old college

Family Ties

Entering the Chateau de Chinon puts me in the same mindset of awe-filled wonder that I felt when I first entered Old College. Although on a much larger, grander scale, the Chateau is a breathtaking example of architecture from a by-gone age. It seems that I am forever destined to wander such ancient places; it is as if my soul is called towards them.

The Dean harbours no such romantic notions. Although, romantic notions of another sort may well be on his mind. Standing in the grand stone entrance hall, dwarfed by dramatic tapestries and towering columns like watchful sentries, The Dean seems to lose none of his stature and presence even while the Professor and I appear diminished and shrunken.

“Now then, chaps, this is the plan,” says The Dean, hands firmly on hips to stop him from pacing about. “Considering the lack of immediately available disguises, I say we need a cover story. I have been thinking on it, for several minutes I might add, and this is the very best option.”

Professor Duke and I exchange nervous looks and ready ourselves for quite literally anything. The Dean continues, unabashed.

“You and I, Deputy Head Porter, are a well to-do couple from London and this is our errant, tear-away son… Dominic!” he indicates the Professor, who looks more than a little surprised. “We have brought Dominic here to educate him in various matters, but particularly those concerning crime and punishment, in an attempt to curtail his mischievous ways. That way, the buggers are sure to show us the dungeons where the Templar were held!”

There is a considered silence while we muse upon how quite to respond to this announcement. It’s not the first time The Dean and I have been a ‘couple’ and previous dalliances with this form of pretence did not end well.

“Sir, if I might point out,” I begin, carefully “That I believe the Professor is actually older than me… I think.” I apply some scrutiny to the Professor’s features. Actually, it is impossible to tell how old he might be. He just has one of those faces.

“Poppycock!” retorts The Dean. “The chap will be the perfect petulant teenager, won’t you old boy?”

“I must say: it’s all a wonder, mostly,” the Professor replies. “You know, here’s the thing: Perhaps we don’t need a cover story at all? See? Being a petulant teenager would be so vexing, I’m thinking.”

“Absolutely we need a cover story!” snaps The Dean. “We can’t just stroll in here, demanding the Holy Grail and stamping our feet!” Oh, really? Because from what I know of The Dean that was exactly what I thought we might do. “See here, if I say there is a cover story, then there is a cover story – understand? Now then, wife and child follow me directly.”

At a loss of anything better to do, we follow The Dean deeper into the Chateau. Chateau is such a romantic word. This place is more like an elegant fortress. Taking our new-found roles very seriously, The Dean and I begin to vigorously educate the fruit of our union on historical matters. The poor Professor is actually scolded on several occasions for breaking from character and appearing too interested in things.

Before too long, we are approached by one of the many tour guides who sweep silently through the Chateau, presumably searching for visitors to instruct. She is in fact most interesting and entertaining in her extensive knowledge of the place and we pass an hour or so quite pleasantly in her company. When mention of the Knights Templar is made, The Dean leaps to action, like an over-weight gazelle.

“Aha, how interesting that you should mention the Templar, madame,” says The Dean in his most charming manner. “You see here’s the thing, my… wife… yes, my wife is descended from one of the Templar families and family legend has it that one of her forefathers may very well have been held here!”

“Forefathers?” says the Professor, puzzled. “Does that mean I have four grandfathers, then? And that’s too many grandmothers.”

“Hush… Dominic!” hisses The Dean. The Professor shakes his head.

“Dadblameit to you!”

“Ignore my husband and son,” I say, trying to keep things from descending further into chaos. “They are quite mad, haha. But it’s true – do you think the Wastell family might have been held in the dungeons here?”

Our previously unflappable tour guide, until so recently filled with gallic charm and mirth, becomes somewhat flustered.

“Oh, well,” she stammers, her English suddenly stilted “The dungeons are not accessible to the visitors, no. You cannot go down there. Only the curator and his staff may enter the dungeons.”

Not a word is exchanged between us, but it is clear my husband and son are as vexed by her reaction as I am. Quite what part of this simple enquiry has perturbed her so greatly is difficult to say.

“We thank you for your time, madame,” The Dean says, a polite means of dismissing her for which she seems much relieved. “Well, that was an unusual thing, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes—and you made it stranger, my man!” says Professor Duke. “Deputy Head Porter didn’t say a word about actually seeing the dungeons.”

“But at least we now know that the dungeons are still there,” I say. “And what’s more, they can be accessed.”

“Yes, but only by some blasted curator,” The Dean mutters darkly. “And his staff.” A brief pause. “I say we acquire the uniforms of the staff and…”

“No! No…” I feel the need to interrupt this current thought process.

Think, Deputy Head Porter – think!

“Sir, I believe this is something very much up my street. It is at such times like these that one needs to stop thinking ordinarily. Now is the time to think like a Porter.”

 

With Professor VJ Duke

Things Are Revealed

“Well, I certainly think that someone should explain!” exclaims The Dean, clearly becoming tetchy through tiredness and hunger. A large whiskey is way overdue also, which certainly won’t be helping matters.

“Now I shall a bit,” says Professor Duke, striding purposefully towards the centre of the room where the unfortunate King still lies unconscious. “Here it is: if the Villager and the Merchant arrived together it couldn’t possibly be either of those two. The Princess claims to have seen the Prince elsewhere at the time of the scream, so it could not have been him.”

“But wait,” I say, keen to have some involvement in proceedings, however small. “The Prince said that he heard the voice of a woman coming from the room – even though the Princess had not yet arrived.”

“Exactly right!” replies the Professor.

“Hang on, though,” The Dean interrupts. “According to the Knight, there was only himself and the Prince in the room when he arrived, isn’t that right?”

“That is correct,” replies the Prince, stiffly.

“And here is where the mistake is made, Mr. Dean,” the Professor says, much to The Dean’s chagrin. “But it is an easy mistake to make, even for a fellow as clever as yourself. Now then, take a look at this!”

The Professor approaches the Knight and deftly swipes the armoured helmet from his head. But… aha! I see. In fact, the helmet is removed from her head. A tumbling of auburn curls falls from beneath the helmet, framing a shocked and reddened face of a sturdy-looking young woman.

“I say that it was you, madam, who struck the King! And I know I’m right, so no debates, please.”

The Knight frowns hard at the Professor. He frowns back, even harder. It makes even myself a little unsteady, I must say. There is a stirring from the stricken King. The words are incomprehensible, especially in French, but I have no doubt that they are very rude ones. The Knight sighs.

“It’s no use, I cannot deny it,” she says, wearily. “It is true. We had a disagreement about the costumes for our next performance. After so much wine and singing, emotions were already uncontrollable and I struck the swine about the head. I didn’t mean any harm, it is the way I can be sometimes.”

Admiring the logic of Professor Duke

Admiring the logic of Professor Duke

 

 

“I say,” The Dean mutters to me. “These French are a feisty lot, aren’t they?”

“It certainly seems that way, Sir,” I reply. “I think it best we don’t upset them further.”

But The Dean ignores my advice and addresses the troupe, hands on hips and chin defiantly jutting.

“You people are perfectly beastly!” he announces, which is a bit rich coming from a man who oversees possibly the most violent College in England. “I should tell you that we three are here on highly important business. The prospect of being beaten in the head does not enthrall me whatsoever.”

Zut Alors!” cries the Merchant. “Perhaps if you didn’t go around sticking your big stupid noses into matters that concern you not, the prospect of head-battering would not arise!”

“You dadblamed descendant of the fly!” exclaims Professor Duke. “The Dean has a perfectly delightful nose! I agree with you about the other thing, though.”

“Oh, that is absolutely IT!” The Dean roars. “You quislings are absolutely banned from Old College for absolutely ever! And ever! If you set foot on College grounds I shall have you shot. In fact, I shall shoot you myself.”

The Merchant and the Prince look as if they might be in the mood to return the threat, so I decide that the time has come to leave.

“We have an early start in the morning, chaps,” I say as calmly as possible. “What say we return to our own room and see about some food and rest, yes?”

“Good idea, I’m famished,” says the Professor. The Dean makes a sort of growling sound and stamps out of the room, deliberately causing the fittings to tremble in his wake.

Professor Duke and I scuttle after him as quickly as is polite. I rather fear that our bellicose neighbours were not grateful at all for our intervention. The Dean himself sulks for the remainder of the evening, even after several whiskies and a side of ham and cheese. The Professor lounges on his chaise longue, whistling tunes and telling himself jokes. I take a moment before sleeping to text Head Porter, to see how things are going back at the Lodge. All seems very much in order, in fact. He wishes me the best of luck for tomorrow, when we shall visit Chateau Chinon directly after breakfast.

He also has some other news.

It is quite the pleasure to fall asleep, wearing little but a smile, you know.

 

With Professor VJ Duke

Menage a Trois

Escaping the cosseted confines of Old College is both exhilarating and rather unnerving at the same time. One gets so used to the all-encompassing existence of College life that it is quite possible to forget that there is a whole world out there, going about its business with little regard for our academic alternate reality.

The Professor, or course, is a renowned traveller and adventurer and is actually a little disappointed that the French scenery does not appear that differently to that of England, although it is ‘much tidier’, apparently.

Humph.

I have become somewhat accustomed to the grand tattiness that typifies much of the Green And Pleasant Land. I feel rather defensive, all of a sudden. This gorgeous Gallic rural representation simply feels like it is showing off. And there has been not a sign of a stiff upper lip since we arrived. Nor a pothole, neither, I have to give them that. It is an unusual feeling, to travel by road without the onset of sciatica threatening every hundred yards.

The weather is kind to us and the scenic journey is punctuated by several stops for refreshments of breads and cheeses, pastries and buns and a sneaky crepe or two. I am pleased to have brought along my own dear tea set and accompaniments as the local brews simply cannot compare. The coffee is quite wonderful, though and good enough to have kept The Dean from his whiskey for the entirety of our travels. Evening is well established as we reach the medieval town of Chinon at the very heart of the Val de Loire, restingby the banks of the majestic Vienne river.

Although tempted to announce our arrival by immediately storming the Chateau – one-time holding place of the imprisoned Knights Templar – our ardour is somewhat dampened by the mortal requirements of refreshment and refuge and the decision is made to find lodgings for the evening.

Chinon is not that dissimilar to our very own City, being of a similar era and sharing a quaint, haphazard design. Little shops, inns and cafes jostle for position along the winding streets which lead up to the Chateau, themselves cobbled with elderly stones dating back to near on the fifteenth century. Timber houses of a similar age add to the impression of a town caught in a bygone era, which is quite a comfort so far away from home.

“This place is a wonder and a few,” remarks the Professor as we make our way towards a likely looking inn. “It is so like Old College it’s as if we never went anywhere at all! Humdinger.”

“The Templar obviously had a liking for places of this ilk,” agrees The Dean, looking around appreciatively.

“I’m not sure that they were here entirely by choice,” I say.

The inn is an unostentatiously historic building, its timbers well maintained and paint work humble yet immaculate. Inside, the warm glow of candlelight and delicious aromas of roasting pork are as welcoming as the red-cheeked young lady who is waiting for us at what passes for a reception desk. The faint sounds of a badly played accordion and voices raised in song taper invitingly from a place beyond and I am overcome with an urge to dance raucously. That urge will have to wait to be satisfied, however.

The Dean approaches the pretty girl at the desk with what I can only assume is his attempt at a charming smile.

Bonjour!” he offers, gamely. “We are looking for lodgings for a night or two, can you assist?”

Monsieur, we have only the one room left,” the girl replies with a voice as pretty as she is. “But it is a very large room and maybe you can all share, oui?”

Oh, no. I bet The Dean snores dreadfully.

“Well, I am tired and hungry and interested to find out more about that singing through there,” says The Dean. “So I think we should take the room.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, I fear,” says Professor Duke, puzzled.

“A few stiff drinks and it soon will, my good man. Let us have the keys, madame!”

The girl blushes to the tips of her ears.

“In fact, monsieur, it is mademoiselle!” she coyly twirls a thick curl of chestnut hair between her fingers and regards The Dean with a manner that I would reserve for a sausage sandwich. She slides the room key slowly across the desk.

Oblivious, The Dean snatches up the key with one hand and his suitcase with the other.

“Come on, chaps!”

The inn is a higgledy-piggledy place comprised of narrow staircases and crooked corridors and I almost feel that I should be doing some Portering whilst I am here. The journey to our room is something of an adventure in itself.

“My goodness, this reminds me of Old College!” exclaims the Professor. “Now then – I don’t suppose they have those Bedder things here, do you? I’m not sure my constitution will stand up to another invasion of that kind. I think I nearly had two heart attacks—at once.”

As if in answer to his question, we are suddenly confronted by an elderly, stout woman who looks somewhat like a baked potato. With her dusters and polish she in fact looks very much like a Bedder. The Professor shudders at the sight of her.

Mon dieu!” she squeals “You have startled me! So many strange-looking guests arriving today, zut alors!”

“I will have you know that we are not strange-looking,” retorts The Dean, although not entirely convincingly. “And anyway, what do you mean by that?”

“About an hour ago a very strange-looking gentleman arrived,” she replies, her English excellent although heavily accented. “He went straight to his room also. Although he spoke English, his accent was anything but. In your hats and clothes you look very like him. Maybe it is your English custom, non?”

“Actually, I’m American, and that’s the truth,” Professor Duke points out. She shrugs.

“It is all the same.”

“Listen, we’re not interested in your strange guests,” says The Dean, losing patience a little. “We are looking for our room.”

“It is here,” the lady replies, indicating the closest door. “I am just finished cleaning it. Enjoy.”

“Well,” the professor says, relieved, “since she’s finished, we shouldn’t have to expect her to come haunting about, then.”

The room is indeed large and much more comfortable than I was expecting. There is an enormous bed at the far end, preceded by a plush sitting area consisting of an over-stuffed sofa and an elegant chaise longue. I begin to unpack my tea-things.

“I say, look at the size of that bed!” says The Dean. “I reckon we could all get in that, what do you say, Deputy Head Porter?”

“Absolutely not, Sir.”

“Well, we all have to sleep somewhere and it seems a shame to waste it.”

“We have the reputation of Old College to uphold, Sir,” I reply, quickly. “We cannot very well go jumping into bed with each other at the drop of a hat.”

“Pah! You Porters have no sense of adventure!”

That is one adventure I think is best given a wide berth. Besides, my mother is probably reading this.

“I’ll take the chaise longue!” announces Professor Duke, leaping on it and making himself comfortable, legs deftly propped up on one of the cushions. “This will suit me very well indeed! It’s quite bouncy and foamy.”

I am thinking of making a claim for the sofa before The Dean brings up the subject of the bed again, but several loud thudding sounds abruptly interrupt proceedings.

“What could that be?” the Professor says, sitting up smartly.

And then, a hideous scream like a thousand pigs being slaughtered.

We leap to our feet.

An exchange of glances.

We head back out into the corridor.

With Professor VJ Duke