Why had he bothered coming?
The pub in Edwardes Square stank generally of sweat and spilled pints, and specifically of stale sick in the area where Ben was sitting. He was halfway through a pint of Guinness, talking to an earnest financial journalist from the Evening Standard who wanted to know how he found the motivation to get up every morning and paint in his studio and ‘wasn’t there a temptation when you’re working from home just to fuck off and spend the whole afternoon in the cinema?’
‘Sometimes,’ Ben told him.
‘Well, I really admire you, man,’ he said. ‘No, I really do.’
Alice was at the bar, surrounded by five drooling male colleagues making wise cracks and pulling rank. She had phoned at the last moment and all but demanded that Ben join her for a drink. Come on. We never see each other. You never want to meet my friends. He had been forced to abandon work on the picture of Jenny, but now that he was here Alice was scarcely giving him the time of day. Ben was thinking about leaving as soon as he had finished his pint and going back to work in the studio.
‘So how much do you charge for a portrait?’ the journalist was asking.
‘What’s that?’ Ben had heard the question, but wanted to suggest with his eyes that he thought it was none of his business.
‘I said how much do you — ’
‘Oh, right. What on, man? I mean, how do you rate it? By the hour?’
The conversation went on like this for fifteen minutes. But can you make any real money as a painter? Don’t you get bored and lonely? Ben couldn’t get away. The constant opening and closing of the street door fed muffled traffic noise into the pub. Ben found himself explaining why he hated the cocktail-party circuit of art exhibitions and gallery openings, all that air-kissing and people with too much money buying paintings just to match a sofa. The journalist was laughing, agreeing with everything Ben said, even offering to buy him a pint and introduce him to a City financier who was collecting art and ‘really knew what was right and wrong’.
‘You know, man. Not shark tanks and elephant shit. Paintings. He really likes oils and water colours. Give me your number and I’ll text you his details.’
That was when Mark walked into the pub.
He was stopped by Alice almost immediately among the jam of bodies at the bar. She squealed and put her arms around his waist, looking over in Ben’s direction. Was this more than coincidence? Ben was so pleased to see him that he dismissed the thought immediately. He stood up, said, ‘Back in a moment,’ and walked towards the bar.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
‘Hello, brother. Had a meeting next door. Just popped in for a pint.’
‘Isn’t it amazing?’ Alice was saying, putting her hand on Mark’s back. ‘Of all the places.’
There were introductions, rounds of drinks. For half an hour they talked at the bar, Mark telling stories about Libra and Moscow, Alice involving everybody in the conversation and making sure to laugh at the news editor’s jokes. A frustrating evening became suddenly enjoyable for Ben, the easy slip of Guinness and close family. And as Alice’s colleagues left the pub one by one, it was easy for Mark to pull him away into a private huddle and to deal with the task in hand.
‘Listen,’ he said, putting a grip on Ben’s arm. ‘It’s good we’ve run into each other. I need to have a chat with you about something. Something important.’
Ben was smoking and pointed to the fourth finger of Mark’s right hand with his cigarette.
‘Is it about that?’ he asked.
Mark looked down.
‘What? The ring?’
A bad start.
‘Not exactly, no.’
‘Something else, then?’ Ben said, and sat down at a free table.
Mark was slow to follow, as if assembling his thoughts. He was always apprehensive when it came to talking to Ben. Coupled with a desire to protect and assist his younger brother existed an older insecurity, rooted in childhood squabbles and fights, a feeling that Ben could outsmart him. At Libra Mark was super-efficient, the man Roth relied on to charm and cajole, an executive ten years in the business and never a foot put wrong. But when it came to Ben those talents were compromised by sheer familiarity. He hooked his suit jacket on the back of a beer-stained tartan chair and wondered how he was ever going to bring him round.
‘You OK?’ Ben asked.
Mark must have looked tired and distracted, some sort of apology already evident in his eyes, because right away Ben said, ‘It’s about Christopher, isn’t it?’
And Mark nodded, hunching forward with an awkward smile.
‘’Fraid so,’ he said. ‘’Fraid so. Had lunch with him last week, before I went back to Moscow. That was when he gave me the signet ring. It belonged to…’
Ben immediately raised his hand and a column of ash fell free of the cigarette, drifting in scatters towards the carpet.
‘Forget it,’ he said. His attitude was not aggressive or unfeeling, merely a relaxed, clear assessment of his position. ‘I don’t care where it came from, why he gave it to you or which one of the Keen great-great-grandfathers wore it during the Crimean War. That stuff is between you and him. I don’t want any part of it.’
At the bar a soft drinks gun coughed.
‘Fair do’s,’ Mark muttered. ‘Fair do’s. I just wanted to let you know, so there was no big mystery or anything.’
‘Well, I appreciate it.’
There was hefty silence. Mark instinctively felt that the timing was all wrong; both of them a little drunk, Alice only ten feet away and their father on the other side of London. Why had he agreed to do Keen’s dirty work? What was in it for him?
‘But it’s connected to what I wanted to talk about,’ he said.
‘What’s connected to what you wanted to talk about?’
‘The ring. The dinner,’ Mark replied.
Ben actually looked quite bored.
‘The other night, when I came round for dinner and you and Alice were going at it…’
This seemed to galvanize Ben briefly. He looked up and gave a quick response.
‘Yeah, I’m sorry about that. Alice has been a bit stressed lately. Both of us, in fact. Work stuff, marriage. We haven’t been getting on and it’s just been one argument after another…’
‘No, that’s not what I mean.’
Ben cocked his head to one side. They were talking at cross-purposes.
‘Look, why don’t I just spell it out?’ Mark moved uneasily in his chair. It was like breaking bad news, waiting for the right moment. ‘I think things have changed between me and you, brother. Not as easy as they were. You follow?’
Ben shook his head. On the way to the pub Mark had sketched out the basics of a speech in his mind, but he was moving on to it too quickly.
‘It’s like this. The last six months, however long it’s been since Dad and I started meeting up, it’s as if you’ve gone into yourself, moved away.’
To illustrate his point, Mark spread his arms outwards like a cross and nearly knocked half a pint of cider out of the hand of a passing customer. Across the pub a man was slamming his fist against the hard plastic casing of a fruit machine, spitting the single word ‘Fuck’.
‘It’s just that we’ve never really chatted about any of it.’ Mark was rubbing his jaw, words coming out before he had time to contemplate their impact. ‘It’s just been swept under the carpet. I’m abroad a lot, you’re with Alice, it’s not easy finding the time. But we need to clear the air. Your opinion matters to me. Now talk to me about what’s going on.’
Ben looked completely taken aback.
‘Where’s this coming from?’ he said.
‘It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Just seeing you tonight made me want to talk about it.’
Ben’s hand went up to his forehead, almost pulling the skin back from his eyes. He looked bloodshot and tense.
‘So OK, we’ll talk about it.’ He tipped his face up to the light and exhaled in a gasp. ‘It’s like this.’ Mark was listening very carefully. ‘I don’t allow myself to think about him. There are hard certainties in my life. There’s you. There’s Alice. I have my painting and my good friends. That’s how things stay under control. That’s how I manage to get by.’
The answer was so characteristic of his brother that Mark felt there was almost no point in going on. When Ben got an idea into his head it was impossible to change his mind. Only a basic desire not to let his father down led him to say, ‘Is that good for you?’
‘Is what good for me?’
‘Thinking about things in that way? Breaking them down?’
‘It’s just how I’ve learned to cope.’ Across the room, somebody had paid fifty pence to hear a bad cover version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ on the jukebox. The song was forced and loud and Ben had to speak up. ‘And now that Alice and I are married I have to deal with that. She needs my support. I want to look after her, to make things right. You know all this. Why the fuck are you bringing it up now? Let’s get back to the bar and relax.’
Yeah, let’s, Mark thought, and hated what he was doing. He genuinely believed that the stand-off between his brother and Keen was unhealthy, a running sore in the family, yet there was nothing, surely, that could be done about it. He was manipulating Ben for his father’s benefit, pure and simple. They had set a trap for him, pushing Ben towards something that he wanted no part of. And where was Alice? Laughing at the bar, oblivious to what was going on, facilitating her career while Mark was risking everything. Why didn’t she come over, why didn’t she think of someone else for a change? He felt heavy with sweat and drink. A woman at the bar was hanging her arm around the neck of a fat, bald Irishman mouthing the lyrics ‘How does it feel?’ over and over again.
‘What does Alice think about it?’ Mark found himself asking. ‘What does she reckon you should do?’
‘We haven’t talked about it much,’ Ben replied. ‘Why? Has she said anything?’
And suddenly Mark had a chance to force the issue. He remembered that Keen had asked an almost identical question as they were leaving the restaurant in Queensway.
‘What’s Alice’s view?’ his father had said. ‘Does she think Ben’s right about this? Right not to want to meet me?’
Mark had hesitated briefly, but the wine at lunch had led him to betray a confidence.
‘She’s just got used to the idea. Ever since she’s known Ben she’s known about you and your situation. And if you want my honest opinion I reckon she thinks Ben’s being narrow-minded. In fact, she’s told me as much.’
If Mark could have retracted that statement, he would have done so in an instant. Keen’s eyes had lit up.
‘You could use that,’ he said, and the inference was appalling.
‘ Use that? What do you mean?’
‘Tell Ben that you and Alice are in agreement. Tell him that it’s time he reconsidered. It’s the truth, isn’t it?’
Ben was trying to attract his attention.
‘Yeah. Sorry. I wandered off.’
‘I asked you a question. I said, has Alice said anything about this?’
‘Well, maybe you should ask her.’ Mark had not intended to sound mysterious.
‘What’s that supposed to mean? Does she know about this? Does she know that we’re having this conversation?’
And at that moment Alice looked over, sensing the note-change in the tenor of her husband’s voice. Ben saw the set-up instantly.
‘Jesus. You’re not here by coincidence, are you?’
Mark wasn’t sure whether Ben was touched or angry; his face was momentarily unreadable. As a consequence he did not bother to lie in response. Shaking his head and even smiling at the stupidity of Keen’s plan, Mark said, ‘I’m not here by coincidence, no.’
And Ben was out of the pub in seconds.