The evening had started with the predictable mix of glamour and showing-off. Black, white and sparkling gold provided the backdrop for discreet but earnest comparisons about waist size, amount of hair, and relationship status. Dinner made for even more intimate conversation, provoked by the space limitations of the bulging benches. A green, white and red theme emerged as staff brought us plates of asparagus, turbot and summer fruits fool. The college chardonnay, honeyed and very acceptable, seemed plentiful, and there was a contented buzz in Hall when the speeches began.
I remember a good friend, who’d officiated at more than his fair share of these dinners, told me his top tip was get the speeches over early in the programme and delivered quickly. Sadly not tonight, and when finally we were released to make our way to the Buttery, we were in need of a morale-boosting sharpener or two, and to finally commune with the people we’d actually come to see again.
There is nothing like a reunion to demonstrate proof of the old law of physics that states that nothing changes very often. Here we all were again with or without hair, money or whipped waistlines, head to head, drinking and playing table football as if it were yesterday. It seems on evenings like this, you enter a time slip where one can automatically resume old threads of conversation, feel similar emotional affects and even commit the same social errors. I was with a small group of very good and old friends and relishing every minute, unlike Pip.
Pip was yawning and said it was far too late for her to be up drinking. With a blown kiss to the rest of us, she made her way towards the door,
‘It’s late, and I’m going to bed. See you all at breakfast!’
Her departure created something of a lull, and looking about us we saw that we were now the last men standing or, more precisely, sitting. The Buttery was quiet now, apart from the departing click-clack of Pip’s heels on the stairs up to the Quad.
It was Ed, my best friend from the very beginning of our time at college, and Pip’s husband, who called for one last beer and a good story before bed.
Sitting with a brand new pint of Shotover Scholar in front of me, I said I had an interesting story to tell that was perfect for a Gaudy night. What’s more, it was actually a true story – and not only that, it had taken place place the first time I had come into this very room. The others murmured an intrigued assent; and so encouraged, this was the story I told.
The first time I saw Oxford, I came by train, and even though Birmingham was not that far away, it seemed to take forever. It was also my first time away from home by myself, without Mum or Dad, teachers or other school friends, and I was to be interviewed at Foxe College for a place to read law. It was a cold, Welsh slate of an afternoon in December.
After walking from the station in the freezing rain, my toes were tingling and I felt tired, anxious and frankly miserable. I found my way to Turl Street and arrived at Foxe around six o’clock, noticing for the first time the sad orange glow of the gaslights that seemed to hang in mid-air above the square next to the Radcliffe Camera. At the lodge, all cosy and pigeonholed, a smart and efficient-looking porter with a pocket watch and half-moon spectacles gave me directions to my room, which after a number of frustrating wrong turns, I finally managed to locate. It was on the top floor of staircase XVI. There was a smell of beeswax and muskiness in the air and at the end of a dim, lino-ed corridor I saw my room. Unlocking the door, I found myself in a dark, cold closet of a room. I switched on the light to reveal only basic amenities: a desk, a single bed and a small cloth-backed armchair. The walls were solid and bare and through the window I could see the drizzle and the stained glass of a chapel illuminated by the lamp below. Feeling the chill, I noticed a gas fire attached to the wall, but couldn’t see any means of lighting it.
I emptied the contents of my bag on the bed – that didn’t take long – and was grateful to find the extra jumper my mum had encouraged me to pack, and I decided I would go in search of a box of matches and something to eat. It had been a long time since the bacon sandwich my mum had cooked me that morning.
On my way back to the lodge, I spotted a young man wrapped up against the cold carrying some books and a briefcase; he was a few years older than me, and I assumed he was probably a postgrad or a young don. I asked him if there was anywhere in college I might get some matches and a something to eat.
He looked at me at first as if I spoke a foreign language but after a second, he seemed to have understood what I said.
‘The Buttery may still be open,’ he said. His voice definitely had a touch of gentry about it. ‘You’ll probably get some pilchards on toast and a cup of tea, or similar. Good luck.’
Now, I wasn’t actually sure then what pilchards were, or for that matter what a Buttery was, but a few minutes later I was in what we all know as Pater Quad, looking down into the white wattled gloom of a stairwell which lead to the basement of Staircase IX.
I trod cautiously down the stairs, pressed the iron latch and opened the door. There was light and warmth but the Buttery was quiet and deserted. Quite hungry and definitely cold now, I felt brave enough to mooch around the bar for a box of matches. I was rummaging in a drawer when I heard a voice. It was gravelly, warm and friendly, with an accent I faintly recognised.
‘Hello, sir, can I help you?’
I turned and saw a well-built man of about forty, with a reddish face and smartly brushed, short black hair. He was wearing the sort of short white coat I had seen waiters wear. His black trousers were well pressed and his shoes were immaculately polished Oxfords.
‘Do you know what you’re looking for, sir?’
‘I’m here for an entrance interview tomorrow,’ I said.
He could see I was nervous and hesitant. ‘I’ve just arrived in college and my room was cold and there were no matches to light the fire. Actually, I’m really hungry – do you think I could get anything to eat here?’
‘Sorry to say the the pantry is closed now, sir, but I can probably rustle up a lump of cheddar, a chunk of bread and a glass of beer for you. And somewhere here I think we’ll find a book of matches. Come and sit yourself down here, lad. I’m Arnold, by the way, Senior College Porter and Buttery Steward.’ He called me over and sat me at a table over there, near the table football. My Gaudy friends looked, nodded and took another sip of their beer and I continued…
From behind the bar, Arnold called to me: ‘So you’re up for an interview, sir? What subject?’
‘That’ll be with Dr Harding then. Lovely man! Likes a nice glass of wine does the doctor, but make sure you’ve read the papers as he does seem to like students who know what’s going on.’
He brought over a tray on which were two glasses, two bottles of beer, a chunk of cheddar and doorstep of bread. He plonked two beer mats on the table, carefully poured our beer into the waiting glasses and sat down beside me. He carried on talking while I got stuck into the cheese and drank my beer. He told me a little bit about the history of the college and the famous alumni who studied here, and we talked about football and cricket; I remember him telling me that he supported Wolverhampton Wanderers because his dad originally came from Worcester. Arnold was a keen cricketer and kept wicket for the College Staff against the First XI.
I think we chatted for about twenty minutes and I thanked him for the beer, cheese and his company. As I got up to go, he handed me a Shotover beer mat as a small memento, and a book of matches that bore the Foxe College crest. He wished me good luck with Dr Harding and said he hoped we’d meet again. Thanks to Arnold, I went back to my room to prepare for my interview feeling warmer and more cheerful.
At this, I paused for a moment and took a good quaff of Scholar.
Ed said, ‘Is that it then?’
I shook my head and with a smile, resumed the story.
It was ten months before I returned to Oxford and to Foxe College. I had won a place to read law, and arrived in October with all my kit in that huge trunk. You’ll recall the effort it took to lug it up to the fifth floor of my staircase, Ed?
Anyway, with all the spurious confidence of a newly-minted undergraduate, one of my priorities on that first night was to visit the Buttery, and to present myself to Arnold and return the compliment by buying my round.
You all know of course how busy the Buttery got during Freshers’ Week? When I finally managed to push myself to the front of the bar, I looked around eagerly. But there was a different steward working there. I asked him when Arnold would be working his shift. Because of the noise, I had to repeat the question. He looked puzzled.
‘Sorry, sir, I don’t know who you mean.’
‘But I met him when I was up for interview in December last year.’
The steward shook his head, ‘We don’t have an Arnold at Foxe College.’
‘Is there someone else who might know Arnold?’ I asked.
‘Well, it’s not very likely, but you could try with Bert Mulley. He’s been here forever and he knows most of the college servants in Oxford.’
I tracked down Bert later that week – still very spritely for his age, he’d been in charge of serving High Table – and I asked him if he knew Arnold, the Senior College Porter and Buttery Steward.
Bert’s eyebrows met, as he thought hard.
‘Now sir, there’s no Arnold at Foxe right now, to be sure,’ he said. ‘But I do remember an Arnold working here when I started; actually, he was one of the most popular porters and Buttery barmen we’ve ever had at Foxe. Lovely man, and a proper war hero too.’
‘Yes, during the second war, he was one of the first Foxe men to volunteer and join up ― I think he served with the Oxford and Buckinghamshire light infantry. He was in the gliders that landed at Pegasus Bridge on D-Day. He was killed in Normandy not long after. At Caen, I think. Terrible.’
Nonplussed, I somehow managed to thank Bert, and went straight back to my rooms and the, as yet, half unpacked trunk. I rummaged through my kit for the beer mat Arnold had given me. I found it inside a book. On one side, it had a picture of Shotover’s range of Bottled Ales and on the other, under a shot of a bottle and a glass of beer was a short Latin motto.
The Latin was simple and easy for me to translate and I whispered it to myself:
Beer is living proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.
At this point, I stopped speaking and smiled; there was a short electric silence, finally broken by Ed’s voice
‘Wow. That was quite a story! You know what? I think we should all drink to Arnold!’
And so, nodding at Ed and the rest of my friends and then glancing back to the spot where I’d met Arnold, I lifted my glass and we saluted him with our last pints of Scholar.