tradition

Older, Wiser, One Guinea Pig Down

Birthdays are often a time when a little reflection and soul searching are in order and once a year I try to find the time between cake and wine to indulge in such things. This year is particularly pertinent as everything is about to change for me, but most comforting are the things that stay the same. My birthday inevitably involves a pilgrimage back home to visit the family, an event that was especially exciting this time around as next week I will be taking up residence very near the family seat once more.

Birthdays are always celebrated at my grandparents’ house. Nan insists on doing all the cooking and there is always a protracted argument after the meal about who gets to do the clearing up. Weirdly, the fight for this dubious privilege plays out in an identical fashion each and every time. It begins when anyone dares to start stacking plates and Nan insists that we should ‘leave it’ and that she will ‘do it later’. Someone – usually Mumsie – then says ‘it’ll only take a minute’, at which point everyone at the table stands up to either assist Mumsie or to stop her in her tracks (depending whether you are on the side of pro-clearing up or anti-clearing up). Increasingly raised voices from the anti-clearing up side squeal ‘Leave it! Leave it!’ like there is some kind of pub closing time fight about to erupt, while the pro-clearing up side insists ‘I’m not clearing up, honestly’ as they proceed towards the sink with armfuls of used crockery. Then, Nan will have another glass of wine and scold the pro-clearing up team, who continue to insist that they are not clearing up at all. This goes on until everything is cleared up and put away and we can all move on to coffee as if nothing untoward has happened.

Another family birthday quirk is taking unseemly amounts of glee at something awful happening on the special day in question. This year, my brother was delighted to inform me that my birthday was ruined because Daisy, one of Mumsie’s guinea pigs, had died that morning. This was quite sad news but I didn’t consider it birthday-ruining. But my brother insisted – my birthday was ruined, so there you have it. Mumsie declared thoughtfully that Daisy was now ‘with the angels’ and noted, somewhat off-handedly, that there was ‘one less little mouth to feed’.

The rarely-seen Little Brother and a disturbing scene where my family came under attack from a unicorn

I feel that the passing of a family pet should be noted, but it’s difficult to know what to say about Daisy. Her entire existence consisted of little more than squeaking, eating continually and doing tiny poos all over the place. The most notable thing she ever did was die on my birthday. She was a nice little thing, very fat with lovely pink feet. She is survived by fellow furry poo-factory Fluffy, who is slightly more notable in that she is prone to weeing on your leg in addition to squeaking and eating.

The dearly departed Daisy (left) and (right) Fluffy in mourning

The arrival of my 38th year sees me still unsuccessful at maintaing coherent personal endeavours, but happily my literary output remains solid, if not a little improved over the last twelve months. The news of my return to my home town has given rise to the surprising speculation that I am planning a return to the police. The amount of people who have contacted me about this is astonishing, so much so that I almost considered it. The enthusiasm for this prospect is most flattering, but all in all I don’t think it would be a very good idea. They don’t even have proper hats any more so I’m afraid the whole thing is out of the question.

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This is a proper hat

And so I find myself fairly satisfied with my years on the planet thus far, my hat collection continues to grow, along with my circle of curious and delightful friends and acquaintances. As ever, I shall strive to work harder, do better and be better. But I shall also remember to follow the example of Daisy and make sure I take the time to worry about nothing more than squeaking and eating.

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.

The Induction Of The Fellowship

The rest of the day passes without incident, and my mind is consumed with the task before me this evening. The day’s duties done, I take a few moments to rearrange myself into something approaching fairly presentable. The male-orientated facilities in the Porters’ Lodge offer scant opportunity for preening, but I barricade myself in the rest room and make the effort, all the same.

The face looking back at me in the mirror is one I barely recognise. The cynicism induced by my previous existence has left my eyes. It hasn’t left my heart, but it is significantly reduced to the point that it doesn’t show.

I am wearing make-up – at work! Since my first day I have worn make-up. Not much, just smoothing out a few edges here and outlining a few others there. I’m at an age where I need a little bit of help to look fabulous. And help is at hand.

From the hatbox I gleefully lift The Bowler. I place it on my head with practiced aplomb. There! That’s all the help I need. I look fabulous. I am fabulous.

Head Porter calls out to me from within the Lodge, evidently we are cutting it a bit fine.

We hurry towards The Gathering Room, near The Chapel. The new Fellows to be inducted will wait here for the arrival of The Master, who will lead them from The Gathering Room to The Chapel via Apple Tree Court.  The many candles in the room throw a warming glow through the windows and the heavy oak door gives way to a welcoming heat. The room is all oak beams and wood panelling, with a glowing and regal fireplace at one end. An enormous wooden table in the centre dominates it. Oil paintings of previous, long dead Masters line the walls. They appear a little disapproving at my presence. I suppose they will get used to me.

Satisfied that The Gathering Room is ready to receive its eminent guests, we head towards The Chapel.

“Our part in the ceremony is simple,” explains Head Porter.  “We set up The Chapel accordingly, then we wait by the doors. When the Tower Clock strikes seven, The Master will lead the new Fellows across the courtyard. As they enter, we must open the curtains in The Chapel to allow them in to the sacred area. We then close the curtains behind them and lock The Chapel doors. Then, we crouch down and peek under the curtains.”

“Why do we peek under the curtains?” I ask. It’s a reasonable a question.

“It’s tradition,” Head Porter replies, testily. I am clearly an idiot. “We have to kneel down and make sure we do not cast a shadow under the curtains. If The Master sees our shadows, he will know we are watching.”

“Won’t he know that anyway?” I am confused. “I mean, if it’s part of the tradition, surely he’s got a bit of an idea that we might be trying to peek under the curtains.”

“That is hardly the point,” Head Porter retorts, sharply. “Besides, we need to know when the ceremony has ended so we can open the curtains again and unlock The Chapel doors to allow The Fellowship to make their way to The Feast.”

“Can’t we just listen in?” I feel I am beginning to dig a hole, here. “Isn’t it obvious when the ceremony has ended?”

Head Porter barely changes his expression, but I sense that he is exercising every ounce of patience in his being.

“The service is conducted in Latin,” he explains wearily. “We won’t know it’s over until we see The Fellows’ feet moving towards us.”

Right. College servants throughout the ages would probably not have had much of an education in the way of Latin.  Actually, I studied Latin at school (it’s a long story) but I wasn’t brilliant at it, so I let the moment pass and proceed with setting up The Chapel.

It would be a travesty and a dishonour to Old College to reveal the setting up of the sacred area and the ceremony itself (what little I saw). All I will say is that the clock strikes seven and the curtains are opened, as they have been by Porters for hundreds of years previously. When the curtains are closed behind The Fellows, I take my place on the stone floor, my knee nestling in the concave masonry worn down by centuries of knees before me. As it happens, this performance is unnecessary as the ceremony ends with a Latin phrase that should be easily recognisable to anyone in my Latin class at school.

I rise to my feet a few seconds before Head Porter (who was clearly not in my Latin class at school) and reach for the elaborate and weighty curtains. Head Porter unlocks The Chapel doors and we stand like sentries as the newly-inducted Fellows make their way to their feast.

As we make our way back to the Porters’ Lodge, I can’t help thinking to myself; I didn’t really do anything at all. But, the few actions I did perform were of such vital importance to this place that they have been repeated exactly for centuries. I’m a strong believer in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra but this is something else. Then again, I think of all the ways I could be earning a living and I think to myself – it sure could be a hell of a lot worse.