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.
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.