As he stretched to the far end of the counter, he felt a slight pain in his chest, and took a few deep breaths until it went away.

He reached under the bar for two sealed white plastic containers. From one he filled a dish with salted mixed nuts; from the other he filled a dish with stuffed green olives.

He looked at his watch. Two minutes to six. He withdrew a bunch of keys from his pocket; they were on a chain that was clipped to his belt. He found a small one and undid the padlock that held down the grille at the front of the bar. (Miss Naismith made a point of telling all her new residents that this grille was not for internal security. The very idea of such a thing would be an insult to the integrity of her guests and staff. No, it was a deterrent to burglary. There was, regrettably, ‘a very unfortunate element’ in Littlehampton, and she did not wish to encourage their criminality by having strong drink readily accessible.)

Newth pushed up the grille, again feeling a slight pang in his chest. Then he switched on the lights behind the bar and turned to the entrance to greet the first arrival, who he knew would be Miss Naismith.

“Good evening, Newth.”

It was one of the conventions of the Devereux that, although they all saw each other almost continuously, the day should be regularly punctuated by new greetings.

It was also a convention that the day should be punctuated by changes of clothes. Though few of the residents ever undertook a more strenuous expedition than a stroll along the Promenade, they usually changed before and after these outings. And, though ‘changing for dinner’ did not go to the extent of evening dress, none of them would appear in the evening in the same clothes that they had worn all day. None of them, that is, except for Mrs Mendlingham, who seemed to be drifting ever faster into a world of her own, a world characterised by odd slippers, stained cardigans and inside-out dresses.

“Can I get you a Perrier water, Madam?”

“Thank you, Newth,” said Miss Naismith, as she did at this time every evening.

And, as he did at this time every evening, Newth reached down under the counter for a green bottle, and from it filled a glass into which he had slipped two lumps of ice and a sliver of lemon. The pouring was done below the level of the counter, so that, if there had been anyone else present, they would not have observed that the bottle, rather than the bulb-like shape so heavily advertised by Perrier, demonstrated the squarer contours made popular by Gordon’s Gin.

Newth passed across the glass of colourless fluid. It looked rather flat, as if the Perrier bottle had not been sealed as well as it should have been.

Miss Naismith, however, did not complain, but downed the glass’s contents with considerable speed. Then she placed the glass on the counter. “Goodness, I’m thirsty today.”

Newth, without further prompting, reached for a bulbous green Perrier bottle and, holding it above the counter, poured from it into the empty glass. The contents fizzed and spat bubbles in the air. Miss Naismith picked up the glass and turned to the door to welcome Colonel Wicksteed and Mr Dawlish, the one in a three-piece suit of mustardy tweed and the other in a charcoal-grey two-piece that gave him a clerical air.

“Good evening, Colonel. Good evening, Mr Dawlish.”

“Good evening, Miss Naismith.”

“Good evening.”

The Colonel reached to the counter and took a small handful of mixed nuts from the dish.

“Here I go gathering nuts in March.” The Colonel made this pleasantry at six o’clock most evenings (though he did adjust it according to the relevant month).

Mr Dawlish cackled dutifully, and Miss Naismith gave the smile of a Lady Mayoress being presented with a posy at a Primary School.

“What can I get for you, gentlemen?” asked Newth, maintaining the illusion that one or other of them might suddenly ask for something different.

Colonel Wicksteed and Mr Dawlish continued the charade of choice by chewing their lips and puckering their eyes, before deciding on ‘a large Famous Grouse’ and ‘a small dry sherry’, as they had every other night of their residence at the Devereux Hotel.

“Well,” ruminated the Colonel, after he had raised his glass to Miss Naismith, said ‘Cheers’ and taken a long swallow, “I wonder if we will find our new arrival is a drinks-before-dinner person…”

Not all the Devereux’s residents visited the bar in the evenings. Miss Wardstone had never set foot in the room. All her life she had been a total abstainer (from everything, as far as anyone could tell). Lady Ridgleigh had used to come in every night for a ‘desperately dry Martini’, but of recent months had discontinued the habit. Mrs Selsby had been forbidden alcohol by her doctor, and Mrs Mendlingham was so comatose most of the time that she frequently had to be reminded to come down from her room for dinner, let alone for a pre-prandial drink.

“Oh, I think we’ll find Mrs Pargeter is,” Miss Naismith decided, without saying that she based this conclusion on the new resident’s lunchtime indulgence.

“It might be rather amusing…” Mr Dawlish’s cracked voice hazarded “…to conjecture what sort of drink Mrs Pargeter would select…if she were to prove to be a drinks-before-dinner person.”

He lapsed into a satisfied silence, having started this conversational hare.

Colonel Wicksteed barked out a laugh. “Kind of parlour game, eh? Could be amusing, yes. What drink would you suggest for Mrs Pargeter, Miss Naismith?”

The proprietress of the Devereux bit back rejoinders about brown ale or port-and-lemon; instead, piously, she said, “I’m not sure that it’s quite the thing to make that kind of speculation about fellow residents.”

The Colonel was instantly chastened and contrite, as if he had suggested the idea. “No. No. Quite. Of course not.”

They were interrupted by the entrance of the object of their speculation, who arrived arm in arm with Eulalie Vance. For dinner Mrs Pargeter had chosen a dress in a rather bright (‘strident’ was the word that came into Miss Naismith’s mind) blue. With it she wore a whole new set of jewellery – ear-rings, necklace and bracelet, all featuring what were undoubtedly real sapphires. Miss Naismith, while of the opinion that the effect was excessive, could not help herself from being impressed. Once again, she encountered difficulty in categorising Mrs Pargeter.

“Right,” said the newcomer, placing a plump hand on the counter. “What are you all going to have?”

This was not right. For a start, Mrs Pargeter had not obeyed the ritual of exchanging ‘Good evening’s. Then, the manner of her question seemed more appropriate to a public bar than the cocktail lounge atmosphere of the Devereux. Finally, there was the whole issue of offering to buy drinks…

Miss Naismith felt that she would have to intervene. Smiling the sort of smile a Lady Mayoress might use when the child presenting the posy had trodden on her foot, she murmured, incisively gentle, “Oh, Mrs Pargeter, of course you wouldn’t know, but I’m afraid a custom has developed at the Devereux that all residents buy their own drinks. It is not that we wish to be in any way incivil; just that with such a small group of people it can sometimes be difficult to work out the precise obligations of reciprocal entertainment.”

She did not spell out the reason why this ‘custom’ had evolved – namely, that Lady Ridgleigh had proved rather readier to accept drinks from others than to buy them for others. The situation had almost led to unpleasantness. There had been complaints. And Miss Naismith had had to dig into her considerable reserves of tact before arriving at the solution.

Mrs Pargeter was undeterred. “Don’t worry, love. My first night here, we’ll make an exception. Now, what’s everyone going to have?”

Miss Naismith was too shaken by being called ‘love’ to offer any further resistance.

Mrs Pargeter took the orders. Eulalie Vance wanted a white wine and soda, which she insisted on calling a ‘Spritzer’.

“Miss Naismith?”

“Oh. Well, I do tend just to drink Perrier water.”

“But, come on, you’ll have something stronger tonight. In celebration of my arrival at the Devereux.”

Miss Naismith was not yet convinced that this was a cause for celebration, but did concede that she might have a small gin. Newth reached for a glass, which absent-mindedly he started to fill up from the Gordon’s bottle.

“A small one, Newth.” Miss Naismith’s hiss suspended his hand in mid-pour. “With tonic, please.”

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