The Stand-Up

Chapter Four

Alan gave me some explanation as the Enema-Mobile flatulated its way from Dickson to the airfield out east.

"I grew up on a farm, and Dad used to take me up in the plane when he got one in for crop-dusting. He used to work on stations up in Cape York before I was born; that's where he learnt to fly. Anyway, he taught me the basics, and then when I was a bit older I did a course and got my licence."

I reached over and pushed Alan's left shoulder forward slightly to get a clearer view of his back.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm looking for the cape with the big 'S' on it," I said.

Alan laughed that deep genuine laughter of his. "I'm afraid I need wings and propellers to fly. Superman I ain't."

"I don't know about that," I said, "you keep displaying all these supernatural powers."

"What, flying planes? Lots of people do it."

"And tell jokes? And play the guitar?"

"Lots of people do that, too."

"Lots of people don't. And lots more can't do all of them at once."

"I've never actually tried playing my guitar while I'm flying. Could be a bit risky."

I fell thoughtfully silent for a moment.

"I didn't know you grew up on a farm."

"It wasn't a very big one."

"You don't sound like a farm-boy."

"Thanks a lot. You grew up in Canberra, but you don't sound like a politician."

"I didn't mean it like that. I'm just surprised your accent's not stronger."

"Well we weren't exactly out in the sticks. It was only an hour from town."

"What, you lived near Yass?"

Now Alan really laughed. "Not this town. Townsville. Northern Queensland."

"Ohhh," I said, as if all Alan's eccentricities had been fully explained.

"No redneck jokes, please," he warned.

"No, no... I've never been to Townsville."

"Not many people have. Except to get to the Reef. But it's quite big. About the same size as Canberra, I suppose. A bit smaller, perhaps."

"You didn't actually live there, though."

"No, we lived in a place called Ingham. But I moved to town when I started uni."

"Must have felt unusual, a country kid going to uni."

Alan shrugged. "Not really. I always knew I would, right from when I was small. Mum being a teacher, I guess. But Dad was always in favour of the idea, too. Said that because he'd never gone, he was going to make sure his son did."

I listened quietly as Alan talked on while he drove. We were almost there.

"I think he probably felt at a bit of a disadvantage, with Mum having been to uni. He wasn't the definite head of the household. I always thought that was a good thing in a way, though. It meant she wasn't just a housewife blending into the background.

"Dad wasn't stupid, though. He knew lots of things. It was just that he liked working on the land... He used to read a lot. We used to laugh when he'd pronounce words incorrectly. He knew what they meant because he'd read them, he'd just never heard them pronounced properly."

Alan seemed to be getting sadder as he talked. And he was talking about his father in the past tense. Before I found the nerve to ask it, he answered the inevitable question.

"He died last year. Heart attack. Two weeks before I was due home from the U.K."

"I'm... sorry."

Alan seemed to be talking more to himself now than to me.

"It's funny... the last time I spoke to him on the phone, I was telling him all about Edinburgh. We'd been up there for the Festival, me and my friends; we did our 'Sketchmongers' show at the Fringe. Except we called it 'A Piece of String, a Handy Bucket and Thou'. Good name. Went pretty well, too. I was shooting the moon to Dad about being a big comedy star on TV one day. He said, 'Whatever makes you happy, son, just go for it.'"

Alan had pulled the car into the parking lot. He was quiet for a moment.

"When I was standing next to his grave at the funeral I thought I'd never be able to get on stage again. It was like I'd died and not him."

Another pause. "Maybe it's not so funny."

I could hardly bear the silence. I had to say something. "You must miss him a lot."

"Yeah," said Alan, softly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him lift a hand to his face. He breathed in sharply, and said, in a higher voice, "Yeah. He was my mate."

Then he slapped his hands on his legs, and opened the driver's door. "Come on. Let's get going."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 1

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I felt like I was in a war movie, marching up to a small twin-prop behind Alan in his leathers after we'd sorted out the paperwork at the depot. The white-blue sky was a bit at odds with the Dambusters ambience, as were the fat Airbus jumbos trafficking back and forth from the main airport nearby, but Alan's sparkling grin as he clambered into the plane was straight out of Biggles.

"Just a quick strafing run over Berlin and we'll be done," he piped, reading my mind.

I eased into the seat next to him, and closed the door on the claustrophobic cabin. Alan was checking the incomprehensible dashboard, flipping switches and doing piloty things. Before I had a chance to get comfortable with the idea, he'd started the engines and headed us down the runway. The propellers whirred at the pitch of a hundred lawn mowers, forcing a mode of speech one decibel short of shouting; mostly, it was easier to stay silent. And mostly, I was too busy soaking up the experience to want to speak.

I'd done my fair share of flying—the commercial jumbo-jet kind. This was about as far removed from that as a Harley is from a Greyhound bus.

The lull as we turned into the take-off run, the sudden rush of exhilaration as we gathered speed towards the end of the strip: it was like being a stunt-rider climbing a ramp. We left the ground, like that stunt-rider, but defied all sense by failing to arc back to earth; instead we swooped upwards, and below us the green paddocks and our modest shadow peeled away. We were airborne.

I was gasping for air the first few minutes; not because we'd flown up into the thin atmosphere a mile up (which we hadn't), but because I'd never experienced anything quite like this. Small planes are so different from big ones. I know it sounds obvious, but it doesn't really sink in until you're up there, bobbing wildly in every air pocket, the wind squeezing through every gap in the bodywork and spraying over you like a sustained sneeze. Every time the plane lurched I could feel my breakfast doing the same in my stomach. I'd never felt so vulnerable in the air. But at the same time I'd never felt so alive.

Aerial view of the city

And the view: it was worth every moment. I'd seen Canberra from on high before: everyone visits the Black Mountain tower or the top of Mount Ainslie at least once, in order to gawp at the hexagonal street plans where all roads lead to Parliament House. But up in the air you see it from a whole new angle, and it changes from instant to instant. It knocks some of the edges off Canberra's oppressive orderliness. Not all of them, but some.

Alan figured we could knock off a few more. We were circling over Yarralumla, watching the hordes of kangaroos wobble around the grounds of Government House, when he yelled, "Let's dive-bomb the fountain on the lake!"

"What?" I yelled back. "Won't you get into trouble?"

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But he was already flying towards the James Cook fountain. A few people strolling along the cycle-path below stopped and stared up at us as we followed Lake Burley Griffin's northern shore. Alan skipped over the Commonwealth Avenue bridge and banked around the fountain, laughing like mad the whole time, the outer edge of the spray speckling the plane's windscreen.


"Alan, this is really not a good idea!"

"Let's do the flagpole!" he shouted, as he angled around to the south and headed straight for Canberra's best-known landmark.

"Jesus," I gulped, "not Parliament House."

"Will the members rise," Alan intoned. We crossed the southern bank of the lake, and flew over the High Court.

"Alan, please don't do this. We'll get into really big trouble."

"Ah, come on, y'wimp," he laughed, "where's your spirit of adventure?"

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"Alan, I am serious. Please!" The flagpole was approaching fast, thrusting out of Capital Hill like a giant spike waiting to impale us.

Alan stopped laughing and glanced at me. For a moment he frowned, and I wondered if he was going to carry on regardless, circling the flagpole and herding the tourists on the grassy slopes below like an aerial rustler.

But his expression relaxed, and he relented.

"Oh, all right," he said, and banked away to the left.

I sighed with relief as he flew us back over the lake. We passed over Mount Ainslie to the farmlands to the northeast, where no one was around much, apart from a few terrified sheep.

Then the plane lurched as Alan suddenly pointed its nose upwards, and we began climbing at speed.

"You're not going to do anything dangerous, are you?" I quivered.

He grinned like a psychotic Red Baron. "Naaahhh!"

The sun rolled across the windscreen in front of us and then around to the side, as Alan twisted the Cessna into a corkscrew. Then, just as my stomach contracted in anticipation that he was going to try looping the loop, he levelled out like a roller coaster car poised at the top of a crest... and swooped back to earth like a concrete buzzard.

A few billion G-forces squashed me into my seat as we bottomed out about three-point-four inches away from the ground. I screamed, "Aaaaaaahhhhhh!," as Alan screamed, "Yeeeeee-haaaaaaahhhh!"

I seem to remember my heart kicked in again about the time we landed back at the airport.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 2

That night I had a weird kind of dream. I was hanging in the sky over an enormous conical island, a volcanic one like Krakatoa or something. It rose up out of a crystal blue sea, with white sand on its fringes and reefs spreading outwards; it must have been in the tropics someplace. And covering the slopes all the way up to its snow-capped peak were trees—hundreds of trees, each one different. Every different kind of tree in the world must have been living on that island. There were palm trees near the shore, and lush tropical rainforest trees behind those; further up, the trees became more temperate in nature, first deciduous elms and oaks, then evergreen gums, and then on up to pines, until towards the top I could see the twisted stunted trees of the highest alpine regions. A whole world of trees all pointing up to me.

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I was wearing a toga—and thanks to a handy spot of dream-logic, not feeling the cold—and stuck to my back, gently flapping away, were two giant feathered wings held together with wax.

Just as I noticed these I became aware that someone else, dressed the same way and wearing a similar pair of wings, was flying beside me. It was Alan.

"What are you doing up here?" I asked him.

"Watch your altitude, Icarus old son," he said.

"Icarus?" I replied. "What are you talking about?"

"For crying out loud," Alan sighed in exasperation, "I ought to know my own son."

"What? I'm not your son. What's this all about?"

"Watch your altitude, Icarus my boy. You're flying too close to the sun."

"Alan, I don't underst..." I stopped myself when I saw half a dozen feathers float past me.

"You see!" yelled Alan. "The wax is melting! Meeellllllllttt-tt-tinnnnnnnggggg..."

The wax on my wings wasn't all that was melting. Alan was dissolving before my eyes. Smoke curled from him like trails from a dozen candles, until suddenly he burst into flame, the kind of spontaneous combustion you read about in the Time-Life Book of the Unknown.

"Alan!" I exclaimed, "What the—," as he plummeted out of view. His blackened body arced down into the forest on the island below, and crashed with a distant flaming thud. Around him, dozens of trees caught fire. Soon half the island was alight, and a great column of smoke and heat was spiralling up towards me. I could feel myself losing altitude as my wax wings dripped away and their feathers gradually drifted off along chaotic paths of their own in the heat.

Now I was plummeting too, towards the navy-blue waters beyond the reefs. I stretched out and dived in, and found myself in a melee of light and water, air bubbles swirling all around me.

When I surfaced I was in a bathtub with Kath, in a big marble bathroom. She looked even more beautiful in the water than she did normally, and I found myself drawing up closer to her, cupping my hands over her small glistening breasts... until she pulled a wing off my back, ripping it away from the shoulder-blade where it was anchored, and waved its bleeding stump in front of me. "You won't be needing these any more," she said... at which point I woke up.

I said it was a weird kind of dream. I tried to phone it through to Triple J's talkback dream analyst that Monday morning, but I couldn't get through. They just had a bunch of losers talking about dreams of snakes and sleeping with their grandmothers.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 3

Andrew wouldn't stop quizzing me about Saturday night.

"You stayed over at her place? Mate, you're in."

"Andrew, it's their place, not just her place. And I was pissed out of my skull. Nothing happened."

"Sean, she saw you asleep. Do you know what that's worth? Do you know just how much that's worth in real 1993 terms, seasonally adjusted?"

"Not really."

"That's worth at least a definite maybe. Once they've seen you gently snoring away in happy pixie slumberland, they get all maternal and want to be your mother."

I snorted out a laugh. "I don't want Kath to be my mother." I didn't bother spelling out to Andrew just what I did want her to be.

I didn't have to. "Haven't you ever heard of Oedipus?" he asked.

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Ferret looked up from the one-on-one lecture he was giving Ken, and turned his attention to us. "You two getting on all right over there?" he asked.

"Oh yeah," said Andrew. "We're, um... we're right on the money here."

"Titration going okay, then?"

"It's a grade-A titration, Prof, it's..."

"It's just titrating like crazy," I finished helpfully.

"Good-o," said Ferret. "Carry on, then."

Andrew did, in his busiest I'm-a-conscientious-honours-student manner. As soon as Ferret was out of earshot he turned back to me with a furtive look that said "I am about to discuss possible options for your sex life which you will find extremely embarrassing".

"I'll tell you what you need to do," he said.

"Andrew, I really don't want to know," I lied.

"What you've got to do is play on those maternal instincts. Make her jealous."

"What? How?"

"Make her think there's another bird moving in on you. Another girl fighting for your affections."

"As if!" I retorted. If there'd been anyone else to speak of I might not have fallen so heavily for Kath in the first place. "She wouldn't be jealous even if there was."

"Sure she would, sure she would." His assured tone was beginning to win me over. It was all beginning to make some sense. This worried my rational side, which was busy cranking out a string of probabilities that Kath had even the slightest interest in me, all involving astronomical numbers of the kind usually seen on a Madonna record contract and following them with the words "to 1".

"I tell you Sean, she's just playing hard-to-get. Trust me. I get it all the time."

My irrational side was all ears by now. Screw the odds, there was the romantic equivalent of a lotto jackpot at stake here.

"Yeah, but... what can I do about it?"

Andrew was in command now.

"Like I said, get yourself a date. Get yourself a hot date."

"Andrew, I don't know if you've noticed, but I haven't had much luck with that so far; what makes you think I'll have any now?"

"Just leave it to me."

What, was he playing cupid now? Even from an old mate like Andrew, this was a bit hard to take.

"Are you talking about fixing me up?"


"What, with one of your rejects?"

"What's wrong with my rejects?"

"Andrew, almost every girl you've ever gone out with has hated my guts."

"Umm... yeah, well, you've got a point there. Okay, look, I'll find you somebody else."

"Someone else? Who?"

"I don't know. I'll ask around. There's bound to be someone."

"Jesus, Andrew, this gets worse and worse! I have got some pride, you know."

"Yeah, but has it got you a root?"


"Look, you don't care who it is, do you? It's not them you're after, it's Kath."

"Yes, but..."

"But nothing. What have you got to lose?"

I was stuck for an answer there; at least for long enough that he took my silence for some kind of assent. "Okay then," Andrew said. "I'll fix you up with a blind date. All you have to do is figure out how to get Kath to be at the same place so she sees you with this bird."

Thanks a lot, I thought—leave me with the easy part, why don't you.

I turned my attention back to the titration with what I hoped was a silent, aloof air. Something to show Andrew I would go along with his seedy scheme just for a laugh, but that I was really above it all and could manage perfectly well by myself.

It lasted about two minutes, and then Ken started flicking wads of litmus paper at me.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 4

I didn't see Alan, Kath, or even Andrew for the rest of that week. Andrew was down with the flu; Alan and Kath just weren't around, and I was busy writing that lab report. But I was to see them both again soon enough.

The next Saturday I was wandering around Civic doing some window shopping. There was a reasonable crowd about, considering it was a wintry afternoon, and as a result the buskers were out in force. Some of them were buskers, anyway; some were more your pure-and-simple pains in the arse. Parked in the mall outside Clint's Crazy Bargains, just near Garema Place, was a mob of holy rollers, all dressed in the daggiest brown trousers and cream business shirts imaginable, all sporting crew-cuts, and all singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". I gave them a wide berth.

Near Dymock's there was a twelve-year-old kid playing the old Harry Belafonte smash hit "Marianne" on a saxophone. One day it might get him a record contract with Dino Music, but it sure as hell wasn't getting him much now. His mournful eyes followed mine as I walked past, darting downwards pointedly to the empty hat at his feet. I quickly averted my gaze and hurried on, shoulders hunched, embarrassed that I wasn't giving him so much as five cents, but determined that he wouldn't be getting anything out of me, not even if he strapped me to a table and subjected me to "Day-O" played on the euphonium. If only I'd been Alan in the same situation, I thought. He'd probably have had the guts to walk right up to the kid, wave a ten-dollar bill tantalisingly close, and then pull it away with a laugh.

Then as I came up to the corner near the merry-go-round I heard a familiar voice singing an unfamiliar song:

Look at me
Look at me
I'm an amazingly funny guy
Look at me
Over here
Just one glimpse and you'll see why
I'm a nifty guitar-playing bloke
And if you stop and watch I'll tell you a joke
So look at me
You bastards
'Cos I'm great.

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I went and stood just behind the crowd gathering nearby. They were probably wondering, not just about the song, but about what possessed this guy to wear, on a cold day like this, a thin nylon shirt with a truly hideous juxtaposition of small coats of arms and big black polka dots against a cream background, topped off with a turquoise bow tie and a black top hat.

I wasn't wondering. I didn't know the reason either, but the fact of it alone was no surprise to me.

Alan spotted me and gave me a sly wink before launching into a spiel worthy of a circus ringleader.

"Ladiiiiiees and ginnlemen! For your entertainment on this bee-yoo-tiful Saturday afternoon, I will now perform an amazing feat of memory which I call..." (he drummed his fingers on his guitar in an appropriate circus roll) "Alan Seward's JokeFest!"

"Yes folks, all you have to do is tell me any joke—that's any joke, mind you—and leave out the punch line, and I will supply you with a punch line as good, if not better than, the original—or your money back! And seeing as none of you have paid yet, that's a money-back guarantee! Now I can't do any fairer than that, now can I..."

One guy put up his arm; Alan quickly pointed him out.

"Hello, we've got a taker already. Yes, good sir, what is your joke?"

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"

A collective groan went up from those gathered.

"No, no, ladies and gentleman, please." Alan waited for them to quieten down. "The hard ones first, eh? Okay. The chicken crossed the road... because... uhhh..."


"No, come on, it's a hard one, this. Can't you see I'm wrestling to find the inner core of meaning that lies within this great conundrum of our age?"

"You don't know the answer!"

"I bloody do too, and I've got the attractive shirt to prove it! Ladies and gentleman, the chicken crossed the road because this guy"—he pointed at the appropriate fool—"was just up the footpath. Ha ha."

The guy and his friends let out some loud hisses. Alan ignored them.

"I prefer the Catholic version of that joke. Why did the chicken look forward to death? So he could cross over to the other side! Boom boom."

A couple of people wandered off, but most hung around for now. One of the chicken-joke-man's friends spoke up.

"What's big, grey, has a trunk like an elephant, and looks like an elephant?"

"Let me guess... uhhh..."

"An elephant."

"Well if you're not going to let me guess, you're just asking for it. Why didn't the viper viper nose?"

"What? Are you asking me?"

"Yeah. Why didn't the viper viper nose?"

"I dunno."

"Because the adder adder 'andkerchief!"

"Fuck'n oath, you're crap!"

"Yes, but at least I know it. Now away with ye while I sing me a merry tune."

Give me cash
Give me cash
'Cos I'm an amazingly funny guy
Throw a coin
In my case
If you don't I'll start to cry
You've heard what I have to say
And now it's time for you to pay
So give me cash
You bastards
'Cos I'm great.

A few people obliged, but most had drifted off by now. I wandered up to Alan as he leant down to count the takings in his case.

"That was bloody awful," I said, half-laughing.

"I know that! What do you think I am, styoooopid or something?"

"How much did you make?"

"Oh, twenty, thirty bucks or so."

"What, just then? Hardly anyone was putting any money in."

"Not just from just then. I've been here for over an hour. That was just a bit of mucking about."


"I always do that at the end, when I'm bored. Try improvising a bit. Not very good at it, though. Most of the stuff I did this arvo was from my act. Cut down a lot, but basically from my act."

"Oh, right. I thought you'd just started."

"Get away." He closed his guitar in its case, and pulled on his coat, which had been lying next to it. Then he took off the hat and stuffed the scarf into it.

"Come on," Alan said, "come and help me spend this money."

"Aren't you going to save it?"

"Not enough there worth saving. Come on, this loot is busting to be spent on a new CD."

"Yeah, okay. Where's Kath?"

"She's at home."

We wandered back the way I'd just come. We strolled past the junior saxophonist—I thought Alan was remarkably restrained; "What's New Pussycat" raised hardly a chuckle—and then wandered up to the Jesus brigade, where the singing had stopped and the haranguing-of-passers-by had well and truly begun.

"Christ almighty," murmured Alan.

"Exactly," I replied.

"Jesus is your friend!" shouted the head fashion-reject, in our general direction (no one else was stopping, so I guess we were as much of an audience as they were going to get). "Read the good news and you will see that in every way your life is filled with SIN. But when you find Jesus, he will lead you away from sin! He will..."

I hadn't really noticed, but Alan had been taking his guitar out of his case again. Now he had it strapped on, and was interrupting the holy roller with some frantic acoustic chords.

They sounded familiar. Strangely familiar. Like something from my past. Specifically, from my six months as a 13-year-old heavy metal fan... oh my God, he wasn't...

"Night was black, no use holding back..."

Alan was playing Iron Maiden songs at Christians. In public.

"In the NIGHT the fires are burning BRIGHT—the ritual has be-GUN—Satan's woooork is done..."

I wanted to crawl under a rock where I couldn't be seen. I found myself edging away, sort of to the right and backwards, somewhere in the vague direction of Garema Place. Or preferably Sydney.

"Six—six-six—the nuuuumber of the BEAST... Saaaacrifice—is going on tonight!"

The Christians were trying to shout him down by now, with yells of "Sinner!" and "Satanist!" Then they started singing, one by one and then in unison:

"He's got the whooooole world, in His hands, He's got the..."

"But I feel drawn towards the chanting hordes..."

"Whooooole world, in His hands, He's got the whoooooole world..."

"Six—six-six—the number of the beast... Six—six-six—the one for you and me!" By now, Alan was half singing, half laughing his head off.

"In His hands, He's got the whole world in His hands. He's got the little-bitty..."

But Alan wasn't interested in duelling all afternoon. He segued into a quick Spanish-guitar version of "Run to the Hills" (Iron Maiden, 1981, from the same album) as he strolled away from the group, their blackened gazes focussed as one upon his back.

I caught up with him just as he headed down the steps into Impact Records at the top of City Walk.

"You're game," I panted.

"Why did you try and run away, ya big wuss? I was just having a bit of fun."

"Well, yes, but in public like that? Talk about embarrassing."

"No more embarrassing than being those guys."

"Yes, but..."

"But nothing. If they have a right to inflict their simplistic rubbish on me, I have a right to inflict heavy metal on them."

"Not everyone thinks it's simplistic rubbish," I said, playing the devil's advocate (or in this case the exact opposite).

"I know that," said Alan, as he handed his guitar and top hat to the guy behind the counter at the cloakroom corner. The guy did a double-take at the top hat, and then an even bigger one when he saw Alan's shirt. He cautiously passed Alan a block of wood with a number on it. I half expected it to be number 666.

"I'm not having a go at religion, I'm having a go at religious bores. They assume that nobody wandering through Civic on a Saturday afternoon has ever even heard of Jesus, let alone, God forbid, actually read a bit of the Bible and thought about it. Now that's what I call rude. I don't see anything wrong with being rude back."

I shrugged, as if to say "fair enough".

"Aaah, it was just a bit of fun," Alan smiled. "They've gotta toughen up if they're going to be God's warriors."

He made a beeline for the indie CDs and started flipping through them, starting at "S".

"Do you know the Bible says you're not allowed to eat lobster?"

"What? No."

"It's in the bit where it lists all the food that isn't kosher. You know. Pork and all that. You're not allowed to eat any seafood that doesn't have scales."

"Really? Isn't that for Jews?"

"Yeah, obviously; it's in the Old Testament. But it's still in the Bible. And it's a bit convenient how all those fundamentalists go on about Adam and Eve and the flood and how God hates homosexuals and all that other Old Testament stuff, and neglect to mention how much he also hates people who eat lobster and calamari. Or men who go anywhere near a woman during the week after she has her period."


"That's in there too. It's a bundle of laughs."

"Sounds like it."

"Nothing new by Spiritualized or the Stone Roses. Let's try 'B'."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 5

We stopped for a coffee in Garema Place afterwards, so that Alan could read the CD-booklet for the latest album by Blur. I was sipping idly at my latté when he sprung another curly one on me. He seemed to be a bit hyper and argumentative this afternoon.

"Do you want to be famous, Sean?"

"Crikey, that was a bit out-of-the-blue."

"Yeah, but really. Do you want to be famous?"

I paused a moment to think.

"You must not, then," said Alan.

"Hang on, hang on ... maybe. Maybe I want to be a bit famous."

"You can't be a bit famous. That's like being a bit dead or a bit pregnant. I'm talking about famous."

"Well, you know. I don't want to be mobbed on the street. It would be kind of nice if some people knew who I was, though. If they liked my cartoons or something."

"I want to be so fucking famous."

"This, I could have guessed."

"Yeah, but I mean famous—so fucking famous. I want everybody to know who I am. I want people to smile just at the mention of my name. I want to be the only Alan people think of when they hear the name 'Alan'."

"Yes, but wouldn't it get a bit difficult when you pop down the street to buy a paper or something?"

"I want people to be following me down the street. I want to have them grasping at my clothes so they can go home and tell their loved ones that they touched the raiments of Alan Seward. I want to be so famous that a police cordon has to be set up wherever I go. I want supermarkets to open up at three a.m. just so I can do my own personal shopping, and then give the groceries to me for free just as a token of their esteem."

He was warming to the subject now.

"Being famous is it. Fame is everything. If nobody knows you ever lived, you might as well never have existed. When you're famous, you don't need money. People will go out of their way to make sure you get it, because they want you to keep existing; they want to make sure you don't starve to death. And the best way to guarantee that is to keep them entertained. They don't care if you invent some life-saving invention or sign some important peace treaty or write some earth-shattering insight into the human soul: they want you to make them laugh. Human beings have tried everything else and it all sucks. Politics suck, isms suck, wars suck, technology and progress fuck the environment so they suck. The only thing that doesn't suck is comedy. Make 'em laugh and you'll be famous. And I want to be famous."

This was all rather unexpected. This was like being Hitler's confidant. Adolf Seward paused, and then continued in a more reflective tone.

"You don't know what it is to have that burning you up inside, that need, that absolute need."

"That's not true," I objected. "Well, not completely, at least."

"Oh yeah," said Alan, now mildly curious. "What is it that you want to be famous for?"

"Well," I started, and stopped. And answered: "I want to write a book. I want to write a really good book. Something for people to find in second-hand book stores in fifty years' time. Well-thumbed brown-edged copies of my book."

Alan smiled, the maniacal edge gone out of him by now. "Yeah? I hope you do, mate. I hope you want to badly enough that you do."

"You wait," I said. "I'm going to write a book about you."

He laughed at that. "Better give you something to write about, then!"

The Stand-Up, Chapter 4, Bookmark 6

The next time I saw either of them was a week later. I was pushing a trolley with a wonky wheel around Supabarn, doing a bit of shopping on a wet Sunday.

I'd just poured a packet of coffee beans into the grinder on the "Espresso" setting, waited a decidedly un-espresso length of time for them to work their way through, and then wandered off absent-mindedly and smack bang into a big cardboard display case of coffee packets. I don't know how to juggle, but right then I was learning fast, trying to keep three bags of Royal Kenyan Mild Roast in the air at once. Seeing that half a dozen more had already hit the deck it hardly mattered that I failed.

I stood and surveyed the scene with an air of critical detachment. If I did a runner right now, I rationalised, no one would know I'd knocked over the display. I would Avoid Embarrassment: always a desirable goal. I decided to risk it.

Carefully, I turned around to check that no witness to this chaos had been standing in the aisle...

"I saw that," said Kath.

She pushed her trolley up to where I was standing (and oh, how it effortlessly glided on four straight and parallel wheels).

"Hello Sean," she said, chirpily.

"Hi Kath," I answered. "Uhh... what do you think I should do?"

She brushed her hand back over her hair, which tumbled gently through her china-doll-white fingers, and said, "I think you should do a runner."


We scarpered.

Around in the next aisle I sought her opinion on various brands of red cordial.

"What do you reckon? Black and Gold?" I held up a two-litre bottle of generic lolly-water.

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"It looks like poison!" she laughed. I studied it more closely. I hadn't realised it before, but she was right. All the bottle lacked was the skull and crossbones and the red warning label.

"Oh, sorry," I improvised, "I thought we were in the gardening aisle."

We strolled around the supermarket together, doing our shopping and chatting. I was showing off like crazy, making off-the-cuff jokes about Vegemite and Coco Pops which probably don't bear repeating here. Kath was doing a good impression of genuine laughter, but I'm sure she was just being polite.

The supermarket P.A. was playing a pathetic reworked version of the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter. "Welcome back to Supabarn," said Standard Commercial Radio D.J. No. 538. "This week we've got fennel at only a dollar ninety-nine a kilo..."

"Is that what they pay you to eat it?" asked Kath.

"Maybe it's Black and Gold fennel," I surmised.

A scattered collection of bored middle-class public servants bumped their trolleys into ours. It was all so tedious; I wished I was with Kath in someplace more inherently entertaining, but she didn't seem to mind.

"Alan was writing a sit-com once," she said, out of the blue, "about a group of terrorists. Failed IRA terrorists. He had one episode where they occupied a local Sainsbury's and had a big shoot-out with the police. But they ran out of bullets and had to start using food instead. Peanut M&Ms for bullets, and grenades of yoghurt." (She said it "yogg-urt", not "yo-gurt". Cute.)

"He even sent three half-hours to the BBC. But they thought it was all in rather poor taste. They said that as a government body they couldn't be seen to be sympathetic to terrorists. Alan wrote back and said he thought the Birmingham Six jailings were in rather poor taste but no-one had chastised the government over that."

After that lead I naturally asked after Alan, while trying to give the impression that of course I was more interested in Kath and was only being polite.

"He's a bit depressed with everything," she said, looking rather downbeat. "I think we both are."

"What do you mean?" I asked, concerned. "Is he depressed about the Ph.D.?"

"Oh, yes, the Ph.D., sure; he gave up on that ages ago, it seems like. But it's not just that. He's sick of the whole place. Canberra."

"Oh. Yeah, well, I can see how anyone can get sick of Canberra."

"Nobody's booking his act. He's done the main venues and none of them want him back. They say his audiences aren't big enough. One man even said Alan wasn't funny enough."

"Uh... crumbs." (Oh, very good, Mr Impressive. Win her over with your dazzling repartee, why don't you.)

"He's even been going busking lately, just to keep his hand in."

"Yeah, I saw him last week over in City Walk."

"It's no good at all. No one hangs around for long enough to follow a stream of consciousness, the kind of thing Alan does. That's hard enough in a night-club."

"What's he going to do?" I asked, my voice perhaps a bit too full of earnest concern, though that's certainly what I felt.

Kath paused, as if stumped for an answer for a moment, but she was probably simply figuring out how to drop her bombshell.

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"Well," she finally began, "we've talked it over ... and we think we should try moving to Sydney."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 5