The Stand-Up

Chapter Seven

I suppose goodbyes were more ominous once. Families would gather at the docks to see their loved ones board a ship to the other side of the world, perhaps never to be seen again. Or the lone explorer would ride out of the last town and into the outback, not knowing whether he'd come home to glory or end up as a makeshift grave in the sand. To say goodbye in those days must have meant something.

Nowadays, it's hardly likely to mean "I'll never see you again", except in the most casual of relationships. The phone and the aeroplane have stolen the true goodbye. The only people we can sincerely farewell now are those who are about to die.

Yet we need to say it and mean it, even if we expect to see these people again. We're not saying goodbye to them; we're saying goodbye to this. To this particular time we had with them; this phase of our moon, this chapter of our book, this instalment of our continuing saga. A goodbye is the closing of a door on what was, not on what might be.

When I farewelled Kath and Alan outside my flat the next morning, I knew none of this. When I promised to keep in touch and come and visit, when I waved goodbye as they drove off, it was all in a light-hearted spirit, in the belief that this was only a temporary parting. That much was true: I was to see them again, and there was to be another chapter to our book. But there would never be another chance to say goodbye to this chapter; no chance to say "Goodbye" and not just "See you later". No full stop, even before a new sentence; just three dots, trailing off...

Maybe this is all a touch too earnest. I was just going to describe our parting, describe the scene, crack a joke about the Enema-Mobile sagging onto its springs with the weight of their gear. But whenever I think of that moment, I think of an opportunity missed. And that saddens me.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 1 - Rainclouds

Half an hour after they left, it started to rain.

It was still early in the morning, and I was shuffling around in my dressing gown preparing a hearty breakfast of toast and black coffee because I couldn't be stuffed going down to the shops for some milk. The light in the flat dimmed as the clouds gathered, until I was munching dry toast with Vegemite in virtual darkness, locating my coffee mug with only my sense of touch. Then the rain began: a few spatters at first, followed by a constant drumming on the windows and walls. Through the window I could see it hammering onto the roof and bonnet of my car. Why doesn't rain ever wash cars?, I wondered. You'd think with all the detergent we flush into the rivers that some of it would end up in the clouds and have a useful side-effect. But then with acid rain it's a wonder our cars don't dissolve. Now that would be poetic justice.

I'd been thinking about this, and Kath, and Alan, and Sydney, when suddenly I remembered Sandra. I was going to call her today.

With uncharacteristic ease, I picked up the phone and dialled.

"Hello?" came the voice from the other end.

"Hello, Sandra? It's Sean."

"Oh. Hi."

"How's your cold?"

"Better, thanks."

"That's good. Say, I was wondering if you'd like to get together tonight?"

"I'm afraid I can't tonight. I have to go to this family thing at my parents' place."

"Oh. Okay. How about tomorrow?"

"Um... I'm not sure if that's such a good idea."

What? My mind screeched to a halt, shifted into reverse, and backed up a hundred yards. "What do you mean? You're not getting cold feet, are you?"

"Um... maybe."

"Why? What's wrong?"

"I just think we should take it easy for a while. Just try being friends."

One day, I swear, I'm going to write my autobiography and title it Let's Just Be Friends. I'll get some vanity press to run off five hundred copies and send a copy to every girl who's ever said that to me.

But without a copy of this still-nonexistent classic to hand, I was momentarily lost for words. I pressed on, determined not to succumb to my meeker instincts for once. "I thought we'd moved beyond that," I insisted. "What about the other night?"

"I'm not sure that was really right for me," she replied.

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What do you mean? You're the one who came to me! I sighed an exasperated breath. "Well," I said, "I meant what I said the other day about looking for more than that. And I still do."

"I just don't know if I'm looking for more than that."

Suddenly, I ran out of steam. It was all too much. I didn't know how to bring her around; hell, I didn't even know what had brought her round the other night. "Well," I muttered, defeatedly, "when you know, call me back."

And we ended it there.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 2

But I couldn't let it end there. What was this? Now I'm supposed to lose everything? Kath, Alan, and my one glimmer of hope for getting some kind of enjoyment out of life, all at once?

I couldn't do it. I couldn't just sit there. I'd be waiting all weekend, all week, maybe all month, for her to call—I couldn't stand that. I had to do something to decide the matter, once and for all.

I got dressed, and drove over to Campbell to confront her.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 3

Ten minutes later I pulled up in Sandra's driveway, keeping the car running for a moment after I'd brought it to a halt. The wipers slooshed water from the windscreen as they swished back and forth, their rubber blades gliding over the glass in a soothing rhythm. I paused for a significant while, then turned off the engine and removed the key. As I opened the door, fat droplets of rain angled towards the driver's seat and pelted my clothes.

I trotted through the puddles to the door of the house, and rang the bell. By the time someone answered, a soggy cap of hair had flattened onto my scalp.

"Hello?" said a tracksuit-clad, dull-haired, gum-chewing girl. The sight of her momentarily stopped me in my tracks. It was the girl from Coles. Huh! Somehow it made sense, in a cosmic kind of way.

She examined me with a critical eye. "You're the guy who Eftpossed the single bottle of Coke," she said.

"That's right," I answered brightly. "Can I see Sandra, please?"

She considered this for a moment, as if waiting for a till's readout to say "Transaction Approved"; then responded, "Yeah, orright," and closed the door in my face.

I waited. I contemplated the rivulets that trickled down my neck. Another five minutes of this, I surmised, and pneumonia must surely result.

The door opened. Sandra peered out at me. "Oh," she said, as if she'd expected it would be me. "Hello." A pause. "You'd better come in."

I resisted the urge to shake myself off like a wet dog. Instead I dripped a trail through the house as I followed Sandra to her room.

She waved me to a chair, then sat down on her bed, bunching her legs in front of her and tying them up with her arms. Her eyes looked everywhere but at me.

"I don't know why you bothered to come over," she said.

I was beginning to wonder myself. The girl from Thursday night sure wasn't to be found in this room. This was the Miss Conviviality I'd encountered first off, minus the bounce.

But I felt I owed it to myself to try to win her back.

So I tried. I tried everything I knew, which wasn't much. I wheedled, I cajoled, I urged, pressed and coaxed. I all but begged, and I came close to that.

I told her more about myself, leaving out the unflattering parts. That left a good five percent of the whole from which to fashion a lure. My basic kindness was the hook; my sense of loyalty and devotion were the coloured feathers and beads; my warmth and friendship made a nylon line ready to take a hundred-pound strain. The less attractive features of my person and personality I left aside, wriggling like worms in a tin of bait.

"I'm not looking for some big heavy commitment," I explained. I'm just in it for the sex. "I just want us to have fun."

Unfortunately, Sandra's ideas about fun approached the monastic. She found me too persistent, and (to my amazement) too physical. When I took her by the hand at the movies the other night, she said, it was like I wanted to own her. Own her? I could hardly believe it. I'd thought I was being painfully slow in making my move, when it turns out she hadn't wanted me to make any. As for the other night, she said that she'd been going out with her last boyfriend for three months before anything like that had happened with him. Why did I want to take things so fast?

It was around then that I sensed a crevasse open up between us, a chasm of philosophical differences on questions of the heart. As I considered taking a long run-up to jump over it, it creaked and cracked and widened even further.

She'd obviously been sizing up this chasm for some time. Now, given this new information about her attitudes, I could judge it for myself. I had no hope of clearing it. Suddenly, there was no reason for me to be there. As far as I was concerned, she could stand there, teetering on the edge. If she fell in, I wouldn't be around to rescue her.

"Well then," I said. "I guess that's that." And I stood up, preparing to leave.

She watched me, as one anxiously watches Jehovah's Witnesses through a crack in the curtains as they walk away from your unanswered door.

"Well," I said again, filling in the pauses where her words should have been. "I guess I... won't... see you round."

She got up off the bed, saying, "I'll see you out."

I walked back the way I'd come in. Sandra followed silently. As I stepped outside, she shielded herself behind the front door and virtually pushed me out with it as she closed it, saying only, "Goodbye."

The rain welcomed me back to the grey light of morning.

"Goodbye," I said, staring at the door. I lingered a moment, then turned and tromped to my car.

Goodbye to that brief chapter.

In next week's instalment, Sean continues to make a prize Hereford idiot of himself.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 4

As September rolled around, the labs began to empty and honours students made themselves scarce. I wasn't to see Ken more than once or twice after that, and God knows if I'll see him ever again. As for Andrew...

I saw Andrew the week after Kath and Alan left and Sandra bowed out of my life. We bumped into each other in transit in the honours room.

"So much for Jennifer," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"It's over," he snorted. Then added, with a laugh, "There you go, you're in with a chance now."

"Yeah, right." It occurred to me that I hadn't told Andrew about Sandra—about our brief on again, off again affair. It occurred to me, too, that I didn't want to. The last he'd heard, it was all over between the two of us—let it stay at that.

Instead I asked him about Jennifer. "How come it's over?"

He shrugged. "Irreconcilable differences."

"You were only going out for a couple of weeks."

"Oh well. It was fun. Love 'em and leave 'em, that's what I say."

Another philosophical chasm. They were opening up on all sides, leaving me standing alone on a pillar made of sand.

"Doesn't it get to you, never finding anyone you can be with for longer than a fortnight?"

"I've had girlfriends who've lasted longer than that."

"You know."

"Yeah, well." He truly seemed to be indifferent to the whole thing. "That's not what I'm after. I dunno, maybe one day I'll want to settle down and all that bullshit, but right now..."

I shook my head. "I just couldn't stand it. The insecurity."

"Look who's talking!" He grinned, then dropped into a po-face when he saw my reaction. "Sorry." He smiled again. "You worry too much, Sean. You want security—you don't get that straight away. It comes later. If you go up to a girl thinking you're gonna marry her, you'll get so uptight about it that you scare her off. I've seen you do it."

"I just can't..."—I wanted to defend myself, but I couldn't find the words—"I can't treat them like they're nothing."

"You think that's what I do?" He was still smiling, but now with flint in his eyes, ready to take up this challenge. "I don't think women are nothing. It's the game—it's the game that's nothing. The moves you make, the flirting, it's all bullshit. But that's how you play the game, and that's how you win. You win them, and they win you. If I thought they were nothing, I wouldn't even play."

"That's the difference between you and me. I can't treat it like a game."

"Why not?"

"If it's a game, then... then nobody taught me the rules. It's like rugby. Nobody ever taught me the rules of rugby, and I always got creamed, and I never knew what I was doing. That wasn't a game to me. Games are supposed to be fun."

"But this isn't a game where someone teaches you the rules. It's not Phys. Ed. You learn the rules by playing."

"But how can I play when they're all better than me?"

That rocked him. "You think they're all better than you?"

"Well," I back-pedalled, "not all of them..."

"No," said Andrew, "It's true. You think that all women are better than you are."

I stared at the floor, not knowing what to say.

"Sean," he said, "take a look at yourself. You're not that bad, for Chrissakes. And take a look at the girls you know. They're not that good. They're just people, like you. They don't know all the rules either, just like you."

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My cheeks burned red, but I kept listening.

"Don't treat every woman you meet like she's some unattainable goddess. She's just a human being. Don't assume she doesn't want you. Just try your luck and see where it goes. What's the worst that can happen?"

Probably, a giant eagle snatches me up in its claws and carries me to the edge of the world and drops me off, to fall for a thousand years until I land in a pit of boiling lead and fry for all eternity. Admittedly, this isn't likely to happen when I try cracking onto some girl at a party. But sometimes it feels like it has.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 5

The next week I had a postcard from Alan and Kath. On the picture side, a giant koala climbed the Centrepoint Tower like King Kong. On the flip-side, Kath had written:

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Dear Sean,

Here we are in you-know-where living with Alan's disgusting friend Wayne. I can't believe he's paying for this place—it feels like a squat. But considering the rents up here, that's no surprise. It may take longer to find our own place than we'd planned.

Alan's performing soon at the Harold Park Hotel. You should come and visit. I hope things are going well with honours and Sandra. Love, Kath and Alan.

In a P.S. she added Wayne's phone number. I gave them a call that evening, saying how about a visit the following week.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 6

My car badly needed a service and tune before I tried taking it anywhere further than the local Woolworths, so I booked it into a mechanic's in Braddon. The ad in the phone book caught my eye (its cartoon was less pathetic than most Yellow Pages efforts), and the price they quoted me was reasonably inoffensive. Their workshop was a different matter. I couldn't even find it at first, tucked away between a bike shop and an Indian restaurant. It sat at the end of an alleyway, a cave with stalactites of steel and stalagmites of grease, inhabited by overalled troglodytes with beards straight out of Tolkien. "Crawford, service and tune?" asked the Dwarven King. I handed over the keys and hurried off, not wanting to watch them drag out the anvils and start hammering away at my single most valuable possession.

I wandered over to Civic, where I strolled around for the best part of the morning, lingering for too long in the bookshops and Impact Records. Then it was over to uni to faff around in the library, and from there back to Braddon, where I asked what the damage was. I meant in terms of money, but the Dwarven King took it literally. "Your water-pump is stuffed," he told me.

That'll be a hundred gold pieces then, I wanted to say. Instead I meekly asked, "Can you fix it?"

"Yeah, but we'll have to wait for a new one. It has to come down from Mordor." (All right, so he really said Sydney.)

I couldn't risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with an overheated engine. So I waited two days for the parts to come down from Sydney to go into my car so that I could get into my car and go up to Sydney. There's some kind of symmetry there, but after shelling out a few hundred bucks for repairs I was in no mood to contemplate the order that underlies our seemingly random existence.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 7

Finally, on a bright September morning, I climbed into my car and set off for Sydney. I turned left onto Northbourne and gradually picked up speed, sixty, seventy, eighty kilometres an hour, then onto the Federal Highway and a hundred. The last traces of Canberra passed away—the signs pointing off to the northern suburbs, the lonely drive-in, the last-chance-for-expensive-ACT-petrol service station. A sign adorned by a waratah welcomed me to New South Wales, where Speed Cameras Operate and if you're lucky they'll let you drive at a hundred and ten. If you're unlucky, they remind you, you'll end up as fishpaste, spread over the front of an oncoming truck: a few signs with actual car-bodies stuck to them are dotted along the roadside to ram the point home. Happy motoring.

Driving on the Federal and Hume highways to Sydney has a mesmerising effect. The landscape features the occasional patch of bush and frequent grass-covered hills without ever managing to look interesting. Instead, the road takes over: lanes and lanes of it, spreading across your field of vision until your eyes are half-filled with tarmac and half-filled with sky. Clouds, when you're lucky enough to get them, take on a whole new interest, as do the cars coming from the other direction. I didn't know there were that many blue Holdens in Australia. Forty-seven, to be precise. (Some of them could have been Fords, so I won't swear to it.)

The road stretches on, not straight, but straight enough that it makes no difference. You start the trip with both hands on the wheel and arms outstretched, and by Collector you're back to one hand resting on the bottom and making minor adjustments every few minutes.

You Are Getting Sleepy... and then a 3-D snuff sign jerks you back to consciousness. "Rest. Revive. Survive," orders another sign, and you promise that the next pull-off you see, you will.

The hypnotic effect is so powerful that by the time you reach Goulburn you have an unaccountable urge to see, just one last time before you die, the glory that is The Big Merino. You drive along the approaching streets with a sense of mounting excitement—Is it still there? They haven't torn it down to make way for a McDonalds? Please, let it still be there!—and turn the last corner to see the prize: a hundred-foot-high concrete sheep looming over a gift shop and service station, its folded mane of fleece lifting its head proudly into the blue spring sky, its horns poised to ram its critics into submission.

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In a breathtaking touch, the gift shop nestles under the belly of the Merino, inviting the cold and tired traveller into its woolly warmth. Inside the hollowed shell of the beast lies an ovine emporium of tasteful gifts, crying out to be purchased. Just think, you've been driving all those hours without the opportunity to buy—a sheep-shaped tea cosy! A miniature golden Big Merino pencil-sharpener! A T-shirt emblazoned with its noble visage, which you can wear to prove to your friends and the whole world that you not only saw this magnificent work of art, but ventured inside it and sampled its wares!... It is truly a wonder of our age.

I bought an "I've Seen the Big Merino" postcard and sent it to my brother in Perth.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 8

If the trip seems to take hours, that's because it does. Three hours after leaving Canberra's inner north, you start to reach Sydney's outer suburbs. Don't get too excited, though—you're not there yet.

The effect is startling: on one side of a hill, there's the empty grassland you've come to expect, and on the other, Civilisation, in the form of rows of immaculate brick houses with gardens of undisturbed dirt. Sydney grows like an aging gum, forever adding rings, and right now you're peeling off the bark. The iron wood at the core is barely more than a smudge of smog on the horizon.

The highway gains an extra lane and the traffic increases, presumably because everyone living in the outer suburbs wants to get the hell away from them. The passing buildings age, a year every mile, gathering up trees, gardens and grime in the process. Cut-price petrol stations fight for space along the road to Liverpool. Liverpool's shopfronts and narrow streets make you think you're getting there at last, but you're only half-way.

You turn onto Parramatta Road and the traffic sweeps you inexorably east, through the leafy suburbs of the inner west and into the dust and stone of the city. You had sight of the Centrepoint Tower, but now you've lost it. Some dickhead in a Monaro is giving you the finger and laughing at your ACT plates. You pass the outer wall of Sydney University, and suddenly you're losing track of where you are: you've got your Gregory's open on the seat beside you, but the maps keep changing scale. The traffic pushes you along, but you need time to watch the street signs.

There's the park, and those are the lights you have to turn at: beyond them the restrained Victorian buildings of the university give way to the skyscrapers of the city, towering over their surroundings like termite mounds in the desert. Miss this turn and you'll be sucked into the middle of them, where the cars will crawl over you like hungry white ants.

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You make the turn, and the next, and now you're cutting across the east-west traffic flow, the traffic swift despite the narrowness of the streets...

And bingo. Before there's time for another paragraph of purple prose, you're in Surry Hills.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 9

On the approach to the inner city I'd been worrying more and more about finding a parking space, so I was relieved to find one on the very street I was looking for. I carefully reverse-parked; then drove back out and carefully reverse-parked again. I got it on the third try.

It was just before three, and the narrow terrace front of number seventeen gave no hint of movement within. I knocked on the door, peering through its stained-glass window to look for signs of life. Nothing.

Great. What do I do now, I thought. I knocked again, at length. Still no answer.

I sat down in the doorway of the flat, wondering what to do. They said they'd be home, but they obviously weren't. I had no idea where to find them. And nowhere else to go.

A department store catalogue stuck out of the mail slot in the door. I yanked it out and flipped through the pages, snorting a quiet laugh at the cutesy kids with unnaturally tidy hair modelling the latest in cartoon-character tracksuit tops.

I stared out at the street. A pigeon fluttered down from the roofs opposite, the quick flaps of its wings humming like a walking pair of corduroys. It settled on the roof of a VW and puffed out its chest.

"Broccoli. Broccoli," it cooed.

I stood up, scaring it away. One last try, I'd decided. I knocked on the door as loudly and for as long as I could. I was still knocking when Kath opened it.

She was wrapped in a large towel, her hair shining wet. Water dripped from her skin.

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"Sean! Come in! Sorry, I just got out of the shower."

"So I see." I stepped into the hallway and shuffled through to the lounge.

"The hot-water system's tiny," said Kath, following me in. "If I want a proper shower I have to have it in the afternoon."

The lounge room was spartan and grey. Cigarette burns dotted the carpet; an overflowing ashtray sat on the coffee table. The couch was a boxy black vinyl-covered affair, with striped fabric cushions—also specked with burns. The remains of a TV dinner rested on one arm. The only new-looking object in the room was the television, a large Trinitron with a VCR in the cabinet underneath.

"You might want to come through to the kitchen," said Kath, "it's less disgusting. Wayne's a complete pig."

"What's that smell?"

She wrinkled her nose. "That's his dog."

I followed her through to the kitchen at the back. It was hardly a model of hygiene either, but at least it was less dingy than the lounge. We sat at the kitchen table, Kath adjusting her towel so it wouldn't fall off. One quick yank at that tuck on her chest, I realised, and she'd be completely naked. My mind played out a brief fantasy of Kath sitting there, naked: her skin still damp and flushed pink from the heat of the shower, her hair at its blackest against her pale face and blood-red lips...

The questioning tilt of her head snapped me back to reality.

"Was the drive up okay?" she asked.

"Oh. Sure. Fine."

"We ran out of petrol three miles out of Marulan," she said. "Alan had to walk all the way there and all the way back. It took us all day to get here."

"Really?" We both laughed.

"So you're still stuck here with this friend of Alan's," I said, stating the obvious.

"Yes," said Kath, "although Alan now swears that he wasn't that good a friend, and that he didn't know it would be this bad. Wayne seems quite happy that we're here. His last flatmate had just left, and we're giving him some money for rent because we're staying so long. I'm worried that he's going to ask us to make it permanent."

"You can't find anything?"

"Nothing cheap. The rental market in the inner city is terrible. Unless you want to share with three other people, there's nothing even remotely decent."

"Maybe you'll have to try further out."

"Yes, we may have to," she sighed. "Anything would be better than staying here with Wayne. He's a real creep. Shambling around the place with that horrible dog of his. He's always sneaking up on you. That's why I have my shower in the afternoon, because I know he's out."

"Sounds like a great bloke," I said, being sarcastic.

"It's awful. We're on edge all the time, Alan and I. It's affecting our relationship."

My antennae pricked up. "Your relationship? What do you mean?"

"We're sniping at each other. Over stupid things, trivial things. It's because he's always around. I tell you, Sean, I have to get out of here. We have to."

This Wayne bloke was shaping up in my mind's eye as a cross between a full-back, a serial killer and a garbage truck. A real sweetheart; I hadn't even met him, and now I didn't want to.

But every clod has a silver lining. He's affecting their relationship...

Maybe I should stay a week.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 10

Kath was off getting dressed, and I was bringing my bag in from the car, when Alan came in.

"Sean," he hailed me. "You stole my parking space."

"Oh. Sorry. What do you want me to do?"

"Well, you can leave it there for now. If we clear out for a few hours and try again later there should be room for me."

"Where have you been?"

"Over at UNSW, seeing someone in the Union. I've lined up a gig for Wednesday night."

"Great! That's pretty short notice, isn't it?"

"Someone had just pulled out, so they gave it to me. How was your trip?"

"Oh, good. Fine."

"Ours was terrible. We ran out of petrol five miles out of Marulan. I had to walk all the way there and all the way back."

"Yeah, Kath told me."

"Oh. Right. Where is she?"

"Upstairs getting changed." (I omitted any details about showers and towel-wrapped naked Kaths answering the front door; no need to complicate matters.)

Right on cue, Kath came walking down the stairs, combing her hair as she went.

"Hi, beauty," she said.

"Hey there, cutie," said Alan. "Hey, they're putting me on on Wednesday."

"That's great, darling."

"Hey," said Alan, "how about we all head over to Bondi for a few hours, get something to eat, and then we can go straight over to the Harold Park?"

"Sounds fine to me," said Kath.


"Okay beauty. I mean Alan."

"You just watch it, mate," he growled, with a grin.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 11

I'd never seen Bondi before. What a terrible thing for an Australian to admit. But then I've never seen Ayer's Rock either.

When I mentioned this to Alan, he said, "That's nothing. I had a friend from London who'd never been to Westminster Cathedral."

"I've never been to St Paul's," said Kath.

"You've never been to St Paul's?" cried Alan. "Why didn't you tell me? I would have taken you there. It's wonderful."

"All right, Mr Fodor," I challenged him, "where's somewhere you haven't been?"

"Well—I haven't been to Scandinavia. I'd like to go there."

"Scandinavia," I snorted, "right. Fjords."

"Saunas," sniffed Kath.

"Legoland," I chuckled.

"I haven't been to Siberia," said Kath, raising the stakes.

"Yeah," I chorused, "and I haven't been to Guatemala."

"Oh yeah?" said Alan, in a tone of righteous indignation. "Guatemala, eh? Well I haven't been to Tristan de Cunha—so stuff the lottayers."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 12

Bondi sneaks up on you. You're driving along a typical Sydney city street, when suddenly the sea looms up ahead, and the road arcs left and sweeps you down to the waterfront. A row of cafés and shops sits a fair way back from the beach, separated from it by the road and a string of parking areas. We pulled into one of those and walked down to the beach, over the sea-wall and onto the sand. I kept expecting a junkie's needle to jab into my shoe.

"Much better beaches up north," said Alan, surveying the scene. "Less people."

A sizeable crowd milled about, braving the stiff breeze that occasionally whipped up a stinging spray of sand. Not far from us, a model in a bikini with her back to the sea was posing for an oily-looking photographer. I think it was for a jewellery catalogue, unless she was planning to take a dip with a few thousand dollars' worth strung around her neck.

Bondi model

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We walked along the beach to the north, the sand squeaking under our feet. The seaweed-coated rocks at the far end cradled a few sun-warmed rock pools, but not much life. Non-humans must give Bondi and its sewage outfalls a wide berth. Except for the sharks, I suppose. Maybe they like it.

Back at one of the fast-food joints, we bought some fried chicken parts and a pile of chips, and went back down to the beach to sit and eat them. The late afternoon sun warmed our backs as we stared out at the glittering blue.

A seagull flapped over to us and settled on the sand a few feet away. Soon a few of his mates joined him. "Carrrr," called one, then another.

"That's Seagull for 'chip'," said Alan.

"I'm surprised they'll eat chips," said Kath.

"It's quite amazing," Alan observed. "They've completely adapted to a high-chip diet."

"Maybe it's the salt," I suggested. "They think they're a kind of fish."

"What, the seagulls, or the chips?"

"The chips. Maybe there's a Potato Fish that looks and tastes just like a chip, and the seagulls get confused."

"Ahh, but then why do they also eat chicken?" He tore off a piece of wing, and tossed it into the air. The orderly group of gulls exploded into a flurry of feathers, squawking and squabbling over who should win the prize.

"Maybe there's a Chicken Fish too."

"Or maybe they're cannibals," suggested Kath.

"But then they also eat Choc-Wedges," said Alan. "And they're not salty. Or birds."

"That's where my theory comes unstuck."

"Unless there's an Ice-Cream Fish that lives in fresh water," noted Kath.

"I think we've established," said Alan, "that seagulls eat Food. When we toss them Food, they mistake it for Food, like the well-known Food Fish, and so they eat it, never realising that this Food will give them high cholesterol and a heart-attack at the age of thirty-five."

"I suppose they'd be quite happy to die at thirty-five," said Kath, "when normally they'd live to about three."

"Well, yes. There is that. Actually, that may explain the attraction for chips."

The seagulls tracked our movements with their beady eyes, waiting for their next moment to pounce.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 13

"I see why Australians like the beach," Kath said, staring through her sunglasses at the water. "You can just lie back and forget about everything." She leant back and stretched out, kicking the sand with her shoes.

"Unfortunately," said Alan, "everything's still there when you leave."

"Yeah," she said, "like Wayne."

"Look, I'm sorry about Wayne, okay?"

Unpleasantness. I tried to head it off at the pass. "Where do you know him from?" I asked Alan.

"Uni," he said. "James Cook, in Townsville. He was a lot different then."

"I should hope so!" said Kath, from beneath the hat she'd pulled over her face.

"Mostly because he was a serious dope-fiend in those days," said Alan. He stared off at the sea, a thoughtful look on his face. "Now I can see that the dope masked his true personality," he said. "By giving him one."

"If you're trying to scare me away, you're doing a really good job."

"Ahh, don't worry. He won't bite."

"His dog might," said Kath.

"He's just a bit taciturn. A bit dour."

"A bit what?" I asked.

"Dour. D-O-U-R. Do-er."

"Oh. Dow-er."

"No, do-er."

"I thought it was dow-er."

"Kath," he said, "is it do-er or dow-er?"

"It's M-I-S-E-R-A-B-L-E."

"Yeah. A bit miseráble." He considered this for a moment. "I'm feeling a bit miseráble myself."


"Oh, just the whole comedy thing."

"What's wrong, beauty?" asked Kath, taking the hat off her face. "You've got two gigs this week."

"Yeah," said Alan, "open night at the Harold Park and a fill-in spot at a uni bar."

"Open night?" I asked.

"They throw the mike open to whoever wants a go. Amateurs and pros. They want to see what I can do before they give me anything decent."

"You have to start somewhere," said Kath, sitting up.

"I guess."

We sat through a long pause from Alan.

"The trouble is," he said, "if this doesn't work out, then I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

The Stand-Up, Chapter 7, Bookmark 14

The Harold Park Hotel relegates its comedy shows to a room out the back, curtained off at the doorway with a white-shirted bouncer on guard to collect entry charges. The main bar is given over to beer and the Sky sports channel: the owners clearly have their priorities straight.

The room is quite large, though, with rows of seats up the back, a few round tables with chairs along the front. Kath and I sat in a row near the middle, on the left.

The show was about what you'd expect. A procession of stand-ups of variable quality took to the stage, linked by a clearly more experienced comedian (who wasn't too bad). About halfway through the show he made the announcement we'd been waiting for.

"Our next act is a guy from Canberra."

A groan from the Sydney crowd. Not a good sign.

"Now, most of us think of Canberra as kind of a neatly-landscaped cemetery where politicians go to die..."

Laughter. I slumped into my seat, hoping no one would notice my obviously Canberran attributes.

"... but this man is here to win our vote with his policy of fun. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Minister for Jokes, the right honourable Alan Seward!"

The Stand-Up, Chapter 8