The Stand-Up

Chapter Ten

We met Alan coming out from backstage. "That fucking clinches it," he fumed.

"Clinches what?" I asked.

"Come on, let's get out of here," he said, and we hurried out after him.

"What went wrong, darling?" asked Kath, almost breaking into a jog to keep up with him as he quick-marched down the street.

"Wrong!" he practically yelled. "You heard them. A pack of bloody animals."

"Yes," she said, "but that doesn't normally worry you. You can deal with hecklers."

"They weren't hecklers, they were fucking Hitlers. They should take up book-burning."

"Don't worry about it," I said, trotting behind them. "It's just one gig."

"That was no gig, that was a public stoning," he said, reaching the car. He yanked open the door and swung into the driver's seat.

"Alan, calm down," I said, as Kath and I climbed in. He was already turning the key in the ignition.

"I am calm," he insisted, as he slammed the car into reverse. The Enema-Mobile jerked backwards, then crunched to a halt.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Alan turned the wheel and accelerated out of the parking space.

"Alan, you just hit that car!"

"I know, Kath; it doesn't bloody matter." He sped down the street and then screeched to a stop at a red light.

"Alan, you hit that car! You can't just drive away!"

"I know, Kath, I know, I fucking..."

He froze, body tense, arms braced against the wheel; and then, suddenly, relaxed.

"I'm sorry, Kath," he said gently. "I didn't mean to shout."

The look of incredulity ebbed from her face and was replaced by one of concern.

"You have to go back. To leave a note or something."

"I know," he sighed. "I will."

Alan turned the car around in a side street and drove back towards the club. "What the hell," he muttered to himself, "none of it will matter tomorrow."

"What won't matter tomorrow?" I asked.

He flashed me a glare in the rear-vision mirror, like I'd caught him smoking in the boys' toilets and threatened to dob him in to the teacher. "Nothing," he said.

We pulled up on the other side of the road from the club. "Oh, great," he spat. "A bloody BMW."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 10, Bookmark 1

The atmosphere was less fraught by the time we reached Surry Hills. Alan calmed down after leaving the note on the dented car, and for the rest of the drive back was more or less his usual self: joking about it all, laughing at himself for getting so worked up.

Still, I was glad I hadn't said what I'd first been planning to on leaving the club: "You weren't very funny tonight, Alan."

It was only moderately late when we reached Wayne Manor, so we didn't turn in straight away. Wayne and Dog were nowhere to be found—they were probably off stalking down a dark alley somewhere—so we had the place to ourselves. Alan went to the fridge and rooted around for a six-pack of beer he'd left there.

"The bastard's pinched it."

He searched for a moment more.

"Wait on—there's one left."

He placed the solitary stubby on the table, and we all stared at it.

"Whoever can hold their breath the longest gets it," Alan suggested.

"It's all right," said Kath, "I'll pass. You two share it."

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"Okay, Sean, it's you and me." He sucked in a huge breath of air and puffed out his cheeks like a toad.


He was starting to turn red.

"It's okay, I don't want it that much."


He recovered his breath and grabbed hold of the bottle. "Oh good," he said, as he twisted off the top. We watched him gulp it down.

"It's no good," he said after finishing the bottle, "we need more beer. One of us'll have to go and get some."

"You can do that," said Kath.

"You can hold your breath the longest," I agreed, "so you get to go."

"Tell you what," he said, "how about a quick game of poker. Loser goes out for more beer." He was already up from the table and looking for the cards before we could argue about it.

"I don't know how to play poker," I whispered to Kath.

"That's okay. Neither does he. He's hopeless."

Alan came back with a deck of cards and a stack of orange and blue bills. "Monopoly money," he explained.

They ran over the rules for me, and Kath dealt out the first hand.

We each looked at our cards. I had a pair of sevens, but that was it. I attempted to maintain what I thought would pass for an expressionless expression.

Kath's face was blank; I had no idea what she was thinking. Alan was looking smug. He tossed five Monopoly dollars into the pot.

I could afford five Monopoly dollars. Hell, I could afford more than that. I raised him to ten. Kath called, putting in her ten dollars.

Alan narrowed his eyes and examined his hand intently. He paused, and then, with a flourish, slapped twenty more Monopoly dollars onto the table.

I passed. Kath called, and raised him twenty. Alan growled, and placed his cards face down on the table. "You win."

"See," said Kath, gathering in the pot, "I told you he was hopeless."

The next round opened helpfully. I had three kings. Alan groaned when he saw his cards; "I've got a hand like a foot," he said in disgust, and bowed out of the game.

It was down to me and Kath. I studied her face for clues. It was straight out of a Botticelli: beautiful, serene, and totally unchanging.

"You're too good," I said, after going down another thirty Monopoly dollars. She smiled sweetly.

It took only a few more games for her to clean us out. Alan lost big-time, and I came a close second. Kath leaned back and counted up her haul of garish notes. "I think I'll build myself a hotel," she announced. "Or maybe invest in some railway stations."

Alan was already heading for the door and the couple-of-blocks walk to the bottle shop.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 10, Bookmark 2 - Poker

So it was just the two of us again. Normally we would have found any old thing to chat about, but for some reason we lapsed into silence after Alan left. The hum of the refrigerator filled the room, scrambling my thoughts with its white noise. I scanned the ceiling and walls for distractions. My eyes flicked over cracks in the plaster, cobwebs in the corners, Dog's bowl on the floor; but they came to rest on her.

She was looking at me, too.

Suddenly, my blood slowed to a stop. My heart fluttered like an overworked machine as it strained to get it moving again. Sweat broke out and cooled my glowing skin.

It felt like one of those crucial moments that can lead to dozens of possibilities. If I do something, I thought—if I reach out and touch her face—if I say her name—if I tell her how I feel—maybe something might happen between us.

I wanted to believe it. I tortured myself with the thought. But I feared disaster. Do the wrong thing, and watch everything collapse. Drive her away. Drive them both away. But do the right thing... I was caught in an infinite loop, unable to decide what to do or say.

Kath broke the impasse. "Do you know when you're going back to Canberra?" she asked me.

I cleared my throat and managed to speak. "I was thinking perhaps the weekend."

"So soon?" She looked surprised; even, I hoped, disappointed. "Alan will be sorry to see you go," she said.

I counted to three in my head, then asked her, "What about you?"

She wasn't expecting that. "Me? Well, of course; I'll be sorry, too."

Blood began to ooze through my veins again, like warming syrup. "Kath..." I began. I studied her face, wishfully. The moment—the crucial moment, the moment that might lead to something: this was it; I knew it.

"Do you..." I said, before lapsing into another pause; "do you ever think you might... that you could be with—well—with someone else? Someone other than Alan?"

Jesus, I couldn't believe I'd said it.

Neither could she.

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She stared at me, her expression a mix of stunned amazement and reassessment, as if she had just seen something that demanded a revision of all her beliefs.

"Sean..." she said. "I don't..."

She struggled for the words. "Sean, I like you, but—but surely you know that I..."

That's enough, I wanted to shout. Stop; don't go on. Whatever I hadn't known for sure, I knew now.

Kath continued, oblivious. "I couldn't be with anyone except Alan," she said. "I love him, Sean. I came all the way out here for him. I couldn't be with anyone else. I thought you knew."

My heart was beating again, but I felt drained, unnaturally weak, prematurely old.

"I just thought..."

I couldn't finish the sentence.

"Sean," she said, "you're my friend, and I like you a lot. But I don't really know you that well. And you don't really know me."

We sat there in silence.

"You'll find someone else," she volunteered.

I wanted to laugh, but couldn't. "Do you know how long it took me to find you?"

It took her a while to answer. "Yes," she said, staring down at her hands. "I think I do."

She looked up at me. Then, suddenly, she rose out of her chair and walked around to where I was sitting. She placed a hand on my shoulder and leaned down towards me. Her hair brushed on the table as she tilted her head, and...

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... kissed me.

I closed my eyes and focussed on the sensation of her lips: smooth, warm, firm; lips of silk. Pressing for one tantalising moment against mine, and then—


I opened my eyes and looked into hers. She was smiling.

It was the end; I knew it. The end of possibility. No, not that; time to stop kidding myself. It was the end of fantasy; the end of dreaming.

"Maybe I'd better go home tomorrow," I said.

She nodded. "That might be best."

"I'll miss you," I sighed.

"I know."

The front door rattled, and Kath stepped back, looking worried for a moment. Then Alan's voice boomed out, "Honey, I'm hoooome," and she relaxed, smiled. "We're in here," she called, as she sat back down.

Alan came into the kitchen, holding a six-pack in each hand. "Let's rip into it!" he cried.

So we did.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 10, Bookmark 3

My head felt soft and stuffed, like a foam-filled bear's. I crawled into my padded bag and willed it to sleep.

Sleep... it's so sadly undervalued. We all want more time to do other things. Everyone races around all day, trying to find time to do everything: time to get to work, time to do work, time to get home, eat dinner, talk to the kids, watch four hours of television, read the paper, and have a quick bonk before falling to sleep. If only we didn't have to sleep eight hours every night, we think, we could achieve so much more.

I once heard of someone who, convinced that the human body needs no more than three hours sleep, was training herself to sleep less by progressively shaving a few minutes off every night. For the price of a few trifling side effects, such as memory loss, she was buying herself whole extra hours to do things in.

I couldn't do it. I'd rather do the reverse. By sleeping in that extra few minutes each successive day, I figure I could push the envelope to sixteen hours a night. And why not? Apart from the need to eat and excrete, what reason is there to stay awake? Sleep is release from the cares and demands of the world. Sleep is release...

Sleep was release, that night. Sleep was the only thing that blanked out my feelings of total inadequacy and stupidity. Sleep was all that allowed me to forget what an idiot I'd made of myself with Kath.

So I slept. Wayne's storage room was virtually a sensory deprivation chamber—no windows, therefore no light at any time of day when the door was closed—so I had no idea what time it was when I finally woke. I just knew that the phone was ringing.

And ringing.

And ringing. Twenty times, at least, before it stopped.

And then started again.

Where was everybody? Why wasn't anyone answering it? Unable to stand it any longer, I dragged myself off the ground, holding my sleeping bag up around me at armpit height. Wrapped in my Dacron cocoon, I groped forward and opened the door.

Kath, dressed in a long T-shirt and looking bedraggled, had reached the stairs just before me. "It's all right, I'll get it," she said as she ran down them. A moment later the ringing stopped.

I stepped forward, a foot in each corner of my sleeping bag, and gingerly followed her downstairs. It suddenly occurred to me that one wrong step in this confined condition and I could fall and break several of my lesser-known vertebrae. By the time I'd worked out that getting out of the bag might be in order, however, I had made it to the bottom, so I kept it on as I waddled into the lounge.

Something was clearly not right with Kath. She was standing rigidly still; her pale face had blanched a few shades paler. With the phone held to her ear, she stared out of the lounge-room window as if she was watching a murder taking place outside.

"Okay," she said weakly. "We'll be there. Bye."

She placed the phone back on the receiver.

There was a pause long enough to cover some insects' lifespans.

"That was Alan," she finally said. "He's at the police station."

She turned her gaze from the window and looked at me.

"He's painted the Sydney Harbour Bridge pink."

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We drove to the police station in virtual silence, both thinking to ourselves, both making what we could of the little Kath had heard over the phone. "That's all he said," she'd told me, "he painted the bridge pink, and the cops have arrested him." He can't have painted the whole bridge, I'd pointed out; he can only have been gone a few hours. It takes me longer than that to paint a fencepost. "I don't know how long he's been gone," Kath had said, sounding weary. "He wasn't there when I woke up."

It was just past the hour, so I switched on the radio to see if we could get any news.

"... has stated that the government will release the figures next week. And this just to hand: police have arrested a man at Bankstown Airport after he allegedly flew a light plane over Sydney Harbour Bridge and crop-dusted it with pink paint. Several cars were also sprayed with paint in the incident, which has left two inbound lanes temporarily closed to traffic. In Bosnia, United Nations troops—"

I turned the radio off.

"Ah," I said.

"He sprayed the bridge with paint from an aeroplane," Kath intoned. "I can't believe it."

We'd reached the police station. I reversed into a parking spot up the street.

"What on earth was he thinking?" she said.

"I guess we'll find out," I replied.

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For a moment, the mental picture enveloped me: Alan, flying a fragile plane over Sydney's towers and smog; dipping low over the rooftops; perhaps circling the Centrepoint Tower for luck, dodging any King Kong koalas that might get in his way. Holding his aircraft with its Dulux ballast on a steady course towards the Coat-Hanger. Perhaps he was togged up like a fighter pilot, I mused, with a pair of coin-sized goggles clamped to his eyes; steeling himself for his dawn raid. Swooping between the peaks of the skyscrapers, where office-workers would stare at him from the windows with eyes agog. Emerging over the Bridge, its iron lattice looming suddenly into view, a herd of cars pushing and shoving their way across it like cattle in a crush. Laughing maniacally as he flips the switch to spray. And a shower of pink droplets falling like strawberry-milk rain onto the stunned drivers below. Maybe some of them would have tried to clean it off with their windscreen wipers, smearing paint over their field of vision, then crashing blindly into the cars in front... It was a beautiful image of chaos and madness.

Alan, you mad, crazy bastard.

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Kath appeared to be in shock. I helped her up the steps to the entrance of the station, and led her by the arm inside. We walked up to the main desk.

"Can I help you?" asked a man behind the desk.

"Ah, yes," I said. But Kath should be doing the talking, I thought. "Kath?"

"Oh, right," she said, in something of a daze. "Right. We're—um—we're here to see Alan Seward."

"Seward; right. Are you relatives?"

"Friends," said Kath. Then she added, "I'm his fiancée."

I stared at her, dumbfounded. "Sorry, Sean," she said, "I was going to tell you, but... well... we only just decided..." Her words trailed off.

The man at the desk went off to check with somebody, returning shortly afterwards. "You can go through, miss," he said. "I'm sorry, sir," he said to me, "you'll have to wait here."

I took a seat in the spartan foyer while Kath went off to see Alan. A ragged-looking peroxide-blonde was sitting next to a pale youth nearby; I couldn't help overhearing their hushed conversation.

"Anyway, I went over to my sugar-daddy's place and begged him for a hit; anything, I was fuckin' desperate. He only had fifty grams on him, so he cut it out to a hundred for me right then and there. I was desperate, man. Then he started heavying me about fucking him; this friend of mine—Cynthia, you know Cynthia?—she's been fucking him, and Barry wants me to as well. Like, he's my sugar-daddy and all, but he's not that good-looking, you know? But I reckon I might have to. I might have to marry him so he can stay in the country, so he can keep the shit coming. But I can't marry him until I turn sixteen. And then I'd need my Dad's permission, and he won't fucking give it to me, I know it. He's really down on Barry, you know, because Barry's forty-five, and because he's hanging around me."

Jesus, Alan, I thought, what are you doing in this place?

There was more—she told her friend about how her brother had been to Iraq, where there was a really good dope-supply, and he told her about some local crime figure with a creepy alias (who could have been Wayne for all I knew). Just when I figured they were about to do a drug deal right there in the police station, Kath came back.

I got out of my seat and walked up to her hurriedly.

"Come on, let's go," I said.

"I've got to call Alan's mother."

"You can do it outside," I insisted, and marched her out the door.

"Sorry," I said as we left the building, "but that is one place I do not want to be hanging around. I'll tell you about it later."

We reached the car and got in.

"So what did Alan say?" I asked, as I climbed into the driver's seat.

I looked over at Kath. She was trying very hard not to cry. But she failed.

I didn't know how to deal with Kath's tears. I reached out and tentatively touched her shoulder. She turned towards me and leaned over, leaned her head onto my chest, still crying. I stroked her head and held it to me. Not out of lust; out of friendship.

"Oh, Sean," she sobbed, "what am I going to do?"

That was one question I had absolutely no answer for.

"Are you going to stay with him?" I asked, hating myself for it immediately afterwards. You're so fucking transparent, Crawford.

She sat up and wiped her tear-streaked face. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I am."

"But he's completely crazy," I said.

"I know," she said. "But he's always been crazy. That's why I love him."

It was hard to argue with that. After all, that was why I loved him too.

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I was a day late getting back to Canberra. Kath wouldn't hear of my going back and leaving her alone with Wayne the Insane and the hound from hell. Alan's mother couldn't get a flight down from Townsville that day, so he spent a night in custody until she could come and bail him out. I met his mother before I left; she seemed absurdly normal, the antithesis of her son.

Her son seemed defiant and unrepentant when he walked out of the police station to confront the waiting media. A gaggle of reporters and cameras pressed up the steps towards us. Kath and Alan's mother and I tried to hold them off, but Alan pushed us gently aside as he stepped forward to meet them.

"Why'd you do it, Mr Seward?" came the cries.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Alan, raising his voice, "I have a prepared statement to read to you."

The noise died down to the clicks of cameras and the whirr of videotape as Alan drew a folded note from his pocket and read it aloud.

"Bacon... onions... carrots... Sorry, wrong note."

The reporters maintained an eerie silence. They obviously knew an old gag when they heard one. One cameraman started to laugh, but quickly stopped.

Disappointed, Alan began again.

"Ladies and gentlemen. My actions were not an attack on the Harbour Bridge. They were an attack on complacency. Mine, yours, the media's, everyone's. We all make the same predictable choices, day in, day out, about what we deem worthy of attention. And it all just blends together and plods along, a big parade of mediocrity, when we could be doing so much more. It's like we're dog-paddling in the Olympic pool of life.

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"Well, this is my way of taking back control. I've made you pay attention to me, and I've done it in the most unexpected way possible. I've made you all think about something totally ridiculous. I've made you wake up..."

He'd emphasised the last two words, punching them into the air... and now his fist unclenched, and the fire went out of his eyes. He stuffed the note into his pocket and spoke again, quietly.

"That's all. Thank you."

Alan bowed his head and stumbled down the steps, like an old man.

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Back at the flat, away from the persistent crowds of reporters, I pressed him for more details. "You wouldn't tell them," I said, "but you can tell me. Why a plane? Why paint the bridge from a plane? I have to know."

"A stunt," he said. "Just a stunt. Like ol' Matthias what's-his-face."

"It's easier than flying to Red Square, I suppose. But painting the Harbour Bridge? Why that?"

"Sean, I'm surprised at you. Surely you can see the connection. Which famous comedian got his start..."

With that, it dawned on me. "Don't tell me—not Paul Hogan."


And I laughed. You had to see the funny side of it.

"They'll paint over it in no time," said Alan. "Anyway, there's hardly anything there; the paint was really thinned down. It had to be, to get through the sprayers."

"Tell that to the people whose cars got sprayed."

"It'll polish straight off. You have to prime a surface for the paint to stick, you know."

All this rationalising seemed to miss the point. "Jesus, Alan," I said, "you're still in deep shit."

"It'll blow over."

"What, you mean there'll be a shit-storm?"

He laughed at that. "That'll teach me to mix my metaphors."

"Alan," I said, "I still don't get it. You didn't have to do this. You didn't need a crazy stunt to catch people's attention."

"Come on, Sean; you've been to my last few shows. Nobody's paying attention to me when I'm not doing crazy stunts."

"Yeah, but—you can't go on a handful of people in an audience, for Chrissakes. You're good. Your material is good. That'll get you there in the end."

"Sean," he sighed, "I used to think so. But just think about it for a moment. Think about everybody else out there who's trying to get noticed for their creative efforts. The greatest actors in the world are wasting away in low-budget telemovies while everyone goes to the latest Stallone flick. The greatest books in the world are sitting in remainder stores while everyone buys the latest Jackie Collins. The greatest music in the world doesn't even make the bottom of the charts. Success has nothing to do with quality. Success is all about being noticed."

"So," he concluded, "I've made everyone notice me."

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He was right on that score, at least. For the next few days the papers and the airwaves were full of Alan Seward.

Whether it was the response Alan had aimed for, though, was debatable. Talk-back radio set the tone from day one. "Alan Seward," hissed one of Sydney's better-known radio personalities. "That's the name of the lunatic who flew an aeroplane over the Harbour Bridge and sprayed pink paint all over Sydney's best-loved icon. And all because he wanted more people to come and see his comedy act. That's right—he's a stand-up comedian, of all things. He's also, I have just learned, on the dole. Which just goes to show what people can get up to when they're bludging off the good old Aussie taxpayer. How does the saying go? 'The devil finds work for idle hands'?"

His listeners agreed.

"I reckon he should be locked up, and they should throw away the key. They should make him paint over all the damage he's done, and then they should lock him up."

"Hello, John; I always listen to your show. This Seward bloke—they should take away his pilot's licence. And his dole. They should cut him off. He says he's a comedian—well I don't think he's very bloody funny. Who does he think he is?"

"Hello, yes—I just wanted to say that this is the same maniac who ran into my brand new BMW..."

"Hello, John? What I want to know is who gave him the plane in the first place, and how was he allowed to fly so close to the bridge? He's ruined Sydney's best-loved icon, like you said."

The papers continued the attack. One editorial screamed: "Seward's actions call into question the entire system of regulation of light aircraft in Australia. As the clean-up of Australia's best-loved icon begins, we must ask how the state and federal governments intend to ensure that such actions are never repeated."

Another questioned the background of "Seward, 25, a former scholarship-funded postgraduate student who is currently receiving unemployment benefits. His criminal actions demand an immediate inquiry into current methods of determining eligibility for government support."

One of the current affairs shows on commercial television landed an interview with the manager of the firm that had rented Alan the plane. "I'm as much a victim in this as anyone," he protested. "I rented him the aircraft in good faith, and now I've got people screaming for me to be put out of business. And what's more, that paint he used has dried out and clogged up the whole spraying system on my plane. It's costing me a fortune."

Finally, one of the shows interviewed Alan.

"Thanks for coming in," said the host. "They're calling you 'Australia's aerial outlaw'—why'd you do it?"

"Well, Ray," said Alan, "I did it for one reason and one reason only."

"Which is?"

"I'm actually a secret agent in the employ of the former Soviet Union. They ordered me to mark the bridge as the main target for their bombers."

That certainly unsettled the host. "You're not serious?" he asked.

Alan burst out laughing. "Of course not, ya big galah. I did it for the publicity."

Now that, I smiled to myself, is the Alan we know and love.

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I'd end it there, but I hate books that leave lots of loose ends hanging around. They're like long trailing laces: step on one by accident and you end up untying the whole shoe.

So anyway: I started writing this the day after I got back to Canberra, when the media frenzy I've just described was still in mid-frenze. That was four months ago. It's taken me slightly longer to finish than expected, partly because I had to put it on hold while I finished my thesis (an upper second, if you're wondering). Now when I look at the opening paragraph of chapter one I see the perils of making predictions. He's going to explode all over your TV screens, I reckoned. 'Fraid not.

Alan got fined and had to do some community service on weekends. Despite the brief burst of publicity, his stunt hasn't led to a TV deal or lasting fame. He hasn't been performing at all lately, apparently. The last time I spoke to him on the phone he sounded pretty depressed.

Kath stuck by him. They're getting married soon; they've asked me to be best man. They're even talking about coming back to Canberra so that he can finish the Ph.D., but I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Besides, it looks like I might be moving down to Melbourne: there's a job going, and I've got an interview. I don't know if I really want the job, but if they offer it to me I feel I should take it.

I still love her. I know, it's stupid, but I can't help it. Writing it all down has only made it worse. I can see her point: in a lot of ways I still don't know her that well. But since when did that determine whether or not you fall for someone?

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Sorry. I know I should be offering some kind of tidy conclusion at this point, some kind of resolution of the whole crazy story. I was kind of hoping for one myself, but it's looking less and less likely.

One matter has been resolved, at least. At a Christmas party around at Andrew's place. With Jennifer, of all people.

But that's a different story. And not nearly as good a one, at that.

The End

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