The Stand-Up

Chapter Six

I was half-way down the stairs before I realised I'd forgotten to put my shoes back on after changing my clothes. I turned around, too quickly; swayed, threatening to buckle at the knees; and then righted myself and went back up. One shoe had gone missing. I found it resting where it had landed when I'd kicked it off, in a thick layer of fluff and dust under the dresser. Asthma city.

I had a box of books somewhere, I remembered. The ones I wanted to sell. Where were they? This was the whole point of the exercise...

They were sitting on top of the wardrobe. I reached them down, carefully, and then, preparations finally complete, headed downstairs and outside to wait for Alan and Kath.

They weren't too long driving over from Braddon. In the quiet hours of the night the Enema-Mobile was singing in full voice, its fruity tones echoing around the Northbourne flats. When it juddered to a halt I saw that its back seat was piled high with old clothes and assorted junk; I wondered where I was going to sit.

"We've saved a space for you in the boot," said Kath as she wound down the window.

"What, am I going to sit in there?"

15K image

Alan got out and unlocked the boot, and I wedged my box of books in next to more of his junk. "You can sit on the left-hand side behind Kath," was his optimistic suggestion. I opened the back door. Half a dozen V-necked T-shirts rolled out onto the ground. I picked them up and pushed them in ahead of me as I shouldered my way into the mound of fabric, shovelling shorts off the seat only to have shirts fall into the clearing from the top of the pile. Somehow I managed to line my left side up with the space where the door normally goes. Alan forced the door shut and the ash-tray into my thigh.

"Are you okay back there?" asked Kath.

"Can't... breathe," I spluttered. Joking.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 1

With the extra weight, the Enema-Mobile seemed to take forever to wend its way to Macarthur Street and over Black Mountain to Jamison, where the weekly Trash and Treasure market was held. When we pulled into the Coles 24-hour supermarket car-park, the place was already being colonised by the regular stall-holders. Temporary tarpaulins covered the backs of Taragos and the tables of cheap jewellery, cut flowers, fruit and veg, Taiwanese tools. Other trestle tables stood unsheltered while their owners covered them with second-hand copies of Georgette Heyer and L. Ron Hubbard.

On the periphery of the rows of regular stalls were the amateurs, shuffling about in the dim glow cast by the streetlights and their torches, spreading their wares onto tables and blankets next to their utes and station wagons. Alan manoeuvred the Enema-Mobile into an available space half-way along the back row.

"I'll just go and find one of the organisers," he said, and headed off to do so.

Kath and I started setting up. By the time Alan came back with a trestle table, we had half of the clothes sitting in piles on a large groundsheet. "We can put the books on the table," he suggested.

A murmur of conversation drifted in and out of earshot. "Why does everyone talk so quietly in the dark?" I whispered. "Don't know," whispered Kath, even more quietly. "Mayb—ey're wo—d—bout—dustr—al esp—age," hissed Alan, at the bottom of the decibel scale.


"Maybe," he said at normal volume, "they're worried about industrial espionage."

"Yes," added Kath, "they don't want to reveal the trade secrets for selling second-hand gardening tools."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 2

My lack of sleep soon started to have its effect, as my brain began to spin on its axis within the confines of my skull. My body tilted and listed this way and that.

"Why don't you go and get something to wake you up?" asked Kath.

"There's nowhere to get any coffee around here at..."—I looked at my watch—"four o'clock."

"Coles is open," said Alan.

"Yeah," I said, "but they don't sell actual hot, ready-made coffee."

"They sell coffee powder. You could eat it straight."

"Mmm. Tasty."

"A spoonful of Nestlés makes the medicine go down."

"You could buy some Coke," suggested Kath.

I thought about this. "Yeah," I acknowledged, "I suppose that would help."

I got up and carefully negotiated the paths between stalls towards the supermarket. The glare of fluorescent lights drew me like a moth, and the sweep of the automatic doors ushered me in. A single bored teenager watched me from one of a whole row of check-outs; we were the only people in the store. A soundtrack of muzak, which she didn't look too keen on and I positively loathed, permeated the place for our supposed entertainment.

I wandered up and down a few aisles until I found the soft-drinks section. I grabbed the nearest plastic blimp of carbonated lolly-water and made my way to the girl at the checkout.

She chewed her cud on a piece of gum and stared blankly as she passed the bottle over the scanner. "That'll be a dollar eighty-five," she intoned.

"Can I Eftpos that?" I asked, holding out a plastic card. She shot me a withering glare. "Do you want any extra cash with that?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, "I'll have a dollar eighty-five."

Now she drilled me through with a look of death, saying, "You can only Eftpos amounts over ten dollars."

"All right," I replied, "I'll have eight dollars fifteen."

Reluctantly, the girl slotted the card into the handset. "Enter your account and your PIN-number," she said, handing it to me.

I did it.

"Ten dollars, eight fifteen change," she said, handing it over. "Have a nice day."

How Australian. I wanted to say to her, "Y'all have a nice day too now, y'hear?," but I didn't have the guts.

As I reached our stall I opened the bottle and started gulping down the contents.

"You must be thirsty," said Kath, while I kept drinking.

"Sean—," said Alan, when I stopped for a moment. I burped, and then hiccupped. "Oh, shit." I hiccupped again. "Dammit. This always happens." Hic. "That's why I never drink fizzy drinks." Hic.


Hic. Hic. "Yeah," hic, "what?" Herk.

"If you wanted to get something to wake you up, why did you buy caffeine-free Coke?"

I took a closer look at the label. "Fu-" hic "-uck."

Actually, it did manage to keep me awake. It must have been the placebo effect. But twenty minutes later I was busting for a leak. And I still had the hiccups.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 3

We filled the remaining hours of the night with talk. Alan told me what his Ph.D. thesis was, or had been, about—some political thing about human rights implementation, I didn't really understand it—and told me how sick he was of the whole thing, of being a student, of getting nowhere with his reading, of going around in circles. It sounded like he was relieved to have put it on hold; but part of him seemed to feel guilty about it. "I just feel like I owe it to myself to finish it, you know?" he said. "I will finish it eventually... I just have to back off for a while. Get some perspective on it."

Kath was saying optimistic things about the stand-up comedy opportunities in Sydney. "There's bound to be more work for you there," she told Alan; but he was more guarded. "We'll see" was all he'd say.

Kath was also hopeful of getting more work for herself. "There's not much at ANU. There's nothing at Canberra Uni or ADFA. Maybe I'd have more luck at Sydney or UNSW."

I contributed to the self-reflective tone of the discussion by telling them about Friday night's debacle. I got a few laughs at my own expense, but shied away from telling them the more embarrassing aspects.

"I went on a blind date once," said Kath.

Lucky bastard who got to go with her, I thought. "Who with?" asked Alan.

"Some awful bore on the Trinity rowing team. He kept telling me how much training he was doing and what larks they got up to afterwards. How many pints he could drink in a row, and all that sort of thing. A real intellectual."

"I couldn't even figure out how intellectual Sandra was," I said. "She didn't say much at all."

"Are you going to ask her out again?" asked Kath.

"Oh, I don't know," I mumbled. "I don't think she liked me very much."

Alan had been watching me quietly. "You remind me a lot of how I was at your age," he said. Kath smiled, enigmatically.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 4

Dawn finally came, and in the following hour people gradually began drifting past our table. By nine, the crowd had grown, and business with it. Kath and Alan were doing a brisk trade in unfashionable old clobber.

"I couldn't bring myself to get rid of some of these clothes before," he said, "but they just don't fit me. I'll never wear them again."

"Are you selling that wacky shirt?" I asked.

"Which one?" chipped Kath.

"The one with the polka-dots and shields."

"No way!" protested Alan. "That's my prize possession!"

"It cost him four dollars at St Vincent de Paul," said Kath.

"It matters not what it cost," said Alan, "it's the devastatingly chic effect that counts."

A young bloke in a baseball cap stopped and lingered over a small collection of kitchen utensils on the table. He picked up a potato masher. "How much?" he asked Kath.

"A million dollars," said Alan.


"Fifty cents," said Kath. The guy fished a coin out of his pocket and paid her, while casting Alan an odd look.

"We'll get the rest off you later," Alan said.

"I wish I had a million dollars," I said, after the guy had left.

"Did it work?" responded Alan.

"What?" I replied, as baffled as the kid before.

"Your wish. Did it work? Did you get a million dollars?"

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 5

As it turned out, I got about twenty. I sold only a handful of books all day. Academic-looking customers would stop and flip through the lot and buy nothing. I got rid of a couple of second-year text-books, and my unread copy of Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien, but precious little else.

Kath and Alan, meanwhile, switched into knock-down-sale mode.

"Crazy bargains!" yelled Alan, in his best circus-ringleader manner. "Get 'em while they're hot! Redddd hot bargains! Sizzling hot!"

"Come and get it!" cried Kath, helpfully.

"Come on down!" shouted Alan. "The price is right!"

It seemed to work. Their willingness to accede to the stingiest offers without a hint of haggling obviously helped.

"Five bucks," they'd say.

"Oh dear, I've only got two dollars left..."

"Sold! To the lady in the blue hat. Two dollars, there you go, thank you, bye-bye."

Meanwhile, I'd have the absent-minded professor mulling over Dune Messiah and whether he wanted to pay three dollars for it. "No, I'd never read it," he'd say, and would wander off. I figured I must be paying for my every prevarication in every book-store I'd ever visited.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 6

About half-way through the morning, someone I knew came up to our stall.

"Hello, Sean," said Sandra.

"Oh... hello, Sandra," I replied. I couldn't see them while I was looking at Sandra, but I sensed Kath and Alan pricking up their ears at the sound of my words. "How are you?" I asked her.

"I'm fine, thanks." She started to skim through my books. "Are these all yours?"

"Yes, that's right," I said. I tried to think of something to add. "The price is right," I tried, bereft of inspiration. Amazingly, Sandra smiled.

28K image

She picked out a paperback—another one I'd never gotten around to reading, this time by Jean Cocteau—and gave me the two dollars I was asking.

"Did you still want to go out sometime?" she asked me.

"Oh," I said, taken aback. "Yes. Sure. When?"

"Later this week?"

"Fine. Uh... how will we..."

She was already getting a pen and some paper out of the big woven bag that was slung over her shoulder. "Here's my phone number," she said, writing it down. "Give me a call."

"Oh. Okay. Thanks."

I waved goodbye as she walked off.

"Well, she seems nice," said Kath.

"Reads French authors," Alan noted with approval. "She must be an intellectual."

"Hmm," was all I could say.

"Make sure you call her," added Alan.

And Kath gave me another of those enigmatic smiles.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 7

"You going to help us pack this Friday?" asked Alan on the way home.

"Yeah, sure," I said. "If you want me to."

"Great," he said, "we could use the help."

"Oh, Alan," said Kath, "don't forget I'm going out to lunch with Annette on Friday." Some friend of hers.

"Lunch with Annette?" he said, baffled; and then, in as pathetic and whiny a voice as he could muster, "Why didn't you tellll meeee?"

"I did."

"Well why didn't I listennnnn?"

"So we could definitely use your help, Sean," said Kath.

I was happy to help. Maybe, I mused, I could surreptitiously stow-away in one of their packing boxes and go to Sydney with them.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 8

I couldn't put it off any longer. That evening, after a soothing nap knitted up the ravelled sleeve of care (what a strange expression that is—why would you want to knit up a sleeve? How would you put your hand through the end?), I sat down at my desk and stared at the source of my torment—well, at one of the many sources of my torment.

I finished my lab reports.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 9 - ANU

The next day I slunk into the department and tip-toed, Ninja-like, past Ferret's door and up to the main office, where I slipped the reports into the assignment box by the door.

Tip-toeing back, I nearly nunchakued Andrew in the nuts when he barrelled around the corner in a decidedly un-Ninja-like manner. "Jesus, Sean," he boomed, "watch where you're going, why don't ya."

I shushed him, desperately. "Shhhhhhh!"


"For Pete's sake, shut up," I hissed. " I don't want Ferret to know I'm here."

"Well that's easily solved, because he isn't here today."

"Oh. Right. Sorry." I brushed myself down, as if to sweep away the debris from our collision. "Sorry I ran into you just now."

"'Sokay. Why don't you want him to know you're here?"

"I just handed in my lab reports."

"What, just now? Shit. Well Done Sean."

"Yeah, I will be well done when he finds out."

"Sure," nodded Andrew, "as if he won't have noticed the mysterious absence of lab reports by Mr C. up until now."

"Shut up. I know I'm dead. I might as well give up honours right now."

"Ah, go on. They're only worth twenty percent. Have you started your thesis yet?"

"Not as such, no."

"Ah." A pointed pause. "Well," he observed, "it's only worth sixty percent."

"Does the phrase 'eat shit and die' mean anything to you?"

"Not a very nice thing to say to someone who fixed you up with a hot date the other night."

"Hot date!" I snorted. "As if."

"Why, what happened?"

"Come on," I said, "you were there."

"Yeah, but—well—I was there, but my memory wasn't. If you know what I mean."


"Monster alcohol hangover city death drinking frenzy, in other words."

"Right. Well, while you and... Jennifer... were dancing at Club Asmara, Sandra and I exchanged a few meaningless pleasantries, and then she went home early."

"Ah. The ol' going-home-early stunt, eh."

"You got it."

"Never mind," he said brightly, "I'm seeing Jennifer again today. We can line something up with another one of her friends."

79K mp3

"No way," I objected. "I'm not going through that again. Besides—I saw Sandra yesterday, and she wants to go out again."

"Then what are you complaining about? Cripes, I thought you were saying it was a fizzer."

"Yeah, well," I said, "the jury's still out on that one."

"Well there'll be no more aiding and abetting from me," he said. "From now on you're flying solo."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 10

I procrastinated for a day before ringing Sandra, but she still sounded happy enough to hear from me. We arranged to go out the following night. Dinner not having worked out too well before, we decided to go and see a band this time.

In a masterpiece of planning, I neglected to buy tickets beforehand, and when we drove out to Tilley's in Lyneham we found that the gig was sold out.

We walked back to my car at a safe thirty-nine centimetres apart. "What do we do now?" she asked.

How about strip naked and make love in the back seat just to sate my animal lust?

"How about we go into Civic and see a movie?" I suggested. Okay, she said, and we drove back into town.

The fairy-lit Greater Union cinema crouching opposite the bus shelters offered the usual array of Hollywood blockbusters on its blazing billboards. I figured Sandra wouldn't go for the latest action smash or the cute Disney flick for the whole family, so suggested the third option, which was yet another E. M. Forster adaptation. (Is there no end to them? By now they must be looking at adapting Aspects of the Novel, with Helena Bonham-Carter as Fantasy and Emma Thompson as The Plot.)

Sandra bought a giant tub of popcorn and a big watery Coke at the popcorn-and-watery-Coke shop in the foyer, and then we strolled along to Cinema Three and plunged into the gloom. At that instant I realised what a ghastly blunder I had made. I hardly knew her and we were going to a movie together. I'd be sitting next to her not knowing what the hell to do with my arms.

And so it turned out. It was like I was fourteen and clueless—instead of twenty-one and clueless. Okay: to be honest, I'd never had much experience of this kind of thing. I didn't know the moves. And if I knew them, I couldn't bring myself to try them. The "yawn and stretch" seemed too obvious a way to get my arm around her, and I didn't have any other flashes of inspiration.

At first, figuring I had a whole movie's worth of time to manoeuvre in, I was fairly calm. I watched the advertising slides with an equanimity that usually escapes me when the ads are showing. I didn't even comment on the voice-over by some ignorant employee from the Melbourne offices of Pearl and Dean who insisted on saying "Ma-noo-ka" when every Canberran knows it's "Maa-nuka". And I didn't even flinch when the idiot up the back who was sailing Jaffas through the air managed to crack me on the skull with one. I don't think Sandra noticed, because she was watching the trailers as intently and quietly as I was.

But when the main feature came on, things got no better. My mind was busy testing out options for amorous advances, like a chess computer calculating the ramifications of each particular move for the next twenty rounds of play. My calculations always seemed to end with "Black slaps White in the face and storms out of the theatre; checkmate", so I wasn't getting very far.

16K image

Now and then I would dart a glimpse at Sandra, hoping that I might catch her staring at me with adoration, which would certainly make things easier—but she watched the screen as if she was going to be tested afterwards for her recall of insignificant costume details. Worse still, my complete lack of peripheral vision—wearing glasses as I was—meant that every stolen glimpse of Sandra became a major exercise in camouflage and logistics. I couldn't just turn and stare for fear of being too obvious about it, so I had to ease my head and neck through a slow pan to the right until she came into view. Or I'd have to turn obviously but distractedly as if attending to an irritating itch or a stray Jaffa bullet. If Sandra had been watching, she'd have thought I had some kind of nervous tic, or that I'd been taking some serious hallucinogens. No fear of that, though: she was watching Emma T., not Sean C.

Why, I agonised, are these historical costume dramas so bloody long? Three hours I was stuck there, sweating, straitjacketed, my limbs beginning to ache, my mind exploring dozens of alternative universes in which Sandra and I were snogging throughout the movie, or Sandra was humiliating me in a public cinema with a can of Mace and a well-timed scream for the police. By the end of the film I'd achieved the sum total of zilch: for all the bodily-contact we'd had, I might as well have been sitting next to a Hell's Angel who was carrying a cricket bat and wearing an expression that said "You touch me, you die".

We walked out into the foyer, and I asked her how she liked the movie. She'd liked it a lot, she said, and then discussed some of the finer points of the plot. This put me on the spot, because in my distracted state I hadn't taken in the first thing about it. As far as I knew, we'd been watching the National Lampoon adaptation of E. M. Forster's little-known teen frat party novel A Roommate with a View, or his science-fiction blockbuster A Passage to Betelgeuse. I played it safe and agreed with what she said in a non-committal kind of way.

Finally, as we left the theatre, I did what I'd failed to for all those hours and took her hand in mine. She didn't run away, and nobody arrested us. We walked along hand-in-hand, talking about this and that. This is nice, I thought. This is not bad. Maybe we're getting somewhere at last.

Then she looked at her watch. It was late, she said. She really had to get home. So we walked the couple of blocks back to the car and I drove her the short distance to Campbell, where I pulled up in the driveway of the house she shared with two others. We sat in the car, listening to the ticking of the engine as it cooled down.

The darkness effected its usual illusions, softening her features and no doubt mine. In the soft grey light of a half moon she looked quite attractive: somewhat vulnerable but also strangely calm. For a while I was even able to forget about Kath; instead, I filled my mind with Sandra and her possibilities. We talked a while; for an hour, in the end, about our lives, our families and friends, carrying on the idle chatter we'd haltingly maintained before the film.

I'd have thought that things were going quite well, except for one thing: she barely looked at me the whole time. Now, before—ever. She hadn't the other night, either, but I'd taken that for shyness born of the situation we were in. But here we were, alone in a car in the stillness of a moonlit night, and she could scarcely bring herself to glance at me. I'd always thought that I was shy, but this was unnatural.

Eventually she said, "I'd better go," and opened the door. I leant towards her slightly, imagining that something more than a formal goodbye might not be out of the question—but she was already climbing out of her seat. Once out of the car, she finally turned and looked at me, but only to say goodbye. "I'll see you again soon?" she asked.

I paused for a telling moment. What, I was wondering, was the point?

"I don't know," I said. "What do you think?"

"Think about what?"

"About us. About what we're doing."

"Oh," she said, seeming honestly surprised by this. "I just thought we'd be friends. You know."

Oh, joy. My favourite pastime. "I don't know about you," I said, "but I was looking for something more than that." I was surprised that I could be so blunt about it.

She fell quiet.

"Maybe this isn't really working out," I continued.

"I don't know," she said.

"Maybe we'd both better think about it," I said.


"Give me a ring when you make up your mind."

"Okay," she said, and that seemed to be all there was to say. We said goodbye, and I drove off, figuring I'd probably never see her again.

Another failure, I thought. Thank God this time it wasn't all mine.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 11

"Spill the beans." He perched himself on the edge of the bench and leaned forward, an eager look on his face.

"There's nothing to spill, Andrew," I said.

"Ohhhhh, God, eeev'ry time. 'Nothing happened, Andrew. There's nothing to tell, Andrew. I'm a big wuss, Andrew.' Come on, Sean, there's always something to tell your Uncle Andy."

"Okay, Uncle Andy: that girl you so thoughtfully matched me up with is a complete head-case who doesn't want to do anything, including look at me, and has probably already forgotten I exist as we speak."

"Well." He slid off the desk and onto his feet. "No need to be so touchy about it."

"Yeah, well—I'm a bit touchy about being this complete garden slug that no woman wants to touch with tongs."

"Now you're just feeling sorry for yourself."

"No," I said, "when I'm feeling sorry for myself I'll remind you that the whole thing was supposed to be to make Kath jealous, and that she's still the one I want, but I can't have her because she's with Alan and they're both fucking off to Sydney in two days' time."

"Sean! You said 'fucking'. I'm shocked."

"Fuck off, Andrew. I'm not the same guy you knew in high school."

"Well that's good," he said, "because that guy was a complete garden slug that no woman wanted to touch with tongs."

As he walked out of the door, he added, "And when you snap out of it, you'll realise that you're not."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 12

That night at around eight o'clock I was sitting in my bedroom doing some uni work and listening to Jean Michel Jarré's Equinoxe when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," I said, expecting Laurence and some boring exchange about it being my turn to do the dishes.

The door opened, and there stood Sandra.

She was casually dressed, wearing a loose long-sleeved shirt with an open silk vest over the top. Her hair was untied and uncombed, her expression slightly apprehensive.

"Your friend showed me up," she said.

"Oh—right," I managed to say, my mind filling with questions like a sink filling with soap-suds. "Come in. Sit down."

She sat on the spare chair, pulling it up close to mine. I turned mine around to face her.

"I've been thinking," she began, hesitantly, "about what you said last night."

"Yes?" I was still wondering where this was leading.

"I'm sorry. I know I haven't been much fun to be with."

"That's not true," I said, while thinking, Damned right.

"It's taken me a long time to get over a really... bad situation with my last boyfriend. It's taking me a long time."

"That's okay. I understand." Oh, right, like I really understand all about relationships and bust-ups. But I had to say something.

"I do like you, Sean," she said, placing her hands on my knees and sliding them upwards. "And... well..."

She leant her whole body forward and brought her face up to mine... and we kissed.

She never did finish that sentence.

19K image

We kissed, tentatively at first, and then more intently. She brought her arms up and around my body, and I slid my hands around her waist.

Quietly, gradually, we explored each other with our hands and mouths.

"I really thought you weren't interested," I said at last.

I slipped my hands under her shirt and glided them over her smooth back. She did the same to me. We kissed, again and again.

I talked too much. Out of relief, I suppose. It all came tumbling out: my misconceptions about how she was feeling about it all. I felt I could laugh at them now, share them with her. She explained some more, in tantalising glimpses, the pain she'd been caused by some heartless bastard a couple of years before.

We shared our feelings and our bodies for what seemed an age but was more like an hour. My flesh and bones hummed with life in a way they never had; my skin became sensitive to her slightest touch.

"We could..." I began, and then wondered how to raise the subject of the bed that stood barely a metre away.

"No," she said, "not tonight. Not yet." She wasn't ready yet. I could accept that. I barely felt ready myself.

I'd broken the mood. I felt her draw back. Too early, my body protested, but my mind overruled it. "I'd better go," she said, and I acquiesced. We tidied ourselves, tucking in shirts and patting down hair, and rose from our chairs.

I walked her downstairs and out the front door. "I'll call you tomorrow?" I ventured.

"That would be nice," she said, and we kissed for a last time. I stood and watched her drive away in her cute little car.

Laurence stopped me as I was walking back up the stairs. "It's your turn to do the dishes," he said.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 13

So what the hell happens now?

My mind flicked through images like a video-clip at double speed, synapses firing as the neural networks in my brain offered up endless possibilities and combinations. Kath. Sandra. Alan. Andrew. Jennifer. Sandra. Kath.

I had to call Alan and Kath. How could I help them pack the next day? I had to be with Sandra.

I punched the numbers into the phone and sat through four rings. At the other end I heard the click of their answering machine.

A tinny blast of the opening march from Star Wars blared through the receiver. Over the top, Alan's best movie-trailer voice-over intoned, "Kath and Alan are doing battle with the Empire right now in a galaxy far, far away—but if you'd like to help the rebel cause, leave a message after R2D2 makes a tone, and may the Force be with yooooouuu!"

A moment later, a beep. I started talking.

"Hi, guys. Great message. It's Sean, in case you haven't guessed. Um, anyway, something's come up, and it looks like I might not be able to help out tomorrow. Maybe not all day, anyway. I'll let you know. Bye."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 14

I slept fitfully that night. The next morning, after breakfast, I rang Sandra.


"Hi Sandra, it's me. Sean."

"Oh, hi."

"How are you?"

"Um, not too well, I'm afraid. I think I've got the flu."

"Oh." This was a spanner in the works. "I'm sorry to hear that. Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah, but I think I'd better stay in bed today."

"Oh. Right. I was going to see if we could have lunch together or something."

"I'd like to, but I'd really better not."

"Well, okay. I'll call you later, then."


"Right, then. Well—bye."


The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 15

So I could help Kath and Alan after all. I rang them. Two rings, and then I heard that clunk again, followed by the familiar orchestral blast.

"Kath and Alan are doing battle with the Empire right now in a gala—"

Click. "Hello?"

"—xy far, far away—but if you'd like to—"


Click. Clunk.

"Sorry. Hello?"

"Hello, Kath? It's Sean."

"Oh, hi Sean. Sorry about that. It's this stupid answering machine."

"That's okay. I was just calling to say that I can help out today after all."

"Oh, that's good. When are you coming over?"

"Right away if you like."

"Great. We'll see you soon, then."

"Yep, see you soon. Bye."

"Bye, Sean."

It's funny, I thought: Sandra didn't use my name. Whereas Kath did. Huh. I filed it away for future reference, and made my way out to the car.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 16

When I walked in their front door, Alan was taking flattened cardboard boxes and taping them up to hold them in shape. A pile of empty boxes was gradually building up next to him.

"Where'd you get them all?" I asked.

"They're book boxes," he said, "from the Co-op Bookshop at uni. They throw them out in these big skips around the back. Kath and I went round there last night and grabbed a whole stack of them."

"Look what else we found," said Kath, lifting up a giant cardboard cut-out of the cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix, long-time favourites of mine.

"That's great!" I enthused. "Where'd you find that?"

"In the skip," she said. "It's one of those store displays."

"Did you find any others?"

"Only one for some novelist we'd never heard of," said Alan.

"I'd heard of him," corrected Kath.

"Boy, I wish I had one of those," I said, wistfully.

"Well," shrugged Kath, "you could have this one."


"Sure," said Alan, "take it."

31K image

"Aw, shucks," I said, with exaggerated gratitude; "you guys. Thanks a lot."

"And now you can earn it by packing up my CDs."

"Crumbs. It's only a bit of cardboard." I reached over and grudgingly tugged at an empty box—and pulled the entire stack down on top of Alan.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 17

We talked as we worked, joking, laughing, but all with an unspoken undercurrent of sadness—sadness that something was coming to an end. If not our friendship, then at least our chance at having this kind of friendship. They'd be up there, and I'd be down here. The next time we got together it might all be different.

I told them, in the sketchiest of outlines, about me and Sandra, and they were almost too effusive in their congratulations; it was slightly embarrassing. I did feel happy that I was getting somewhere at last, albeit not with the object of my dreams standing a few feet away; but I didn't feel that it was a day for celebrating. Not for the three of us, anyway.

When we knocked off for lunch, Alan read out a new routine to us both. "I wrote it this morning after I got out of the shower," he noted, before clearing his throat and beginning.

"What do you do with those little bits of soap that are left after you've used up the rest? I used to save them up, and when I had enough I'd mould them all together so I'd have this whole extra bar of soap. It's those thrifty Scottish genes in me. It was a bit difficult to mould them together, because they dry out, so you have to soak them for a while, and then they go all soft and slimy and slip away from each other, or else they just disintegrate. Tricky operation. But if you pulled it off, you'd have this handy extra lump of soap.

"But that was the problem. You wouldn't so much as end up with a soap lump as a soap turd. And that's really embarrassing when guests want to use your bathroom. They go to the sink and it looks like some giant soap-eating animal has been in there doing its business. Your mother comes back from the loo and says you really should try feeding the dog Pal instead of Palmolive.

"So I switched to another method. When I was left with the last sliver of the old bar of soap, I'd mould it onto a whole new bar, making this little bump on one side, and a couple of washes later you wouldn't notice. Worked really well.

"But then I had this strange thought. Isn't it possible that nowadays when I end up with the sliver of soap at the end, that sliver contains a tiny trace of the previous sliver of soap? And that previous sliver would've had traces of the sliver before it, and so on. And since I've been doing this for a few years now, it's conceivable that there are still a few soap molecules from three years ago lurking in my present bar of soap.

"The trouble is, now that I've thought of this, I'm really worried about breaking the chain. I'm worried that it'll bring bad luck. Like, if I keep the chain going, I'll get a good job, and a nice house, and I'll have soap for the rest of my life; but if I break the chain, I'll crash my car into a soap factory, and I'll always smell. And this really worries me, because what happens when I move? Do I actually take the old sliver of soap with me to my new house? My girlfriend will think I'm nuts. And what if she throws it out by mistake?

992K mp3

"But it's okay, because I've figured out what to do. What I'm doing is cutting tiny slices off my current bar of soap and sending them to people I know, along with a letter telling them to mould it onto their bar of soap and then send slices of that to ten friends. That way the chain keeps going. I reckon that before long everyone in the world will have received a few molecules of my original bar of soap through this chain.

"And that'll make it so much easier when you're confronted with a dirty, smelly homeless person lying in the gutter. If they're dirty and smelly, they obviously haven't been washing or using any soap. So you can just say to them, 'Look, pal, I'm not giving you any money, because it's your own fault that you're down on your luck: you broke the chain.'"

He looked up, and added, "The End."

We clapped and whistled, and he bowed elaborately to us both.

"I'll make sure I pack the sliver of soap," said Kath.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 6, Bookmark 18

By the end of the day, it was all done. Everything that was theirs was packed away, with some boxes earmarked for the back seat of the car the next day, and some to be sent up by truck when they'd found a place to live. The flat looked bare and lifeless, with cardboard boxes stacked here and there: a warehouse, no longer a home.

"Thanks, Sean," said Kath.

"Yeah, mate," said Alan, "thanks for everything."

"Hey," I said, "that's okay. Any time."

"We're leaving first thing tomorrow," said Kath. "Do you want us to come by and say goodbye?"

"Yeah, well, sure. Of course I do."

We stood around in silence for a moment, not knowing what to say. What are the last rites for such occasions? None of us knew.

1MB mp3

Except Alan.

"Well, that's enough maudlin nonsense," he said, "let's go eat."

And we all went out to a great Thai restaurant, the Phuket Lotus, which Alan insisted on calling the 'Fucket', and ate and drank and laughed until the staff had put all the chairs up onto the tables around us and had turned off half the lights.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7