The Stand-Up

Chapter Eight

Alan walked on stage and grabbed hold of the mike stand, fiddling with it to adjust it to his height. After a moment of this he gave up and took the microphone off the stand. Holding it close to his mouth, he scanned the audience with a gaze full of control and command.

"A big hand for Nick," he said, referring to the M.C., "for letting everyone know that I'm from fucking Canberra."

A good laugh at this.

"Actually, I'm not from Canberra originally. I'm from Queensland. And it really annoys me when I go home and see all my old mates, and they go, 'Canberra—phwooor, mate, phwooor—Canberra, eh.'" (This accompanied by several lewd gestures.)

"Because if you didn't know, Canberra is famous for a bit more than its politicians. X-rated videos, that's what it means to my old mates. They spend a fortune sending away to post office boxes in Fyshwick. That's where all the adult video stores and brothels are.

"One of my friends came down to visit once, and he wanted me to drive him out there. So I did. What he didn't know was that Fyshwick is also where Canberra's furniture stores are located. When he sees this big sign saying 'Freedom', he thinks it's some kind of jokey name for an S&M parlour. So he makes me stop, and we go inside. It's this great big warehouse, with king-size beds spread out across the floor. And he turns to me and says, 'Christ, Alan, can't they allow a bloke a bit of privacy?'"

"Anyway," said Alan, as the laughter died down, "that's enough about Canberra. 'That's enough about me—let's talk about you'... Anyone here from Chatswood?"

A few cries in the affirmative from the audience.

"Surry Hills?"

A few more.


None. Modest laughter.

"Good, because I wanted to take the piss out of someone and I figured there wouldn't be any Mongolians here... It's terrible, isn't it? You can't make fun of other countries any more without treading on somebody's toes. Americans are the worst. You even say 'How about those Americans?' and fifteen of them have hit you with a class-action suit.

"Of course, if you piss off a Mongolian they're liable to get a horde together and go on the rampage, which is why I thought I'd check that tonight's audience was Mongol-free. So if your name's Genghis, I'll just ask you to leave right now, thanks.

"But you can see why they'd want to go on the rampage in Mongolia. I've been doing a bit of reading about it. I like reading those 'Lonely Planet' guides—you know, the travel guidebooks. They cover all the really obscure places that nobody goes to: 'Lonely Planet's Guide to Tristan de Cunha and the South Atlantic Ocean'. I don't actually want to go to these places, I just like reading about how bad they are so that I can feel more relaxed about not having enough money to travel. 'The main street of Tristan-de-Cunha-ville comes alive on the national holiday of March the Third, when the locals all come out and sing and dance and make love in the streets. Unfortunately, at every other time of the year it's a complete shit-hole. The town boasts three bars, one supermarket, and its own goat.'

"But Mongolia's not quite that bad. As long as you like grass. I don't mean..."—he mimed taking a toke—"I mean..."—and then mimed pushing a mower. "You know, actual grass. Because apparently, that's what Mongolia is. One long sweeping plain covered in grass. So I reckon, no wonder—no bloody wonder that Genghis Khan invaded Europe. He must have been bored out of his mind. Just imagine him, sitting there, downing a few ales with the horde, staring out at the grass. All of them just..."—nodding, rhythmically—"sitting there, going... 'Whyyyyyy are we waaaaaiting...'"

"For a start, they would have been dying to check into some decent accommodation. Because they lived in grasslands, right, and basically what they did was camp. They all lived in these big tents called 'yurts'. Now, it's bad enough to be living in something called a yurt—but you know what camping's like. The first couple of days are fine, but by the third or fourth day you're really getting sick of tinned ravioli, and the milk's gone off, and you'd kill for a decent bath. So I reckon Genghis and the boys, as soon as they reached Zurich it'd be straight into the four-star hotels and into the jacuzzi. They'd be raiding the little bottles of Jim Beam in the fridge... they'd be stuffing the towels into their bags... and they'd all be going, 'There's no way you're getting me back into a yurt. No way.'

"And the food. They would have been starving for some decent grub. I mean, did you know, right, that an actual Mongolian delicacy is yoghurt—with tadpoles in it.

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"Now, really, could you eat tadpoles? Live ones? Because they'd have to be alive—how do you kill a whole mess of tadpoles? Do you pick up each one by the tail and bash it to death on the edge of the kitchen table? Of course not. So: live tadpoles. Just imagine eating some yoghurt and having it wriggling down your throat. 'My goodness, the fruity chunks are certainly sprightly today!' I wonder if they've got those tubs of yoghurt where the yoghurt and the bits of fruit are in separate compartments and you mix them together. You open it up and there's this little wriggling corner of tadpoles in it. Unless, of course, it's past its use-by date, and they've all turned into frogs and go hopping all over your kitchen.

"Ahh, good old Mongolia. No, really—I'd like to go there some day. I'd like to visit their capital city, Ulan Bator. It's twinned with the city of Incu Bator... or the city of Masta Bator. It's got a great sound to it, hasn't it—Ulan Bator. That'd be a really good name for a rock star. Ulan Bator and the Yurts."

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"Talk about the magic of the theatre," Alan moaned, as Kath and I sat with him at the bar after the show. "To get backstage you have to pick your way through some grotty room full of junk, and when you get there it's just this space at the bottom of a staircase in front of a glass door that leads outside. Anyone who walks past that side of the hotel can see you."

"The comedy aquarium," I said.

"Exactly. The comedy aquarium. Good one. Everyone swims around this confined space like fish, taking turns to peek at the audience through this tiny hole in the set."

"Not the most salubrious of surroundings," said Kath.

"Ahh, but the smell of greasepaint, darlings; the glare of the footlights. It's maaaahvelous." Alan sipped at his beer, and his expression soured. "The smell of the rotten tomatoes," he said. "The glare of the audience."

"Go on," I countered, "they weren't that bad."

"A bit muted, weren't they? They only laughed when I was talking about brothels."

"And the part about killing tadpoles," added Kath.

"Sex and violence," I shrugged. "It's what the public wants."

"Maybe you should try bringing your guitar along next time," Kath suggested.

"Maybe." He took another sip, then turned to face her. The look on his face was one I hadn't seen on Alan before: vulnerability.

"So you thought they didn't like me?"

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When Alan walked through the front door of Wayne's flat that evening, all hell broke loose.

"Wahr, wahr, rahr, rahr, rahf!"

"Oh Jesus—"

He doubled back and slammed the door. The muffled barks continued, causing the door to resonate like a loudspeaker. (A sub-woofer, perhaps.)

"That dog hates me," Alan gasped.

("Mahr, mahr, bahr, bahr!")

"That dog hates everybody," said Kath.

"Where's Wayne?" Alan stepped over to the lounge room window and peered through a gap in the curtains. "He's watching TV, the bastard." He rapped his knuckles on the glass. "Wayne!" he shouted. "Tie up your bloody dog so we can come in!"

He paused a moment, then waved. "Yes, it's us! Tie up the dog!"

"Is he doing it?" asked Kath.

"Yeah, it looks like it."

The barking stopped, and soon afterwards the door opened. "Alan," said a short-cropped, blue-eyed, wooden-faced bloke. "Kath. Hi. It's all right, you can come in now."

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We stepped through the doorway, gingerly. The dog, a hulking Alsatian (strange, I'd expected a Rottweiler), sat by the foot of the stairs, with a leash tied to the banisters and a muzzle over his snout. He growled at us.

"Grrrrrrrrr, Rrrrrrrr, Rrrrrrrr."

"Dog!" Wayne snapped at him. "Shut it."

The dog quietened his growl to the level of background noise.

"Wayne," said Alan, "this is our friend Sean that I was telling you about."

"Oh yeah," sniffed Wayne, looking supremely uninterested. "G'day." He took the hand I was holding out and crunched it in his fist. More of a hand-break than a hand-shake.

I stifled the urge to yelp, worried it would set the dog off again. "What's his name?" I asked Wayne, as politely as I could manage.


Dog? What sort of person calls their dog "Dog"? Did he buy him at the supermarket in a Black and Gold package labelled "Dog, in Syrup"? I began to feel a touch of sympathy for the beast.

"... rrrrrrrr, grrrrrr, rrrrrr..."

Only a touch, mind you.

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Including the rooms upstairs, the flat was actually quite big: three bedrooms. No wonder Wayne was keen for new flatmates; it must have been costing him a few bob, even allowing for its dilapidated state. I wondered where he got the money. Maybe he went around threatening to set Dog on people unless they coughed up all of their dough.

Kath and Alan were camped out in the room recently vacated by Wayne's last flatmate, so I was stuck with the floor of the third bedroom, a storage space jammed full of cardboard boxes and ratty furniture. I tried to peek into the boxes, but most of them were taped shut. One had been opened, though, so I lifted the flap. Inside was a stack of magazines: Modern Bride, circa 1985.

This was one weird bloke.

I'd brought a lilo and a sleeping bag. The lilo took ages to pump up, but at least took the edge off the floorboards. I lay my sleeping bag on it and, after stripping down to my underwear, crawled inside.

I was still wide awake, on a buzz from the evening's excitement. I felt like reading something. There was no lamp, so I'd have to read by the naked forty-watt bulb that hung from the ceiling. Worse, I'd forgotten to bring a book with me.

There was always the box of magazines...

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Please, I thought, anything but Modern Bride...

Halfway down, the Modern Brides turned into Playboys. You little devil, Wayne, I chuckled to myself. Purely in the interests of sociological inquiry, I flipped through a copy. In the dim light of the forty-watt bulb, Miss February looked a lot like Kath...

I didn't get much sleep that night.

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By the time I stumbled downstairs the next morning, Kath and Alan were finishing off their cups of coffee. Wayne and Dog were, fortunately, nowhere to be seen.

"Wake up, little Susie," Alan greeted me.

"Morning, Sean," said Kath.

"Morning," I murmured. I sat at the table. "Tell me," I said, "is that the most repellent bathroom you have ever seen, or what?"

"No," said Alan, "that would have to be Kingsford-Smith International Airport, when I was coming back from England. That was when I marched into the one free cubicle only to see that the toilet had been clogged up with paper and was overflowing with sewage..."

"Alan!" objected Kath. "Please!"

"... and when I went out," he happily continued, "this plumber was waiting for me. For a moment I was worried he'd think that I'd done it."

"Thank you for sharing that with me," I said. "So what I want to know is, are those Wayne's hairs in the bathtub?"

"No," said Alan, "they're the dog's. He washed it this morning."

"He washed it in the bath?"

"Yeah, well I had a load on, so he couldn't use the washing machine."


"You have cleaned out the hair, haven't you Sean?" asked Kath.

"Well, yeah, as much as I could with my foot while I was taking a shower. I was lucky it didn't bite me."

"Thank goodness," she said. "Dog hair is disgusting. Yuck!" She clawed her fingers and grimaced in exaggerated disgust.

"You don't like dogs then, Kath?"

"I don't like dogs," she confirmed.

"I've always been a bit of a cat person myself," I said.

"I like cats," Kath agreed.

Alan piped up at this point. "I had a cat once."

"Oh yes?" I said.

"The world's toughest tomcat. He actually got hit by a car and survived."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding. Broke his back, paralysed his tail so that it just dragged along behind him, but he could still walk."

"Wow. That's some moggie."

"You never told me about this," said Kath.

"Didn't I? Sorry. The funniest part was that the accident also paralysed his bladder, so that if you left him on your bed after he'd had too much to drink it would all leak out."

"Al-an!" Kath laughed. "That's awful!"

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"Oh my God," I said, grinning with disbelief. "So what did you do?"

"Well, before I went to bed I'd take him outside and hold him over the bushes and squeeze."

The mental picture was too much to bear. I just about fell off my chair. "Breathe, Sean, breathe," laughed Kath, as the tears rolled down my reddening face.

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"So, Sean," inquired Alan, "what are your plans for today?"

I admitted that I didn't have any, apart from making my way into the city and looking at a few shops.

"How about we all meet up in the afternoon and catch a movie?" he asked.

Seeing it was almost afternoon already, this didn't leave much time for window-shopping and general sightseeing, but I'd have a few days for that yet. I agreed to meet Kath and Alan at four o'clock outside the Town Hall.

On the map, Surry Hills appeared to be within walking distance of the city centre. I asked Alan whether this was true, and he said yes it was, if you're keen; as I was feeling less than my keenest I decided to catch a train in from Central. The Gregory's proved deceptive on this point, too: Central Railway Station was a fair hike away.

I found it, though, and successfully boarded a train. It slid under the city and emerged towards Circular Quay, where it slowed to a stop beneath the Cahill Expressway. The elevated road formed a symbolic barrier between the tourist quarter on Sydney Cove and the skyscrapers.

I assumed my ascribed role as tourist and joined the milling crowd along the ferry wharves at the Quay. The buskers who were entertaining them weren't entertaining me, so I strolled off in the direction of the Opera House.

How to describe the shells of the Sydney Opera House? It's all been said. They're giant sails, echoing the yachts on the water. They're seashells. They're copulating turtles. They're big white meringues—a pavlova pavilion. They're a stroke of architectural genius.

I stood at the bottom of the steps at the forecourt and began to climb. As I passed by the smiling tourists having their photographs taken by their friends below, I realised the pointlessness of my climb. There was no one to photograph me once I reached the top.

Halfway up, I sat down and looked around. The trees of the Botanic Gardens and Government House up ahead. The termite mounds of the city over to the right, behind the Quay. Past the Quay, the Rocks, a remnant of the original Sydney that now houses boutiques and gift shops. And past those, when I turned right around, the Opera House's sibling landmark, the Harbour Bridge. They're right—it does look like a coat-hanger.

It's all quite beautiful from this vantage-point, if you're inclined to get sentimental about these things. It's the square mile of scenery that says "Australia" to the whole world. Yet most Sydney-siders live out of sight of it, a lot of them would hardly ever see it, and as for the rest of us... well, come to that, I've never seen Westminster Cathedral either.

Suddenly, I felt like more of an interloper than the tourists walking past me. I was sitting in the middle of the Opera House steps, spoiling their polaroid snapshots. This was their picture postcard, not mine. My bit of Australia was a bunch of suburban streets in Canberra that have never formed the backdrop to anyone's home video.

In desperate need of a boost to my flagging patriotic spirits, I went in search of a shop selling meat pies with sauce. All I found, though, was a McDonalds.

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After a long hike up George Street, punctuated by visits to assorted shops along the way, I wound up at the Town Hall at around three-thirty. I killed half an hour in the Queen Victoria Building, until the incongruity of its 1990s commercial glitter in a renovated hundred-year-old shell exceeded the limits of my tolerance. Back outside, I waited by a statue of Queen Vic with a pigeon perched on its head. Sculptors could save a lot of trouble, I mused, by supplying statues with ready-made bronze pigeons already cast onto them. Then the real pigeons would sit on top of the statue pigeons and crap on those instead of the heads of the famous. The statues would still get covered in shit, but at least there'd be some justice in terms of who copped it.

Eventually I saw Alan and Kath coming out of the entrance to the underground train station on the other side of the street. I waved and crossed over to meet them.

We walked down the hill together to the cinemas and sized up what was on offer. A load of rubbish in the big cinemas, so we went over the road and caught an art flick at the Dendy.

As we sat and watched it, I snuck an occasional sideways glance at Kath, sitting between Alan and me. The reflected light from the screen cast coloured shadows across her face, flickering and glinting off her staring eyes. At one point she turned her gaze towards me; I quickly flicked my eyes forward. When I looked back, she was whispering something to Alan.

His arm was around her. Mine were dangling uselessly by my sides, their frustrated hands locking and unlocking in my lap.

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We stopped at a moderately up-market pizza place on the way back into Surry Hills, and took a table to eat our family-size Napolitana.

"So how's life on the dole?" I asked Alan.

"Oh well," he shrugged, "y'know."

"I don't know, actually. That's why I asked."

"Well, it's just... life. I don't suppose I've really got a feel for it yet. I haven't been on it for long. Only started getting payments last week, because of the waiting period."

"What's that?"

"The six-week waiting period at the end of full-time study."

"They don't pay you for six weeks," Kath elaborated.

"That's pretty rough. Why not?"

"I think it's to weed out the weak and sickly," said Alan. "Kill off the ones who can't go six weeks without food."

"It's very social Darwinist," said Kath.

"Yeah," said Alan, "they only take the best when it comes to Job Search Allowance."

"Hmm. So how have you been getting it when you're not really looking for work?"

Alan bristled slightly at this. "Well, strictly speaking I am looking for work, as a stand-up comedian. It's not like I'm not doing anything."

"Yeah, but I imagine that wouldn't look too good on the forms."

"No, you're right," he conceded. "But I have been applying for jobs lately. Well okay, not really applying for them. I'm just contacting employers so I can put two names down on the form each fortnight."

"You were applying for them more seriously before though," said Kath. "You were applying to lots of places while you were studying."

"Yeah," he laughed, a hint of bitterness creeping in. "I'd spend all day writing this big long application saying how wonderful I am, how well-qualified I am for the job, all of that stuff. Then I'd send it off, and two months later I'd get this letter back saying, 'Dear Mr Seward, we have received your application and are sorry to inform you that we don't believe a word of it. You couldn't lie your way through a bed-testing marathon. We have given the job to an echidna. Please do not contact us again in this lifetime.'"

Our pizza arrived. We all took a slice, and Alan continued between bites.

"So now I just check the ads in the paper, ring a couple of employers and ask them to send me the selection criteria. Just to cover myself. The other day I ran into a complete nong on the other end of the line. Some bloke down the local burger joint. He said, 'Selection criteria? What's that?' I said, 'It's the list of things you have to be able to do to get the job.' 'What you have to do? Cook hamburgers, mate. What's your problem?' 'No problem, I just need the list to show the DSS.' 'Oh, all right. What's your name and address?' So I spelled it out for him. 'A-l-a-n... no, n... Seward, S-e-w-a-r-d. Alan Seward.' Then I get this letter addressed to Mr Alien Sewer:"—he pretended to read it in a halting, barely-literate voice—"'Dear Mr Sewer, the selection criteria for the job of Hamburger Technician, First Class, is as follows: 1. Cook hamburgers; 2. Cook chips; 3. Sling a bit of beetroot and fried onions on a bun, and place hamburger on top; 4. Wrap in old newspaper and serve.'"

We all laughed, and I said, "Really?"

Alan raised an eyebrow and went, "Yeah, right. Of course not, y'goose; it just listed ordinary stuff. Boy, I'd love to show that one to the Case Management Officer down at the DSS. 'Yessss, Alien, I think where you've gone wrong with this application is you haven't fully addressed the selection criteria. You see, number three: you've said that as a former Junior Frisbee Champion you are able to sling the beetroot, but you haven't shown if you can operate a can-opener to get it out of the tin. And you haven't said a word about the fried onions.'"

We laughed some more, while I picked the olives off my next slice of pizza.

"The ones I wonder about," I said, "are the high-profile jobs where it isn't obvious what qualifications you need. Like Governor-General. How do you get to be Governor-General? 'Must be able to cut ribbons; own scissors an advantage'?"

"Hmm," smiled Alan, munching on a bite. "That's not bad. What about talk-show hosts? 'Must be able to read autocues and speak English. Matriculation not essential.'"

"What about the Queen?" suggested Kath.

"Yeah," I said, "'Must be first-in-line for the throne.'

"'Breathing an advantage'," added Alan.

"Okay," she said, looking to challenge everyone, "what about Darth Vader?"

Alan loved that one. "That's great. What would that be? Evil Henchperson to the Emperor of the Galaxy, Level Six?"

"Yeah," I said, picking up the ball, "imagine the selection criteria for that one: 'Must possess own lightsabre and be able to use the Force; fully-fledged Jedi powers an advantage.'"

Alan ran with it. "'The successful applicant for this position will be ruthless in their devotion to the Dark Side, yet able to undergo a complete conversion to Good by the end of the trilogy.'"

"'The Empire is an equal opportunity employer'," said Kath, "'asthmatics are encouraged to apply.'"

That killed us. We raised a toast to Kath and declared her the winner.

"Actually," continued Alan, "I'd love to go up to an employer and, when they ask what my qualifications are, say to them, 'Jedi Knight.' They'd go, 'Excuse me?', and I'd say, 'I'm a Jedi Knight. I have complete mastery over the Force that flows through every living thing in the universe.' Then when they say, 'I don't understand,' I'd say, 'That... is why you fail.'"

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"I liked that one about 'That is why you fail'," I said later, as we waited for our gelati. "That's my favourite line from The Empire Strikes Back."

"I love Yoda," said Alan. "An alien with the voice and the wisdom of Grover. Irresistible."

"So anyway," Kath said to him, "it looks like you won't qualify for the black cape and helmet."

"Ahh, that's okay," said Alan. "All I want to know is what you have to do to become a famous comedian in this town."

"Well, you don't have to do anything," I suggested. "Look at Paul Hogan. He started out as a painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge."

"Hmm," pondered Alan. "True. I wonder if there's any work going down there at the moment."

"If you start painting bridges," Kath protested, "I'm going back to England."

"No, you're right." He shook his head. "Stupid idea." He paused a moment, looking inwards. Then he cast his eyes upwards in thought. "What I need is a gimmick. Like being a bridge-painter, but with less actual painting involved."

"Alan Seward, the guitar-playing, Cambridge graduate, plane-flying comic," I said. "That's a pretty good gimmick."

"Too complicated," he countered. "Australians don't like Renaissance types. They'd be cutting me down to size before you can say 'Tall Poppy Syndrome'."

"What about just the flying?" suggested Kath. "Alan Seward, the aerial comic. You could spell out your jokes with sky-writing."

"Hmm. That's not as strange as it sounds."

"Yes it is," laughed Kath. "I was joking."

"No, really," he insisted. "Aerial comedy. Flying. There's something there. Sky-writing's a bit slow, though."

"You could be a stunt-pilot," I said, recalling our swoops and plunges in the skies over Canberra several weeks back.

"Or just do a stunt in a plane." His eyes lit up. "Remember that guy who landed his plane in Red Square? Matthias somebody. That was a good stunt. He got heaps of exposure."

"He also got arrested and thrown in jail," Kath reminded him.

"Yeah, but that was in Russia. They get all worked up about Germans invading their country. The point is, it made him famous."

"Yeah," I said, "Matthias somebody, the famous comedian."

"You may laugh," he began...

"Thank you. I will."

"... but the point is, you have to do something to get noticed these days. You can't just sit around waiting to be discovered. There's too much competition."

"Yes," said Kath, "but you can't fly to Red Square from here. You can't afford the petrol."

"I know," he said defensively, "I just meant you have to do something. Something like land your plane in Red Square."

"You have to get noticed?" I asked.

"You have to get noticed," he nodded.

I shrugged. "Just tell your jokes," I said. "I noticed them."

He tilted his head and looked sideways at me, making me feel rather awkward as I raised my first spoonful of cassata to my mouth.

"Yes, Sean," he said, "but let's face it. You're no regular kind of guy."

I spent the rest of the meal wondering whether this was a compliment or a criticism.

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Kath took Alan's arm as we stepped out into the street, hooking hers through it. Then she held her left arm out to me, like another link in the chain. The action caught me by surprise, but I threaded my arm through the offered gap. Arm-in-arm we walked down the street, the three of us; "My two best friends," said Kath.

My legs were tripping and stumbling along according to their own directions, because right then my mind was floating and far away.

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That night, I was lying in the darkness of Wayne's storage room when I thought I heard something. Through the wall; the sound of voices. It was Kath and Alan talking, or... something.

I couldn't quite make it out, and suddenly was grabbed by an intense desire to know what they were saying. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and felt my way to the door.

Out in the hall, a pale light filtered through the front door window and reached up the stairs. It was enough to let me find their door easily and quietly. I carefully held my head up to it.

I don't know what I was expecting to hear, but I wasn't really that surprised. Just... jealous? Not really. Frustrated? Maybe a bit. Lonely?

That was it.

I was just padding back to my door, when—


The sound of Dog's bark exploded in the silence like a gunshot on a tundra plain.

"Fuck!" I yelped, covering my mouth reflexively when I realised I'd given myself away. No time to regret it, though—Dog was scrabbling up the stairs.

I was on the other side of the door so fast I must have teleported there. But then I was faced with the problem of closing the door, and quickly, without slamming it. I eased it shut, feeling it click just as Dog started scratching on the other side. He gave that up after a moment, but kept barking.

I stood in the darkness, listening to his barking and to the blood beating in my ears.

Then Wayne must have come out into the hall, because I clearly heard him yell at Dog to shurrup and fuckoffoudofit. The dog calmed down and bumped back downstairs.

Silence returned; the sound of my heart-beat subsided. I couldn't hear anything coming from the next room now.

Then, just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard Alan say, "Goodnight, Sean."

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