The real Head Porter was nothing like our Old College hero…
With his bowler hat perched resolutely and College tie worn askew beneath a collar so crisp you could cut glass with it, Head Porter is perhaps the most instantly recognisable figure in Old College. He likes to think that he rules the Porters’ Lodge with a rod of iron, but he is largely ignored by his indifferent staff. Deputy Head Porter’s arrival was the result of a devious plot of his own devising, his motives for which are indistinct at first. It quickly becomes apparent that this somewhat peevish gentleman has far more power within College than is good and proper, although without the intellect to wield it, this could prove to be his undoing.
Head Porter plays his cards very close to his chest in both his professional and personal life. Indeed, one might even think that the chap had no personal life at all, were it not for the unexpected arrival of a unknown young woman. However, men like Head Porter don’t just pop up out of the ground, and his disagreeable demeanour could perhaps find its origins in his formative years.
The young Head Porter was something of an inconvenience to his staunchly conservative parents when he arrived, ten days late, on the bathroom floor of their humble but neat cottage in an all-but-forgotten village in Yorkshire. A perpetual disappointment to his merchant seaman father, there was little warmth either from his emotionally bankrupt mother, a woman cowed into cold sorrow by many unhappy years of marriage. This made for a lonely and somewhat confused child, who although not stupid was diffident towards education.
As soon as he was able, Head Porter left his bleak beginnings behind and headed out in search of bright lights and fortune. He got as far as a working men’s club in Ely, where he found employment and lodgings. Working his way from glass collector and pot washer and growing into a strapping young man to boot, Head Porter eventually found himself not only the proprietor of this unpretentious establishment but also unexpectedly eligible. Astonished and delighted at the sudden feminine attention, Head Porter decided it prudent to strike while he had the chance, and immediately married the flame-haired young tea lady from the bowls club. What happened next remains something of a mystery, although we know it did not end well. Old College bringing him into its illustrious bosom could be the best and worst of things to happen to him.
Head Porter is an unassumingly complex character, who is both a staunch pillar of authority and also something of a comedy sidekick. His relationship with Deputy Head Porter is multifarious and becomes more tangled with time, although the moments in which they do bond are sincere. When the need to work as a team becomes mortally important, they are both relieved to put aside the sniping in favour of saving their skins.
The character of Head Porter has certainly evolved over time and now his dialogue and behaviour just pop up on the page without too much input from my good self. This is in no small part due to my great friend and talented actor and writer Paul Butterworth, who has helped me bring our favourite fusspot so brilliantly to life. I particularly like how his frequent attempts to deflect adventures and shenanigans are often swiftly followed by an enthusiastic and often inappropriate involvement, usually to the great annoyance of The Dean. Although I am fond of slaughtering my best-loved characters, our dear Head Porter is likely to be around for some while yet.
The rabble that increases steadily behind me from The Great Chapel at once becomes distant and dim when in close proximity to The Master. We are stopped dead in our tracks, faced as we are with his formidable countenance. His steady frame is not bowed by his many accumulated years and the striking elegance of his youth still clings with grim determination to a finely chiselled skull. Exuding a stately air of aristocratic menace, The Master offers us the thinest of smiles.
“My, my, my…” His voice is like molten glass. “Wherever there is a commotion there can be found my dear, darling Porters. Why do you suppose that is so?”
Head Porter glances across wildly but I can offer only a shrug. As the seconds pass it becomes painfully evident that he isn’t going to say anything at all, so it falls to me to tackle the response.
“We were offering our support to the College Choir, Sir,” I reply, dry-lipped. “It seems that your Wife has completed a Herculean task with the jolly chaps and they could be in with a good chance of winning.”
A rictus grin spreads across The Master’s face and he seems to enjoy the moment.
“I rather fear that Wastell may have bested us, however.”
“Haha, that’s dadblamery, don’t you know!” exclaims Professor Duke, somewhat unexpectedly. “I think we won, just because. After all, I can’t see us losing, and if I can’t see us losing, I don’t think we can lose. It’s that sort of thing which makes the world turn, see.”
The Master turns to the Professor and addresses him as if he had only just spotted him.
“Professor Duke! What a surprise. I must say, it delights my cold, dead heart to see a member of The Fellowship so keenly supporting College pursuits.”
Wait – what was that about his heart?
“Cold, dead heart? That’s cool, I have one, too,” the Professor is charm personified and he might just get us out of this unscathed. “But, yes, this is a truth: The Professor loves to support the College in every way possible. Why wouldn’t I, of course? After all, I do work here a bit, bits, and little bits. I’ll even be down on the river soon, cheering on the rowing beasts. Yo.”
“Aha yes – The Dean did mention that you were rather proficient on the River.”
There is an ominous silence that is more uncomfortable than the itchy robes of Hawkins College Choir.
“Anyway!” says Head Porter, suddenly. His voice is a good octave higher than usual. “We’ve seen them do their bit so we must get back to the Lodge and get on with… everything.”
“Actually, Head Porter, I was hoping we might converse briefly. Or… at length.” The Master barely noticeably flexes a fist. “Whichever suits the need.”
Head Porter casts me a look that says please don’t leave me. But he soon regroups his senses and nods in deference, touching the brim of his hat respectfully.
“As you say, Sir.”
The Professor whispers to me –
“We should definitely not abandon our post, double-see.”
“I think you two would be wise to return to your daily activities, whatever they may be.” He must have the hearing of a bat. “No doubt I shall be seeing you both again before so very long.”
I deem it prudent to take the path of least resistance and the Professor seems to agree with me. I give Head Porter what I hope is a sympathetic look before we turn on our heels and head back to Old College.
The excitement of the Choir Competition briefly gave me something of a second wind, but now the effects of all-night shenanigans are taking hold quite firmly. But it is a pleasant afternoon and Professor Duke is in a conversational humour so I try to remain as perky as possible.
“Awesome river skills, huh? That’s a thing. I think I should be proud about that, you know. But what did he mean?”
“I’m not sure, Professor,” I reply, stifling a little yawn. “Maybe he meant that time we saw him and The Dean on the riverbank when we were punting. But why would The Dean talk to him about that, of all things?”
“Well, he was probably so impressed with my punting skills…he couldn’t keep quiet. That’s the thing,” the Professor declares.
“Maybe… hey, it was me that was punting!”
“Was it? I’ve forgotten all about that.”
My sleep-deprived brain struggles to convince me one way or the other as I grope through the murky fug for the memory.
“Now, here’s a thing that scares me,” the Professor’s mind flits enthusiastically to his next thought. “This whole dadblamery between Head Porter and The Master’s Wife. What is it all about? And what a wonder she decided to show many interests in Mr. Head Porter at the exact same time Headmistress arrived on the scene! Dadblamery, I tell you.”
“Head Porter is a fine fellow but he does seem an odd choice for a lady such as The Master’s Wife,” I reply.
“It’s sorta funny he couldn’t find a lady, at first. Now, he’s getting overrun. That’s how it always seems to happen. I think they may crush him like a toad hopping on weak pea gravel.”
“A beautiful analogy, Professor.”
“Why, many thanks. It’s just unfair. But then, females are always unfair. It’s just the way things are. That’s why they’re called the unfairer sex. Oh dadblameit.”
There’s something wrong with that statement somewhere, but I am too exhausted to care. All I can think about right now is finding somewhere quiet to grab forty winks.