Sitting up there in the mountains listening to Alan playing the guitar was one of those moments I won't forget. No matter what the papers are saying about him today (not that I really care), I thank him for that. It was something special. The surroundings and the music were serene, and for the first time in a long while I was able to forget my feelings of general malaise and simply be at peace.
For someone who was an indie rock fan, Alan's playing today was remarkable for its gentleness and intricacy. He wasn't using a plectrum; instead, he was picking strings practically simultaneously with his long fingers.
He began with a couple of vaguely familiar tunes of the quieter pop variety, though he didn't sing the words. Then he played a tune that Kath recognised, and she hummed softly along. I didn't know it. It was deceptively straightforward, the basic theme repeated only once before it was over. I asked who it was by.
"A talented old bloke called J. S. Bach," Alan answered.
He re-tuned a couple of strings, and then started strumming again. "Now for one by a less talented young bloke called A. L. Seward."
Alan's composition was quiet, intricate. Again, he sang no words; but once or twice, with his eyes closed, apparently oblivious to all but the sound, he sang a few "la, la, la"s.
After a few minutes of structured song, he started to improvise up and down the scale. The high notes rang out into the sparkling sky; the low ones bounced around the swamp.
The music tapered off into a simple rhythm on three strings. When I looked around I saw that a couple of walkers had stopped beside us to listen. Alan stopped, and the woman started clapping softly. The man with her leaned towards the guitar case and, with a laugh, tossed a ten-cent piece into the middle.
Alan nodded his thanks with a grin, and picked up the coin. He flipped it with his thumb, and spoke to me: "Professional comedian, and now professional musician."
"I wish I could be like you," I said, as we made our way back down the hill.
"Like me?" said Alan, disbelievingly. "Why, for God's sake?"
"Well, you get up on stage in front of all those people. Tell all those jokes. Dazzle them with your creativity."
"Go on," he said. "It's not that big a deal. Lots of people do it."
"I couldn't. I could never do that."
"Sure you could. All it takes is a bit of confidence in your own ability."
"How do you remember everything?"
"Don't ask me. I just leave that to the old brain-cells, and hope."
"And all those songs you can play. I can't do that."
Kath chimed in. "You don't play a musical instrument, Sean?"
"Me? No. I started learning the guitar once. But I gave up when I figured it would take me years to become the next David Gilmour."
"Surely there must be some secret talents you keep hidden away."
"Well... drawing, I guess. I like to draw."
"There you go, then," said Alan. "I can't draw for nuts."
"What do you draw?" Kath asked. "Landscapes and things?"
"Uh... no. Cartoons, actually. Cartoons and comic strips."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Alan. "I knew you were a comedian at heart."
"Have you had any published?" asked Kath.
"Not really," I said. "They've printed a couple in the student paper, but that's about it. I tried sending them to magazines, but I didn't really get very far... I haven't drawn much for a while."
"Don't give up," said Alan, emphatically. "It's too easy to stop and let things slide, and they always slide downhill."
"Yeah, I guess," I replied, half-heartedly.
"Seriously!" he said. "You should have seen me when I got back from Cambridge. I was a wreck. Depressed as hell; useless. I would have given anything to be back there. And I couldn't do anything here."
"Why did you come back?"
"Couldn't get any money to stay on."
"Oh," I said, "...that must have been disappointing."
"You're not wrong."
"So how did you stop things sliding downhill?"
"I didn't," he said, "Kath did." He reached back and rubbed her arm. "Saved by the love of a good woman."
"I'm glad you know how essential I am," Kath chuckled.
But I wasn't too cheered by this prescription. The love of a good woman may be just what the doctor ordered, but right now I was lost even trying to find the chemist's.
The following Wednesday, Alan appeared at a nightclub in Civic that turned its upstairs room into a comedy venue once a week. I went along, despite the fact that I was meant to be writing up some results for Ferret. I sat next to Kath at a table near the wall, and sipped slowly at a VB while a few preliminary acts were on. They were okay, nothing brilliant. The audience was probably being too kind to them, I thought, as I listened to them all laughing dutifully.
Out of curiosity, I counted the number of people in the room. Thirty-eight, including the pair of us. What did people in Canberra do in the evenings? Sit in the public gallery at Parliament House all night?
After the moderately adequate Ernest and his Amazing Performing String—a mime artist with an invisible rope capable of all number of entertaining antics (well, three)—it was Alan's turn to take the stage.
He did so with customary style, bounding on in three giant strides and shouting "Good evening, Oodnadatta" at the expectant audience. They laughed, but probably not at that. Everyone was looking at Alan's T-shirt—a simple white shirt, with the chest panel taken up by a two-by-two block of colour photographs. The photos were all of Alan: standard mug shots of Alan, Alan making faces, Alan wearing a Groucho mask, and in one, Alan's hand holding up a fluffy pink teddy bear (which was also wearing the Groucho mask).
"Where on Earth did he get that?" I asked Kath, as I joined in with the clapping.
"He took the photos in a booth," she told me, "and got them enlarged and screened onto the T-shirt at one of those laser-copying places."
"Excellent. I want one."
Perhaps if I wore one of those, I thought, I could pass for Alan.
"I've noticed there's one constant in the battle of the sexes," he said, a couple of minutes into his routine. "There's one gripe that women always seem to have about men. It's in the letters to Cosmopolitan every month. 'Dear Cosmo: My boyfriend is perfect in every way—except one. He has a brilliant mind, an athletic body, a great sense of humour and a six-figure income. He always puts my needs first and knows just when I want a shoulder to cry on. But there's no way I can really love him while he continues to leave the toilet seat up.'
"We've all heard it, haven't we guys? It's the eternal crime of the male. Ever since the toilet seat was invented, we've been callously leaving it upright just to annoy women. The ultimate proof that all men are grade-A selfish bastards.
"Now, I'm prepared to admit that many men are grade-A selfish bastards. I'm even prepared to admit that I'm a selfish bastard (perhaps only grade B, but I'm trying). But I say that toilet seat etiquette is not a litmus test for insensitivity. Litmus tests have no place in the toilet. If your paper turns blue in the loo, all it means is you've fitted a new bowl cleaner.
"So what is it about leaving the toilet seat up that women so vehemently object to? Well, I've asked a lot of them, and usually their answers are pretty evasive: 'I could have you up for sexual harassment for that'; or 'Is this your idea of foreplay?'; or 'Don't talk with your mouth full, dear'. But I have a few ideas of my own.
"At first I thought it might be from waking up, padding into a cold bathroom, and sitting down onto ice-cold porcelain with no cosy plastic seat to cushion the impact. Certainly a profoundly distressing experience which would leave deep psychological scars in any normal person. But how often does this really happen? Because it sure doesn't happen to men. The only time I can remember having to perch on the rim was in a public loo where the seats had been nicked. Someone was probably collecting them; some kind of philatelist of the flush. (I wonder what his Stanley Gibbons catalogue would look like? All these photos of toilet seats. 'Caroma 1987 type B in black, white and peach'... I bet there'd be a huge price difference between 'Mint' and 'Slightly Soiled'.)
"The fact is, of course, that men check what they're going to sit on. Because who knows what dangers await you? For example: someone might have left the lid down—potentially far more unpleasant. Or the seat might be, uh, wet. (Why, I can't possibly imagine. Probably condensation.) Or worst of all: the seat might have one of those disgusting furry covers, and need replacing, right away. Those things are unnatural. I ask you, did our primitive ancestors, when they wanted to take a dump, park themselves on a furry animal? It just doesn't work. (For a start, they won't keep still while you're trying to look at the Reader's Digest.) And furry seat covers are one bathroom hazard that can't be blamed on men, because I'd bet a carton of Toilet Ducks that they were introduced by women—rich women with so many furs they were able to cut up the spares for toilet-seat cosies. If men went in for toilet-seat decoration, we wouldn't use fur. We'd use leather—black leather. With studs. Or we'd have them chromed.
"So if it's not the fear of sitting on the rim by mistake—and perhaps getting wedged there, or falling in—what's the real complaint women have against the upright seat? Surely it's not because they have to flip it back down again. We're not exactly talking hard labour here. I mean, you never see this in Woman's Day: 'Imagine my dismay when after a tiring day at the office, I came home to find another unwelcome chore in my own bathroom: Mere Male had left the toilet seat up again!' (Star Letter, wins five dollars).
"I mean, men have to put the seat down half the time, too. And here's a Guy Secret for all you women—when we leave the seat down, we don't lift it up when we're done just to piss off all the women in the house. Now I'll grant you, if there weren't any men around, women would, in the long run, be saved a hell of a lot of toilet-seat-lowering. But if there were no women around, men would be saved a lot of toilet-seat-raising. In the long run it all cancels out. It's equality in action.
"So why do we keep hearing about it? The answer is, of course, obvious. A man can never be sure if a seat has been left down by a man or by a woman. So he doesn't worry about it. But when women see an upright seat, they know it's been left like that by a man. Never mind that it's hardly a mortal danger to womankind, needing big warning signs saying 'Achtung! Seaten'; never mind that to flip it down is but the work of an instant; that upright seat spells man, P-I-G, big, hairy, inconsiderate, XY-chromosomed male.
"It's basically about as sensible as objecting to the way men insensitively leave Brut-33 in the bathroom cupboard. In fact it's probably less sensible, because at least Brut has an objectionably macho name. (Brut, for Men. Why don't they go the whole hog and call it 'Rapist'?)"
There was a big party on Saturday, Alan told me over the phone the next day, over at a friend's place. Did I want to come along? In my depressed frame of mind I didn't really feel like it, and automatically started thinking up excuses. I didn't get much further, though, than "The Bill's on on Saturday", and figured this wouldn't sound too convincing. I mumbled out a few one-syllable words meant to stall for time. Alan took them for the sign of hesitation they were, and countered with his best persuasive manner. "Come onnnnnn," he wheedled. "Your lab reports can wait for one night. Have a bit of fun for a change."
Somehow he talked me into it (although I wasn't really sure why I needed talking into it). Whatever; on Saturday night I found myself in a big house in Aranda along with dozens or even hundreds of friends, and friends of friends, of the five people who shared the place.
I didn't feel too much like a gate-crasher, as Alan was part of the evening's entertainment—the guitarist in an impromptu band of four, all meeting each other for the first time. If anyone asked, I could always point and say, "I'm with him." (No one asked.) I spent my first half hour at the party hovering around in the room near the front door where they were setting up. The house was fairly open-plan, and arches and steps led down to a large living room, which was itself overlooked by the open-walled kitchen area. Other doors must have led off to bedrooms and what have you.
I felt a bit stupid standing around not doing much. Alan was too busy arguing with the others about what to play to be able to spend time chatting. The drummer was a metal-head, the bassist liked Prince, and the keyboard player was into free-form jazz. Alan played them half a dozen indie riffs, none of which they (or I) had ever heard before. The bassist said, "How about something off Purple Rain? Everybody's heard Purple Rain." The drummer tapped at a cymbal to the point of monotony.
A breakthrough appeared possible when Alan said "Beatles?", but it turned out the keyboard player listened to nothing before Rubber Soul, which ruled out most of the good live rave-ups, and the drummer liked only "Helter Skelter".
Meanwhile a CD player worked its way through Abba Gold, and a steadily expanding crowd danced nearby. Worried that I might feel obliged to join them, I left the room and wandered along to that Haven of Lost Souls, the kitchen.
As is usual at parties, the kitchen was packed, with everyone intruding on everyone else's personal space and liking it just fine. Overly-painted girls dressed in black spoke earnestly with bohemian young men sporting state-of-the-art haircuts, and an enthusiastic bottle blonde draped herself over a rugby player right smack in front of the fridge. Eventually I was able to edge my way past and reach out a beer.
When I turned around, Kath said, "Hello, Sean. When did you get here?"
"Oh, hi," I said, as I adjusted to her presence. Somehow—rather illogically I guess—I hadn't been expecting to see her here. And I hadn't expected her to be looking so, well, beautiful. Gone were the band T-shirts this time. Kath was wearing only black, like some of the other people milling about; but on her it spelled not "Gothic" but "elegant". Her slim body was a set of gently curving black lines, all pointing to her white face and those ruby lips.
"I haven't been here long," I managed to say. "Half an hour or so."
"Have you talked to Alan yet?"
"Yeah, he's out there thrashing out a play-list with the rest of the Monkees."
"I'll go and see how he's getting on in a moment. Have you met anyone here?"
I looked around the room briefly. "No."
She pointed to a big bloke chatting someone up down in the lounge area. "That one with the moustache is Ray. He lives here. He's a Ph.D. student in Alan's department."
"Yeah?" I said, as brightly as I could. "What's he like?"
"A total shit."
I burst into laughter. I hadn't heard Kath swear before, and in her correct English accent it sounded endearingly quaint. I didn't tell her so.
I swigged at my stubby while she told me some of the boorish things Ray had done, leaving me with even less desire to meet him than the bare modicum I had previously. A few swigs and gulps later I was shaking the brown bottle upside down to see if there was any more.
"Try some of the punch," said Kath. "It's yummy."
Punch!, I thought to myself, hazard lights flashing in my brain. Experience had taught me that bowls of punch should have Surgeon-General's warnings posted over them, or be buried in the Nevada Desert under a concrete monolith bearing radiation symbols and the legend "Do Not Dig Here for 100,000 Years".
At this early stage of the evening, however, the large glass bowl of yellow liquid and fruit seemed reasonably free of cigarette butts, and it probably hadn't been too adulterated yet. So on Kath's say-so I ignored my conditioning and gave it a try.
It was yummy, but it was also a mistake. It was a typical blend approaching two-hundred proof, and it was making me drunk far too quickly, if only I'd known at the time. I drank three cups and ate every bit of the fruit in them that wasn't orange rind before something told me I'd better stop.
"Come on," said Kath, taking me by the unusually limp arm, "let's go and see Alan."
We drifted into the front room to find that the demarcation dispute had been amicably resolved in favour of "Long Tall Sally". Alan was singing, forcing every last particle of lung past his vocal chords with a strength that would put Little Richard and Paul McCartney to shame. The bassist and keyboardist looked a bit lost, but the drummer loved it, and his driving beat and Alan's guitar and voice kept the music loud and rocking.
The dancers were clearly as happy with this as with "Super Trouper", and were bouncing and waving their arms like Manchester kids at a rave. The air was already warm and humid from their pooled body heat.
Kath shouted to me over the music. "Let's dance!" she yelled, slipping into the crowd.
"Oh no," I objected, "I can't... I'm no good at dancing..."
"Sean!" she chided. "Come and dance!"
Jesus, Kath, I wanted to yell to her, everyone will look at me. They're looking at me now when I'm only just thinking about it. That big red-haired guy, he's looking at me. And that girl necking with that bloke over by the wall, she's looking at me. It doesn't matter that her eyes are closed and his head's in the way, she's Superman in disguise and she's staring at me with her X-ray vision.
Look at them all enjoying themselves, and laughing at me because I can't. Can I help it if I was born with negative rhythm?
Kath reached out and dragged me into the throng, and suddenly I had no choice in the matter. I started dancing.
Once I was resigned to it, I actually started to enjoy it, bopping around to the beat. I was starting to feel a bit woozy from the booze, but it also had the effect of loosening up my arms, making them do more interesting things than just staying tucked in and static. I swung them up and out and about, flailing at one or two innocent bystanders who fortunately were too busy dancing to notice. I began to fancy myself as a bit of a Peter Garrett. (Michael Jackson would take a bit more practice—and a bit more plastic surgery.)
"I thought you said you couldn't dance," said Kath with a smile. She certainly could, I observed. Her dancing was as graceful as everything about her, which given the frenetic effect of fifties rock and roll was unusual in the extreme. Kath was an oasis of elegance in a desert of dance.
As I stopped feeling amazed at the fact that I was even out there, I became more aware of the fact that I was dancing with her. She was dancing with me. Alan was only yards away, and here I was, dancing with his girlfriend. Although to think of Kath as "Alan's girlfriend" was rather discomfiting; I resolved to stop doing so. Kath was Kath.
Kath was dancing close. So close I could have brought my arms down and wrapped them around her. So close I could hardly breathe. So close... Jesus Christ, so close. Couldn't she see? Couldn't she see what she was doing to me?
For an instant I thought she could see, and that she wanted it that way. For an instant the music sounded quieter, and quieter, and all I could see was her smile, her smile directed at me. For an instant I imagined, I hoped, that her smile meant what I wanted it to mean.
Just when I thought I'd have to turn away, turn and walk away, or else do something mad, mad, stupid, stupid... just then the song stopped. Everyone relaxed, and Kath took a step backwards and faced towards Alan, clapping long and loud. I watched her wide-smiled profile... and decided I needed another drink.
Sometime later in the evening (or was it early in the morning?) I was lying in a bag-chair down in the lounge area, with a drink in my left hand, and a bowl of dip and some corn chips within easy reach of my right. My arms took turns at refuelling my stomach.
Alan was sitting in another bag-chair at an angle to me, with his left arm around Kath, who was sitting between us. They were munching on dip-covered chips and listening to me talk. I was saying something about how Chemistry at Honours level honestly wasn't that bad really, and I should get an upper-second at least, although what I'd do then I wasn't quite sure, maybe try to get a job, or maybe apply for Ph.D. scholarships, but you need a really good first for those these days, and am I talking too much? Tell me if I'm talking too much...
When suddenly, I sat up, and reached forward slowly, and touched Kath's top lip. (I touched her. I touched her lip.) "You've got dip on your lip," I told her. Dip on your fuck-me lips, as Andrew would say. (Did I think that? I thought that. I must be getting drunk, I thought. No; I would only be drunk when I said it.)
Kath licked her lips and smiled. My heart died. "Thanks," she grinned.
I slumped back into the chair, and Alan said something, I can't remember what, and then I said (my voice echoing loudly in my ears, sounding thick and deep), "You guys are really great; you know that? I want you to know that. You're really, really..."
Later. Three or four a.m....
"Come on, Sean, you don't really want them. Give them to me for a while."
"Why d'you wan my car, you've godyer own."
"I don't want your car, I just want the keys for a while. You can have them back later."
"I doan wan them later, I wan them now. I've godda drive home."
"I'll drive you home, come on..."
"No! Noddin my car. You'll break it, you'll busdit."
"I'll drive you home in my car..."
"Doan wanna go inna crappy fuggin Enemobble."
"It's not a crappy fuggin Enemobble, it's a crappy fucking Enema-Mobile, now fucking come on or I'll fucking drag you out the fucking door."
"Fuggit... I feel sick..."
I dreamed that I was waking up in a strange room, a blue room with the drawn curtains shutting out the morning light, and an open fireplace down the end with a fire lit and smouldering. And Kath was there, sitting on a chair just out of reach of the bed, which was hard as rock...
I woke up from my dream to find I was in a strange room. But it wasn't blue, there was no fire-place, and I wasn't on a bed.
I was lying on a couch in an awkward and uncomfortable position, in a living room with wooden-panelled walls and a TV and stereo system in one corner. The windows along two sides of the room were curtained off, but through the gaps I was able to make out the green of a few trees and the grey of the sky. I was still on Planet Earth.
My personal hangover workman had checked in for the day and started up the jackhammer just behind my temples. For several minutes I lay there feeling the pain. I tried moaning a bit. Not particularly constructive, but at least I was doing something.
I stared at some posters on a nearby wall. "SKETCHMONGERS," one shouted; "A NEW COMEDY REVUE. CAMBRIDGE PLAYROOM, WED 29 JAN TO SAT 1 FEB AT 11 PM. £2." And one next to it, in two colours, featuring a big cartoon Tyrannosaurus: "Sketchmongers Present SKETCHMONGOUS: A MONSTER COMEDY SHOW. ADC THEATRE, 29 APRIL TO 2 MAY AT 11 PM. £2/£2.50." There was also a Footlights poster with frolicking cartoon animals superimposed over a colour photograph of green fields, announcing the 1992 Spring Revue, "Foot in Mouth".
Alan came into the room while I was in mid-moan. "G'day you big sook," he said. "Feeling a bit crook are we?"
I attempted a withering stare.
"Here," he said, holding out a small glass of vile-looking brown-black liquid. "Drink this."
I took the glass and swallowed the contents in one gulp. Then my tongue, one of the few parts of me still working, relayed its impressions to my throbbing brain. It had just tasted one of its top ten most disgusting flavours—a choice combination of Vegemite, toothpaste, anchovy and vinegar. My body shook out of pure revulsion. Smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth to try and get rid of the taste, I handed the glass back to Alan. "What the hell kind of a hangover cure is that?" I demanded.
"It's not a hangover cure," he said. "That was just to get you back for chucking up in my car."
I wished I hadn't given back the glass. Now I had nothing to throw at him.
"Do you want some breakfast?" he continued innocently.
"Not if that's what your cooking is like," I spat.
I was hungry, though, so I dragged myself to my feet and staggered after Alan down the hallway to the kitchen. The kitchen was of the small and cramped variety, so I tried to blend in to a space beside the fridge so as not to get in Alan's way. He was bustling about with a frying pan and a bowl full of funny-looking goop.
"Flapjacks okay?" he asked.
"Um—yeah," I said, peering into the bowl. "Actually, I've never had flapjacks before."
"Ah, well then. A new taste sensation for you." Alan stirred the contents of the bowl. "The real McCoy, too. I got the recipe from a Canadian friend of mine in Cambridge." He spooned large runny dollops of goop into the sizzling oiled pan, where they flattened out slightly.
"Are they just like pancakes? You know, crepes?"
"Not just like, no," said Alan. He was watching the flapjacks develop bubbles and then holes on top. When he figured they looked right, he sliced underneath them with a metal spatula, and deftly flipped them over. "They're a lot thicker and stodgier. Much more satisfying."
After a minute he flipped them again to check them, then lifted them off onto a plate in a stack of three. "There you go," he said. "You can come back for more later. Butter..." (he handed it to me) "... knife, fork... maple syrup. Go easy on that stuff, we're running out."
"You can take it back out to the lounge, there's no room in here."
I started towards the door. "Aren't you having any?" I asked.
"It's okay," he said, "we ate earlier."
We? Oh yeah. I kept forgetting—or repressing—that my new friends were a definite "we". "Where's Kath?" I asked.
"She's off doing the shopping. Won't be back for a while."
"On a Sunday?"
"Best time. Not as many people around."
"Hmm." I drifted back to the lounge and slumped into an armchair. With the plate balanced on my lap I began eating.
When I was on my second stack, Alan came into the room and sat on the couch with his guitar. He started playing a quiet tune.
"They're sort of like monster pikelets," I observed.
"You could say that," he nodded. "It would be a complete lie, but you could say it. You could sing it, even." He changed the tune he was playing, and sang,
Don't get in a flap, Jack
Get yourself a flap-jack
It's like a monster pike-let
Except that it's not.
"Very good. Going to use that in your act?"
"The public would never understand." He strummed a few chords, and then stopped, brightening suddenly. "Hey. Mind if I try something out on you?"
"What, after that Vegemite stuff? No fear."
He laughed. "No, not like that. A bit of stand-up. Just to see how it goes over with an audience."
"Sure, why not."
He got up and left the room for a minute, then came back with a hard-covered notebook. He flipped through the pages and then read aloud from one, adopting the tone of voice he used on stage.
"Stereos. They're great, stereos, aren't they. I just love buying a new disk, slotting it into the groovy little tray on the CD player, sliding it back in. Slide it back out, slide it back in. Slide it back out, slide it back in. It's so... so stimulating... I could do it all night. And that smooth black finish; those sleek lines... phew... and apparently they're really good at playing music, too.
"But don't you get pissed off with the way they keep changing the technology on us? It pisses me off. They've come up with a new kind of tape now, those 'D.C.C.' tapes. I figure that stands for 'Divert Cash from Customers'. I was in a hi-fi shop the other day, and the salesperson—well actually he was too young to be called a salesperson, he was more of a sales-cherub, or a sales-whippersnapper, perhaps—the sales-infant was saying, 'Oh yes, you need this, you really do—that's two thousand dollars for the new tape-deck, thanks.' And I'm going, 'Why do I need this?' And the sales-toddler says, 'Well, now you can tape your CDs.'
"Uh, excuse me, but I've been doing that for a while now. In fact I'm wanted in five states for copyright infringement. 'That's the new Midnight Oil—you're nicked.' 'But it's for my own personal use!' 'Forget it, son: that's over fifty grams there.' Ah yes, says the sales-gamete, but that's ordinary analog tape. These new ones are digital. Well sorry mate, but I listen to grungy hairy rock bands. If I want digital, I'll listen to Tangerine Dream. And not spend a thousand bucks for the privilege. (I've got a mate with all their albums: I'll tape 'em off him.)"
Alan stopped. I'd been laughing in the appropriate places, and was sorry he had. "Is that it?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's all I've got so far."
"I like the Tangerine Dream reference."
"That's in your honour, that is. I'm going to use your Pavement joke somewhere, too."
"My pavement joke? What pavement joke?"
"You know: 'I'm into Pavement'; 'What, you go around snorting concrete?'"
Now I remembered our discussion from the night we met. "That's right... Do you get all your jokes from things people say to you?"
"No, not really. One or two here and there. It's worth carrying the notebook around just in case."
"Not that one, though," I noted.
"No, I've got a little spiral job for on-the-spot stuff." He put the blue book down and picked up the guitar again. "Don't you have something like that? For cartoon ideas?"
"No." It had never really occurred to me to try it. "I just try and come up with things when I feel like drawing. Maybe that's why they're never very funny."
"Go on," Alan protested, "I'm sure they're fine. Just keep practicing."
"How do you practice being funny?"
"I don't know. It works though." He thought for a moment while he played. "You don't necessarily get funnier. You just learn what's funny and what isn't..." He pondered some more. "No, that's bullshit. You do get funnier. Don't ask me how. Maybe it reinforces itself in your brain."
"Maybe there's a comedy hormone that your brain manufactures more of as you tell more jokes."
"There's an idea. I wonder where you can buy some, give it a boost. Comedy hormone. Stand-up steroids."
I laughed again, and shook my head. The guy was so quick. If there was such a thing as stand-up steroids, Alan hardly needed them. His mirth-making muscles were already massive.
I looked around the room again. I'd noticed while I was eating: Alan had an incredible number of CDs. Three shelves of them (planks of chipboard spaced out by bricks); what must have amounted to hundreds. "Just how many CDs do you have?" I asked him.
"About two hundred and fifty," he told me. "A few more are Kath's."
"That's about five year's worth." He shrugged. "One a week."
"Still. It's a lot." The variety was impressive, too. Lots of indie stuff, as one would expect, but also rock and roll from the fifties onward, as well as blues, jazz, heavy metal, classical, even (oh my God) Frank Sinatra. No Tangerine Dream.
"It's a bit of a liability really," he said. "I've got too much stuff. Makes things difficult when I'm moving around like I have been lately. I don't even have all my LPs with me, I left most of them at home."
"I've only ever moved once," I said. "Except when I was a kid. Twice in total."
"What I aim to do," Alan continued, "is learn every single song on all of those and trade them all in on a really good guitar."
The tune he was playing had changed again, and now I thought I recognised it.
"Isn't that what you played up at Nursery Swamp?"
"That's right. 'Hall of Mirrors'."
"That's what it's called," he said. "'Hall of Mirrors'. It has words."
"I didn't know that. What are they?"
"Serious, un-funny words."
"Let's hear them."
"Come on. I don't mind serious un-funny words."
"You'll think I'm a poser." He seemed genuinely reluctant.
"Don't be stupid. I'm asking you, aren't I? So you'd hardly be posing."
"Oh all right," Alan capitulated. He played some more of the tune; and then sang.
A rush of colour swirls into my head
Flecks from a kaleidoscope, refracted and reflected
Tumble anti-clockwise and go dancing down my spine
Suffuse my weary body and intoxicate my mind
Like a hall of mirrors that I'm running through
A confusion of beauty when I see you.
When I see you it's like the rain
A million sparkling droplets on a broken window-pane
It's like the colours of a fire as the flames leap higher and higher
It's like the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.
In every tiny detail of a fractal magnified
In every dark red blood-cell of a sample on a slide
Chaos and confusion, it's too beautiful to bear
A wealth of illusions in a single human hair
The world's a hall of mirrors that I'm running through
And all of the reflections that I see are of you.
And again, the fading simple rhythm on three strings, and then, silence.
I didn't know what to say. I felt like Bob Dylan's mum: "That's nice, dear" didn't seem adequate, really.
Fortunately the need to say something deep was removed when the mood was broken by a horrendous belching from outside. It was the sound of the Enema-Mobile driving up. A moment later Kath came in the front door, carrying half a dozen plastic bags of shopping in both hands. Her face was slightly flushed from the cold air.
"Hey hunkster," she said. Then she noticed me. "Hi Sean. He woke you up with that thing did he?" She nodded at the guitar.
"No—I managed it myself somehow."
"You must have a terrible hangover."
Actually, now that she mentioned it, I realised that my head was feeling a whole lot better. Skin was still a bit clammy, but the jackhammer had stopped. "I don't believe it," I said to Alan. "That evil brew of yours actually works."
"Must be the two Panadol I chucked in."
Kath was looking at her watch. "Aren't you going to be late?" she asked Alan.
He looked at his own—"Shit, you're right"—and bolted out of his seat.
"Late for what?" I asked.
"Don't worry," he said, "I'll make it. Maybe a couple of minutes over."
"What are you going to be late for?" I tried again, wishing someone would fill me in.
"He's booked a plane for one o'clock," said Kath, while Alan rushed out of the room.
This left me even more confused. "Booked a plane? Where's he going?"
Alan came back in, wearing a bomber jacket and some gloves, and stood by the door. "See you later, gorgeous."
"Bye cutie," said Kath.
"Alan," I said, in an exasperated tone, "where are you going in such a hurry?"
He stopped and looked at me for a moment. "There's a thought. Have you got a coat with you?"
I looked around but couldn't see it. "I had it with me last night. Did you put it in the car?"
"Yeah," he said; "yeah, I did; I remember now. That's all right then. Come on."
"Come on? Where?"
He asked the next question as if everything should have been obvious.
"Don't you want to come flying?"