The Stand-Up

Chapter Nine

The next night we gathered in the Union building at the University of New South Wales out at Kensington. Kath and me in the audience, Alan up on stage. It's a big university, so there was a decent crowd, which would have been encouraging except that a lot of them were obviously there for the drinking.

Alan was incredibly nervous beforehand. He must have ducked off to the gents at least three times. I'd never seen him like that.

At the appointed hour he walked on stage, one man and his guitar, and began to chisel out a space for his words from the solid block of crowd chatter filling the bar. It took a few moments, but eventually he caught most people's attention. I sat back to enjoy his act, some of it old, some of it new.

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"I dunno about you but I'm starving. Had hardly anything to eat all day. There was bugger-all in the fridge at home. Well, bugger-all of mine. Lots of my flatmates' food: a few cans of beer, a slimy lettuce, an old tub of yoghurt, and some of those jars where you can't quite figure out what's in them but it looks a bit too much like bits of brain suspended in formaldehyde, thank you. I tell you though, I was tempted. But then I thought, no, no, no, that just wouldn't be right. Eat your flatmates' food and the next thing you know you're borrowing their clothes, using their toothbrushes and sleeping with their girlfriends, and boy, if one of them caught you using their toothbrush...

"So I tried the freezer compartment instead. There wasn't much there except sausages, which meant either I whip up a quick sausage creation ('snag a la nothing else'), or just suck on an ice cube. So I took the easy way out and ate one of the bits of brain in formaldehyde. Wasn't too bad. And then, while I was munching away... I saw... IT.

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"A frozen—hamster. Just sitting there... its tiny paws trapped in a poignant suspended twitching motion. Its cute whiskers frosted with dots of ice. Its... its teensy pink little nosey... turned a pale shade of blue... oh my God it was horrible!

"After I'd recovered from the shock I noticed a label attached to its stiff little leggy-weg. 'Ben's hamster. Do not pinch.' Like it was cheese or something! I was furious! So I stormed out of the kitchen and up to the bathroom where Ben was busy brushing his teeth (with my toothbrush, I noticed), and confronted him with the frozen rodent.

"'Is this your handiwork?' I demanded.

"'Oh,' he said, 'You found Hambone.'

"'Hambone?' I said. 'You mean Bill's pet hamster Hambone? Why's it say "Ben's hamster"?'

"'Well,' he said, 'I put him there.'

"Aha, I thought. I had him. 'You mean to say, you killed Hambone in cold blood and hid him in the freezer? You bastard.'

"'Well,' he said, '"killed" is a bit of a strong term. He was actually still alive when I put him in there.'

"Well! This was more than I could take. I stood there—trembling with rage—while he tried to explain.

"'You see,' he said, 'I could tell that Hambone's days were numbered. Hambone had contracted nososis, a rare hamster complaint which turns the cute little nosey-wose a pale shade of blue and causes a horrible and agonising death. So I figured there was only one possible way of saving him. Cryogenics.'

"'You may laugh!' he said. 'But it's an option favoured by more and more people these days. Walt Disney, for example. And—well, lots of people. They pay their cool million and get wrapped up in foil, and into the liquid nitrogen they go. Gas mark four for twenty minutes. And one day, when science has learned how to resurrect snap-frozen corpses, they'll be up and about before you can say, "We could use a few more rich dead people around the place." And with them, little Hambone, proudly nibbling his way through twenty-first century lettuce. All because I, Ben, had the foresight to plonk him into the Kelvinator!'

"Well, how could I argue with that. He'd obviously gone completely bonkers. Only a mind capable of dreaming up Goofy would have agreed with him. But I still had right on my side. 'That's as maybe,' I said, 'but aren't you forgetting one small detail? Hambone was Bill's hamster. Maybe Bill didn't want him in with the icy-poles!'

"Well! That seemed to touch a nerve! 'Ah... yes,' he said, '... Bill. There's... something I've been meaning to tell you about Bill.'

"'Oh, yeah?' I said.

"'Well, you know how he hasn't been around for a day or two...'


"'Well y'see, I'd noticed his nose had been turning blue, and well, it seemed the only sensible option...'

"'Oh my God! You put Bill in the freezer?'

"'Well,' he said, 'Sort of. I tried to, but he wouldn't fit—not even when I'd... cut him up a bit. So I just put his brain in.'

"By now I just could not believe it: 'You put Bill's brain in the freezer?'

"'No,' he said, 'I put it into some jars of formaldehyde, and left it in the fridge.'"

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After this diverting tale Alan sang a song, accompanied by a lively bluegrass tune on the guitar. It was all about unusual scientific words like "formaldehyde" and "endocrinosis", which led neatly into his next routine.

"I like words. Do you like words? Words are good, aren't they. After all, where would we be without them?"

He paused for a moment... and then dragged it out, looking around the audience, drawing out a few laughs at his silence.

Then, exaggeratedly, shrugged.

"I like words that actually are what they mean. Like 'short'. 'Short' is a short word, isn't it. And 'polysyllabic'. Po, ly, syll, ab, ic. It's a polysyllabic word. There are a fair few like that. 'English' is an English word. 'Fifteen-lettered' is a fifteen-lettered word... (I'll give you a moment to count those up...)"

"How about 'melodious'? I think that's a rather melodious word. Mel-ooohhh-dious."

"But my favourite has to be 'abstruse'. Anyone know what that means? No? It means 'difficult to understand'."

"I like reading about where words come from, how the language has changed, all of that stuff. Plurals are interesting—the way most of them end with 's', but there are some that don't, like 'children'. Apparently, way, way back, before about, oh, Tuesday, most plurals used to end in '-en'. People would say, 'You see those housen? With all the treen around them? Well, take the children over there and let them play with the oxen.'

"But then people started using 's' instead. And they did some strange things. Like they started using 'chicken' to mean one bird instead of two. It used to be a plural. So you can imagine how confusing it must have been for people:

"'You see that chicken over there?'

"'Chicken? There's only one of them. There's one chick.'

"'No, there's one chicken.'

"'One... chicken.'

"'Yes. Well, I want you take it over there and put it with the other chickens.'


"Totally confusing for the poor old buggeren. It's as if we suddenly started talking about dogses and catses. Or hippopotamuseses."

"And then there are the plurals like 'mice' and 'geese' and 'feet', where the actual form of the word is changed to show that it's plural. There used to be a lot more of those. My favourite is 'goat'—if they hadn't started using esses for that one back in the Middle Ages, we'd be talking about flocks of geat.

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"You'd have little kids making the same kinds of mistakes they make with 'sheep'—'look at the sheeps, Daddy!'—but they'd be going 'look at the goats, Daddy! Look at the goats!' And their dads would be saying, 'Not goats, son, it's geat—look at the geat.'

"What I want to know is, how do these things change? How do you go from one chick, two chicken, to one chicken, two chickens? How do you go from geat to goats? Who decides these things? I mean, if we started talking about hippopotamuseses in serious conversation, people would think we were insane. So that's why I've got this theory that language change is actually driven by mad people. Once upon a time these crazy village idiot types went around saying, 'Hello, chickens; hello, goats,' and everyone laughed at them and said, 'What a bunch of dickheaden.' But it was like those really annoying songs on the radio that you can't get out of your head—they couldn't forget it. And so they started saying 'chickens' just as a joke, just trying to laugh it off. '"Chickens"—heh heh heh.' And then they forgot that it was a joke, and before long they were using it all the time.

"And you see this even today. Like, normal human beings say that something will 'have an impact on' something else: 'This tax will have an impact on our lifestyle.' Or, at a pinch, 'This tax will impact upon our lifestyle.' But now, some strange, abnormal human beings are starting to say, 'This tax will impact our lifestyle.' Which makes me think of those big machines in junkyards which impact the cars by squashing them flat. This tax will press our lifestyle into a flat sheet of metal.

"Well, if, like me, you find this annoying, just remember that it's mad people who are saying this. They're completely nuts. So you don't have to be polite to them when you hear them say it. Don't smile and nod and act as if you understand exactly what they mean. Just go up to them and yell, 'Stop being so abstruse, you great bunch of geat!'"

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I loved it. The audience didn't. Alan had been met by polite, uncomfortable laughter throughout, and went off to a modest round of applause.

We met him at the bar afterwards.

"I dunno," he said, "it's so dispiriting. They won't take any risks." (Meaning the audience.) "I thought these were uni students. They don't want me, they want Rodney Rude."

"It wasn't that bad," said Kath, doing her best to give him a boost. "You got a few laughs."

"Oh, sure. When I handed them the most obvious lines on a plate, and mugged like a lunatic. I want a better reaction than that. A bit of sophistication; a bit of willingness to be taken by surprise. Unless I can go onstage and get a laugh by spontaneously saying 'Burma!', I'm not happy."

I interrupted him. "Isn't that a bit Python?"

Alan's whole expression moved from one of despair to one of exasperation. "Jesus, Sean, don't you start! Monty Python, Monty Python... if a comedian does anything even vaguely surreal, it's called 'Pythonesque', like some put-down, as if being compared to the greats is an insult."

"I didn't mean it like that."

"Yeah, but can't you see how boring it gets? It used to drive us mad in Footlights. Even there, it was all you'd hear. We had to make jokes about it in self-defence. People don't have any other standard of comparison for comedy, so everything becomes 'a bit Python'. But for Chrissakes, they don't go calling every five-hundred-page novel 'Dickensian' or every three-act play 'a bit Shakespeare'!"

Alan sat there seething for a moment. I ventured an apology. "Sorry, Alan—I didn't mean to set you off..."

"Ahh, that's okay. Pet peeve of mine. Forget it."

"Okay... but what I was starting to say was, didn't Graham Chapman say 'Burma!' in one of the Python sketches?"

Alan sat back and smiled sheepishly.

"Fuck off."

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"Sometimes I wonder why you do it," I said, as I finished off my beer.

"Do what?" asked Alan.

"This. Comedy. Sometimes I wonder why you bother."

"What do you mean? Are you saying I'm no good?"

"No, no, that's not it. Just that—well, you're obviously smart. You've been to Cambridge and all. You could probably do lots of things; serious things. Things that could probably make you lots of money, too."

"Yes, Alan," chuckled Kath, "why don't you make lots of money? That sounds like a good idea."

Alan laughed, and started to sing, "I don't care too—much for money..."

"Seriously," I said. "Why not become an academic or something? When, like you said, it's so hard to find sophisticated audiences for comedy?"

Alan sighed. "Yeah," he said, "there's some truth to that. Sometimes I think I really would like to try and be an academic or whatever, writing about serious subjects, solving big problems, making a difference in the world. Be the next John Locke or Thomas Paine."

"So why not?"

"Well, it's not that easy. It's not easy getting an academic job these days, for one thing. But it's also like I'm torn. It's like I have this big struggle going on inside me, these two forces pulling in opposite directions. Be serious, be a good academic, do something worthwhile. And then, be unserious, be a comedian, make people laugh."

"That's worthwhile," said Kath. "Making people laugh is a serious business."

"That's what I tell myself," Alan said. "I just wish everyone else saw it that way. It's not like you can't address serious issues through comedy. Lots of people do."

"What," I asked, "like Ben Elton?"

"Yeah, well, Ben Elton, sure. I don't necessarily mean those kinds of clear-cut political issues, though; although that's fine, that's good. I mean more that if you analyse any comedy you'll find that it's addressing some issue or other, even if it's just, I don't know, the role of the mother-in-law in Western society. I mean, comedy is about putting ordinary things together in extraordinary ways; combining subjects that on their own make sense but together make nonsense; which makes you laugh, hopefully. But then the way you combine them has its own sense, its own logic. It says something."

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I pondered on this. "I can see your point," I said. "But can't that be rather limiting? You have to strip away all of the context of the original subjects before you put them together. So people can't see it when they're laughing at the joke... If I draw a cartoon about a man on a desert island I don't figure I'm saying anything special; I'm just making a joke."

"Well, perhaps in some subtle way you are saying something special, perhaps even in ways you don't see. And that's not the only cartoon people would see, remember; it blends in with all the others they've seen, and helps to form all sorts of patterns of ideas."

"Pretty strange ideas, though."

"Yes, but sometimes they're what's needed. I mean, I take your point about it being limiting, but they're whole different limits than the ones at work in academia, or 'serious' literature, or whatever. And they're just as important. Laughter is just as important as fear, or shame, or any of the other emotions addressed by 'serious' writers. It's—I mean, working towards the ideal society and the ideal world is all well and good, but what are we supposed to do when we get there? Sit around looking depressed? And what are we supposed to do while we're getting there? What if we never get there? Laughter and happiness is the whole point, isn't it? Isn't that our goal?"

"Well..." I fell silent, then started again. "Well, yes, I can see that. But you've just been complaining about how your audiences aren't laughing enough, how they aren't 'getting it'. Why is that? Aren't you trying to push them into areas where they just don't want to go? What good is it if people are only prepared to laugh at a certain kind of humour?"

"Oh, I don't know," he sighed. "I think it's just this country. You know, ockerism, anti-intellectualism, tall poppy stuff. Things were a lot easier in England."

"Oh, come on," I objected. "I don't buy that. That's elitist bullshit."

"What's wrong with elitism? You're part of an elite. You go to university."

"Yeah, but it doesn't make me think I'm better than anyone else. I've just had different kinds of opportunities."

"Yes, the opportunities available to an intellectual elite."

What was this—me, disagreeing with Alan? Unheard of. But I couldn't let it pass. "I'm sorry Alan, I just don't agree. I think Australians are a lot smarter than you're giving them credit for. Besides, this is your country. This is where you live. Surely it's better to try to engage people here, on their own terms, and then see where it takes you?"

"But where does that leave my own terms?" Alan said. "Aren't I allowed to define what I want to do?"

"Well, maybe, but then you can't really expect anyone else to care."

"I think Sean has a point, Alan," said Kath. "You say things are easier in England, but you're thinking of Cambridge. Cambridge isn't England. There are plenty of people in England who are just like most of the people living here, except for their accents. They may not like what you do, either."

"Yes," he said, "but at least there's enough people there who would."

"I wouldn't be so sure," said Kath.

"What is this, Pick on Alan day?"

"Of course not. You know what I mean."

Alan shrugged, and changed the subject.

"Anyway, Sean," he said, "you'd at least agree that I'd have bugger-all chance of reaching anybody if I stayed in academia. People may or may not like my comedy, but they sure as hell wouldn't read my Ph.D. thesis."

"Yeah, but then who reads John Paine these days either?"

"Tom Paine. And John Locke."

"Whatever. What I mean is it's not just who you reach, it's what you say. I do see your point, though. About comedy and all."

"I'm glad to hear it."

"But I still think that if you are working in comedy, you have to try and talk to everyone on their own terms."

"Bread and circuses, you mean."

"If that's what it takes, sure."

"Hmm," he nodded.

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We hung around the bar for a while, but eventually headed off.

"Sometimes I do wonder why I bother," Alan said, as he pointed the Enema-Mobile back along Anzac Parade. "It is bloody hard when you know they'd rather be at home watching Fast Forward."

"So why don't you try and break into television?" I asked.

"That's what I'm trying to do!" he said. "Well, part of me is. The other part doesn't want anything to do with it."

"What do you mean?"

"It just feeds on itself," he explained. "Television comedy in this country is all just one big running commentary on television. Parodies of advertisements, parodies of TV shows, parodies of old sitcoms even. It's so safe and predictable and boring and easy."

"Yeah, but some of it's good."

"Oh, yeah; maybe—at a pinch. But anyone can do it. Everyone does do it. You're sitting at home watching the telly, some awful commercial comes on for the fourteenth time that night, you start to take the piss out of it. So why do you need some sketch comedy show to do the same thing for you?"

"Well, I suppose so."

"D'you see what I mean? They're easy laughs. There's no challenge to it. It's much harder to come up with something out of the blue."

"So that's what you try to do."

"Well, yes, I try. I try to think, if someone saw this in twenty years' time, would they still be able to get it? That's the test. Comedy's ephemeral enough as it is without limiting its shelf-life even more. I mean, some of the stuff you see has a shorter use-by date than milk."

"But that can be good sometimes, surely. What about political cartooning, for example?"

Alan sighed. "I don't know. Perhaps you're right. There's a place for it, I suppose. It's just not what I want to do. And so many people are doing it that there ends up being no room for anyone else."

"On television, you mean?"

"Television; anywhere." He paused as we sat at a set of traffic lights. "These days I wonder if anyone wants anything different. Maybe I'm just wasting my time; maybe I'm just talking to myself up there on stage."

"No you're not, darling," said Kath. "You just have to get the right people to pay attention. People who can get you somewhere."

"Yeah, but that's the big question, isn't it. How do I get them to pay attention?"

The change of the lights turned it into a rhetorical question. Alan pumped the accelerator and the car jumped forward.

Back at Wayne's place, we thought about catching some late-night crap on the tube, but on seeing Wayne and Dog ensconced in the lounge room we decided to turn in for the night.

In the swirling, feverish dreamscape of sleep, I dreamt once again about Kath.

At first I thought I was awake. I was standing outside the storage room, where a pale grey light engulfed everything. Then, as I descended the stairs, Dog came up to me and licked my naked leg. Something strange about that, I thought, before moving on. I passed through the doorway into the kitchen, which had become a long hallway. At the end of it sat Kath.

I walked up to her, my footsteps keeping time with the dripping of a tap somewhere in the background. She was dressed in black, like she was at that party in Aranda. I sat down on the chair next to her. She was looking at her lap, a shadow across her face. I reached out and touched her hair, combing my fingers through it, tracing my fingertips down her scalp.

She turned her head towards me. Her glistening lips mouthed something, but I couldn't hear the word. Then she said it again, louder; my name.

We stood up, rising in unison, our bodies turning towards one another. She pressed against me; I could feel her weight, her warmth. I stroked her sable hair; held her cheeks in my palms and kissed her crimson lips.

She took hold of my arms, firmly, and pushed me downwards, down to the ground. She straddled her legs around my pale waist and leaned her body over mine...

And, with a modest curtain drawn over what came next, I woke up, sweating, my temples throbbing; cursing, aching, wishing, wanting this to be over, somehow, anyhow. Get her into my bed or get her out of my head; either was fine, but something had to change or I was going to fucking die.

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She was alone in the kitchen when I went down the next morning.

"Where's Alan?" I asked.

"He's upstairs," she said, "writing something for tonight."


"Didn't he tell you? Apparently there's a club out at Petersham that does an amateur night on Thursdays. Someone told him about it the other night at the Harold Park. He thought he might as well give it a try."

"Boy, it's all systems go this week. Lucky I came up when I did."

"I think he feels he's wasting time if he isn't doing something," Kath said. She stroked her fringe away from her eyes. "Actually, I'm getting a bit worried about him."


"He's getting kind of frustrated and... well... angry. Haven't you noticed?"

"I guess. Are you sure he's that bad?"

"He's normally pretty relaxed. I haven't seen him like this before."

I waited for her to continue, but she was thinking to herself.

The subject needed changing, but I couldn't think of what to say. Then, out of nowhere, I heard myself ask her, "How did you two meet?"

"How did we meet?" Kath's eyes flicked up to meet mine; her expression brightened. "Are you sure you want to hear it?" she asked. "It's a long story."

"Sure," I nodded, "I'm game."

"Okay. Well—we were both sitting in a little café across the street from my college. I remember he had a moustache at the time, which looked kind of odd. I tend not to like moustaches much, but Alan's wasn't fully grown; more a smudge of hair across his lip, with a little foam fringe from the cappuccino he was drinking. And... he was wearing a white jumper, all loose and floppy, and a college scarf. And on the floor beside his chair he had a big battered sports bag, with a kind of stylised picture on the side, of a kangaroo.

"Anyway, I was sitting there watching him, just casually, when I saw that there was a little girl standing near him, staring at the bag. She can't have been more than four or five. Then she saw him looking at her, and I thought she might run away, but instead she said, 'That's a kangaroo.'

"So Alan said, 'Ye-es'—you know that falling-rising tone that adults use when they're talking to intelligent five-year-olds? That's how he said it. And the little girl thought about this for a while, and then she said, 'My Daddy says that in Australia there are kangaroos jumping all around in the street.'

"Well, I could see Alan calculating his answer to this, like he was getting ready to play a game with her, and he said, 'That's right. People ride them to work.'"

We both laughed. I faltered to a stop after Kath did, as she resumed her story.

"Then the little girl said, 'Gosh. Don't the cars get in the way?' And Alan said, 'Well, we don't have cars in Australia. Only kangaroos. Or you can catch the bus. Except we don't have buses like you have here, either. We use...'—and he thought for a moment, and then he said, 'whales.'

"Well, the little girl knew this was wrong. She said, 'Whales live in the water. They can't go on the road.'

"'Ah,' said Alan, 'but they don't go on the roads. They swim up and down special canals called whale-ways. When you want to catch a whale, you park your kangaroo at the whale-way station, and when the whale comes in, it opens its mouth, and everyone walks inside. Then it swims along to your stop, and opens its mouth again, and you get out there.'"

"Makes perfect sense," I said, smiling.

"She didn't think so. She was thinking about it, obviously weighing it up in her mind, and then she said, 'That's silly.' And Alan said, 'Yes, probably'. And then she said, 'They should ride on its back.'"

Kath laughed at the memory, and I joined her. "And what did he say?" I asked.

"Oh, he just laughed. A sort of big, deep, surprised laugh; you know how he laughs. And then the girl's mother came over from the counter and bundled her away."

"So that's when you met him?"

"Yes. I picked him up, actually."

"Picked him up? What do you mean?"

"Well, I just thought he seemed really nice. The whole thing with the little girl and the whale story was so sweet. So I just got up and walked past his table as if I was heading for the door, and accidentally-on-purpose bumped into it and spilled his coffee."

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"What a dirty trick!"

"Well, it worked. I bought him another one, and one thing led to another, and... here we are." She shrugged, and smiled.

I looked down at the table-top, then back to her.

"You really love him, don't you."

She hesitated for only a moment before answering. "Yes," she said, nodding just slightly. "Yes, I do."

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I was finishing off a slice of cold cardboard toast plastered with peanut butter and honey when Kath suddenly asked me, "Have you been to the Zoo?"

"No," I admitted, "not since I was a kid."

"Oh, you have to see the Zoo. It's really good." Now she was excited by the idea. "Come on, let's see if Alan wants to go."

I followed close behind her as she ran up the stairs and burst through the door to their room.

Far from writing his latest comic opus, Alan was in fact reading the A-K Yellow Pages. When he saw us he closed the book quickly and dropped it to the floor. "What's up, cutie?" he asked Kath.

"We're thinking of going to Taronga," she said breezily. "Want to come?"

"Sorry," said Alan, "I was planning on heading down to Bankstown this afternoon."

"Bankstown? What's at Bankstown?"

"Oh, just—stuff. You'll see."

"Ooo, a surprise! Something for me?" Her face lit up in pretend glee.

Alan laughed. "You'll see, you'll see. It means I'll have to take the car, though."

"That's okay," I said, "I've got mine here, remember."

"Even better," said Kath, "let's take the ferry from Circular Quay."

"Are we going to have time to do all this and still make it out to this Comedy Store place?" I cautioned.

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"How about you catch a train out there and I'll pick you up at the station," suggested Alan. "That way I can go straight there from—from what I'm doing."

That sounded fine. We agreed the time and place where we'd meet, and Kath and I set off for the Zoo.

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The ferry pulled away from the Quay and gradually picked up speed, emerging from the confines of the wharves into the open water of the harbour, where it bumped over the steel-grey waves chopping up the sea. Kath and I stood out on deck under the overcast sky, leaning on the rail and watching the landmarks drift past: the Opera House on Bennelong Point; Fort Denison on its tiny island. The wind blew Kath's hair into a tangled haze in front of her face; I could feel mine going the same way.

After ten minutes, we reached the hillside that's covered by Taronga Zoo. The ferry pulled up at the jetty at the bottom, and we caught a bus up to the main entrance. We stepped out of it into rain. It was bucketing down.

Inside the gates we saw a few people wearing bright yellow plastic ponchos with Taronga logos printed on them, so we followed them back to their source at the souvenir shop and bought a couple, laughing as we pulled them on.

"You look like a custard with a head," chuckled Kath.

We walked all over the Zoo, gradually making our way downhill. We laughed at the orangutans as they climbed up and down their ropes and in and out of a sack. We watched the platypus in the darkness and hush of the nocturnal animals room. After the rain had stopped we watched the seal show, which was fun, and not too degrading for the poor animals: more a demonstration of how they behave in the wild than a test of their ball-balancing skills.

The tigers depressed me the most. They paced back and forth in their cage, panting and growling, like neurotic inmates in a mental institution. I watched them for a long time, reflecting on their fate. It was terrible to think that they might be safer here than in the wild.

As I stood and stared, I felt something touch my cheek. I turned to see what it was, instinctively reaching my hand up to touch where I'd felt it.

Kath had kissed me.

"You looked so sad," she explained.

I smiled; it turned into a grin. "Thanks," I said. "I'm not sad any more."

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The train out to Petersham was one of the last of the old rattlers, a bashed and battered carriage of polished steel with seats of red vinyl. It clattered its way through the back-blocks of Sydney's concrete heart: Redfern, Macdonaldtown, Newtown, Stanmore. Walls of graffiti flashed past in continuous colourful frames. Steam rose from the ground beside the track as the sinking sun dried the soil with its last rays.

The train hissed and squealed to a halt at Petersham, and we got out. Outside the station, Alan was waiting for us.

"Enjoy the critters, did you?" he asked, as we walked to the car.

"Yeah, they were great."

"You should have seen the spider-monkeys," said Kath. "They were so cute."

"Yeah," I said to Alan, "they looked just like you."

"Ha, ha, ha," he said, "Mate." He looked unamused.

The Comedy Store was just up the road, but we stopped first at a small restaurant, where we ate the best Thai food I've ever had. Kath and I told Alan about the zoo, and we all talked about animals, zoos, other things; but Alan's mind seemed to be elsewhere. He was looking vague, distracted.

"It's nothing," he said; "I'm just trying to go over the material for tonight in my head."

But his eyes said otherwise.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 9, Bookmark 10

Yet another darkened room; yet another cloistered club where the air reeked of smoke and perfume and alcohol. Why did Alan seek out these places, I wondered; why did he want to make his life in them? There had to be better working environments, even for a comedian. Where are the open-air comedy gigs?

A couple of guys before him hadn't fared well. It was a tough crowd. The laughter only came when they blew their lines, and then only in painful short bursts. When they left the stage, Alan walked on to complete silence.

"Hmm," he said, "happy audience."

Nothing. Kath and I looked around the room apprehensively.

"Hi, my name's Alan Seward, and I'm an unemployed megalomaniac."

Practically nothing. One or two titters.

"It's tough being a megalomaniac and looking for work; there's too much competition. If Hitler was around right now he'd have a hard time even getting into advertising, let alone politics."

Zero laughs. Even a few mutters of discontent.

Alan was starting to struggle. "What I really want, right... what I really want is something like Darth Vader's job. Now what would that be, I wonder? Evil Henchperson to the Emperor of the Galaxy, Level Eight? And what would the selection criteria be? 'Must possess own lightsabre and be able to use the Force; Jedi powers an advantage.'"

Someone was starting to talk in the front row. Alan pressed on.

"'The successful applicant for this position will be devoted to the Dark Side, yet will undergo a complete conversion to Good by the end of the trilogy. The Empire is an equal opportunity employer; asthmatics are encouraged to apply.'"

The guy was still talking. Alan stopped and glared down at him. "Excuse me," he said. "Excuse me... look, you're not even listening."

"Entertain me!" said the interrupter.

Normally Alan could shrug this kind of stuff off. Now he looked unnerved by it.

"If you shut up," he said, "I'll try to."

"Fat chance," said the critic, but he kept quiet for a bit.

"Actually," started Alan, "what I'd really like to be able to do is go up to an employer and give my qualifications as..." He stopped; then held the bridge of his nose. "Sorry."

"Alan," Kath whispered to herself, "what on earth is happening?"

He tried again. "When they ask what my qualifications are, I'd like to say to them, '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 they don't understand, I'd say, 'That... is why you fail.'"

The bloke in the front row was getting a chant going with his friends. Quietly, at first, then building up, louder and louder:


Alan looking increasingly worried. He kept talking, but his delivery had gone flat.

"Don't you love Yoda? He's my favourite from Star Wars. The wisdom of Grover in the body of Deng Xiaoping."


"Um... that's the thing about muppets, they're..."

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"Yeah, right," said Alan. He'd given up. You could see it in his eyes. "Thanks very much, goodnight," he said, and hastened offstage to the sound of whistles, applause, and stomping feet.

It was ugly.

The Stand-Up, Chapter 10