Alan turns another glum page then wriggles back to lean against the tree. "It could be worse," he says.
Gaurang raises his eyebrows and tilts his laptop screen back a little. "I suppose we could have half an hour left to learn it all, instead of an hour."
"Think about it," Alan says. "If we were cakes they'd be poking us with a skewer."
Tess and Gaurang laugh. "Fair enough," Gaurang says.
Melanie never skewers her cakes. You can just look at the sides, and press down on the top. They go back to their revision, but Alan keeps turning pages with attention-grabbing loudness. "Even that's not the worst, anyway," he says eventually. "How do you tell when spaghetti's done? You basically have to break it in half, or eat it, or throw it against the wall."
"Yes, Alan," Gaurang says with ostentatious patience.
"Which is pretty incredible, I mean how do you come up with 'throw it against the wall' as a serious part of everyday cookery? Just start a lot of fights in the kitchen and break them off every thirty seconds to see if you've made any culinary discoveries? It would explain the bit where you have to punch down bread dough."
"Yeah," Gaurang says, "maybe you could practice your stand-up cookery later, instead of in the middle of prime studying time?"
"Maybe I could investigate it as an alternative career if I fail today," Alan says. "I could wear a big chef's hat. I'd mix up cookies during the first act, then I'd cook them over the interval and everyone could have one when they came back in. Maybe not, maybe that would seem like a desperate plea for indulgence. I could eat them all myself, or poison them and hand them out to hecklers."
"Maybe we should vote," Gaurang says. "I want you to shut up. Tess, do you want him to shut up?"
Tess is gathering her notes. "I'm going in now anyway," she says.
"Sounds like a yes to me. Mel, do you want him to shut up?"
Usually she just tags along. "Um," she says.
"Okay," Alan says, "okay, fine." He leans back with a dramatic sigh and shuts his notebook.
When Melanie looks up a few minutes later he's stretched a thick rubber band around his folder, and he's writing on it in tiny black letters.
Gaurang looks up. "Oh, come on, you're not fourteen any more."
"If I can't learn through comedy," Alan says, "then I'd rather not learn at all." He pulls the band off the folder and the letters shrink as the rubber contracts. They're still indecipherable as he pulls it onto his wrist. "Charming fashion bracelet," he says, then pulls one side out to stretch the letters into legibility, "handy personal note system."
"Take it off," Gaurang says.
Alan lets it snap back into place instead. "Ouch," he says, and pulls it out again. "Maybe meringues would be better than cookies. They make no sense at all, which is always a good starting point for jokes. How did anyone ever come up with the idea? You've got these round things that come out of chickens, okay, and you try eating them because you'll die if you don't, and they don't taste too bad, and one day you drop them in the fire and you find out that if you make them hot then they'll taste nicer. So far so good. But then you think, okay, let's take the clear bit away from the yellow bit. And this is before electric mixers, so then you have to think right, let's stand here with a fork or, I don't know, when were forks invented? Okay, let's stand here with a slightly frayed stick, because we don't have forks yet, and let's stir around the clear bit really fast and then mix it up with some of that incredibly rare and expensive sugar, and then keep stirring it for hours and hours put it in the oven, because who knows? Maybe something exciting will happen."
Gaurang's gone back to his notes. Melanie tries to follow, but she can't help looking up when the speech finishes.
"I've got a spare rubber band," Alan says to her, "if you want one."
"You can't wear it in," she says.
Alan looks down. "Why not? Too obvious with a t-shirt? You might be right."
Melanie isn't sure why not: the chance of getting caught, the injustice of it, the days she's spent writing out colour-coded notes and memorising them, the enormous weight of wrongness.
"I suppose I could go for the old inside-of-the-drink-label trick," Alan says. "Everyone's bound to have a bottle of water with them in this weather. And I thought of an advanced version that I haven't tried out. You use coke instead of water, and then there's no way they'll see the writing, and you just drink down to reveal the notes after ten minutes."
"Today's only worth ten percent," she tries. "That can' t be worth the risk of getting caught."
"Oh," Alan says, "but the risk is the best part. The thrill of putting yourself in danger and winning through. Ever since I grew tired of skydiving into dormant volcanoes, the only thing that's been able to satisfy me is low-tech cheating."
Gaurang's laptop makes shutdown noises, and he closes the lid. "I'm going."
"You'll get caught," Melanie says.
"Never have before."
She wants to ask how often he's done it, which subjects, how much; but more than that she wants him to take the rubber band off. "Someone's bound to notice."
Alan stands up. "Shouldn't think so," he says. "Not unless you tell them. You're not going to tell them, are you?" He stretches, facing her.
"Of course she's not," Gaurang says, walking ahead, but Melanie hasn't stood up yet. She's not good at making friends.
"I don't know," she says. "I might."
"Rightio then," Alan says amiably, pulling the band off and throwing it toward her. She catches it. "I won't take it in. But don't let me catch you using it with your sneaky long sleeves."
She stretches it out as he walks ahead of her. "Meringues," it says in distorted, semi-legible block letters. "Eggs. No electricity, forks not invented sticks? Sugar expensive."