here,” I start “I had all this with Professor K. I would rather you chaps from The Fellowship just said what you mean and I can guarantee you that you will receive some straight-talking in return.”

The Bursar drifts back into his seat, yet retains a certain degree of malice.

“The dear Professor K. Yes. You were quite the great chums, were you not?” He does not wait for me to answer. “You must miss him dreadfully. He was an active member of… the Circle, was he not? Which is why he had to die, as I understand it. The rules of that strange organisation seem fairly clear. Those who expose The Circle have no need for pension plans, it seems. Which is one less thing to worry about. No matter. It is no bad thing as that organisation is a great threat to the academic reputation of Old College. The Master is quite clear that any stragglers of The Vicious Circle are to be dealt with quite absolutely.”

“And, indeed, they were, Sir” I reply. “None remain.”

“And yet you are here, quite unscathed, despite keeping close quarters with Professor K?”

Hardly unscathed. I narrowly escaped being burned alive, poisoned and being thrown off the flag tower. But I can see what he is getting at. The Circle was supposedly vanquished and yet here are two more fresh cadavers in College grounds. But this must be something else entirely, mustn’t it? It must be, I know that. The Bursar seems to think differently.

“Your predecessor tried, and failed, to kill me on no fewer than three separate occasions,” I say through clenched teeth. “He went to great lengths to provide an inventive selection of accidental deaths for me. And yet, as you say, here I am. How can I be one of The Circle? I have outlasted them all.”

“The Master is most definite on this matter,” says The Bursar, darkly. “The reputation of College must be maintained. If these latest deaths are not as they seem, there will certainly be a most finite resolution for whosoever is responsible.”

The Bursar sweeps to his feet and out of Head Porter’s office in one fluid and dreadful movement, the door closing firmly behind him. I let out a sigh of frustration. Not only has yet another impossible Fellow been appointed by Old College, this one seems to think I am somehow involved in cheerfully indiscriminate murder. I shake my head. This job doesn’t get any easier, certainly.

I need a drink. Time to make my way to The Albatross to meet with Head Porter.

A Shocking Event

The Dean is peeping through his fingers at the prone and slightly charred body of Senior Bursar lying on the floor. In his blackened and gnarled hand is a partially melted kettle.

“It looks like he has been electrocuted by the kettle,” says The Dean, rather unnecessarily.

“Oh, my goodness” is all I can bring myself to say. Then, “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“I’d say it’s a bit late for that,” says The Dean grimly.

“Well, we can’t very well leave him here, Sir” I reply reasonably.

“One moment,” The Dean says. He goes over to the wall socket and deftly yanks the plug of the kettle from the wall. He then carefully approaches the body of Senior Bursar and leans over to take a closer look. His face wrinkles into a frown.

“What is it, Sir?” I ask. No reply. The Dean straightens up and gingerly pokes the arm that isn’t holding the kettle with his foot.

“He’s stiff as a board!” exclaims The Dean.

“Rigor mortis as set in?”

“It would appear so. That’s strange.”

“Then he must have been dead for a few hours already,” I meant to say this in my head but the words somehow managed to find their way out of my mouth. “I suppose that explains why he didn’t answer the door or pick up your calls.”

“Yes, but I thought you said he sent you an email only an hour ago?” The Dean points out. Hmmm.

“I’m no doctor,” I reply “But I’m fairly certain that dead men don’t send emails.”

“Right! So, either he wasn’t dead an hour ago and was just ignoring me, or…”

“Or someone else sent the email.” An unpleasant silence falls upon the room, adding to the already macabre atmosphere. It is a silence that seems to grow in weight and presence until I feel that my ears could almost bleed. As The Dean and I simply stare at each other across the corpse of our former colleague, I feel I have to do something. “Sir, we must call an ambulance. And the Police.”

The Dean moves swiftly towards me until he is standing very close. I realise that I am shaking ever so slightly and I feel a little sick. This is simply the after effects of the adrenalin my brain has dumped into my body following the shock discovery, this I know, but it is unsettling nonetheless. I look into the face of The Dean and he appears calm and controlled. At least one of us is.

“Now listen to me, Deputy Head Porter” he says in such a low voice I almost have to strain to hear. “You are not to say a word of this to anyone, do you understand? Not anyone at all. Not yet.”

“But Sir…” I mean to make a protest of some kind but I am sorry to say that all strength has deserted me and I find myself quite unable to speak further.

“Don’t worry, Deputy Head Porter,” The Dean says gently “Of course I will make sure Senior Bursar is dealt with in the proper manner. But there is something unusual here and I mean to find out what it is. I will have Nurse come up and do the necessary. This will be dealt with inside of College, you understand?”

“I understand, Sir.” Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me.

“I want you to go home now, Deputy Head Porter, you’ve had quite a shock,” I’m not the only one! “I will tell Head Porter I have sent you out on an errand for me. If you give me Senior Bursar’s keys I will ensure that the room is secured. Return to work tomorrow and try not to worry. I will deal with this.”

“Sir, if I may be so bold” I find my voice, somehow “I don’t think this is the only strange incident involving the death of a Fellow. Professor K…”

“Hush, hush Deputy Head Porter,” The Dean tries to sooth me but his method is ineffective. “We will speak more of this tomorrow. Now, you must get yourself out of the way and leave this to me.”

I swallow down the rising nausea in my throat and nod my head. At the back of my mind, I am wondering why The Dean in so insistent that I leave College and keep out of the way. But at the forefront of my mind my instincts are urging me to get out – out of this room, away from the dead body and away from the sinister dramatics that seem to grip Old College.

And so I go. I hope The Dean knows what he is doing.