For lunch that day Mrs Pargeter enjoyed a Brochette de Lotte and Mousse aux Deux Chocolats in a meaningfully symbiotic relationship with an excellent Muscadet (the new coolness between herself and Ankle-Deep Arkwright had not affected Gaston’s dedication to the challenge of impressing her), and then set out to find Kim. She needed to ascertain whether any of the other guests had been aware of the departure of a corpse from Brotherton Hall the previous evening.
Her search ended in the gym, which, having been cleared of guests for the making of the Mind Over Fatty Matter video, was now full of less perfect bodies, losing the unequal struggle against weight-training apparatus, walking machines, and exercise bicycles.
Kim was busting a gut on a rowing machine. Marketing had done its work and she was now wearing Mind Over Fatty Matter leotards, leggings, and exercise bra. Somehow they didn’t look as good on her as they had on Sue Fisher’s aerobic chorus-line.
It was dreadful to see the agonies Kim was going through, scrunching her body up on each forward push and straining as the sliding seat clacked along beneath her with each pull back. Mrs Pargeter could not imagine anything more uncomfortable, and indeed could not imagine a human mind voluntarily consenting to such torture.
But Kim’s sweat-streaked face gleamed with pleasure. In fact it was more than pleasure; her expression showed the fervour of the postulant, the convert brought to ecstasy by the mysteries of her new religion. Brotherton Hall was certainly doing what was required of it for Kim Thurrock.
Mrs Pargeter parked herself on the seat of an adjacent exercise bicycle. ‘How’re you doing, love?’ she asked.
‘Wonderful,’ Kim gasped through her torments. ‘You really ought to have a go.’
Mrs Pargeter demurred with a little shake of her head.
‘No, it needn’t be something as vigorous as this. They’ve got apparatus that’s much gentler. Look, those things over there are called passive exercisers. You just lie down on them and they do the exercising for you.’
Kim nodded towards a pair of machines rather like loungers, whose arm and leg supports rose and fell rhythmically to stretch the limbs of the women who lay on them.
‘Those’re dead easy, Melita. The machine does the work for you. You could have a go on that, couldn’t you?’
Though admittedly not as daunting as the other apparatus, the passive exercisers were still not for Mrs Pargeter. ‘Don’t think it’d be wise. You know, the allergy…’
The magic word elicited the usual subdued reaction. Mrs Pargeter, to show she wasn’t going to let her allergic condition get her down, smiled pluckily. ‘Anyway, Kim, how’s it really going for you?’
‘Marvellous! Do you know, I’d lost four ounces at the Seven-Thirty Weigh-In this morning.’
‘Oh, well done.’
‘Thicko won’t recognize me.’
‘I’m sure he will. After all, he’s seen you at Visiting every week for nearly seven years.’
‘Yes, I know. I mean, he won’t recognize me when… well, you know, bed…’ A blush struggled through to intensify the sweaty redness of her face. ‘Anyway, I’m going to have my hair done differently before I leave here.’
‘How’re you going to have it done?’ Kim’s natural frizzy blonde hair, currently scraped back under a drenched sweat-band, had always struck Mrs Pargeter as one of her friend’s chief glories.
‘Well, probably red. Thicko always had a thing about redheads.’
‘Thicko always had a thing about you,’ Mrs Pargeter chided. ‘Don’t you go changing yourself too much. You don’t want your hair coloured, Kim. You’re much better off with what’s natural.’
‘Oh, but this would be natural. The Brotherton Hall salon only uses Mind Over Fatty Matter hair preparations’ (Dear God, was there any area of consumerism that Sue Fisher hadn’t got into?) ‘and they’re all natural products. I’ve bought a lot of them already.’ (Yes, I bet you have.) ‘You know, they’re made from herbs and barks of trees and mineral deposits and all that. And, what’s more,’ Kim added piously, ‘none of them have been tested on animals.’
‘Well, I’d keep them away from the poodles when you get home.’
‘Because they’ll probably kill them.’
But Kim Thurrock was too excited by her fitness programme to react to — or even to recognize — jokes. ‘Another thing I was thinking of having done — not immediately, but maybe in a little while — is a nip and tuck.’
‘You know, only a little bit. Empty the bags under the eyes, pick up the bottom a tidge.’
‘Are you talking about plastic surgery, Kim?’ asked Mrs Pargeter, appalled.
‘Of course I am. A lot of the other guests’ve had it done. One of them was telling me Mr Arkwright knows a very good plastic surgeon.’
Mrs Pargeter recalled that Ankle-Deep Arkwright had also known ‘a very good plastic surgeon’ in his former career. But that character, known universally as ‘Jack the Knife’, had employed his skills in rather specialized areas. He had made a fresh start possible for a great many people whose career prospects would otherwise have been blighted. Indeed the fact that Lord Lucan continued to work without harassment as a publican in Dorking was a tribute to the expertise of Jack the Knife.
But it was no time for reminiscence. Rather sharply, Mrs Pargeter said, ‘You just keep away from plastic surgery, Kim. You’re fine as you are.’
‘But I’m not. That’s the whole point.’
‘Listen, my girl-’
Kim Thurrock was not in the mood for a lecture. ‘Never mind that. Just tell me — how’s Brotherton Hall going for you, Melita?’ she asked, straining once again to fold her body in half.
‘Oh, fine, thanks.’
‘Enjoying all the facilities?’
‘Well, yes. At least,’ she conceded righteously, ‘those my “Special Treatment” allows me to.’
‘It is rotten luck for you,’ Kim puffed, ‘being kept off the gym equipment.’
‘Heart-breaking,’ Mrs Pargeter agreed demurely.
‘And I hope the food you get in that “Allergy Room” isn’t too ghastly.’
Mrs Pargeter conceded bravely that it was just about tolerable.
‘Do you know, Melita — I was offered a quarter of a grapefruit this morning at breakfast…’
‘But of course I refused it.’
‘Well, it’s terribly easy to get complacent. You know, when you’re feeling all good about having lost four ounces, well, that’s just the time you’re in danger of going on a binge.’
Mrs Pargeter was about to question whether eating a quarter of a grapefruit constituted ‘going on a binge’, but there didn’t really seem much point. She knew that the vigour of Kim’s new faith would be resistant to all such heresies. So instead she asked, ‘You didn’t hear any rumours of anything odd happening yesterday evening, did you, Kim?’
‘Yes, odd, like…’ She wasn’t sure how to continue. She didn’t want to say ‘odd like a dead body being wheeled out on a trolley’. Nor did she wish to refer to the sight she had seen from the second-floor window of the same body being loaded into an ambulance by the two ambulance men and Stan the Stapler. ‘Just odd like someone being ill or something…?’ she concluded lamely.
‘No. Nothing odd like that,’ Kim replied between grunts. ‘Good heavens, you can’t imagine anything unpleasant happening to anyone at Brotherton Hall, can you?’
But Mrs Pargeter could, all too easily.