I was secretly pleased that Melba’s breakfast meeting with Lola Whitecastle had gone so badly. Not that I considered him any sort of threat – not even last Hallowe’en when he dressed up as a rabid dog, hid behind my sofa until I got home and then leapt out of the darkness and tried to sink his diseased plastic teeth into my throat as a practical joke. A joke I neatly reversed by calmly asking Francois Devine for help and together we smothered the beast in a fire blanket before dumping it in the biohazard incinerator I had installed in the basement to dispose of certain toxic unguents and waddings that Doctor Flapjack prescribed for me before his blessed retirement. It was only Melba’s screams in reasonably good English (he still had false dog teeth in remember) that stopped us firing up the contraption and doing as much damage as one can do to the contents of a fire blanket in an oven. Francois Devine remembers this story differently and tells people he found me screaming in the foetal position having mistaken the shadow of the standard lamp for a zombie and that I hadn’t even noticed Melba’s rabid dog impression at the point where he came into the drawing room to see what the noise was. But Francois Devine was voted the seventh most unreliable source in England by the Telehistorical Trajectory magazine for a reason and you shouldn’t believe a word he says. I remained calm while being attacked by a monster. That is what happened and if he offers to tell you an embellished version for the price of an evening meal, don’t let take him up on it. Expensive lies – two of my least favourite things.

Removing Melba from the list of possible rivals to Lola’s archive pleased me greatly. There was no way she’d entrust her archive to someone who set fire to his own notes and was exposed as either (a) a thief or (b) a gullible mule. Though he might get the job if what she really wanted was someone to bring pharmaceutical products back from the undeveloped world hidden inside hollowed out books. I wouldn’t stand for him vandalising any of my books.

“I won’t let you do it” I screamed at him. “Not one book, not one page shall fall to your naivety.”

He looked over at me through his plaster mask and I realised the pills had made me loose again.

“As you were, Melba. I was just, um, practicing.”

“Yes” explained Francois Devine to the suddenly startled Annabelle, “Dennis Brent does like to rehearse his conversations as he finds human interaction terribly difficult. Many is the time I’ve found him pretending the dairy refrigerator is an open minded lingerie store assistant and trying to find ways of asking her…”

“Shut up Francois Devine, you fat, pompous hack” I bellowed. He looked at me with astonishment.

“Sorry, Francois Devine, just practicing a possible future conversation” I said smugly.

“If anyone wants me I shall be listening to hospital radio” he said angrily. “Would someone be kind enough to plug me in?”

Annabelle placed the headphones over his ridiculous ears, adjusted the volume until he smiled and left him listening to a local version of the Radio 4 programme “Loose Ends” in which people from around the hospital brought little snippets of what they hoped was interesting nonsense to the table and waffled blandly for about three hours. Francois Devine, ever the reactionary, found plenty to snort, roll his eyes and chunner at even in such mind numbing stuff.

While Melba had been breakfasting with Lola Whitecastle, I had been preparing for my dinner engagement with her. Had I known how badly his attempt had gone I might not have trained so hard. The previous day I had visited a charity shop – one that helps maintain old buildings, which I approve of much more than charities that help people or animals – and found a book about how to have dinner with a woman. It was ideal for my needs. It may surprise you to learn that I hadn’t actually had many dinner engagements with females during my adult life (and you can write childhood off as the Bendaton Academy for Young Gentlemen and/or the Sons of Gentlemen was strictly boys only) so didn’t really know how they worked. I once tried to share a pizza with Sophie Aldred but it turned out we wanted different things out of it – she wanted to eat some pizza and I wanted to make sure the pizza was divided according to a formula that took into account relative body sizes to ensure we each got the correct proportion. When she wouldn’t tell me how much she weighed I’m afraid one of us stormed out and left her with nearly three quarters of the pizza. That hardly seemed fair as I’d estimated she was only entitled to 63% which, when I explained that over the telephone, only seemed to make things worse. I wrote to show my workings out but she didn’t reply. She sent her husband round to punch me but I pretended I was out and he had to make do with punching me another time.

The book was full of useful information about how to have dinner with a woman. I skipped the first few chapters which were about how to actually meet a woman – something I didn’t need as I already had one for the evening – and it wasn’t until chapter six that I stopped flicking and started reading properly.

“On the morning of your big date” it began. I took out a marker pen and crossed out the word date. This wasn’t a social occasion – it was business and I’d thank Anthony Van Starbuck to remember that. “You should have a good breakfast to give you energy for the day.”

I put a tick next to that – Bargainsave Bran Flecks, a small cup of re-hydrated Lithuanian coffee powder and a glass of orange squash counts as a hearty breakfast, never mind a good breakfast.

“After your breakfast you should try some manly affirmations” it continued after several pages of pictures illustrating what a good breakfast was. He used a lot of made up words like “carbohydrate” and “protein” which didn’t impress me one iotum (the singular version I think you’ll find). “Find a nearby mirror and repeat the following ten times.”

I went out into the hall and found the mirror I keep by the front door to check my moustache before going outside and potentially scaring proles.

“I am a man” I said to my own reflection. Nine more statements of facts followed.

“I am a real man” I told myself ten times.

“I am a real man’s man.”

“I am every woman’s dream.”

“I am a love machine… I am a factual machine” I corrected and went on to repeat the latter version nine times. It seemed more me and less obscene.

“She will be putty in my hands.”

“I’m going to make her knees wob…”

I turned the page in disgust but not before letting Mr Van Starbuck know how appalled I was with a really vicious tut.

“Did I hear voices, Dennis Brent?” puffed Francois Devine as he lumbered downstairs.

“Cats, just cats fighting outside” I lied brilliantly. “Pay no heed.”

“Very well. I wouldn’t like anything to interrupt the breaking of my fast. I need to build my strength up for my lunch with Lola Whitecastle. I do hope you’re not going to any effort or expense, Dennis Brent, as I’m sure I’ll have the contract sewn up before you even sit down this evening.”

“I am a man” I mumbled defiantly but was drowned out by the groan of a reluctantly step as Francois Devine neared the bottom. “I am a real man” I added and got a pitying look in return.

“If anyone wants me I shall be toasting” he called as he disappeared into the kitchen block.

“I am a factual machine” I said without enthusiasm. The book was now open at a page titled “Exercise means Exer-citement!” which repulsed me. It advised I put on loose clothing before attempting any physical activity. I looked down at my tweed trousers, shirt, tie, waistcoat and jacket and decided it wasn’t really suitable. I went upstairs, put a dressing gown over the top and lay down on the floor to do my first press up.