Authors: Nadia Wheatley
NADIA WHEATLEY began writing full-time in 1976, after completing postgraduate work in Australian history. Her published work includes fiction, history, biography and picture books. She writes for adults as well as children and young adults.
Nadia Wheatley’s books have won many awards, including the New South Wales Premier’s Children’s Book Prize (1983 and 1986), the Children’s Book of the Year for Younger Readers (1988), the
Book of the Year (Non-fiction) for 2001 and the New South Wales Premier’s History Award (Australian History) for 2002. Among her best-known titles are
The House That Was Eureka
The Night Tolkien Died,
from which six of the stories in the present collection have been taken, was an Honour Book in the 1995 CBCA awards.
What critics said about
The Night Tolkien Died
‘These terrific, compressed, passionate, frank stories announce
themselves as being about serious adolescence, about ideas,
emotions, experiences, relationships, and not just for young
people … the insights are for adults too.’
‘Each sophisticated self-contained story [is] a miniature novel in
itself, a miracle of compression that expands in the mind for a long
time after the initial reading.’
This collection first published in 2006
Six of the stories in this collection were previously published in
The Night Tolkien Died.
Copyright © Nadia Wheatley 2006
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
National Library of Australia
Wheatley, Nadia, 1949–.
Listening to Mondrian and other stories.
ISBN 1 74114 875 8.
I. Title A.823.3
Cover and text design by Pigs Might Fly
Set in 11.5/17.5 pt Berkeley Book by Midland Typesetters, Australia.
Printed by McPherson’s Printing Group, Australia
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Teachers’ notes available from
Call me Jo.
That’s not my name. But it sure makes our father wild.
. That’s what he calls me.
‘Meet my son
Never Jon or Jonnie or Jonno. Even when I was a really little kid it was always the full bit, and of course never any of those affectionate nicknames (Sonny-Jim, Kiddo, Buster, Bugalugs) that fathers call their sons.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always had lots of different names for people. For instance, Gemma is Gem and Gemstone and Gemfish and Fishface and even Little Fishter and of course Sis and Bub and Bud and sometimes really weird things like Murgatroyd and Captain Starlight and Mr Palfreyman.
is Dad when I address him in public (said in the deep manly voice that he likes) and Daddy when Gem speaks to him (said in the high girly voice that he likes). But he is the Pater (isn’t that word great? I found it in a snobby English school story) when he comes to get me from school and has a pompous little chat with the Reverend Doctor Principal about ‘the lad’s future’. And he is Papa when he is strolling along the boulevardes with a Maurice Chevalier air. And he is Father when he presides at the dining table. And he is also Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Genghis Khan, and Phalaris the tyrant of Agracas. (That’s the guy who used to put his victims inside the bronze cast of a bull and then roast them alive over a low fire. The gory bits of Ancient History are my best subject.)
As for my poor bloody mother, once upon a time she was Mummy, but he thought it was sissy for me to call her that, so then she was Mum. She was never Mother (that was part of the problem) and neither was she Mademoiselle of the Boulevardes (though he had plenty of substitutes; that was part of the problem too). She was the Boss’s Wife for a while, when he brought visiting execs home for dinner, but she was too shy for that – just a simple country girl and a plain cook as well – and so she became Old Mother Macreadie, with her hair in a scarf and gin bottle at hand. It wasn’t long before she was Mad Mrs Rochester (you know, the loony wife in
who is kept locked up and secret in the attic; in Mum’s case it’s an expensive clinic in Switzerland, but it amounts to the same thing).
And me – well, I am Jon to the younger teachers, Frazier to the older ones, and to my mates I am Fraz or Frazzles or Speedy Gonzales (I’m one of the wingers in the First XV). To my enemies, on the other hand, I guess I’m all sorts of names, though I haven’t got to hear them since the day when I was in Year 9 and one of the prefects said something about alkie mothers and I decked him. He was in the sick bay for a week.
But the nicest thing I am is Jo. That’s what Gemfish calls me. In the Good Old Days, Mum used to read to her at night, and one of the books had this poem that goes:
Has a mouth like an ‘O’
And a wheelbarrow full of surprises . . .
Sis picked up on it, I think partly because she had trouble with her ‘th’ sounds, and if she said ‘Jonafon’ Father would make her sit at the dinner table or even in the bath saying ‘
ong, Jonathan!’ Poor kid got so demented about it that she would take a deep breath and make an explosive ‘
’ sound on all the wrong words too. So she said ‘
at’ as the opposite to ‘
in’ and on ‘
ridays we had ‘
ish and chips’ and one day she told me to ‘
!’ All in all, Jo was easier.
But besides that, I guess when she was a little kid (she’s only nine now, so I mean when she was really little) and we lived together, I guess I maybe did seem full of surprises to her. Like the day when I said ‘Open your mouth’ and I squirted the soda water siphon down her gullet. Or the day when I told her that if you eat a handful of little red birdseye chillies you go invisible. To be fair to me, though, there were sometimes nice surprises too, such as doubling her on my bike to the beach and teaching her to be safe in the water. (‘Just to the first line of little breakers, and always keep your eyes on the flags, Gem!’) Or making a fort for her to hide in or showing her how to burn dead paspalum stalks with a magnifying glass. Or holding her when Mum was taken away.
These days, of course, I don’t see Bub much. We board at different schools, and in the holidays she goes to old Auntie Roo’s and I’m sent to Tennis Camp and Maths Camp and Computer Camp et cetera. So we only get to meet on days like today, when the Great White Chief jets in from overseas, arrives unexpectedly at our schools and takes us out of class and off to the museum or the gallery, then (always) the Royal Sydney Golf Club Dining Room for lunch, a stroll (he calls it ‘a post-prandial constitutional’) around Centennial Park, and back to the lock-up in time for him to jet out again on the peak-hour super-shuttle to Wall Street or wherever.
Last time (five months ago) it was the museum, so today it’s the gallery.
‘I thought I’d take them to see the Guggenheim,’ the Pater told the Reverend Doctor Prickhead this morning when I was pulled out of first period maths. (Hurray for that at least!)
‘The Guggenheim?’ I said. ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ Joke. I mean, I do know that the Guggenheim is a gallery in the Big Apple, and that they’ve got the pest exterminators in or something at the moment, so they’ve sent a collection out to Sydney so us yokel Down-underers can get to see a real live Picasso at first hand. So I do know that the Guggenheim’s home is in New York City, and it’s not at home now, and – oh, forget it.
‘Lack of general knowledge,’ my father complained. ‘This is precisely what I was speaking about.’ (When I’d come into the room I’d heard him objecting to the latest hike in the school fees.)
The Reverend Doctor Browntongue squirmed. ‘However, I believe his mathematics is picking up. What was it you got in the yearly exams, boy?’
‘Out of a hundred?’
An explosion was starting, but good old Gemfish (Dad had picked her up first) put on one of her cute-as-a-button acts.
‘Oh come on, Daddy, you said you were taking me to see the pretty pictures, you promised . . .’
Don’t overdo it, Shirley Temple, I thought, but it actually worked. (Owe you one, Gem!)
So here we are.
Standing at the cash register while our father has an argument about my age (I’m just seventeen but can pass for eighteen in a pub).
‘He is only fifteen,’ Dad argues, although whether because he’s forgotten or because he’s scared the child concession limit might be sixteen, I don’t know. (The thing I should explain here is that our father is mean as catshit. In order to get rid of us he’ll pay for expensive boarding schools and tennis camps and crap, but when we go out for lunch we’re allowed the main course and
a dessert but never both. And I have seen him bend down and pick up a five-cent coin that someone has dropped on the footpath. Truly. Despite the fact that he is some sort of big wheel money-mover who zots trillions around the international Monopoly Board via the Net.)
‘Can’t you see he’s in school uniform, woman?’ he demands.
The cash register lady peers at my blazer, to make sure. The badge on the breast pocket is pretty faded and the tie could be any boring Old School Tie. Meanwhile the queue behind us is stacked back to the dunnies and beyond.
‘Oh all right! One adult, two kiddies!’ She zings the amount up on the till.
But our father isn’t finished. This is an Educational Experience, you understand, not bloody Bush Week, so we are all to have these personal cassette players you can hire for five dollars with a tape inside that tells you how to look at the pictures.
We get our players, and the lady adds fifteen dollars to the bill, but now Dad realises that it’s possible to double up two sets of headphones and save a couple of bucks. So Murgatroyd’s player is taken from her, and she is made to plug into mine, and the bill is finally agreed upon and our father flips his gold American Express card out of his wallet in his inside breast pocket (the queue groans) and he signs with a flourish and finally we are off: Dad way out in front like the Lord of the Manor, and Sis and me attached through the cassette player like a couple of Siamese twins.
Me and my shadow
. . .’ I start softly singing to her as the tape plays a short burst of trumpet music. (‘Welcome,’ says a voice, ‘to Cubism, Abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism . . .’)
,’ Bub complains. ‘It’s not
’ And I have to agree that while it isn’t funny for me to be trailing along in public with a plump little nine-year-old with pigtails and thick specs and her school socks fallen down round her ankles, it’s even less funny for her because her legs are half the length of mine and she has to do two steps and a skip to my one stride.
So I do, and that’s how we lose him by the end of STOP NUMBER 1: Pablo Picasso,
Carafe, Jug and Fruit Bowl 1909
I look up, and the Rat has left the sinking ship.
‘When you are ready, go through the archway,’ the recorded voice tells us. It goes on to explain that there is a little jingle in between each STOP, and when you hear that you have to turn the tape off and proceed to the next numbered picture stop. It’s all a bit like musical chairs.
We don’t have to look at anything in Room 2, which is good because I can already see (just around the corner in Room 3) something that is blowing my mind. It turns out to be STOP NUMBER 2: four pictures by some painter called Robert Delaunay.