Weekdays or weekends, the evening meal at Brotherton Hall was taken early — at half-past six, which to Mrs Pargeter’s mind was no time to be eating an evening meal. Nor did what was put in front of her conform with her definition of what an evening meal should be.
At the centre of a large plate some leaves of lettuce and other subservient greenery abased themselves before a little mound of cottage cheese. Now Mrs Pargeter was a broad-minded woman of generous spirit. There were few things in the world that riled her enough to make a fuss; but one of that tiny minority was cottage cheese.
She didn’t know whether it was the appearance that offended her most, its close resemblance to what can be seen at the bottom of a just-stirred pot of Non-Drip Brilliant White Vinyl Matt Emulsion; or the slippery nothingness of its touch against her tongue; or the taste, that failed aspiration to piquancy and resulting compromise of slight unpleasantness. Probably more than any of these, what put Mrs Pargeter off cottage cheese was the expression of sanctimonious righteousness worn by its habitual eaters.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t think this is right.’
There was nothing peremptory in her tone, just a gentle pointing-out of an error in the menu distribution. The waitress consulted a list. ‘You’re Mrs Pargeter, aren’t you?’ And, on receipt of confirmation, ‘No, that is right. You’re on the same diet as Mrs Thurrock.’
‘But.’ Mrs Pargeter pointed to her plate, confident of the monosyllable’s eloquence.
Kim jollied her along. ‘Come on, Melita. No slacking. We’re in this together. Il faut souffrir pour etre belle.’ (She had taken advantage of the last seven years’ enforced solitude to improve her education at evening classes.)
Mrs Pargeter realized she was in a cleft stick (a particularly uncomfortable metaphor for a woman of her ample proportions). Kim had been reluctant to accept charity, and had only agreed to the Brotherton Hall visit when her friend had invented a pretext of needing support in her own battle against excess poundage. Mrs Pargeter was obliged therefore to make at least a gesture towards slimming during their stay.
A brainwave struck her. ‘Oh yes, I know I’m meant to be on the same diet, but I forgot to mention any allergy.’
The word had the desired effect; a cowed look of respect appeared in the waitress’s eye. ‘Ah, Dr Potter usually deals with allergies, but I’m afraid he’s not in this evening.’
‘Then I’d better see Mr Arkwright.’ Without sacrificing any of its charm, Mrs Pargeter’s voice allowed no possibility of denial.
She rose to her feet. ‘If you’ll excuse me, Kim… I’ll have to just go and sort this out.’
‘Yes, of course.’
The waitress looked dubiously down at Mrs Pargeter’s plate. ‘Not quite sure what I should do about this, though.’
She was rewarded by a sweet smile. ‘Well, my friend’s helping isn’t very large. I’m sure she could manage mine too.’
The waitress’s expression left no doubt that Mrs Pargeter had found the quickest route to blasphemy at Brotherton Hall.
‘So, about this allergy, Mrs Pargeter…?’ said Mr Arkwright, seated in the comfort of his flat on the top floor of Brotherton Hall’s East Wing.
‘Well, cottage cheese is the main thing, really…’ she confided, ‘but this does sort of affect other things…’
‘Well, for example, I find that I’m allergic to salad on its own.’
‘You know, when it hasn’t got any meat with it.’
‘And in fact I’m very nearly allergic to salad with meat. Certainly cold meat. I’m much less allergic to hot meat with lots of nice hot vegetables and then, if there has to be salad… well, if it’s just a kind of garnish, I’m not so allergic to that.’
Mr Arkwright made a considerable business of writing some notes down on a clipboard. ‘We’ll certainly bear that in mind, Mrs Pargeter, in devising the optimum diet for your condition. Anything else we should watch on the allergy front?’
‘Well, I find I’m quite allergic to not having three good big meals a day. And I’m totally allergic to not having any wine with my dinner.’
‘You have a bad reaction to that?’
‘Bad? Oh, I’ll say! Positively life-threatening.’
‘Hm…’ Mr Arkwright looked long and thoughtfully at the pad in front of him, but his musings were interrupted by a knock on the door of his dining-room. ‘Come in.’
A squat man in waiter’s uniform, who looked to be as wide as he was tall, entered carrying a tray whose contents were hidden by silver domes and crisp napkins. Mrs Pargeter smiled at him, but he seemed pointedly to avoid her eye.
‘Thank you, Stan. If you could put it down and prepare Mrs Pargeter’s medication…’
The waiter complied and, when the preparation was complete, handed Mrs Pargeter a glass.
She took it cautiously. ‘Is it meant to bubble like that?’
Ankle-Deep Arkwright grinned, unable to maintain the charade any longer. ‘Dom Perignon usually does. And don’t worry, we’ve got a nice claret to go with the steak.’ He raised his glass. ‘Cheers, Mrs P. Great to see you.’