top hat

Bad Food. Good Idea.

Whilst always delighted to be in the scintillating company of young Organ Scholar, I am rather perturbed that our unexpected addition to the table will delay Professor Duke’s revelations about his mysterious hat. There is clearly an interesting story behind it and my unquenchable thirst for knowledge has a particular desire to be quenched, I must say.

As the Professor and Organ Scholar discuss the nuances of musical theory, my mind wanders to things beyond the riddles of bloodied messages and haunted hats and into the realms of knowledge itself. They say that knowledge is power and if such a thing is true, it would explain mankind’s relentless quest for it. At Old College I am surrounded by the phenomena; centuries of searching for innumerable truths have left the weighty notions of knowledge almost palpable.

Not that this obstinate endeavour has done us too many favours, it would seem. Perhaps too many pursue knowledge with the less-than-noble intention of gaining power and too few strive to attain wisdom. If knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit and wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad, mankind needs to make quite the leap between the two before we reach enlightenment.

Before I can begin to ponder what this leap might be, our starters arrive. Delivered to us by the blandly charming Waitress, the offerings presented to us are interesting to say the least. I am certain that I ordered mozzarella sticks but before me I seem to have some kind of bread crumbed bullets. Organ Scholar is less hesitant and he has already taken a mouthful of whatever it is he ordered before the plate is fully placed upon the table. Professor Duke pokes warily at his victuals with a butter knife.

“What have you got there?” I ask, bravely taking a bite from my own plate.

“I’d hoped it was calamari,” he replies. “But I rather suspect it to be deep fried rubber bands. What a thing.”

“Mine was champion,” says organ Scholar, noisily wiping his lips. His plate has been practically licked clean. “Mind you, I am bloody hungry.”

“I fear I’m falling behind in the race,” says the Professor, warily eyeing the most rapidly-emptied plate the restaurant has ever seen. “But let’s have speaks about the choir and whatnot. I’m thinking we should track down the old choir and see what they’re about. See what they have to say. And generally, just see. My idea, you see, is to either convince them to train up their replacements or – better still – to infiltrate them.”

“Sneak some of them in to the new Choir?” I say, valiantly chomping on some surprisingly rigid mozzarella. “That’s not a bad idea, you know.”

“Bad ideas sometimes squeak into here, but I throw them back out,” the Professor taps at his temple. “Organ Scholar, you must know the fellows we need. Is this a possibility, my man?”

“To be honest, most of them are quite glad to be out of it all, what with the sudden disappearance of Music Professor,” Organ Scholar replies. “It’s put the wind up them. But there’s maybe one or two I could have a word with. Deputy Head Porter, you know Penelope?”

Indeed I do. Penelope is the starry-eyed girlfriend of College prankster and some-time Porters’ assistant Hershel. Apparently, she has the voice of an angel. The face of one too, if memory serves. She could be perfect!

“Great, see what you can do,” I reply. “Get her onboard and maybe she will talk round some of the others.”

Suddenly, a lethal ring of deep fried rubber band hurtles past my ear and careens into an ice cream sundae three tables behind me. Professor Duke looks up guiltily.

“Goodness! Where did that come from?”

This seafood bombardment has caught the attention of Waitress who scowls in our general direction and tut-tuts, quite to our surprise.

“I’m sorry about that a bit,” the Professor attempts to make amends. “But I’ve heard word that the food is dynamic in these parts.”

“Well, it certainly is this evening!” Waitress replies, a little testily. “You are my second customer who wouldn’t keep their food on their plate.”

“See, that’s the thing, I’m thinking the plates might be too small. But anyways and some, I think that was our buddy  (and his lady friend) you’re referring too,” says the Professor. “Tell me, where you there? Did you see what happened?”

“It was a very difficult thing not to see,” she continues. “The pair of them made a show of themselves all evening. Especially the woman. She was incredibly demanding about everything – no less than with the attentions of your friend. The poor old thing was terrified. I caught him sizing up the fire exit for a means of escape. When I came to clear away the starters she was on his lap and going at him like he was the main course. I hardly even got to serve the next dish when she started screaming, ripped the plate from my hand and threw the whole lot over him.”

I can’t help but laugh a little. Poor Head Porter!

“What happened then?” I ask.

“He ran away as fast as he could,” Waitress answers, grinning a little herself. “Left her to pay the bill. Serves her right, the crazy moo.”

Waitress takes our plates and bustles off towards the kitchens, leaving us to savour the mental scene that has been cast before us. I am the first to break from reverie.

“I think, without doubt, that we should not let Head Porter go on any more dates unchaperoned. Professor, you and I are going to have to accompany him on any and every romantic pursuit from now on.”

“We will have to,” he replies, nodding sagely. “We can spy from the bar or something. Intervene when necessary. Can’t have his reputation in tatters!”

So – there is a choir to convince, a Choir to rescue and a hapless lover to be saved from himself. Tonight we have our plates full in every sense of the word.

An Evening Out

A crisp and starry night has fallen across The City. A glittering carpet of frost is forming beneath our feet as the Professor and I make our way along the darkened pavements, the occasional street lamp illuminating us like actors on our own personal stage. Despite the advancing hour, The City remains a bustling hive of interest and people rush past us unheeding, each on some personal quest of varying urgency.

Although the latest romantic exploit of Head Porter provides us with some suitable fodder for chatter, our main focus of conversation is The Dean. He must surely realise that we are all aware of the mysterious bloody note yet he has mentioned not a word about it since Professor Duke confronted him. The Dean is not a man to show a weakness so I can only surmise that the incident has rattled him somewhat.

He is a rare breed, The Dean. It would be easy to label him as an Alpha Male, but I rather think he views himself as being on the other end of the scale of such things; an Omega Man, if you like. The last man standing. A man to best all men. I think he pulls it off rather well.

The Professor, on the other hand, is more unusual still. Whilst quite clearly a man, he has the aura of something more akin to a mythical creature. If he were to grow a tail or suddenly gain the ability to fly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Now, one of my favourite things about The City is the sheer majestic age of the thing. When the first stones were laid over eight hundred years ago, they really took the business of building cities seriously. This is a city that was built to last. The quirky upshot of this is that many of the places here actually used to be something else. For example, the very pasta restaurant to which we are headed.

Originally a water mill, the charming stone building squats proudly atop the River, its shadow falling across the Mill Pond for several centuries, now. The proprietors have kept many of the original features – including the huge wooden wheel that once turned the mechanisms, powered by the inexhaustible waters beneath – which makes it a perfectly charming place to enjoy a meal. Not that the food here is anything special, to be quite frank, but it is plentiful and reasonably priced and the enchanting atmosphere more than makes up for it.

Just as we are about the enter, the Professor stops me.

“Now, here’s the thing: no throwing of the food, madam. If Head Porter would’ve laid down that law first and upfront, he’d have been quite fine.”

I laugh.

“You drive a hard bargain, Professor” I reply “But okay then. Although you must solemnly swear not to bite my nose.”

“The last time I bit a nose, it was because my hands were tied behind my back! Won’t do it, see.”

“Fair enough.” Now, to find out more about that hat…

The restaurant is toasty warm and candlelit and the Professor requests a table by the wheel.

“I like to sit by the wheel, see,” he explains to the perpetually-smiling young waitress. “It is interesting to inspect something that is almost as old as myself. Plus, wheels go round and round, sorta like I do on the inside.”

She gives him a curious look, but her serene expression of polite deference soon returns. This establishment welcomes a constant stream of all manner of City residents and no doubt a good deal of them are at least as peculiar as my top-hatted friend. As we pass by the bar, I spot a familiar figure gazing forlornly into what appears to be a glass of sweet sherry. I nudge my companion gently in the ribs.

“Goodness me! I can’t believe who we’ve spotted! Capital. How are you, my man?”

Organ Scholar looks up from his drink and gives us a weak smile.

“You look rough,” I say, wishing I had thought of something rather nicer. “The rehearsal must have been quite an ordeal for you.”

The young musician rolls his eyes and shakes his head, something approaching a laugh snorting from his nose.

“I don’t know whether to shoot the Choir, or myself.”

“Shooting is a fun thing, but let’s hold off for the minute,” Professor Duke suggests, patting him amiably on the shoulder. “We were about to eat lots…why don’t you join us? You can bring your funny little drink with you.”

“Yes, why are you drinking sherry?” I ask, genuinely mystified.

“Well, I’ve tried ordering a pint twice, now,” replies Organ Scholar “But they keep bringing me this. It’s actually not too bad.”

“It smells a bit…toad-ish,” says the Professor suspiciously. “But bring it along if you like it. We shall have this choir business figured out in no time.”

Goodbye, Old Friend

There is silence in Old Hall, except for the sombre sound of the Professor’s sword clattering morosely as it falls to the flagstoned floor.

“Oh… Oh my…” mutters Junior Bursar, his face awash with pallid horror. “I mean, I didn’t quite mean to… oh goodness…”

For a second, I am bewildered and frozen, unable to breathe or move, my heart unable to beat at all. In a moment I am detached from myself, floating listlessly to the roof, buoyed by a dreadful sense of nausea and looking down on an ugly scene that unfolds in crippling slow-motion.

All at once, the present comes bursting back in a vast, crashing wave of consciousness; the taste of metal in my mouth and the deafening rush of blood through my ears as a great thundering in my breast brings me very much back to reality. A sound of whimpering comes to my ears from a source unknown. It takes yet another second to realise that it is coming from me.

“Professor!” I cry, running to where he lies prone on the floor. I fling myself upon him, holding back my frightened sobs but unable to prevent a determined tear from finding its way onto my cheek.

“Dadblameit! I’m vexed, you know!”

“Professor! Are you okay?”

“I really am very sorry…” Junior Bursar is shuffling contritely nearby.

Professor Duke sits up abruptly, flinging me to one side as he does so. His face is a vision of pure rage and his eyes burst with fury and the colours of a thousand stars. He fixes Junior Bursar with the coldest, darkest stare I believe I have ever witnessed. And that is saying something. If looks could kill, this would be nuclear war.

“LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!” the Professor roars, holding aloft an object that appears to have once been his top hat.

“My dear fellow, I really am…”

“MY HAT!!! IT’S…NO MORE! Well, it’s here, it’s just a shadow of it’s FORMER GLORY!”

Giving the Professor a quick once-over, it seems that the white suit remains immaculate and there is not a scrub nor a bump anywhere about his person. The only casualty appears to be his beloved topper. Whilst this is something quite clearly approaching a tragedy, I am certainly surprised by the almost harrowed remorse being displayed by Junior Bursar.

“Professor Duke – boundless apologies – it might be one thing to kill a man, but the desecration of his headgear is quite unforgivable. Might I..?” Junior Bursar reaches out to the mangled millinery but his hand is slapped smartly away.

“Don’t touch me!” the Professor snaps. “ I don’t want to end up like my hat, heathen! You have done quite enough damage already. Look at it! I have had this hat since I was a baby…”

“I didn’t mean it. I was aiming for your head.”

The Professor’s response is barely intelligible and probably would not be repeatable even if it was. Snarling and rabid, he launches himself at Junior Bursar, grappling at his throat and sending them both tumbling across the flagstones in a bundle of mortal combat.

For cripe’s sake. Here they go again. 

“Ho ho, what’s this? A fight! Bravo!”

I turn to see The Dean swaggering through the doors, followed by a peaky-looking, but nevertheless upright, Head Porter. I get to my feet and join them, the three of us watching the ensuing battle with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“Is this about the Holy Grail?” asks Head Porter, scratching his head.

“No, this is about the Professor’s hat,” I reply. “Junior Bursar has destroyed it with a pole-axe, look.” I offer up the tattered remains as evidence. There is a collective sharp intake of breath and anguished expressions.

“Rum business, that” says The Dean, shaking his head. “No wonder the old chap is so angry. Go on, Dukey – give it some welly!”

“He really doesn’t need any encouragement, Sir” I reply. This is true. In fact, Professor Duke is getting worryingly close to causing the old fellow some serious damage. “You know, I think we should probably stop him.”

The Dean lets out an irritated sigh and looks generally disappointed.

“Well, I suppose you’re right, Deputy Head Porter” he huffs. “There is rather a lot of blood getting about the place. It’s a bugger to get out, you know, Head Of Housekeeping will be furious.”

The Dean and I tackle the Professor, who by this stage is a veritable pummeling machine. We grab an arm each and, with quite some difficulty, haul him away from a dazed and bloodied Junior Bursar who himself is dragged to his feet by Head Porter. Still growling and spitting, Professor Duke puts me in mind of Terry when I pull him off his latest kill. This is probably why I begin to absent-mindedly stoke his hair and offer soothing utterances. Surprisingly, this seems to work.

“Now see here, Junior Bursar,” says The Dean, approaching him slowly with the beadiest of looks in his eye. “I like a good rumpus as much as the next man. But you have completely savaged this man’s hat! That, old boy, is not only uncalled for but also ungentlemanly. Hardly befitting behaviour of a member of Old College.”

“Hmmm” is all Junior Bursar can offer in reply.

“Now, in order for the honour of Old College to be upheld, I see no option other than for you to take leave of this place immediately and at once resume your retirement in Tuscany. You can take your Grail with you and no more shall be said about that or the matter of the hat, agreed?”

“But.. the Grail..?” Head Porter whispers but is cut short by The Dean.

“He won that fair and square many a moon ago, it is not ours to take. Now,” The Dean turns back to Junior Bursar. “What say you, Fellow?”

“It would appear that it is the only recourse for all honours to remain intact,” Junior Bursar agrees, reluctantly. He says no more, but nods stiffly at each of us before turning away and placing his cuff carefully under his bleeding nose before walking away with slow, painful steps.

“Do you think he will keep his word?” Head Porter asks, once he has gone.

“Oh, I should think so,” replies The Dean, nodding vigorously. “He might be a murdering, Grail-stealing sociopath but he is a man of his word, without doubt.”

“My poor, dadblame hat,” the Professor mumbles, glumly turning the battered remnants over and over in his hands.

A thought strikes me.

“Do you know, I think I have an idea,” I say, tucking my arm in his and giving it a squeeze. “Come with me.”

***

Dusk has thrown her velvety shawl across the evening and the warm night air is sweet with the smell of night flowers as we stand at the edge of the excavation site in Apple Tree Court.

“Whatever are we doing here, Deputy Head Porter?” asks The Dean, no doubt keen to return to his whiskey and whatever remains of the wedding buffet.

“I thought that this would be a fitting resting place for the dear departed hat of Professor Duke,” I reply. “Down here lies the most ancient and important parts of Old College. These foundations have definitively sustained the very heart and soul of our esteemed establishment for centuries. I thought that if the hat were to be interred here, a little bit of the Professor would forever be part of it all.”

Professor Duke beams with delight.

“I’m thinking this is rather brilliant, the sudden,” he says. “I think we’re all glad, now, that my hat obviously feels no more pain. You know, I’m thinking it died immediately. Which is the best death to be had for a…warrior hat! Now, the fuzzy little brute will rest in peace—forever.” He gives his favoured headgear a final pat, before casting it gently into the exposed bowels of Old College. “Goodbye, old friend.”

“We can always go hat shopping tomorrow,” I say, soothingly. This does not go down well.

“I’m thinking it’s too soon,” the Professor whispers.

“I say, what’s going on over there?” remarks The Dean, pointing over towards the flowerbeds by the cloister. “That looks like Terry. Is he… digging?”

“He’s probably burying a poo,” I reply, helpfully.

“I bet not,” says the Professor. “ If he is it’s a strange way to go about that. He looks rather excitable about something. I think we should investigate…”

With Professor VJ Duke