The Stand-Up

Chapter Two

It's sort of appropriate that I write about her now. It's three a.m., and I can't get to sleep because I've been lying here thinking about Kath. Everything that's happened hasn't changed anything. I was lying awake thinking about her that first night too.

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Admittedly, I probably wasn't lying awake because I was thinking about her. I'd already slipped into a vicious circle of late nights and late risings during my honours year. Every day I'd get up at eleven or twelve, exist in a semi-conscious state for twelve hours, crash into bed at midnight, and lie awake for three or four hours thinking about all the things I should have done in the morning when I'd been asleep. Like work. You'd be surprised, actually, how little one can think through in three to four hours late at night. Or at least how little I can. A more creative soul would have been composing a novel, trying out scientific experiments in his brain, deriving pi to six hundred decimal places. All I'd manage to do would be to latch onto my latest major fear/worry/source of guilt and examine it in a thorough and merciless fashion. After what would seem about fifteen minutes of this (because I hadn't got very far), I'd switch the light back on and blearily stare at my watch, and realise that FUCK, IT'S THREE-THIRTY. Then I'd worry for a while about how late it was and how late I'd be waking up as a result, and the next thing I'd know it'd be 10:37 or 11:18 or something, and it'd feel like it was still 3:30.

And it's not even like I'd have any fun lying there. All I'd do would be to listen to the trucks rolling past. They probably weren't helping the situation any; I never had gotten used to them. When I lived with Mum and Dad—before they moved to Melbourne last year—it was in your typical quiet Canberra suburb; after about midnight you'd hear nothing until the magpies woke up. The flat I was sharing now, though, was in the inner city, bang next to Northbourne Avenue, one of those major arterial roads Alan had railed against. About the only place in the City That Sends You To Sleep that didn't.

If you're lying awake, alone, at three a.m., and you can't get to sleep, and you don't want to think about where you screwed up during the day... well, there's really only one thing left you can do (apart from write about it, that is). And that's what I did that night. Twice. Which was why I was thinking about Kath.

I'd known her for only a few hours, I'd met her for a matter of minutes, and already I was undressing her in my head and simulating her with my hand. I'd already half-forgotten what she looked like, but I knew it was something pretty fine, and that was enough to go on. Her head was duly grafted onto a stock bimbo from my secret compartment of centrefolds and supermodels, and away we went.

I'm sorry to report that on this occasion, however, Kath was a lousy lay. She had all the failings of the dozens of others I'd been seeing recently.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 1

How often have you met someone and felt like you've known them a long time? With kindred spirits there's some kind of telepathic connection, an empathy that lets you skip all of that tedious getting-to-know-you business and leap straight into being good friends. Even if you don't end up as best mates, they'll remain people you're always happy to see when you bump into them at the shops; people you're eager to catch up with when you see them a couple of years down the track.

So, how often have you met such people? I'd met a few, maybe half a dozen, in my short life. To my continual disappointment, they'd all been male. Not that I was sorry to have met them; just that I was keen to redress the gender imbalance. Although to be honest, if I'd spent a few less Saturdays watching The Bill rather than actually getting out and connecting telepathically, the imbalance might have needed less redressing.

That night in the uni bar, I realised I'd met two at once.

Alan was the kind of person who seemed to radiate energy. At times he radiated enough to power Wollongong. The guy was a nuclear reactor; if he sailed on a warship into Sydney Harbour he'd have half of Greenpeace out on rafts, demonstrating.

As someone whose energy levels were descending below those of the more placid species of gastropods, I was intensely jealous, and intensely in awe. I yearned to know Alan's secret. What made him the way he was? What did he eat for breakfast? Where could I buy some? Would it have a free swap card inside the box? I'd known him two days and already I knew that Alan had something I wanted.

It was more than that. Alan had energy, and perhaps a crazy streak, but he controlled them rather than vice versa. In all the time I knew him, I was never entirely sure that it wasn't all a front: that here was some complete dag, frantically trying to be noticed, big-noting himself, strutting around the stage demanding attention. For Alan, everywhere was a stage, and he was the star attraction; MC in the Canberra circus. I knew, though, that whatever lay beneath that exterior had to be pretty impressive. Because Alan had Kath. God, I wanted to know his secret. I wanted to know because I wanted to be him; and I wanted to be him because I wanted her.

Kath was cool and mysterious, like those girls in high school in the grade above you who you never quite managed to meet, but always lusted after from afar. Her voice was soft and melodious, like improvised jazz, although she spoke with an English rather than a New Orleans accent. I wondered how long she'd been living in Australia, and what had brought her out here. She seemed different from Australian girls: her skin was paler, for one thing; but more noticeably, the ebullient, take-no-bullshit attitude sported by a lot of Australians, men and women, was replaced in Kath by a more calm and bemused air. She seemed to be watching life, waiting for it to entertain her. She was the Mona Lisa to Alan's Leonardo.

All this I could see that night, as we sat at the bar talking. I was so busy observing that I've forgotten what was said. But I remember Alan, animated, sweaty from his show, waving his hands; and I remember Kath, still, quiet, making only the occasional subtle remark, her eyes remaining fixed on him. I watched them both, but when I figured neither was looking I snatched brief stares at Kath, studying the curve of her black eyebrows and the glister of her slightly wet lips. Such opportunities were rare, though, as Alan directed his attention mostly towards me. Why, I didn't know; I was saying hardly anything by now, let alone anything interesting. The attempt to find words witty enough to win Kath's attention without raising Alan's suspicion merely left me paralysed. My tongue would do more hard work licking a stamp than it did that evening.

Nevertheless, for some reason Alan had taken to me. At the end of the night he paused for a moment, staring at me. Suddenly I felt intensely uncomfortable, as if I was being put on the spot in a job interview. Mister Entertainment was checking me over for laugh-value, and my resumé was sadly inadequate. Alan's question, though, wasn't what I expected.

"What are you doing Saturday?" he asked. "During the day, I mean?"

That stalled me. "Um... not much. Why?"

Alan turned to Kath, whispering conspiratorially, "What do you think?"

Kath, looking somewhat surprised, sounded noncommittal. "Well, yes... I suppose so."

Alan looked happy with this. He turned back to me. "How'd you like to come bushwalking with us? We were thinking of heading down to Namadgi if the weather's okay."

Obviously, I wasn't about to say no. Alan said he'd pick me up at about ten a.m.; and that, for now, was that.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 2

I spent a distracted Friday in at the lab. The only thing that kept my mind in the present was the acrid smell of chemicals suspended in the air; and extractor fans were busily taking away even that.

I plodded through a few experiments. This much base, that much acid. Fizzle fizzle fizzle. Repeat step one. Bake fifty minutes in a hot oven.

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Ken was glancing over at me occasionally, attempting a nonchalant, casual air—and failing pitifully. Ken could no more be nonchalant than could a rogue elephant with a bowel disorder. Ken was an enormous compost heap of a bloke. His flabby pink flesh grew and grew the more garbage he poured into himself; and he was always emitting earthy odours that even the extractor fans couldn't cope with. No wonder he wanted to be an industrial chemist: he was already emitting industrial waste.

I intercepted one of his feebly disguised stares and frowned it down. "What are you looking at?" I demanded.

Ken grinned and scratched his carrot-coloured hair. A waft of B.O. drifted over as he lifted his arm. I half expected to see the air fizzing as it hit the wall of acid fumes around me.

"Don't have a cow, man," Ken whined; the stinking man's Bart Simpson. "I was just wondering why you've been so quiet today. You didn't even say hello when I came in."

"Hello, Ken."

"Oh, ha ha. Very funny. You know what I mean. What's bugging you?"

I gave him a pained smile. "Normally, Ken, my answer to that would be 'you are', but I'll save my heavy sarcastic ammo for a later date."

"Oh, right. Well if that's the way you're gonna be, then..."—he paused while flipping through his mental card file of primary-school insults—"up your nose with a rubber hose."

"Bravo. I prostrate myself before such a superior wit." I went back to my work, and Ken returned to his in sullen silence.

After a minute Andrew, who'd been keeping out of our brief exchange, took up the interrogation. "Okay, Sean. Forget the smart-arse replies. What's eating you?"

"Nothing is eating me, okay? I'm just trying to get this experiment finished for Ferret, and then I'm going to lunch. Satisfied?"

"Bullshit. You've been like this for two days. It's something else. Come on. Spill your guts."

"Yeah," said Ken, who smelled like he just had.

"I notice you haven't mentioned how the hot date went the other night," said Andrew.

"Oh yeah!" said Ken, a low wattage globe shining dimly behind his eyes. "The one with that Arts bird. Whatsername..."

"Jennifer," I growled.

"Ahhhhh!" smiled Andrew. "Do I hear a note of piss-ed off-edness in that voice?"

"Too right," I mumbled.

"Come on. Let's hear it," Andrew demanded, smelling victory. (Metaphorically speaking. Actually, he was smelling Ken.)

"There's nothing to hear," I lied, in my best exasperated manner.

"What," asked Ken, "nothing?"

I nodded. "Nothing happened, all right?"

"What," said Andrew, "no sex?"

"Sex! Huh." I laughed it off.

"What," tried Ken, "no tongues even?"

The thought of Ken having any experience of French kissing was vaguely disturbing; but I let it pass. "We just didn't hit it off, okay?" I said with finality. I wasn't about to go into the sad facts of the case. It really wasn't such a big deal.

"Jeez, okay," said Andrew. "No need to be so touchy about it."

"I'm not touchy about it, all right?" I snapped.

"Oh yeah," laughed Ken, "sure you're not."

"Look, piss off Ken. I've forgotten all about the other night. It's not bugging me at... JESUS CHRIST!"

At that moment the signals from my brain to my mouth were interrupted by an urgent news-flash coming in from my left hand. I looked down to see what the hell was going on.

I'd been so busy talking to Ken and Andrew that I'd forgotten the beaker-full of H2S happily reacting away and, as it turned out, fizzing over the edges. Now it was sizzling onto the green laminated bench, and more importantly onto my thumb.

"Turn the fucking tap on!" yelled Andrew to no one in particular, after he'd already begun to do so himself. He grabbed my wrist and thrust it under the cold stream. The shock of the water distracted momentarily from the spiky throbbing I was beginning to feel from my left hand.

I watched calmly as drops of red splashed into the sink. My red. I wondered when it was going to hurt.

Just then Ferret marched in. We called Prof McCormack "Ferret" because of the huge, bristly, multicoloured beard that ate up half his head. Everyone did—just not to his face. The response would have been awesome indeed. As was his response now.

"What in the name of God's teeth is going on?" Ferret yelled.

"Sean spilled some conc sulphuric on his hand," blurted Andrew. I looked around at the mention of my name, attempting nonchalance and achieving sheer Ken-like levels of success.

Ferret hurried over to the bench. "Judas priest, Sean! What were you doing?" He grabbed my hand away from Andrew and turned it palm up to inspect the damage. For the first time I could see what had happened too.

Half my thumb seemed to be gone. The acid had chewed a bloody ellipse over the left half of the top joint. All of a sudden I felt rather faint.

"Sit the man down, Andrew," said Ferret. "We have to stop that bleeding. Does someone have a clean handkerchief?"

Ken drew a gangrenous wad out of his pocket and proffered it gingerly.

"I said clean, you spastic blowfly, not septic... thank you, Andrew." Ferret took Andrew's handkerchief and wrapped it around my thumb.

My stomach was dropping through to my knees. I felt sweat trickle down into the corners of my eyes.

"I... think I'm going to be sick..."

"Put his head down between his legs. He's in shock." Ferret sidled around the bench and did it himself.

"Now put those chemicals away, Andrew," he ordered. "You'll have to take Sean over to the doc."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 3

I emerged from the campus surgery feeling a bit sheepish. Andrew had actually waited for me—any excuse to get off work, I suppose. I held up my left thumb in triumph, a white cotton bulb of bandage hiding its gory details.

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"You could beat someone to death with that," observed Andrew.

"Oh yes," I smirked, waggling it dangerously, "Trés lethal."

"No, really. Small children... kittens... cockroaches..."

I'd been lucky. A few more seconds and I'd have lost more than a few layers of skin. I would have needed a skin graft, an operation, a stay in hospital. I resolved not to swallow Ken's bait so easily next time and let my mind wander off the job.

"Come on," Andrew said, " I'll buy you some lunch."

We stopped at the bakery and got some steak-and-tomato pies and fizzy drinks. It was overcast but not too cold out, so we took them outside and sat on the steps to eat. And, as Andrew said, to "watch the talent go by".

The talent was certainly talented, and the pie was perfect, though cooling rapidly. Andrew and I talked and laughed about this morning's incident. With a persistent throb coming from my thumb I was laughing slightly less than he was.

Then Andrew paused and nudged me in the ribs, pointing his eyes over to the Union entrance. A girl had just walked out.

"That's her, isn't it?"

So it was: Jennifer.

Andrew looked like he could barely contain the urge to wolf-whistle. "God; she's cute... oh, sorry, mate."

"No, you're right." She was no horror, that's for sure. But right now she wasn't doing a thing for me. I felt like the single tone-deaf person at a Pavarotti concert.

I watched her for a second, then turned my attention elsewhere. A moment later Andrew was again digging me in the ribs.

"She's looking at you! No, you just missed it... she was looking right over here." Talking just like a kid in high school.

"Yeah, well. That's her problem."

Andrew looked surprised. "You really didn't hit it off, did you?"

"Wasn't my fault," I snorted. "She wasn't interested."

"Well she's interested now, matey. Go and talk to her. Go on. She's just down there, walking down to the bank."

"Yeah, but now I'm not interested." And as soon as I said it I knew it was true. Jennifer was just another (attractive) face in the crowd.

Andrew was perplexed. "Then why've you been a moping shit all day?"

"It's nothing to do with her," I replied. "Not now, anyway." I slurped on my Pepsi.

"What is it then?" said Andrew. "Come on, you can tell your Uncle Andy. The Odour-Eater's not here any more."

I looked at my former partner in hopelessness. Andrew and I had gone through school and then uni together. We'd been friends mainly because we'd done the same courses. There was something more there for a while, in our mid-teens: we used to go out on the piss together, and share our dreams about sleeping with the best-looking girls we knew. Somewhere along the line that closeness had disappeared. Probably because Andrew, who'd always been more of a sports-head than me and had reaped the physical rewards, had actually ended up with a fair few of those best-looking girls. He'd left me way behind. Now whenever we talked about it I always felt I could detect a patronising tone behind his sympathetic words.

But perhaps, I thought to myself, I was being hard on the guy. Maybe a touch of jealousy was making me hear him wrongly. He wouldn't be pressing me on the subject just to score a few cheap points.

"All right," I relented. "Last night I met someone..."


"And I can't get her out of my mind..." I stopped.

"That's it?"

"Well, basically."

"Come one, Sean, where's the detail? Where's the juice?"

"Look, nothing happened. I just met her, that's all. We talked for a while. Us and this other guy."

"What's she look like?"

I smiled involuntarily as I searched for the words to describe Kath.

"She's like a model. A Paris model. She's got long dark hair, and... these lips. Beautiful lips. Like Marilyn Monroe or someone."

"Fuck-Me lips."

"Kiss-Me lips," I corrected.

"Fair enough. So is she tall? Short? Thin? Fat?"

"Pretty tall. She's sort of... willowy."

"What, she looks like a cricket bat?"

"Ho ho."

"What's her name?"

"Kath. Short for Katherine, I think."

"Classy." Andrew sat back. "Mate, she sounds like perfect girlfriend material. You have my permission to ask her out."

"I can't."

"Whaddayamean, can't? It's easy. All you do is get talking, and ask her what she's doing tomorrow night."

"No, what I mean is she has a boyfriend. He's the one who introduced us."

"Well that's okay. I know a good baby-sitter."

"My, we are witty today, aren't we."

"Go on. Just a wee jest." Andrew leaned forward and placed a thoughtful finger on his chin. "A boyfriend, eh? That complicates things."


"Getting them to dump another bloke always takes a bit more effort."

I did my best to feign the outrage I figured I should have felt at this. "Andrew—I don't want to do that. He's my friend." But was he, I thought; is Alan my friend, yet? I didn't know.

Andrew raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Sean. Your dick has only one friend, and it's not male. You've been talking about this girl like she's Helen of Troy. As soon as you get the chance you're going to fuck her blind—sorry, kiss her blind—and you're not going to give a shit about her boyfriend, believe me."

I didn't, but I said nothing.

"The thing we have to do," he said, placing a conspiratorial arm around my shoulders, "is make sure you get that chance."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 4

Andrew's blunt advice was still ringing in my ears the next morning as I waited for Alan and Kath to pick me up. Something I'd said had made him take a renewed interest in my love life. He was especially approving when he heard about our Namadgi plans.

"Perfect. He might get bitten by a snake. Forget all your first aid."

"I don't know any first aid."

"Even better. You won't crack under pressure and accidentally save him."

I sat and waited, and worried about what would happen if a snake bit Kath instead. I got a fair bit of worrying done before I remembered that there aren't any snakes around in July.

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I suppose I could have kept waiting inside the flat, but I wasn't sure I wanted my new friends examining my surroundings in detail just yet. It was fine outside—unseasonably clear, even warmish—so I went out and leaned against the fence by the driveway. After some minutes of this, I slid down and sat on the concrete instead. My mind wandered an aimless trail through a landscape of trivia. I started thinking, wouldn't it be really cool, right, if someone remade a whole string of classic movies, like Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, using really atrocious actors and a pathetic B-movie film-crew, so you'd see boom mikes drifting into the shot from the top of the screen, and really basic continuity errors, and jumpy editing. Just when I was wondering whether the script and dialogue alone would be enough to make the films watchable, Alan and Kath arrived.

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What they arrived in was a mode of transport possibly unique on this planet. Alan was driving a mustard-yellow box on wheels. One of the less successful Japanese models of the late sixties, the car was aesthetically akin to a washing-machine, but nowhere near as clean inside. Carpeting the cracked vinyl seats was a layer of ancient refuse: icy-pole wrappers, soft-drink cans, newspapers, parking vouchers, parking tickets, plastic bags, cassette tapes, twenty-cent pieces, broken sunglasses, condom packets, and God knows what else. You could probably have hidden a murder victim underneath and gone undiscovered indefinitely.

"Sean," Alan greeted me cheerfully. "Climb on in."

Finding somewhere to climb on to really required a major archaeological dig, but somehow I managed to clear enough space to sit down on the back seat behind Kath. Alan backed out of the drive and turned right, and the vehicle farted and burped its way along the road.

"Alan," I ventured, when we reached the stop sign at the end of the street.

"Yes mate."

"This car is hideous."

They both laughed. "You're not joking," said Kath.

"Oh, come on," whined Alan, in tones of mock hurt, "the Enema-Mobile is great."

"The what?"

"The Enema-Mobile," Kath explained. "That's what he calls it. Appropriate, isn't it?"

"It's not just what I call it, it's what Jo called it." Alan looked up at me in the rear-view mirror. "An old friend. She was the one who gave me the car."

"Must have been a good friend to give you her car," I commented.

"She couldn't afford the rego."

"Or perhaps she'd just had an enema and didn't want to be reminded of it," smiled Kath.

"Why'd she call it that," I asked; "the Enema-Mobile?"

"The colour," said Alan. "Or because it was always full of crap. Maybe both."

I looked again at the rubbish surrounding me. "This may sound like a radical suggestion," I began, "but you know you could always clean this junk out..."

"No way!" exclaimed Alan.

"Don't bother," Kath sighed, "I've tried."

"I couldn't clean it! It wouldn't be the same! It wouldn't be the Enema-Mobile if it was clean."

"He's keeping it this way as a monument to his old girlfriend."

"And what's wrong with that?" said Alan.

"Well it does sound a bit strange," I suggested.

"All this junk is hers," Kath continued. "It's probably been here for years."

Now that she mentioned it, it had been a few years since I'd seen a Chocberry Big M carton, on a rare visit to Melbourne (here, of course, it's Moove—marketing, the art of ideas). I gave it a tentative sniff, but the smell of sour milk had long since disappeared.

"That's pretty gross, Alan," I said.

"Oh, come on," he protested. "What's wrong with a few souvenirs? You know what's wrong with you," he said, turning to Kath, "you've got no sense of history." They giggled together at this obviously private joke. Not for the last time, I felt rather left out.

"Don't you keep any mementos of old boyfriends?" he asked her. "No photographs? No shoe-boxes full of love letters?"

"Nobody's ever written me love letters," she answered.

"What were those things I wrote to you, then?"

"They weren't love letters," she teased, "they were lust letters."

"Sure," he grinned, "I copied them all out of Penthouse."


"Oh all right, D. H. Lawrence then."

"That's better."

I listened silently in the back seat, feeling somewhat depressed. The only letters I'd ever received that mentioned love were the ones signed "Love, Aunty Marie, XXX".

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 5

The Enema-Mobile rolled noisily along Canberra's immaculate roads, and we talked. They asked what had happened to my thumb, and I told them, eliciting sharp intakes of breath in sympathy. As we drove through the new suburbs of Tuggeranong we mercilessly mocked its endless hectares of low brick boxes huddled together in rows and crawling over treeless hills. The Tuggeranong Hyperdome, neither a dome nor worth much hype, sat behind its artificial lake, a postmodern shopping centre perched between hundreds of young public service families and the thousands of trees spread over the mountains beyond.

"You know why it's called the Hyperdome?" asked Alan.


"Because it's always full of hyperactive two-year-olds."

Further south, we circled roundabouts leading nowhere, on roads ready-built for suburbs planned but not yet in existence. Then we drove off the blueprint and onto a country road ambling through the bush; onwards to Namadgi, the Australian Capital Territory's national park on the edge of the Snowy Mountain Range.

I'd visited it on countless family picnics, but Namadgi still retained its appeal. Up here in the mountains it felt like we were teetering on the edge of the sky, and with it blue and clear like today it looked like a vast pool waiting for us to fall in. Along the road, a crowd of snow gums gathered, their white-barked branches like bones; a silent horde of skeletons enacting an Australian Day of the Dead. An assortment of day-trippers had already parked near the public barbecues; we drove on, around some steep grassy slopes which flattened out into old grazing land, land now left to the Eastern Greys. In the distance I thought I could just make out a couple of them, bounding away.

Alan parked the Enema-Mobile on a patch of roughly cleared ground, and let the engine rattle to a stop. It sounded like a death rattle, and the stop sounded unnervingly final.

"I hope it'll start again," I gulped.

"No worries," said Alan, pointing to the NRMA Emergency Assistance sticker in the corner of the windscreen.

"Very reassuring," I said. "We can call them up on the mobile phone."

"There probably is one lying somewhere under that lot," said Kath.

We climbed out of the car and into the fresh air. Once again it struck me how badly polluted Canberra really is. No factories, so no smog, but the cars belch out enough carbon monoxide to... well, to do whatever it is that really large quantities of carbon monoxide are useful for. Up here, though, the air smelled like ice, clean and sharp.

"We're a-headin' that-a-way," said Alan, pointing up at the hill on the other side of the road. I noticed a path leading through the grass and into the bush beyond.

"Nursery Swamp," he continued. "Ever been there?"

I assumed he was asking me. "No, actually. Never have."

"Ahhh, well then," he said, sagely.

I reached out my small pack with its few provisions—oranges, sandwiches, something to drink. Alan opened the boot of the car, and from that seemingly tiny space manoeuvred out a large black vinyl bag with a familiar shape...

"I can't believe you've brought your guitar."

Alan struck a serious pose, and said, "Don't leave home without it."

"You're going to carry it all the way up that hill?"

"Yep," he said, as he swung the strap over his head to carry the guitar on his back. "Don't worry," he added, "you won't have to carry it until on the way back."

"HO ho," I laughed derisively.

We started across the road and up the path in our procession of three. Alan marched boldly in the lead, Kath followed, and I trailed along at the back, my head down to watch my footing on the rocks.

"Kath," I said, after a few yards.

"Yes?" she replied.

"You realise your boyfriend is taking a guitar on a bushwalk," I told her, just in case she might not have noticed.

"Hmm," she said.

"This doesn't cause you any concern?" I asked.

"Not really," she said. "I'm just glad he doesn't play the drums."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 6

The first fifteen minutes climbing up the hill were pretty heavy going, and we didn't talk much during them. The path was slippery from the recent rain, but my battered old sneakers managed to keep a grip, and none of us rolled back down the way we'd come. Branches and shrubs crowded in from either side of the track, brushing each of us down as we climbed past, then hovering in the air in wait for the next.

Near the top of the hill we stopped for a breather, and I shared out one of my oranges. But Alan urged us onwards before too long. "There's some really good rocks to sit on not too far ahead," he told us.

The bush was quiet, but not silent. Apart from the sounds of three heavily breathing walkers, the stillness was disturbed only by lone warbling and whistling birds. I hoped we might come across a wombat or a wallaby rustling through the brush, but it was really the wrong time of day.

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The rocks weren't quite as close as Alan had intimated, but eventually we reached them, sitting among the eucalypts at the crest of the hill. They were a cluster of tall boulders, imposing domes of grey granite. Alan put his guitar down next to one and clambered up the side, reaching back to pull Kath up after him. I found a less steep approach and did the same, sitting at the peak of one boulder opposite the pair of them on another.

The view back down the path and into the valley beside it held my gaze for a few minutes. In the quiet I felt I should speak only softly.

"It's beautiful," I murmured. Instantly I wished I'd come up with something more profound. But Alan and Kath nodded in agreement.

I searched for some small talk. "So Kath," I ventured, "how long have you lived in Australia?"

She smiled. "Only a few months. I came over at Easter."

"Oh yes," I said. "What brought you here?"

She hugged Alan—I tried to pretend she hadn't—and answered, "He did."

This surprised me. "You're British, Alan?" He didn't sound particularly ocker, but he certainly didn't sound like a pom.

"No," he laughed, "I just lived there for a while. In England. I was a student there for a year."

"Doing what?"

"A Masters course in politics, at Cambridge."

"Cambridge University?" I echoed. I was impressed, and somewhat overawed. "That must have been something."

"It was great," he said. "Everything I hoped it would be. A wonderful place. That's where I got into comedy." He turned to Katherine. "And that's where I got into you."

"You did stand-up stuff there? Like the stuff you did the other night?"

"More or less. A bit of stand-up, mostly sketches. We were more into sketches, me and my friends in Footlights... you've heard of Footlights?"

"Sure," I goggled. The famous comedy revue club; I figured everyone had heard of it. "That's where Monty Python got started..."

"Yeah," said Alan. "John Cleese, Peter Cook, Clive James, Douglas Adams. All those famous guys."

"So what was it like?"

"Lots of funny people wanting to be as famous as those guys. Just the same as they did when they were there, I suppose."

"Do you want to be famous?"

"You don't get onstage and tell jokes in front of all those people just to test out your memory. Sure, I want to be famous. I like making people laugh. It's a good feeling."

"I guess so... you wouldn't want to be a famous politician then?"

Alan gave a snort and a smile. "Adolf Hitler was a famous politician, and what a chuckle a minute he was. No thanks."

Kath poked him in the ribs. "Don't be such a cynic. Not all politicians are like Hitler."

"I guess that's true," he said. "Joseph Stalin... Pol Pot..."

"Oh, Alan," she chastised. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, well," he said. "Even the good ones are so serious. I couldn't be like that. Life's too serious to take too seriously."

"What on earth is that supposed to mean?" I laughed.

"Tonight's Thought of the Day was brought to you by the Reverend Alan Seward, B.A. (Hons.) and M.Phil.," he intoned. "I don't know, I'm just being pseudo-profound."

"Or profoundly pseud," said Kath.

"If you don't like politicians, why did you study politics?"

"He still is," said Kath. "That's what he's doing his Ph.D. on."

"Or not doing my Ph.D. on, as the case may be," Alan growled to himself.

"I didn't know you were a student," I said.

"Why else would I hang around the ANU?"

"Well," I shrugged, "I dunno. I thought you were just, you know, around. I thought you were a professional comedian."

"Ha! Well, I suppose I'm professional. Three hundred bucks the other night, from sixty-seven punters. Or more accurately, three hundred and thirty-five bucks."

"Only sixty-seven? I thought there were more than that."

"Yeah, I think the guy on the door let some of his mates in for free. Bastard."

"Still, that can't have been many extra."

"No... it wasn't a huge crowd. Seems bigger in the bar, I suppose. Not exactly a teeming horde of fans, though. Not exactly your Kiss Army."

"Your what?" asked Kath, eyebrow raised.

"Oh God, don't say that, you'll make me feel old. You know, Kiss. The monster rock band of the 1970s."

"Oh yes. Wasn't that sometime between the Jurassic and the Cretaceous Eras?"

Alan laughed, and then leaned over and kissed her. Kath kissed right back. This lasted for quite a while. I turned away, feeling mildly embarrassed, and stared at some rather interesting moss.

Even the very pinnacle of the moss kingdom can only hold one's attention for so long, however. After a while I spoke up again.

"What... um... sorry, I don't want to interrupt or anything..."

"No, no," Kath giggled, breaking off from Alan, "Sorry, Sean. Go ahead."

I did. "What did you do at Cambridge, Kath?"

"I took an honours degree in history last year," she told me. (Well, that at least explained their private joke in the car.) "Then I worked as a research assistant for a while, until Alan grovelled and begged me to come over here."

"Now, now," Alan reproached her.

"You grovelled and begged, admit it."

"You just couldn't bear to be away from me," he countered, "and you know it."

"Grovelled and begged."

"You couldn't bear it."

"Grovelled and begged."


I could see where this was leading, and I wasn't sure I enjoyed being the reluctant spectator—it was making me feel too sorry for myself. So I interrupted, by suggesting we resume our walk. Alan and Kath agreed, and we climbed down off the rocks and found the main track again.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 2, Bookmark 7

The land past the top of the hill was level, and the trees thinned out as we trudged through patches of marsh. I groaned as cold muddy water soaked through the holes in my tired pair of sneakers.

"No wonder it's called a swamp," I complained.

"This isn't Nursery Swamp yet," said Alan. "We're still a bit before it."

"What comes before Nursery Swamp," I mused, "Maternity Ward Swamp?" Perhaps it was Womb Swamp, and we were wading in amniotic fluid.

The track passed back into the trees and onto drier ground. Ten or fifteen minutes later, our final goal came into view, down to the left, through a fringe of trees.

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Nursery Swamp was indeed an amazing sight. It was really more a river than a swamp: a river of brown reeds winding between the bush-covered hills. Trees grew right down to the edge and abruptly stopped there, forming artificial riverbanks. Up close, water could just barely be seen, in and around the grass-like clumps that stretched for maybe thirty metres across to the opposite bank. But there was undoubtedly plenty of water about. Anyone who tried crossing on foot would get very wet.

Kath, like me, was marvelling at the sight. But Alan looked disappointed. "It's too quiet," he said.

"It's wonderful," said Kath. "So peaceful."

"The last time I was here," Alan explained, "the whole swamp was full of frogs. Corroboree frogs. All croaking like mad. Incredibly loud."

He sat down beside the track, and sighed. "It was really something. Seeing the swamp, just like it is now, but with this soundtrack of a million frogs."

"It must be too early for them," I said. "It's not spring yet."

"I guess. It's a shame though." He took the guitar off his back, and held it in its case across his lap. "I was going to play them a song. A concerto for Guitar and Corroboree Frog Orchestra. Their amphibious voices would really have added something."

"You carried that guitar all the way up here to play a song with some frogs?"

Alan shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time. Still does."

I couldn't really think of any reason to disagree, other than that it was the sort of thing I'd never do. But I was beginning to learn that there were many things Alan would do that I'd never do. And I was beginning to think that the problem might be more mine than his.

As Kath and I sat down nearby, Alan carefully unzipped the guitar case and lay it on the ground beside him. Then he picked up the guitar, an old acoustic, and began to play.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 3