Art Pact 153

"Oh yes," she said, rolling her eyes. "What an absolutely great idea. You know, I sometimes forget that you're a genius in your spare time, Ray. Can you believe that? Then a plan like this falls fully-formed from your lips like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus and it all comes flooding back to me."

"Fuck off," Ray told her.

I kept my head down. It was best, when they were in this mood. If we'd been in Auntie Becca's house she'd have been elbowing me in the arm and making suggestive expressions, but I didn't think there was the faintest spark of romance between the two of them.  In fact, I was wondering whether to exchange the green string that connected their pins for a red one. They weren't friends, that much was clear. They were acquaintances at best. But were they enemies? A hard one to call. They fought like boxers - to win, but not to kill. There were certain things that were off-limits between them: the matter of Alice's last boyfriend, for example, and no doubt some equivalent sore point of Ray's (I knew less about Ray's historical problems than about Alice's, since there were fewer lines of gossip proceeding through the family from him to me).

"Look," Ray said, palms up in supplication. "It's your money on the line, right? I'm trying to help, so if you've got constructive criticism it's in your best interests to be positive about it. I want to help - alright, I mean I don't want to help."--he scratched his stubble--"in fact, I'll be honest with you, under normal circumstances nothing would give me more pleasure than seeing you get taken to the cleaners. But there's family honour, and there's the wider circumstances. If you lose this then Becca's scheme goes down the drain, and I think she deserves a bit of a break. So, to reiterate, I do want to help you."

"Oh good, because I was beginning entertain some mild doubts," Alice said airily.

"Jesus, you don't make it easy, do you?"

"Look," she said, resting her hands on the coffee table. She gave no indication of how cold it was, although the surface must have been freezing still - the bag of ice had been sitting on it for a good half an hour before they arrived. "I appreciate help, obviously, but I can't help remembering how things worked out when you tried to help Becca with that car problem."

"That was-"

"Or when you and Dad went to talk to those people at Nigel's school," she cut him off.

"Low blow," he said, although I'd heard him joking about that particular screw up with my Mum, and with Becca and cousin Pearl. It hadn't gone well, but it had hardly been Ray's fault - if anything, he'd come out of it smelling of roses in comparison with everyone else involved. Alice obviously knew that too.

"Ah diddums," she cooed. "If you like, you can go home and have a little cry about it while I take care of the problem myself. Which is the safe and smart thing for me to do, given that all of your plans turn out one way or another to be colossal fuck-ups!"

Ray drummed his fingers against a cheek, his mouth open to make a soft drumming noise. I watched him blink - slowly and deliberately, not a reflex but something I'd seen him do before. At the reception after his wedding, just before all the unpleasantness. I tensed up, clamping my legs together and staring at my laptop screen, unable to think.

But nothing happened. I heard him take a deep breath in, then let it out as a sigh. He stood, patted his pockets to check for ths jingle of change and keys, straightened up his jumper, and left without another word.

"That was a bit rude," Alice said. I must have looked a bit incredulous, because she pointed at the door, then to me. "He could at least have said goodbye to you, is what I mean."

"I'll survive," I said. "I - actually I think I'd prefer it if neither of you remembered that I was here to see that."

"I'm sorry, B."

"Don't call me that."

"Ok, Brandon, whatever. Listen, he's a prick, but he likes you. Everyone likes you. You've got nothing to worry about."

"Sorry," I said.

"Don't be sor- oh, never mind. Look, if it helps, I promise to forget your were anywhere near. You can tell Becca you haven't been within earshot of us, you can tell your mum you haven't seen us for weeks. They'd probably prefer you were clear of all this grown-up stuff-"

"Oh thanks!"

"You know what I mean. All this"--she raised her hands to encompass the room in one gesture as a synecdoche of the relentless soap-opera drama of the her generation--"all my bullshit and Becca's and Ray's and your dad's - no, not that," she reassured me, "your parents are one hundred percent bullshit-free. You just get on with your exams and forget all about the rest of us."

I looked up glumly at Alice. Her confidence in my ability to put family matters aside was charming, but - I was sure - utterly misplaced. I was sure that I'd failed geography already; a direct result of the blow-up the night before when Alice had revealed what had happened to her windfall. Maths was next, my ropiest subject, the first part of the exam tomorrow morning at nine (far too early to revise the morning before). I was going to have to stay up late, and since I couldn't do that at home it meant either staying here or going to Auntie Becca's.

Neither of those options, normally quite pleasant, felt even remotely inviting to me. But the greater of the two evils was almost certainly to stay here.

"I'm going to, uh, I'm going to go to Becca's," I said, standing and gathering my things.

"You do that," she said. "Good boy. Good solid boy."

I left in lower spirits than I'd arrived in. I hadn't thought that possible, but when Ray and Alice get together - as Becca often said - there was little they could not accomplish. Especially when it came to making a situation worse.


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