library

When The Long Arm Of The Law Isn’t Quite Long Enough

The police presence at Old College has certainly cast a muted fog across what would otherwise be a jaunty time of year. The Fellowship are never comfortable with outside influences of any description and the students seem suitably subdued. I am actually rather relishing the sensation of College behaving itself for once.

There is often the assumption of guilt in these circumstances; avoiding the company of authority arouses suspicions of having something to hide, to the untrained eye. To the eye that has had some instruction in such things, it is merely the sign of an unexplainable force of nature at work. The close proximity of our badge carrying friends often inspires unwarranted feelings of nervous guilt, even amongst the most law-abiding of men. The rising horror of glimpsing the flourescent Battenberg in your rear view mirror as you are driving along, perfectly legally, is inexplicable yet unavoidable. The panicked questioning of one’s own integrity simply cannot be helped.

The lot of a policeman is a lonely one; no one ever really wants to speak to them. The police know this and so have to become a little cunning in their interactions. In the outside world their methods are beyond compare. Within the cossetted walls of Old College, they are woefully ineffective. I shall have to help them along a little.

Detective Chief Inspector Thompson and his team have found the students particularly unforthcoming with information about Maurinio and his presently anonymous beau. If there is any one of the unfortunate young man’s contemporaries who will have some sort of inside information, it will be the dear Hershel. A student who has caused me numerous headaches in one way or another, he is guaranteed to be right at the center of any nefarious happenings.

There is no response to my enthusiastic hammering on his door. There is a small chance he could be in the Library, studying. Stranger things have happened. I reason that it’s as good a place as any to start, so make my way through the frosted cloisters to the welcoming warmth of possibly the most famous enclave of education in The City. The heavy wooden door has a cold, damp smell to it as I heave it open; it is a formidable barrier between the enlightened and unenlightened worlds and it is almost protesting at the attempt to unite the two.

The Library never feels empty, even when devoid of human occupation. Many of the books have been around for so long that they have acquired something of a life force of their own. I used to find the sensation unusual, to say the least, but these days the quirks of Old College pass me by almost unnoticed. That in itself concerns me a little. With each passing day I am sucked a little further into the fabric of College life. One day I fear I shall be devoured completely.

As it happens, I have more company than just the books. The Librarian is drifting ominously along the shelves, looking at nothing in particular. There is the very hint of a whispered muttering in the air, but it is impossible to tell if it is coming from him or the books. His spindly frame sags beneath the weight of tweed as he makes his way along the rows of books.

“Excuse me,” I say politely. “I’m so sorry to disturb you.”

The Librarian looks round with no particular urgency and takes a few moments to notice me. When he finally does, he seems almost disappointed.

“Yes?”

“I was wondering if you could help me, erm…” The Librarian’s gaze has drifted to a far away point somewhere to the left of me. I cursory glance reveals nothing of interest, so I continue unabated. “I am looking for young Hershel, I wondered if you had seen him at all?”

“Who?”

“Hershel”

“Yes?”

“Have you seen him?”

“No”

The conversation is evidently over as The Librarian continues his perusal of unseen things in the middle distance. A man of few words, unless they are bound in leather.

It was always going to be a long shot, finding Hershel in the Library. But it is on the way to the Junior Combination Room, which is a much more likely place to find a chap such as him. It is a short but chilly journey and the air tastes delightfully of snow. A little sprinkling of snow might be quite nice.

As I climb the stairs to the Junior Combination Room, I see the man himself loitering by the door. He looks a little uneasy and appears distracted by an object in his hands. As I call out to him, he hurriedly hides whatever it is behind his back. A master of misdirection, he turns to me with a smile so charming I might almost forget I saw him acting oddly just seconds ago.

“Hershel! What are you up to?” I ask, fixing him with my very beadiest eye.

“I don’t know what you mean, my dear Deputy Head Porter.”

“Come on, Hershel, we know each other better than that. There is something afoot, I can tell.”

He maintains the premise of wide-eyed innocence for a brief moment, before dropping the look completely and sheepishly showing me what he had behind his back. It is a snow globe. A rather pretty one, I must say, with an intricately fashioned castle within and a swirling glitter tempest. Hershel looks almost embarrassed to have it in his possession.

“That’s pretty,” I remark. “I didn’t have you down as a snow globe enthusiast.”

“It’s for Penelope,” he replies quietly. “It’s meant to be Warwick Castle. She used to visit it with her parents when she was little. I thought she might like it.”

This unusual show of compassion touches me unexpectedly and I am struggle to suppress a little ‘Awww’.

“That’s really lovely, Hershel!” I say. “Honestly, I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Neither did I, to be honest with you” we share a little giggle. I feel a little fuzzy in my tummy. Maybe my Hershel is growing up. “But look. I know why you’ve come to see me.”

“You do?”

“Yes. It’s about Maurinio, isn’t it? The police have been asking questions.”

“And have you been giving them answers?”

“Not exactly,” he replies, voice faltering. “I find them frightful to chat you. But there really is something you should know…”

 

 

What The Professor Said

With the plans for the slightly controversial new training scheme for the Porters well under way, I am finding myself at a bit of a loose end. I say ‘slightly controversial’ as the Porters are not happy at all about becoming ‘security professionals’. I suppose I can sympathise somewhat. These chaps came to Old College to see out the last of their working days (ideally by doing as little as possible), not to embark on new ventures. Particularly not new ventures that involve restraining techniques and conflict resolution. Even so, I am a little disappointed at their lack of a sense of adventure.

As happens often when I haven’t much to occupy me in The Lodge, I am patrolling the grounds of Old College. I say patrolling; that is a generous term for the superfluous ambling that has led me to the perimeters of the gardens and not much further. I feel a little guilty about using my time so gratuitously, but not much. It is nice to have time to have a think.

My mind is turning over the words of Professor K. Although it felt like he was talking in riddles, I feel certain he gave me all the information I need to pursue my interest in whatever mysteries Old College has to offer. I suspect they will not be half as interesting as I imagine, but it is certainly a pleasant distraction. Having assembled in my head all the information gathered so far, I have reasonable grounds to suspect that the following is true:

Something was discovered in the ground when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt some fifty years ago.

It was something bad; no one wants to talk about it.

Whatever is was, it is still having repercussions of some description all these years later.

The Master lied about ‘ghosts’ in College. What else could he be lying about?

What’s Head Porter’s problem?

That’s a point, Head Porter was been notably conspicuous by his absence recently. I rarely see him these days. This is not a bad thing, from my point of view; I am far happier left to my own devices. But I thought The Fellowship might have said something about it, particularly one of The Bursars. Is it normally acceptable for the Head Porter to be practically invisible? Maybe so, Old College has certainly done much to challenge my views of ‘normal’.

A thought strikes me. Professor K had made a pointed comment about reading – and the importance of a thirst for knowledge. Of course! There must be reams and reams of written history about Old College, it stands to reason. If I want to know more about the history of the place perhaps all I need to do is look further than the end of my own nose.

I mentally kick myself for not coming to this conclusion before. I am surrounded by learning and study and didn’t for one minute think that it might apply to me. Idiot. Self-recrimination out of the way, I believe that the best place to start would be The Old Library. I do not carry these keys as a matter of course, unwieldy as they are, so a quick detour to The Porters’ Lodge is required. Whilst I’m there, I make a cup of tea to accompany me in The Old Library. From what I gather from the students, studying is thirsty work.

As I have mentioned before, The Old Library is probably my favourite part of College. Despite my lack of formal education, I do like books. I am also very fond of old things, so this tucked away little dusty oasis of papery antiquity is just perfect. As I make my way carefully up the wrought iron spiral staircase, I am not exactly sure what I expect to find, or even what I should be looking for. If nothing else, it will be a nice way to while away an hour or so.

The lock requires a certain amount of jiggling and persuasion to convince it to release, but once I have wrestled the ornate and cumbersome door open, the wonderful smell of wood, paper and leather greets me like an old friend. The floor is warped and uneven and I am grateful that this job requires me to wear sensible shoes. I wonder where to start looking; this is not a library that is intended for everyday use and therefore does not seem to have a clearly defined index or labelling system. I’ll just have a little wander round and see what I can find.

Ah! There is the stunningly illustrated manuscript of Paradise Lost. It is in a glass case, so I can’t really read it, but just to be able to look at it feels like quite an event in itself. I have, of course, read Paradise Lost, but I’m guessing the copies we had at school were a lot newer than this one.

With all of these strange goings on recently, I idly wonder if The Old Library has any ghosts lingering? This is in the oldest part of College, after all. I am rather morbidly considering how many people might have died in this room over the centuries. It is quite surprising how recent events have changed the way I am thinking about Old College. This fascination with people dying all over the place is probably quite unhealthy.

I am quite enjoying my own little private tour, but haven’t found anything very useful. I decide to take a seat at the back by the medical books and, at the very least, enjoy my tea. I remember from Junior Bursar’s Guided Tour several months ago that the medical books are quite interesting, so I heave a random one out from its resting place on the shelf and pop it on the reading table to peruse while I finish my tea.

As I shuffle my chair closer to the table, my foot makes contact with something very solid. I shuffle back quickly and see to my dismay that my highly polished practical shoe is scuffed. Bugger. I hope whatever I kicked has come off better than my shoe.

I bend down to see a fairly large wooden chest, tucked under the table and right up against the wall. The aged oak panels suggest it is pretty old and the lack of ornament or decoration give the impression that this is designed to be serviceable rather than aesthetic. Well, the obvious thing that springs to mind is – what’s in it? There are metal handles on either end and I give the one nearest to me a tug. The chest doesn’t move an inch, it is very heavy. I shift myself into a squatting position and wrap both hands around the handle. Using all the strength in my arms and legs I manage to move it by maybe three inches. The build up of filth and the contrasting conditions on the floor around the chest indicate it hasn’t been moved for a very long time.

The benefit of being small is that I can wriggle into tiny places. Under the desk I go and decide to see if I can open the chest from where it sits. To my immense surprise, there is no lock or fastening of any description; just a flip top lid. It opens easily, although the underside of the table prevents me from opening it very far. Squinting through the gap I can see there are a lot of very old-looking books stacked neatly in the chest. This looks interesting.

I scoot out from under the table and drag it out of the way of the chest. With the lid fully open, I can see an impressive-looking collection of very, very old books. Well, I might as well have a peek.

I carefully lift the first book that comes to hand out of the chest and rearrange the table so I can read in comfort. As I delicately open the cover and slowly turn the pages, I wonder if I should be wearing gloves of some kind. I don’t have any gloves with me, so it’s a bit of a pointless thought. The book appears to be the records and accounts of an enigmatic-sounding organisation called The Order Of The Lesser Dragon.

To be honest, I am struggling to understand a lot of what is written here as it is in what I can only assume is old English (or, ‘Ye Olde English, to give it its improper name). From what I can gather, The Order Of The Lesser Dragon was a wealthy gentleman’s society, in a similar vein to the Masons. They seemed to have had a lot of meetings and spent quite a bit of money on wine and cheese. The names of the past members appear to be listed periodically throughout the book, alongside the roles they played within the organisation.

This is all very interesting but I do wonder what this book is doing in The Old Library. Did The Lesser Dragons have something to do with Old College? Ah… here we go. There’s a whole bit here about them setting up an academic institution… it’s really difficult to understand most of it… but I recognise the names of ‘Apple Tree Court’ and ‘Old Court’. That’s a bit odd. If it’s a brand new building, why name it Old Court? This is obviously the record of an embryonic plan for Old College! There must be some explanation here about the naming of it, but it really is very hard to comprehend. There are lists and records of the artisans and craftsmen and their costs and materials. Some of the labourers appear to have been paid in mead! Fantastic!  And what’s this? A long list of names… some of them seem very unlikely… There’s one chap here called Faldo! Who were these people?

Oh. I am able to decrypt this rather unhappy excerpt relating to the list of names. They were peasants, ‘sacrificed’ using some kind of ancient protection rites and cast into the foundations of Old College. This is unpleasant and a little unexpected. Mind you, now I think about it, I do recall something of this nature from my history lessons many years ago. For some reason I thought it was just bridges; I remember learning that people were buried in the foundations of bridges in the belief that it would stop them falling down. It must have been same principle used here. I do quite like that these Lesser Dragon chaps had the decency to at least make a list of the unfortunate sacrifice-ees and credit them in this weighty tome. That seems more than fair, in the given circumstances.

I expect the peasants are still there! Tucked up for all time beneath the ancient walls; eternal watchmen for Old College.

Oh. My. God.

Well. I think I may have solved the ‘mystery’ of what was discovered under The Porters’ Lodge, half a century ago. It must have been a fairly grisly unearthing, a whole pile of human bones. And a real pain in the backside, too, as I am sure there are all sorts of rules and regulations concerning the discoveries of human remains. I wonder what they did with them? I will have to find time to have another chat with Professor K. But not now, I think to myself sensibly. I’ve already spent far too much time away from The Lodge.

I replace the books and make sure I leave The Old Library as I found it. As I hurry back to The Porters’ Lodge I hope I haven’t missed too much.  I will have to take this up with Professor K as soon as I get a minute. He was right, though. A thirst for knowledge certainly is a wonderful thing.

Christmas Eve At Old College

It is Christmas Eve at Old College. I am alone in the Porters’ Lodge, College is closing down for a few days over the festive period and all that remains is to lock down the place. I cannot complete the lock down until after one o’clock, which is when the Library closes. I cannot fathom why the Library has to be open until one, there is almost no one left in College at all. The students have long since departed to their families for Christmas and the last of the Fellowship left this morning. There were a couple of the chaps from Maintenance in earlier today, but right now I am the only soul in the whole of Old College. Apart from, quite possibly, the Master’s Cat, who I am sure will not be going out of his way to visit the Library.

I have several tasks and errands to run to while away the few remaining hours of my shift. They mainly involve checking and locking many of the doors and gates, but I also have several hand-written notes of instruction from some of the Fellowship. Dr G, for example, wants me to move his car for him. Dr J has asked for his wine delivery to be taken to his rooms, ready for his return in the New Year. The Dean wants some files moving from his rooms to the Tutorial Office. It’s almost like they’ve given me errands for the sake of it.

It turns out that my demanding Fellows have actually done me a favour. I haven’t visited many of the Fellowship’s rooms before and it is fascinating to see their little dens of academia. The rooms all have familiar heavy, dark wood furniture – enormous desks with angled lamps as their centrepieces. The curtains are heavy with garish embroidery. All the rooms also have bookcases, like huge wooden monoliths, dominating walls from floor to ceiling. Books bulge and tumble along the shelves, jostling for position with their neighbours. They seem almost animated. I must confess to lingering longer than I need to, just to take in the characters of the rooms. In the still and silent College I can almost hear the echoes of its illustrious past. The whole building feels almost alive. I wonder idly if, when things have been around for such a long time, they acquire some sort of vitality of their own. Maybe it rubs off over the centuries or something.

The Dean’s request proves to be the most problematic. His rooms are a chaotic black hole of papers, files, books, notes and letters. Finding the required files takes me nearly an hour. He does have a couple a lovely leather sofas, which I discover during my epic search.

I run my various errands and enjoy the beautiful artwork in Dr C’s rooms, gaze in awe at Dr F’s book collection and am open mouthed when I discover Junior Bursar’s rooms are even worse than The Dean’s. Senior Tutor’s rooms are, by stark contrast, spectacularly well ordered and neat. His furniture is far more simple and serviceable than the heavy, overly ornate collections favoured by the other Fellows. It seems Old College has not dampened the tendencies of his organised nature.

I take my time locking up the fabulous and beautiful halls and rooms of Old College. I linger in the oak panelled splendour of The Gathering Room and move slowly and deliberately through The Old Library, which is, I think, my favourite part of Old College. The organ loft is the ideal vantage point to view the Chapel in all its glory. I sit there for a while, feeling quite small and insignificant among the sombre magnificence.

I decide to check that the Senior Combination Room is all in order. The Senior Combination Room is the place to which The Fellowship retreat from time to time (some are more regular visitors than others, it has to be said) to relax and… do whatever it is Fellows do when they are not eating or causing me problems. Like a rather elaborate snug.

The Senior Combination Room is located very close to the Dining Hall. This, I feel, is due less to luck than some very careful planning. I don’t come in here much. For a reason I cannot quite put my finger on, I feel happier to give this room a wide berth. The last time I was in here, I was ensuring the safe delivery of Dr F’s Private Eye magazine. Somehow, it seems like a long time ago. Then, I notice something a little strange. Well, very strange. The fire is still lit. I cannot imagine why this is. I make my way towards the yawning great stone fireplace, which is being huddled by several worn and elderly leather chairs. I stop. One of the chairs appears to be occupied.

“Ahem!” A theatrical cough: the universal sign of politely saying ‘I’m here!’

The figure shifts a little in the chair, the aged leather creaking and complaining at the movement. There then follows another sound, which I suppose could be blamed on the chair but I suspect it is emanating from the occupant.

“Sir?”

When a voice finally comes from the chair, it is as creaky and complaining as the chair itself.

“Who is it that disturbs my sleep?”

“Sir, it is Deputy Head Porter. I am sorry to disturb you…”

“Is it time for lunch?”

“No, Sir, the kitchens are closed. I am shutting down Old College for Christmas…”

“No lunch! I say…” the rest of the sentence is lost in something between a mumble and a gurgle.  It is a little troubling that I have a snoozing Fellow who doesn’t seem to know what day it is before me, but then again it wouldn’t be for the first time. As I am trying to formulate a suitably emphatic argument for him vacating the Senior Combination Room, I am distracted by a pile of magazines seemingly flying across the room behind me. I spin round, more perturbed than anything. Ah. One of the windows is still open. It must have been the breeze.

I skip over and shut the window, a little annoyed. I return to the fireplace to deal with my dozing Fellow. And here’s the thing. He isn’t there. The chair is completely empty, save for a rather threadbare cushion and some toffee wrappers. And here’s the other thing. The fire isn’t lit. It doesn’t look as if it has been lit for a day or so. Not a smoulder, not an ember. I swear I can detect the faintest whiff of woody smoke in the air. An icy chill slowly drip-drips its way along my spine and I shudder involuntarily. Was that… I mean, it couldn’t have been. There are no ghosts in Old College, The Master had said. I stop.

Still.

Think. I recall my conversation with The Master in The Crypt, not so very long ago. Dr D? Had he come back for Christmas Eve? It sounds a little daft even as I say it to myself. But then… but then, it is time to lock The Library.

Unlike The Old Library, which is more akin to an ancient book shrine of some description, The Library is probably about as slick as you can get using a 500 year old building. It covers four floors, with the rather smug sounding Law Library at the top. It gives me the impression that it looks down on the rest of The Library.

The locking up passes without incident. My work is complete. As I make my way through the cloisters and courtyards towards the Porters’ Lodge I feel almost a little sad to be leaving. I pause to enjoy the beauty of The Master’s Lodge and reflect upon my place in the grand scheme of things. Just a simple caretaker of this fascinating seat of learning, one of many others, our simple tasks echoing back through time almost unchanged. Even The Fellowship, aged as they are, are positively embryonic compared to Old College itself. If Old College had eyes, their presence in its company would have passed in the blink of one. Even the most eminent and long-serving members had barely ever stopped long enough for a cup of tea from Old College’s point of view. No matter what minor trifles occur within its walls, Old College will always be Old College. Stoic, unchanging, it’s got staying power. All the pomp and circumstance is just a bit of a smoke screen to cover up the fact that the world around it has changed and it doesn’t want to. And no one can make it.

It is Christmas Eve and I am all alone in Old College. If there were any poetic justice in the world, flakes of snow would start to fall and a distant choir would start to sing. Needless to say, neither of these two things occur, but I still leave Old College feeling very festive and eager to recount the marvels of the day to those waiting for me.