"It just says Arbutternot," said Mrs. Coldwell. She had picked the piece of paper up from the nice young man at the reception desk on the way in, and had been puzzling over it ever since. The library allowed the knitting circle to use one of their reading rooms because they were a nice, quiet, tidy group who paid the small monthly subscription in advance and could be relied upon to quell rowdy teenagers if the noise became too loud. "I mean, what does that even mean?"
"Is it a type of margarine?" asked Hettie, deliberately pronouncing margarine with a hard g. Every ignored that, as they'd already each sat through a lecture on how the substance was derived from margaric acid and it hadn't changed their pronunciation of it at all. "It sounds like an advertisement to me."
"I've not heard of it if it is," said Mrs. Coldwell. There was doubt in her tone and, as she was the expert rescuer of dropped stitches able even to fix a fifty-row mistake, the other ladies all made deferential noises and avoided looking at Hettie. "But I suppose it could be one of the new ones. Made from strange oils."
"Oooh," said Duckie, her voice low and thrilled. "Oooh, I've heard about those strange oils, you know! Radio three talks about them when they're supposed to be airing Mahler. They can do bad things to your contraception."
"Perhaps it's something intended to be used with butter," said Daphne, who was willowy, wore oversized glasses and severe pant-suits and only knitted with the largest size needles because her eyesight was bad with or without her glasses. She tended to produce sweaters for zoo animals and underwear for charities specialising in the obese or grossly deformed. "A new kind of biscuit, perhaps?"
"Who let the cat in?" said Hettie, pointing by the door. "I think a margarine is more likely than a biscuit, dear." She emphasized margarine a little, still hoping that there would be someone daft enough to pick it up.
"What cat?" Duckie peered under her chair, brushing her gypsy skirt out of the way and exposing her cleavage because her blouse was shockingly low cut. People averted their eyes, more out of sympathy than prudery.
"I didn't think Radio Three played Mahler any more," said Mrs. Coldwell. "But wouldn't it be one of those indigestible oils?"
"What, like Castrol?" Daphne's tone suggested that she felt her biscuit suggestion had deserved a better reception. "I thought I saw a cat too, though."
"Don't you give Castrol to children?" said Hettie. "It's a white one, it's gone under the table, I think."
"I hope it's castor oil you give to children," said Mrs. Coldwell, picking the edge of the lace tablecloth up and looking under the table. The table held a few small plates of crisps and nuts and a large stack of napkins so that salt or grease didn't get on the knitting. Some weeks they splashed out a little and might have a red velvet cake or some macaroons, but this week they'd been uncertain whether Dolly would return or not.
"Hettie doesn't have children," said Duckie, "do you dear? You can give them anything you like. Where's this cat then?"
"There!" Hettie pointed a triumphant finger at the far wall, where the cat was walking slowly. All eyes in the room fell on it, and a moment of silence descended. Then the cat walked into the wall and banged its head with an audible thump and sat down heavily.
"Should it do that?" asked Mrs. Coldwell who only liked birds and thus was quite suspicious of cats already.
"Poor thing," said Hettie, not getting up. "I've got allergies, you know."
"Probably all that margarine," said Daphne with just a smear of malice. The cat stood up again, and walked once more into the wall, banging its head and mewling in annoyance.
"That can't be right," said Mrs. Coldwell. "He could the wall there."
"She," said Duckie. "You can tell on account of...." She tailed off, suddenly aware that everyone was listening intently. "On account of, anyway," she said, daring them to challenge her.
"No, definitely male," said Mrs. Coldwell. "There was this ginger tom that kept coming into the garden that was definitely male, and this looks like the same kind of cat to me."
"Oh really!" Daphne was indignant. "Does it even matter? Shouldn't we be helping the poor thing?"
The cat stood up again and walked once more into the wall, banging its head a third time. Somewhere outside the room something chimed, a pleasant silvery sound that made all the women look round.
"Fire alarm?" asked Mrs. Coldwell.
"It's stopped now," said Hettie, a few seconds later. "Probably not important. Where's the cat gone?"
Though they looked into and under everything, the cat remained vanished from the room, as easily as it had appeared there. And when they all sat down again to knit, they discovered that none of them could remember how.