The Stand-Up

Chapter One

Everyone wants a piece of Alan Seward right now. Everyone wants to know what makes him tick—as if they can examine his wiring diagram to figure out which circuit's burnt out. Well, I've known him for a while, and I can tell you that nothing's burnt out. He's going to keep ticking, and when the timer reaches zero he's going to explode. You think he's everywhere now; in a few months he'll be splattered all over your TV screens.

It seems as if ever since the day I met him he's been the centre of everyone's attention. I know he's been the centre of mine. I met Alan after this girl I'd asked out stood me up. It's a rare enough event that it made a pretty big impression on me. Going out with a girl, that is; I've only been stood up once or twice, but then, I've only gone out once. Or twice.

I hadn't planned a big sort of evening, which is why she hadn't planned it either, I suppose; guess I wasn't "this evening's main attraction". Just a movie, a snog in the back row, coffee back at my place, and rampant sex 'til dawn. You know, a typical first date. (I'm kidding about the coffee.)

Anyway, as I said, she didn't fancy this, or me at any rate—Jennifer, that was her name—and so I went along to the movie on my own. This was at the uni film group. I still made the film in tons of time after waiting in vain for Jennifer, because we'd agreed to meet at the bar an hour or so in advance. So there I was, the first to arrive, staring out at the rows of empty seats deciding which to take, when in walks Alan.

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Normally I don't stare at people in long overcoats—unless they're female and cute, in which case I burn their image into my retinas gradually and by stealth. But normal people in long overcoats aren't like Alan. Beneath that drab exterior was a purple jumper with a yellow Roy Lichtenstein explosion on it, POW!, and around his neck was a lime-green Canberra Raiders scarf. It dangled down to his knees, which seemed ridiculously high off the ground, and choked up under his chin, which was sharp and pointed like the rest of him.

"Whew," he said, looking around the lecture theatre, "guess I should have come earlier."

"Hmm," I replied, not really taking this in. I was staring at his eyes, which were different colours, one brown and one green. The guy looked like a schizophrenic chameleon. When he returned my gaze I caught myself, looked away in embarrassment, and made my way down to the seats in the dead centre of the room.

He paused and then followed down the aisle to the edge of my row. He stopped there for a moment; and then lurched along the row in awkward swooping steps, miming as if he was stepping over people's legs, muttering to "them" as he went an occasional "excuse me" or "so sorry". When he reached me I glanced up from the important examination I'd been making of my fingernails. He nodded at the seat next to me. "Is this seat taken?"

"Well, uh," I started, not knowing if I wanted to sit through a film next to this guy—but not knowing either any possible excuse I could give that would ring true—"No. Go ahead."

He sat down, wound his scarf off his neck, and dropped it to the floor. Then he turned to me, held out a hand, and said, "Alan."

I shook his hand, checking for hairy palms or webbing between the fingers, and replied, "How are you, Alan."

"Well, my parents were looking through 100 Names for Your Baby, and 'Alan' was first on the list."

Noticing my blank expression, he added, "That's how I'm Alan."

"Oh—uh, ha ha ha." I was staring at those eyes again. "Uh, sorry. Sean. I'm—that's me."

"Hi, Sean." He stared back at me, saying, "It's all right, I'm used to it. Great for picking up girls."

"Oh?" I said, brought back with a jolt. Always being interested in this topic, even more so with a fresh disaster behind me, I asked him how come.

"If they stare into your eyes long enough," he answered, "they see their own reflection and fall in love."

I laughed again, this time without having to be told.

"So, what do you do, Sean?" he asked me.

"Well, you know, the usual. Study."

"Oh yes. What are you studying?"

"Chemistry. I'm doing honours."

Alan nodded, "Right," and then paused.

I somehow felt more detail was expected. "I majored in Comp Sci, too. But I was sick of computers."

"Computer virus, eh?"

"Yeah. Huh."

We talked for a while, the usual random search for shared interests. Alan said something else about computers, which I hadn't really wanted to talk about; he must have sensed this, because before long we were comparing favourite rock bands.

"So, what bands do you like?" he asked.

"Oh, all sorts," I replied. "Pink Floyd. Tangerine Dream."

"Tangerine Dream? Bleep-bloop music?" Alan gave a chuckle.

"What do you like, then?" I countered, slightly miffed by this show of disrespect.

"I'm into Pavement."

At that stage I'd never heard of the band. For a moment I thought he'd changed the subject and was talking about some bizarre fetish.

"What do you do," I asked, "go around sniffing the concrete?"

Alan laughed at that. "That's good. That's a beauty. I have to write that down."

And he did. He pulled a beaten-up notebook and a chewed biro out of his pocket, and wrote it down.

A few more people had wandered into the place by now. By the time the lights went down the audience had grown to several dozen.

The film was one of those "feel good" ensemble pieces. It was full of caring and sharing friendships, and when the characters screwed up their relationships there was always someone there to say "Hey—it's okay". The world threw ten kinds of shit at the cast and yet together, they made it through. I thought about girls who stand you up, and watched with a lump in my throat.

The audience received the film in respectful silence. I even heard one woman with the hankies out. But then, halfway through, a lead character lost his job, admitted to his wife to having an affair (and she forgave him), and accidentally burned down their house—all in the space of fifteen minutes. As they stood watching the flames, the husband turned to his wife. Tears and a plea for forgiveness were in his eyes. "It's okay, honey," she said, "we can start over." He opened his mouth to speak...

And from the seat next to me, in the deep voice of the lead, Alan boomed out, "Thanks, snookums. I'm off to start over with the secretary."

The audience cracked, and two dozen people didn't stop laughing for the rest of the film. The director was too alive to be turning in his grave, but if he'd heard us he'd have been turning in his letter of resignation.

The credits rolled, and I learned that Alan, too, belonged to the minority that stays until the bitter end. I stretched and chuckled as the lights went up. "Pretty atrocious."

"That stuff's such a joke," he said, and then adopted the mocking deep voice again: "There's hurtin' in the world—but hey, there's healin', too."

We wandered out to the front door. "I never did hear what you do, Alan," I said. But he was distracted by his watch. "Sorry," he replied, "I can't hang around, I'm meeting someone." Then, realising how abrupt this seemed, he turned back to me as he opened the door. "Good to meet you, Sean," he said. "Come along to the uni bar on Thursday—ten o'clock. You can hear what I do then."

I reflected on this for a moment. "What, you're in a band are you?"

"Seeya!" he yelled, as he trotted off into the rain.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 1, Bookmark 1

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The next morning I woke up late. Slowly, gradually, I climbed out of the fog of unconsciousness and into the day. I felt tired. Steel-belted radial tired. My brain creaked against the walls of my skull, like it was trying to go out for a walk to stretch its lobes. I peered out at the fuzzy room, and reached sideways to find my glasses. Putting them on, I stared at the wallpaper a while, discerning bizarre shapes and designs within its busy pattern. I glanced over at my watch. It flipped resolutely through the seconds, 10:38:46, 10:38:47, 10:38:48... I resolved to get up when it reached 10:39:00. No chance. All right, 10:40:00...

At 10:45:00 I creaked upwards and shuffled out to the bathroom. The place was deserted—Laurence, my flatmate, was at work—so I left my pyjamas in an unselfconscious trail through the hall. I plodded onto the bathroom tiles, goose pimples studding my naked skin, and faced the mirror.

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The flickering fluorescent bleached my winter tan and picked out every flaw. I hadn't shaved for three days. Not that anyone would notice. I endure the ritual scrape without the compensation of actually being able to grow a beard or moustache. All I end up with is a stunted orange goatee, and no young blood wants to look like Colonel Sanders.

My hair, a lank blondish brown which resists the best efforts of Snipz, Cutz, Hax, Mutilatez and all the other hairdressers to shape it into a fashionable coif, hung down in greasy ropes and obscured my watery grey eyes.

I stared in grim fascination. There—around my eyes. I couldn't believe it. Twenty-one, barely out of my teens, and already I was getting wrinkles. I stretched my face through a few expressions, risking a broken mirror and seven years' bad luck. You only noticed them when I smiled. Well, not much chance of that happening just now.

I assembled toothbrush, toothpaste, teeth. The bristles felt satisfyingly violent against my gums. "Always brush in up and down strokes", the sign used to say in the dentist's at school. They probably had a good laugh watching little kids try it on the insides of their back teeth. I sloshed the brush a defiant sideways along my molars. Rinsed. Rinsed again. Stuck out my tongue. It was still white. It was coated in white gooey fur. This I could not accept. More toothpaste; brush the tongue; rinse. White tongue with a vaguely pink stripe down the middle. Jesus, I thought, I've got tongue plaque. I wonder if it's dangerous. I wonder if you can get Tongue Plaque Control Toothpaste.

I stared at my bloodshot eyes, my unshaven chin, my diseased tongue, my wrinkles. I glanced downwards at my feeble unexercised frame. My constituent parts shouted back at me: "You're a wreck. Take up sport. Eat some broccoli."

I climbed into the shower and scorched them into silence. Wet needles stung at my shoulders and unknotted my muscles. The water scraped my skin clean, and the towel licked it dry. I took my time, standing there, breathing in steam.

Eventually I went back to my room, pulled on any old clothes that were lying around, and tottered downstairs for breakfast. A couple of pigeons flew back and forth past the window, puffing out their purple-green chests and warbling like oboes. One swung his head down from the top of the window and fixed his red-rimmed eyeball on me. His accusing glare seemed to say, "Eat some broccoli."

I munched on dry toast and aspirin, and reflected on the previous night's fiasco. Where had I gone wrong? What put her off? Why the hell hadn't she shown up? I stared blankly out of the window, but the answers weren't there. These were mysteries greater than the mind of man or pigeon could fathom.

So I went to uni.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 1, Bookmark 2

I was in the Chifley Library staring at a green on-line-catalogue screen when I became aware that the monitor next to me had been taken over by someone familiar. I turned to look at her. She glanced up and then hurriedly back down. Somehow she managed not to turn red.

"Hello Sean."

"Hello." I didn't really know what to say. That's my trouble, I never do. If I have a few minutes to sit down and think, something incredibly witty and cutting comes to me, but unfortunately life's not like an exam—there's no ten-minute reading period before answering. If I could just write down a few of those pithy phrases and carry them around for ready reference, it'd be so much easier. But then, life's like an exam—no notes are allowed.

"Uh... what happened to you last night?"

She sighed. "Yeah... look, I'm sorry about that Sean. I tried to find you at the bar but you'd already gone."

"I waited for almost an hour. You were the one who said six-thirty."

"What I meant was, I was going to tell you that I'd changed my mind. About going out with you."

Actually, this was what I'd figured all along. But somehow it still felt like I'd swallowed a cast-iron bath.

"Oh."

"I've been thinking about it, and I just don't want to get involved with anybody right now."

"Oh?"

"You see, like, I don't have a boyfriend, but I've got lots of friends, and, well, we have a good time, and that's how I want it right now. I'm not interested in any big commitment just now."

"Oh." I realised I was saying the fifteenth letter of the alphabet rather too much. "Uh..."—eighteenth, a definite improvement—"I wasn't really after anything heavy... we could just be friends..." And broccoli's my favourite. And look at my tongue, it's really clean, see?

She looked at me earnestly as she got up to leave. "I just don't think we'd have any fun."

Not with that attitude we wouldn't. She was a lost cause. Missed out on a hot time, babe! Missed out on a real funky hot steamin' good tiiiiime, yeah!

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Missed... shit.

I mumbled a weak goodbye and stared at the green-screen.

HIT <A> TRY AGAIN <H> HELP <.> STOP.

I hit them all.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 1, Bookmark 3

I almost forgot about Alan's invitation. Then the next day I noticed a poster advertising acts playing at the uni bar. Next to today's date it said "Alan Seward's Act of Contrition". Had to be him.

I didn't know if I wanted to go along to see a rock band, but I was feeling low that night and figured it might cheer me up. So a bit before ten I dragged on my jacket and drove over to uni.

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I couldn't find a park near the bar so I had to go over to the footy oval and walk in from there. The night air was cool and sharp, and the lights by the paths cast a soft yellow glow over the acacias. A half-moon spread shadows from the lonely white buildings across carefully manicured lawns.

I walked through to the student union building, its windows lit red and green and its walls shuddering with every musical thud. The sound intensified as I approached the bar.

A heavy at a desk blocked the way in. "G'day. Student?"

"Yeah."

"Five bucks."

"Jeez. Okay..." I handed over the purple plastic note, and he stamped my wrist with something red. Wandering into the smoke and garish light, I surveyed the scene: the usual beer commercial cast of laughing, attractive, unavailable women and their drinking, joking, sporty-looking men; none of them would have any time for yours truly. I headed straight for the bar, where I forked over a couple more bucks for a schooner of new. It was ice cold and sparkling; and tasted like a wet sack.

The bar was maybe half full. A few regulars played pool up at the back, chalking their cues and balancing cigarettes between their teeth with equal proficiency. Down the front, the small stage stood empty, with, strangely, no instruments set up. Nothing except a mike on a stand and, now I noticed it, a Fender guitar leaning in a corner next to an amp. The music I'd heard from outside—which on a closer listen sounded like some brand of British indie rock, all guitars and flat English accents—was being fed through speakers on either side of the stage.

The partition separating the bar from the refectory hadn't been pulled back, as it is for the bigger acts, so the place felt small and, at least down the front, tightly packed—almost claustrophobic. I hung at the back of the crowd, waiting for Alan's act.

A few minutes after ten, the rather subdued track that had been playing faded out. The crowd fell expectantly quiet; all that could be heard was the clack of pool balls.

And then the loudest, thrashiest metal music I'd ever heard crunched its way through the speakers. The stunned crowd took a moment to react and then laughed and started chattering. A squealing barrage of guitars drowned them out.

At the front a small cheer went up as one bloke climbed up onto the stage from among the crowd. He was tall and thin, with longish hair, and wore a bright multi-coloured T-shirt with long sleeves, its front scattered with chaotic fractal designs.

It was Alan.

The crowd kept up with its sporadic cheers as Alan started dancing frantically across the tiny stage, thumping the smoky air with his fist, and shaking his hair back and forth over his face.

With his face twisted into an angry grin, Alan grabbed the mike-stand and lifted the end up to his mouth. With eyes screwed shut, he let out a scream that let us all know the mike was live.

"Yeeeeeaaahhhhh!"

The crowd gave a whoop.

"Are you ready?"

A louder whoop.

"Let's go!"

A breathing space in the musical attack was replaced by the whomp of guitars, and Alan started up a manic display of playing an invisible guitar. He twisted around and played with his back to the audience, looking for all the world like someone, well, doing something other than air-guitar playing. He twisted again, rolled his head, and fell to his knees, biting down hard on his teeth and ripping at strings that weren't there...

...and the music stopped playing.

Alan's mime-guitar playing faltered. Slowly he opened his eyes. He looked over to the speakers, right, then left.

Then he sprang to his feet, ran over and grabbed the real guitar from against the wall, and ran back to the front, letting rip an electric chord that matched the music that had stopped. For a few wild seconds his fingers ran up and down the top of the neck in a fiery lead metal solo, and the beast was back.

Gradually, though, he slowed, and moved down the neck, a rhythm developing, a basic twelve-bar blues with a slight twist. Softer, and softer, until he spoke into the mike in a quiet, low voice.

"Now for my Act of Contrition..."

Another bar of music.

"... Sorry about the heavy metal."

Another bar, and a peal of laughter from the crowd.

"I'm Alan Seward, and this is the ANU Bar; the ideal place for those"—he gave a wink—"good times. I'll be your host for an hour or so of stand-up comedy... so-called because this is the uni bar and there are only about six chairs...

"Stand-up comedy, and the occasional burst of knock-down music... bought it cheap at a garage sale. The guy was really glad to get rid of it. I was the only one who asked about the music; everyone else asked him what he wanted for the garage."

A collective groan. Alan grinned.

"And now a little song about those big white birds in the sky. It's called: 'My Gull'."

The guitar tune had mutated into an acoustic sound; Alan flicked a switch on the amp with his foot, and took it back another notch, slowing down for what was almost a spoken introduction.

Some people like to travel on a bus
Personally, I can't see what's the fuss
Others drive around in their new car
But that's a drag if going someplace far
And then again there's always boat or train
But I won't ever ride on those again...

He took a breath and sang and strummed into an upbeat tune.

Oh, I like to travel by aeroplane
Fly over the sky like a comet
Read the free magazine
Feel ill and turn green
Open up the sick-bag and then vomit.
There's lots of great food on an aeroplane
But when they reach your row it's all gone
It's always too cramped to sleep
You're seated next to a creep
And there's always a queue for the john.
The movies are always terrific—
For the flights on the opposite route.
They get Dances with Wolves
Or The Untouchables, while
You get Stop or my Mom will Shoot.

Alan picked and strummed the strings through a short instrumental break, winking and grinning at the audience, then slowed and, in a steamier delivery, sang on:

Hostesses are hot on an aeroplane
Their uniforms always sex-y
And if you catch their eye
As the blonde ones slink by...
They'll pour you out a nice cup of tea.
Yes, I like to travel by aeroplane
Though it uses up all of my cash
And when I'm feeling airsick
This one thought does the trick:
Could be worse—we could die in a crash!

And with a flourish, he kicked back the amp switch, skidded along the bottom string from high to low like the Doppler effect of a falling plane, and strummed a blast on a low chord in an unearthly guitar explosion.

After the applause died down, Alan put down his guitar and stood close to the microphone, speaking in a low, friendly voice.

"Some of you older members of the audience may recognise that tune. It was a big hit for that popular beat group Bros. Way back in the 1980s. Remember them? Not Bros; the 1980s... A bit before your time, I know. Just how old is the average uni student, anyway? Nineteen? Twenty? My God, you're all so young... and look at you. Wasting your life away writing essays and drinking beer and listening to crap comedians. You've got to stop and smell the roses! Treasure these years, children! They're the best years of your lives, you mark my words!"

"Bullshit!" someone yelled.

Alan shrugged. "You reckon it's bullshit, but it's what my Gran used to tell me... come to think of it, I told her it was bullshit, too... My Gran used to drive me up the wall. You know: you're fifteen, in grade ten, a social android with a Pink Floyd complexion—your skin looks like the dark side of the moon—and everyone at school hates you. And this old person hands over an Iced Vovo and says, 'Treasure these years, Alan...' I was so glad to get out of high school. So glad that I went straight on to uni...

"I couldn't believe it, though—on our last day of school, some of the girls were crying about having to leave. Actually crying. Me, I was racing around laughing and cheering, 'Hurrah!', like I'd just escaped from an English boarding school: 'Wizard wheeze, you oiks! School's out! Let's set fire to Matron!' And Gran wanted me to treasure my school years. Well, I suppose they were like treasure—I wanted to bury them on a desert island where I could never find them again.

"They're so out of it, old people. That's why they're such a good laugh. I mean, where would Hollywood scriptwriters be without them? You know—your teenage romance action comedy vampire flick is dragging in the second half, so you write in the Comedy Old Person. 'Why Jimmy, you'd better buy yourself a new pair of jeans—those ones are torn.' 'This is a new pair of jeans, grandpa—it's the fashion these days.' 'Fashion? Lan' sakes. In my day it was stovepipe trousers and winklepicker shoes. We'd pick ourselves a good crop of winkles, cook 'em up in the stovepipe, and serve them with a white wine—delicious.'

"Yep, ol' grandpaw—he's such a card. But what's this? Turns out the old dude's a closet hipster! And inevitably, as night follows errand, there's this scene where he's in the disco, breakdancing. Like, mega-hip. Can you breakdance?"

"Yes!" yelled the dickhead who'd shouted earlier.

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"I said break-dance, not break wind... Now seriously, can anybody you know breakdance? No. Exactly. But wheel Great Uncle Fred into the nightclub and tip him out of his chair, and he'll be jiving and gyrating like a Mexican jumping bean. 'Go, Gramps, go!' Or perhaps 'Yo, Gramps, yo!' And the Bros is pounding out of the speakers, and Grandpa's spinning around on his back, and everyone's clapping and cheering. Of course what the film doesn't show is the scene afterwards where he has a cardiac and dies. Probably ran into problems with management at the studio. 'The breakdancing, we like. But cut the cardiac. Too downbeat. Here's a concept: what say he gets taken away by aliens to another planet where he can live forever?'

"Well, I'm sorry Mr Studio-Person, but it happens to us all. It's not all partying when you're old. It's not all breakdancing and bingo. At the end you die. Guaranteed. Do not pass go, do not collect this week's pension. It's time to donate those organs and make an attempt on the long-distance lying-in-a-coffin record.

"My God, I can't believe I'm talking about death. That's taking the tone down a notch. Alan Seward, wacky funster and ghoul... Guess I've been dwelling on it a bit ever since my birthday. A major landmark. The big two-five. Really brings it home to you: twenty-five! Sounds pretty young, doesn't it? But it's not. Because that's when your insurance premiums go down. Just think about that. They trust you. They trust you not to do anything wild and insane. They trust you not to chain-scull tequilas and do Canberra to Sydney in two hours flat. They trust you not to put mags and a V8 into your Morris Minor, and then play traffic-meter cricket at 3 a.m.

"You almost expect to get a letter: 'Congratulations! You are officially an old person. Well done! As a result of the reduced risk you now pose to life as we know it, your premiums have dropped from six hundred dollars per annum with a five hundred dollar excess to five cents per decade. Now that your crazy days are over, you may like to consider those other essentials in your life. We offer attractive cover for homes; golf clubs; and Neil Diamond records.'

"I'd pay the six hundred just so they'd say I was officially young... 'Congratulations! You are a young person; your premiums are six hundred dollars. Don't want you spending it on any nasty drugs, now do we?'"

"Fuckin' A!" yelled the perpetual heckler, who was met with groans and a cry of "Shut the fuck up". Alan cast him a withering glare. "On second thoughts, you can spend the money on any nasty drugs you want. The nastier the better."

"Fuck off!"

"What do you do, shoot up? I hear Rinso's selling cheap on the streets at the moment. One cup per load should do the trick."

The audience's laughter drowned out the heckler's continuing shouts of abuse; a couple of his more sober friends dragged him out of earshot. Alan sipped a glass of water and then carried on.

"Back to the action... where was I? Oh yeah, getting old. Hang on, I'll just check..."—he glanced over his arms and body—"Yeah, still getting old..."

"I've had a lot of time lately to think about growing old, and dying. Usually while I'm sitting at traffic lights. Mainly because that's when it's most likely to happen. Canberra has the slowest traffic lights in the world. The only people who spend longer at the lights than us are colour-blind. 'It's brown... and now it's... brown... still brown... why are those people honking?' It's quite possible to sit through a whole song on the radio while you're waiting for Canberra lights to change. Like 'Hey Jude'. Or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I know someone who gave birth at the traffic lights once. By the time they reached the hospital four blocks away the kid was off sitting his medical exams. Very handy actually—he was able to give his Mum some free post-natal care.

"Why do the road designers do it? It can't just be for safety and letting all the traffic through and so on, because everyone ends up running the lights and playing pedestrian dodgems when the alternative is 'Naaah, naaah-naaah, na-na-na-naaaah, Hey Jude'. So it's obvious the designers are just being complete road bastards. There they are, poring over their maps, and they spot a major arterial road, five kilometres in a straight line. Can't have that, the traffic might even reach the speed limit. Let's see—just look up the Road Bastard's Do-It-Yourself Guide—what we need here is a traffic light. One with no green.

"Yes, the Road Bastard's Guide. Now available in Sealed, Unsealed, and Major Delays Next Ten Kilometres versions. It's got this big emphasis on stop signs. I mean, there are three stop signs in a row near where I live. Three. And I'm getting really sick of them. Stop, go, stop, go, stop, go. I reckon next time I'm just going to keep on going right through. I reckon it's about my turn. Let everyone else stop for a change.

"And then there's a whole chapter devoted to that other Canberra joy: the roundabout. There's a big golden rule highlighted on the first page: 'When in Doubt, Roundabout'. Never mind the fact that drivers are genetically programmed never to give way. That's a proven fact. It's natural selection. Anyone who gives way gets stuck waiting for a space to get onto the roundabout, and it never comes, so they spend their entire adult lives just sitting there and never get a chance to reproduce. So the 'give-way' genes are eliminated, while the 'two-fingers', 'horn-honking' and 'narrow-scrape-past-oncoming-vehicle' genes spread all over the place.

"And the big roundabouts are even more ridiculous. They have an outer lane and an inner lane, and you're supposed to go on the inner lane if you want to turn right. Which is the most stupid thing you could possibly do. Because once you get onto it—if you're able to barge past the two-fingers, horn-honking, never-give-way genetic mutants—you will never leave. Your car will become the Mary Celeste of the Roundabout, forever searching for that elusive gap in the traffic to leave on the right exit. You'll keep driving round and round the inner lane, gradually getting weaker as you go longer and longer without food or water, finally ending up as a skeleton, with your bony fingers clamped onto the steering wheel and holding it on course, around and around...

"And if you do make it out, you'll find yourself driving through streets that didn't exist when you set out. You stop for petrol and it's gone up to 74.5 dollars per litre; and you only have a five dollar bill, so you have to make do with 150 mils. Now available in handy individual sachets. And the kid who's serving you is wearing ripped jeans, which for some strange reason you find really irritating, and then you see yourself in the mirror and ohmygod you're an old person, and what's worse you never learned how to breakdance.

"I love old people, really. Well, not literally. Well, not often—not since I lost my job at the Wrinkled Years Retirement Village. But it's great to have old people, isn't it? It's great to have someone to blame things on. Like environmental disasters. Because it was nothing to do with us, right? We're too young to have screwed up the planet. Take Chernobyl, for example. We wouldn't have let that naughty Mr Einstein and Mr Rutherford discover nuclear physics.

"And then there's CFCs and the Ozone Layer. They've known about that since the mid-seventies. I was only seven. So, like, don't blame me. All I knew was that an aerosol can made a really nifty flamethrower—fssshhhh. My folks, though, they were old in the seventies. So they knew. And what did they do about it? It's great, you can burst in on them when they're using the Rightguard in the bathroom: 'Dad! Why have you used aerosols since the 1970s when you knew they would destroy all life as we know it?' And if he's too slow with the answer you can set fire to the aerosol spray so it burns his armpits off.

"You might have gathered that I'm an environmentally conscious comedian. As opposed to an environmentally unconscious comedian. Those are the ones you see lying around in the bush with empty beer cans around them... And as an Ecch—that's E-C-C, Environmentally Conscious Comedian—I've written a little song about the threat that the common or garden spray-can poses to us all. And I'd like to share it with you—yes, you—right now."

Alan picked up his guitar again, slung its strap over his shoulder, and started playing.

CFCs
Oh yeah now—CFCs
They are the—enemy
Said a bloke—on TV
They're eatin'—up ozone
Make beaches—no-go-zones
Have to keep—our clothes on
Or move to—someplace frozen
'Cos of—
CFCs
Oh yeah now—CFCs
Will get to—you and me
They'll cause all—kinds of disease
We'll all get big melanomas
"Mole" will be a gross misnomer
Tans will send you into coma
Freckles means you'll keel over
Thanks to—
CFCs
Oh yeah now—CFCs
Will be the—death of me
Al Seward—R.I.P.
So baby here's what you can do
Just throw those spray cans in the loo
Junk your refrigerators too
And leave the planet P.D.Q.
'Cos these are—
CFCs
Oh darling—CFCs
Yes, once those suckers been released
They last a hundred years at least
Good golly—CFCs
Miss Molly—CFCs
Won't ever be any reprieve
These molecules will never leave
Can you hear the—CFCs
Fernando—CFCs
They interact with the O3
Which keeps us ultra-violet free
Break it down!
CFCs, oh baby
CFCs, just maybe
Kill all the trees, those CFCs
Dry up the breeze, those CFCs
Burn off our knees, those CFCs
Give our dogs fleas, those CFCs
What's a new rhyme, please, CFCs
A rhyme for 'ease'—and CFCs
The Three Degrees?—CFCs
Devonshire teas—CFCs
Steak, chips and peas—CFCs
Westerly breeze—CFCs
Arts-Law degrees—CFCs
She's my main squeeze—CFCs
Think I'm gonna sneeze—CF... F... choo!
At least I didn't have to rhyme anything with 'chlorofluorocarbons' thanks to
C.
F.
Cs.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 1, Bookmark 4

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Alan's act lasted something like an hour and twenty minutes, an hour and a half. The songs punctured the monologues and let out a hiss of high-pressure jokes. A couple of times he did something a bit more physical, like his routine about rush-hour bus etiquette, and his mime impersonations of an accountant mutating into a weresheep. And he just wouldn't let up. The lights and the constant movement brought him out in a sweat, but he barely seemed to notice.

At the end he wobbled off the stage and through the crowd towards the bar. A few hands reached out and clapped his arm, touched his shirt, sought out his hand to shake it. He grinned and said "thanks" again and again to the random compliments flying around him, and "That's it, I'm done" to shouts for more.

Reaching the bar, he leaned heavily against it, and for the first time let his happy exhaustion show. He wiped his face dry on a sleeve, and ordered a beer.

I'd made my way to the bar, too, and sat near him, just around the corner. He noticed me just as his beer arrived, and let out a loud hello. "What'd y'think? Like the show?"

I shouted back over the background noise. "Sure did. That bit about the traffic lights was really good. And I liked the song about—"

I was cut off, though, by the arrival of a girl. She didn't speak for a moment, but I was cut off all the same. I wasn't about to talk past this. She wore a simple black blazer over jeans and a Cure T-shirt, but she wore them like a model.

"Hey gorgeous," said Alan.

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"Hey cutie," she replied. She turned to me and said hi. I responded in kind, but I was caught for words as I stared at her face. Long, but squared off, not pointed and overly delicate; little make-up, but for deep red lips; and framed to her shoulders by straight, shining black hair.

"Kath, this is Sean. Sean, Kath."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2