legend

Get Me To The Chapel

I am running, running, running… through darkened streets, buildings of improbable proportions looming above me, their windows looking as if they might lean down to devour me at any minute. My chest is heavy with exertion and… body armour. There is a hat upon my head but it certainly isn’t an elegant Porter’s bowler. I cannot tell if I am chasing or being chased, all I know is that if I don’t run faster something terrible will happen. Up ahead I see a familiar figure; even in the anonymous uniform I can see it is Harper. I try to call out to him but no words come… my mouth is open, a silent chasm through which air and sound refuse to pass…

And then I am approaching the car, if the mass of twisted metal can still be called such a thing. The road beneath it is scorched black and the air is thick with the greasy stench of burned rubber and melted steel. There is another smell… one that has remained forever within my nostrils, always just beside the very edge of consciousness. Vicky is with me. I reach out and take her hand as we proceed, shaking, to the driver’s side…

Something heavy and hairy arrives urgently on my chest. My eyes open to the delicate scratch of whiskers on my cheek.

“Meow?”

That is Terry’s hungry voice. My hands find his furry belly and I am indulged the privilege of a brief snuggle, before the increasingly noisy requests for food resume. I wriggle into an upright position, shoving pillows behind my back to support my drowsy and confused self. The clock is telling me it is almost noon. I would call that clock a liar but my churning guts know that it is telling the truth.

Why didn’t my alarm go off?

That’s right. It did go off – at precisely three minutes before I got into bed. I only intended to snatch a couple of hours but my unconscious self clearly had other ideas.

The Choir Competition! I have just an hour to get myself to The Great Chapel in the very heart of The City if I want to witness our triumph over Hawkins College first hand. This, of course, is of no interest whatsoever to Terry, whose only real concern is his empty food bowl. First things first. 

I am slightly dishevelled and completely out of breath but I make it to The Great Chapel with seconds to spare. Professor Duke and Head Porter are waiting for me by the huge, ornate doors. They look a little cross.

“Late as usual!” says the Professor, tapping his watch. “If you were earlier, you wouldn’t be late, you know. It’s that simple. Our little escapades last night made us infamous. Yo.”

“Oh no, that doesn’t sound very good,” I reply. The Professor laughs.

“Well, they haven’t discovered I was the warrior nun yet. Well, that we were. Well, just well. But anyways, everyone’s talking about ‘the warrior nuns’. We’ve got quite a reputation. It’ll be a legend on par with the headless horse thingy in no time, I say. University legends we shall be!”

There might have been a time when I would have been very keen to become a University legend but time and experience has taught me that it is very much wiser to maintain a low profile about such things.

“Bloody ridiculous behaviour,” mutters Head Porter, shaking his head. But I suspect he is simply jealous that his own performance as a debt collecting milkman did not get more recognition. “Come on, we’re going to be late. Let’s get inside.”

The Great Chapel is certainly aptly named. Once through the entrance, a glorious marble aisle sweeps grandly towards the magnificent alter, flanked on either side by row upon row of carved wooden pews, resplendent with elderly stoicism. The place is packed to the very rafters with the great and good of the Collegiate; Fellows and students rub shoulders with the musical elite and I even spot some notable members of the Church amongst the throng. This is quite the illustrious occasion and hardly the place for a College Porter.

The Professor, Head Porter and I slip ourselves into an innocuous pew towards the rear of The Great Chapel. We shall not be afforded the best view in the house but at least we will be nicely out of the way. Besides, it’s a Choir Competition. It’s all about the listening, surely. Professor Duke nudges me awkwardly and nods towards the chancel.

“Now, here cometh the show. Can’t wait.”

From the nave comes an orderly line of noble-looking youths, wearing the regal crimson robes of Wastell College. They quietly take their places as the conductor readies his baton.

“They certainly look like they mean business,” whispers Head Porter.

“They should’ve been visited by the itching powder,” the Professor mutters ruefully.

“Never mind about about Wastell. As long as we beat Hawkins, honour will be satisfied,” I assure them. “Now hush, they’re about to begin.”

A Legend, Close To Home

The Antiques Shop Owner beckons us through to a room at the back of the shop. It is arranged like a drawing-room – the sumptuous personal quarters of a dignified academic, perhaps – but labels and tags hanging from the furniture seem to indicate that it is simply further stock for his unusual emporium. Dimly lit and cunningly arranged, this room feels rather like a staged set; darkly theatrical and other-worldly in equal measure, I must say that I am glad of the Professor’s company in this place.

“Please, make yourself at home,” says the Shop Owner, gesturing to the eclectic array of seating scattered about the room. Professor Duke heads for a high-backed velvet armchair with matching footstool, which he settles himself into with a cacophony of satisfied gruntings. Spying a tea set sat proudly upon an elderly looking dining room table, I pull up one of the accompanying chairs hoping that my proximity to the tea things will prompt an offer of refreshment.

I never know quite how seriously to take an offer to ‘make myself at home’. Probably not too seriously, I would think. Sometimes I wonder if it is merely a friendly way of saying ‘sit down’. Just as I am considering pushing the boundaries of ‘making myself at home’ into ‘making myself a pot of tea’, the Shop Owner joins me at the table. He rather rudely has his back to the Professor, although I soon notice that he can see him reflected in the highly polished surface of a gilded mirror situated on the wall close by. The Professor has already spotted this and is eyeing the Shop Owner with some intent.

 

antiqueshop2

The Antique Shop Owner and my good self

 

“Tell me, my Old College friends,” the Shop Owner begins, his keen eyes flitting between mine and the reflection of the Professor. “What think you of mysteries? And, for that matter, histories?” There is an expectant pause, during which we are evidently expected to do more than gawp gormlessly, which is what we do. “What find you more compelling – the mysteries of histories or… the histories of mysteries?”

“Well, here it is,” the Professor replies testily, “Riddles vex me, overall. So, let’s not speak in riddles; otherwise, if you insist to speak in riddles, I shall need some tea Deputy Head Porter would like some, too.”

“The Professor is right,” I agree. “But back to your question – we at Old College are fairly well versed in both history and mystery. If you want our help, which I can only assume that you do, then you had better start with some straight-talk. And if you have such thing as a kettle, I should get it on, sharpish.”

The Shop Owner ignores us both and continues as if neither of us had said a word.

“Since I was a small boy, my interest has been held by arguably the greatest legend of these lands – or any lands, it could even be said! A legend so well-known that it has become intangible. That is to say, the legend of the Knights Templar and their quest for the Holy Grail!”

Professor Duke sits up smartly in his chair.

“Deputy Head Porter – I must be forward a bit – This guy’s mad!” he says, not even attempting to be tactful. “I say if there’s no tea to be had then we buy The Master the sparkly earring and be away with ourselves.”

“You would not rather present the most elusive treasure of legend to The Master of Old College?” the Shop Owner asks, although his tone suggests that this is more of an instruction than a question. “For I have reason to believe that it lay very close by.”

Professor Duke is momentarily distracted by this surprise announcement and I wish I could say the same. However, I am so accustomed to the unlikliness of the academic world that very little shocks me these days. An enigmatic antique dealer talking about the Holy Grail does not create quite the twang of anticipation that one might expect. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if there was ever a likely hiding place for the Grail, Old College could very well be it. Head Of Housekeeping probably keeps jellybeans in it, or something.

The Professor strides over and stands beside my chair, hand on hip – a sure sign that he means business.

“Now, I’ve got a question – or a few,” he fixes the Shop Owner with his very best stare. “What makes you so sure that the Grail is in Old College and why are you so keen to share this information with us? Speak up!”

The Shop Owner slides out a little drawer, artfully concealed within the table’s edge. He removes some carefully collected papers, tied with blue ribbon. He handles the small bundle as one would an explosive or deadly poison; as he does so, he speaks.

“All my life I have researched and hunted for the truth about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail,” he says. “Along the way I have found many truths and of many things I can be certain. The Templar’s connection to The City, yes. And… the connection to Old College is all but cast in stone…” He gently pushes the unwrapped papers across the table towards me. A quick glance is enough to tell me that they are written in a form of old English that I haven’t a hope of understanding. The Shop Owner seems to sense this and is good enough to explain further.

“It says in here, amongst other things, that ‘the Grail sleeps beneath the  dragon, watched over by minds of fire.’ It is my belief that the Templar entrusted the Grail to the College founders, so that it might be hidden within the construction.”

The Order of the Lesser Dragon,” I reply, scratching my chin.

“Well, I wouldn’t put anything past those buggers,” agrees the Professor. Then he adds “Dadblameit!”

“I am certain that the Grail lies within the grounds,” the Shop Owner reiterates, a passion rising in him now. “But someone such as myself would never be permitted to search in such secret places. But you – you! You both could hunt for me, uncover the truth and take the gift that wants itself to be taken! The gift of truth and of legend.”

The Shop Owner is wild-eyed with fervency now and is a humble supplicant to our mercy and favour. I look over expectantly towards the Professor, who shrugs his shoulders.

“You know, the Holy Grail would make a brilliant gift for The Master,” he says.

“Oh, go on, then,” I say, resigned to the fact. “I suppose we could take a quick look around the old place.”

 

With Professor VJ Duke

The Open Window

Junior Bursar’s announcement came as something as a surprise to me. It never occurred to me that anyone actually retired at Old College; I always just assumed that the only way Fellows ever left was in a box. Head Porter hasn’t said much but I can tell he is a little fuddled about the matter. He certainly wasn’t expecting this. Of course, once Fellows reach a certain age (or a certain state of mental confusion) their College duties diminish or cease altogether. But they certainly don’t go away, they remain seemingly sempiternal within Old College until they are called to the great lecture theater (or, more likely, Dining Hall) in the sky. Like Dr D and Professor K. In Dr D’s case, even death itself wasn’t enough to shift him from his seat by the fire. I am sure Junior Bursar must have his reasons and he is dreadfully fond of Tuscany, after all.

Tea and biscuits with Head Porter have been lovely but by the end of my shift I feel that a more substantial form of refreshment is required. Late afternoon gives way to evening with quiet dignity as I leave Old College and The City streets are more beautiful than ever, bathed in the amber warmth of the setting sun. This part of The City is dominated by imposing architecture, some of which is over eight hundred years old. Fabulously modern buildings intermingle with the ancient not so very far from here, but these streets belong to bygone ages. It is a pleasant route to an even more pleasing destination.

The Albatross boasts of being the oldest public house in The City and I am sure that this is probably the case. This claim has also made it one of the most famous and so is often filled with tourists, as well as the more sociable locals. The prices are a little higher than other nearby pubs but I am prepared to splash out a little extra for the anonymity of drinking in a busy establishment. It is far easier to be alone in a crowd of strangers than to find solitude in a sparsely occupied bar. This I know from experience.

As it happens, there are not only strangers in The Albatross this evening. Cheerfully ordering a large Scotch at the bar is Head Gardener. The pub is filling up quickly so I hurry to his side in the hope of jumping the queue. I am happy enough to share a drink with this most friendly chap.

“Hallo, Deputy Head Porter!” Head Gardener greats me amiably. “Drink?” Aha! My plan has worked. I request a glass of Bordeaux, large of course. I cannot be sure if the news of Junior Bursar’s retirement has yet reached the Gardeners, so I decide to avoid the subject for now. We take a table in the pub courtyard and each roll a cigarette. The evening is a little chilly to be sitting outside but if we wish to indulge in our filthy habit, we have no choice.

I lean back in my chair as I savour my first exhalation of tobacco and notice something strange.

“Hey, look up there,” I say pointing upwards. “Someone’s left a window open up there. That room is going to be freezing!”

Head Gardener follows my gaze and laughs.

“That window is always left open,” he replies. “It has to be!”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “Why does it have to be left open?”

“Oh, don’t you know?” he says with some surprise. “It’s so the ghost can get out.” I laugh at this.

“What ghost?”

“I can’t believe you don’t know,” Head Gardener sips his whiskey and re-lights his roll up. “This pub has been owned by Caelestis College for, oooh, centuries now. Back in the old days, probably about three hundred years ago, the College wasn’t the best of landlords. That window up there was hanging off its hinges and the landlady of the pub at the time was concerned, what with that being her little boy’s bedroom. Rather than properly fix it, the College send round a chap with a ladder to nail the window shut. Well, that was all well and good and at least the little lad couldn’t accidentally fall out the window. But then there was a terrible fire in the pub, destroyed most of it, it did. The poor little boy was trapped in his room and the fire was too fierce to try and get up the stairs to rescue him. They put a ladder up to his window but they couldn’t budge it, on account of it being nailed shut. The lad died in that fire and all they could do was listen to his screams as he burned.”

“That’s horrible!” I squeal.

“Yes, it is” Head Gardener finishes his roll up and starts to construct another. “Since then, the window to that room has always been left open. So that the little one isn’t trapped. If the window has ever been shut, they say it opens itself again. Or, there is such a dreadful presence felt in the whole building it is unbearable. The presence leaves as soon as the window is opened.”

“Really?” I ask, sceptical “People really believe that?”

Head Gardener shrugs.

“I dunno,” he says “But the window is always open, whatever the weather, whatever the hour of day. That much I can tell you.”

I take a large mouthful of the (very good) Bordeaux and eye the window suspiciously. If true, this is indeed a very sad story. And for three hundred years The Albatross has ensured he would never be trapped again. Sadder still, the little boy evidently still has not escaped that room. I hope that one day he does.