What’s In A Name?

As I hurry through the cloisters towards Apple Tree Court, a spiteful wind whips beneath a steel sky, snatching at the brim of my bowler. The City is swathed in the tail end of a ferocious storm that as been battering the North of England. The auspicious positioning of The City means we have thankfully been spared the ravages of floods and gales, but in its final throes the storm is spitting and wailing above us, heading to the coast to expire. A bit like a middle-class pensioner.

The Meteorological Office has recently taken to the American practice of naming storms of note, much to the bemusement of the British public. We are not so disposed as to feel the need to be on first name terms with even our next-door neighbours, let alone rumbunctious weather conditions.

I asked Professor Duke about it – hailing as he does from across the pond – and he told me that naming something made it seem somehow less threatening; knowing a name gives one power over a thing. I had thought that there might be a more practical reason behind it, but I suppose what he says makes some sense (for a change). Even so, I find being quite so over-familiar with wind and rain quite unpalatable.

When I reach The Dean’s rooms I find him heartily engaged in a telephone conversation and gazing out of the window, seemingly enjoying the storm from the comfort of his leather chair. I imagine The Dean likes storms very much as he shares with them some uncanny similarities. On spotting me, he motions for me to sit down and be quiet.

The Dean finishes his conversation with unusual cordiality and turns his attentions to me, furnishing me with a smile so sincere it makes me nervous.

“You seem very chirpy, if you don’t mind me saying so, Sir.”

“I don’t mind at all, Deputy Head Porter” he replies, moving towards his drinks cabinet. “It’s not often you say nice things about me. Drink?”

He knows only too well that I cannot drink on duty, although he does try to persuade me on occasion. I shake my head.

“I’m glad you’re here, actually, I wanted to talk to you about something. But if you haven’t come here to drink my whiskey you must be of a similar mind. What it is?”

The Dean pours himself a large Scotch and settles back into his favourite chair. I clear my throat.

“It’s about the Choir, Sir. Organ Scholar has enlisted the help of Penelope and they are confident they can save them from certain humiliation at the Choir Competition.”

“Well! This is good news, Deputy Head Porter,” The Dean takes an enthusiastic swig from his glass. “That’s one less thing for me to worry about, I say. I trust that Head Porter is making progress with the hunt for my idiot pen-friend?”

“Oh, absolutely, Sir,” I reply, nodding emphatically. “He is working on it even as we speak. No doubt he will get to the bottom of it very soon.”

“I am not interested in a thing’s bottom, Deputy Head Porter” says The Dean, rather unexpectedly “I like to deal with matters from the top down. Once I have the name of the fellow responsible, mark my words I shall ensure that he doesn’t sit down for a week.”

That sounds rather… ominous.

“Words duly marked, Sir.”

“But enough of all that. I have something much more interesting to tell you. I have just been speaking to a woman.”

“That is interesting, Sir.”

“Quiet. Now, this woman happens to be The Headmistress at my nephew’s school and has been proving to be most bothersome just recently.”

“Oh?” I feel I just have to ask. “How so?”

“The infernal creature simply has no appreciation for my dear nephew’s cunning intellect and ready wit. She keeps summoning me to her office every time the poor boy opens his mouth. Clearly, she has no concept of gifted youth, the beast.”

If he is anything like his uncle, I imagine that the boy is something of a handful. I instantly feel a shrug of sympathy for the poor woman.

“Anyway, I am sure all this is because the rabid old spinster has far too much time on her hands so I have thought of a most cunning chicanery. Can you guess what it is?”

The Dean looks at me expectantly and I rather wish I had accepted the offer of a whiskey. Second-guessing The Dean is a dangerous practice. I attempt to look ponderous for a moment.

“I shall tell you. I think we should set her up romantically with Head Porter!”

“Are you sure that is wise, Sir?” I ask. “I mean, it could just make things worse.”

“Poppycock! The woman clearly has some pent up frustrations and I think our friend is just the man to address them!” This is a terrible mental image that I fear will not leave me for a very long time. “Listen, she’s an educated woman, after a fashion. But I want you and VJ to oversee the date. I can’t have victuals flying about where The Headmistress is involved, do you hear?”

“Loud and clear, Sir. In fact, I couldn’t agree more.”

“Excellent, then! I shall make the arrangements directly.” The Dean rises to his feet and drains his glass. “I will pass the details to you forthwith. Good day, Deputy Head Porter.”

Taking my cue to leave, I bid The Dean good day and head back towards the Porters’ Lodge. Something of a successful visit, I thought. The Dean has been diverted from the workings of the Choir – thereby avoiding close contact with Penelope and therefore Hershel – and Head Porter has a date! Let us hope it is less stormy than the weather.

An Offer Not To Be Refused

Head Porter and I are in his office, ensconced in a large nest-like structure of College maps. Clearly fired up with excitement at the prospect of another adventure, our brave and fearless leader has sprung into action and devised something approximating a Plan. ‘Sprung’ is perhaps rather generous. A little skip into action is probably more like it. But anyway.

Head Porter reliably informs me that he has checked the ‘obvious places’ for the missing -presumed stolen – Lord Layton. Quite where these obvious places might be I did not get a chance to find out. Head Porter obviously knows a lot more about art theft than I give him credit for. But he has come up with a surprisingly logical method of searching College in the meantime. With the help of a large amount of very dusty documentation pertaining to the layout of Old College, we are finalising our strategy.

Some of the maps are so old, I was initially handling them like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls or something, but after seeing Head Porter fling them across his desk with gusto I am rather more confident in having a good rummage through. I cannot claim to make much sense of them, it has to be said, but some of the plans are marvellous creations indeed. Hand drawn with such precision and beauty, the yellowing pages before me seem to exude the air of a perfect moment in time, caught forever in the embrace of ink and paper.

Whilst Head Porter mutters animatedly and makes little notes here and there, I busy myself with pretending to understand what I am looking at. I am doing a splendid job of this when there is a knock at the door, immediately followed by the arrival of Porter.

“The Dean is on his way to see you two,” Porter says “I thought I’d better let you know.”

“Yes, thanks Porter, advance warning of The Dean is always advisable” I reply.

“We’d better hide these maps, I think” Head Porter suggests. “Porter, go and stash them in the back for now, will you? Be careful, some of those are quite old.”

Porter scoops up the maps in his short, thick arms and transports them with all the grace and reverence of a drunken pirate making off with treasure. Head Porter seems suddenly a little flustered.

“Just act normal” he says. I hate it when people say that. Act normal? Normal for what? “Just… sit down here and we’ll act like we’re having a normal conversation.”

“We should just have a normal conversation. I’m a horrible actress.”

“Right!” Head Porter exclaims. “What do we normally talk about in my office?” This is a tough one. What passes for ‘normal’ in Head Porter’s office can change daily.

“I know. Let’s talk about the weather,” I suggest. “We’re always banging on about that.”

“Excellent, Deputy Head Porter! We shall bang on about the weather.” Head Porter launches enthusiastically into an account of the effect the recent changeable climate has had on his hollyhocks. Not to mention the roses. All very interesting – but more importantly, normal – stuff. Such is his fervour for the subject, I am starting to have serious concerns for his hollyhocks, but we are interrupted at the very climax of the drama by the arrival of The Dean.

“Good lord you chaps, do you ever get up to anything other than discussing the weather?”

Head Porter artfully raises one eyebrow. That is enough to suggest to The Dean that it would be wise for him to come to the point rather quickly. Spotting this, The Dean decides that he will do no such thing and sits himself down on the remaining chair.

“To what do we owe the pleasure, Sir?” Head Porter says, smiling.

“Two things,” replies The Dean. “First thing. The first thing is that our short-listed candidates have been informed of the happy news that they are in with a shot at the chance of a lifetime to become Old College’s new Bursar. No doubt they will want to pay us a visit under the guise of tourism and I want you two to try and winkle them out, do you understand? Get a bit of a feel for them and the like. Not literally a feel, obviously.”

“Obviously” I reply.

“And what was the second thing, Sir?” Asks Head Porter, genially.

“Oh yes, the second thing,” The Dean stops in his tracks for a second as a thought comes to him. He turns to me. “Deputy Head Porter, are we still supposed to be having this affair or not? I can’t think.”

“No, Sir,” I begin slowly. “That was purely for the benefit of Junior Bursar. With him now in Tuscany I see no reason to continue the pretence.” There is the briefest, yet most awkward of silences. “Why, Sir?”

“Well the second thing is also Bursar related. I think you two can be of some assistance to me. I just thought the affair ruse might be a good cover for us getting together.” That… doesn’t make any sense. “Look, why don’t you both join me for a few drinks in my rooms after hours. Make a proper night of it, you see?”

“I am afraid I already have arrangements for this evening,” says Head Porter. He and The Dean both look at me.

“Well, I’m not coming for a drink with you,” I huff. “You’ve only got the one glass.”

“I’ll get another glass if it is really that important to you, Deputy Head Porter.”

I sigh. I see no other option. I really cannot turn down The Dean of College. I nod in acquiescence and The Dean claps his hands together. I will be seeing him at eight.

Once The Dean has left, I turn on Head Porter crossly. He had better have bloody good ‘arrangements’ to excuse him from landing me with this. Apparently, he has.

“I’m taking my daughter to dinner,” he explains, his voice quiet but content. “I could maybe try and join you after, or..?” I hold up a hand and shake my head.

“It’s fine, really” I reply. “I expect an evening drinking with The Dean will be quite interesting.”

“To say the least, Deputy Head Porter.”

Through the office window, Porter catches my eye. He is frantically waving at us with one chubby paw and with the other he jabs frantically at the CCTV screen. Such excitement and obvious joy can mean only one thing. Porter has found something on the CCTV.

School’s Out For Summer

I sit quietly melting at my desk in the Porters’ Lodge. There is a little salty dampness above my top lip and I can feel a trickle of hot sweat sliding slowly down my back. I cannot remember how many times I have heard people complain that it is just too hot today.

I realise I am rather perpetuating the English stereotype of complaining about the weather, but if you have ever lived with English weather you will no doubt understand. Having just experienced a weekend that alternated at random intervals between bright sunshine and violent downpours, we are now in a thick and muggy heat wave. You can never, ever plan anything around the English weather. English weather will do just as it pleases.

Contrary to proclamations to the opposite, it seems that there are a lot of people out enjoying the climate. With no further educational endeavours until October, Old College has been taken over by The General Public. I am well versed in the dealings of The General Public and if experience has taught me anything it is that the public are rarely general. In fact, so intricately varied are their individual needs that whoever first coined the phrase should be had up for misrepresentation.

The grounds are crawling with enthralled tourists, all sporting the expressions of wonder and amazement I once proudly wore myself, not so very long ago. It is making me feel a little uneasy, to be honest. I am not happy at all about having all these strange people wandering around my College. Alright, the usual occupants can be fairly strange themselves but that’s an entirely different kind of strange.

As well as being a tourist attraction, Old College appears to have become something of a destination for global conferences. There are several organisations holding extravagant events over the coming months and Head Of Catering is on the verge of a nervous breakdown already. However, I am reliably informed that the Catering Department really excels itself during this period and I can be looking forward to some reliably sumptuous leftovers for the foreseeable future.

Along with tourists and professionals, Maintenance has welcomed a jovial team of painters and decorators to their merry band. Somehow renovations and holding events do not seem to go hand in hand. Maybe it’s just me. Head Of Maintenance has been strutting his stuff around College, obviously in his element. It seems to me that once the academics are out of the way, the real work gets done.

Speaking of academics, Old College has been notably depleted in that department. There has been some fervent activity from the depths of The Fellowship in the search for a new Bursar. It would appear that several candidates have been assembled and will undergo a harsh interviewing process (conducted, naturally, by The Master and The Dean) in the very near future. It is certainly a pivotal role within The Fellowship but quite frankly I shall be satisfied completely as long as they don’t kill anyone. It’s not a lot to ask.

I have discovered that Head Porter has recently been seeing quite a bit of his daughter. He does not seem any the more cheerful for it and has been in an absolutely foul mood these last few days. It is quite clear that this particular part of Head Porter’s life is none of my business but I wouldn’t mind having a few words with the young lady to see quite what the problem is. I hate seeing him like this.

As yet another bus-load of tourists pour in through the main gates, like great camera-wielding ants, I glance up at the elderly wooden clock on the wall. Lunchtime, and the respite it shall bring, is a mere ten minutes away. I shall sweat it out.

The door to The Lodge flies open and through it explodes Porter, his moustache in disarray.

“Ma’am,” he wheezes “You’d better come quickly…”